Researcher Shion Otsuka prepares to scan specimens. Otsuka (LSA ’22) started working on UMMZ’s digitization projects because she wanted experience with a wide array of animal specimens. Photograph by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

For Ramon Nagesan, research laboratory specialist at the U-M Museum of Zoology (UMMZ), a day’s work involves getting an unmatched view into the inner workings of archived animals. Nagesan runs the day-to-day operations of the museum’s MicroCT Scanning Laboratory. There, he and his colleagues use a MicroCT scanner to create three-dimensional digital renderings of the specimens in UMMZ’s collections—fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. What he finds can surprise even the most experienced researchers.

“These specimens can be old—some were collected over a century ago, some much more recently—and sometimes the notes and data associated with them aren’t very extensive,” he explains. “Sometimes we know certain things about the animals and assume others. But sometimes we find surprises.”

In 2019, Nagesan and his team were scanning a snake specimen—a fully intact, preserved creature with skin, musculature, and a skeleton—when they saw something strange inside it. As the scan progressed, they discovered the strange thing they were seeing inside the snake was . . . a frog!

“Legs, head, arms, and all,” says Nagesan. “This snake has been archived at the museum since 2018 and no one knew what was inside. Now, we have a beautiful scan of a coiled snake—what most people would associate with an image of a snake—that has a big frog coiled right through its gut.” 

The specimens have been collected for research projects or animal surveys and had typically been preserved in jars. When the CT scanner arrived in 2018, the museum started an initiative to digitize them.

The scanner is similar to what you’d find in a hospital, only smaller. It creates a data set of several thousand cross-section images that illuminate the specimens’ anatomy from different angles. Digitally reconfigured, these slices produce a three-dimensional, proportionally accurate representation of the original specimen. “We can look at just the bone if we want to. Or we can look at the whole soft tissue structure,” Nagesan explains. “These scans can be thought of as facsimiles of the actual specimens—they’re effectively a one-to-one.” Researchers can use free software to download the data set and do whatever studies they need. “We’re opening the doors to our collection virtually,” he says.

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