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From Smallest Mammal to Oldest Dinosaur: Unique DigiMorph Web site reveals 3-D interior of natural objects

Bats and the DigiMorph Web site

How do you study the hog-nosed bat, the smallest mammal in the world? With an adult body weight of less than a penny and a wingspan of less than three inches, these tiny animals present a real challenge to researchers. Dr. Nancy Simmons at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City brought the only hog-nosed bat specimen in the United States to the UTCT scanning facility.

Skull of the tiny hog-nosed bat
Intricate details of the skull of the tiny hog-nosed bat are revealed using the CT scanner.

“It would be impossible to study the small parts of the skeleton of small animals without CT scanning,” she says.

Simmons is studying the relationships among various types of bats, which requires that she make skeletal comparisons. Hog-nosed bats, native to Thailand and Myanmar, are too rare for researchers to consider destroying the specimen for study. But even common bats can be difficult to investigate.

“The skeletal features of bats are just too small to work with very easily,” Simmons explains. “If you clean a bat skeleton, you end up with things the size of a grain of sand, things too small to handle.”

Simmons brought fluid-preserved bats to the facility. Because the scanner can work with very small specimens, Simmons was able to get the first clear images of the wrist bones and other critical elements of bat skeletons. Digital imaging allows her to reconstruct the parts for study.

The digital images of bats on the DigiMorph site have even proved useful in unexpected ways. When a man received a bite on his foot with two puncture marks, he suspected he might have received a bat bite. He measured the distance between the puncture marks, then went to the DigiMorph site to measure the distance between the fangs of a bat common to his area. When the two distances matched, he determined that a bat was indeed the culprit.

Evidently, the man recovered just fine from his brush with a bat. He sent DigiMorph a thank-you note.

Vivé Griffith

Image courtesy Digital Morphology

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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