Every fish species on Earth might soon be downloadable

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A professor at the University of Washington wants to digitally scan every fish species in the world, creating free, 3D-printable models

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A professor at the University of Washington (UW) wants to catch 'em all, but he isn't content with just collecting hundreds of Pokemon. His ambitions are a little loftier, aiming to collect and scan all 25,000 known species of fish, to create 3D models of their skeletons which can then be freely downloaded, 3D-printed and studied.

Real fish specimens can be difficult and costly to come by, so, much like Massey University's 3D printable cane toad skeletons, UW professor Adam Summers is trying to make it easier for students, scientists and hobbyists to study fish. Using a CT scanner, Summers is creating high resolution 3D models of the skeletons, and then uploading them to the Open Science Framework (an open source, file-sharing network). From there, anyone can view the models digitally, rotating and zooming to their heart's content, or 3D print them for a more hands-on examination.

According to Summers, most scientists using the models scanned thus far have done so to study the morphology of certain species, in hopes of determining how groups may have evolved along similar lines.

"It's been so fun to throw this data up on the web and have people actually use it," Summers says. "These scans are transforming the way we think about 3D data and accessibility."

That transformation isn't going unnoticed, with museums, universities and scientists around the world offering up their specimens for scanning, including Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Ohio State University, Western Australian Museum, and the National Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, among others.

The science world's enthusiasm for a cheap, relatively easy way to scan and study specimens isn't surprising. Previously, scans could cost between US$500 and $2,000 each, and weren't as easily accessible. After years of struggling for permission to use expensive equipment in hospitals, Summers set about raising $340,000 to purchase a CT scanner for his lab.

The professor's process saves costs and time by scanning multiple fish at once, before separating them into individual files via the computer software. And while the models are high enough resolution for most purposes, they aren't as high as they could be, to save some digital real estate and make them easier on a downloader's bandwidth.

"The way transformative ideas do, these just instantly changed the way we think about scanning specimens," says Summers. "We went from, 'Is this possible?' to scanning whole series of fishes quickly."

There's still a long way to go on the journey to all 25,000 species. The current library contains about 515 of those, and Summers estimates the rest of the world's fish will take about two or three years to collect.

After that, he has an even more ambitious project planned: scanning all 50,000 vertebrate species on Earth. And he won't be doing it alone of course, with colleagues currently drafting grant proposals to recruit a few more CT scanners to handle the extra workload.

The 3D models are currently available to download for free on the Open Science Framework.

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