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Making 3d animal anatomy models

I am originally an animal scientist, at Wageningen University (MSc.). Immediately after university, I worked for 8 years at ABN AMRO's head office, where I left as an information architect. I have been working for 20 years now as a scientific visualizer for universities, scientific magazines, and museums at home and abroad. Since 2012, I have specialized in animal anatomy in addition to my work for clients. My work is internationally recognized by both scientists and my scientific visualization colleagues.
I have always made sure to use the latest techniques as much as possible in my work. Only if these techniques contribute to my work, so without putting the technique first. I make the anatomical 3d models as I describe below: as reference work to gain a better insight into the anatomy of different animals. I process these in very accessible interactive apps that make learning anatomy fun.


Years of experience


Years into this specialty

What are 3d anatomical models
and what can you do with them?

You can consider anatomical (digital) 3d models as an attempt to completely recreate a real animal on the computer. From the large organs to the smallest blood vessel. The advantage compared to drawn anatomy is that you can go very far in this. Since size doesn’t matter, you can add as much detail as you want while choosing what’s needed for a specific application later. All structures that you find in an animal can be imitated, it just depends on how much time, knowledge, and energy you want to put into it.

And not only that.
You can simply continue working on a 3d model if there are new insights. With a drawing, you usually have to start all over again. With a 3d model, you work with all kinds of separate parts that you can adjust or replace piece by piece without the rest of the model having to be adjusted or starting to look strange. Think, for example, of veins, nerves, part of a liver lobe, but also larger structures. They are all replaceable and customizable.

What can you compare an anatomical 3D model to?

Anatomical 3d models can be compared to an extensive book that only deals with the anatomy of that specific animal. Just like in a book, the model is divided into chapters, and chapters are again divided into paragraphs, sub-paragraphs, and paragraphs. And, of course, in sentences. With an anatomical 3d model you can think of organ systems (heart and blood vessels, nervous system, digestive system, reproductive system, and the like), organs (heart, brain, liver), structures within an organ (eg the chambers and atria of a heart) and the build-up of such a structure (chambers and atria have heart valves, tendon threads, muscles in the wall, septum, etc.)

While a book is mainly about the words and the (flat) illustrations illustrate the text, with an anatomical 3D model it is the other way around. Because if you process the model in an educational app, you can simply add texts per part, but also photos or scans per structure.

Permanent overview and therefore insight

While when reading a book you can only see and read 2 pages at a time, with an anatomical 3D model you can always oversee the whole if you want to. You can see the connections between the different organs, you can view a system on its own (think of the nervous system or cardiovascular system) or you can view the interaction between the different systems. Think, for example, of how the veins around and in an organ look like, but also, for example, how muscles are attached to bones.

And you can’t just look at this from one side or size, but however, you want to. Size and viewing direction do not matter for a 3d model. A 3d model can be viewed from all sides, rotated, and zoomed in and out.

Widely applicable

Making an anatomical 3d model is of course not that simple. But the big advantage is that if the development of a model is well thought out, you can use the same model from primary school to university. Because the parts of a 3d model are always made in such a way that you can see them in different “resolutions”. Just think of a TV. Do you want 8k, 4k, HD ready, or an old-fashioned black and white TV? You can see the same thing on all of them, only you see much less detail on an old-fashioned black and white TV than on such an ultra 8k TV. That’s how it works with a 3d model. The base is reminiscent of that old-fashioned black and white TV, using a texture (an image that goes exactly over the entire surface of a part) you then give it color and detail so that it looks like HD ready, and by adding a part to put a higher resolution you get 4k or 8k.
This makes it possible that in primary school you only show the large structures and at university, from that same model, you continue to the smallest blood vessels and structures on bones.
If you build an app around the anatomical 3D model, you can attach data to the various parts, and structures in an anatomical model, which you can read out or link to other data. Think of an extensive text or a photo or scan of the structure you are looking at so that you gain even more insight into the anatomy and can learn about that particular structure and know what you are looking at.

The work itself

If you want to be able to make an anatomical model well, you need different skills. It’s not only useful if you’re a 3d modeler, but also if you know a lot about anatomy. You need both skills and also know how to make such a model accessible for education. That also means knowledge of how people learn, where the need is and how you can present everything in a way that people understand what you mean by it.

To make the anatomical 3d model itself, you mainly need anatomical knowledge at the university level. So that you know what the model must meet. You also need a solid knowledge of 3d modeling. Being able to think in structures is indispensable. Initial costs of developing a good anatomical 3d model are quite high but updates and refinements can be done very cost-effectively. Because anatomy is largely timeless and with digital 3D modeling you can simply build on an existing model.

For the long term

Considering all that, I’ve noticed that the existing anatomical digital 3D models for animals are either of low quality, or they only cover a limited part of an animal. That was my motivation to start working on animal anatomy models from a quality perspective.
Developing a sound and detailed anatomical model for the long term, based on animal material, scans, and scientific literature, has major advantages: with a standardized basis, you can model the abnormal anatomy of breeding lines or diseases from there. By anticipating this in advance in the way in which the modeling is done, you can easily replace the different structures according to need. Because 3d models are not bound by size or orientation, you can easily adapt the end product to the needs of the target group.