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How you can help crack the insect code at Te Papa

Insect specimens from the Hudson Collection,  including beetles, giant stick insects and moths, are stored in kauri cabinets at the Te Papa museum.

Te Papa is on a mission to decipher the secret life of insects.

Wanted! Digital volunteers who’d like to contribute to a major science project at the country’s national museum. Interested? Get in touch with Te Papa’s terrestrial invertebrates curator Julia Kasper, who’s in charge of a crowdsourcing mission to decode the insect registers of entomologist George Hudson.

Hudson created one of New Zealand’s largest insect collections between 1881 and 1946, recording information in three handwritten volumes. Describing thousands of specimens gets complicated, so Hudson invented his own coding system, often reusing some of his codes as the collection grew.

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Te Papa curator Julia Kasper holds the volumes that need “decoding”.

“The problem is they were living documents,” says Kasper. “He made many alterations to his work, and deciphering that is the challenge.”

Not that you’ll need the skillset of Alan Turing to crack the enigma. Volunteers are sent a reference sheet explaining the quirks of Hudson’s handwriting, and a spreadsheet to input all decoded info. “The way he wrote letters was very unique, but his handwriting is quite readable once you get used to it.”

A handwritten page from one of entomologist George Hudson’s insect registers.

Once the records have been deciphered, conservation entomologists will compare them with the status of those same insects today, and look at what’s changed in specific regions. “A species without that data available for research is useless,” says Kasper.

Harnessing the power of crowdsourcing is a worldwide trend. In Washington DC, the Smithsonian has raised a digital army of almost 12,000 volunteers since 2013, and the Hudson project isn’t the first time Te Papa has turned to the internet – in 2017, a team of volunteers transcribed a section of Horowhenua farmer Leslie Adkins’ diaries, written during the final 12 months of World War I.

julia kaspar

And if Kasper has her way, it won’t be the last. “About 40 volunteers have signed up so far, mostly non-scientists,” she says. “This kind of project is perfect because we can share it with anyone. We even have a Kiwi who lives in New York who wants to help. That was the idea: to get people who aren’t in Wellington to sign up, as far away as Northland and the Sounds. But we need more help. There’s still heaps to do!”

To offer your services or to find out more, email julia.kasper@tepapa.govt.nz.

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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