Lepidoptera of North America Network: Documenting Diversity in the Largest Clade of Herbivores

Insect herbivores and their host plants dominate terrestrial biomes and may constitute nearly half of the earth’s species-level diversity. With >157,000 species worldwide and 14,300 species in 86 families documented in North America, butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) are a primary insect group associated with the radiation of angiosperms, and their evolutionary and ecological interactions are of the highest relevance to pure and applied science. Lepidoptera are also one of the most abundant insects in museum collections in North America, but < 5% of the 15 million specimens are digitized. Immature stages contain valuable host plant data, but < 0.01% are digitized, and many bear host data that remain hidden in collections without ever being published. Lepidoptera are readily sampled and identified, and constitute a model group for studies on environmental change and human disturbance. Nevertheless, fewer than 10% of the North American species have sufficient, accessible occurrence data to make reliable predictions concerning habitat use, susceptibility to global change impacts, or other spatially/temporally deep-scale interactions. Digitization and integration of existing, unconnected efforts are needed urgently to leverage the outstanding potential of Lepidoptera to anchor national digitization efforts, and translate these data into transformative research and outreach.

The Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet) comprises 27 core research collections that will digitize at least 1.7 million specimen records and integrate these with over 1 million existing records. We will digitize 58,524 larval vial records with host plant data, marking the first significant digitization of larvae in North American collections. LepNet will produce ca. 81,000 high-quality images of exemplar species covering at least 55% of North American lepidopteran species. These images will enhance remote identifications and promote systematic, ecological, and global change research. In collaboration with Visipedia, we have initiated LepSnap, a computer vision tool that provides species-level identifications for dried specimens, which will increase identification capabilities and improve LepNet data quality. Museum volunteers and student researchers equipped with smartphones will image >132,000 additional research-quality images through LepSnap. We will elevate up to 5,000 lepidopteran species to a “research ready” status suitable for complex, data-driven analyses. Extending prior TCN (Thematic Collections Network) success using the data-rich and functionally versatile Symbiota software platform, we will build on a synthetic data portal (SCAN) in unifying data on Lepidoptera to allow examination of joint distribution patterns as well as correlated radiations of lepidopteran herbivores in North America. We will generate data for a broad range of studies, including the evolutionary ecology of Lepidoptera and their host plants, especially in the context of global change processes affecting biogeographic distributions (e.g., ButterflyNet).

Broader Impacts. The charisma of butterflies and moths profoundly inspires children and adults, and can therefore promote public understanding of their relevance to society like no other arthropod group. The beauty and diversity of Lepidoptera provide a unique foundation for building broader impacts in education, public awareness, and conservation. Education and outreach programs by LepNet member collections jointly reach 2.5 million people per year. Collectively, LepNet participants have 67 existing outreach/education programs, including summer camps, annual events, and workshops that will integrate LepNet products to engage a diverse, nationwide workforce of 500+ students and 4,000+ volunteers including underrepresented groups, and disseminate rich educational/outreach content to students and the public. Our LepXPLOR!program will spearhead our education/outreach efforts, serving the full spectrum of audiences. LepNet will collaborate intensively with multiple citizen science projects to achieve synergy of information mobilization efforts and impact. LepSnap will catalyze citizen science usage as well as promote interest in taxa beyond Lepidoptera. Finally, we will provide raw data and linkages to additional specimen data to create extensive image libraries, ID guides, checklists, distribution maps, phenological and life history data. Concurrently, LepNet will generate a sustainable social-research network dedicated to the creation and maintenance of the digitization of North American Lepidoptera specimens.

