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'This will actually unlock a lot of the mysteries': UMass biologist recreates sharks in 3D

A set of 3D shark models, species known to swim in waters off South Africa, can now swim across computer and smartphone screens.

Duncan Irschick, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, released the scientifically accurate models July 14 through his "Digital Life" project.

Irschick works with students to produce high-resolution images of life on earth for conservation organizations. Irschick's current research focuses on shark evolution.

"These 3D models give us a way to do that," Irschick said. "This will actually unlock a lot of the mysteries about the evolution of size in the oceans, why we go from very small sharks to big sharks, and what happens to the bodies as they change."

Viewers can manipulate the model, even go into the shark's mouth. Other researchers may use the models, and Irschick said he hopes some future scientists might find them as well.

"The whole idea of the project is to recreate living animals in 3D, using the processes of science, using science logic, and also using our own kind of knowhow ... software skills ... photography and videography," Irschick said.

The process includes traveling worldwide to find animals to scan.

"We then reconstruct them and then they are provided back to the public for free, open access — for education, for science," Irschick said.

Above, two of the steps in the making a scientifically accurate 3D model of a great white shark, from "Digital Life," a project of UMass Amherst biologist Duncan Irschick.
Duncan Irschick
Above, two of the steps in the making a scientifically accurate 3D model of a great white shark, from "Digital Life," a project of UMass Amherst biologist Duncan Irschick.

The world of 3D creation is growing rapidly, Irschick said.

"The way we use this data is changing fundamentally. If you think about it, there are no museum specimens that are really easily accessible to scientists of sharks," he said. "You can find museum specimens ... but they're typically very old specimens. They're very warped."

"Digital Life" has been running for almost five years, creating over 100 models, with about 140,000 downloads.

The shark models released Friday include the puffadder shy shark, leopard cat sharkand Irschick's favorite, the broadnose sevengill shark. It's 3 meters long and believed to be the only shark that hunts in packs.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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