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ASU to digitize vast Southwestern arthropod collection

Pinned insect specimens
May 02, 2012

Arizona State University’s insect collection is going high-tech and will soon be available for viewing as a virtual museum. For the first time, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide funding to the university and nine other institutions to help digitize and network images and label data of 750,000 arthropod specimens.

As part of the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program, ASU and regional partners will help create a comprehensive regional database called Southwest Collections of Arthropods Network (SCAN). With support from a nearly $2 million award, this project will bring together 10 arthropod collections located in universities and museums in the southwestern United States and adjoining areas of Mexico. These collections offer extensive information about biodiversity and how it has changed over time in the Southwest.

By digitizing arthropod collections and creating a national, easily-accessed online database, researchers from multiple disciplines and in multiple regions of the world will be able to conduct specimen-based biogeographic research and study the ecological and evolutionary impacts of climate change on key organismal groups. 

“The Southwest Collections of Arthropods Network is the most comprehensive effort to date to document the identity and distribution of more than 10,000 arthropod species throughout the Southwest,” said Nico Franz, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and curator of the university’s insect collection. “This network is part of a new effort at ASU to combine digital biology and informatics to assemble a virtual ‘macroscope,’ and to better understand the complexity of life in this region,” he added.

With that many specimens, researchers must choose which are the most important to digitize. The network’s focus will be on beetles, grasshoppers, ants, spiders, and other ground-dwelling arthropods that are often sampled and highly responsive to environmental changes.

“Arthropods have so far been poorly represented in climate change impact studies,” said Franz. “Data on arthropods are fundamentally different from vascular plants and vertebrates in that they almost exclusively reside in natural history collections. The online platform will provide invaluable information to ecologists and climate change researchers,” he continued.

Collecting this information will reduce the tremendous gap in common invertebrate sampling used for ecological monitoring – a gap created because arthropods are at the same time the most diverse and least taxonomically explored macro-organisms in the Southwest. In addition, taxonomic experts from around the globe will be able to contribute species identifications and annotations of data.

“Nature is a highly complex system that is opening up to us with new technologies. SCAN is designed to accelerate our ability to understand this complexity,” said Franz. He added, “ASU has been a leader in the field of biodiversity informatics for more than a decade. This project reaffirms our mission to provide virtual access to our natural history collections.”

Southwest Collections of Arthropods Network includes collaborators from Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, University of Arizona, University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Texas Tech University, Texas AgriLife Research, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, New Mexico State University and University of New Mexico.

ASU's School of Life Sciences maintains nine natural history collections that directly support the university's teaching, research, and public outreach.