Our Loggerhead Sea Turtle underwent a structured blue light 3D scan!


Turtley Awesome Technology!

In June, our Loggerhead Sea Turtle underwent a structured blue light 3D scan! This technology essentially “mapped” our sea turtle with pulsating lights to create a near-instant and accurate 3D scan.

The scan gathered her overall size and dimensions, unique characteristics of her shell, and helped our aquarists document the current status of her shell’s 3D printed brace!

“Having the latest technologies at our fingertips has been amazing and helpful to our animal population,” said Jenn Nero Moffatt, Senior Director of Animal Care, Science and Conservation at Birch Aquarium. “It also provides ease in handling our very large sea turtle quickly and safely.”

How does a structured blue light 3D scan work?

Structured blue light 3D scans work by projecting a series of patterns of light pulses on an object. As these patterns are projected onto our sea turtle they are “disrupted” by physical characteristics like the natural bumps, grooves, and shape of her shell. This “disruption” in the pattern allows the scanner to essentially “map” our sea turtle and create a near-instant and accurate 3D scan.

We teamed up with Scott McAvoy, Digital Media Lab Manager at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, and Doug Daniels, the Emerging Technologies Librarian at the UCLA Library and Director of the library’s Lux Lab to make this scan possible.

“Our libraries’ unique focus on all kinds of 3D data has allowed us to take tools meant for satellite mapping, medicine, and archaeology and apply them in a way which gives us exciting new insight into animal care,” said McAvoy.

Why is this technology important?

“Ever since acquiring these tools, I’ve always been impressed with the diversity of their application,” said Daniels. “From scanning ancient artifacts and buildings to digitizing wax castings of ant nests, and now to scanning a sea turtle, 3D scanning tools facilitate research across many disciplines!”

This intersection of technology and animal care is game-changing for Birch Aquarium because it gives us new avenues to easily monitor the overall external conditions of our sea turtle.  This means we can continue to give our sea turtle the best care to keep her healthy with minimal changes to her environment!

We’ve also used technology, like Computed Tomography (CT) scans, to evaluate our sea turtle! The combination of these technologies allows us to easily evaluate the condition of the sea turtle’s shell with pinpoint accuracy. 

“These technologies are so helpful because we are able to compare our sea turtle’s detailed measurements over time — from her very first CT scan to the most recent structured blue light 3D scan,” said Moffatt. “We can overlay the scans to visually see what is happening and her measurements can be plotted to see how she has changed over time.  This is critical information in our overall health care program for the sea turtle.”

While CT scans are essential to assess internal images and are extremely useful, there are some limitations – mainly that our sea turtle needs to take a trip to our hospital to get a CT scan. Structured light is a bit more flexible than a CT scan.  It’s small, compact, and portable and the scan is near-instantaneous. This means our sea turtle doesn’t need to be away from her habitat for as long and she can be scanned behind the scenes at Birch Aquarium!

What did we learn about her 3D printed brace?

You may remember that Birch Aquarium worked with McAvoy back in 2016 to create the first-ever 3D printed brace for a sea turtle’s shell.  This brace — made of strong plastic and precisely fitted to its shell with marine safe epoxy — slows the downward curving of her shell, promotes more normal growth and prevents further complications.  However, this brace may not be a permanent solution as she could eventually outgrow it.

As our sea turtle continues to grow with age, her shell grows as well!  When she arrived at Birch Aquarium in 2014, she weighed just 98 pounds. She has since thrived, and currently weighs 212 pounds.  This growth means a newly printed and fitted brace may be in her future.  

In particular, the scans give us pinpoint detailed information that helps monitor her brace!  It shows us how much her shell has changed and grown, the condition of the brace and its attachment points, and what the dimensions of a future brace will most likely be!