NSF grant highlights NAU’s leadership in biodiversity digitization and informatics

Demonstration of smartphone app

A four-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will support efforts at 27 collaborating museums to create an online data portal that integrates nearly 3 million North American butterfly and moth specimen records.

Online availability of these records, supported by contributions from citizen scientists through a smartphone app, will make it easier for researchers to study these species, and how they and their habitats have changed over time.

The project, Lepidoptera of North America Network, or LepNet, is a national effort led by Northern Arizona University’s Colorado Plateau Biodiversity Center to digitize 1.7 million records and integrate them with the 1 million existing records. Partner museums include leaders in the field such as Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.

“Because only a fraction of the 15 million North American Lepidoptera specimens have been digitized, this project addresses a significant information gap,” said Neil Cobb, the project’s principal investigator and director of the Merriam-Powell Center at NAU. “LepNet is a game changer because it moves Lepidoptera research into the digital age, creating an opportunity for scientists to investigate questions never thought possible.”

LepNet research will be supported by the efforts of citizen scientists. Volunteers and students equipped with smartphones will image more than 132,000 specimens. These images will be processed at CalTech as part of the Visipedia Project. Visipedia uses computer vision algorithms to automate the species-identification process in creating a visual encyclopedia.

The beauty and diversity of Lepidoptera provide a unique opportunity to stimulate education, public awareness and conservation. The project’s outreach program, LepXPLOR!, will reach 2.5 million people per year through summer camps, annual events, workshops and more. Emphasis will be given to engaging groups who have been previously underrepresented in the sciences.

“This grant and the partner institutions involved with LepNet highlight NAU’s leadership in developing biodiversity informatics through building collaborative networks,” said William Grabe, vice president for research at NAU. “The award also reflects NAU emerging strength in the area of environmental informatics and growing capacity to conduct research involving vast amounts of data.”

LepNet is part of a larger biodiversity digitization effort lead by the Merriam-Powell Center that started with the Southwest Collections of Arthropods Network in 2012. In total, NSF has provided more than $5.7 million to support six related projects. LepNet is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections Program, Division of Biological Infrastructure.