Lepidoptera of North America Network

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Digitization TCN: Lepidoptera of North America Network: Documenting Diversity in the Largest Clade of Herbivores

Lep-Net TCN
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Project Summary
Current Research
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Project Summary

Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) are one of the most diverse groups of organisms on the planet: worldwide there are approximately 160,000 species, including around 14,300 species in North America. Moths and butterflies are a conspicuous component of terrestrial habitats and one of the most diverse groups of plant-feeding animals worldwide. This group insect includes species of great economic importance. Their juveniles feed on plants useful to humans, including grains, cotton, tobacco, and timber and shade trees. However, many of the adults are beneficial as pollinators and are icons of conservation as evidenced by Monarch butterflies. Given their economic importance and sheer beauty, butterflies and moths are one of the most abundant insect group in museum collections, but only a fraction of the approximately 15 million specimens in non-federal collections have had their specimen label information digitally recorded and accessible to researchers and educators. Of those specimens that have been digitized, fewer than 10% of the North American Lepidoptera species have sufficient, accessible occurrence data to make reliable predictions about habitat use, susceptibility to global change impacts, or other ecologically important interactions. This project will digitize and integrate existing, unconnected collections of lepidopterans to leverage the outstanding potential of this group of organisms for transformative research, training and outreach.

The Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet) comprises 26 research collections that will digitize approximately 2 million specimen records and integrate these with over 1 million existing records. LepNet will digitize 43,280 larval vial records with host plant data, making this the first significant digitization of larvae in North American collections. LepNet will produce ca. 82,000 high-quality images of exemplar species covering 60% of North American lepidopteran species. These images will enhance remote identifications and facilitate systematic, ecological, and global change research. In collaboration with Visipedia, LepNet will create LepSnap, a computer vision tool that can provide automated identifications to the species level. Museum volunteers and student researchers equipped with smartphones will image >132,000 additional research-quality images through LepSnap. Up to 5,000 lepidopteran species will be elevated to a "research ready" status suitable for complex, data-driven analyses. LepNet will build on the existing data portal (SCAN) in consolidating data on Lepidoptera to the evolution of lepidopteran herbivores in North America. Access to these data will be increased through integration with iDigBio. Data for a broad range of research, including the evolutionary ecology of Lepidoptera and their host plants in the context of global change processes affecting biogeographic distributions will be generated. The LepXPLOR! program will spearhead education and outreach efforts for 67 existing programs, engaging a diverse, nationwide workforce of 400+ students and 3,500+ volunteers. Overall, LepNet will generate a sustainable social-research network dedicated to the creation and maintenance of a digital collection of North American Lepidoptera specimens (http://www.lep-net.org/).

Current Research

Proposed research themes and uses for the data digitized and mobilized through the Lep-Net project include:

  • evolutionary and ecological interactions, ecological niche modelling,
  • studies on environmental change and human disturbance and habitat destruction,
  • predictions concerning habitat use, susceptibility to global change impacts, or other spatially/temporally deep-scale interactions,
  • insect-host plant interactions, evolution of host plant use,
  • systematic/taxonomic, ecological, and global change research,
  • automatic identification tools,
  • phenological change and color pattern evolution,
  • conservation ecology,
  • understanding the biogeography of lepidoperta species, and
  • identifying and unraveling cryptic species and mimicry complexes.
  • Project Websites & Social Media

    SCAN arthropod database

    Citizen Science & Outreach Projects

    Project Leadership

    Project sponsor: Northern Arizona University (NSF Award 1602081)

    Principal Investigator (PI): Neil Cobb
    Co-Principal Investigator: Ben Brandt

    Project Collaborators

    Map of Collaborating Institutions

    Arizona State University - Nico Franz, Melody Basham, Sangmi Lee (NSF Award 1601659)
    Clemson University – Michael Caterino
    Colorado State University - Boris Kondratieff, Paul Opler (NSF Award 1600937)
    Denver Museum of Nature and Science - Frank Krell, Jeff Stephenson (NSF Award 1601275)
    Drexel University, Academy of Natural Sciences – Jon Gelhaus
    Harvard University - Naomi Pierce (NSF Award 1601124)
    Kansas State University – Gregory Zolnerowich
    Michigan State University - Anthony Cognato (NSF Award 1600556)
    Mississippi State University - Richard Brown (NSF Award 1601164)
    New Mexico State University – Scott Bundy
    Ohio State University, C.A. Triplehorn Insect Collection – Norman F. Johnson
    Oregon State University - Christopher Marshall (NSF Award 1601888)
    Purdue University - Jennifer Zaspel (NSF Award 1601957)
    University of Alaska-Fairbanks - Derek Sikes (NSF Award 1600774)
    University of California-Davis - Lynn Kimsey (NSF Award 1601443)
    University of Florida - Akito Kawahara, Jaret Daniels (NSF Award 1601369)
    University of Georgia - Joseph McHugh (NSF Award 1601002)
    University of Idaho, William F. Barr Entomological Museum – Stephen Cook
    University of Minnesota-Twin Cities - Robin Thomson, Ralph Holzenthal (NSF Award 1601461)
    University of Nevada – Reno – Lee Dyer
    University of Utah, Natural History Museum of Utah – Christy Bills
    Western Washington University - Merrill Peterson (NSF Award 1600824)
    Yale University - Lawrence Gall (NSF Award 1600616)

