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Lindsay Fendt
Lindsay Fendt

How 3D Printing Could Save Wild Animals

Lindsay Fendt
Lindsay Fendt

The injured toucan arrived at veterinarian Carmen Soto's office like so many others: Beaten, emaciated and near death. The toucan, which had been attacked by a group of teenagers, spent his first few days at the ZooAve rescue center in Costa Rica’s Central Valley fighting for his life. “He was covered in blood and in a lot of pain,” Soto says. “He couldn’t feed himself because the entire top half of his beak had been knocked off." 

Soto and her team nursed the toucan back to health and gave him a name—Grecia—for the small mountain village in which he was found. Then, they snapped a photo of Grecia’s profile, the line of his smooth beak abruptly ending in a shattered stump.

The grotesque image went viral, catching the attention of Dutch traveler Luciano Lacayo. Believing he could help the poor toucan, Lacayo started a crowdfunding campaign and raised more than $10,000 to create a prosthetic beak. In a few months' time, the bird will be fitted with his new plastic bill—which will have been made using a state-of-the-art 3D printer.

Grecia is now an unwitting part of a technological revolution. The toucan isn't the first animal to benefit from this technology, but his beak will be the most complex advancement yet in the new field of 3D-printed prostheses.

A PROSTHETIC REVOLUTION

The high cost of human prostheses has long been a challenge for amputees and people born with missing limbs, but 3D printers have begun to change that. Unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printing can create an object in almost any shape by reading a digital model. Using cheap materials, companies and non-profits can now print simple prosthetic hands and arms for as little as $50. The technology has also allowed for more flexibility, opening the door for beautiful designs.

Before the advent of 3D printing, the field of animal prostheses also suffered from design limitations and high costs. 

“The biggest thing 3D printing has done is broaden our patient base and allow us to create cooler and more functional designs,” says Derrick Campana, the director of orthotics for the Virginia-based company Animal Ortho Care.

Last year, Campana was part of a team that produced the first-ever set of 3D printed prosthetic dog legs for a husky named Derby. Derby had been born with underdeveloped front legs and could not walk, but traditional prosthetic legs would not fit him. Using a 3D printer, Campana helped design a loop-style prosthesis that would hold Derby’s shrunken front legs and allow him to run. 

But 3D printing’s real advantage is that it can serve wild animals, like Grecia, whose anatomy was once considered too complex for a prosthesis. The method was first tested on Beauty, a bald eagle in Idaho whose beak was shot off by a hunter. Using a 3D printer, rescuers built a new nylon-based beak for Beauty, enabling her to feed and clean herself. Unfortunately—despite Beauty’s newfound independence—her new beak was not strong enough to allow her to return to the wild. 

“The misconception is that [3D printing] is always cheaper and more efficient,” Campana says, “but the materials aren’t quite durable enough yet for most situations."

Questions still remain as to how well a 3D printed prosthetic would hold up out in the wild. Grecia will likely remain in captivity, but the 3D printing companies making the prosthesis hope that by observing the toucan with his new beak, they may glean tips to help other wild animals in the future.

“There are things we already do very well that we are learning to do better through this process,” says Nelson Martinez, the founder of ewa!corp, one of the companies designing Grecia’s beak. “It’s possible that one day we will release an animal into the wild with a 3D-printed prosthesis."

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Ted Cranford
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science
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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