OpenVertebrate is a massive database of 3-D scanned images of 13,000 (and counting!) vertebrate specimens

A massive collection of 13,000 vertebrate specimens is now available online for use by researchers, educators, students, artists, and more. The digital scanning project, called openVertebrate, or oVert for short, which was completed in November 2023, took six years to finish and involved dozens of institutions, some of which provided the specimens and some of which provided the scanning equipment. The project was funded through a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, as well as $1.1 million through other partnering grants. Blackburn and colleagues, who recently published a paper in BioScience about the project, explain the large team who worked on the project:

The oVert project team is composed of approximately 290 people that have been involved in imaging, analysis, curation, education, and more. Together, these individuals represent 48 academic institutions, 29 K–12 schools, and five stand-alone natural history museums in 26 US states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.

The authors also describe the massive scope of the OpenVertebrate collection, which will continue to grow:

As of November 2023, the oVert project has generated more than 29,000 media files for more than 13,000 specimens, in part through approximately 380 loans of specimens exchanged across 50 US institutions (figure 3). These represent more than 6400 genera in more than 970 families of living vertebrates. We have generated data for more than half of all genera of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals (figure 3supplemental figure S1), including most amphibian and reptile genera. We continue working through imaging many genera, especially of fishes. Because of the lack of availability of fluid-preserved specimens, we anticipate not being able to make significantly more progress for bird and mammal genera based on existing collections in the United States.

Science News provides more details about the purpose, scope, and methods of the project:

Online replicas not only make museum collections accessible to more folks but also give people a peek inside animals without the need for scalpels or other dissection equipment. 

"The best part of that is the weird, wonderful things that you weren't expecting to see that jump out," says evolutionary biologist Edward Stanley of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Those things include parasitic infections, last meals and new insights into animal anatomy.

CT scans of pumpkin toadlets' inner ears, for instance, revealed that the amphibians crash-land their hops due to misshapen ear tubes (SN: 6/15/22). And images that Stanley and colleagues took of spiny mice showed that the animals' tails are covered in bony armor like an armadillo (SN: 5/24/23).

As part of oVert, Stanley and researchers across 25 institutions took CT scans of fluid-preserved specimens representing more than half of all known vertebrate genera, lighting up the skeletons of chameleons, frogs, bats, lizards, snakes, eagles and more. Some animals were soaked in iodine so that internal organs and muscles were visible. 

Not all of the specimens were stored in fluid, however. Interesting Engineering explains:

Initially, the plan was to scan only specimens preserved in alcohol.

But, there were some big specimens that couldn't be preserved in fluid and wouldn't fit into a CT scanner. Still, researchers didn't want to leave them out in the cold.

A grant to the Idaho Museum of Natural History helped make a digital model of a humpback whale. Because the whole whale was too big to scan well, researchers carefully took apart its skeleton. They then made 3D models of each bone and put together both the physical and digital versions.

Likewise, even medium-sized specimens sometimes needed creative solutions, like a bunch of well-known tortoises at the California Academy of Sciences.

Read more about the project in the BioScience paper, "Increasing the impact of vertebrate scientific collections through 3D imaging: The openVertebrate (oVert) Thematic Collections Network." Here's the abstract:

The impact of preserved museum specimens is transforming and increasing by three-dimensional (3D) imaging that creates high-fidelity online digital specimens. Through examples from the openVertebrate (oVert) Thematic Collections Network, we describe how we created a digitization community dedicated to the shared vision of making 3D data of specimens available and the impact of these data on a broad audience of scientists, students, teachers, artists, and more. High-fidelity digital 3D models allow people from multiple communities to simultaneously access and use scientific specimens. Based on our multiyear, multi-institution project, we identify significant technological and social hurdles that remain for fully realizing the potential impact of digital 3D specimens.

You can see some of the most popular (and amazing!) 3D models here or here. The entire collection is available at MorphoSource.

Previously: How to draw natural history specimens