UF’s high-tech CT scanner a part of plan to digitize 1 billion specimens

The museum drawers of pinned bugs and butterflies or shelves with jars with formaldehyde-preserved fish and salamanders will not go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon, but high-tech imaging is changing the study of specimens.

The University of Florida is a national leader in the use of the CT scanning of museum collections, part of a group that has already imaged 5,281 vertebrates and will eventually take on the big worlds of insects and invertebrates.

“CT scanning is taking the specimen, finding all of the morphological and physical features — the bones, soft tissue — and using X-ray technology to extract that information,” said Zach Randall, imaging lab manager. “They are the actual specimens themselves that come from collections…You can scan very delicate and unique specimens that otherwise researchers would have to dissect.”

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Zach Randall, left, lab manager and biological scientist, talks with Ed Stanley, right, an associate scientist, about a CT scan image of a veiled chameleon at the iDigBio lab at the Nanoscale Research Facility in the College of Engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Wednesday.

The scanner is in a College of Engineering building. Peering into the innards of animals is just one use of it.

UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History is home to a collaborative endeavor called iDigBio, which was awarded a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to boost digitizing specimen collections.

A network of sites in the country with CT scanners are part of iDigBio. An estimated 1 billion species are in collections nationwide, and the goal is to digitize all of them.

A CT scan rendering of a veiled chameleon at the iDigBio lab at the Nanoscale Research Facility in the College of Engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Wednesday.

Images are available to researchers, teachers and the public. The wizardry of some software can magnify details in the images, isolate anatomical parts for close inspection and perform other manipulations to learn more about the creatures.

“The data have been viewed online more than a million times so far. There have been 10,000 or 12,000 downloads, about half of it by researchers around the world,” said David Blackburn, curator of herpetology at the museum. “About 40% has been education. It’s in classrooms. We have worked with teachers to develop learning activities specific to the data.”

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