Duncan Irschick was researching the body shapes and behavior of sharks living off the Florida coast in April when he realized there was no easy way to collect high-quality three-dimensional images of the ocean predators.

After he got home from the trip, Irschick, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was determined to return to the Sunshine State this year with a solution.

So, with the help of two undergraduates, he came up with the "Beastcam," comprised of four cameras on adjustable arms connected to a small computer. In seconds, it can collect photos needed to help produce three-dimensional models.


"Live animals are hard to get 3-D models of because they can be twitchy," said Irschick, who studies functional morphology, or the relationship between the shape and function of an organism. "What the Beastcam does is allow us to create 3-D models very rapidly."

The camera array is held at different angles around an animal. The device uses standard cameras but can shoot 40 to 60 photos in just 15 to 20 seconds.

Once the high-resolution images are stored, Irschick and fellow researchers can use a variety of software to build 3-D models of the animals. They could also make the models on a 3-D printer, although they haven't done so yet.

The camera system, which looks like a four-legged spider, was completed in September. It was built with the support of the Human Frontiers Science Program and the school's Center for Evolutionary Materials.

Irschick said he has been using the camera with his students to document body shapes of geckos at UMass .

But when Irschick returns to Florida this spring, he plans to deploy the Beastcam when sharks are captured briefly and hauled onto a research boat.

He may even take the concept further and create an underwater system to help document the sharks as they cruise through the ocean.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com.