    Unfunded collaborators
    Tall Timbers Research Station – Gil Nelson, Kevin Robertson, Jim Cox
    University of Oklahoma, Sam Noble Museum of Natural History – Katrina Menard

    Protocols & Workflows


    Belitz, M., Hendrick, L., Monfils, M., Cuthrell, D., Marshall, C., Kawahara, A., ... & Warren, A. (2018). Aggregated occurrence records of the federally endangered Poweshiek skipperling (Oarisma poweshiek). Biodiversity Data Journal, 6, e29081.

    Kawahara, A.Y., Breinholt, J.W., Espeland, M., Storer, C. Plotkin, D., Dexter, K.M., Toussaint, E.F.A., St Laurent, R.A., Brehm, G., Vargas, S., Forero, D., Pierce, N.E., Lohman, D.J.(2018. Phylogenetics of moth-like butterflies (Papilionoidea: Hedylidae) based on a new 13-locus target capture probe set," Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2018.06.002

    Kitching I, Rougerie R, Zwick A, Hamilton C, St Laurent R, Naumann S, Ballesteros Mejia L, Kawahara A (2018) A global checklist of the Bombycoidea (Insecta: Lepidoptera). Biodiversity Data Journal 6: e22236. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.6.e22236

    Rund, S. S., Braak, K., Cator, L., Copas, K., Emrich, S. J., Giraldo-Calderón, G. I., ... & Lawson, D. (2019). MIReAD, a minimum information standard for reporting arthropod abundance data. Scientific data, 6(1), 40. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-019-0042-5

    Seltmann, K.C.; Cobb N.S.; Gall, L.F.; Bartlett, C.R.; Basham, A.; Betancourt, I.; Bills, C.; Brandt, B.; Brown, R.L.; Bundy, C.; Caterino, M.S..; Grinter, C.C.; Harp, C.E.; Hawkins, R.L.; Heydon, S.L.; Hill, G.M.; Huber, S.; Johnson, N.; Kawahara, A.Y.; K. (2017). LepNet: The Lepidoptera of North America Network. Zootaxa, 4247(1): 73-77. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4247.1.10

    Professional Presentations

    Other project documentation


    Integration of data from the San Diego Natural History Museum with the Lepidoptera of North America Network

    An award is made to the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) to join with the Lepidoptera of North America Network Thematic Collection Network (LepNet TCN) as a Partner to Existing Network (PEN). The main goal of this project is to integrate information from butterfly and moth specimens at the SDNHM with LepNet to facilitate the use of museum specimens for research and education. Publicly accessible data resources like LepNet are increasingly being used to study the impact of environmental change on the natural world and to develop conservation priorities. The information associated with the SDNHM specimens fills major data gaps from southern California and the Baja California Peninsula. In addition, the project will add species currently not represented in LepNet and a quarter of the data predates the 1920s, a period currently underrepresented in the portal. Along with these scientific outcomes, the project will engage dozens of high-school interns and volunteers and provide science-related work experience for at least six undergraduate students. The researchers will also be producing public-friendly social media and blog content that highlights the aesthetics, diversity, and biology of butterflies and moths.

    This NSF-ADBC funded project will transcribe label data for over 150,000 Lepidoptera specimen records from the SDNHM and incorporate it in into the LepNet data resource. All specimens will be barcoded, databased, and georeferenced, and at least 4000 exemplars will be imaged and available online. The project will increase the current number of accessible specimen records for southern California and the peninsula of Baja California by 684% and 241% respectively. The SDNHM has maintained over 140 years of research on this region, which will provide a substantial increase in the temporal diversity currently documented in LepNet, enhancing the portal's utility for change over time research. The participating undergraduate students, high school interns, and volunteers will be trained and mentored in museum curation, imaging, databasing protocols, and collections-based research. Digitized data will be shared with iDigBio (idigbio.org) where it can be accessed for research, education, and public use.

    This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

    Project Sponsor: San Diego Society of Natural History (NSF Award #1903299)

    Principal Investigator: Michael Wall (PI), Pamela Horsley (co-PI)