Ecological research often involves sampling and manipulating non-model organisms that reside in heterogeneous environments. As such, ecologists often adapt techniques and ideas from industry and other scientific fields to design and build equipment, tools, and experimental contraptions custom-made for the ecological systems under study. Three-dimensional (3D) printing provides a way to rapidly produce identical and novel objects that could be used in ecological studies, yet ecologists have been slow to adopt this new technology. Here, we provide ecologists with an introduction to 3D printing.
First, we give an overview of the ecological research areas in which 3D printing is predicted to be the most impactful and review current studies that have already used 3D printed objects. We then outline a methodological workflow for integrating 3D printing into an ecological research program and give a detailed example of a successful implementation of our 3D printing workflow for 3D printed models of the brown anole, Anolis sagrei, for a field predation study. After testing two print media in the field, we show that the models printed from the less expensive and more sustainable material (blend of 70% plastic and 30% recycled wood fiber) were just as durable and had equal predator attack rates as the more expensive material (100% virgin plastic).
Overall, 3D printing can provide time and cost savings to ecologists, and with recent advances in less toxic, biodegradable, and recyclable print materials, ecologists can choose to minimize social and environmental impacts associated with 3D printing. The main hurdles for implementing 3D printing-availability of resources like printers, scanners, and software, as well as reaching proficiency in using 3D image software-may be easier to overcome at institutions with digital imaging centers run by knowledgeable staff. As with any new technology, the benefits of 3D printing are specific to a particular project, and ecologists must consider the investments of developing usable 3D materials for research versus other methods of generating those materials.