Professor of Biology James Ryan and two HWS student researchers have started a new study this spring that’s giving them a rare, non-invasive look at the earliest stages of bat development. Using micro CT to create high definition 3D/4D digital models, the project will enable the team to examine bat embryos at a level of detail that can yield datasets far more precise than dissection.
“There are dozens of questions that we can answer using data from 3D digital imaging,” Ryan says. “For our research with bat embryos, we want to understand the development of the cochlea – or how that part of the inner ear develops over time. We will be examining embryos from early fetuses to nearly full term. You get to see how certain structures in the bodies develop.”
For the project, the embryonic specimens are being imaged at Cornell University’s Imaging Facility using a micro CT scanner, a cutting-edge X-ray system that will produce more than 1,000 images each only microns thick; 40 times thinner than a human hair. Together the images are configured to generate digital 3D models that can be used to analyze the specimens back on the HWS campus.
“We’re able to look at things very precisely by peeling away the layers of the reconstructed bat,” Ryan says. “We can take very precise measurements of bone length or the volume of the chambers of the internal ear. The virtual models allow researchers to see in incredible detail.”
Biology majors Katie Dormans ’15 and Scott McMorris ’15 will be working with Ryan throughout the project’s duration, including their involvement in data collection and analysis. The project’s goal is to produce scholarly articles on their findings. “Another valuable aspect for the students is seeing how CT data can be managed and used by the health professions,” Ryan says.
The micro CT imaging technology has a wide-range of applications, Ryan says. Medical professionals, for example, can apply the technology to locate and measure tumors or generate detailed 3D models of surgical procedures. Ryan says another researcher recently was able to using the imaging technology to examine the internal details of a prehistoric insect suspended millions of years ago in amber.
Between the availability of the high definition imaging technology and the availability of a hard-to-find series of embryonic bats, Ryan says the project is taking a critical step forward in understanding minute details of the internal anatomy of fetal bats.
The research is made possible, in part, thanks to endowed support from the Philip J. Moorad ’28 and Margaret N. Moorad Professorship of which Ryan is the recipient. Dr. Philip J. Moorad ’28 cherished his experiences at Hobart College so much that, when he passed away, his wife and sons established the professorship, which honors faculty who are committed to their communities and to learning.
Ryan joined the HWS faculty in 1987. He is the author of several books and many publications, including the text, Mammalogy, which is now in its 5th edition. Ryan’s research focuses on mammalian biology. He worked for several years in the rainforest of Madagascar surveying small mammal communities and primates. He also served as team leader for the Ghana Coastal Wetlands Management Project, which established a series of long-term biodiversity monitoring sites in Ghana, West Africa. In 2001, he studied the rare hero shrew in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Southern Uganda on a National Geographic Grant.
Currently, Ryan is also involved in a new project with Assistant Professor of Biology Bradley Cosentino studying the effects of major highways on gene flow in muskrat populations at the nearby Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2014, Ryan collaborated with Dr. Jeremy Cushman ’96, president of the Hobart Alumni Council, on “iAnatomy,” an eBook comprised of 20 case-based, interactive exercises that reinforce human anatomy and physiology concepts while engaging readers with the clinical relevance of anatomical details.
Ryan earned his Ph.D. from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst; an M.S. from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and a B.A. from The State University of New York at Oswego.
In the first photo, Katie Dormans ’15, Scott McMorris ’15 and Professor of Biology James Ryan gather in the lab to discuss a new research project they’re undertaking that aims to better understand minute details of the internal anatomy of fetal bats.
In the second photo, student researcher Katie Dormans ’15 poses in front of micro CT equipment at Cornell University’s Imaging Facility where the 3D/4D bat models have been generated.
The third image links to a video of a 3D bat specimen being virtually examined.