Larry Page would like to get back to his fishes, the catfish and loaches he studies as a University of Florida ichthyologist, but first he and his colleagues have some work to do on plant, animal and fossil specimens — millions of them.
Page and an army of helpers are on year three of iDigBio, a 10-year, $12 million effort to digitize the biological specimens tucked away in museum collections across the country. He estimates there could be 1 billion nationally, representing the collected knowledge of biological diversity for vast swaths of the planet.
Although it has taken him away from his fishes, the effort already has contributed to his work in an unexpected way.
“A student and I just found a database where specimens of a loach have been collected in Pakistan,” Page says. “We thought these loaches only went as far west as India, but there they were, in Pakistan.”
Such moments of discovery can be rare. Scientists can labor long stretches between them, sometimes whole careers without them. But with iDigBio, Page says, “these aha! moments could almost be routine; that’s what this is all about, and it is happening all the time.”