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Team plans 3D modeling project for France’s natural history collections

France’s natural history collections contain almost 6% of all the world’s natural history specimens, spread across several institutions, and the e-COL+ project aims to capture and reconstruct these specimens in 3D to make them easily accessible worldwide and print them in 3D.

“I’m a researcher of vertebrate locomotion and vocalization, so I produce a lot of CT scans and 3D models—and now I’m in charge of developing the museum’s own 3D digital collection,” says Dr. Pauline Provini, a lecturer at the Natural History Museum in Paris, France and collaborator on the e-COL+ project.

Dr. Provini will take over the position of Scientific and Technical Coordinator of the project after the current coordinator Pierre-Yves Gagnier retires. Together with her partners, Dr. Provini plans to create several thousand 3D models of whole animals and fragmentary specimens, such as bones and partial remains. The e-COL+ project is led by the French National Museum of Natural History and includes nine other national research institutions and universities.

“We want to have digital versions of representatives of most modern vertebrates and arthropods,” says Dr. Provini. “We also want to incorporate any existing 3D models from the French collections and help to fill the gaps.”

The project has four main objectives. First, modern equipment, in particular 3D scanning tools, will be provided to digitize the collections. Second, the plan is to create a comprehensive dataset of 3D models covering a wide range of taxonomies, including living and extinct species.

“We use surface scanners for bones and whole skeletons, but we use CT scans for specimens that are kept in fluid,” she says. “For small specimens like insects, we use external providers like the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.”

Another goal of the project is to develop AI tools to improve the 3D modeling process. “This can help with the automatic identification of a species or the parts of the specimen, which is a very important development for the project,” says Dr. Provini.

Ultimately, the digital models are to be organized, made available and presented for both research and public purposes. “We want to build an online 3D catalog that people can use to download the models. Not only researchers, but also more general audiences,” says Dr. Provini.

A major benefit of the project is the ability to quickly share access to specimens between research institutions and other museums worldwide. The e-COL+ project also offers benefits for teaching by providing access to otherwise restricted specimens. The project is due to be completed in 2029.

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