Discovery Files

eSkeletons: "The Hip Bone's Connected to the …" Web Bone

Cyberskeletons are now a click away at an interactive and expanding digital library of human and primate anatomy.

Paleontologists are always going to get down and dirty digging for bones. But now, students, researchers, and the general public have a handy and virtual alternative: They can examine and manipulate the digital skeletons of humans, orangutans, chimps, lemurs, and other primates at

"Not long ago, it was necessary to have hands-on access to an actual human skeleton if one wanted to learn the basics of human anatomy," says John Kappelman, leader of The eSkeletons Project and an anthropology professor at the University of Texas-Austin. "Today, anyone who can log on to the Web can gain instant access to eSkeletons' images and animation of the complete human skeleton." And much more.

While at first glance, the eSkeletons web site may appear to be "bare bones," its high-resolution, three-dimensional images and interactive features make anatomy quickly "come alive." Visitors can choose a particular bone, for example, the human shoulder blade (scapula), view it from several different angles, and compare it, side-by-side, to other primates' shoulder blades, such as the gorilla's and marmoset's. People can also watch and manipulate video clip "joint animations" of related bones in action -- making the scapula "swing" the humerus (upper arm) as fast as they can slide their computer's mouse.

For a closer look: viewers can float, rotate and pause a bone in 360 degrees of cyberspace, taking advantage of web video and virtual reality player (VRML) applications. Additional eSkeletons' features include: "clickable" colored overlays that highlight special aspects and muscle-attachment points for certain bones, a glossary of terms and "mini-windows" displaying in-depth information.

Dramatic advances in imaging technology helped to make eSkeletons' approach to teaching anatomy possible. With support from NSF and UT-Austin's College of Liberal Arts, Kappelman's lab group uses 3-D laser scanners, high resolution X-ray computed tomography (HRXCT), and digital photography to "capture" skeletal specimens.

Knowledge of anatomy underlies many fields of science, including biology, zoology, physical anthropology, and the medical sciences, with important applications in the bioengineering of bone implants, as well as the visual arts.

Before eSkeletons, access to real bones for hands-on learning was restricted. Students and researchers at select museums, laboratories, and schools, might have ample access, but opportunities for others were limited or non-existent.

"The wild populations of animals like the apes and lemurs are gravely endangered, specimens are rare, and it is very difficult for students to study the anatomy of these species. Delivery over the Web permits us to make the material accessible to all students and to raise their awareness of the rare or endangered status of these animals," Kappelman explains.

The site has attracted notable fans. "The eSkeletons Project is a winner on all fronts," says internationally renowned primatologist, John G. Fleagle, a professor at SUNY-Stony Brook, and the first person in anthropology to be named a Macarthur Fellow. "It saves wear and tear on irreplaceable museum specimens and the expense of trips to a museum for simple comparisons, and at the same time it makes rare comparative material available to anyone with access to a computer. It is unrivaled as a tool for teaching comparative anatomy at all educational levels."

Building on eSkeletons' early success (the site earned an A+ from Education World), the project is expanding the site's original collection (human, gorilla and baboon). New laser scanning equipment and improved HRXCT make it possible to include much smaller primates like the brown mouse lemur, and to scan specimens more rapidly.

eSkeletons' growing roster will give students increased opportunities for bone-to-bone comparisons, diverse lab exercises, and a broader understanding of the range of primate diversity.

eSkeletons also plans to provide data in a format that enables users with 3-D printers to produce their own anatomically accurate models of the bones, full-size or scaled-down, for use as teaching tools. Then, Kappelman's vision of virtual "hands-on" learning will come closer to the reality he knows as an active paleoanthropologist.

In addition to leading the eSkeletons Project in the digital world, Kappelman continues to go digging for bones for his research into the evolutionary history of primates, especially hominoid origins (anthropoid (man-like) apes and human beings). He recently led an international team of researchers in Ethiopia who discovered the partial skeleton of Arsinotherium, an extinct rhino-like mammal that lived 27 million years ago.

From finding fossils of long extinct species to making skeletal materials universally available on-line, Kappelman is intent on sharing his passion for anatomy. "Web access is a great evener -- a common denominator," he says, taking pleasure in the widespread response to eSkeletons. "We have registered users from kindergarten through medical school on each continent, except Antarctica. Once the polar scientists sign up, we'll be able to say we're reaching people everywhere."

-- Moira Burns