How do museums use 3D imaging?

3D Digitization of Skulls at the Museum of the Osteology, Oklahoma City
Alexander Prucha, PhD Candidate, George Washington University

Last December, I got to have some fun collecting 3D digital scans of skulls in the collections of the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. My name is Prucha and I am a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University, in Washington DC. As part of my university’s Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP for short), my research is focused on understanding humanity’s past and present biological place in the natural world. This work involves studying the bones and fossils of humans and other vertebrates, and that can require traveling to museums all over the world. While it’s a lot of fun to travel and see unique skeletal collections housed in different countries’ largest and oldest museums, it can also unfortunately be expensive and time consuming-that’s why I and many others believe it is so important, whenever possible, to create and curate digital repositories of museum’s collections in the form of virtual 3D models. 

There are other reasons why virtual 3D models of skeletal material can be helpful to scientific research: for example, comparative anatomists, paleontologists, osteologists, and others can conduct complex measurements and analyses on digital models of skulls that they couldn’t easily perform on the original specimens without endangering or risking damaging them. For an example of the kind of complex analyses a comparative anatomist might conduct on virtual models from a museum collection, let’s take a look at some of the sea lion skulls in the Museum of Osteology’s collections.

Just from the photo above we can see that no two sea lions’ skulls are exactly alike, but if I asked you to pick out from the drawer the two skulls that are the most different from each other, and tell me all the specific traits that make them so, could you do it? What if I asked you the same question, but instead of the drawer of skulls all spread out, I showed you an animation I made of 3D digital models of the same skulls subjected to a comparative shape analysis?

via GIPHY

The above animation represents the results of something called a geometric morphometric analysis-basically, an analysis measuring the differences in shape between objects. The heatmap of colors tell us where the anatomy of the skull varies the most between individuals: red means the anatomy is shrinking closer to the center of gravity, while blue indicated a region expanding further away from center. All of the skulls shown belong to males of the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). From the animation we can see that, just like people, no two animals are exactly the same, even if they are the same species, same sex, and from the same place. Differences naturally occur from one adult male sea lion to the next, in part due to slight differences in age, different behavioral patterns, dominance rank, genetics, pathologies, and other factors. This kind of variation is an important part of organisms’ biology, and understanding it better allows scientists to figure out all kinds of things about animals’ health, ecology, conservation, behavior, and evolutionary relationships to one another and other living things.

Studying variation across and within species (as in the above examples) is made a lot easier when scientists have more samples available for them to examine, without having to visit lots of different museums all over the world-that is a big part of why many students, educators, and researchers are collecting 3D digital scans of material from museums, and sharing them with one another to support each other’s work! Soon, the 3D models I collected at the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City will be available for students, teachers, and scientists to download from Morphosource, a large online database for 3D anatomical materials hosted by Duke University. Be sure to stay tuned for updates on this endeavor, and soon you too can bring the museum into your classroom, science lab, library, school, or wherever your interest in comparative osteology may take you!

3D Digitization of Skulls at the Museum of the Osteology, Oklahoma City

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