A pocket full of bats

January 30, 2018 | Burke Museum

By Abagail Curtis and Jessica Arbour

You can now hold a Burke Museum bat skull from the mammals collection in the palm of your hand—and from anywhere in the world!

Dr. Jessica Arbour and I are University of Washington postdocs in the lab of Dr. Sharlene Santana, Burke Museum curator of mammals, where we study how skull shape and the muscles that operate the jaws evolve to help bats eat such a broad range of foods including insects, fruits, nectar, blood, fish, and even other bats.

Using micro Computed Tomography (microCT) scans, we build 3D digital replicas of bat skulls from the Burke Museum and other institutions. Most bat skulls are extremely small and delicate, so microCT scans allow us to measure features of their anatomy that are not otherwise possible, including structures inside the skull.

The scans are a unique way to showcase the diversity of shapes in bat skulls and how muscles are organized in species with different diets. We thought this might be a unique and engaging opportunity to share the specimens with the general public using virtual reality or augmented reality. And with that idea in mind, we created the “Pocket Bats!” project using 3D models of bat skulls from our research on feeding adaptations in bats.

On the Santana Lab website, you can download and print “Pocket Bats!” cards for a variety of bat species; these cards include information on their taxonomy, diet, and also include charming portraits of the bats from bat biologist, Dr. Brock Fenton.

You can then download the Augment app (Apple or Google) and use it to scan the card to see a 3D reconstruction of the bat’s skull on top of the card.

A purple virtual bat skull scan appears over the top of a card describing its species information
Photo: Abagail Curtis & Jessica Arbour
Photo: Abagail Curtis & Jessica Arbour

A virtual bat skull scan appears over its "Pocket Bats!" card.

A comparison of a virtual bat skull scan next to the actual bat skull that was used to create the scan
Photo: Abagail Curtis & Jessica Arbour
Photo: Abagail Curtis & Jessica Arbour

The comparison of the real bat skull to the virtual one that appears with the "Pocket Bats" card.

By turning and moving the card in view of your smart device’s camera, you can turn the model to look at different angles and even look inside the skulls. We’ve also included links to additional resources about the bat species.

In addition to uploading "Pocket Bats!" cards on the Santana Lab website, we are sharing this project at teacher workshops, international research conferences, and at several museums, including the Burke Museum and the Museum of Flight.

We currently have twenty species of bats represented as "Pocket Bats!" cards, and will continue to add more every couple of weeks, including adding more specimens that include jaw muscles. Stay tuned!


See more from the Santana Lab and Burke Museum Mammalogy.