Digitising the Madagascan Lepidoptera type specimens | Digital Collections Programme

We have started digitising the Madagascan moths and butterflies, a project that has been supported by John Franks and the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust.

Photo of pinned specimen with barcode
Holotype of the giant orange-tip (Gideona lucasi) butterfly, with accompanying barcode

This project is different from our previous Lepidoptera digitisation as it is only looking at type specimens.

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.

To digitise the Madagascan Lepidoptera we are using the workflow developed and perfected to digitise the British and Irish Butterflies and Moths, with some adaptations. As only the type specimens are needed, the process is a little slower.

Lepidoptera type specimens
Examples of Lepidoptera type specimens

The specimens can’t be digitised by simply removing a full drawer from the collection, working through the full drawer and returning the full and digitised drawer to the collection. This is because the types of each species need to be found within different drawers within the collection, which may be held in different collection rooms or even sides of the Museum building.

Once the selected types have been found, they are moved to a temporary drawer for transportation to the digitisation lab. Unpinning, barcoding and imaging the specimens is carried out in the same way as our mass digitisation of Lepidoptera. As these specimens are exemplars, both the specimen and labels are imaged from the front and the back to ensure all scientifically useful data is captured.

After imaging, the specimen data is transcribed and the specimen will be georeferenced before being released openly on the Museum’s Data Portal. Unlocking this data and including it on the Data Portal gives scientists access to large datasets with unrivalled historical and geographical data. This enables scientists around the world to conduct phonological research on natural history data in a way that they have never been able to perform before.

Finding more than we thought

madagascan drawers
A drawer of Madagascan type specimens

The initial estimate was that the Museum held ~1,700 Madagascan Lepidoptera types; however, whilst preparing to digitise, we have actually pulled out over 3,500 specimens in total. This isn’t uncommon when we are looking to digitise collections that haven’t been looked at as a whole for several years. However it does mean that once this collection is digitised not only will scientists worldwide be able to access the collection digitally, but we will also have a more accurate measure of what we hold within the Museum.

This project is a pilot on the digitisation of pinned insect type specimens. All previous pinned insect projects have included both type and non-type specimens mixed together. Therefore, the learnings of this project will be incredibly valuable and will help inform any digitisation of types in the future.

For updates on this project follow our #MothMonday content on Twitter or explore our data on the Museum’s Data Portal.