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NMSU's Arthropod Museum receives NSF grant for 3D technology

New Mexico State University's Arthropod Museum preserves a unique panorama and history of the Southwestern landscape. With a collection boasting thousands of specimens that are native or have been introduced to the area, it is in the first phase of reaching a wider audience.

Professor shows arthropods.
Scott Bundy, director of the New Mexico State University's Arthropod Museum, shows some of the more than 500,000 arthropods that belong to the museum's growing collection. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

Since the 1890s the museum has collected over 500,000 species, and now with a grant from the National Science Foundation, it joins other universities in Texas and Arizona, creating a database that will be available online.

"The purpose of this grant is to database these specimens. Research collections are available to us, but they are not available online for other people to see," said Scott Bundy, director of the Arthropod Museum. "For us, this will be a starting point to get that information on the web so people can have access to it. It's kind of like a library for people to find out which specimens are found the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico."

It will be the addition of photography and 3D technology that will bring the real life experience to anyone.

The importance of this new technology, which allows the sharing of photos of the collection with experts, is that some specimens have not been identified, and other specialists will be able to identify them or share their knowledge with NMSU.

A meticulous process is behind the compilation of images - from collecting specimens in the field and for some arthropods, Bundy studies the insect from its early stages and measures every tiny part. He then does detailed drawings and notes, gathering and compiling a year's worth of information.

For the arthropods that will be used in the database and put into the collection, Graeme Davis, curator of the museum, uses a powerful camera that moves up and down taking hundreds of photos of every angle of an arthropod. The compilation of images is uploaded directly to a program that compiles those images into one, three-dimensional photo. The final result is a photo where people will be able to see each specimen to the smallest detail.

The goal in a few years is to create and make available 3D images that can be seen using 3D glasses.

"It gets down to being able to count hairs on some specimens," Davis said. "The camera slices, per se, through the insect, taking photos every tenth of a second."

The traditional collection serves other functions that cannot be replaced by online images and will remain an integral part of the Arthropod Museum: The continuous scientific research and expansion of the collection, informational tours for children K-12, which is part of the Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science department's community outreach and as an academic tool for NMSU students studying or interested in arthropods.

"We need to protect and preserve our collection," Bundy said. "This is a way of sharing what we know with everybody beyond university walls."