Giving sharks their due: UMass team creates state-of-the-art 3D models for conservation site

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 07-17-2023 10:07 AM

AMHERST — Sharks have long been creatures of fascination, but having focused on them in his work for almost 10 years, UMass biology professor Duncan Irschick has found that most three-dimensional models are poor representations of the marine predators.

Hollywood, for example, tends to build shark models for entertainment purposes, making them bigger and more vicious-looking than they are.

“The whole representation in the media has been focused on attacks on humans,” he said.

So Irschick, director of the university’s Digital Life Project, was excited when he was contacted by the ocean conservation group Save Our Seas Foundation, headquartered in Geneva, with the idea of creating a range of interactive 3D sharks.

“Evolution of body shape is one of my main interests,” Irschick said Friday, noting that sharks display a remarkable variation in size and shape.

Using scanning technology, video, drones and computed tomography (CT) scans, sharks AIrschick and his team got to work on creating the most realistic and accurate 3D interactive sharks ever produced.

The latest software “has revolutionized the ability to create 3D creatures,” Irschick said.

“We’ve built these models based on the science of shark biology and morphology,” he stated in a news release from UMass. “Realism matters, and it’s important to get it right.”

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The UMass team included undergraduates Emma Hsiao and Braedon Fedderson and grad student Josh Medina, as well as computer graphic artist Johnson Martin.

In an email, Save Our Seas CEO James Lea said the director of the foundation’s Shark Education Centre came to him with the idea of creating realistic, accurate 3D sharks that learners could explore and interact with.

He remembered seeing what he called a “cool tech demo of a reef shark that had been recreated in 3D, where it had been placed with a lady walking through a cityscape,” and discovered that Irschick’s team had created it. So he got in touch with him, and the 3D project to showcase sharks’ physiology and adaptations was launched.

“A big part of what we do is find engaging ways to communicate about sharks and rays that pique people’s curiosity and encourage them to fall in love with these animals,” Lea said.

The six models that Irschick’s team produced are of sharks commonly found in the ocean around South Africa, home of the foundation’s Shark Education Centre, which is in Cape Town. These include the bronze whaler, leopard catshark and seven-gill shark, as well as the great white. Access to the interactive sharks is free for schools, scientists and any nonprofit applications.

“It’s a beautiful website,” Irschick said of the foundation’s World of Sharks site.

Save Our Seas says it built the World of Sharks website as a “one-stop-shark-information shop — including the world’s most realistic models.”

The interactive models allow website users to understand different elements of shark and ray physiology, such as how they feed, how individual sharks can be identified by their dorsal fins, and why they’re under threat.

Shark populations are in rapid decline around the world, with the larger sharks, such as hammerheads and great whites, most threatened of all. This is primarily due to overfishing, with open ocean fleets trawling sharks just for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup in parts of East Asia.

Closer to home, conservation efforts have helped tiger sharks rebound in Florida, Irschick said, and there’s reason for optimism elsewhere.

“Shark fin soup consumption is declining,” he said. “Education can help people to change their ways.”

Lea said it was a pleasure to work with the UMass team, which Irschick said also works with partners such as zoos and aquariums around the world.

“It was a very collaborative and iterative process,” Lea said. “It’s exciting to think what species could be produced next.”

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