Injured Tortoise Zooms Around On New Wheels Thanks To 3D-Printed Prosthesis

A tortoise in Brazil has received a new lease of life thanks to a one-of-a-kind 3D-printed prosthesis. Filó the 25-year-old Chelonoidis carbonarius – or jabuti, as the species is known locally – had been left unable to walk following surgery to correct a severe reproductive condition, yet now zips around on wheels.

Veterinary doctor Giuliano Setem told IFLScience that he had “never had a [tortoise] patient with such a bad injury” prior to encountering Filó. Weighing 20 kilograms (44 pounds), the reptile was placed in Dr Setem’s care after developing complications from an operation to treat egg retention.

This occurs when poor diet, lack of sunlight, or other lifestyle factors disrupt a tortoise’s ability to produce calcium. This, in turn, results in weak-shelled or misformed eggs that break inside the animal’s reproductive system, releasing their contents and creating the ideal conditions for bacterial infection.

When egg retention is diagnosed, vets usually carry out a routine operation to remove the eggs along with the entire reproductive system. Unfortunately for Filó, her surgery was conducted by a veterinarian who was not a reptile specialist.

After the operation, the tortoise suffered necrosis of the plastron bone, which forms the bottom of the shell and protects the abdomen. Part of the plastron then broke off, exposing the coelomic membrane.

   

“In addition to the loss of a portion of her shell, Filó has also developed paresis [partial paralysis] of the pelvic limbs, which has become more critical in recent months,” explained Dr Setem. “This makes it difficult for her to move around and obtain food, and she frequently becomes soiled.”

It’s currently unclear if the hind leg mobility problem was caused by nerve compression due to egg retention or “some carelessness by the surgeon during the procedure”. Regardless of the cause, Dr Setem knew that he would have to think outside the box to find a solution, and called upon the services of 3D designer Cícero Moraes.

A CT scan of Filó’s injury.
Image courtesy of Giuliano Setem/Cícero Moraes

Having previously created the world’s first 3D-printed tortoise shell, Moraes studied computerized tomography (CT) scans of Filó’s injury before designing a prosthetic that both protects the wounded region and enhances the tortoise’s mobility. Describing the contraption to IFLScience, Moraes explained that “it is a base that attaches, in a non-retentive way, to the defect caused by the surgical procedure, in order to protect the region from external elements, [and] at the same time four structures [that] come out, each with a wheel rotating, which allows Filó to walk without putting all her weight on [her] paws.” 

As can be seen in the above video, Filó has been testing the limits of the device, which stands up well to everything she throws at it.

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