Computed tomography in wildlife medicine and research for conservation

Computed tomography at the Leibniz-IZW - an unusual insight into wild animals and fossils: using state of the art imaging, from classic representation of morphology to the visualization of dynamic processes, we answer clinical as well as scientific questions regarding animal welfare, veterinary clinical diagnostics, and basic research.

Project details
Duration: since 2004
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Reproduction Management, Dept Wildlife Diseases
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Thomas Hildebrandt (Dept Reproduction Management)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team:

Guido Fritsch, Roland Frey, Frank Göritz, Susanne Holtze, Juliane Kühne (all: Dept Reproduction Management), Claudia A Szentiks, Gudrun Wibbelt, Zoltan Mezö, Oliver Krone (all: Dept Wildlife Diseases)

Consortium Partner(s):
  • Tierpark Berlin & Zoologischer Garten Berlin, Zoo Berlin AG
  • Technische Universtität Berlin, Institut für Mathematik
  • Humboldt University of Berlin (HU)
  • Universität Potsdam (GENOMICS)
  • University of Edinburgh, UK
  • LUPUS – Institut für Wolfsmonitoring und -forschung in Deutschland, Außenstelle Gelnhausen und Naturkundemuseum Görlitz der Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (SGN)
  • Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN)
  • Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit (BMU)
  • Leibniz-Zentrum für Agrarlandschaftsforschung (ZALF)
  • Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
  • Naturkundemuseum der Martin-Luther-Universtiät Halle-Wittenberg (Geisetalsammlung)
  • Tierklinik Biesdorf, Tierarztpraxis Dr. H. Watzke
  • Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Museum für Naturkunde
  • Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung
  • Tierärztekammer Berlin
Current Funding Organisation:

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) Major Instrumentation Grant (INST 276/851-1) with altogether 6 partners, total budget 550 T€

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)

Research Foci:
Understanding traits and evolutionary adaptations
Understanding wildlife health and disturbed homeostasis
Understanding the environmental context
Improving population viability
Developing theories, methods, and tools
Photo gallery

Since 2004, the Leibniz-IZW has been working with modern spiral computed tomography (CT). First with a so-called 4-line system, from 2009 with a 128-slice CT-scanner, which was replaced in 2015 with a technically groundbreaking 320-slice system, and finally since 2018 with a device technically improved in all aspects, the Canon Aquilion ONE Genesis. We are now working with the fourth CT-generation. In addition, a state of the art micro-CT research center was established in 2021 as part of a joint DFG major instrumentation grant together with five partners at the Humboldt University of Berlin, which helps to optimally answer questions relating to very small biological structures.

A wide range of scientific questions have since been addressed by computer tomography at the Leibniz-IZW. Various studies from joint research projects embedded within national and international cooperations have resulted in scientific publications. Our scientists played a lead role in gaining decisive insights on sound production (vocalization) of various animal species, such as different ungulate species, elephants and koala by using a novel approach of combining this imaging method with classic preparation techniques. These results have been published in high-ranking scientific journals such as Science and Current Biology.

The use of computed tomography for the examination of fossils and archaeological bone findings may appear somewhat unexpected. Worth mentioning are our publications on the CT-assisted extraction of ancient DNA from various fossil species, e.g. of Steller's sea cow, cave bear and mammoth in cooperation with the Berlin Natural History Museum and the University of Potsdam. Certainly the most famous object in this field was the Berlin specimen of the Archeopteryx as well as skeletal parts of Dicraeosaurus hansemanni. Further, in collaboration with the Brandenburg State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and the Archaeological State Museum in Wünsdorf, we scientifically examined a person from the Middle Stone Age with the surrounding soil and grave goods.

Archaeopteryx                                                  Dicraeosaurus hansemanni                          Enaliosuchus schroederi

Middle stone age human grave


A new research field is the CT-based analysis of soil structure, a collaboration with the Center for Agricultural Land Research Müncheberg (ZALF), funded by the German Federal Republic. These investigations help to gain a new understanding of the structural properties and density of biological components in different soil types. In the future, a comprehensive categorization of agricultural soils is planned using Artificial Intelligence (project proposal pre-approved). Furthermore, as part of the newly created Federal Documentation and Advice Center on Wolves (DBBW), all wolves found dead in Germany are subjected to a computed tomographic examination at the Leibniz-IZW. This examination ensures a non-destructive assessment of the carcass and to possibly identify projectiles, and is followed by a classical pathological-anatomical necropsy and sample collection for our cooperation partners.

