Digitising Malaysian species | Digital Collections Programme

In collaboration with the NGO Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY) we have begun a new digitisation project to digitise  the Museum’s collections that occur in Malaysia and its surrounding regions.

1) collage of specimens
This project will image specimens across a range of insect groups including stick insects, mantids, damselflies and crickets.

This project will image representatives for each species across a range of insect groups and will release the digitised specimens openly on the Museum’s Data Portal. In addition, we will be digitally sharing these specimens and their data to our Malaysian colleagues for use through their own online platforms.

Unlike our previous Phthiraptera and Lepidoptera digitisation projects, this project involves a variety of species that occur in a region with a tropical rainforest climate so there will be many vibrant and colourful specimens. Malaysia is megadiverse and has a high number of endemic species  – those not found anywhere else. The aim of the project is to digitise a  minimum of 5,000 species that occur within the Malesian region. Unlike some of our other digitisation projects, this project will image representative specimens for each species across a range of taxonomic groups with the primary focus being on Entomological Orders including Odonata (damselflies, dragonflies), Mantodea (praying mantids), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, locusts, crickets), Phasmatodea (stick insects) and Coleoptera (beetles).

Imaging Pinned Insect Specimens

Dorsal and Lateral views of Cratioma oculatum, a bush cricket collected by H.M.Pendlebury
Cratioma oculatum, a bush cricket collected by H.M.Pendlebury

Due to the wide variety of insect we will be imaging, our imaging setups need to be adaptable to cope with the size range of specimens, as well as being able to image different views e.g. from the top (dorsal) and the side (lateral).

We place each specimen in a specially designed unit tray next to  a movable stage where we position the specimen’s labels. We place each unit tray in a lightbox with a vertically mounted DSLR camera. As the size of the specimens can vary between species, even within each Order, we will adjust the height of the camera to ensure that the specimens and labels fill the field of view. For capturing lateral images of the specimens we have specially designed vertical unit trays that enable us to easily change the orientation of the specimen, creating a more efficient workflow. For more information about the techniques we use to image pinned insects, you can read our previous blog on Digitising the Madagascan moths and butterflies.

4) Neurobasis chinensis, a damselfly
Neurobasis chinensis, a damselfly.

Collectors in Malaysia

Photographed by Peter Wing using a Canon 5DS R/Canon 100mm.
A butterfly (Eumelea parda) collected by Pendlebury and Wallace collected A damselfly (Neurobasis kaupi) collected by Wallace.

The breadth of this project provides an opportunity to uncover stories behind the collection, about collectors and exotic expeditions. So far we have found a number of specimens collected by H.M. Pendlebury, who in 1934 co-authored  ‘The Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula’, and W.L. Distant who, during a whaling trip to the Malay Peninsula in 1867 with his father, became interested in natural history, resulting in him publishing a description of the butterflies of that region. We have also found a number of specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, who famously reached the idea of evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin.

Wallace, who is possibly the best known collector of Malaysian specimens, traveled through the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia) from 1854-62 and published a number of books on his travels. Not being a wealthy man, Wallace collected duplicate specimens – some for trading and some for his scientific collection. He worked incredibly hard and amassed over 125,000 specimens, including 13,100 butterflies, 83,200 beetles and 13,400 ‘other insects’ during this expedition.

In 1855, Wallace wrote his Sarawak Law paper “Every Species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species”.

More recently Iain McCalman, research professor at the University of Sydney, called the paper “The first ever British scientific paper to claim that animals had descended from a common ancestor and then produced closely similar variations which evolved into distinct species.” (Flannery, M.A. 2011, Alfred Russel Wallace; a rediscovered life, p32.)

However, at the time Wallace’s paper was largely ignored by the scientific community. It wasn’t until 1858 that Wallace, suffering from a fever on the island of Ternate, understood how species evolved. The fittest individuals survived and reproduced, passing advantageous characteristics on to their offspring. Wallace immediately wrote to someone that he knew was interested in the subject, Charles Darwin.

Wallace, Darwin and the future of evolution

6) Wallace drawer
A drawer of Wallace butterflies from Malaysia

Darwin had been working on the same theory, but was yet to publish. On receiving Wallace’s letter, Darwin sought the advice of his friends, who determined that the ideas of both men would be presented at a meeting of the Linnean Society. Darwin’s masterpiece, The Origin of Species, came out the following year.

From that time on Darwin overshadowed Wallace, and it has usually been Darwin alone associated with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace, however expressed no resentment, in fact he was Darwin’s biggest fan, and, with Darwin’s support, Wallace was ensured entry to the highest ranks of the scientific establishment.

Wallace later wrote a book that he titled Darwinism as response to the scientific critics of natural selection. This was seen as laying the foundation for the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, which in the 20th Century became associated with Mendelian inheritance and modern genetics. More information about Wallace is available on the Museum website.

If you enjoyed reading this blog,  please follow us on twitter for behind the scenes updates about all our digitisation projects. To make use of collection data from this project so far please visit the Data Portal. We would love to hear for you about what you would like to hear from us and how you use digital collections so please tag @NHM_Digitise with your comments and photos.