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A technological revolution in insect research

Last changed: 14 May 2024
Fly in flower

Insects are the most diverse group of animals on Earth, but current knowledge of insect diversity, ecology and population trends remains extremely poor. During the last few years, a series of technological breakthroughs has revolutionised insect research and environmental monitoring. Artificial intelligence helps handling the large amounts of data involved.

Recent fears of insect declines have sent researchers scrambling for data on how the insects are doing. Given how numerous they are, and how hard to tell apart, obtaining complete information on insect trends has remained a tall order. Now technological breakthroughs are paving the way for global insect surveys. In illustration of their power, a DNA-based survey of Swedish insects is revealing some 10 000 species new to the country – adding a full third to one of the best-known insect faunas in the world. A German survey of DNA finds similar numbers.

“So far, such data are only available for a few insect groups and for selected regions. To improve on the status quo, we need urgent assessments of all types of insects in all parts of the world”, says Tomas Roslin, Professor of Insect Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

Beyond DNA, insects also make sounds characteristic for their species. Now cheap sound recorders are being spread across the environment, digitizing years of sounds – then computers assign these massive data to the insects that produced them. Other devices attract insects to light, then photograph and identify them from the images. Radar and even laser beams sense insects from a distance and identify them based on their size and their wingbeats.

“All of these methods have enormous advantages, as they build on recording measures which can be half- or fully automated. Automation reduces both the effort and price of experts hand-netting or searching for the insects in the field,” says Roel van Klink, senior researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv).

Most importantly, the new methods reduce our dependence on experts, since the people who can tell insects apart are few and overburdened with work. They can now rely on computers do the routine work – saving their own time for the more urgent tasks of finding and describing new species.

For most insects, there is no one who knows them. An estimated four out of five insect species is unknown to science and lacks even a name. To characterise them all by traditional methods would require more than a millennium. Now, computer-based methods and artificial intelligence are massively speeding up the task of describing life on Earth. Computers and AI are making sense of billions of images, millions of sound recordings and trillions of DNA sequences.

“Together, these technical advances will revolutionise our knowledge about insects. They make surveys of all types of insects feasible. While they have so far been developed in isolation from each other, we will gain unprecedented insights into insects by combining them,” says Dr Silke Bauer from the Swiss Federal Research Institute (WSL). “However, to allow global insights and equality, we need to make sure that both the technologies themselves and the data generated become accessible to everyone.”

These advances and principles are showcased in a new issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B   – offering a comprehensive entry port for anyone interested in the insect world and how it is studied.

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Tomas Roslin, Professor Insect Ecology
Department of Ecology, SLU 018-672383