Ambitious team wants to create 3D models of every animal on Earth

3 Nov 2016

Duncan Irschick with the Beastcam Array. Image: UMass Amherst

It seems beyond the realms of possibility, but a team of scientists are attempting to preserve the history of life as we know it, with full-colour 3D models of every living animal on Earth.

The curation of 3D models of animals, all different shapes and sizes, sounds like a fun activity for the average person. However, given recent findings that much of the planet’s wildlife is under severe threat, it might seem more like a ‘digital Noah’s Ark’ than a pet project.

For the last few years, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, led by biologist Duncan Irschick, have been using a rapid-capture 3D modelling camera called Beastcam Array to photograph a number of living organisms.

Consisting of 10 fixed arms, each of which has three G16 Canon cameras for a 30-camera array, the device has been snapping images of small animals placed on a central platform and making 3D images, using specialised software.

Now Irschick and his team want to expand beyond just a few small creatures, to attempt photographing every single living organism on Earth. To do this, they will use a new multimedia platform called Digital Life that already features 3D models of sharks, scorpions, toads and lizards.

With funding from the US National Science Foundation, the researchers will spend many of the coming months creating 3D models of two animal groups facing significant survival threats: frogs and sea turtles.

Marine toad

A marine toad being photographed by the Beastcam Array. Image: Digital Life

‘This will take several lifetimes’

Unlike previous attempts, the Beastcam Array is specifically designed to photograph animals that don’t really want to stay still. It can be scaled up to scan animals of varying size.

Speaking of what a mammoth task this will be, Irschick admits that there is little chance he will be around to see the project’s completion, if that is even possible.

“This will take several lifetimes, but we are thrilled to begin the journey,” he said. “Digitally preserving the heritage of life on Earth is especially important given the rapid decline of many species, and this technology can recreate organisms in a way that has never been done before.”

Using mathematical equations, estimates last May suggest that there may be as many as 1trn species of life on Earth alone, with many millions still yet to be discovered.

In the meantime, the Digital Life Project will continue online through its website, while Irschick and his colleagues plan to provide 3D models at no cost for creative or non-profit use.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic