Insect Collection Refurbishment

12 December 2012

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Volunteer Ellen Bennett photographing insects for the Atlas of Living Australia Volunteer Digitisation Project.

The South Australian Museum is stepping into a new era for entomology as our collection site undergoes a complete refurbishment.

The project is just one in a series that will see the stories behind our wonderful world of insects - including valuable data and high-definition photographs of the prized holotypes - beamed across the globe.

The Museum has about two million specimens of insects, from enormous, electric-blue butterflies to tiny ants – all of extremely high research value to scientists in South Australia and around the world. However, the Museum has been contending with data stored in different formats and some mischievous 'carpet beetles' – or Anthrenus verbasci – which have destroyed parts of some of the valuable specimens.

This week, the Museum will begin reintroducing the insects to new cabinets, which are as close to airtight as possible. The refurbished collection area is nearly completed and transfer of the insect collection into the new system is expected to be finished next year. The Museum was generously allocated $2.7 million from the State Government to help protect the irreplaceable insect collection because of its enormous value to science, medicine, biosecurity and biodiversity.

Project Coordinator Luke Chenoweth says the carpet beetle is a common problem for institutions around the world.

"They can come in lots of different ways: you can bring them in on your clothes, your shoes, they can get in through ventilation or other access points. They can decimate a specimen quite quickly, particularly the larvae. We had a large amount of dead insects in one place so it was the perfect environment for these pests to chew away."

In response to the pest problem, the Museum removed the insects from the rooms and placed them in freezers to kill any remaining carpet beetles that might destroy the specimens.

"We've had the specimen collections in the freezers for nearly three months now, so that will be more than enough to kill the pests. We've just finished getting the new cabinets installed and now we'll slowly bring the insect collection back into the new compactus system," says Dr Chenoweth.

He says a whole new integrated pest control system will be in place, including reducing access points and human traffic, using insect repellent and improving storage.

Keith Maguire is working on transitioning the existing entomology databases to KE EMu - the Collection Management software used by the Museum.

"We're amalgamating the existing databases so that all the information regarding specimens in the collection can be accessed in the one place, regardless of whether they are insects, mammals or fish. This will boost access to the collection, making it far easier for researchers who are interstate or overseas to check if the Museum holds material which could be useful for their work."

The records will be integrated into the Online Zoological Collections of Australian Museums (OZCAM), which allows people to browse what is in our collections just like a library database.

The way information about our valuable insects is shared will also be revolutionised by a project run by Alexis Tindall and a team of volunteers. They are capturing high-resolution images of holotypes, which show amazing detail. Getting these pictures online may reduce the handling of these delicate specimens, which is good for their long-term preservation.

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) Volunteer Digitisation Project will provide a valuable reference for scientists and curious members of the public who want to find information quickly and easily.

Ms Tindall says it is essential to understand the importance of insects in our world today. "Insects are one of the most important and most challenging parts of our biodiversity to understand. It is estimated that scientists have encountered and named around a quarter of the world's insects, but they are the most common organism that exist on the planet in terms of the number of individuals, biomass, distribution, and there is still a long way to go. Our entomologists and taxonomists are constantly working to know more about this world."

"Insects are incredibly significant environmentally, agriculturally, and economically, because of their role in pollination and their potential for destruction as pests. Any initiatives to make these collections more accessible and easier to analyse will help scientists advance their work."

"The information we're opening up to the scientific community and the public will be of immeasurable benefit."

Making information about the insect specimens available online means that scientists can analyse it together with environmental and meteorological data. Powerful analysis tools available on the ALA website help make research in this field more efficient.

"We care for a number of collections that are really scientifically useful and a lot of them never see the light of day apart from a niche group of researchers," says Ms Tindall.

The digital tools that the Museum is employing will offer an exciting, interactive experience to showcase our scientifically and historically valuable entomology collection. The brand-new casing for these wonderful creatures will offer a safe and clean environment to preserve the specimens for many years to come.