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Digitising the louse collection: we’ve been itching to tell you more

The Museum has digitised its collection of more than 70,000 parasitic lice. The data is now freely available online for researchers worldwide to use.

The project is part of the Museum's ambitious programme to digitise its massive collection of 80 million specimens. The parasitic louse collection is the first full collection to be completely digitised under the digital collections programme and the lessons learned during the project will enable forthcoming phases to be completed more efficiently.                          

A treasure trove of data

Jennifer Pullar, Communications and Resource Manager for Digital Collections, explains why the digitisation project is so important for natural history research:

'Critical information is currently locked away within hundreds of millions of natural history specimens and archives across the globe. Our ultimate goal is to unlock this treasure trove of information so that scientists, researchers and data analysts from around the world can use this information to tackle some of the big questions of our time.'

'Images and records that we have digitised are currently being accessed freely and openly by a ready audience of global scientists and researchers through the Museum’s Data Portal. However, we want to tell more people about this resource to find out about new and potential uses of collection data in the future.'

A louse every 16 seconds

Two of our digitisers started working on the Museum's parasitic louse (Phthiraptera) collection in early 2017. They now know it currently holds 70,667 slides, making it one of the largest and most taxonomically comprehensive Phthiraptera collections in the world.

On average it takes just 16 seconds to image a slide. The record of slides digitised in a single day is 1,006.

Imaging 70,000 slides for this project has also highlighted how to prepare slide collections to aid future digitisation, which is vital to the planning for the project's remaining two million slides.

Pullar adds, 'This has reduced the time taken from digitally imaging specimens to openly releasing of data on the Data Portal, bringing this down to days in most cases, rather than several months in many previous projects.'

The life of lice

We often associate lice with 'nits' and having an itchy head as a child.

Nits are actually the eggs of the human head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis). The lice themselves are wingless and only move from host to host by using their front claws to grasp onto a nearby hair shaft.

Head lice are not known to transmit disease. They are regarded by some as essentially a cosmetic rather than a medical problem.

Lice are interesting to scientists as models to study co-evolutionary processes - when two species influence each other. This is because the majority of the 5,000 louse species are unique to a particular host species, and their evolutionary history is closely related to that of their hosts.

Scientists are able to compare different species of lice to see the variety of adaptations that have enabled them to parasitise a range of hosts.

The two species of lice that live on a turtle dove are very different in shape

For example, there are two species of lice that live on different areas on a turtle dove and so have evolved two different strategies to avoid being removed by the host during pruning. The first species lives among the feathers on the wings, and with its elongated, thin body it is able to hide between the barbs of the feathers and avoid being removed.

The second species lives on the body and burrows part of its head into the body of the dove, and therefore has a much better grip to hold on while the bird preens.

Worldwide lice

Current geolocation information for the Museum's louse collection

While the lice slides themselves have been imaged, much of the information written on them still needs to be extracted into a useful digital format.

So far the country information for a third of the collection has been captured. This has shown that the Museum's louse collection consists of a wide distribution of material with large quantities of material coming from the UK and former British colonies such as Australia, India and Kenya.

Subsequent transcription of the slides will capture data about when the specimens were collected and from which hosts, providing invaluable information about lice distributions within a host's range.

Making use of the data

The data from the slides is now available on the Museum's Data Portal, which is freely accessible to anyone to use.

Publications citing data from the Museum's portal are continuing to grow

Through the Data Portal and our partners such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), more than 8.7 billion records have been accessed in over 130,500 downloads since April 2015,' says Pullar.

'Via GBIF we are also able to see which scientists are using our data in their publications, and through Altmetric we are able to see how many people are talking about our data online.'

Pullar hopes that not just scientists will use the data, and urges people to get in touch:

'We want to tell people what we have, so that they can tell us what they need - our collections are in constant use by scientific researchers, but we also want to hear from people with a cultural or artistic background as we hope to encourage the widest possible use of our collection both digitally and physically. If you are using Museum collection data we would love to hear about it.'

Are you using the Museum's collection data?

If you would like to access or make use of the Museum's Phthiraptera data please visit the Data Portal. To stay in touch with the digital collection programme and our digitisation projects please visit the webpages or follow the programme on Twitter.