Injured sea turtle? Just print a splint!

Feb 19, 2014
Custom-made, 3D printed, turtle flipper splint.

Injured sea turtles are a fairly common sight along the North Carolina coast. Fortunately, these animals are pretty sturdy and have the capacity to heal themselves even without a lot of intervention. But veterinarians and rehabilitation specialists know that a turtle's recovery from injury may not be sufficient to allow them to survive in the wild, particularly if the injury affects mobility. So they're constantly looking at new and innovative ways to help these injured animals not just heal, but fully recover.

Augie, an endangered with a severe flipper injury, is one animal that has benefitted from innovation. Augie was rescued off the N.C. coast in July 2013 with a right front flipper that was cut open, revealing bone fragments. NC State aquatic animal veterinarian Craig Harms and zoological medicine resident Emily Christiansen knew that the tissue wound would probably heal fine, but for Augie to swim properly again the flipper needed to be splinted so that the bones could knit.

Augie getting his splint on.

They contacted NC State veterinary colleague Denis Marcellin-Little, an orthopedics specialist who has a unique partnership with the College of Engineering's Laboratory for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics (LAML), led by Ola Harrysson. Marcellin-Little and LAML regularly collaborate on custom-made prosthetic implants for animals, having done numerous limb and joint replacements on dogs and cats.

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A sea turtle was a bit of a departure from the norm, but the team got to work. A CT scan of Augie's injured flipper was converted into a scale model so that Tim Horn and other LAML engineers could build a customized lightweight, flexible splint for the turtle's limb. The best part? When LAML produces a prosthetic, they do so via 3D printing. For dogs and cats, the implants are usually made of special metals. Since Augie needed something lighter, they printed out a rubber/plastic splint, and with the addition of a little padding to prevent chafing, the problem was solved.

Augie’s flipper, post-splint.

Augie wore the splint for about 40 days. According to Harms, Christiansen and caretakers at the Roanoke Island Aquarium where Augie is rehabbing, the is continuing to heal and Augie will hopefully be released in the near future.

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