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How A New 3-D Technology Might Save Endangered Species

Duncan J. Irschick uses the Beastcam ARRAY to scan a tokay gecko.
Courtesy, UMASS Amherst

Duncan Irschick made his first connection with an animal about 40 years ago — a pet garter snake named Charlie.  

Since then, the 48-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst biology professor has gone on to work with and study countless animals, some on the brink of extinction.  

He does not like the idea that others will miss an opportunity to forge a deeper appreciation with those animals.  

To that end, he's helped develop a project called Digital Life, which aims to capture images of all living things. 

These aren't your run-of-the-mill photographs, they are the product of Beastcam. It's a specialized camera mount and synching system, co-invented by Irschick and two students, that's used to create 3-D models of living things. 

"As far as I am aware, we're the only group in the world that can capture a diversity of animals in hi-resolution 3-D," Irschick said during an interview at his lab.  

Beastcam is portable and light weight and it holds as many as 40 digital cameras mounted on a circle of posts, connected accordion-style. An animal is placed in the center of that circle.  

The Beastcam ARRAY takes images of a gecko.
Courtesy, UMASS Amherst

With a little luck, the animal holds completely still for the fraction of a second needed to snap the photos. 

"That's a great pose," said Irschick as he watched Matrix, a New Caldonian Gecko in his lab, being photographed by Beastcam. 

A software program is used to stich those individual shots together; creating one, high-resolution, 3-D image.  

A 3-D mesh of a gecko, created via the Beastcam.
Courtesy, UMASS Amherst

The idea for Beastcam was dismissed by some.  

"Honestly along the way I was told by many people, this won’t work," Irschick said. "Animals will move, they will not do it."  

But Irschick, and students in his lab, believed differently.  

"I've worked with a lot of different animals over many years, with snakes, lizards, sharks, sea turtles, and one thing I've learned is that you have to show patience," he said.  

Using that patience, and different versions of the Beastcam, in the past year they have catalogued 45 plants and animals, ranging in size from a small, poisonous frog to a 5-foot blacktip shark. All the images are downloadable and can be used by anyone from students to professionals interested in conservation, science and education, he said. 

But the work is not without its challenges.  

Irschick said fundraising is vital to what they do, and they are running campaigns to support gathering Beastcam images of endangered frogs and sea turtles

UMASS Amherst undergraduates Dylan Briggs and Kasey Smart take images of a Tegu using the original handheld Beastcam.
John Solem/UMASS Amherst

"I think people learn to appreciate animals when they learn what they have been through. The hardships they face, the journeys they have been through," he said.  

Irschick points out that many animals are under threat of extinction because of human behavior.  

He said he hopes Digital Life will help people develop a deeper appreciation for animals and encourage them to consider the impact their actions could have.  

"It's kind of a race against time to capture [Beastcam images of] them," he said. "Because some of these species, especially some of the frogs — will they be there in five years? Time will tell."  


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