3D Printing for Conservation

In 2020, Drs. Constance Woodman and Giridhar Athrey of Texas A&M University were awarded an AWI Refinement Research Award for a study investigating the toxicity of various 3D printing materials to assess their suitability for creating custom (and inexpensive) enrichment for animals in laboratories. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2022.) Today, Woodman is using the results of this study for a different purpose—designing a new device to aid in the conservation of endangered bird populations.

Woodman and colleagues created a “smart egg” that records the conditions inside birds’ nests, such as temperature, sounds, and egg rotation patterns (mother birds turn their eggs to promote normal chick development). Conservationists often remove endangered birds’ eggs from their parents’ nests to incubate them artificially, away from predators and other dangers. The offspring are returned to the nest during or soon after hatching. The success of artificial incubation depends on adequate rearing conditions, which are unique to each species. The data provided by the smart eggs will allow conservationists to better replicate natural conditions inside incubators and, ultimately, improve hatching success.

The eggs designed by Woodman and colleagues are made with a 3D printer using materials Woodman determined to be safe through her AWI-funded study. “I was able to run a number of chemical tests on different types of 3D printing processes to make sure it was nontoxic and safe for the animals,” Woodman said. “That was a very big relief for me.”