First-ever accurate digital 3D model of a manta ray created

Written by Oceanographic Staff

A collaborative team created an accurate digital 3D manta ray model to bring attention to Florida manta rays.

The models are free to the public in the hopes of science and wildlife educators taking advantage of these new resources.

Florida is home to a large seasonal aggregation of adult manta rays and also serves as an important manta ray nursery. The first study on the South Florida manta ray population was published by the Marine Megafauna Foundation’s (MMF) Florida Manta Project, which has been studying manta rays in the area since 2016.

“As the first group to study south Florida’s manta rays, we were incredibly surprised to learn that this population is composed exclusively of juvenile manta rays. We were also disheartened to see so many mantas entangled in fishing line and with injuries from boat propellers. Continued research, mitigation of threats, and increased public education are crucial for the conservation of Florida’s manta rays,” explains Jessica Pate, Lead Scientist for the Florida Manta Project.

In light of this, a collaborative team came together with the goal of bringing attention to Florida manta rays by creating an accurate digital 3D manta ray model. MMF joined forces with Digital Life Project and ANGARI Foundation, who agree that education and public awareness are vital for conservation and have experience modelling threatened marine life. The two previously partnered on a 3D shark model, which resulted in a first-of-its-kind accurate, animated great hammerhead shark.

The model has since been used for research and education purposes. The Digital Life Project, based out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has established itself as a leader in creating high-quality 3D models of living organisms, and ANGARI Foundation, headquartered in West Palm Beach, is dedicated to marine science research and education, using innovative technology and film to raise awareness and strengthen science education.

MMF’s research team uses drones, aerial surveys, and in-water photography and videography to collect measurements and track individuals in the Florida manta ray population. For the 3D modelling project, the team spent a week working offshore Palm Beach County searching for manta rays, and whenever possible, the team captured up-close photographs and video footage of individuals. Many of the week’s manta rays had been observed prior, and a few of the friendlier, more curious rays made data collection easy.

One such manta ray was a 2.5 meter (8 feet), juvenile male manta ray named Skye. MMF researchers originally recorded Skye’s presence in June 2020 and have since spotted him more than 20 times. Using collected footage and measurement data, the Digital Life animator recreated the manta ray’s shape, gills, mouth, and other attributes, including adding Skye’s identifying details and texture. Even the ray’s scars from a boat propeller injury are noticeable. Finally, the model was rendered for final animation, which accurately depicts Skye’s swimming motion and the lifelike movement of his cephalic fins during feeding. 

Duncan Irschick, Director of Digital Life, is excited about the possibilities this manta ray model can provide: “This was an amazing collaboration that has resulted in a one-of-a-kind scientific and educational tool that we hope can be shared widely. The 3D model can be used to study energetics of movement, as well as body condition and health in manta rays, and therefore helps preserve these remarkable animals.”

Skye is the only accurate digital 3D model of a manta ray and an invaluable digital specimen to represent Florida’s manta ray population as well as manta rays globally.

Watch the making-of video here.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.

Photography courtesy of Bryant Turffs.

current issue

Back Issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.