3D printed bone

Dillingham High School student Max Bennett displays a bone along with a duplicate that he created on a 3-D printer. The technology was used to replicate the skeleton of a fetus taken from the womb of a pregnant Orca that washed ashore near Dillingham in Alaska's Bristol Bay a few years ago. Bennett earned high school credit through a cooperative agreement with UAF's Bristol Bay Campus while working on the project. UAF photo by Todd Paris

Imagine 3-D printing an orca skeleton

In September 2011, the people of Bristol Bay were surprised to discover three killer whales 40 miles up the Nushagak River. The orcas eventually died from a combination of hunger and stress, but that unfortunate result provided a unique opportunity for students at the UAF Bristol Bay Campus.

The body of one of the whales was pulled ashore in Dillingham, where a necropsy revealed it was a pregnant female. Almost spontaneously, an unprecedented project emerged — rearticulating the fetal skeleton using a 3-D printer.

After hours spent meticulously cleaning, sorting and documenting hundreds of bones, university officials and Dillingham High School students began the time-consuming task of scanning and reproducing them. Making plastic models of the roughly 300 whale bones took until February 2017, when the long task of assembling the skeleton began.

Using 3-D technology was a necessity, since many of the bones were extremely delicate or not fully formed. The project — believed to be the first construction of a fetal orca skeleton — consisted of sizes ranging from a pencil eraser to a large boomerang-shaped bone.

Archiving the skeleton could create a special opportunity for researchers around the world. Ultimately, the work may allow scientists to download the scans and even assemble their very own copy of the Bristol Bay orca fetus.

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