Life Science Noteworthy

USGS Elevates Digital Collections

This post has been updated from when it was initially published in 2014.

When you think of the United States Geological Survey, you probably think about things like USGS Benchmarks or that great Earthquake tracker. Plants and animals, however, probably don’t come to mind – other than, perhaps, fossilized ones. But it turns out that expanding our collective understanding of the physical parts of our planet is just one part of the USGS’s mission. At its core, “The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and useable information.

A cornerstone of that multipart mission is the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The Center is located within Maryland’s Patuxent Research Refuge, the only National Wildlife Refuge with the purpose of supporting wildlife research. There, scientists perform essential research on everything from habitat management and bird migrations to ecotoxicology and wildlife diseases.

The Center is also home to the Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab headed by Sam Droege, who, in addition to developing native bee surveys and monitoring techniques, oversees the production of stunning online identification guides for native bee species.

The images are spectacular! When this post was initially published in 2014, this kind of treatment wasn’t really seen in the world of specimen photography. It was (and in many cases still is) typically reserved for portraits of living animals, like those created by Joel Sartore. Of course, all this fantastic detail and curation has a practical purpose. Every ocellus, every trochanter, and every pollen basket is crisply captured against a clean black background for expedient and accurate identification.

The technique used to produce these images was first developed by Dr. Anthony Gutierrez and Graham Snodgrass at the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health. A pinned specimen is placed within a custom photo rig, and a series of incremental images are recorded. Those frames are later aggregated into a single composite image using a combination of Zerene and Adobe Photoshop.  As stated by team member Brooke Alexander and Sam Droege,

The working idea behind these systems is that specimens are photographed using a camera with a very large sensor area and a high-quality macro lens that magnifies the image of the specimens so that it fills the sensor area of the camera. This combination permits the creation of images with extremely high levels of detail. Due to the narrow depth of field created by the camera lens and high degree of magnification, multiple photographs need to be taken and then combined to create a picture of a specimen completely in focus. The Cognisys StackShot Rail is used to move the camera (or, alternatively, the specimen) in a user chosen set of increments (from 1um to 999mm). The controller that comes with the StackShot Rail also fires the camera/flash unit. Specimens are taken against a black background and a flash is used for illumination by bouncing the light off of white Styrofoam, in our case an old cooler.

The result is a collection of stunning images of bees and wasps that scientists and non-scientists can appreciate.

For more information on the specifics of the photography techniques employed by the USGS bee team, see their publication “Detailed Macrophotography of Insect Specimens: a Laboratory Set-up” which is freely available as a PDF.  More photos can also be found on Sam’s photostream here on Flickr.

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