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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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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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technology
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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iStock
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science
There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
iStock
iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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