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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License



Digital Morphology - a 3D Collec tion of Natural History Specimens
Timothy Rowe, University of Texas at Austin, USA

Demonstration: Demonstrations - Session 1

Digital Morphology (www.DigiMorph.org) is part of the National Science Foundation Digital Libraries Initiative. It serves unique 2D and 3D visualizations of the internal and external structure of living and extinct vertebrates, and a growing number of plants, insects, and other non-vertebrates. The Digital Morphology collection currently archives nearly a terabyte of imagery. The Digital Morphology site (www.DigiMorph.org) now serves imagery, optimized for Web delivery, which includes 2500 movies that represent nearly 400 species. The specimens in this growing collection were made available for scanning by more than 80 collaborating researchers who represent more than 30 of the world's natural history museums and university collections.

The information core for the Digital Morphology library is generated using a state-of-the-art high-resolution X-ray computed tomographic (X-ray CT) scanner. This instrument is comparable to a conventional medical diagnostic CAT scanner, but with greater resolution and penetrating power. Our CT scanner was custom built and optimally designed to explore the internal structure of natural objects and materials at macro- and microscopic levels. This instrument is at the center of The University of Texas High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility (UTCT), a designated NSF-supported Multi-User Facility. Now in its seventh year, UTCT has scanned hundreds of rocks, meteorites, fossils, and modern organisms, providing unique data and visualizations for a wide range of interests in education and research.

Recognizing the revolutionary importance to science and education of pioneering informatics enterprises such as GenBank and the Visible Human, Digital Morphology is also an experiment in informatics. The Digital Morphology project explores new technologies for archiving, transforming, studying, publishing, and serving digital biological information. One of our major goals is to develop and implement new software for transforming CT and other tomographic data into novel and informative 3D visualizations of complex biological objects. The legacy of this ongoing project is a growing library of unique information on comparative organismal morphology, generated as we prototype new visualization protocols, novel types of biological data, and new educational approaches, and explore the Web and CD-ROM as vehicles for data dissemination.

The Digital Morphology site currently presents the following: QuickTime animations of complete stacks of serial CT sections; animated 3D volumetric movies of complete specimens; stereolithography (STL) files of 3D objects that can be viewed interactively and rapidly prototyped into scalable physical 3D objects that can be handled and studied as if they were the original specimens; informative introductions to the scanned organisms, often written by world authorities; pertinent bibliographic information on each specimen; useful links; and a resource for a University of Texas course on 'Digital Methods in Paleontology' in which students learn how to generate all of the types of imagery displayed on the Digital Morphology site.

Digital Morphology resides in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas.