University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

Skip to main content


Animal Diversity Web adding 3D Skulls!


View a demonstration on the ADW 3D Project blog

Just before the turn of the 21st century, the Animal Diversity Web created a series of cutting-edge QTVR object movies of mammal skulls. Now, with the help of UROP student Alex Risius, they’re creating new 3D models using photogrammetry tools provided by Autodesk. This method allows the creation of higher-resolution models, and provides users with much finer control over the spinning.

To create these 3D models, UROP student Alex Risius and her mentor Tricia Jones (research specialist on the Animal Diversity Web, based in the Museum) used a program called 123D Catch from Autodesk. Instead of using an expensive 3D scanner, a process called photogrammetry involves taking numerous photographs from various points around the skull and then uploading them to the 123D Catch program.

6 of the 53 photos that make up the Hylobates 3D model

The software stitches the pictures together, creating a 3D model of the specimen that can be rotated 360 degrees, panned, and zoomed.

screenshot of the Hylobates 3D model on the 123D Catch web site

The team spent the fall semester refining the photogrammetry technique (for example, they discovered that very small skulls are too hard to capture) and created a couple dozen models. They started with primate skulls that show differences in binocularity and orbital structure, reflecting different behaviors such as diet, sleeping patterns, and arboreality.

In the winter semester, they turned their focus to how professors and educators would use this interactive database. Skulls are very fragile and are sometimes difficult to access, especially at institutions without extensive collections. Having an online tool could be beneficial for many classes, ranging from anthropology to biology & zoology. In the winter semester, Risius and Jones are interviewed educators in different departments to see how they might 3D models. Interview results will be used to develop a survey to gather input from educators around the country. Survey results will help inform the design of an interface to the 3D collection on the Animal Diversity Web in a manner that could improve learning for students worldwide.

Eventually the models will be incorporated into the Animal Diversity Web as media within the species accounts. For now, they exist on the 123D Catch web site and on a blog: If you’d like more information about how to use photogrammetry or other lessons they’ve learned, contact Tricia Jones

Alex Risus photographing skulls