The way of the digital dodo

scanned dodo renderedAn early version of the scanned dodo rendered by project research technician Abby Drake and students in Leon Claessens’ lab.

From PhysOrg, The way of the digital dodo: The laser light glowed brilliant red, forming a moving line as it bounced information from the dodo’s bones back into the high-tech scanner sitting on a tripod on the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s (MCZ) fifth floor.

Again and again, the red line traced the contours of the skeletal bird, one of just a handful of complete skeletons of one of the world’s most famous cases of human-caused extinction.

The flightless bird, about the size of a large turkey, was native to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. It became extinct in the mid- to late-1600s from a combination of human hunting, habitat destruction, and predation by introduced animals, including rats, cats, pigs, and dogs.

The laser’s tracings were creating a 3-D digital model of the skeleton, compiled as part of a joint effort between the MCZ’s ornithological collection, overseen by Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Scott Edwards, and Holy Cross College biologist Leon Claessens, an assistant professor whose doctoral work at Harvard and familiarity with the MCZ’s collections led to the collaboration. Claessens received his doctorate in 2006.

The National Science Foundation-funded, three-year effort aims to create 3-D digital models of each species represented in Harvard’s collection of 12,000 bird skeletons. It will make those digital models available on the Internet for researchers around the world. The collection’s digitization will not only vastly expand access to the collections for researchers who can’t afford to travel to Cambridge, it will also make analysis of the specimens far more rapid, using powerful engineering software that creates thousands of data points on each bone that can be manipulated, measured, and used in calculations.

“This project will be useful for people studying the basic morphology of birds,” Edwards said. “In this era of genomics, the size and shape of bones is still very important.”

Claessens, who has been scanning with a group of his students since the “Aves 3D” project got under way in August, said much of the effort is aimed at disarticulated bones of specimens, so that the scanner can image the entire bone, including the ends and surfaces that might not be accessible in an assembled specimen. Researchers interested in the shape and size of a particular bone across different species will be able to call up those bones digitally, rather than traveling to individual museums with calipers, pencil, pad, and camera, as would be required today. Those interested in other aspects of anatomy can manipulate the bones digitally, even reassembling the bird if needed.

Keep reading on PhysOrg.

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