Malacology Department Receives Digitization Grant

August 22, 2012

Adelopoma bakeri
One of the type specimens of Adelopoma bakeri, a minute Venezuelan land snail in the Academy’s collection. It has long been uncertain whether A. bakeri is a valid species. The tiny size of the shell (the scale bar is just one millimeter) makes high-resolution images like these essential to answering this question.

The Academy has received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will enable our scientists to digitize specimens from the museum’s collection of 10 million preserved mollusks beginning in July 2012. The grant will allow the Academy to document its mollusk “type” specimens, aiding scientists in the identification of species throughout the world.

While thousands of new animal species are named every year, many of them are small and look similar to species that have already been described. In examining a beetle, shell, or flower, therefore, even a specialist will often confirm the species name using a book or scientific paper.

Whenever an organism is described as new to science, its discoverer creates a species name for it and selects a specimen to be the “type.” It is placed in a museum and can be used by any person to confirm the identity of his or her own specimens. Until now, the only ways to do this were to refer to a picture of the type or to ask for the loan of the specimen itself. As many types are tiny and fragile, however, institutions were generally reluctant to let people borrow them. Often, it was necessary to visit the museum in person.

Nowadays, digital imaging and the Internet have made it possible for collection managers to provide photographs of their type specimens to colleagues anywhere in the world, and museums are receiving grants to digitize their type collections.

The shell collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is the third largest and one of the oldest in the world. Many of the Academy’s type specimens have never before been illustrated. Under the NSF grant, Academy scientists will photograph 12,000 type specimens and post these images on the Internet.

By using a combination of computer mediated macro-photography and scanning electron microscopy, Academy staff will create high resolution images that will be of great use to scientists everywhere. Mollusks have the highest proportion of extinct and endangered species of any group of organisms, so access to reliable images of types is important for conservation efforts. The information supplied by these photographs will enable scientists to make accurate and valid comparisons, and the images will reveal hitherto unknown details of the species that were invisible to the authors of the original descriptions.

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