1. Aug, 2016

What to do with a fish skeleton: a 3D-scan library of all fish species.

To understand how humans and non humans move around in their world, knowledge of the skeleton is essential. It’s easier to understand how a bird flies if we know the internal structure of its flying apparatus: the bones, tendons, joints and muscles. This biological knowledge can be useful for engineers, for example to design aircrafts that are not only lighter but also have better aerodynamics. Biologically inspired techical design is called biomimetics.  A fascinating application are biorobots: robots that minic the way real animals move and interact with the environment (see insert, left showing Pleurorobot: a salamander-like robot that mimics its biological counterpart*).  

For creatures that live in the sea  the structure of its internal skeleton is important to understand how certain species move, make swift turns, burrow, prefer to stay in shallow water or in the deep etc. This knowledge can then be used to mimic movements  of fishes, for example in filmed animations of  fishes or modelling a robotic sea slug. Adam Summers (Adam P. Summers – fishguy@uw.edu)  is a biologist  at the University of Washington in the Biology department and School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences. He has set himself the goal to create a digital library with 3-D images  using a CT scanner, of all 33,000 species of fish in the world (see insert, right part for an example).** Summers says it can be done in about three years by scanning multiple fish at the same time. His fish odyssey began 15 or more years ago with a question: ‘Why are sharks and rays able to move about like other fish even though their skeletons are composed of cartilage and not bone?’

Summers has a  background in engineering and mathematics and an interest  in the evolution of non-human animals and  how they move in their environment.   "I love the idea of getting all this stuff up on the Web for anyone to access for any purpose'. 'To allow the general public and every scientist out there to just download these data is fabulous', Summers says.***. He even uses 3D printers to make physical models of these skeletons (just think of that transparent model of a stingray on your desk!). His mission  is to ‘use  the natural world and  the sea for inspiration for new materials and new ways of doing things’  For example, he shares his experience working with the animation studios, where he was asked by animators to judge separate frames and distinguish real from computer created fishes. He also supervised animators on how a certain fish would behave and move around in films like as 'Finding Nemo' and  Disney's new product fFinding Dory'.****