A new way of documenting species digitally allows more intricate research and the images can be shared all over the world

Courtesy Dr. Brian Metscher, Department of Theoretical Biology Vienna
Courtesy Dr. Brian Metscher, Department of Theoretical Biology Vienna

The new guy, Ommatoiulus avatar (or O. avatar for short), is a tiny species of European millipede, just two to three centimeters in length, identified this summer by a team of Austrian and Danish scientists. The authors of the study named it “avatar” to pay homage to its digital legacy.

O. avatar is the latest addition to the evolving field of cybertaxonomy. This field has been gaining steam in the last three to four years with advances in imaging technology and the shift towards “big data” science (think genome sequencing). This is not your grandfather’s butterfly-on-a-pin style taxonomy. It uses digital resources to scan and store images of a species from the inside out, helping scientists to better study and identify life on earth. This process is called “describing.”

“Cybertaxonomy is helping to provide a more complete image of an organism. We can identify characteristics that were just too small to accurately analyze before,” says Dr. Brian Metscher from the Department of Theoretical Biology in Vienna and one of the authors of the study.

Preserving by describing

Taxonomy is the science of classification, acting as the librarian of the scientific community, keeping everything in its place. Spearheaded by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, taxonomy classifies species based on shared characteristics, relying on drawings, photographs and physical dissection.

But the methods used in classical taxonomy have major limitations: drawings and photographs may not show what you are interested in studying; you might need to travel to the other side of the world to find a rare specimen; and even if you find it, you might not be allowed to touch it for fear of damaging it.

“Take arthropods for example. Their reproductive organs are inside. So if you want to know if it’s male or female, you need to dissect it. If it’s a rare specimen, that is clearly a problem for a museum. If you make a cybertype,” says Metscher, “you don’t need to destroy it to answer those questions.”

The first scientific description of any newly discovered species is designated as its “type,” the alpha example. These model specimens are stored in museum collections around the globe. So instead of O. avatar collecting dust in a museum, its spectacular high-resolution images are freely accessible online to anyone in the world.

O. avatar was described using X-ray microtomography (microCT). MicroCT creates thousands of cross-section images that are then used to recreate a virtual 3D model that you can navigate like a video game. It’s a completely non-invasive method, keeping museums happy by not destroying priceless samples and providing an amazing level of detail, beyond anything dissection would have revealed.

Two birds, one stone 

The new method that gets us inside: cybertaxonomy images of  Ommatoiulus avatar allow scientists to analyse and examine without corrupting the specimen.
The new method that gets us inside: cybertaxonomy images of Ommatoiulus avatar allow scientists to analyse and examine without corrupting the specimen.

MicroCT can be used on all kinds of organisms, not just bugs. It works for dried specimens of all shapes and sizes currently preserved in museums, even insects preserved in amber.

“When you look at species digitally, it makes it possible to investigate microscopic structures, like an insect’s jaw, which helps you to understand their lifestyle. That was practically impossible before,” says Dr. Sarah Faulwetter, who uses cybertaxonomy to study marine worms at the Hellenic Center for Marine Research in Anavyssos, Greece.

It’s not just about size. MicroCT also allows you to look for differences in soft tissues, like muscles, adding new items that may help us identify species. This could be especially interesting for vertebrates.

Will avatars and cybertypes make museum collections obsolete? Not exactly.

“It’s complementary information. We are talking more about a future where a species type might include digital information, its genomic sequence, in addition to the actual preserved specimen,” says Faulwetter.

And it’s not just for scientists. With digital collections, museum-goers will increasingly find touch-screens showing scanned images and perfectly accurate 3D printed models, that make all those creepy crawlers just a bit more real.

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Lanay Griessner is a scientist and freelance journalist living in Vienna. She has a PhD in molecular biology from the Medical University of Vienna and is currently working in the biotech industry.