Bringing Virtual Arctic Zooarchaeology to the Public

VZAP1_Musk Ox
VZAP1_Musk Ox

The Internet can send information from one hemisphere to another in a matter of seconds.  It can connect people thousands of miles away just as fast. Now there is an online resource that can connect scientists, students and educators with thousands of 3D images of animal bones from all over the North American Arctic and Greenland. 

The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project, or VZAP, is the brainchild of Idaho State University’s (ISU) Herbert Maschner and Matthew Betts from the Canadian Museum of Civilization. VZAP is a fully interactive online tool that lets users examine the skeletal anatomies of more than 128 different arctic taxa, including fish, birds, and major terrestrial and marine mammals. 

“It’s very hard to get a good comparative collection if you don’t already have it. That meant that this [comparative] science was only available to a very limited number of people,” Maschner said. “Further, people across the Arctic today—local and indigenous peoples—are finding animal bones all over the place and want to identify them, but have no place to do it. In an attempt to democratize science and make this kind of data available to anyone who wants to do it, we designed VZAP as a virtual, three-dimensional reference collection.”


Maschner and Betts’ own limited access to animal bone collections is what sparked the idea for VZAP. While collaborating on a large archaeology project from the Eastern Aleutian Islands it became apparent specimens and resources were limited and forced them to spend quite a bit of time and research funds traveling to other museums to work with their reference collections. “The project was born out of frustration with the lack of reference materials to conduct our own research—we had a crucial need for a virtual aid, and we knew that many of our colleagues did as well,” Betts said. 

From that point, and with funding from the National Science Foundation, the two developed a plan to make use of ISU’s state-of-the art 3D scanning facility to bring arctic zooarchaeology to the masses. 

Building an Online Image Archive

In order to make VZAP a reality, Maschner and Betts had to tap zooarchaeological resources housed in museums across the U.S. and Canada. Specimens from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, the Idaho Museum of Natural History and the Canadian Museum of Civilization are all included in the VZAP archive. 

Selecting samples and borrowing them from partnering institutions was only the first step. The researchers had to determine how best to serve the materials online. Initially, the pair worked with 2D images, but quickly realized that more detail was necessary. They then partnered with Corey Schou of the Informatics Research Institute at Idaho State University to develop techniques to present detail rich 3D images and models in a searchable on-line environment. 

“Once we had teamed with Corey and discovered what he could do to deliver our images and models over the web, we knew we had something that was groundbreaking,” Betts said. 

VZAP4_scaled skulls poster no labels
VZAP4_scaled skulls poster no labels

A 3D scanner that looks much like an old camera is used to scan specimens from multiple angles and directions. Hundreds of high-resolution photographs are also taken to overlay on the scanned images if necessary. From there, the scans and photos are stitched together to create one, seamless 3D image. 

Scanning and image processing doesn’t always occur at ISU’s scanning facility. The VZAP team can take the equipment to the specimen if needed. This is especially helpful when dealing with large animal bones. “I just sent a crew to Port Townsend, Washington, where they had an entire orca skeleton,” Maschner said. “It was huge. It took them a week to scan the orca, but they did the whole thing.” 

Once the images are online, VZAP users have a number of custom analytical tools at their disposal.  The website allows users to simultaneously stream hundreds of digital images in an interactive image wall, generate didactic models and view dynamic 2D and 3D images. 

“VZAP is designed to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the many limited collections that exist, and can be used to quickly sort through remains prior to a final comparison against a real collection. In the field, VZAP may be the only comprehensive source available for the study of a collection,” Betts said. 

As the project enters phase II, Maschner and Betts are making adjustments and gathering user feedback. They also are actively thinking about and perusing the next steps in this living, evolving project.  

VZAP3_Sea Lion Diagnostics
VZAP3_Sea Lion Diagnostics

Virtual Science in Action

So far, VZAP users are very pleased and the image archive is reaching audiences that Maschner and Betts never expected. Not only are scientists using the software for research purposes, VZAP is proving to be an effective teaching tool in universities across the country. 

“The software is currently only in beta form and it is already being used by researchers around the world. One of the most surprising aspects of the project is its adoption in classrooms, where professors are using the 3D models to teach comparative skeletal anatomy. We know that students are using it at home to study, and that is a very encouraging sign that we have produced something that is accessible. The fact that it is already being used, both by researchers and students, proves its value to us,” Betts said.

As Phase II of the project presses forward, the team hopes to redevelop the user interface, incorporating new features, and add an additional 130 or more new species. The arctic portion of the collection is scheduled for completion by the end of 2012. And it doesn’t stop there. VZAP is a project with great potential for future growth through existing and new collaborations.

“My vision for VZAP is a data repository, a place where scientists can do analysis on any collection in the world,” Maschner said.

Visit  to try VZAP for yourself. –Alicia Clarke