A decade ago, a trailer filled with 32 alligators was confiscated by police. One of these 32 alligators was missing almost his entire tail, and the rescue team determined him unfit to release to the wild. Because of this, they took this alligator – now known as Mr. Stubbs – to the Phoenix Herpetological Society. There, it became evident that Mr. Stubbs underwent major struggles on a daily basis without a tail. Scientists at Midwestern University soon learned about Mr. Stubbs’ problem and set out to make him a prosthetic tail.

The first prosthetic they created in 2013 was made of silicon and aided Mr. Stubbs greatly. He quickly outgrew this prosthetic, but because of his vast increase in size, scientists were hesitant to take a plaster cast of his tail stump as they had done to produce to original prosthetic. Luckily for them – and their hands – there is 3D scanning and 3D printing.

“We contacted the 3D-scanning and -printing company…to find out what they could do to help us,” explained Dr. Justin Georgi, associate professor of anatomy at Midwestern University. “They used an 3D scanner (similar to a HandySCAN) to create a high-resolution, digital model of the tail. We [were able to] manipulate that model to produce any alteration to the tail we needed. We fixed imperfections, made it exactly the correct length and size, [and] adjusted the front end so it matched Mr. Stubbs’ stump with a perfect custom fit.”

The team from Midwestern 3D printed a silicone cast from their 3D model which was used to create a number of prosthetic tails for Mr. Stubbs. The team explained that because they did not have access to a large-scale 3D printer, such as those from BigRep, they weren’t able to 3D print a wearable prosthetic. Hence, they printed a prototype, used it to make an accurate mold and then casted several pieces.  With his new tail, Mr. Stubbs can finally swim and quickly get to food for the first time since losing his tail, and the team is confident that he may one day be able to return to his natural habitat with competing alligators.

“[He is] doing very well,” Dr. Georgi said. “Whenever he is wearing one of his tails, he continues to show improvement. We are now in the process of building a new tail for him, based on what we have learned from the recent experiments. We expect that as his growth slows with age, and we build him a tail that he can grow into, he should soon have one that will benefit him for many years, not just the next two or three.”

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