3D Printed Shell Brings Tortoise Back into Shape

Cleopatra, a leopard tortoise from Colorado, USA, has a lot to be thankful for. First, to Nico Novelli and his Canyon Critter Reptile Rescue team for rescuing her. Then, to Roger Henry – a design student at Colorado Technical University – who, with assistance from the design team at the 3D Printing Store (Denver, Colorado), spent 600 hours making her a much-needed new shell. Then, she might want to thank 3D printing with a little pat on the back. Just for being there.


Named Cleopatra, the teenage tortoise suffers from ‘pyramiding’. Due to malnutrition, her shell is deformed into pyramid-like peaks and valleys, with holes and small fractures that leave her susceptible to bacteria, infection, and injury. The rigid, non-uniform shell also causes a problem for Cleopatra in that it wouldn’t allow her to flip over, if upside-down. It would also prevent other tortoises from safely climbing on her and this climbing is a huge part of socializing or mating in the tortoise world. So ,what was rough and uneven really needed to be made round and smooth.

3d scanning shell

To do this, Roger Henry decided to use 3D printing to build a conformal shell, one that would “drape like a piece of cloth” over Cleopatra’s existing deformed one. He first got her scanned at the 3D Printing Store and then painstakingly developed prototypes until he finally arrived at one that fit perfectly.

3d printing tortoise shell

Made of biodegradable PLA, the lightweight shell was printed in four parts (due to print-volume restrictions) and attached to the existing one with velcro. The shell is strong enough to evenly bear the weight of other tortoises and covers any exposed parts. As she is fed a healthier, more nutritional diet, her shell should heal and smooth over in the course of the next few years. All this means that, instead of succumbing to complications early on, Cleopatra will live on well into her eighties.

The amazing thing here is that Cleopatra’s deformed shell is really one of a kind, and it has a highly irregular shape. The demand for the prosthetic shell placed restrictions on weight and strength. It also had to be bio-friendly and feasible. Arguably, only 3D printing could possibly satisfy this requirement so completely. Additionally, as she grows, so does her shell, and, with 3D printing, one can quickly and easily scan and print a new one as needed.

new shell

It is because of creatures in need like Cleopatra the tortoise, Derby the dog, Paris Shellton the hermit crab, Buttercup the duck, Grecia the toucan, Beauty the bald eagle, Holly the horse, Kaiba the human, and so many more that 3D printing is inadvertently finding itself becoming a key life-saving technology. Who knows what it might save next!

All Images Courtesy of Colorado Technical University.