A tray of pinned beetles, showing a diversity in size and shape.

Because insects are so diverse, it is very difficult to accurately compare their morphology across groups ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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High-resolution 3D scanning will help scientists understand insect evolution

Understanding the extraordinary diversity and differences between insects can help us figure out how these species evolved and where, exactly, they fit into a rapidly changing environment.

New techniques developed between the Museum and Diamond Light Source synchrotron have the potential to rapidly boost the detail in which living and fossil insect specimens can be scanned in high-resolution 3D, giving insights into how these animals evolved over the past 350 million years.

The Museum has roughly 35 million insect specimens dating back some 300 years in the collection, ranging from the smallest of fleas to the biggest butterflies. 

This vast collection contains an unparalleled amount of information about all of these species and their extraordinary diversity, but making it available to as many people as possible comes with challenges.

So far around 1.6 million of these insect specimens have been digitised using 2D photography. The Digital Collections Programme photographs the insects and their labels and transcribes this information to release openly on the Museum’s Data Portal.

But collecting enough data to completely describe the complex shape of an insect is incredibly time-consuming, , which in turn limits the data and what scientists can discover about these species.

By working in collaboration with Diamond Light Source, the UK's national synchrotron at Harwell science campus, it is hoped that researchers will be able to digitise up to 1,000 insects per day in high-resolution 3D. This will create a completely new data set when compared to the 2D digitising that will allow researchers to peer back in time and understand how insects evolved. 

Three blue-green metallic flies pinned to a white board.

The Museum has already digitised some 1.6 million specimens, which are available to use through the Data Portal ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Professor Anjali Goswami is a Research Leader at the Museum, who is heavily involved in creating detailed scans of animals from across the tree of life.

'This work will bring unparalleled detail and understanding to the evolution of a group that encompasses more than half of known species,' explains Anjali. 'In doing so, we will launch a new field, Biodiversity Phenomics, which will lay the foundation for mapping phenotypic diversity on a global scale and provide a new perspective on the evolution and preservation of life on Earth.

'This detailed big data on species biology is vital in enabling targeted conservation efforts to halt the devasting decline in numbers and extinction of insect species.'

Scanning all insects in exquisite detail

Every single organism, be it a plant, fungi, bacteria or animal, has what is known as a phenotype which are the physical properties of an organism, such their anatomy. This phenotype is what governs how that organism interacts with the environment in which it lives.

This means that by understanding the phenotype it is then possible to help build up a better idea of how an organism lives in an environment, interacts with other organisms and how they evolved in the first place.

A tray showing row upon row of a single species of butterfly.

The new techniques and technology will allow scientists to scan and measure specimens automatically, speeding up the process dramatically ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

With incredibly diverse groups of organisms, such as insects, it is difficult to compare these phenotypes because over time they have evolved into vastly different forms and shapes. To do this with current techniques, in which a researcher would measure every aspect of an insect, would take an extraordinary amount of time.

'To study the variety and volume of specimens we have will be extremely demanding - the amount of data produced, and the data analysis is daunting,' says Anjali. 'But, to develop the best possible strategies to preserve biodiversity, we must know how species interact with their environment. 

'To achieve this, information on phenotype is critical to understanding how species evolve and respond to change.'

This is where the high-definition 3D scanning available at the Diamond Light Source facility will come into play, which also visualises the soft tissue of these organisms.

Working with the facility, Anjali and colleagues at the Museum are developing new techniques which will allow the automatic scanning and analysis of all living and extinct fossil insects and their close relatives to completely describe the complex shape of these organisms.  

A piece golden-yellow amber containing a little black arthropod.

By comparing modern species of arthropods with fossil ones, such as this one trapped in amber, scientists are hoping to understand how the group evolved ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Unlike existing approaches, this new method will not require any manual measurements and therefore allows extremely rapid analysis of any 3D images.

It is hoped that by doing this they will eventually be able to digitise up to 1,000 insect specimens per day.

'Most efforts to date have focused on mapping where species live in order to predict how they will be affected by environmental change, with datasets now representing tens of thousands of species,' explains Anjali. 'However, all organisms do not respond uniformly to changes in their environment.

'Whether species are large or small, specialists or generalists, carnivores or herbivores will shape their future trajectories.'

By gathering this information on the size, shape and complexity of insects to the data that already exists on, for example, where they are currently found, it is expected that even clear pictures of how species will respond to the environmental changes that are already sweeping the globe.

The ability to compare disparate groups of insects both living and extinct will also give an unprecedented look at how these animals evolved over the last 350 million years.