February 25, 2024

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Digitalising the Australian National Insect Collection

Image Credits: CSIRO, Press Release

In the pursuit of advancing scientific research and accessibility, the Australian National Insect Collection is working to digitise its vast repository of microscope slides containing intricate specimens of insects, mites, nematodes, and even the genitalia of moths. This substantial collection, totalling 12 million specimens, plays a pivotal role in understanding species distributions and insect ecology, particularly those that can spread diseases.

Image Credits: CSIRO, Press Release

Nicole Fisher, the coordinator of digitisation activities, emphasised the primary goal of this ambitious undertaking — to facilitate research. By creating a comprehensive digital database, researchers worldwide will gain unprecedented access to valuable information about the specimens, including details of when and where they were collected.

Fisher explained the meticulous process of digitisation, involving photographing each microscope slide and utilising optical character recognition to extract handwritten or typed information. However, this process comes with its challenges, such as faded or discoloured writing, etched surfaces, and information on the underside of slides.

The digitisation effort involves assigning a unique number to each microscope slide, repairing damaged slides, and ensuring that the entire collection becomes searchable in the digital realm. Once completed, the database will provide insights into the exact number of microscope slides, the species they represent, and the information documented on them.

Photographer Ryan Main, who previously worked on digitising the Australian National Herbarium, describes the efficiency of capturing photos but acknowledges the profound significance of the project. He highlighted the decades of work represented by each microscope slide and envisioned a future where people worldwide can explore this extensive collection. Given the sheer volume of slides, Ryan occasionally captures entire trays, subsequently digitally separating individual slides. Despite this efficiency, digitising the microscope slides of flies alone took more than six months.

The digitisation initiative aligns with a broader transition for the Australian National Insect Collection and the Australian National Wildlife Collection. Both collections are relocating to a new facility at CSIRO in Canberra, marking a significant move from old cabinets to new ones. Nicole Fisher expresses anticipation for the opening of the new building early next year, which will coincide with the unveiling of a fully digitised microscope slide collection. This transition promises increased accessibility for researchers, with cleaner glass figuratively awaiting them on the other side.

The endeavour to digitise the microscope slides is not merely about preserving physical specimens but also holds particular importance for the study of insect genitalia. The collection includes genitalia from 36,000 moths, aiding in the differentiation of species.

This meticulous focus on insect genitalia proves invaluable in describing new species, as exemplified by the Sapphire Azure Butterfly. This recently discovered species, native to Queensland and endangered due to land clearing, relies on the meticulous identification facilitated by the study of its genitalia.

The ambitious digitisation project, backed by joint funding from CSIRO and the Department of Education through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, represents a significant technological leap. The infusion of digital technologies not only preserves the historical value of the specimens but also positions the collection as a dynamic resource for contemporary and future research. As the microscope slides are meticulously catalogued in the digital domain, scientists and enthusiasts alike can look forward to exploring the intricate world of insects from the comfort of their screens.


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