Creating A Noah’s Ark Of 3D-Printed Animals, Before They Disappear

If you never make it to South America to witness a rare frog (or if it goes extinct), the Digital Life project wants to make sure you can still see what one looks like in person.

If you’ve never seen a horned frog, a near-threatened species from South America, a new digital library will let you zoom in on every bump on its brightly colored skin. The site, Digital Life, hopes to eventually catalog 3D digital models of every living species on earth.


By preserving nature digitally–starting with frogs and sea turtles, two groups of animals that are particularly threatened–the researchers want to create new tools for science and education.

“A lot of animal species are threatened or going extinct, and obviously a 3D model is not going to bring them back from extinction,” says Duncan Irschick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “But it does showcase the animal in a new way.”

Irschick and his team designed a camera rig called the Beastcam, which can quickly capture photographs from 30 cameras balanced on 10 arms. Then, using off-the-shelf software, the photographs can be stitched together to create a high-res, full-color model that someone can explore using virtual reality goggles or a simple online display.

“Our breakthrough really was we designed this system for living animals, which hadn’t been done before,” he says. “Living animals vary in how large they are, and their shape and size is just so challenging. But we created a system that’s very flexible, and it’s portable, so you can take it out in the field.”

The rig is currently scaled for smaller animals, but can easily be scaled up. The modular design can also add additional arms.

The photographs are captured quickly, though the researchers are tweaking the system so it will eventually work even faster. “The current design is for animals that are willing to pose for a second or two for a photograph,” says Irschick. “But we’re moving toward systems that would work with a moving animal.”


There are 4,000 frog species in the world, and the team plans to start by digitally preserving 40 to 60, working as quickly as possible. For one species they planned to scan–Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog–the last known individual in the world died in September.

“We were hoping to scan it, but it died,” he says. “That species is gone. But there are many, many others left in nature or captivity that there may only be a handful of individuals left. We’re literally racing against time.”

[All Photos: via University of Massachusetts at Amherst]


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.