Project Summary

Digitization TCN: Collaborative Research: Lepidoptera of North America Network: Documenting Diversity in the Largest Clade of Herbivores

Overview. 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. With up to 15 million specimens, Lepidoptera are also one of the most abundant insects in museum collections in North America, but < 5% 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.

Intellectual Merit. The Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet) comprises 29 research collections that will digitize 2.1 million specimen records and integrate these with over 1 million existing records. We will digitize 43,280 larval vial records with host plant data, marking the first significant digitization of larvae in North American collections. LepNet will produce ca. 95,000 high-quality images of exemplar species covering at least 60% 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 >160,000 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 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.

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.

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