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Revival: Visualizing Natural History Specimens in Art and Science The exhibit you are visiting today is the product of innovative uses of fluid preserved specimens from the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC). The specimens in the BRTC hold a wealth of information that, as technology advances, science continuously finds new ways to exploit. This often involves using specimens to ask how populations have changed and adapted through time, how they are responding to current conditions, or how they may respond to future environmental challenges. Growing these collections continues to build the library of specimens and data that can address scientists’ questions about the past, present, and future. The Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections is one of the largest University-based collections of its kind with nearly 2 million preserved specimens including amphibians, reptiles, fishes, birds, mammals, marine invertebrates, and parasites. The BRTC serves a vital, multi-faceted role in basic biodiversity and conservation sciences, faculty research, and undergraduate education. As an integrated part of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, the BRTC strongly supports undergraduate education with hands-on labs taught at the collections. Throughout the year, undergraduate interns and volunteers learn and perform curatorial duties ranging from specimen preparation and data management, to maintenance (curation) of the specimens. We also support faculty and graduate research projects within and beyond Texas A&M University, many of which involve adding specimens to the collection. One of the recent technologies that has opened the use of our collections to a broader, more diverse, and sometimes unexpected user base is computed tomography, or CT. By CT scanning our specimens, we create a digital copy of the animal that can be used across disciplines with no damage to the specimen. These digital copies are made publically available for anyone anywhere in the world to download through the MorphoSouce website. They can be virtually dissected, measured, segmented, 3D printed, and visualized in creative and artistic ways, some of which are represented in this exhibit. Scan the QR code below with your smartphone to see an example of a 3D model of one of our popular specimens, the Lined Seahorse, Hippocampus erectus, TCWC 13069.01 This exhibit is made possible with the support of: Texas A&M School of Innovation The National Science Foundation The Texas A&M Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections The Purple Turtle Art Studio
Lined Seahorse Skull, Hippocampus erectus, TCWC 13069.01 Artwork by Erwin van der Minne, Melbourne Australia. Before the Texas A&M Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections started scanning specimens for the National Science Foundation funded Open Vertebrate or “oVert” project, we had very limited connectivity with the artistic community. On occasion, we would receive artists looking to take images of our specimens, but they visited the collections in person. Now that we are able to provide high quality digital “specimens” that can be modeled in 3D space and shared on-line, our specimens have been able to reach a whole new community of non-traditional users. The CT scan of the Lined Seahorse was picked up by several digital artists who are working with the data in a very different way. These images were produced by Erwin van der Minne, an Australian artist who segmented the skull and added a variety of artistic filters to enhance the appearance of the skull. The end product being a true fusion of art and science. -Heather Prestridge, Curator, Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, Texas A&M University
What is a Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan The process of acquiring a CT scan of a natural history specimen that can be used in a peer-reviewed publication has several steps, or stages. These stages include 1) acquiring the specimen, 2) preparing the specimen for scanning, 3) scanning the specimen, and 4) post-processing the scan. 1) Acquiring the specimen The specimen is collected from the wild, or borrowed from a museum. There are two kinds of scans: regular scans and soft tissue scans. When there is no special stain used to contrast soft tissues and only radiopaque tissues such as bone are detected, it is a regular scan. For a soft tissue scan, stains such as iodine or phosphotungstic acid washes are used to saturate soft tissue of the specimen for visualization. 2) Preparing the specimens for scanning It is important to make sure that the specimen being scanned is always kept with the museum label that is associated with it. This label should never be separated from the specimen and stays with the specimen while it is scanned. Also, this museum label number should be included in the file name of the scan. The practice of carefully maintaining the specimen label ensures that any scans or images can be traced back to the original, physical specimen. The scanning process should in no way harm the specimen itself, because ideally it should be returned to the home institution in the same condition that it was borrowed in. This is especially difficult for fishes and amphibians, and other specimens that are preserved in liquid. A CT scanner cannot be exposed to liquid, but a specimen cannot be allowed to dry out. This creates a conflict that can be resolved by very careful preparation of the specimen. In this case, the specimen should be sealed inside a leak-proof bag that contains a small amount of the preservation liquid. This will maintain the integrity of the specimen for the period of time that it is scanned and prevent liquid from leaking into the scanner. The next challenge associated with scanning a specimen for research is preventing movement. During a scan, thousands of photos are taken, and the software that aligns the specimens can only make small corrections for misalignment. This means that often a specimen must be carefully packed with supporting materials such as cheese cloth or packing peanuts. This material is packed around the plastic bag that the specimen is sealed into. The supporting material should surround the specimen to prevent movement without pressing the specimen into an unnatural shape. This process can take a significant period of time, but also must be done efficiently to prevent excess time that the specimen is in a minimal amount of preservation liquid. 3) Scanning the specimen This step will vary depending on the CT scanner used, how a scanner works, and how the scan data is digitally reconstructed using various software and visualization methods. 4) Post-processing a CT scan There are several programs that allow CT data to be analyzed and viewed. A popular program in the biological sciences is 3D Slicer because it is open access and free. The availability of open access tools allows students and researchers easy access and communication with the developers. Credit: Amanda Pinion, PhD Candidate, Dept of Ecology and Conservation Biology Texas A&MR0010097 R0010098 R0010099 R0010100 R0010101 R0010094 R0010088 R0010089
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