STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS1.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 7

TEKS: 6.3C, 6.3D, 7.3C, 7.3D, 8.3C, 8.3D, B.3E

Animal Survivors

How giving injured animals a helping hand (or tail or beak) benefits people too

BARRY BLAND; COURTESY OF HANGER CLINIC (DOLPHIN, INSET)

SWIMMING SUCCESS: Kevin Carroll helped create a new tail for this baby dolphin.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT reasons an animal might not survive if part of its body is damaged.

Off the coast of Florida, a two-month-old bottlenose dolphin was in trouble. A rope was tangled around her tail, cutting off blood flow. Rescuers freed the baby dolphin, which they named Winter, and rushed her to nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter recovered, but veterinarians couldn’t save her damaged tail. Without it, she couldn’t swim properly—a skill essential for her survival.

Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka heard Winter’s story and offered to help. They design prostheses for people with missing limbs at Hanger Clinic in Maryland. Together they created a flexible replacement tail that had a soft silicone liner. To assess whether the tail was comfortable for Winter, the team used a heat-sensing camera. It detected hot spots where the liner chafed Winter. “If we didn’t do something, that could cause breakdown of her skin,” says Strzempka. The team’s solution: They invented a material called WintersGel. They used it to make a squishy sleeve that would protect Winter’s skin while she wore her new tail.

Thanks to prostheses, injured animals like Winter are getting a second chance at life. And their stories give hope to countless people as well. Innovations like the high-tech material made for Winter are helping experts create better, more comfortable artificial limbs for people too. “There are thousands of people all over the world now wearing prosthetics lined with WintersGel,” says Carroll.

A two-month-old bottlenose dolphin was in trouble off the coast of Florida. A rope was tangled around her tail, cutting off blood flow. Rescuers freed her and rushed her to nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The baby dolphin, named Winter, got better. But veterinarians couldn’t save her injured tail. Without it, she couldn’t swim properly. And that was important for her survival.

Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka work at Hanger Clinic in Maryland. They design prostheses for people with missing limbs. When they heard Winter’s story, they offered to help. Together they created a new tail that could bend. It had a soft silicone liner. They needed to know if the tail was comfortable for Winter. So they used a heat-sensing camera. It revealed hot spots where the liner rubbed Winter. “If we didn’t do something, that could cause breakdown of her skin,” says Strzempka. To solve the problem, the team invented a material called WintersGel. They used it to make a squishy sleeve. It protects Winter’s skin when she wears her new tail.

Winter and other injured animals are getting a second chance, thanks to prostheses. Their stories also give hope to many people. Inventions like the high-tech material made for Winter are helping people too. Experts use them to create better, more comfortable artificial limbs. “There are thousands of people all over the world now wearing prosthetics lined with WintersGel,” says Carroll.

YOUNG KWAK/AP PHOTO

A BETTER BEAK: This bald eagle got a 3-D printed beak after a poacher shot hers off.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAK

Beauty the eagle was found starving in the wild in Alaska after someone shot off the upper portion of her beak. The bird couldn’t eat or drink on her own or preen her feathers to straighten and clean them. Beauty was taken to Birds of Prey Northwest, a raptor rehabilitation center. Birds’ beaks can regenerate, but it takes a long time for the tissue to regrow. In the meantime, something had to be done to help Beauty.

Nate Calvin, a mechanical engineer in Idaho, volunteered to make Beauty a prosthetic beak using a cutting-edge tool: a 3-D printer. These devices build up layers of material, such as plastic or metal, to create solid objects. Beauty’s caretaker sent Calvin a mold of Beauty’s damaged beak, which he used to create a plaster replica. He scanned the replica into a computer and filled in the missing portions using images of a healthy bald eagle’s beak. Calvin printed the final version out of a hard plastic. The prosthesis was then fastened to a small metal mount glued to the nub of Beauty’s old beak. “After putting the beak on, the first thing she did was start to preen her feathers,” says Calvin. “The second thing she did was drink water.”

Since Calvin’s success with Beauty, many animal-rescue groups have used 3-D printing to create other body parts for injured animals. The technology has made it easier to make innovative prostheses for people too. The process is quicker and less expensive than traditional methods. And if a design doesn’t work out, it can easily be modified and reprinted.

Beauty the eagle was starving in the wild in Alaska. Someone had shot off the upper part of her beak. The bird couldn’t eat or drink on her own. And she couldn’t preen her feathers to straighten and clean them. Beauty was found and taken to Birds of Prey Northwest, a raptor rehabilitation center. Birds’ beaks can regenerate, or regrow. But that takes a long time. Until then, Beauty needed help.

Nate Calvin is a mechanical engineer in Idaho. He offered to make Beauty a prosthetic beak. He would use a high-tech tool, a 3-D printer. These printers build up layers of material, such as plastic or metal. They create solid objects. Beauty’s caretaker sent Calvin a mold of Beauty’s injured beak. He used it to create a plaster model, and he scanned the model into a computer. Then he filled in the missing parts from images of a healthy bald eagle’s beak. Calvin printed the final beak out of a hard plastic. A small metal post was glued to the nub of Beauty’s old beak, and the prosthesis was fastened to the post. “After putting the beak on, the first thing she did was start to preen her feathers,” says Calvin. “The second thing she did was drink water.”