This Site: We will feature two types of information, first we will build content regarding lepidopteran biology, including biogeography, taxonomy, phylogeny, and host-plant interactions. We will also provide specifics about our LepSnap collaboration with Visipedia and other informatics efforts. It will also feature activitiies from our education/outreach program, LepXPLOR. We will complement and cross-link with information provided by important lepidopteran websites (e.g., Moth Photographers Group, BAMONA, The North American Butterfly Network, PNW Moths, eButterfly) and ButterflyNet. Second, we will provide information relevant to the underlying Symbiota database that will be used to serve LepNet data. All of this information will be shared with SCAN (Symbiota Collections of Arthropods Network) since the Lepnet database will be integrated into the SCAN arthropod database.

Research Theme: Our primary research goal is to understand the causes and consequences of radiation in Lepidoptera throughout North America. The recent and rapid radiation of this mega-diverse clade is one of the most compelling evolutionary stories yet to be unraveled and has obvious extensions for understanding present and future ecological implications of this herbivore radiation. The Lepidoptera of North America Network will directly provide rich biogeographic data and promote the integration of lepidopteran phylogenetics and comparable phylogeographic data for host plants from existing databases in research in order to understand broad patterns across phylogenetic scales. We will generate morphological characters for possible tree construction, and also produce data that can be mapped onto the tree to see broad patterns of evolution. We can include phylogenetic data in analyses to consider the relative roles in host plants, climate, and herbivore phylogeny in mediating patterns of biodiversity. Lepidoptera are a model group in this respect because biotic associations are fairly well understood, and we have the capacity to provide the biogeographic data to map these known biotic associations.

Within the context of understanding the causes and consequences of the radiation of these herbivores we will address a number of issues that are biogeographic in nature and range from questions about what drives within species variation to broad-scale patterns of biodiversity in herbivores, their host plants, and even herbivore parasitoids and predators . The extensive georeferenced image database will allow for quantification of phenotypic variation both within and among taxa, and morphological character extraction for phylogenetics analyses, taxon descriptions, and phenotype annotations. Thus, we will provide a hypothesis-driven framework that will guide digitization priorities, covering a range of collections-based inquiries including the evolution of host-plant use and niche specialization, hybridization, color pattern evolution across large phylogenetic clades, and identification of cryptic species and mimicry complexes. There are many other areas of research that our data could be utilized, including a large area of research documenting species responses to climate and land-use change involving comparisons across taxonomic and ecological groups.

Taxonomic and Geographic Coverage: The Lepidoptera of North America Network will digitize adult and larval specimen records in U.S. collections from specimens collected throughout Canada, USA, and Mexico. We will select up to 10 representative families that all collections will digitize to create comprehensive databases. We expect to digitize specimens for all families, of the 86 families represented in the United States, only 49 currently have digitized data that is publicly available. We will encourage museums to self-organize and digitize taxa that represent strengths of their respective holdings, leading to extensive taxonomic coverage of Lepidoptera. We will make a concerted effort to target museums that have extensive larval collections and associated host plant data. While no single project can digitize ~ 9-20 million museum specimens, we will provide comprehensive data for key groups and set the stage to complete the intensive digitization for all families. In the process, we will promote higher-quality data gathering, identify gaps for future surveys, and greatly expand the number of “observational” species (i.e., species that can be identified to species in the field).

LepNet Vision: We are committed to a network that will be sustainable over decades, collaborate with observational programs to expand occurrence records, and develop cross-trophic data environments that promote research to address fundamental questions regarding the evolutionary ecology of herbivores. We estimate there are 9-20 million lepidopteran specimens in United States museums but less than 600,000 of these have been digitized. Because we will digitize well under the estimated number of specimens it is critical to establish a sustainable foundation that can digitize the remaining specimens within 15 years after NSF funding. We are committed to a policy of inclusiveness where regional museums partner with large research collections and all network members commit to an open data philosophy, shared digitization practices, and work towards strengthening international collaborations and establishing partnerships with existing observational programs. The success of the Lepidoptera of North America Network will depend largely on extending proven technological strategies developed by Thematic Collections Networks and iDigBio through the ADBC program and maintaining cohesiveness among all participating museums and network collaborators.