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3D Printed Rats Make For Cheaper and More Ethical Dissections

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Rats, one can only assume, are big fans of Maryland couple Bart Taylor and Tara Whittle. The pair have launched a new startup that is hoping to eliminate the need for real rats to be sacrificed in the name of scientific education.

It all started when Taylor, a necropsy technician, bought a PrintrBot 3D printer. At first, the possibilities were so vast he didn't know what to print; he began with plastic toys for his toddler daughter. But he wanted something more useful. His wildlife biologist wife suggested he try to print animal models, and it all clicked.

In high school, Taylor had hated the part of biology class where he had to dissect the rats. The smell was noxious, the chemicals irritating, and it didn't even work—he ended up failing the anatomy test and feeling awful for the rat's wasted death. So he thought that if he could print accurate 3D models, it would eliminate many of the ethical and comfort issues surrounding classic dissections.

“We can print an animal and structure the layers so that they feel like real tissue, and make a model a person could dissect without ever having to wear gloves, use sharp tools or kill an animal,” Taylor told Smithsonian.com. Last month, he and his wife founded NecropSynth to put this idea into practice.

It's estimated that high school classrooms use 6 to 12 million rat specimens for dissections each year. In addition to this vast waste of animal life, the lessons are expensive. While it costs anywhere from $8 to $12 per rat from a biological supply company, NecropSynth estimates each of their printed rats—their prototype is called the SynthDawley, a nod to the Sprague Dawley rat used in most labs—could cost as little as $2 to $3. What's more, they're planning on making the schematics for the models free for download so anyone with a 3D printer can make their own.

“A few people just couldn’t believe it. We’re not looking to sell this,” Whittle said of his plan at the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C.

Right now, the model is still in the works. The couple is in the process of figuring out how to print "bones" and "muscle" of different material simultaneously and make the various internal systems hollow and translucent so they could be highlighted one at a time with a colored gel. But science teachers at the National Maker Faire were excited for the potential.

"Everyone loved our idea," Whittle said. "They all recognized the issues of budgeting and safety and non-standard models being used in classrooms."

[h/t treehugger]

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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