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Successful Test of First Contactless Underwater Ultrasound Scanner

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The lightweight and compact Duo-Scan:Go contactless ultrasound scanner (Photo: Andy Ball)

A recent collaboration in the Maldives has enabled marine biologists to successfully scan a pregnant reef manta ray underwater and obtain clear ultrasound images of her foetus using the world’s first contactless underwater ultrasound scanner.

The Duo-Scan:Go Oceanic contactless ultrasound scanner was designed, developed and manufactured by IMV imaging, a world-leading company in the development and manufacturing of veterinary imaging technology, based in Bellshill, Scotland. The scanner has recently been successfully field-tested on wild reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi) by scientists from the Manta Trust and Cambridge University Veterinary School.

Until recently, ultrasonography of wild marine mammals required the animal to be removed from the water. More recent ultrasound scanning by the Galápagos Whaleshark Research Project was able to be conducted underwater, but necessitated the use of a scanner which weighed 17kg and had to be used in contact with the sharks.

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The Duo-Scan:Go Oceanic dive rig is smaller and lighter than existing scanners (Photo: Andy Ball)

By contrast, IMV imaging's Duo-Scan:Go Oceanic dive rig used in the field tests weighs in at just 1.8kg. It can be taken to depths of up to 30m, and – with the assistance of Wi-Fi and a smartphone as a viewing screen –  is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. Because the scanner does not require contact with the animal during the scanning process, it therefore reduces the stress placed upon the animals.

Chief Executive of IMV imaging, Alan Picken, highlighted the two years of development taken to address these previous limitations, while also ensuring the device was user-friendly for aquatic researchers. 'Our team of Scottish engineers had to ensure the device was durable enough to be taken to the same depths as recreational SCUBA divers, manoeuvrable enough to aid the diver in scanning but not so flexible that strong ocean currents would inhibit is functionality,' said Mr Picken. 'It was a delicate balance and a great feat of engineering.' 

'What we are really excited about is the contactless nature of this technology,' he said. 'There are significant benefits for animal welfare, but you also open up a whole range of possible applications if you can scan animals that ordinarily wouldn’t let you get close enough to touch them.'

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Manta Trust researcher scanning a reef manta ray (Photo: Andy Ball)

Researchers from the Manta Trust and Cambridge University Veterinary School verified the contactless technology works in field tests carried out in collaboration with the Vetsonic (UK) Ltd and Six Senses Laamu, a five-star resort in the Maldives with a nearby resident reef manta ray population.

Successfully scanning the often-skittish reef manta rays was no small feat, commented Dr Guy Stevens, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Manta Trust. 'When the project began, none of the team knew whether scanning wild reef manta rays would even be possible,' said Dr Stevens. 'What has been achieved is beyond what we could have hoped for.'

'More than just scanning a reef manta ray and proving that this contactless technology works,' said Dr Stevens, 'We were able to obtain the first ever scans of wild reef manta rays; pregnant and non-pregnant females, as well as mature males. Manta rays are threatened worldwide and we still know so little about their reproductive strategies,' he added. 'The ability to scan pregnant individuals will be invaluable in our quest to protect them.'

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Ultrasound scans from the Duo-Scan: Go Oceanic showing a foetus inside a reef manta ray (left, Haisham Rasheed) and the empty body cavity of a non-pregnant reef manta ray (right, Alex Berry)

The Duo-Scan:Go Oceanic could have applications for the conservation of a wide range of marine life, including the study of gestation, disease, body composition and health, which are virtually impossible to study on living aquatic animals.

'Trials are planned with collaborators worldwide to investigate the wide range of possible applications,' said Dr Gareth Pearce from the University of Cambridge Veterinary School.

 

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