Behind the curated exhibits at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History lie rows and rows of preserved specimens.
“We have thousands and thousands of specimens,” Cameron Pittman, a graduate collection assistant at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said as he walked down aisles of jars.
It’s not a place the public can generally access. These preserved snakes and lizards are for research and traditionally had to be shipped through regular mail to other researchers for scientific use.
“Researchers all around the world, people are all around the world that want to see this stuff and they don't have the chance to,” Pittman said. He is part of a network of people working to change that.
“The goal here is to create this high-resolution digital anatomical data that can be used in research, but can also be used in the classroom and by the public in a general audience for other purposes,” David Blackburn, the curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said.
Blackburn has helped lead this project with other institutions across the U.S. for the past five years. Their goal is to create 3D models of specimens and upload them to several websites, like an online repository called MorphoSource, which scientists use, and Sketchfab where the public can manipulate 3D files.
“Our data have been viewed well over a million times in that data repository, and downloaded hundreds of thousands of times for research,” Blackburn said.
In final form, they could look like a multi-layer X-ray, or a perfect scan of a creature. In some cases, they are made into 3D models.
“Mostly we rely on micro-CT scanning, similar to the CT scanning you might get at the doctor,” Blackburn explained. His online collection shows what this can become online – for example, models of skulls with each part colorized to showcase different pieces.
“For a smaller number of those, there are these dynamic 3D models that are really more oriented toward educators and students,”he said.
“From the mom and dads who want to show their kids cool specimens to the person that wants to draw a snake and needs a realistic framework,” Pittman said.
The process is tedious and starts with specimen selection. Each micro-CT scan can take up to 10 hours.
“The goal is to scan literally everything we have in our collection,” Pittman said. It's all then uploaded online.
“When we put them online, that is one way to preserve them,” he said.
At this museum, the team is focused on mesoamerican herpetofauna diversity, and the project is called oMeso for short.
It helps make collections like these – and the rare or endangered species that may exist here – more accessible to people around the world.
“How we protect them is by finding ways to share them, because the more people that know about these specimens, the more people that would be interested in keeping these specimens preserved,” Pittman said.
Blackburn said the goal of the project is to get at least one of every living vertebrate genus online. So far, about 12,000 specimens have been imaged either through CT scanning, photogrammetry, or light-based scanning. This can have its limits.
“There is no giant fluid-preserved whale that we can fit in a CT scanner so there are some things that are out of scope,” Blackburn said.
The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.