Beastcam: Capturing Frogs In 3D For A Digital Noah’s Ark | @GrrlScientist

A group of researchers have launched a new project, called Digital Life, designed to catalogue digital 3D models of every living species on Earth, as a way to guarantee the preservation of endangered species threatened by extinction

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

This piece was a Forbes Editor’s Choice.

The Argentine horned frog (Ceratophrys ornata), also known as the Argentine wide-mouthed frog or ornate pacman frog, poses for the BeastCam Array. (Credit: Digital Life / University of Massachusetts at Amherst.)
“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
— Charles William “Will” Beebe (1877–1962)

Thanks to the effects of climate change, human overpopulation, habitat destruction, and hunting, we are now poised on the threshold of Earth’s sixth major extinction. When an animal or plant goes extinct, we are left with a vague shadow of the species — a bone here, a skin there, a flower pressed between the pages of a book, or a painting perhaps, although increasingly in this modern age, we also have photographs, video, audio, or sometimes, DNA. But we still don’t have an accurate lifelike physical representation of these organisms, so a researcher, say, can understand how it moves through water or air, or so a child can touch it.

But now, there is a way to preserve a living species digitally — and without harming it — by capturing a 3D scan of it using modern technology. But such scans didn’t exist, until recently.

“Beastcam” array to the rescue

“We are excited to use the Beastcam technology to preserve the digital heritage of all life on Earth,” said Duncan Irschick, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, co-founder of Geckskin, and co-founder and director of Digital Life.

The Digital Life project was started only recently.

“The inspiration came in 2016 with two projects,” writes Professor Irschick in email.

“[F]irst, I was working on the morphology of lizards with a Human Frontiers grant with Al Crosby from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Walter Federle from Cambridge,” Professor Irschick said.

“I was investigating different ways to quantify the overall shape of different gecko species to better understand adhesion — and I became interested in 3D methods for quantifying the whole body form.”

Accurate information about body shape and form is important for studies into aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, too.

“At about the same time, I was also working with Neil Hammerschlag from the University of Miami on sharks. I was also studying their morphology and wanted a way to instantly capture their body shape, as the different shark individuals and species varied so much in that aspect. I again was inspired to turn to 3D methods to accomplish this.”

Duncan Irschick uses a single camera to photograph a blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus). (Credit: Stephen Cain.)

The Digital Life project is a collaboration between more than 20 researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They are modifying state of the art 3D technologies to capture and catalogue accurate 3D models of all species alive on Earth.

“Digital Life has a large team, including 4 leadership group members, two advisory committee members, and three advisors. Also, we have a number of undergraduates, animators and photographers,” said Professor Irschick.

Several Digital Life team members use Beastcam to scan a live lizard. (Credit: Digital Life / University of Massachusetts at Amherst)

Together, the Digital Life team of photographers, scientists, engineers, and modelers, developed a special “Beastcam” technology that adapts 3D photogrammetry scanning especially for capturing high-resolution, scientifically accurate images of live animals and plants. Photogrammetry is a technique that meticulously measures the precise positions of surface points on an object from photographs.

But in addition to capturing the physical form of a species, these 3D models’ coloration and color patterns are carefully recorded, too.

“The colors in the models are, to our eyes, very accurate — 3D photogrammetry has a clear advantage over laser scanning in recreating objects in full 3D color,” said Professor Irschick.

A red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) enjoys a scratch whilst under the Beastcam lenses. (Credit: Digital Life / University of Massachusetts at Amherst)

Working with live animals, especially when one needs them to sit still, can lead to some amusing events.

“We have many humorous moments,” said Professor Irschick, “such as frogs that took the ‘photography’ time to either sleep or decide to scratch and wash themselves!”

The Digital Life project will eventually scan everything from microbes to blue whales.

“This will take several lifetimes, but we are thrilled to begin the journey,” Professor Irschick said optimistically.

At this time, the team is scanning smaller animals that are easier to work with. Already, they’ve created 3D models of a few sharks, scorpions, toads and lizards, but they are currently focused on documenting endangered amphibians and reptiles, particularly frogs and sea turtles, both of which are facing a high risk of extinction.

Professor Irschick with Beastcam. (Credit: Christine Shepard.)

The Beastcam array features 30 cameras on 10 arms that simultaneously snap multiple images of the model creature — a process that takes one or two seconds. But because some animals don’t sit still for that long, the team is adapting the process to use speedier cameras.

The team has also customized Beastcam technology into a “Beastcam MACRO” apparatus that is specially designed to scan small living things, such as frogs.

Beastcam MACRO with a lizard. (Credit: Digital Life / University of Massachusetts at Amherst)

After an individual animal has been digitally photographed, Digital Life’s photogrammetric process integrates 2D digital photographs into 3D models using commercial software packages such as ReMake.

3D modeling process used by Digital Life to create models of living individuals of some of the most endangered frog species on Earth. (Credit: Digital Life / University of Massachusetts at Amherst.)

The researchers hope that the Digital Life project will help preserve Earth’s unique biodiversity by creating a sort of digital 3D Noah’s Ark.

“Digitally preserving the heritage of life on Earth is especially important given the rapid decline of many species, and this technology can recreate organisms in a way that has never been done before,” said Professor Irschick.

The Digital Life project is a non-profit organization that is a collaboration between scientists, zoos, and other NGOs. It is designed to ethically access the largest possible number of animals to create authentic digital replicas of living creatures for its collections. The team hopes that the Digital Life collections will encourage new lines of scientific inquiry, support wildlife conservation, and create innovative opportunities in education, particularly for natural history museums. Further, the 3D models are free to view online, where they may function as a comprehensive educational tool that anyone can benefit from.

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Originally published at Forbes on 1 May 2017.

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