Digital recording of 7 million insect specimens begins

By nahil sobh

University of Illinois

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CHAMPAIGN — A single leafhopper is small, but the task at hand is enormous.

Scientists at the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, are getting ready to digitize biological collections to make them more accessible to researchers and the public.

They will be sharing $2.6 million out of $10 million in grants from the National Science Foundation to begin photographing specimens and creating a digital collection.

Most of the grant funds — $2.3 million — will go to create InvertNet, a cooperative effort among 13 institutions across the upper Midwest to create a virtual museum with 56 million specimens.

As it stands today, just the chance to peruse the collections at the Illinois Natural History Survey is a unique opportunity.

Few people get to roll back the stacks (much like a large library) and peer into drawers that may hold insects collected more than a century ago.

They are understandably fragile and are susceptible to beetle infestations, variations in humidity and at risk from clumsy fingers.

High-resolution digital photography will be employed to photograph entire drawers at once, and from many angles, so viewers may look at the insects from various points of view, much like someone with the drawer in hand.

Entomologist Chris Dietrich pulls a lever and slowly moves a floor-to-ceiling stack of drawers just far enough apart to walk down the newly created aisle.

A single drawer full of pinned insects may hold dozens of individuals and several different family groups. Many drawers hold insects waiting to be identified.

It turns out collecting them in the field is the easy part.

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  • nahil sobh (2020), "Digital recording of 7 million insect specimens begins,"