Wolf (Canis lupus)


In addition to its use in basic wildlife research, the CT Research Center offers national and international zoological facilities the service to answer difficult diagnostic questions in zoo patients with the help of this innovative imaging method. Famous patients were the adult orangutan breeding male Bornie from Cologne Zoo, the male giant panda Jiao Qing from Berlin Zoo and the unexpectedly deceased polar bear Knut. The computer tomography analysis tool enables us to visualize structures and dynamics in novel ways. The images in form of innumerable layers, e.g. the more than 5000 image slices of Knut were assembled with high-performance computer technology to a three-dimensional data set.

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), neonatal


Due to the unique scanning speed of our Aquilion ONE Genesis, it is possible to examine small animals - up to the size of a pug - without need for anesthesia. Besides the scientific applications, we provide diagnostic service to the Berlin veterinarians as a referral practice.


Selected Publications

Schwarz D, Fritsch G, Issever AS, Hildebrandt TB (2023): Description of contents of unopened bamboo corsets and crates from Quarry Ig/WJ of the Tendaguru locality (Late Jurassic, Tanzania, East Africa) as revealed by medical CT data and the potential of this data under paleontological and historical aspects.  PALAEONTOL ELECTRON 26, a4.
Pacher K, Breuker M, Hansen MJ, Kurvers RHJM., Häge J, Dhellemmes F, Domenici P, Steffensen JF, Krause S, Hildebrandt TB, Fritsch G, Bach P, Sabarros PS, Zaslansky P, Mahlow K, Müllern J, Armas RG, Ortiz HV, Galván-Magaña F, Jens Krause J (2023): The rostral micro-tooth morphology of blue marlin, Makaira nigricans. FISH BIOLOGY, 1-10.
Deiringer N, Schneeweiß U, Kaufmann LV, Eigen L, Speissegger C, Gerhardt B, Holtze S, Fritsch G, Göritz F, Becker R, Ochs A, Hildebrandt TB, Brecht M (2023): The functional anatomy of elephant trunk whiskers. COMMUN BIOL 6, 591.
Haase A, Sen M, Gremse C, Mader A, Korkmaz B, Jungnickel H, Hildebrandt TB, Fritsch G, Nomata J, Moenning JL, Steinhoff-Wagner J, Lahrssen M, Pieper R (2023): Analysis of number, size and spatial distribution of rifle bullet-derived lead fragments in hunted roe deer using computed tomography. DISCOVER FOOD, volume 3, 11.
Le Duc D, Velluva A, Cassatt-Johnstone M, Olsen RA, Baleka S, Lin CC, Lemke JR, Southon JR, Burdin A, Wang MS, Grunewald S, Rosendahl W, Joger U, Rutschmann S, Hildebrandt TB, Fritsch G, Estes JA, Kelso J, Dalén L, Hofreiter M, Shapiro B, Schöneberg T. (2022). Genomic basis for skin phenotype and cold adaptation in the extinct Steller's sea cow. SCI ADV 8:eabl6496.
Purkart L, Tuff JM, Kaufmann LV, Altringer C, Maier E, Schneeweiss U, Shah M, Tunckol E, Holtze S, Fritsch G, Hildebrandt TB, Brecht M. (2021). Trigeminal Ganglion and Sensory Nerves Suggest Tactile Specialization of Elephants. CURR BIOL 32, 904-910.

Wieland, R., Ukawa, C., Joschko, M., Krolczyk, A., Fritsch, G., Hildebrandt, T.B., Schmidt, O., Filser, J. and Jimenez, J.J. (2021). Use of deep learning for structural analysis of computer tomography images of soil samples. R SOC OPEN SCI 8, 201275.

Dhellemmes F, Hansen MJ, Bouet SD, Videler JJ, Domenici P, Steffensen JF, Hildebrandt TB, Fritsch G, Bach P, Sabarros PS, Krüger A, Kurvers RHJM, Krause J (2020): Oil gland and oil pores in billfishes: in search of a function. J EXP BIOL 223, jeb.224956. doi:10.1242/jeb.224956

Schwab JA, Young MT, Neenan JM, Walsh SA, Witmer LM, Herrera Y, Allain R, Brochu CA, Choiniere JN, Clark JM, Dollman KN, Etches S, Fritsch G, Gignac PM, Ruebenstahl A, Sachs S, Turner AH, Vignaud P, Wilberg EW, Xu X, Zanno LE,  Brusatte SL (2020): Inner ear sensory system changes as extinct crocodylomorphs transitioned from land to water. PNAS V 117, Is 19 ID: 2020-02146R

