Elizabeth Harrison

(UM News Service) If not for its small size, distinguishing between the 3D-printed replica of Wolf 302M’s skull and the actual animal it imitates would be nearly impossible.

The near-perfect printed artifact is part of a passion project spearheaded by Maddy Jackson, a wildlife biology graduate student at the University of Montana, who is casting new light on the treasures hidden within a special wolf skull collection in Yellowstone National Park.

"This is the first time that anyone has digitized three-dimensional museum specimens from Yellowstone to make them available to the public online,” Jackson said.

She envisions a future where researchers, students and wolf enthusiasts can explore the digital repository without having to travel or knock on the doors of Yellowstone’s Heritage and Research Center, where the collection is held.

Jackson’s journey into wildlife biology began after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in ecology in 2017. She ventured into the untamed expanses of northern Minnesota, central Idaho, eastern Montana and iconic Yellowstone, working as a wildlife research technician. It was during her tenure with the Yellowstone Wolf Project that she stumbled upon the wildlife biology program at UM.

As part of the project’s road crew, Jackson observed wolf pack behaviors, monitored their interactions with humans and helped ensure a harmonious coexistence between park visitors and the beloved wolves. This is where the seed of an idea took root: Jackson envisioned a repository of 3D digital copies of Yellowstone’s wolf skulls – a portal accessible to researchers and enthusiasts around the globe.

The archived wolf skulls hold the genetic blueprints, disease diaries and behavioral novellas of a scientifically and culturally significant wolf population. They are a testament to the triumphant return of wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, a conservation saga that continues to echo today.

With funding secured from Conservation Nation and expertise from her collaborator, Jonathan Keller at the University of New Mexico, Jackson began the laborious task of digitizing the historic wolf skull collection. Each skull is rotated on a Bluetooth turntable and meticulously captured through the lens of photogrammetry. Jackson sends the images to Glenn Kneebone, program manager for the UM Mansfield Library, 3D Lab, Studios, & Innovative Spaces. Kneebone then transforms the digital copies into physical replicas.

Jackson’s endeavor to unravel the secrets within the skulls extends beyond herself and the confines of Yellowstone.

“I can't possibly look into all of them, so making skulls available makes it possible for other people to ask their own questions about the collection,” she said.