It’s impossible to study fossil penguins without becoming keenly aware of the plight of their modern brethren. While I have a professional interest in expanding the pantheon of extinct penguins, I prefer the joy of a new fossil discovery to the heartbreak of watching an extant species march toward oblivion. Global penguin diversity is at a low ebb, which makes each living species all the more precious.One charming success story is the Middle Island Maremma conservation project. Australia’s Little Blue Penguins (also known as Fairy Penguins) are under assault in many areas by feral dogs and foxes. An innovative program uses the Maremma Sheepdog to defend nesting penguins. Warning – some images may be dangerously cute.
You can read more here: https://www.thedodo.com/meet-the-dogs-responsible-for–749876261.html
Kairuku has made it into the mint. This graceful extinct penguin species was described in 2012 by a team that included R. Ewan Fordyce, Tatsuro Ando, Craig Jones, and myself. Each year, the New Zealand post office mints an official annual coin. Kairuku coins are pure silver and have a legal face value of $5. However, getting one for $5 would be a real steal because they are a limited run and are priced at $129. For the die-hard March of the Fossil Penguin fan, the coins are available at the New Zealand Post website. Only 1500 have been made.
Imagine you have travelled to a remote location and have discovered a fossil penguin bone – your first question will almost certainly be, ‘what species does this bone belong to?’ To find your answer you will need to compare your fossil to bones from other penguins, which will let you know if it belongs to a known species or if you have discovered a new fossil penguin. This was the scenario that Dan Ksepka and I encountered in South Africa, and we were fortunate to have access to the bone collection in Iziko Museum, Cape Town. While we were able to make most of our comparisons at Iziko, there were a few important comparisons that would have to wait for visits to other collections. Every museum can’t have every bone after all.
But what if you had digital versions of bones to work with? What if you could virtually borrow Museum specimens? A 3D scan of a bone has major advantages over photos as you can see the bone from any angle you wish, you can study the bone across a range of scales, and as strange as this may sound, you can view the morphology of the bone without being distracted by lighting or surface colouration. You could store your comparative collection on a laptop or in the cloud, and take it wherever there was electricity and/or internet access.
It’s an intriguing idea, and if you haven’t already done so, check out the incredible 3D scanning work that paleontologist Nick Pyenson has been doing at the Smithsonian Institution.
In recent years 3D scanning has become cheaper and more accessible. There are drawbacks to producing a 3D digital collection of course – it can take a long time to produce each file and you need specialised software + equipment + knowledge to produce a high-quality replica – but I think the idea of producing a 3D digital collection has promise.
This is why I have started scanning the bones of a little blue penguin (the species most common in my native Auckland, New Zealand). High-fidelity models of a left humerus, a left radius and a left ulna have been produced so far. A full set of wing bones is also available, but at lower resolution. These models are hosted on Sketchfab so they are free to view and they don’t require specialised software or browser plugins. You can check them out here:
https://sketchfab.com/nzfauna/models or http://www.nzfauna.ac.nz/#!3d/cdvz
I want a digital collection of bones available for my own research, and I am hoping that other researchers will find them useful as well.
Now… imagine travelling to a remote location and discovering a fossil penguin bone. You open your laptop and scroll through your 3D digital collections. Have you made a new discovery?
January 20th is Penguin Awareness Day. If you are in the Greenwich CT area, consider celebrating by joining us for a penguin evolution talk and a live demonstration of 3D penguin printing. The event will be held in the same gallery as the photography show Antarctica: Images of an Ancient Land, featuring the work of Diane Tuft.
This afternoon we welcomed the 3D printed prototype of our penguin to meet the original. In the photo, you’ll notice a few differences. The colors of our old reliable penguin have faded a bit over the last half century, which is natural in older museum specimens. I still think he/she (we don’t know the sex for this specimen) has charm. The spot and collar patterns were carefully done but are not 100% accurate because the current scanning technology detects the surface of the scanned object, but not the color. Overall it is really nice to have not only a light weight printed replica of our penguin, but a virtual copy that can be viewed instantly on a computer.
You can meet them both next Tuesday (January 20th) at the Bruce Museum Penguin Awareness Day event. Doors open at 6:30pm for refreshments, and the talk and demonstration starts at 7:00pm.
In an earlier post, we saw the Bruce penguin being scanned at MakerBot. Now for the test – will the scan print out correctly? We decided to start small, with this three inch tall version. It looks a little like a penguin cookie awaiting frosting, but the beak, flippers, and feet came out very well. Soon, we will give it a run at full power and see if we can create a perfect life-size replica!