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3-D printing braces up sea turtle with gap in its shell

Scientists at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography¬†believe they have created the world’s first 3-D-printed brace for a sea turtle’s shell, and the results seem promising.

One lucky sea turtle is already wearing the brace, and it is responding well. The turtle was found in 2013 in the cooling canal of a power plant in New Jersey. It was a juvenile and weighed about 75 pounds.

“She was found with a large gap in the bottom right part of her shell. She also has an abnormal curve of her spine and paralysis of her back flippers,” said Beth Chee, the aquarium’s marketing director. “It is unknown what caused these issues, but it was most likely due to trauma experienced in the wild before she was rescued.”

Because of the turtle’s injuries, veterinary experts determined it would not survive if reintroduced to the wild. The Birch Aquarium at Scripps at the University of California, San Diego volunteered to provide a permanent home for the injured turtle. A fundraising campaign brought in more than $50,000 to support its housing and rehabilitative needs.

Upon its arrival, the loggerhead turtle, which the research facility hasn’t named per its practices, quickly became a favorite of the aquarium staff.

However, its condition got worse as it grew.

“That growth has really exacerbated her condition. Without our intervention, the sea turtle could have gastrointestinal and urogenital systems complications,” said Jenn Nero Moffatt, senior director of animal care, science and conservation for the aquarium, in a statement. “We teamed up with the Digital Media Lab at Geisel Library at UC San Diego to create a brace that will prevent the shell from curving further downward and will promote more normal growth. It’s our goal to prevent further complications and keep her as healthy and happy as possible.”

Chee said the turtle was the inspiration for the 3-D printed brace.

“Our husbandry team has been talking to engineers, veterinary specialists and experts in various fields since her arrival (November 2014), trying to find a solution that would help,” she said.

The brace is made of a rigid white plastic that was 3-D printed to fit the turtle’s shell precisely. The loggerhead, which could reach 250 pounds when fully grown, will eventually outgrow the brace, and a new one will need to be fitted.

People interested in seeing the turtle can visit the Birch Aquarium on Tuesdays and Thursdays.