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Researchers at Oregon State University have received a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create technology to identify bugs with systems similar to those used to compare and identify fingerprints.
"When we perfect a low-cost, efficient method to use computers to monitor insect populations, it will revolutionize water quality monitoring, which will be one of the first applications," said Tom Dietterich, an OSU professor of computer science.
One of the first insects the scientists will try to identify is stonefly larvae, which are known to be a sensitive indicator of stream health and water quality.
"These larval stoneflies are sensitive to reductions in water quality caused by thermal pollution, eutrophication, sedimentation, and chemical pollution," Dietterich said. "They can provide us the first indication of a problem."
Researchers say identifying the flat, black-and-white images of fingerprints is easy compared to identifying the incredible variety of insects that come in many shapes, sizes, colors and configurations.
In Oregon alone, a square yard of soil can contain up to 300,000 insects representing 200 species.
Forest management also could be improved if ecologists are given tools to easily measure insect populations and biodiversity, Dietterich said.
But scientists will have to create a system that can collect, manipulate, photograph and identify small insects, very quickly, accurately and in large numbers.
The long-term goal, researchers say, is to create machine and computer systems that can be "retrained" for application to different sets of insects or a broad range of other pattern recognition problems.
Insect monitoring has been a valuable tool for some time but the cost of collecting, counting and identifying the insects with highly trained and often scarce experts has been prohibitive, researchers say.
A computer system that could do the counting also could be of enormous value agriculture and other industries, Dietterich added.