Jeff Shi (U-M EEB Ph.D. 2018) wrote a compelling piece for The Conversation called “3D scans of bat skulls help natural history museums open up dark corners of their collections.” The article, published Jan. 7, 2019, touches on aspects of his dissertation work at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Shi’s U-M advisor was Professor Dan Rabosky. Excerpts from his article, a link to the original and current digitization project updates from the UMMZ and U-M Herbarium are below.

“Picture a natural history museum. What comes to mind? Childhood memories of dinosaur skeletons and dioramas? Or maybe you still visit to see planetarium shows or an IMAX feature? You may be surprised to hear that behind these public-facing exhibits lies a priceless treasure trove that most visitors will never see: a museum’s collections.

“…despite the incalculable value of these collections, I often wondered about how to make them more accessible. A project to digitally scan hundreds of bat skulls was one way to bring specimens that would look at home in an antique Victorian collection straight to the forefront of 21st-century museum practices.

“My own research on global bat diversity used hundreds of museum specimens to conclude that tropical bats coexist more readily than many biologists expect. This finding fits with an overall pattern across much of the tree of life where tropical species outnumber their temperate cousins. It may also help explain why in many parts of Central and South America, bats are among the most abundant and diverse mammals, period.

“For my Ph.D. research, we used micro-CT scanning to digitize nearly 700 individual bat skulls from our museum’s collection. With estimates of about 1,300 described species, bats represent about 25 to 30 percent of modern mammal species, second only to rodents. However, one of the reasons researchers have long been fascinated by bats is their immense diversity of behavior and function in nature. Much of this ecological diversity is encoded in their skulls, which vary broadly in shape and size.

“In partnership with MorphoSource at Duke University, we’ve since published our digital specimens within an open-access repository for researchers, educators and students. Each digital specimen is associated with the same identifying data as its original, enabling research without travel or shipment. Even better, many delicate parts can be digitally dissected without fear of irreparable damage. Digital specimens can even be 3D-printed at varying scales for use in educational settings and museum exhibits.

“No longer should the potential impact of any specimen be restricted by the walls and constraints of any one museum. Instead, museums can throw their doors open to a digital future, inviting anyone into the endless wonders of the natural world.”

Relatedly, the U-M Museum of Zoology and Herbarium continue digitization efforts of the collections with these current and forthcoming projects.

At UMMZ, there are two active Thematic Collection Network (TCN) grants – one for invertebrates, InvertEBase, and one for vertebrate specimens, oVert.  

Two TCNs are funded and are anticipated to begin in early February 2019 – the Pteridophyte TCN and the Endless Forms TCN. The Herbarium is operating as a subcontract under the Missouri Botanical Garden for Endless Forms.

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein