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Imaging Invertebrate Zoology

What is Invertebrate Zoology?

Invertebrate Zoology is a sub-study of zoology as a whole. It covers the analysis of invertebrates. Which are animals that do not have a backbone. Some examples of these animals are; fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and other sub-species of mammals. Any animal that is not a single celled organism with reduced bone structures, is considered an invertebrate.

Invertebrates make up a huge part of the life located at the bottom of the ocean, and other extreme terrain located on Earth. They are one of the most diverse groups of organisms currently in existence. Some more specific creatures that are covered under this category are; sea sponges, spiders, sub-species of worms, arthropods, mollusks, and echinoderms.

Invertebrates represent 97% of all animal species on Earth. So there are many sub-studies of the species that are covered. Some being:

  • Arthropodology: The study of arthropods.

  • Arachnology: The study of spiders and other arachnids.

  • Entomology: The study of insects.

  • Carcinology: The study of crustaceans.

  • Myriapodology: The study of centipedes, millipedes, and other myriapods.

  • Cnidariology: The study of Cnidaria.

  • Helminthology: The study of parasitic worms.

  • Malacology: The study of mollusks.

  • Conchology: The study of Mollusk shells.

  • Limacology: The study of slugs.

  • Teuthology: The study of cephalopods.

  • Invertebrate Paleontology: The study of fossil invertebrates.

Invertebrate Zoology also works hand in hand with it's sister study Invertebrate Biology. The biology section helps encourage more interactive research, and paper writing. While the study of zoology as a whole helps catalog everything. Invertebrate Biology also helps scientists understand how these creatures work, and how they evolved over time. 

There are many museums across North America that have collections of Invertebrates. A few being; The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, The California Academy of Sciences, The American Museum of Natural History, and The Smithsonian. There are many others, but I'd just thought I'd name a few that are going out of their way to collect invertebrates. Usually, these museums have their collections organized per category(see ones listed above), and keep historical records of how these creatures evolved over 1,000s and millions of years. 

To describe how detailed these collections can be, Cleveland Museum of Natural History houses over 1 million specimens. These specimens date back to the early 1900s. They also contain a huge range of creatures such as beetles, butterflies, praying mantis', and many other animals.

Marine Invertebrates

Let's quickly talk about a few of my favorite animals in the marine section of this study.


Marine Invertebrates can include a range of creatures from shells, crustaceans, corals, and other forms of fish. Due to the extreme conditions underwater, the diversity in this category is huge. They are invertebrates that live in marine habitats. They are creatures that have adapted and grown shells, or hard exoskeletons. They have also been categorized into over 30 phyla. 

Let's touch on the fields of Conchology and Malacology. Which are the studies of shells and mollusks. Digging around on The Cleveland Museum of Natural History's site, you can find a huge range of these shells. Most of them dating pre-1970. Malacology is one of the sub-categories of this topic, as it covers the second-largest phylum of animals. When you picture a mollusk, you might think of a clam-like creature, however mollusks as cover squids, octopuses, clams, and slugs as well. By documenting these creatures we can learn how they are evolving, and how we should care for them in their natural environment. Mollusks can also exist in freshwater, saltwater, and terrestrial environments.

Currently, More than 150 journals within the field of malacology are being published. 

Shell collecting is a huge part of preserving these creatures. By collecting shells, scientists can determine

the age of these animals, how they developed their exoskeletons, and much more. Pretty much every creature in the ocean is in danger to global warming currently, and invertebrates are also particularly at risk. So keeping a track record, and preserving their current forms are highly recommended.

One cool section of creatures that museums are dedicating their time to are micro mollusks. These are animals under 5mm in length, and need to be viewed under a microscope. Some museums use a system called SEM to image these animals. (SEM stands for Scanning Electron Microscope.) Sometimes they also use light microscopy as well. 

The earliest animals on Earth were marine invertebrates. Mollusks arose sometimes 500 million years ago, while the earliest recorded specimens of marine life existed 541-571 million years ago.

Spotlight: Invertebrate Specimen Collections

So Let's talk about some more museums and their effort to preserve invertebrates.

Let's get started with The Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum, education, and research complex. It's collection of Invertebrate Zoology is one of the largest in the world, and has almost a third of it digitized with matching solid specimens. It was established in 1856, and currently holds more than 50 million creatures in it's collection. You can actually go online and view their creatures and discoveries through their online archive. And if you ever need a deep dive on a Saturday night in quarantine, it's pretty fun.

They have pictures and samples from the Gulf of Mexico, Polar Areas, Northern Pacific Areas, and much more. One of the oldest specimens I could find on their online archive was from a sample taken in 1880. This sample is a sea anemone from Newfoundland, Canada. It is labeled as a form of Actinarian. These are creatures that have soft column-shaped bodies, and primarily exist to feed off the ocean floor.

You can find their online collection: HERE.

Another place that is storing invertebrates is UCMP. Or better known as: The University of California's Museum of Paleontology

They have one of the largest collections of Paleontology in the world, and actively encourage research and instruction into earthly sciences. They currently have over 15,000 specimens, thousands of fossil samples, and about 500,000 mollusk samples. Most of their collection is not available on their main site, and are only available in person. This has made research projects involved in invertebrates at UCMP rather difficult during the current pandemic.

You can find their Specimen Collection Database: HERE.

Now let's jump over to our Canadian Museum of Nature up here in Ottawa.

The Canadian Museum of Nature's Invertebrate Collection has specimens that date back to the mid-19th century. They currently have over 7,100,000 specimens in their collection. Their specimens include: annelids, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, and parasites.

Let's take a quick dive into their Annelid Collection. Annelids are considered to be ringed worms or other types of worms on Earth. Currently, there are over 22,000 species of Annelid worms in the world. The Canadian Museum of Nature's Annelid Collection contains over 400,000 specimens. These range from freshwater leeches, bristle worms, ragworms, and earthworms. Most of these samples are from across Canada, as well as from around the world.

They also have a Crustacean Collection dating back to the 1800s. Some of these preserved creatures were found while researchers were exploring North America before Canada was officially a country. In this collection they have over 1.6 million specimens. 

You can search their online collections: HERE.

The California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences has an impressive collection of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology. They have over 2.5 million specimens in their care, that range from coral, to bugs, and to fossils of extinct species. It was first established in 1917, and as a research center as a whole, continues to fund field and lab work, expeditions, and scientific publications to this day. Their collection was originally focused on the lifeforms located inside of California, but has since evolved into other regions of the world as well. Some interesting projects they are currently researching has to do with Octocorals, and other soft shelled mollusks.

You can check out California Academy of Sciences Invertebrate Zoology Projects: HERE

Finally, let's check out The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences has a huge collection of invertebrates. In total, they have over 15 million specimens. These specimens extend from the present day to the Quaternary Period, which was 2.6 million years ago. These preservations include sponges, starfish, jellyfish, leeches, and more. They have both wet and dry specimens. This means creatures contained in jars, and others in their natural state. Most of their dry collection is made up of shells. 

You can check out their online archive: HERE

Specimen Imaging 

Now that we both have a better understanding of invertebrates. Let's dive deeper into how these specimens and creatures are currently being imaged.

Most of the time, imaging is done when researchers need to create documents and evidence for publications and research assignments. Specimen photography is also important for discovering new species. As soon as a new creature is photographed it can help scientists determine the scale, motion, and dynamics of the creature. As well as hypothesize about their evolution. When photographing regular preserved specimens, flash photography is mostly used. 

Some other imaging techniques that are used are ones that include microscopic tools. Scientists need to examine all details of invertebrates in order to understand how they work. So microscopic imaging is a huge advantage for this field. These images can then be used to create detailed illustrations. SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope), as mentioned above, is a hugely important tool for imaging specimens. It once again provides more detail than traditional photography. However, it has more power than a regular microscope, and uses a focused beam of electrons to grab an image. Microscope eyepiece attachments are also used.

3D Visualization and Digitization

There is a certain workflow when it comes to digitizing invertebrates and other zoological specimens. Many specimens can be preserved differently, so it is up to a scientist's discretion to decide how. Physical specimens are usually kept as either wet 3D, dry 3D, tissue samples, photos, videos, SEM data or other media files.


After a creature is preserved, it is then added to a museum collection. Then they are inventoried, processed, and curated. Then all the other data associated with the objects are made available for scholastic purposes.

In a perfect world the end result for a specimen that has been digitized is for it to exist in solid form, and have all it's corresponding information and facts available online. As well as the date it was collected, the discovery's name, and any reports, technical papers, and monographs. Then finally, the complete event information.

However, nothing in this world is perfect. Preservation is a tricky process. Depending on how a creature was stored, can depend how well it can be digitized.  When it comes to wet specimens, there are several chemicals that can be used to "mummify" animals. Sometimes these chemicals can be mixes of Chloral Hydrate, Menthol Crystals, or Magnesium Chloride Solutions.

Building Invertebrates in Houdini

So.....When I first jumped on this subject, I was a bit less optimistic about finding anything related to Houdini, VFX, or the industry as a whole. I wasn't sure if there were any artists who dive into invertebrates, or replicating them in Houdini. But then two things happened....

The first event was when some wonderful people reached out to me from a natural history museum down in the USA. They were incredibly enthusiastic to show me some projects they used Houdini for, and how they were using it for visualization purposes. I won't mention their names here because I'm not sure of how well they would take me mentioning them directly, but what they showed me was pretty darn cool. What they were achieving at their natural history museum was amazing, and the complete capture they were able to do with the ocean floor with Houdini was incredibly cool. As well as some really cool coral simulations, and sea slugs as well. And as we know, sea slugs and corals are invertebrates. In a future article about the ocean floor and ecosystems, I will link their work there. :) I also think it will have more context there as well.

So there you have it, proof already Houdini is helping the planet...

The second discovery was through randomly running through internet forums. I wasn't having much luck doing a general VFX and invertebrate search, so I tried to dumb it down a bit. So I asked google: "Show me some spiders in VFX". As discussed above, invertebrates can exist on land as well, and most of them are quite common. So to me, spiders sounded like the easiest way to find something, or anything related to my topic. That is when I found probably the first and only Houdini Spider Specialist in the world. 

Esther Zeitgeist is a game developer who lives in the Netherlands. She's been in the industry for over 5 years, and is a very gifted technical artist. In her spare time she creates her own tools, and one of them is a procedural spider tool. While doing so she was able to document how spiders worked from a biology perspective and replicate them in Houdini. 

You can check out her website here, along with her spider data. HERE.

Why Documentation is Important

So what are some other reasons we should preserve these weird animals?  

Biodiversity on Earth is always changing. Ecosystems grow and fall, invasive species cause chaos to environments, and global warming throws everything off balance. It is important for us to preserve a baseline of our environment from a historical context, so we can better understand how species adapt to new challenges in their habit. This baseline can also help future research and conservation efforts.

By also studying invertebrates, we can also start to remove our ignorance on "how scary" insects  are, and understand why they should survive. 


On a final note, I think it's our job as simulation artists to help preserve the world around us. Or, use our skills to help out fields we are passionate about. So if any of you get the chance to work for a museum, or research project that appeals to you, do it. You'll be helping fields like this one that rely on visualization tactics to understand life.



Workflow and Digitization with marine invertebrates

Imaging Protocols for the UCSB Invertebrate Zoology Collection:


American Museum for Natural History:

Search the Department of Invertebrate Zoology Collections

Invertebrate Zoology and Small Animal Imaging

Invertebrate Zoology

Marine Invertebrates


Invertebrate Biology


Invertebrate Biology Journal


Marine Invertebrate Zoology 2018:




New Smithsonian Curator, John Pfeiffer, Talks Freshwater Mussels:


Anatomy of a live invertebrate revealed by manganese-enhanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging


Application of magnetic resonance imaging in zoology


Museum Studies students 3D scan invertebrates for Bishop Museum exhibit

Invertebrate zoology:

Invertebrate Zoology

Procedurally generated spiders:


Procedural Spiders:

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