Insects up front: ZooSphere.net 

Leibniz Association

In the context of the simultaneous exhibition “8 Objects, 8 Museums” by the Leibniz research museums, the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin presents its newly developed technology for creating images of insects: ZooSphere. 

ZooSphere – up close and personal
With the ZooSphere, the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin has developed a novel technique to automatically photograph insects from all sides, thereby creating sequences of high-resolution images.

The ZooSphere consists of a frame with a turntable, which carries the animal, and two motors. They move the turntable and rotate the animal around its own axis.

The camera is mounted on a movable slide and takes photos of the object at different focus levels.

The software developed for the ZooSphere coordinates the movements of the turntable and the slide carrying the camera. This allows the creation of 2,000 to 7,000 photos for the subsequent 360-degree view.

A series of images with continuous changes in the shooting distance or focussing ensures that an image with a particularly great depth of focus can be obtained despite the use of a macro-lens that allows a very close approach to the object.

Depending on the object’s length, it is necessary to take 20 to 60 photos at different focus levels.

The individual images are later combined by means of an algorithm. The use of this so-called focus stacking is particularly common in macro-photography. The end result is a single, completely sharp image.

Thus, up to 7,200 photos result in a sequence of 100 to 120 individual high-resolution images, which allow the insect to be viewed as if one were studying the original.

A science that believes its own eyes
Despite all of the new developments in genetics and biochemistry, biology has remained an observing discipline. Research into biodiversity and biogeography relies on taxonomic studies, i.e., the exact observation of fauna and flora. The species encountered are always initially examined and described on the basis of their morphology, i.e., their outward appearance. Only in a second step DNA sequencing is used to determine whether differences in the outer shape represent separate species or simply variations within one species.

Biogeography studies the distribution of species across geographic regions, biomes (large-scale landscape units with a characteristic vegetation and fauna) and ecosystems. In the course of a research project on the island of Java, a light trap is employed to collect insects.

Scientists involved in the research project “Indonesian Biodiversity Discovery and Information System” examine their discoveries. The scientific work begins with morphological studies.

Digital Holotype
The ZooSphere solves a central problem for zoologists regarding species identification: In order to identify an organism, it must be compared with the relevant holotype – that is the specific individual on which the description of a biological species is based. To date, the holotypes of various species are normally stored in a public collection. According to the rules of scientific exchange, these should be made available to researchers. Until now, there were two options: The zoologists must travel to the collection’s location – a time-consuming and expensive procedure – or the specimens are sent by mail. 

Holotype is a term used in biological taxonomy and systematics. It concerns a selected individual that was used for the description of a species. If the description of an animal species was based on multiple individuals, these are referred to as syntypes. A specimen later identified as the name-bearing type specimen from such a series of types is known as the lectotype.

The loan exchange of holotypes poses a serious problem, since the specimens are sensitive and are frequently damaged during transport – like this Euanthoides petiolata (from the family Tachinidae) with a broken-off abdomen. In many cases, these problems can be circumvented with the ZooSphere.

At zoosphere.net, the museum is now able to make the images available for 360-degree viewing on the Internet, facilitating the morphological work during species identification for zoologists and amateurs alike, regardless where in the world they may be.

In the ZooSphere technology, a finished digitised object consists of a high-resolution, 3D spherical image sequence. At zoosphere.net, this image sequence is presented by means of a web viewer in a way that enables the viewer to rotate the digitised object in any direction, as if he were handling the prepared specimen itself. The zoom function makes it possible to view even the smallest structures.

The image sequences in the ZooSphere are more detailed than 3D models that were computed by means of photogrammetry. They meet the requirements of scientists to reflect even the most minute surface traits and structures, contours, transparent as well as glossy parts and the finest colour nuances.

The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin
The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is famous to the public for the “World of Dinosaurs” in the atrium. Two of its highlights are the world’s largest mounted dinosaur skeleton, featuring a Brachiosaurus brancai, and Archaeopteryx lithographica, perhaps the best known fossil of all – frequently described as a “missing link” between reptiles and birds. Currently, in a separate location the display also includes a specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex on loan.

More than just famous dinosaurs: Today, the Museum für Naturkunde houses more than 30 million objects, including almost three million fossils, 220,000 mineral specimens, 276,000 preserved animals in the wet collection, approx. 15 million insects and 120,000 recordings of animal sounds.

A research infrastructure of global importance: The comparison material available in the collections facilitates the discovery of hitherto unknown species and thus the categorisation of biodiversity. The majority of insects are kept dried and pinned in approx. 35,000 wooden cases, which are stored in cabinets.

Exploring nature
The Museum für Naturkunde Berlin is primarily involved in four research areas: Geologists, palaeontologists and zoologists ask questions about speciation and population differentiation, from the origins of the Earth to the modelling of future scenarios. A second area is concerned with the collections and their exploration, the discovery of previously unknown species and the categorisation of biodiversity. A third topical area addresses how objects can be digitised – ZooSphere serves as an example for this – and what digitisation means for research. Last but not least, the museum is involved in finding ways for science and the broader public to start a dialogue.

The Berlin-based research programme regarding the new T. rex is aimed at expanding our knowledge about the anatomy, physical abilities, the former ecosystem, the preservation and fossilisation as well as the diseases of this predatory dinosaur.

The proudly raised skull of the mounted skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex TRISTAN is a copy. The original would have been too heavy for the installation. Instead, hundreds of photos were taken of each of the individual bones, based on which extremely exact 3D models were computed by means of photogrammetry. On the basis of these data, the 3D laboratory at the Technical University Berlin then created copies of the individual skull bones using laser sintering technology.

Scientists at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Natural History Museum of Geneva are involved in a study to determine whether tree frogs from West and Central Africa belong to separate species or whether they are conspecific, as previously assumed due to external similarities. The researchers compared the frogs’ genetic and acoustic characteristics and found out that they represent different species – a contribution to the larger question how species differentiate in a shared habitat.

Comprehensive studies were conducted on a group of Australian digger wasps. Based on pinned specimens, some of which were collected more than 150 years ago and which came from museum collections all over the world, the morphological traits of almost 1,000 animals were checked in minute detail. Previously, 23 species in this genus were known from Australia; thanks to this study, that number has now increased to 34.

Credits: Story

“8 Objects, 8 Museums” is a collaboration project between the Leibniz research museums and the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien in Tübingen in the Leibniz Year 2016.

Research project regarding ZooSphere.net of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

All documents and photos:
Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Photos & Film: Antje Dittmann, Thorleif Dörfel und Michael Ohl, Johannes Frisch, Hwa Ja Götz, Valentin Henning, Heinrich Mallison, Martin Pluta, Carola Radke, Mark-Oliver Rödel, Bernhard Schurian, SatScan, ZooSphere

Text and object selection: Stephan Speicher
Museum für Naturkunde Berlin: Felix Maier, Martin Pluta, Thomas Schmid-Dankward

Transaltion: Hendrik Herlyn

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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