Hansen MJ, Krause S, Breuker M, Kurvers RH, Dhellemmes F, Viblanc PE, Müller J, Mahlow C, Boswell K, Marras S, Domenici P, Wilson ADM, Herbert-Read JE, Steffensen JF, Fritsch G, Hildebrandt TB, Zaslansky P, Bach P, Sabarros PS, Krause J (2020): Linking hunting weaponry to attack strategies in sailfish and striped marlin. PROC ROYAL SOC B 287, 20192228. doi:10.1098/rspb.2019.2228

Frey R, Volodin IA, Volodina EV, Efremova KO, Menges V, Portas R, Melzheimer J, Fritsch G, Gerlach C, von Dörnberg K (2020): Savannah roars: The vocal anatomy and the impressive rutting calls of male impala (Aepyceros melampus) – highlighting the acoustic correlates of a mobile larynx. J ANAT 236, 398-424. doi:10.1111/joa.13114

Volodin IA, Nahlik A, Tari T, Frey R, Volodina EV (2019): Rutting roars in native Pannonian red deer of Southern Hungary and the evidence of acoustic divergence of male sexual vocalization between Eastern and Western European red deer (Cervus elaphus). MAMM BIOL 94, 54-65. doi:10.1016/j.mambio.2018.10.009

Frey R, Reby D, Fritsch G, Charlton BD (2018) The remarkable vocal anatomy of the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus): insights into low-frequency sound production in a marsupial species. J ANAT 232, 575-595

Alberti F, Gonzalez J, Paijmans JLA, Basler N, Preick M, Henneberger K, Trinks A, Rabeder G, Conard NJ, Münzel SC, Joger U, Fritsch G, Hildebrandt TB, Hofreiter M, Barlow A (2018): Optimised DNA sampling of ancient bones using Computed Tomography (CT) scans, MOL ECOL RESOUR V16 Is6.

Reby D, Wyman MT, Frey R, Charlton BD, Dalmont JP, Gilbert J (2018): Vocal tract modeling in fallow deer: Are male groans nasalized? J EXP BIOL 221, jeb179416. doi:10.1242/jeb.179416

Efremova KO, Frey R, Volodin IA, Fritsch G, Soldatova NV, Volodina EV (2016): The postnatal ontogeny of the sexually dimorphic vocal apparatus in goitred gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa). J MORPHOL 277, 826-844. doi:10.1002/jmor.20538

Frey R, Volodin IA, Fritsch G, Volodina EV (2016): Potential sources of high frequency and biphonic vocalization in the dhole (Cuon alpinus). PLOS ONE 11, e0146330. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146330

Schwarz, D., Kosch, J., Fritsch, G. & Hildebrandt, T. (2015). Dentition and tooth replacement of Dicraeosaurus hansemanni(Dinosauria, Sauropoda, Diplodocoidea) from the Tendaguru Formation of Tanzania.-  J VERTEBR PALEONTOL, 35(6):e1008134. DOI:

Zaytseva AS, Volodin IA, Mason MJ, Frey R, Fritsch G, Ilchenko OG, Volodina EV (2015): Vocal development during postnatal growth and ear morphology in a shrew that generates seismic vibrations, Diplomesodon pulchellum. BEHAV PROCESS 118, 130-141. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2015.06.012

Witzmann, F., Schwarz-Wings, D., Hampe, O., Fritsch, G., Asbach, P. (2014) Evidence of Spondyloarthropathy in the Spine of a Phytosaur (Reptilia: Archosauriformes) from the Late Triassic of Halberstadt, Germany. - PLOS ONE, 9(1): e85511. DOI:

Galateanu G, Hermes R, Saragusty J, Göritz F, Potier R, Mulot B, Maillot A, Etienne P, Bernardino R, Fernandes T, Mews J, Hildebrandt TB (2014): Rhinoceros Feet Step Out of a Rule-of-Thumb: A Wildlife Imaging Pioneering Approach of Synchronized Computed Tomography-Digital Radiography. PLOS ONE 9, e100415. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100415

Trinogga A, Fritsch G, Hofer H, Krone O (2013): Are lead-free hunting rifle bullets as effective at killing wildlife as conventional lead bullets? A comparison based on wound size and morphology. SCI TOTAL ENVIRON 443, 226-232. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2012.10.084

Charlton BD, Frey R, McKinnon AJ, Fritsch G, Fitch WT, Reby D (2013) Koalas use a novel organ to produce unusually low-pitched mating calls. CURR BIOL 23, R1035-R1036.