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Thousands of Digital 3D Museum Specimens Are Now Freely Accessible Online

Xray 3D scans in bright yellow and orange of a bird.
The 3D digital scans of the Open Vertebrate Thematic Collection Network (oVert) allow users to look at specimens from every angle, such as this Red-billed Oxpecker (CUMV 48413) viewed from above and from the side. Scan from the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates.

From the Summer 2024 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The Red-billed Oxpecker, an African songbird with a bright scarlet bill and an eye to match, uses a variety of techniques to nab bugs off the backs of large mammals such as giraffes and domesticated cattle. To gain insights into what parts of this bird’s anatomy help it succeed in this unique feeding strategy, ornithologists need to examine whole-body museum specimens—ones where not only the skins of the bird are preserved, but the skeleton, organs, and other soft tissues as well.

Until recently, this type of research entailed traveling to a museum with an oxpecker collection, or shipping rare specimens to places far afield. Now, thanks to an ambitious global project, anyone with access to a computer can virtually explore the insides of a Red-billed Oxpecker, the anatomy of a woodpecker head, or the bodies of thousands of other birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes.

The NSF-funded project—called the Open Vertebrate Thematic Collection Network, or oVert for short—aims to upload and make freely accessible 3D digital specimens of at least one example of all known genera of vertebrates on Earth, more than 11,000 in all. So far the project, a collaboration among 18 museums in the U.S., is halfway toward its goal. The Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates (CUMV) was one of the major contributors to oVert with 3D scans of the oxpecker and a few other birds, along with around 500 species of fishes (the CUMV physical collection houses 1.3 million fish specimens).

Casey Dillman, CUMV curator of fishes and herps (amphibians and reptiles), says this project is poised to change the way people use museum specimens in their work, largely by making the entire process much easier. “The most exciting thing to me is the way this project opens up natural history museums that don’t otherwise have a public-facing display,” says Dillman. “So it will allow not just scientists—but students, artists, teachers building lesson plans—to have unprecedented access to these and thousands of other specimens from around the world.”

Dillman says that from a collections management standpoint, another advantage of digital specimens will be a reduction in wear and tear on often fragile physical specimens.

To make sure the finely detailed digital renderings—and all they can reveal about these animals’ inner workings—are as accessible as possible, the oVert team put the scans on MorphoSource, a website where people can view and download interactive 3D natural history objects, such as plants, animals, and minerals. While the data still requires a computer with fast processing speed for analysis, Dillman says having the collection on Morphosource “allows anyone to have the 3D-viewing experience without having the really expensive hardware and software.”

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