A US professor of zoology is trying to 3D scan every fish species in the world

Digitalising every fish for online aquatic fauna database

An American professor of zoology has set out to digitalise all the world’s fish species in a unique attempt to create a 3D online database of aquatic fauna.

The digital catalogue will be freely available for download by anyone, featuring high-resolution models for nature lovers and scientists to explore. The catalogue, to eventually comprise all 25,000 fish species known to live on the planet, could also be used to 3D-print life-sized replicas of the fish species.

"These scans are transforming the way we think about 3D data and accessibility," said Adam Summers, a professor of biology at the University of Washington who is spearheading the project.

Summers uses a small CT scanner to scan the fish specimens, which have been gathered from all around the world. All the fish scanned come from museum collections. The scanner, similar to that used in hospitals, produces a series of X-ray images, capturing the animal from different angles. Combining these images using a computer program creates a 3D image of the fish’s skeleton.

Summers started the project in the early noughties without any proper equipment. To scan his first fish - a sting ray - back in the year 2000, he had to beg local hospitals to allow him to use their CT scanners. The image then featured on the cover of a biology journal. Over time, Summers has fine-tuned the procedure to enable scanning multiple fishes at once.

So far, he and his team have scanned about 515 species. The scans are now available online via the Open Science Framework. The researchers hope to finish scanning all the world’s fish species in two and half years. Afterwards, they will focus on other vertebrates, of which there are currently known to be 50,000 species. However, the Washington University would have to get more CT scanners to make this venture feasible within a reasonable timeframe.

The 3D digital fauna catalogue would enable scientists to study the creatures’ anatomy and morphology in unprecedented detail.

The researches chose not to use the highest possible resolution to scan the fish, as that would make it difficult for people to access the visuals online. Most scientists, the team claims, don’t need such a high level of detail anyway.

The zoologists can zoom into the models and rotate them to view the fish from different angles.

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