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3D Printed Eggs Help Scientists to Study the Evolutionary Behavior of Birds




People with even a mild interest in 3D printing are aware of the benefits of technology for medical research and advancement. Though most people are less aware of the ever-increasing uses of 3D modeling and printing for scientific research as a whole. Sure, science stories don’t give you the same warm fuzzy feelings you get when you hear about how 3D printing has helped saved a baby’s life or gave a double amputee some new legs, but it is still exciting to learn how much the technology has contributed to the pursuit of knowledge.

One such example comes from Mark Hauber and colleagues of Hunter College in New York, who just this week published new findings of egg-rejection behavior with wild birds in PeerJ. The study uses a completely novel method for creating fake eggs for the experiments—3D printing.

The Research Question

In the natural world, birds have very unique reproductive behavior, which has drawn the interest of scientists since the 1960’s. Cowbirds, for example, are considered ‘brood parasites,’ because they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests in hopes they will take over responsibility for them. One of the common species that ends up with cowbird eggs in their nests are robins. Robin’s don’t want to waste energy caring for eggs that aren’t theirs, so when they’re able to recognize the speckled eggs of cowbirds in their nests, they chuck them out. What scientists want to know is how robins are sometimes able to identify the intruders, but at other times they go unnoticed.

Fake Eggs for Research

Scientists have been using artificial eggs to study the behavior of brood parasites for decades, but the quality of the impostor eggs have created some problems. For one, researchers most often have to make the eggs themselves from wood clay or some kind of plaster, and then spend hours hand-painting them to look as authentic as possible. This method causes researchers to create a lot of fake eggs that are unique from each other in terms of size, shape, color, and texture. The variety creates problems in replicating research.

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3D Printing the Perfect Egg

Hauber and his colleagues were able to design and print identical imitation eggs for their research using Blender Foundation’s open-source 3D graphics. This solved nearly all the issues described above, and makes it easy for them to share the exact egg specifications with other researchers who wish to replicate their study.

With the identical eggs, Hauber’s team was able to conclude that robins were more concerned with color than anything else when deciding whether or not to chuck an egg. The researchers still hand-painted the identical eggs (the 3D-printed coloring is not quite up to snuff yet), and they found that a blue egg stayed in the nest 100% of the time while beige eggs were often kicked out.

According to Christie Riehl, a Princeton biologist interested in the study, ”With 3-D printing, it's the possibility of being able to make exactly what you want. And not only that, but you can share those designs with other researchers so they can replicate your results with exactly the same methods."

Photo Credit: Mark Hauber via NPR


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