Social Butterflies

Butterfly illustration
As part of the LepNet project, Joe McHugh (below), CAES professor of entomology and curator of the arthropod collection at the Georgia Museum of Natural History, will help lead the effort to digitize millions of butterfly and moth specimens (like those above) from museum collections across the nation. Photo of Joe McHugh by Merritt Melancon

Locked in museums across the world, millions of insect specimens tell the story of the world’s climatic shifts, moving animals and changing fauna.

The complete story told by these pinned bees, beetles and butterflies has been buried for centuries under the sheer number of specimens. Researchers at the Georgia Museum of Natural History at the University of Georgia are working to digitize specimens and set a framework for other museums’ collections.

Joe McHugh, curator of the arthropod collection at the museum and professor of entomology in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, will help lead a National Science Foundation-funded effort to digitize around 2.1 million specimens from the order Lepidoptera — moths and butterflies — and to make that data available to scientists studying climate, natural habitats and agricultural pests. When LepNet is complete, it will be one of the largest databases of insect information, opening centuries of scientific inquiry to the new world of data analytics.

“People don’t really want to spend five years going around the world visiting collections in museums and transcribing data from tiny little labels just to understand the basic biology and distribution of a species,” said McHugh. “Researchers need to be able to address important questions quickly by going to some web-based resource and pulling down all the relevant information in some standard format for analysis.”

Scientists have been collecting and organizing insect specimens since before the Enlightenment, and museums worldwide have solid collections dating back 300 years. Museums in North America alone house around 250 million insect specimens from around the world.

Most specimens are stored with details of their capture: the date and the time of day they were found, their food, climatic data, the geographic location, the condition of the insect and their interactions with other organisms. Each entry represents a data point that can now be used to construct a clearer understanding of the biology of that species and of how populations move and change, and why.

“We can use this information to look at questions about invasive species, climate change or human impact on environments by seeing how, over time, the ranges of insect species have changed,” McHugh said.

Researchers can also build models to project when and where problem insects, like crop-devouring caterpillars, will appear, allowing farmers to prepare for the arrival of a species, McHugh said.

“You can layer in climate information, soil information and host plant information, and you can predict — pretty accurately in many cases — where a species will occur, even if it has never been collected there,” he said. “All of the data from various sources could indicate that a location has the right conditions for a particular species.”

These kinds of models are almost impossible to generate today because only a very small portion of the collections in museums across the globe has been digitized, and what has been done has been erratic.

For many years, there was nothing comprehensive and little agreement in the scientific community about the format for these electronic records. In recent years, however, great progress has been made to develop universal standards for digitizing museum specimens. McHugh and his colleagues are hoping to further refine the process.

While butterflies and moths are not McHugh’s main research focus — he studies beetles — his team chose Lepidoptera to start the digitization project because the order includes many major pests and some beneficial species. Also, scientists and naturalists have been collecting specimens for hundreds of years. There are more than 15 million specimens in museums in North America.

“They are a group that’s charismatic, highly visible, frequently collected and more easily identified than others,” he said. “You can identify over 50 percent of butterflies and macro-moths to species with a picture book, just by sight.”

LepNet will include 95,000 quality specimen photos that will represent 60 percent of North America’s Lepidoptera species. Eventually photo recognition software may enable these images to be used in a publicly available butterfly and moth identification app called “LepSnap.”

Moths to a Mainframe

The LepNet team, including curators, student researchers and collection managers from across North America, started the digitization process last fall of 29 major insect collections. In addition to the UGA Collection of Arthropods at the Georgia Museum of Natural History, participating museums and institutions include: Arizona State University, Clemson University, Colorado State University, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Drexel University, Harvard University, Kansas State University, Michigan State University, Milwaukee Public Museum, Mississippi State University, New Mexico State University, Northern Arizona University, Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, University of Alaska, University of California, Davis, University of Delaware, University of Florida, University of Idaho, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, University of Nevada, Reno, University of Oklahoma, University of Utah, University of Wisconsin, Western Washington University, and Yale University

By Merritt Melancon

Pictured: As part of the LepNet project, Joe McHugh CAES professor of entomology and curator of the arthropod collection at the Georgia Museum of Natural History, will help lead the effort to digitize millions of butterfly and moth specimens from museum collections across the nation. Photo by Merritt Melancon