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3-D images of bones draw worldwide attention

By JOHN O'CONNELL/None
Sept. 27, 2010 at 4:27 a.m.

POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho Museum of Natural History has become worldwide draw and a resource for hundreds of researchers, thanks to a one-of-a-kind, virtual collection of Arctic animal bones it offers.

More than 1,500 users from throughout the world have downloaded more than 500,000 pages and images on the museum's Web site, http://vzap.iri.isu.edu, according to interim museum director Herbert Maschner.

The museum received a $310,000 pilot grant from the National Science Foundation in 2008 to attempt the creation of a new kind of museum. With the funding, the IMNH hired two full-time programmers and two full-time scanner technicians to create 3D images of Arctic bones in the museum's collection, as well as bones mailed to the museum for scanning from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture located on the University of Washington campus.

Based on the initial success of the project, the IMNH recently received another grant from the National Science Foundation for about $1.03 million.

"We're the only people in the world doing this at this scale," Maschner said.

More than 3,000 3D images and 12,000 digital photographs of animals found in northern Siberia, Northern Alaska, Greenland and Canada have been entered into the database already, Maschner said. Many of those species are also found in Idaho, making their bones germane to the IMNH's collection.

"It allows a researcher anywhere in the world to identify and analyze a bone from any northern region in the world," Maschner said of virtual museum. "It's useful to archaeologists, paleontologists, marine biologists anyone who is working in the north that is dealing with those kinds of species."

By pooling resources with the partner museums, Maschner said the virtual museum will offer one of the few complete sets of northern bones available. He intends to work with the Smithsonian Institute to provide any bones that may be missing from the virtual collection. He anticipates the 3D collection will be completed within another two years, and he said some of the grant funding will be used to hire undergraduate and graduate student employees to assist with the work.

Maschner acknowledges the 3D images aren't exactly the same for researchers as working with the real thing, but they're pretty close.

Animal bones recovered from northern paleontological and archaeological sites are known for being well preserved and offer superb records for studying ancient animal populations, human behaviors, climate data and ecological variability, Maschner said. He also anticipates the virtual collection will be an asset to casual learners and school students from kindergarten through high school.

He noted it's exceedingly difficult in the modern world, given the constraints of legislation such as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Protection Act, to create extensive collections.

"We just presented this about a month ago at a conference in Paris and blew them out of the water," Maschner said. The next virtual project will focus more emphasis on Idaho collections, Maschner said.

Technology to create the high-resolution images was developed in the Informatics Research Institute and the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory.

The grant's other principal investigators are Corey Schou, professor of information systems and director of the ISU Informatics Research Institute, and Matthew Betts, curator of Atlantic Provinces Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and a former postdoctoral researcher at ISU.

"This is a tremendous tool for researchers," Betts said in a press release. "At the same time, the interactive technology and scanning protocols we are developing have significant applicability to the museum communities. This is a system that can be transferred to any heritage collection."

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Online:

Idaho Museum of Natural History's virtual collection of Arctic animal bones: http://vzap.iri.isu.edu.

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Information from: Idaho State Journal, http://www.journalnet.com

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