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Birch Aquarium Scientists Use 3-D Printer To Treat Loggerhead Sea Turtle Shell

The loggerhead sea turtle swims in her tank at the Birch Aquarium in this und...

Credit: Birch Aquarium

Above: The loggerhead sea turtle swims in her tank at the Birch Aquarium in this undated photo.

Earlier this month, scientists at Birch Aquarium and UC San Diego accomplished what they believe is a first: using a 3-D printer to fill a gap in a loggerhead sea turtle's shell.

The turtle has been living at Birch for three years after being found at a power plant in New Jersey. When she was rescued, she was underweight and had a problem: a piece of her shell was missing.

That gap was causing bigger problems, said Jenn Nero Moffatt, the head of animal care at the aquarium.

"As she grows, the shell wants to fill that gap, and it's causing some curvature in her spine and so we need to stop that," she said.

She did some brainstorming and came up with a novel solution: create a brace for the turtle using a 3-D printer. Moffatt worked with the Digital Media Lab at the UC San Diego Library on the project.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Birch Aquarium

The plastic brace for the turtle's shell made using a 3D printer appears in this undated photo.

"We were able to mirror the good half of the turtle shell over the big gap in there, and come up with a perfect form-fitting piece that just snaps right in there." said Scott McAvoy, a manager at the Digital Media Lab.

The brace is just a $4 piece of plastic, McAvoy said. But because he scanned the turtle's shell, it fits perfectly. Epoxy holds it in place.

The turtle received the brace earlier this month "and it took fabulously," Moffatt said.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Birch Aquarium

Scientists install the brace in the turtle's shell in this undated photo.

As the turtle grows, they will make bigger braces to fit her shell.

The turtle has already gained more than 130 pounds in her time at Birch and could go up to 250 pounds.

Moffatt said she is very glad for the new addition to the aquarium.

"Sea turtles are very charismatic, and great ambassador animals," she said. "To have children have their faces pressed up against the windows and be so excited to engage with that animal is really inspiring."

The turtle can be seen in the aquarium's Magdalena Bay habitat. She does training sessions visitors can watch on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2:30 p.m.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Birch Aquarium

The loggerhead sea turtle swims in her tank after her brace was installed in this undated photo.

Earlier this month, scientists at Birch Aquarium and UC San Diego accomplished what they believe is a first: using a 3-D printer to fill a gap in a loggerhead sea turtle's shell.

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