3D Printed Shells to Help Save Endangered Desert Tortoise

by Willy Matsiri on February 24, 2016

Kickstarter TortoiseIn the next decade or two, are there still going to be desert tortoises in Southwestern USA or will they simply be a distant memory?

Well, the odds lie in a balance and so far desert tortoises seem to have only one key advantage – 3D printing.

For millions of years, tortoises have managed to withstand hostile environments and predators making them one of the most resilient creatures on the face of the earth.

There is a new threat to the species however, that is proving to be way tougher than the slow critters could handle. The desert tortoise, with many being found in the Mojave Desert, is the most affected. A high growing number of predatory ravens have developed a special taste for tortoises’ young making the species endangered to the point of possible extinction.

Like many animals, the tortoise too does have a defense mechanism to keep predators at bay. That is usually the purpose of its hard shell. But clearly, if the rapidly decreasing numbers of tortoises’ young is anything to go by; it would take more than their shell to guarantee their continued existence.

Tim Shields, a Desert Biologist, has for over 35 years been studying the Desert tortoise to learn its survival secrets. His research has unveiled that the desert tortoise is likely to be extinct if nothing is done to control the insatiable appetite of predatory ravens for the desert tortoises’ young. Tim explains that the threat is real particularly due to the increasing population of these ravens which in turn is due to litter and human landfills.

Tortoises for Tomorrow Kickstarter

Desperate to do something to save the desert tortoise from certain extinction, Tim Shields and his team at Hardshell Labs devised a plan to protect young desert tortoises from falling prey to the predatory ravens that hunt them. The first part of their plan was to get the necessary funding to implement their solution.

It’s with this in mind that they launched the Tortoises for Tomorrow Kickstarter campaign, which saw the team raise $25,000 through the contribution of 439 backers. Shields intends to use this money to 3D print replica tortoise shells that will both be used to provide protection to baby tortoises from being devoured by predatory ravens and at the same time the shells will help his team track and record the preying habits of predatory ravens giving them crucial data that’ll enable them come up with a more effective solution.

The 3D printed replica shells will not be used as replacements but instead they will help Shields and his team to come up with decoys, which they can use to instill new feeding habits to the predatory ravens.

The shells will have sensor technology to enable Shields and Hardshell Labs to understand the preying behavior of the ravens. What’s more is they also plan to equip the shells with a non-toxic but unpleasant spray that will play an invaluable role in re-training the predatory ravens to stop preying on desert tortoises.

The idea is not to kill or harm the ravens but to simply condition their minds to not consider desert tortoises as a good meal anymore. For this to happen, the decoys will need to have a unique lure that will attract the ravens to them so that the training can be done faster and its effect on the ravens can begin to work more quickly.

Autodesk Memento

Autodesk signed up on this project and became one of the major collaborators that played a big role in designing the 3D printed tortoise shells. The Autodesk Memento software came in handy as it was used to capture real images of tortoise shells and then convert them to detailed 3D printed models that appeared as realistic as an ordinary shell would.

The shells were then hand-painted with utmost precision to make it virtually impossible for predatory ravens to tell the difference between a real tortoise shell and a 3D printed decoy. Autodesk has additionally been working on the design of 3D printed lures to complete the solution. However, Hardshell Labs has also called upon the Maker Community for active collaborators who can create their own designs for 3D printed lures in bid to determine the best lure that can be used on the final design.

Towards this end, all backers who donated $20 would receive a digital file containing a scan of the lure created by Autodesk to help jumpstart their creativity when fabricating their own designs. This option was ideal for those backers who have their own 3D printing machines back at home.

Backers who didn’t have 3D printers were asked to donate $35 and receive a 3D printed blank lure that they could creatively add their own unique designs as they please. Shields and Hardshell Labs are still looking for brilliant ideas on how to mark ravens, design the best lure, record raven preying habits and condition the ravens to stop preying on the desert tortoises’ young without causing any harm to the ravens themselves.

The Guardian Angel Rover

Shields plans to get as many people as possible involved in this campaign of saving the lives of the desert tortoise. To achieve this, Shields envisions creating an online video game for children which will involve a child controlling a rover that is following a desert tortoise around to prevent predatory ravens from preying on them. But here’s what’s really intriguing – the Rovers will be 100% real.

Already dubbed as the Guardian Angel Rover, this will be a remote control car fully equipped with cameras. It will move just at the same speed as the tortoise its protecting so as not to disturb the creature in any way but in doing so it will be obstructing ravens from attacking desert tortoises. A significant portion of the $25,000 that was raised via Kickstarter was used to develop these rovers with safer tires and weather-proof electronics so that they can withstand the often harsh desert conditions.

So is the focus all going to be just on the desert tortoise? Actually no! Hardshell Labs as a company has expressed its intentions of reaching out to other endangered species as well through propagating crowd-sourced conservation once it has fully developed its 3D printing technology plus many other technologies that they have put in place. Consequently, saving the desert tortoise is just a promising start of a long journey.

If you enjoyed reading this, then you might like to read about Stumpy the Three Legged Turtle which was also saved with the help of 3D printing.

Thanks for reading and feel free to Like and Share this article with your tortoise loving friends.

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