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

A group of researchers has launched a new project, called Digital Life, designed to Catalog Digital 3D models of all living species on Earth, as a way to ensure the preservation of endangered species.

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

But now, there is a way to preserve a living species digitally by and without damaging it by capturing a 3D scan of it using modern technology. But such scans did not exist, until recently.

The Digital Life project started recently.

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

“First, I was working on Lizard morphology on a Human Frontiers fellowship with Al Crosby from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Walter Federle from Cambridge,” professor Irschick said.

“I was researching different ways to quantify the overall shape of different geckos species to better understand to adhesion and I became interested in 3D methods to quantify the whole body shape.”

Accurate information about the shape and shape of the body is also important for aerodynamics and hydrodynamics studies.

“At about the same time, I was also working with Neil Hammerschlag of the University of Miami on sharks. He was also studying his morphology and wanted a way to instantly capture his body shape, as different individuals and shark species varied greatly in that regard. Again I was inspired to resort to 3D methods to achieve this.”

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

“Digital Life has a great team, which includes 4 members of the leadership group, two members of the advisory committee and three advisors. In addition, we have a number of university students, animators and photographers,” said Professor Irschick.

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

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

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

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

“We have a lot of humorous moments,” professor Irschick said, “like frogs who took the time of ‘photography’ to sleep or decide to scratch and wash.”

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

“This will take several lives, but we are delighted to start the journey,” Professor Irschick said optimistically.

Right now, the team is scanning smaller animals that are easier to work with. They have already created 3D models of some sharks, Scorpions, toads and lizards, but are currently focused on documenting endangered amphibians and reptiles, particularly frogs and sea turtles, that face a high risk of extinction.

The beastcam array features 30 cameras in 10 arms that simultaneously take 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 faster cameras.

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

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.

The researchers hope that the Digital Life project will help preserve the Earth’s unique biodiversity by creating a kind 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 as many animals as possible to create authentic digital replicas of living things for your collections. The team hopes that Digital Life collections will foster new lines of scientific research, support wildlife conservation and create innovative opportunities in education, particularly for Natural History Museums. In addition, 3D models are free to view online, where they can function as a comprehensive educational tool that anyone can benefit from.

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