Bits and Bugs

A Virtual Animal Kingdom

Westerwälder Wolf Teil einer Sonderausstellung
A wolf on display in the Natural History Museum in Mainz.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The new system to digitalize specimens will make it easier for scientists to study various species and also help to protect the specimens.

  • Facts


    • CultLab3D was developed by a team of Fraunhofer graphic computing experts led by Martin Ritz.
    • The system is currently being tested in Berlin’s Natural History Museum.
    • By fall of 2015, the museum aims to have 10,000 insect cases digitalized and available on the Internet.
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Humming quietly, the curved aluminum arches move up and across the stuffed monkey. Changing light brings out every detail as cameras record the gelada, or bleeding-heart, baboon from every angle. The process takes only a few minutes, after which the researchers at the Fraunhofer Competence Center for Cultural Heritage Digitization have transformed Theropithecus gelada into a digital file. It’s a world first.

CultLab3D is a three-dimensional mobile scanning system designed to capture the texture, radiance and color of bones, fossiles and insects with a high level of precision. The system was developed by a team of Fraunhofer graphic computing experts led by Martin Ritz and put to the test for the first time in Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, or Natural History Museum.

The technology – a product of industrial research into materials – uses a conveyor belt, robotic arms and scanners. At the start of the scanning process, nine cameras mounted on a semi-circular aluminum arm pivot around the object. A light system ensures the scanner picks up all nuances. A few meters along the conveyor belt, another camera on a robotic arm focuses on areas obscured during the first scan.

Vertebrate paleontologist Heinrich Mallison is coordinating the 3D-scanning project at the museum. Virtual bones and fossils give researchers new perspectives, and provide ease of access. The Berlin museum’s bone cellar, for example, is not a spacious place to work, especially when some dinosaur bones can be several feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds.

Each specimen will be photographed, together with a scale and a color chart, from at least two angles.

The museum’s insect collection is a challenge of a different nature; their sheer number is overwhelming. The collection comprises 15 million insects, including 6 million beetles, 4 million butterflies, and 2.3 million bees and wasps. The animals are pinned, labeled and sorted inside more than 35,000 cases.

By fall of 2015, the museum aims to have 10,000 cases digitalized and available on the Internet.

For this project, a camera takes 240 sub-frame images of each case. The images are then combined into one high resolution image. On the Internet, entomologists can then zoom in on each individual insect.

The Berlin researchers have also decided to individually digitalize 10,000 specially chosen insects used to describe new species. Each specimen will be photographed, together with a scale and a color chart, from at least two angles.

The robotic 3D scanning system will also protect the specimens from being physically transported in the future. For example, a collection of tiny soil-dwelling organisms at the Senckenberg natural history museum in Görlitz is encased in a wafer-thin film of water on microscope slides. The lifespan of such slides is limited.

3d street-dpa
3D researchers hard at work. Source: DPA


The German Research Foundation, DFG, has been supporting several digitization projects since 2013 in addition to CutLab3D. One of these is the digitalization of skeletons at the University of Freiburg. Another involves the pages of herbars, or collections of preserved plant specimens, which are being translated into data at the Berlin Free University and at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt.

The safeguarding and indexing of valuable collections is only one motivation of the scientists leading the digitization efforts. Their work also opens up new possibilities, such as virtual exhibitions of the stock of collections sequestered away in repositories. And such data banks make the beetles, butterflies, and dinosaurs available not only to the research community but also to every citizen – an open invitation for amateur ornithologists, hobby entomologists and other interested laypeople who enrich research with their fresh insights.


This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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