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A team of scientists creates a 3D-printed shell for Freddy the tortoise

Freddy the tortoise lost most of its shell in a fire and a team of researchers gave it a new 3D-printed one.

For a tortoise, the shell isn’t just a body part, it’s a safe refuge, a shelter that protects it from the external world. It offers it protection from predators as well as adverse climatic and environmental conditions. In case of danger these reptiles can retract their heads, legs and tail under their shell, becoming almost impenetrable. For this reason a tortoise without its shell must feel naked and terribly exposed to dangers.

red-footed tortoise
A specimen of red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaris), a common reptile in South America

Freddy’s story

This is what happened to Freddy, a female red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaris), who lost her shell during a forest fire in Santos, Brazil. When veterinarian Rodrigo Rabello found the animal, she was devoid of 85 per cent of her shell, so he decided to make a new shell for her.

A 3D-printed shell

Rabello, helped by a veterinarian, a dentist and a graphic designer, designed and realised a 3D-printed shell for the tortoise, which was named Freddy for its resemblance to Freddy Kreuger, a character of the film Nightmare. The team compared pictures depicting the shells of other tortoises and created a new one using PLA (Polylactic acid), a disposable plastic material derived from corn.

Designing, printing and painting the shell

The shell was realised with a 3D printer and is made of four pieces that were assembled like a jigsaw puzzle (it took more than 50 hours to print every piece). In the beginning the shell that was surgically implanted in the tortoise’s back was unnaturally white. To solve this problem the vets turned to artist Yuri Caldera, who painted it in a more realistic way using nontoxic paint.

The first 3D-printed shell in history

After the surgical operation Freddy contracted pneumonia, but she has now recovered and is rapidly getting used to her new “home”. However, this being the first time an entire shell is replaced with a 3D-printed structure, researchers don’t know exactly how long the shell will endure bad weather or when the animal could be reintroduced into the wild.

3d printed shell
Pictures featuring tortoise Freddy in different moments: without the shell, with the new shell and with the painted shell

A new era for vet medicine

Such advancement in technology allow us to envision a new era in which injured animals will have their own personalised prostheses.

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