UCLA Librarian Lends a Fin to 3D Mapping of Sea Turtle

Doug Daniels, Director of the UCLA Library’s Lux Lab, Joined UC San Diego Colleagues to “See” Inside a Resident of the Birch AquariumGroup of 5 people performing 3D scan on sea turtle

In June, a loggerhead sea turtle at UC San Diego’s Birch Aquarium underwent a structured blue light 3D scan. This technology essentially “mapped” the female turtle with pulsating lights to create a near-instant and accurate 3D scan. The scan gathered her overall size and dimensions, unique characteristics of her shell, and helped aquarists document the current status of her shell’s 3D printed brace.

What, might you ask, does an ocean-dwelling reptile – residing 100 miles south of Los Angeles – have to do with the UCLA Library? The blue light 3D scan was undertaken by UCLA’s Doug Daniels, director of the Library’s Lux Lab, and his UCSD counterpart Scott McAvoy, Digital Media Lab Manager. The Lux Lab is part of the UCLA Library’s Data Science Center, whose mission is to foster a welcoming research community by developing data literacy from regular spreadsheets through 3D technology.

“Scott and I have been working throughout the Covid-10 lockdown to create an inter-UC support system for 3D data,” Daniels said. “The goal is to provide full lifecycle support for 3D data, from its creation and analysis to its dissemination and preservation.”

How does a structured blue light 3D scan work?
Structured blue light 3D scans work by projecting a series of patterns of light pulses on an object. As these patterns are projected onto our sea turtle they are “disrupted” by physical characteristics like the natural bumps, grooves and shape of her shell. This “disruption” in the pattern allows the scanner to essentially “map” the sea turtle and create a near-instant and accurate 3D scan.

“Our libraries’ unique focus on all kinds of 3D data has allowed us to take tools meant for satellite mapping, medicine, and archaeology and apply them in a way which gives us exciting new insight into animal care,” said McAvoy.

Why is this technology important?
“Ever since acquiring these tools, I’ve always been impressed with the diversity of their application,” said Daniels. “From scanning ancient artifacts and buildings to digitizing wax castings of ant nests, and now to scanning a sea turtle, 3D scanning tools facilitate research across many disciplines!”

This intersection of technology and animal care was game-changing for Birch Aquarium because it gives the organization new avenues to easily monitor the overall external conditions of its sea turtle.  This means Birch can continue to give its sea turtle the best care to keep her healthy with minimal changes to her environment!

Birch has also used Computed Tomography (CT) scans to evaluate its sea turtle. While CT scans are essential to assess internal images and are extremely useful, there are some limitations – mainly that the turtle needs to take a trip to the UCSD Scripps Institute of Oceanography hospital to get a CT scan.

Structured light is a bit more flexible than a CT scan.  It’s small, compact, and portable and the scan is near-instantaneous. This means the sea turtle didn’t need to be away from her habitat as long and could be scanned behind the scenes at Birch Aquarium.

“These technologies are so helpful because we are able to compare our sea turtle’s detailed measurements over time — from her very first CT scan to the most recent structured blue light 3D scan,” said Jenn Nero Moffatt, Senior Director of Animal Care, Science and Conservation at Birch Aquarium. “We can overlay the scans to visually see what is happening and her measurements can be plotted to see how she has changed over time. This is critical information in our overall health care program for the sea turtle.”

What was learned about her 3D printed brace?
Birch Aquarium worked with McAvoy back in 2016 to create the first-ever 3D printed brace for a sea turtle’s shell.  This brace — made of strong plastic and precisely fitted to its shell with marine safe epoxy — slows the downward curving of her shell, promotes more normal growth and prevents further complications.  However, this brace may not be a permanent solution as she could eventually outgrow it.

As the sea turtle continues to grow with age, her shell grows as well!  When she arrived at Birch Aquarium in 2014, she weighed just 98 pounds. She has since thrived, and currently weighs 212 pounds.  This growth means a newly printed and fitted brace may be in her future.

The scans this July pinpointed detailed information that helps monitor her brace.  It shows how much her shell has changed and grown, the condition of the brace and its attachment points, and what the dimensions of a future brace will most likely be.

Original blog content and visuals courtesy of Birch Aquarium

Additional media coverage by CBS 8 San Diego