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UC Berkeley Enlists Citizen Scientists in a Buggy Data Problem

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 A Brazilian skipper, one of the specimens in the Calbug project. (Image: Essig Museum of Entomology)

A Brazilian skipper, one of the specimens in the Calbug project. (Image: Essig Museum of Entomology)

Scientists at UC Berkeley are asking the public to help with a problem that’s been bugging them – their century-old insect collection needs to be digitized.

UC Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology has been gathering insect specimens since the 1880s. With 10,000 drawers filled with bugs, no one’s exactly sure how many there are.

“Nobody’s really counted them,” says collections manager Peter Oboyski, “but we estimate that we have over five million specimens in our collection.”

Most of those insects are preserved on pinheads, attached to small labels that say where and when they were collected. Those field notes hold a valuable record of California’s natural history, but the information has never been transcribed into a database.

Members of the public help transcribe the labels on each insect. (Image: Essig Museum of Entomology)

Members of the public transcribe the labels on each insect. (Image: Essig Museum of Entomology)

“We estimate it would take decades, if not a hundred years, for us to go one-by-one and enter the data from every specimen,” Oboyski says.

That’s where the public comes in. Through a new online citizen science project called Calbug, the public can pitch in by reviewing photos of the specimens and transcribing the field notes online. UC Berkeley has uploaded almost 100,000 specimens, with several other institutions soon to join in, like the California Academy of Sciences, UC Davis, San Diego Natural History Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum.

“If this project works well for our museum, then it can be adapted for all the other collections across the country and even across the world, because there are millions of specimens out there waiting to be transcribed,” says Oboyski.

With each insect a unique data point, the collection provides a detailed look at California’s habitat. “They are a record of the past of California,” Oboyski says. “They give us a glimpse into the past of what the habitat might have looked, what the climate might have looked like.”

There are more species of ants in the world than there are of birds

Collections like this will become particularly valuable as scientists track how wildlife and plants shift with a changing climate.

“People have used our collection in the past to look at individual species and how they’ve changed in distribution over time,” he says. “Now we have the capacity to look at entire communities and how they move and change over time.”

Insects are a crucial part of preserving biodiversity, Oboyski says. “There are more species of ants in the world than there are of birds, and that’s just one family of insects.”

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Category: Biology, Environment, News, Radio

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.