3D printed eggs used to study the art of deception among birds


Scientists Use 3D Printed Eggs to Study the Art of Deception among Birds

3D printing has already established itself within the scientific community. It’s been used to produce tools aboard the International Space Station, replicate body parts for surgical procedures, and now it’s found a new niche among biologists studying bird behavior. It turns out, 3D printers produce mighty fine eggs.

Animal behaviorists at Hunter College of the City University of New York are using 3D printers to produce eggs used in experiments that examine nesting behavior among birds. They’re particularly interested in brood parasites – birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, for the behavior of such birds offers insight into the evolutionary arms race between species.

Successful brood parasites are well-adapted to their deceptive practice, laying eggs that resemble those whose nests they target for takeover. But the foster birds have evolved means of detecting such eggs, based on their size, shape, color, and pattern, and will cast them out of the nests when the interlopers are identified.

“Hosts of brood parasites vary widely in how they respond to parasitic eggs, and this raises lots of cool questions about egg mimicry, the visual system of birds, the ability to count, cognitive rules about similarity, and the biomechanics of picking things up,” says Prof. Don Dearborn, chair of the Biology Department at Bates College, a brood parasitism expert who was not involved in the 3D printing study.

Biologists have been studying brood parasitic behavior for decades, but it was always a challenge to produce realistic eggs for use in their experiments. They tried a variety of materials, such as wood and plaster, but the eggs were expensive and time consuming to produce and a challenge to reproduce consistently.

And that’s where the 3D printers come in.

The scientists from Hunter College used a 3D printer to produce model eggs based on those of the Brown-headed Cowbirds, a North American brood parasite. Some eggs were painted beige to match real cowbird eggs; other were painted blue-green to match eggs of the American robin, a typical target of cowbirds. They were able to fill the model eggs with water or gel, so that the eggs retained the weight and properties of real eggs.

Their experiments were a rousing success. The robins accepted 100% of the blue-green eggs while they rejected 79% of the beige eggs. Similar results were achieved using plaster eggs, but the 3D printed eggs are more consistent and easier to produce. And since they are based on digital models, it makes for easy sharing across scientific communities, which improves the reproducibility of experiments.

“For decades, tackling these questions has meant making your own fake eggs — something we all find to be slow, inexact, and frustrating,” says Dearborn. “This study uses 3D printing for a more nuanced and repeatable egg-making process, which in turn will allow more refined experiments on host-parasite coevolution. I’m also hopeful that this method can be extended to making thin-shelled, puncturable eggs, which would overcome another one of the constraints on these kinds of behavioral experiments.”

“3D printing technology is not just in our future – it has already revolutionized medical and basic sciences,” says Mark Hauber, an animal behaviorist at Hunter College and the study’s senior author. “Now it steps out into the world of wild birds, allowing standardized egg rejection experiments to be conducted throughout the world.”


by May 28, 2015 11:29 PM EDT

Relief through 3D printing



3D technology is nothing new to medicine. For years, physicians have utilized ‘computerized tomography,’ known as CT scans, to create three-dimensional images of the human body. But now, 3D technology is moving being diagnosis to actual treatment through the use of 3D printing. And for patients suffering from the rare condition, tracheobronchomalacia, 3D printers can mean the difference between life and death, or should I say, life and breath.

Patients with tracheobronchomalacia (TBM) are born with weak tracheas, that all-important passageway that funnels air to the lungs. The condition affects about one in 2,000 children and in extreme cases, the trachea collapses. As you can imagine, the prognosis for such patients is grim. Such was the case for Kaiba Gionfriddo, a beautiful boy born with brown curls, matching eyes, and the unfortunate condition, TBM.

Fortunately for Kaiba, researchers from CS Mott Children’s Hospital, located on the sprawling campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, received approval to try out a new technology – 3D printing – to construct a splint that would support his weakened trachea until a time when it could support itself. They did this by customizing a flexible splint that fit around Kaiba’s trachea, providing support as he breathed, coughed, and sneezed. And most importantly, the devise was constructed of biomaterials that flexed to accommodate the rapid growth of an infant, and it will even eventually be resorbed by his body.

Kaiba was only three months old when the device was implanted. He was one of three infants suffering from severe TBM to be fitted with the flexible splints. Dr. Glenn Green, an Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Michigan, led Kaiba’s case and is part of the team whose ground breaking technology appears in this month’s issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine.

And tracheal splints are just the tip of the iceberg, as researchers continue to explore a growing partnership between 3D technology and medicine. The actual and potential uses of 3D printing in medicine include building customized prosthetics and implants, pharmaceutical research and drug delivery, and the fabrication of tissues and organs. As for the tracheal splints, they can be designed to fit the unique dimensions of each patient, constructed of biomaterials that accommodate growth and dissolve over time, and can even be produced onsite using 3D printing wherever patients in need may be. The medical applications of 3D printing are limitless.

Kaiba is now a healthy, thriving three-year-old. His mom recently summed up their experience saying that “It was scary knowing he was the first child to ever have this procedure, but it was our only choice and it saved his life.”


May 03, 2015 05:30 PM EDT