Animals’ delicate capillaries become art in these eerie 3D images

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Making art from dead animals is not Scott Echols’ intention, per se, but the three-dimensional images that he has made possible have the quality of magnificent virtual sculptures.

Echols is a veterinarian in Salt Lake City who specializes in birds, but his interests span much of the animal kingdom. He is fascinated by the way blood moves through an organism, and he has long wanted a better way to visualize how the vascular system is organized.

It turns out that even in this age of virtual and augmented reality, most medical students still glean their knowledge of animal biology from books and the simple two dimensional drawings that might be familiar to Leonardo DaVinci or Ernst Haeckel.

Echols set out to try something different, concocting a fluid in his kitchen called BriteVu that could be injected into a dead animals’ blood vessels, replacing the blood with a so-called contrasting agent. When the fluid hardens, it becomes “radio dense” meaning that it is easily picked up in a common CT or X-ray scan. Numerous images are taken and then reconstructed using software to create a 3-D model of the animal’s inner workings, as you can see in the video above.

The resulting images are not only eerily beautiful; they can also be of immense use to medical professionals, says Echols: “Maybe you’re a foot surgeon and you would like to know, where do I cut or not cut to reduce damage to the tissues we’re trying to preserve? For the first time we’re able to see the veins, the arteries, the capillaries as they are represented in three dimensions.”

So far, Echols has imaged dozens of animals, mostly birds and reptiles. He has also imaged a human cadaver, revealing the intricate web of vessels that feed the human brain.

Contrasting agents themselves are not new. They have been used in MRI and other types of image scans for years, but Echols says his is the first system to provide such an extreme level of detail.