Wildlife in the Womb A Close-Up Look at Embryonic Animals

An unborn elephant waves its trunk, a tiny puppy embryo sucks on its paw. New technology allows scientists to peer into animal wombs, and create 3D images of the fetuses. Now filmmakers have turned these images into a 4D film.


One could be forgiven for not getting excited about pre-natal ultrasound technology. Doctors have been using the technology for years to peer into the womb and examine the unborn.

But in December, the National Geographic Channel is going to take viewers somewhere they've never been before: inside the womb of animals. Using a 3D ultrasound system, the two hour movie will show tiny pink elephant embryos, a teensy dog fetus with glowing blue eyes, and mini-dolphins swimming in their mother's belly.

The film is made possible using technology developed at the beginning of the decade by veterinary scientist Thomas Hildebrandt, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. In addition to providing clear 3D images, his team was able to advance ultrasound techniques so as to make it possible to penetrate further than the 15 centimeters technology had allowed.

The result is a look inside the wombs of a wide variety of mammals, even including giants like elephants. Hildebrandt's system involves inserting an ultrasound scanner's head into the empty intestine of the pregnant elephant. When the fetus is visible, the ultrasound then goes into 3D mode, which produces up to 70 cross sections, which are then pieced together by a computer.

And viola! One can see the tiny eyes, trunk and wrinkles of elephant fetuses as young as 17 weeks. The technology is perfect for vets and for researchers.

But a twist added by the National Geographic Channel makes it perfect for entertainment as well. The addition of a "fourth dimension" -- time -- means that viewers can watch a baby elephant swinging its trunk in the womb, or a teensy puppy sucking on its paw, or a embryonic dolphin swimming in its amniotic sac.

"There has only been this quality of images since last year," Hildebrandt told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He spent a year prior to the summer 2006 taking ultrasound images of elephants, dogs, hares, and apes, which he then gave to the film's producers.

The film has had to cheat a little to show the development of the animal fetuses. For example, it doesn’t actually show the development of one single elephant. Rather it makes a computer animation using images from several elephant babies. And the color isn’t real either -- ultrasound can only show images in black and white. The colors are digitally applied afterwards.

Nevertheless the film offers an intriguing insight into how other animals develop. According to the film's producer Jeremy Dear, "The film shows fascinating facts about our evolutionary heritage." It will show in the United States on December 10 and in Germany on Christmas Day.

smd

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