Air mailing tiny biological specimens to entomologists in different countries is full of risks. Sometimes they get destroyed en route to their destination or even lost in the post.
Researchers from Berlin's Museum of Natural History want to tackle these problems with a project dubbed "Zoosphere." For this project, they've digitized around 80 insect specimens from a collection of several million so they can share them without risk of losing the originals.
"We don't like sending out insects as occasionally they get lost in the post. We're no longer sending them out to researchers in emerging countries, and that leaves them handicapped if they don't have the resources to come to us," Thomas von Rintelen, Zoosphere project manager, told me over the phone.
"Zoosphere is a tool that delivers 3D images of these specimens. It lets us open up our collections to everyone free of charge."
To image a specimen, researchers retrieve it from its drawer, mount it on a special holding tray, then twirl it around so that a camera can capture it from all angles. The process takes several hours and the researchers end up with several hundred images with which to make their 3D virtual bug image. The final result allows users to access the bug and view it from all angles on their computer screen. The images are linked to a species name, and used as a reference point by entomologists when they are describing and categorizing similar species from the same family.
According to Martin Pluta, a biologist and programmer at Berlin's Museum of Natural Science, the digital models offer some advantages over the physical copies. Everyone can access these models, and users can zoom and view the images at any angle without worrying about damaging them, and use the images in research papers. Most importantly, the digital images override the need for the museum to send out precious type specimens. These are the specimens upon which the name and description of a new species is based.
Yet both Pluta and von Rintelen said that there were still some things that the images didn't capture, and that the utility of the images depended on the needs of individual researchers. For instance, researchers interested in studying the genitalia of a bug would be at a loss as the imaging equipment cannot capture something that is tucked away inside the bug.
Next up, the researchers want to scale up their operations. They aim to image specimens more quickly, and make their software and equipment available to other museum curators and researchers.
Pluta suggested using better camera equipment that captured images in 4D when it becomes available at affordable prices. "We want to improve the technology, as right now capturing a specimen takes around two to four hours," he said.
Ultimately, Pluta and von Rintelen hope that the advancement of new technologies will soon allow other museum institutions across the world to conserve skewered rotatable versions of their fragile bug specimens for posterity.