Take a look inside 13,000 animals–no scalpel required

If dissecting a frog in biology class had you begging to be sent home, new 3D scans of thousands of vertebrate species are here to help by letting you peek at animal insides without the mess. The newly completed openVertebrate (oVert) project took five years and brought together 18 natural history institutions to create the free online museum, showing the anatomy and physiology of over 13,000 specimens. A summary of the work was published March 6 in the journal BioScience. 

From 2017 to 2023, oVert project members took detailed CT scans of more than half the genera of all amphibians, reptiles, fishes, and mammals. The scanners used high-energy X-rays to look past the organism’s scales, fur, or skin to view the dense bone structure beneath. Scientists stained some of the specimens with a temporary contrast-enhancing solution that allows the team to visualize their soft tissues, including muscle, skin, and other organs. 

“Museums are constantly engaged in a balancing act,” David Blackburn, principal investigator of the oVert project and curator of herpetology at the Florida Museum, said in a statement. “You want to protect specimens, but you also want to have people use them. oVert is a way of reducing the wear and tear on samples while also increasing access, and it’s the next logical step in the mission of museum collections.”

Take a look at some of the incredible scans below. It will be like stepping back into high school biology, without the scalpel, Bunsen burners, or safety glasses.  

An analysis of oVert specimens revealed that frogs have lost their teeth over 20 times throughout their evolutionary history, more than any other vertebrate group. Image: openVertebrate
the bone structure of a hedgehog
With CT scanning, scientists can study a specimen’s internal anatomy without the need for dissection. Image: openVertebrate
a scan of fish scales and face
The primary goal behind the oVert project was to image as great a breadth of diversity across the vertebrate tree of life as possible, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Image: openVertebrate
the skeleton of a mouse
Osteoderms have evolved multiple times in different animal groups, and their presence in spiny mice further indicates the genetic pathways needed to produce them are highly conserved among vertebrates. Image: openVertebrate
a snake eating a centipede
Researchers performed a digital dissection of North America’s rarest snake when a specimen was found that had died while trying to eat a centipede. Image: openVertebrate
a bat skeleton
The preserved specimen of a black bellied fruit bat compared to its CT scan. Image: openVertebrate.
a tortoise internal anatomy, including its skeleton and organs
The gopher tortoise’s internal anatomy. The colorful regions show soft tissues, including organs. Image: openVertebrate.
an eel skeleton
Caralophia loxochila, or the Slantlip eel swims in the shallow waters of the western Atlantic Ocean, near Brazil, the Bahamas, and the Florida Keys. Image: openVertebrate.
a model of a komodo dragon's skull showing different parts
A model of a Komodo dragon’s skull. Bites from their powerful jaws can be fatal to humans. Image: openVertebrate.
a rainbow of snake scans
Multiple snake species that were temporarily stained with an iodine solution showing their soft tissues before being scanned. Image: openVertebrate.

Check out more of the scans here.

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