The hunt to catalogue Australia’s insect biodiversity utilizing AI expertise

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To be clear, this wasp has actually only been seen once.

So it seems a little pointless to search the mountainsides in Namadgi National Park in search of a very special, very small insect.

But that is exactly what the entomologist Dr. Juanita Rodriguez and her team from the CSIRO and the Australian National Insect Collection.

“It’s called Epipompilus namadgi,” she says on the other side of the hill in the land of Ngunnawal in the Australian capital.

“It’s about an inch long, then the legs are reddish and the front legs are kind of enlarged, like muscular.”

Dr. Juanita Rodriguez is looking for the Namadgi spider wasp. (

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But this spider wasp is very rare; it has been scientifically identified from a single specimen discovered in 2018.

This means that only one person has ever been found.

“This area of ​​the park hadn’t been burned in a while, they hadn’t even done prescribed burns. It was very untouched,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

“So we decided to come here and collect.

“And we found a specimen that didn’t look like the others previously described.

“So we named it Epipompilus namadgi, based on the name of the national park.”

But this person was gathered just before the Black Summer fires burned nearly 80 percent of Namadgi.

Namadgi National Park Parts of Namadgi National Park were badly burned during the Black Summer Fires. (

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The fire burned through the area where the spider wasp was found, leaving strips of trees standing as sticks over the hills on all sides.

Now scientists are looking for the spider wasp in hopes that it survived the fires; in the hope that one specimen would not be the first and the last, Namadgi spider wasp seen by modern scientists.

On the hunt to find out how many insects we have

Insects play an important role in our ecosystems.

But they’re declining around the world at an alarming rate, so it’s important that scientists catalog how many insects we have so they know how many, like the spider wasp, we may have lost.

Using tent-like traps stretched between trees and sweeping huge insect nets across the grass, scientists collect hundreds of tiny insects, mosquitoes, flies, moths, and wasps along with a host of mosquitos that turned their last hum into instant ethanol death.

People with nets walking through bushland CSIRO scientists comb the Namadgi National Park with nets in search of insects. (

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Bryan Lessard points out one of the tender mozzies that’s soaked but preserved in alcohol.

“This one is particularly interesting for me,” says Dr. Lessard, knowing full well that every single Mozzie and every single fly in the tray is of special interest to him.

“There are 400 mosquitoes in Australia. But only half of them have a name.”

Scientists look at trays of insects During the excursion, the scientists collected an abundance of insects. (

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That many species are named means that taxonomists like Dr. Lessard have an enormous amount of work ahead of them.

“The reason we know there are 200 unwritten ones [mosquitoes] is because there was a worker named Pat Marks in the ’80s and she actually mapped all of these new species but passed before she actually got around to naming them, “he says.

Dr. Elizabeth Nesta “Pat” Marks, AO, described 38 new species of mosquitoes over the course of her career, an epic contribution to our knowledge of Australian insects.

“So my work picks up where Pat stopped naming these species,” says Dr. Lessard.

Tray with mosquitos There are more than 400 specimens of mosquitoes in the Australian National Insect Collection, but only half have been named. (

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“But of course the technology has changed in 40 years. And now we can get DNA from our museum collection.

“And if we could tell Pat in the 80s that we could use DNA to confirm her new species, she’d be overwhelmed.

“It’s almost going back to the future.”

And that’s not the only thing that Pat would be surprised and delighted with.

In Australia’s insect collection

View of several insect bowls from above The Australian National Insect Collection has millions of different insect species from beetles to butterflies in its vaults.

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In the hallways of the National Insect Collection headquarters in Canberra, the air feels solid and smells of naphthalene mothballs.

Dr. Lessard walks through a room the size of a basketball court full of compactus, again full of lockers, which in turn are full of drawers, which are full of boxes.

In this temperature-controlled environment of needles and ethanol live 12 million individual insects, making a priceless (literally) record of Australia’s biodiversity since colonization.

One of the treasures in the collection is a small beetle collected by Charles Darwin.

Close up of an insect specimen This insect specimen was named by Charles Darwin. (

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The collection grows by a further 100,000 copies every year.

“This is a group of flies called the boroides,” says Dr. Lessard.

“The females are wingless, so they’re pretty distinctive. There are three known species in this group, but we have discovered 23 new ones in the past five years.

“Nobody has really worked on the group in 100 years. And look how big these flies are, they’re pretty obvious.

“It’s surprising that no one took the time to really look at them.”

But time is something that is not on the taxonomist’s side.

Tray with many different types of flies So many flies, so little time to categorize them all.

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‘These images unlock our collections’

A legend in the field like Pat Marks has named 38 species of Mozzie in her career. So, to deal with the kind of data they have today, scientists are going to need some help.

Dr. Lessard walks through a maze of ticks, ants, butterflies, and katydids to a tiny room full of cameras, computers, and concentrated scientists.

This is the high resolution stack imaging system that the CSIRO uses to digitize the National Insect Collection.

Dr.  Lessard next to camera and computer with insect on the screen Scientists take hundreds of photos of the insect to create a detailed picture.

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By capturing hundreds of images at different focal lengths, this arrangement produces amazing high-resolution images of the specimens, showing their minute details that are essential to the identification of their species.

“Digitization is not new. They have been around for a few decades. But the fact that we can produce these high quality images with so many copies – that’s pretty new, ”says Dr. Lessard.

Close up of an insect The pictures show the insects in exquisite detail. (

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“These images essentially open up our collections. And anyone in the world can access our copies from a computer.

“We aim to include all of our specimens in the collection. And because there are so many, we cannot physically look at them.

“So we feed them into artificial intelligence programs to quickly identify them for us.”

In this phase, like first parents, the scientists teach the algorithm how to behave.

“I’ll take this copy and the first thing we have to do is teach the machine the individual functions,” says Dr. Rodriguez sitting in front of a row of monitors.

Dr.  Rodriguez points to the insect on the computer screen Scientists train computer programs to recognize the insects.

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“So I go ahead and label it like I’m drawing around it with a pencil. I tell the computer that this is an antenna. And I have to do that for many, many copies.

As scientists track more and more antennas, the machine learns to identify antennas, identify sections of armor, count hairs, and measure sizes.

In this way, the machine can then mark what it thinks the specimen could be – be it a familiar or a new species.

“It would take us days because we would have to look down into the microscope and use the scale to measure each antenna [and] Write everything down on a table, “says Dr. Rodriguez.

“[Whereas] the computer will do this for us automatically, immediately.

“This could make species discovery much faster. And that will really speed up our knowledge of insect diversity.

“We also use AI to not only discover the species that we haven’t described, but also to identify those that already have names.

“Our collection is like a library of life. So it has to be a good reference library.”

And the Namadgi spider wasp?

One thing that technology cannot (yet) do is climb the mountains at Namadgi.

Person holds test tube with insects The scientists collected several different types of insects on the trip (

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Despite all the preparations and the trapping of literally hundreds of insects for the National Collection on this trip, there was no trace of the Namagdi spider wasp in the hills.

“We know so little about it; maybe it’s something very simple, like we’re here at the wrong time of year,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

“So we just have to keep looking.”

Learn more about how technology is helping Australia’s conservation efforts by watching Catalyst at 8:30 p.m. on ABC TV or catching up later on iview.