A digitiser moves a box of pinned insects towards a camera for digitisation

Digitiser Robyn Crowther with drawers of Carabidae beetles ready to be digitised. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London  

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Museum digitises five millionth specimen to unlock secrets of collection

A naturally bright green stonefly has signalled full speed ahead for the Museum's digitisation project, as it releases its five millionth specimen online.

As well as making the Museum's specimens available online for anyone to access, the digitisation of these collections could contribute billions of pounds to the global economy.

The digitisation of the Museum's five millionth specimen is unlocking information that could save species from extinction and boost the global economy.

A stonefly found in New Zealand, called Stenoperla prasina, achieved the landmark figure after it was digitised as part of an ongoing project to unlock the Museum's collections and make them freely available on the web. 

Stoneflies, along with the related mayflies and caddisflies, are vital indicators of the health of an ecosystem, and are one of the reasons why a study published in Research Ideas and Outcomes estimated that digitising the Museum's entire collections could be worth over £2 billion.

Helen Hardy, who leads the Museum's digitisation programme, says, 'This is a huge landmark for us and the combined effort of many digitisers, curators, researchers, data managers and others. Sharing data from our collections can transform scientific research and help find solutions for nature and from nature. 

'Our digitised collections have helped establish the baseline plant biodiversity in the Amazon, found wheat crops that are more resilient to climate change, and support research into the potential zoonotic origins of COVID-19. 

'The research that comes from sharing our specimens has immense potential to transform our world and help both people and planet thrive.' 

A stonefly is held with tweezers in front of a computer

Stenoperla prasina is green in life, and fades to brown after death. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London  

Learning the lessons of the past

On the death of Sir Hans Sloane in 1753, the UK Parliament purchased the 71,000 objects that Sloane had collected over his life. This collection formed the basis of what would become the Museum, the British Library and the British Museum. 

Since those early days, the Museum's collections have expanded significantly to include some 80 million objects from around, and even beyond, the world. From meteorites to marmosets, and mahogany to manuscripts, these specimens touch upon every domain of life and continent on Earth.

Information from the collections spans hundreds of years and is still vital for research today, telling scientists about how humans have altered the planet and preserving species that have become extinct as a result of our actions. 

All this information is recorded on labels, notes and within the specimen itself, but this means it is often only accessible to those who can physically access the Museum. In 2014, the digitisation of the collections began to make the wealth of specimens in the Museum collection freely available online.

'To digitise a specimen, we release the data about the specimen, where it was collected, what species it was and who collected it available online so that researchers know what we have in our collection,' says Jennifer Pullar, Digital Collections Communications Manager.

'In addition to this basic record, we might also take photographs of the specimen and its labels, as well as providing extended specimen information such as genomic and chemical analyses.

'We are passionate about providing free and open access so that anyone around the world can use this data for their own research.’

So far 1.7 million insects, 900,000 plants and 500,000 fossils have been digitised and published onto the Museum's Data Portal.

To date, 30 billion records have been downloaded as people from around the world make use of the digitised specimens, while more than 1500 research papers have cited data from the portal.

The information can be used in many ways that can boost the global economy, including medicine discovery, tackling invasive species, and preserving biodiversity

A computer, the ALICE set-up and a tray of pinned insects

ALICE equipment (centre) uses multiple cameras to capture a specimen from all angles. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London  

Protecting the future

The Museum's collection is incredible varied, from nannofossils that are barely visible to the human eye to the largest animal on Earth, the blue whale. To work with this variety of specimens, the digitisation team have developed different ways of working each specimen type.

Each comes with its own challenges, such as accessing the labels on insects when the specimen and its details are all attached to the same pin. To tackle this challenge, ALICE, or Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction equipment, allows a specimen to be photographed from a variety of angles to capture its body and its labels simultaneously.

This has increased the number of pinned insect specimens that can be digitised by one person in a day from around 250 to 900, while also reducing the physical handling of delicate specimens so that they can be preserved for future generations.

The five millionth specimen to go through this process was the stonefly S. prasina. Stoneflies are found around the world and are a mostly herbivorous group of insects which spend much of their lives as underwater nymphs, though S. prasina is a predator on other insects.

The stoneflies' dependence on fresh water and short life span makes the insects useful to scientists for assessing how healthy an ecosystem is by the presence and size of their populations. 

The Museum is digitising its 89,000 specimens of stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies as part of a project to improve our knowledge of these insects. This will allow better assessments of their vulnerability to extinction to be made by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who compile the Red List of Threatened Species

Hopefully this will help better protect not only the insects themselves, but the freshwater habitats in which they live. In turn, this can have knock-on effects that help to benefit people who live within and rely on these environments. 

This is just one of the ways in which digitising natural history collections can help to benefit the natural world and in turn the global economy.