Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Identifying Specimens On-line

These days it is not uncommon to reach for a computer, rather than a book, as a first source of information. This was the case for Stephen Mollins, a computer software developer in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Steve had set up an aquarium of local pond life in his office as part of his strategy to fight the isolation he experienced in his home office environment. Now he wanted to find out about the care and feeding of his new charges. Two of these were "water beetles."

The search of Internet resources began with Yahoo, an on-line commercial searcher available at

Steve followed one link to an entomology discussion list maintained by the University of Ontario at Guelph, which he joined. One message on the list was a reply to a request for information about beetles. The reply from an entomologist in Florida said to try

This is the water beetle home page I maintain on the World Wide Web (WWW). A home page can be many things. Mine is a source of information contained in text files and "hot links" that take the user to other sites throughout the world to access additional text files, images, and databases on related topics. One hot link on my home page activates the user's electronic mail software to send comments directly to me. Steve used this function to ask me about the food requirements, longevity, and identity of his beetles.

Steve's description of the first beetle and its swimming habits suggested that it was a whirligig beetle. These beetles are the size and shape of black watermelon seeds, and often occur in swarms, whirling about on the surface of ponds and streams. I e-mailed back a description of each of the two genera known from Massachusetts, and Steve confirmed that his was a Gyrinus.

Scanned image of water boatman exchanged over the Internet. Image courtesy of Stephen P. Mollins.

 The second "beetle" was not so easy because the description Steve originally provided could apply to many insects. I asked Steve to send additional information regarding its size, shape, swimming behavior, method of obtaining air, and so on. His response included an interesting twist. One of these insects had died. Steve dried it with a tissue, placed it on his desktop scanner under a piece of paper, scanned it at 400% size, and then played with the contrast and brightness until the image was as clear as possible. Steve's daughter Tiffany, a high school senior, had developed a home page for Steve on the WWW. She suggested putting the image on his page so that I could look at it.

The image was clearly that of a water boatman--a bug, not a beetle--belonging to the family Corixidae. I copied the images to my computer, enlarged them by about double, and sharpened them to check details. These suggested the genus Sigara.

Scanned image of water boatman exchanged over the Internet. Image courtesy of Stephen P. Mollins.

Entomologists once had the luxury of sufficient funds to conduct field work where it was needed. As funding declined, they began to rely more heavily upon specimens in museums, such as the one maintained at the Survey. Borrowing insects, however, subjects these fragile and often unique specimens to damage or loss. My interaction with Steve to identify his insects documents an entirely new concept for providing access to specimens. "Virtual specimens" can be placed before specialists by those who need the information they can provide. This represents a first step toward a new way to "exchange" specimens that involves no risk to the specimens and is fast (the entire exchange of electronic documents with Steve took place during a single morning). It is yet another example of public institutions "without walls."

Warren U. Brigham, Office of the Chief


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