How 3D printing could save baby tortoises

Tatjana Dzambazova explains that the 3D printed tortoise shell was designed with a hole to fill it with a substance that would deter ravens from attacking them.
Tatjana Dzambazova explains that the 3D printed tortoise shell was designed with a hole to fill it with a substance that would deter ravens from attacking them.
Lameez Omarjee

Johannesburg - Baby tortoises could be given a lifeline, as scientists employ 3D printing to protect the vulnerable newborns from predators. And South Africa's critically endangered geometric tortoise is set to be a beneficiary. 

Tortoise conservationists are experimenting with ways to save tortoises from predators by 3D printing shells to create mock tortoises, in an effort to study predator behaviour and ultimately deter them from attacking the babies.

The tortoise experiment was developed by US desert biologist Tim Shields who co-founded Hardshell Labs. Ravens were attacking baby tortoises in the California desert, whose shells had not been fully developed to withstand penetration from the ravens and other predators.

Hardshell Labs got in touch with Autodesk, a design software company, and Think2Thing, a Canada-based company which develops 3D design, to turn the idea of a techno tortoise into a reality.

Tatjana Dzambazova, a trained architect from Autodesk, shared more on how this project unfolded at the recently held Autodesk University South Africa 2017 conference. Using photogrammy, the use of photography to map out and survey objects, Autodesk developed 3D designs of the tortoise shell which were then 3D printed by Think2Thing to make a plastic replica.

Phase one of the experiment involved testing to see if the replica would lure in the ravens, and this proved to be successful, said Dzambazova. Cameras were strategically placed in the areas where the 3D printed shells were left, to record ravens trying to attack the techno tortoises.

Rewiring predators

Phase two of the project will involve exploring new ways to “rewire” the ravens to stop them from attacking the baby tortoises. One idea to achieve this is to place pressure sensors at the top of the shell, so that if the raven attacks the tortoise, the pressure point would release pepper spray.

The pepper spray will not be dangerous to the raven, it will just teach it to stop attacking the tortoise, explained Dzambazova. “After being sprayed three times, if it really is an intelligent bird, it will ditch the tortoise.”

Another idea to rewire the ravens is to fill the inside of the shell with a substance the ravens would hate, for example grapefruit juice concentrate. For this reason, the shell was printed with a hole to fill it up. The thickness of the 3D printed shell also corresponds with that of a real tortoise, so that it will break as a real tortoise shell would, exposing the raven to the substance, Dzambazova explained.

Saving South African tortoises

South African zoologist Professor Margaretha Hofmeyr, who works in conservancy for tortoises and turtles, found out about the experiment in the US and wanted to apply the concept to save the geometric tortoise.

South Africa's geometric tortoise is listed as one of the top 25 most endangered tortoises and turtles in the world.

Hofmeyr was introduced to Dzambazova and had pictures of the geometric tortoise taken. A first prototype was then developed.

Dzambazova, who was very proud of the replica, said delegates at the Autodesk conference were the first to see the prototypes. The 50 shells she had brought with her have not yet been delivered to the scientists.

3D replicas of the geometric tortoise shell (left) and the desert tortoise (right). (Photo: Lameez Omarjee)

She emphasised that these were the first prototypes, and while the same size as the geometric baby tortoises, they could now be fine-tuned. Her next batch would possibly look more accurate.

The replica was printed by 3D printer, which can print in full colour. Dzambazova explained that other printers can either print only one colour or multi-colours, where separate parts of the object would be a different colour. This particular printer printed the tortoise shell in real colour.

The tortoise shells printed for the California desert had UV protection applied to avoid fading, and this will possibly be applied to the geometric tortoise shell replicas. These shells will be tested in the coming week and predators which include mongoose would possibly be lured in by filling the shell with salami, Dzambazova joked.

Dzambazova added that this is ongoing research and enough data needs to be collected to conclude that it will work to save the tortoises. She also explained that these projects are made possible through the Autodesk Foundation, which connects people with ideas such as these to the necessary funding, software and technical training needed to execute their concepts. 

3D printing to preserve history

3D printing has multiple benefits. Due to its additive manufacturing approach, where it deposits layers of material on top of each other, it can save cost and time as it only uses as much materials as it needs.

Currently more than 75 materials are used in 3D printing. This includes stone, glass, plastic, fabric and metal. It can also print the entire mechanism at once, eliminating the need to assemble different parts, explained Dzambazova.

Besides being used in conservation, cars and low-cost houses have also been 3D printed. It is also extensively employed in the medical field to repair fractured body parts, and to develop prosthetics  for amputees. Customised products can now be manufactured, such as hearing aids and wheelchairs that fit the body of the person using them.

Researchers are also developing ways to use 3D printing to preserve history, said Dzambazova. By 3D printing high-end replicas of historical artefacts, the originals can be preserved to prevent them from being vulnerable to damaging environments, she explained.

Various objects that were 3D printed using different materials. (Photo: Lameez Omarjee)

3D printing and other technology such as Virtual Reality and laser scanners are increasingly being used to solve problems, said Dzambazova. And while it presents a host of opportunities, it is up to humans to remain ethical and creative in terms of how these technologies are applied, she said. 

To find out more about the tortoise conservation project, go to Hardshell Labs.

*Fin24 was a guest of Autodesk, at the Autodesk University South Africa 2017 conference. 

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