The world’s rarest skeleton, that of an extinct South African zebra known as a quagga, is standing on four legs again after 3D printing technology was used to generate a missing limb.
The quagga, held at the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, was restored to its former glory as part of a major project to restore 39 of the museum’s largest and most significant skeletons.
The main focus of the project, named Bone Idols: Protecting our Iconic Skeletons, has been the quagga specimen – one of only seven quagga skeletons to survive globally.
The last quagga died in 1883, having been hunted to extinction by farmers and skin-collectors.
The Grant Museum specimen is the only one on display in Britain, but the skeleton was incomplete, with one of its legs missing since World War 2.
The museum, working with conservator Nigel Larkin, the Royal Veterinary College and the Bartlett Manufacturing and Design Exchange at the university’s Bartlett School of Architecture, has rebuilt the 19th century skeleton using 21st century science.
The one remaining right hind leg was scanned in a CT machine at the Royal Veterinary College. A precise mirror-image of the resulting data was then created, perfectly replicating the missing left leg on the screen.
This computer image was then modelled in solid nylon using a 3D-printer at Bartlett Manufacturing.
Specialist skeleton-preparator Nigel Larkin then articulated the printed bones to make the historic skeleton complete once more.
The reproduction of the missing leg was the final step in a major undertaking to restore the museum’s invaluable specimen.
As part of the Bone Idols project, the quagga skeleton was completely disassembled and cleaned of more than 100 years of ingrained grime. The museum is one of the oldest in Britain and used to be lit by oil lamps. Its breast bones had been oozing black fatty deposits, which have now been removed.
The skeleton was first mounted on an iron frame in 1911, with five other skeletons at a cost of just £14. The neck was on upside down and the legs did not fit into their sockets. Since then, the spine had sagged under its own weight.
The project has rebuilt the quagga in an anatomically correct position on a skeleton-friendly frame.
“Because of its age the quagga was in a pretty poor state, particularly for such an irreplaceable object,” museum manager Jack Ashby said.
“We have worked with specialist bone conservators to restore the skeleton to ensure its long-term survival in the museum. It will now be enjoyed by visitors, students and researchers for decades to come.
“We are so delighted that we’ve been able to give it its missing leg back. Not only does it add a fantastic chapter to a specimen with so many stories, but the new leg also makes the whole skeleton more stable. Try balancing on three legs for 100 years.”
There are many parts to the quagga skeleton’s story.
Its significance was only confirmed in 1972 when the museum’s two “zebra” skeletons were closely studied. This one was verified as an extinct quagga, while the other was found to be a donkey.
Throughout the museum’s history these two specimens seem to have been confused a number of times.
Newly uncovered archives suggest the quagga arrived in 1911, 30 years after the species became extinct.
Where its leg went is another mystery, and the archive has many letters from previous curators to museums across the country trying to track it down. The quagga now stands on four feet again, even if one of them was built by computers.
To date the museum has raised more than £20,000 to fund the Bone Idols project. Thirty-one of the 39 specimens have so far been conserved, including the museum’s largest skeleton – the (hornless) Indian one-horned rhino skeleton, the skull of a giant deer and endangered chimpanzee skeletons.
The museum houses around 68,000 specimens, covering the whole animal kingdom. It was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. The museum is packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.
Many of the species are now endangered or extinct including the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine, the quagga, and the dodo.
More information: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology/support/BoneIdols