Since Calvin’s success with Beauty, many animal-rescue groups have used 3-D printing. They’ve created other body parts for injured animals. The technology has made it easier to make better prostheses for people too. The process is quicker and less expensive than older methods. And if a design doesn’t work, it can easily be changed and reprinted.

©JEFFERY R. WERNER/INCREDIBLE FEATURES

AN ALLIGATOR’S TAIL

A few years ago, rescuers confiscated a tailless adolescent alligator, nicknamed Mr. Stubbs, from animal smugglers in Arizona. Alligators depend on their tails to swim and walk straight. So staff members at the Phoenix Herpetological Society decided to make a prosthesis for Mr. Stubbs using a mold of a similar-sized alligator’s tail. It worked well enough. But when Mr. Stubbs outgrew the tail, his caretakers decided he needed a replacement.

The team took precise measurements of Mr. Stubbs’s body to calculate the right dimensions for his new tail. Then they scanned his old prosthesis to create a computer model. “We stretched out the digital model in each direction to make it an exact custom fit for Mr. Stubbs,” says Justin Georgi. He studies reptile anatomy at Midwestern University’s campus in Glendale, Arizona. Next, the group 3-D printed a plastic version of their design. They made Mr. Stubbs’s new prosthesis out of rubbery silicone based on the 3-D model.

Mr. Stubbs can move around more normally now, thanks to his specially made tail. But he’s still growing, says Georgi. “We’re just about to start making a tail the next size up for him.” In recent years, organizations aiming to help kids with missing limbs have turned to 3-D printers for the same reason—as a way to make low-cost prostheses for young people as they grow.

A few years ago, rescuers took a young alligator from animal smugglers in Arizona. The alligator, nicknamed Mr. Stubbs, had no tail. Alligators need their tails to swim and walk straight. So staff members at the Phoenix Herpetological Society decided to make a prosthesis for Mr. Stubbs. They used a mold of another alligator’s tail. It worked well enough. But then Mr. Stubbs outgrew the tail. His caretakers decided to make a better one.

The team took exact measurements of Mr. Stubbs’s body. They figured out the right size and shape for his new tail. Then they scanned his old prosthesis to create a computer model. “We stretched out the digital model in each direction to make it an exact custom fit for Mr. Stubbs,” says Justin Georgi. He studies reptile anatomy at Midwestern University’s campus in Glendale, Arizona. Next, the group 3-D printed a plastic model of their design. They made Mr. Stubbs’s new prosthesis out of rubbery silicone. It was based on the 3-D model.

Mr. Stubbs can move around better now with his custom-made tail. But he’s still growing, says Georgi. “We’re just about to start making a tail the next size up for him.” In recent years, organizations that help kids with missing limbs have also turned to 3-D printers. That way, they can make low-cost prostheses for young people as they grow.

NICK CUNARD/EYEVINE/REDUX (CAT); CATERS NEWS/ZUMAPRESS.COM (X-RAY)

PURR-FECT PROSTHESES: This cat’s high-tech paws are surgically attached to his ankle bones.

NINE LIVES

Oscar the cat lost both of his back paws when a farm machine called a combine harvester ran over him in a field near his home. Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick, a veterinary surgeon at Fitzpatrick Referrals in England, agreed to try a groundbreaking new medical procedure that might allow Oscar to walk again.

Fitzpatrick drilled into Oscar’s exposed ankle bones and inserted metal rods into the holes. The rods were coated with hydroxyapatite, a mineral that’s a major ingredient in bone. The coating encouraged Oscar’s bone to grow onto the metal implants so that the rods would become permanent parts of his skeleton.

At the spot where each rod exits Oscar’s ankle bone, Oscar’s skin attaches to a metal disk in the same way that a deer’s skin grows around the base of its antlers. To the ends of the rods, Fitzpatrick attached prosthetic paws. Before long, Oscar was walking, running, and jumping—and landing in Guinness World Records as the first animal to receive two leg implants. The same surgical technique pioneered with Oscar is now being used to make prostheses that feel more like natural extensions of people’s bodies.

A farm machine called a combine harvester ran over Oscar the cat in a field near his home. Oscar lost both of his back paws. Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick is a veterinary surgeon at Fitzpatrick Referrals in England. He agreed to try a groundbreaking new medical procedure. It might allow Oscar to walk again.

Fitzpatrick drilled into Oscar’s exposed ankle bones. Then he pushed metal rods into the holes. The rods were coated with hydroxyapatite. This mineral is an important ingredient in bone. The coating helped Oscar’s bone to grow onto the metal implants. That way, the rods would become permanent parts of his skeleton.

A metal disk sits at the spot where each rod leaves Oscar’s ankle bone. Oscar’s skin attaches to the disk. It’s the same way that a deer’s skin grows around the base of its antlers. Fitzpatrick attached prosthetic paws to the ends of the rods. Before long, Oscar was walking, running, and jumping. And he landed in Guinness World Records as the first animal to receive two leg implants. The same surgical method is now helping people. It’s being used to make prostheses that feel more like natural additions to people’s bodies. 

DESIGNING SOLUTIONS: Choose one of the animals from the story. What factors did rescuers need to consider when creating a prosthetic body part for the animal?

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