Bugs in the system: our insect collection goes digital

By Andrea Wild

2 December 2015

A 3D reconstruction of an Amycterine Ground Weevil (Gagatophorus draco) generated from an optical scanning rig. © Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

A 3D reconstruction of an Amycterine Ground Weevil (Gagatophorus draco) generated from an optical scanning rig. © Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

There are more than 12 million insect specimens in our Australian National Insect Collection. If you took a minute to admire each of them, it would take the better part of 23 years to get the job done. So, you can imagine that creating a digital record of the collection is a pretty big job.

“Our natural history collections are one of our biggest datasets,” says Simon Checksfield, who leads the massive task to digitise not just our insect collection but our collections of fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, plants and algae as well.

“Digitisation is about unlocking big data to solve global problems. Our collections exist for research, for solving problems like monitoring species’ responses to climate change. All of that can be done more easily, more quickly and on a grander scale when the specimens are digital as well as physical.”

Digitising our natural biodiversity collections is a fitting job for someone who began his working life as an archaeologist: the insect collection is a cave of wonders. Drawers of tiny flies no bigger than the heads of the pins that hold their labels lie side-by-side with exotic longhorn beetles that might sneak into the country in timber furniture, and jewel beetles that shimmer in metallic shades of blue and green and gold.

One of the millions of samples of the Australian National Insect Collection.

One of the millions of samples of the Australian National Insect Collection.

“As a country we’re blessed with an incredible diversity of living things,” Simon says. “Around three quarters of the species that live here don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

“Biodiversity is a universe at our feet. We all open the cabinets and drawers of insects here with the same sense of awe and wonder as when we gaze at the stars in the evening sky.”

Simon’s team is taking a number of approaches to digitisation depending on the kind of specimen. Insects can be imaged drawer-by-drawer, capturing hundreds at a time. Some are being scanned in 3D in sufficient detail to 3D print titanium replicas. Plant specimens on sheets of paper can be scanned on a factory-style production line. Marine fishes can be x-rayed, terrestrial vertebrates can be CT scanned or have sounds and, thanks to innovations in DNA technology, animals collected many decades ago can now be genotyped.

As we digitise our collections we’re making them publically available on the Atlas of Living Australia, where researchers can include them in continent side studies of our plants and animals. For the rest of us, digitisation helps connect us with our biodiversity heritage.

Feeling inspired? Through DigiVol on the Atlas of Living Australia you can help museums and collections in Australia and overseas to digitise their natural history specimens.

Find out more about scanning bugs in 3D on our website.