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Grand Photos of Humble Bugs: Digitizing our Entomology Collection
Posted June 30, 2016
Photo: Chinese Tiger Beetle
By Michael Mozdy
We're working hard to add to the definition of shutterbug:
1. Someone who loves taking photos.
2. A particularly photogenic image of a bug, created by focus stacking (see below)
3. One of about a hundred small items to trip you up when taking photos of tiny creatures.
It’s no small feat to photograph all those small feet
Even though they're not scooting around anymore, taking quality photographs of the insects in our collection is not exactly point-and-shoot. First, you have to understand how they're preserved: on a pin, in a case, under glass, in a cabinet. After they're extracted from their case, the next step is to carefully remove their identification tag. Unsurprisingly, these tags are tiny. As an interesting aside, the tags often jam an incredible amount of information into 40 characters or less (take that, Twitter!). When a bug from the collection is added to the online database, those 40 characters must be decoded in order to enter the collector’s name, the bug’s name, and when and where it was found.
Free of tags, we position our bugs for the photo shoot of their lives (well, of their preserved lives). Our photographer takes series of 20-40 pictures, re-focusing a millimeter at a time. In a process called focus stacking, those pictures are compiled to create one digital image where every part of the bug is in focus. With macro photography (extremely close-up photography of small objects), pictures tend to have a very shallow field of focus. Focus stacking creates a greater depth of field and the resulting image appears with startling clarity.
East Pinebarrens Tiger Beetle
“The more three-dimensional a bug, the more difficult the process,” explains NHMU Entomology Collections Manager, Christy Bills, since the camera must be re-focused more times over a greater three-dimensional space. When the photographing is complete and the computer crunches away, compiling the image, the insect must have its tag reattached and be carefully pinned back in its glass-covered case.
At our fastest, our trained and skilled photographers can process about four bugs per hour.
Despite how labor-intensive the process might be, the images’ excellence makes it worthwhile.
Only 274,900 to Go
We’ve been databasing our 275,000 entomology specimens since 2013, but only now do we have the ability to add high-resolution photos to those online records. Thanks to a generous gift from an NHMU donor in 2015, we were able to purchase the top-of-the-line equipment and software needed.
Our entomology imaging station
According to Bills, adding the images to our database entries takes preservation to a new level. “Every entomology collection contains unknown specimens,” she says, “and now researchers can access records from collections around the world and help to identify what’s in them.” Researchers can also better understand the habitat and range of the species they study as collections become available online. Records can be sorted by date, geography, or taxonomy in ways more powerful than earlier generations of researchers could ever imagine.
A peek through the glass at some specimens
Perhaps just as importantly, the general public - you and I - now have access to specimens in collections in a way we didn't before. While museum collections preserve specimens for our benefit, only a small portion of them are ever visible when you come to the museum. Researchers can, of course, make an appointment with our collections managers to see a specimen, but digitizing our collections puts the entire collection at everyone's fingertips. Online sites like SCAN (Symbiota Collections of Arthropods Network), allow us to browse through treasure troves of specimens from NHMU and other insect collections around the country. Science is all about collaboration, and digitizing collections enhances collaboration exponentially.
Here are a few more beauties we've photographed to date:
A cockroach - who'd have guessed they could be so beautiful? (Click here to enlarge)
Oblique-lined Tiger Beetle (click here to enlarge)
Michael Mozdy is a Digital Science Writer for The Natural History Museum of Utah, a part of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Our mission is to illuminate the natural world and the place of humans within it. In addition to housing outstanding exhibits for the public, NHMU is a research museum. Learn more.
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