See 3-D models of animal anatomy from openVertebrate’s public collection

More than 13,000 museum specimens were CT scanned as part of a six-year-long project

A multi-colored collage of 3-D scans of the insides of 18 vertebrates.

With the completion of a yearslong project called openVertebrate, the insides of more than 13,000 museum specimens are seeing the light of day. Digital reconstructions of CT scans (some shown) show the anatomy of fluid-preserved vertebrates, as well as last meals, yet-to-be-born offspring and more.


Frog entrails, lizard scales and mouse tails, oh my.

These creatures are among more than 13,000 museum specimens that had their innards CT scanned as part of a six-year mission to create 3-D digital reconstructions. The effort, called openVertebrate, or oVert, aims to make vertebrate specimens freely available online. Such specimens typically have been kept in storage until put on display for the public or pulled for examination by a specialist, researchers report March 6 in BioScience.

Online replicas not only make museum collections accessible to more folks but also give people a peek inside animals without the need for scalpels or other dissection equipment. 

“The best part of that is the weird, wonderful things that you weren’t expecting to see that jump out,” says evolutionary biologist Edward Stanley of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Those things include parasitic infections, last meals and new insights into animal anatomy.

CT scans of pumpkin toadlets’ inner ears, for instance, revealed that the amphibians crash-land their hops due to misshapen ear tubes (SN: 6/15/22). And images that Stanley and colleagues took of spiny mice showed that the animals’ tails are covered in bony armor like an armadillo (SN: 5/24/23).

As part of oVert, Stanley and researchers across 25 institutions took CT scans of fluid-preserved specimens representing more than half of all known vertebrate genera, lighting up the skeletons of chameleons, frogs, bats, lizards, snakes, eagles and more. Some animals were soaked in iodine so that internal organs and muscles were visible. 

Each specimen was mounted inside a tube. The tube then rotated around a fixed X-ray scanner that captured a complete picture of the animal’s body. But few vertebrates are tube-shaped, so the team had to pack the cylinder with materials that could hold the specimen in place without interfering with the scan.

“It turns out bubble wrap, packing peanuts, plastic Coke bottles, that sort of thing, that’s the magic,” Stanley says. 

The technology could help digitize additional organisms tucked away in natural history collections including invertebrates and plants, the researchers say. Some scanners may even work for living vertebrates.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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