Beauties and the beasts in the louse collection | Digital Collections Programme

1) Eagle Lice
Three large lice (Laemobothrion vulturis) taken from a greater spotted eagle available on the data portal

Our fantastic digitisers started working on the Museum’s parasitic louse (Phthiraptera) collection in early 2017 and are now over halfway through digitising the collection.

We have so far imaged >50,000 louse slides that are publically available through the Museum Data Portal.

For each specimen the whole slide is imaged capturing both the specimen and its labels. The label states where and when the specimen was collected and from which host. High resolution specimen images are then taken for type specimens of each species.

A type specimen (or in some cases a group of specimens) is an example specimen on which the description and name of a new species is based.

images of a drawer from the collection, a side and a high res image of a louse
Digitising the louse collection


Streamlining the whole slide imaging workflow

To prepare the slides, we give each a unique number in the form of a barcode that can be used as an identifier in our database. The slides are then individually imaged by placing them in a template with a label that has the louse species name (taxon) and the drawer number in which the slide is housed (location).

The taxon and location information is encoded into separate barcodes to enable us to automate the file renaming process. Once the image has been captured software is used to read all three barcodes (unique number, location, and taxon) and rename the file with this corresponding information.

Once this information is in the filename the image can then be used to create a basic specimen record. By automating processes we have managed to streamline our digitisation workflow.

Imaging setup and automated file renaming using barcodes to encode the location and taxon information
Imaging setup and automated file renaming using barcodes to encode the location and taxon information


Uncovering histories and unexpected beauties

Some of the slides in the louse collection are more striking than others, such as these incredibly decorative Victorian slides. The 19th century saw a rapid increase in the popular interest in the Natural Sciences with many middle-class households having a microscope and a collection of “curiosities,” many of which were purchased from commercial slide makers.

4) 19th Century slides
19th century microscope slides

During this period, glass slides were covered with gilt decorated lithographed paper. Initially the paper covers were used to fasten the mica or glass covers to the slide but later they became a decorative trademark as preparers would use standard colours and patterns, some even incorporating their name or initials. In the Museum collection, many of these Victorian slides have had scientific labels added later to indicate the latin species name. More information about these microscope slides and their preparers can be found here.

The louse collection also holds an insight into the history of this material, how it was acquired and the pivotal taxonomists that helped to develop our understanding of these ectoparasites. The two oldest louse collections housed are those of Henry Denny (1803-1871) and Edouard Piaget (1817-1910).

5) final drawers
Historical material within the louse collection, including a slide from the Paiget Collection and papered specimens.

Denny was an english museum curator and at the time was the foremost authority on Anoplura (sucking lice) found on animals and humans. Both the Natural History Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History, house this important collection that contains lice taken from hosts, both human and animal, that are now extinct.

Piaget was a Swiss entomologist whose collection contains almost 1,850 slides representing 678 species. A large proportion of his collection was obtained from animals in the Zoological Gardens at Rotterdam and skins in the Naturalis in Leiden, as well as from specimens sent to him from all over the world to identify and describe. The Piaget Collection was remounted in order to preserve it but still contain his elegant labels.

What’s next?

The digitisation of the louse slide collection is expected to finish at the end of August. As we move onto the final cabinets of the collection there are other preparations of specimen material that will need to be digitised including papered material, eggs on feathers, lice on hairs housed in vials, and spirit material. These different preparations will require different digitisation workflows some of which are likely to require pilot projects to develop workflows.

This project has enabled us to refine the slide digitisation workflow to be more efficient through the development of automated processes. It has also highlighted ways in which to prepare slide collections to aid digitisation which is vital to the planning for the remaining two million slides the Museum has.

To stay in touch with the digital collection programme and our digitisation projects please visit the website or follow us on twitter.

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