Have you ever wanted to see a lemur up close, without the cages and fences of the Lemur Center?

Researchers at Duke have created an online database, hosted at MorphoSource.org, where users can access 3D models of lemurs and other rare primates.

Visitors to the site can view the anatomies of these primates in intricate detail, giving them the experience of seeing specimens in a museum without potentially damaging the original bones and structures of the primates. The models can also be 3D printed so that people around the world can handle and examine the anatomical structures themselves.

“The goal of this project was to bridge the gap in data infrastructure and build a virtual museum of sorts,” said Doug Boyer, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology.

The database additionally gives scientists in fields like comparative anatomy access to raw data to support their own research on biological and historical processes. Investigators across the globe can also deposit their own raw data, Boyer noted. 

“Believe it or not, there is no resource like this other than MorphoSource that allows for raw data to be both archived and accessed,” he said. “The database can’t serve its goal for the scientific community unless people beyond those at Duke and in my lab can add to it.”

The technology works through a detailed scanning process, using X-rays to take thousands of photographs of a given specimen from every angle. These images can then be virtually “dissected,” so that their internal bone structure and skeleton can be analyzed. 

Putting the data online presented its own host of challenges, Boyer explained. 

“One challenge with the technology was with figuring how to render really high-resolution data sets in 3D on the browsers," he said. "We wanted to keep the interface simple to use but scientifically credible and worthwhile."

Boyer and Gabriel Yapuncich—the now-graduated evolutionary anthropology Ph.D. student that led the scanning efforts—initially intended for the site to primarily support scientific research. They soon found that the site could have broader applications, however. 

“I was surprised by the outreach and public relevance of MorphoSource,” Boyer said. “The database is immediately accessible and relatable to children of any age.”

The team keeps track of users nationwide, finding that over 200 elementary school students around the country have accounts on the site. Beyond being used for independent exploration among children, K-12 educators have also found value in MorphoSource.

“About a third of user downloads are by teachers and are being used for education purposes," Boyer said. "A lot of times, people will download a skull and 3D print it and use it in class activities.”

Boyer and his team are now looking to expand the success of the tool in the classroom setting. Going forward, they hope to enhance the user experience and keep the site easy to navigate.

“We want to more actively promote educational use of the data," Boyer said. "In the next year or two, we’re looking to add a page [as well as] tools that are specifically beneficial to educators, like lesson plans."