Dr. David Shiffman is in the basement of the Vancouver Aquarium, taking a three-dimensional picture of a spiny dogfish jaw. It’s trickier than you might think. Using a free app called QLONE, he fills in a cone of grey space on his phone’s screen that surrounds the jaw. “I might invest in the $5 version of this app,” he says as the process drags. But the end product is a technological feat: a detailed three-dimensional colour image of the shark jar. Soon, the preserved spiny dogfish jaw will have a bright-blue plastic twin, printed right in Shiffman’s home office.
Dr. Shiffman is a post-doctoral fellow researching shark conservation at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. He’s also the most followed-scientist in BC on Twitter, tweeting under the handle @WhySharksMatter, as he tells me when we first meet. It’s easy to see why. He’s usually up to something fun, like writing for the popular blog Southern Fried Science or dissecting Discovery Channel’s Shark Week program on The Washington Post.
“This is a project I’m doing on the side,” he says about the 3-D reproduction of the spiny dogfish jaw. “The goal is to create educational models for classrooms, for aquariums, for science museums, whoever wants it.”
What are educational models? If you’ve ever held a sheaf of snake skin or touched a tiger tooth, you’ve encountered an educational model. These teaching tools taken from the wild are used by Ocean Wise’s interpreters, educators and volunteers on the gallery floors of the Vancouver Aquarium. They’re useful for demonstrating a part of an animal that can’t be experienced through sight alone, like the rough sandpaper feel of a shark’s placoid scales.
“There’s nothing that will ever replace that as an actual research tool” Shiffman says. But the wear and tear of tiny hands eventually break down any specimen, no matter how rigorously preserved. Plastic, for all its environmental sins, does make a more durable and cost-effective teaching tool.
Earlier this year, Shiffman purchased a $300 3-D printer that extrudes molten PLA plastic into whatever shape he can fit onto an 8 ½-by-11-inch sheet of paper. Using the QLONE-created 3-D image, his printer will quickly and quietly build a bright-blue model of the shark jaw.
“If you ever want to say: I have this jaw and I don’t want you to touch it, cause it’s fragile, but here’s five copies that you can mess with, that sort of stuff is useful,” he says. “Or when you travel and go to schools, maybe you don’t want to bring the more-fragile specimens.”
Realistically, every public school in the world could never afford to have as extensive a collection of educational models as the Vancouver Aquarium does. Perry Poon, Ocean Wise’s props master, is eager to share his ocean props with Dr. Shiffman — a collection amassed over years of collecting trips and donations. But each specimen Poon preserves is in a race against time. They’re not built for the afterlife.
This is where 3-D printed teaching tools can fill the gap. Each Shiffman-printed model costs between five to 15 cents of plastic and lasts for hundreds of years. The PLA plastic is also photodegradable and reusable. (Shiffman keeps a bin of spare parts to melt down into new models.)
So far, Dr. Shiffman printed a killer whale tooth collected from the Bamfield Marine Research Centre on Vancouver Island, a megalodon tooth (Carcharocles megalodon) from UBC’s Beatty Biodiversity Museum, a six-gill shark tooth (Hexanchus griseus), a barb of the Pacific cownose Ray (Rhinoptera steindachneri) from the Texas A&M University Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collection, and a horn shark embryo.
You can support printing 3-D shark models through Dr. Shiffman’s Patreon page and bring educational models to a classroom near you.