Idaho Museum of Natural History uses 3-D technology to bring Titanoboa monster snake to life

POCATELLO – The Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) at Idaho State University is adding its own special touches to the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service’s exhibit “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” which opens at the museum on March 19.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Florida Museum of Natural History, the University of Nebraska, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“When travelling exhibits are designed and built, they are optimized for shipping and cost. So, we like to add elements to these exhibits that would otherwise be too impractical to ship to multiple museums,” said Becky Hansis-O’Neill, museum education specialist.

A Boa constrictor skull is scaled up to the same size as Titanoboa and compared to a human skeleton using 3-D tech in the IVL.  Render courtesy of Jesse Pruitt.

A Boa constrictor skull is scaled up to the same size as Titanoboa and compared to a human skeleton using 3-D tech in the IVL. Render courtesy of Jesse Pruitt.

In this case, the Idaho Virtualization Lab (IVL), a research division within the IMNH, was tasked with creating interactive animations and 3-D printed fossils to add to the exhibit.

Earlier this year, the IVL used a laser scanner to create a 3-D digital replica of a Boa constrictor skull. IVL technician Jesse Priutt used this model to develop a computer animation that will show museum guests exactly how snakes eat their food. To the best of the museum’s knowledge, this is the first time a computer animation depicting snake behavior has been created using real animal bones rather than artistic recreations.

IVL Manager, Robert Schlader, holds 3-D printed vertebrae from a Green anaconda (left) and Titanoboa (right)  3-D prints created with permission from the Florida Museum of Natural History.

IVL Manager, Robert Schlader, holds 3-D printed vertebrae from a Green anaconda (left) and Titanoboa (right) 3-D prints created with permission from the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Computer animations, like those seen in nature documentaries, use animals and parts that were created by a 3-D artist using a computer and photographs for reference rather than 3-D scans of real bones.

When confronted with the challenge of creating a computer animation from a real snake skull, Pruitt said “Might as well make it as real as possible!”

The final animation will depict how Boa constrictors use their three independently moving sets of teeth to swallow large prey and will feature over 26 articulated parts. Museum guests will be able to view and interact with the final animation when they visit “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” at the IMNH.

In addition to 3-D animations, IVL manager, Robert Schlader, volunteered his personal 3-D printer to create replicas of Titanoboa fossils for school groups and guests to see and touch.

Jesse Pruitt, IVL Technician, uses Cinema 4D software to create the most realistic animation possible using a 3-D scanned Boa constrictor skull from the museum’s collections.

Jesse Pruitt, IVL Technician, uses Cinema 4D software to create the most realistic animation possible using a 3-D scanned Boa constrictor skull from the museum’s collections.

“Having the opportunity for something I made to go along with something the Smithsonian created is personally very cool,” Schlader said. “Not to mention the fact that the University of Florida made the scans of the fossil available so we can print it and actually hold a copy of a piece of this snake is just amazing.”

The 3-D models were made available by PaleoTEACH, a National Science Foundation funded initiative created by the Florida Museum of Natural History and Duke University to enable K-12 audiences to learn about one of a kind fossils and bones. Guests that visit the IMNH will get the opportunity to handle a 3-D printed Titanoboa backbone and compare it to the backbone of a Green anaconda, the heaviest snake species alive today.

For more information on the exhibit, visit http://imnh.isu.edu/home/exhibits/titanoboa-monster-snake/.