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Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Beak, or feeding mouth, of a true bug as shown by a scanning-electron microscope.

Connecting the World
One Insect at a Time

By Cristina Carney

Before strip malls and freeways, there was another southern California. Thanks to the work of naturalists in the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists are able to glimpse back into this time as they study the insect specimens in the collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Indeed, entomologists in San Diego are able to access this collection at anytime and take advantage of that information for their research, but what about their peers scattered around the globe, especially those with little access to extensive collections?

Until recently, there were two ways to examine the specimens of any entomology collection: visit the collection in person, or run the risk of having the fragile specimens shipped to you. Thankfully, that is all about to change. Collections-based museums of the 21st century are providing a third means of study for all taxonomists, regardless of their geographic location, by allowing online access. Here at the San Diego Natural History Museum Curator of Entomology Dr. Michael Wall is putting our entomology collection online. Increasing access to its extensive insect collection directly increases the value of the Museum’s collections to the international scientific community. The Museum is now at the forefront of a new and fundamental change in collections accessibility, joining ranks with other museums that have begun databasing their specimens for online access. According to Dr. Wall, “The impediment in taxonomic studies is not just a shortage of taxonomists, but also that the resources to do taxonomic work aren’t easily available to the people who live in the regions that possess the largest gaps in the taxonomic record. Online access to collections is one step toward the solution.”

These “gaps” which Dr. Wall refers are missing links—undescribed species waiting to be discovered. For most insect groups, these species remain hidden in the biologically diverse regions of the Southern Hemisphere. For the most part, these species-rich areas remain geographically far from the academically resource-rich countries in western Europe and North America.

Through innovative use of the internet and associated technology, scientists are now making the resources of major collections and libraries around the world available to anyone with an internet connection. Now, a Brazilian graduate student can peruse the research library of the American Museum of Natural History from an internet café in São Paulo. Scientists in Pakistan can build virtual taxonomic keys that help American scientists identify insects in their collections. By allowing open access to resources, scientists hope to increase collaboration, decrease duplication of effort, and ultimately speed up the cataloging and description of the so-called “encyclopedia of life.” This is the kind of opportunity that the National Science Foundation (NSF) wants to create for all taxonomists in the life sciences for the 21st century. In 2003, the NSF chose insects to lead the way.

Four years ago, the NSF awarded a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant to the world of plant bug scientists. The overall goal of the Plant Bug Inventory (PBI) was to promote international collaboration among the taxonomists and systematists studying the incredibly diverse insect family Miridae. The purpose was to create taxonomic consensus among plant bug entomologists, leading to a more thorough understanding of the group and its relationship to other plant and animal life.

This newly united PBI community is working together to create internet databases, integrating the specimens and literature housed at multiple major research institutions. By combining data from the plant bug research collections of major participating institutions, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Australian Museum in Sydney, the academic community will have a virtual resource far surpassing the possible size of any physical collection.

Dr. Wall is a plant bug specialist directly connected to PBI from his previous taxonomic work in Australia. He feels that the Miridae are the perfect candidates for this NSF project since they are “the most diverse group of true bugs, and there are still so many species out there yet to be discovered.” With the help of the PBI database, a taxonomist in Papua New Guinea no longer needs to travel to New York or San Diego to study plant bug specimens and literature.

Collections-based natural history museums were originally developed in an era when the idea of the “West and its New World” held intrigue for Europe and the United States. The role of these museums is now changing as the life science fields address the biodiversity crisis. What we will find as curators open their virtual cabinets to the public may offer strong arguments for preserving biodiversity as well as clues on just how to accomplish this. With a vast sampling of the insects from the highly populated area of southern California, the San Diego Natural History Museum collection is a great resource for regional taxonomists addressing the decrease in biodiversity. And, as its searchable web database grows, it will prove a valuable resource worldwide, long into the future.

Plant bug of the family Miridae.
San Diego Natural History Museum