March saw the return of the University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Science and Engineering. For the fifth year running this included Discovery Night, a family outreach evening demonstrating current research within the departments of science, engineering and medicine through demonstrations, talks and hands-on activities. Our research group is usually based in two places- the university and the Natural History Museum in Tring- so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring ourselves and the various sides of our project together to take part in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences’ (APS) offerings.
Despite the publication of our first wide-ranging paper earlier this year, we are not yet finished with data collection. Our aim, to 3D scan the bill and photograph the plumage of as many of the world’s approx. 10,000 species of bird, is a huge undertaking so communicating the scale and scope of this work seemed an interesting approach to take when sharing our research.
Whilst we aren’t able to remove the irreplaceable specimens we use everyday from museum collections, we are lucky enough to have a small selection of data-less bird skins for testing our methods and for outreach. Museum’s will generally only keep natural history specimens within their research collections if they are adequately labelled with associated information (such as taxonomy, locality, who collected it and when) that makes them useful for research and/or identifiable as historically significant. As such, material will occasionally be deemed unsuitable for these needs but ideal for alternative uses, such as inclusion within handling collections- where material is set aside to be used in teaching activities.
Museum collections are absolutely essential in our work and form an incredible archive for research, interest and education so it was only fitting they took pride of place in our display. Not only are they wonderful to look at up close, illustrating some key points in our study, but they also act as a brilliant starting point in explaining why these primarily historical resources can be such an important resource for the future.
Much of the last two years has been spent extracting the data we need from these specimens to allow us to explore evolutionary diversity amongst species through 3D scanning and photography.
Scanning bird beaks, whilst allowing us to generate incredibly detailed digital replicas, is a hugely varied undertaking- one that requires lots of practice to tackle the bristles, feathers, damaged keratin, hooks, casques, curves and glossy surfaces that we encounter every day working with specimens. We gave scanning demonstrations throughout the evening, showing the process of imaging a bill from a variety of angles to capture a full three-dimensional model. We were also given a run for our money by some particularly talented members of the public!
Getting people involved with our research via the next stage of our work, landmarking, is another important point for us. To turn a detailed 3D model into data that we can compare and interpret across all species, we need to place key points on every single scan. This is a time-consuming but engaging task and one we want citizen scientists of all ages to be able to try. Our crowdsourcing site – markmybird.org – has so far seen an incredible input from interested people all over the world, but there is still plenty left to get involved with!
In recent months we’ve also been experimenting with 3D printing, attempting to create accurate physical models of the bills we image. After some trial and error and with the help of experienced staff within the APS department, we were able to create models of a selection of bills- much better for handling and demonstrating than the real thing!
We were lucky enough to have the 3D printer in action throughout the evening, slowly but surely creating a model of a sturdy corvid bill. It’s been brilliant to see our digital models taking physical form once again, providing a visual tool for displaying the variety in the form and shape of bird bills. Each model of the size pictured below takes around four hours to print. A life-size replica of a shoebill beak, for example, would take upwards of 24hours!
Alongside these demonstrations of our work we also had bill-weirdness Top Trumps, a plumage identification computer game, videos showing our work based in the Natural History Museum’s collections and an opportunity to take your own ultraviolet plumage shots. It was great to speak with so many interested visitors (with so many brilliant questions) and have the chance to show what we’ve been up to- whether as visitors or demonstrators, hopefully we’ll be back next year!