The Natural History Museum’s digital collections reveal the impact of climate change on British butterflies

  • Scientists used the Natural History Museum’s butterfly collection – the largest, most historic and diverse in the world – to study the impact of climate change on the size of British butterfly species.
  • The most common results suggest that the body size of adult butterflies increases with temperature during the late larval stages of development. This can affect their reproductive success and their ability to disperse.
  • This study is one of the first to show that computer vision can accurately measure the physical characteristics of digital collections and test species responses to climate change.
  • Advances in digitization and technology are accelerating scientific research and conservation efforts in response to climate change.

The most common results suggest that the body size of adult butterflies increases with temperature during the late larval stages of development. The research was conducted on one of the largest collections of butterflies in the world – the collection of the Natural History Museum which has around 125,000 specimens. The digitization of these species has enabled this advance in scientific research on the impact of climate change on wild species.

Computer vision is a rapidly evolving field in which computers are programmed to identify and measure information from digital images or video. Researchers at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science have developed a computer vision pipeline called “motra‘ and with that they were able to analyze over 180,000 photographed specimens from the Natural History Museum iCollections Project. The oldest specimen used in this project dates from the early 1900s. motra Automatically detects the specimen and measures characteristics, including wing characteristics (such as length), orientation (how the specimen is pinned), and identifies sex. This process dramatically reduces the time needed to analyze individual samples, which would otherwise require researchers to physically measure and record manually. The results of this study indicated that there was an almost perfect relationship between motra and manual measurements.

“The Natural History Museum’s collection of British and Irish butterflies and moths is the oldest, largest and most diverse of its kind in the world.” Said, Geoff Martin, Senior Curator in Charge (Lepidoptera) at the Natural History Museum, London. The digitization process involves transforming physical information into a digital photographic format. The Natural History Museum has so far digitized more than five million specimens and published them openly on the Museum’s data portal, including more than 776,000 freely accessible butterflies and moths worldwide.

The scientists linked the measurements to monthly temperature records recorded by the immature stages of 24 different British butterfly species and looked for patterns in the relationship between size and temperature. The Natural History Museum’s temperature collections and records span decades and provide a large amount of data, making them ideal sources for temperature-size response studies. Of the 24 species analyzed, 17 showed significant results, correlating the increase in adult size with the increase in temperature at the end of the larval stage. The impact of temperature on the other larval stages was not significant and varied between females and males of the same species.

This study highlights the value of digitizing natural history specimens to aid our understanding of species responses to climate change. Along with efforts to digitize museums, technological advances in computer vision allow scientific research to be conducted faster and more efficiently than ever before. These aspects are proving to be a powerful tool in aiding wildlife conservation efforts and mitigating the impacts of climate change on species locally and globally.

Co-authors of the article are Dr Rebecca J Wilson, Stephen J Brooks, Dr Benjamin W Price, Lea M Simon, Dr Phillip B Fenberg from the Natural History Museum London and the University of Southampton in collaboration with the Dr Alexandre Fioravante de Siqueira and Dr Stéfan J van der Walt, researchers from the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, University of California.

Stephen J Brooks, entomology researcher at the Natural History Museum in London and co-author of the paper, says;

“Natural history collections contain information about how the natural world responds to change over time. But the sheer size of these collections often makes it difficult to extract this information. Our study has shown the value and power of digitization and machine learning to rapidly disseminate this wealth of evidence, which can be used to conserve species in a changing world.

Dr Phillip B Fenberg, senior lecturer at the University of Southampton and co-author of the paper, says;

“Our paper is among the first to show that computer vision can be applied to these digital images to test hypotheses about how animals might respond to climate change. This accelerates our understanding of how the biosphere will respond to climate change.

Dr. Stéfan J van der Walt, researcher at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and co-author of the article, states;

“The open-source Python science ecosystem has made it possible to rapidly develop software that accurately and automatically analyzes digital specimens, an otherwise laborious manual process. The international collaboration also benefited from the fact that it was a small interdisciplinary team, with both field and software expertise. We are delighted that the research is based on open data and software, allowing others to verify and build on our work.

The study ‘Application of computer vision to digitized natural history collections for climate change research: temperature-size responses in British butterflies‘ is published in Methods in ecology and evolution.


Notes to Editors

Natural history media contact: Tel. : +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151

E-mail: [email protected]

Images available for download here.

About the Natural History Museum of London

The Natural History Museum is both a world-renowned center for scientific research and the most visited indoor attraction in the UK last year. With a vision of a future in which people and the planet thrive, he is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing the needs of humanity with those of the natural world.

It is the custodian of one of the world’s largest scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers around the world both in person and through over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 300 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency, from the loss of biodiversity to the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its global reach and influence to fulfill its mission to create Earth Defenders – to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website received 17 million visits last year and our traveling exhibitions have been viewed by approximately 20 million people over the past 10 years.

About the University of Southampton

The University of Southampton inspires original thinking, transforms knowledge into action and impact, and creates solutions to global challenges. We are among the top 100 institutions in the world (QS World University Rankings 2022). Our scholars are leaders in their fields, forging connections with leading international companies and organizations and inspiring a community of 22,000 exceptional students, from more than 135 countries around the world. Through our high-quality education, the University supports students on a journey of discovery to realize their potential and join our global network of over 200,000 alumni.

About Berkeley Institute for Data Science, University of California

The Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS) is a central hub of data-intensive research, open-source research software, and data science training at the University of California, Berkeley. BIDS programs and initiatives are designed to facilitate collaboration within an increasingly diverse and active community of data science experts – from the life sciences, social and physical sciences, and humanities – as well as methodological experts in computer science, statistics and applied mathematics. . Since its launch in 2013, BIDS has cultivated an environment of open inquiry and discovery for data-intensive research, and we continue to seek new and creative ways to cross traditional academic boundaries and engage a diverse community. of researchers representing a wide range of disciplines.

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