The Nightmarish Detail of New 3D Insect Images

They offer clearer views than even microscopes can.

The serious bug collector will tell you that no entomological compendium is ever truly complete.

Even the most vivid color-wheels of butterflies are missing something—often many somethings—either because scientists haven't collected it, or because they don't yet know it exists. 

And the entomological resources we do have are difficult to share.

Bugs are often delicate and tiny. Most photographs fail to capture essential qualities like the iridescence of a cellophane-thin wing. 

X-rays are good for mapping an insect's core structure, but not for capturing surface-level details like the insect's color. Laser imaging can work, but few lasers can handle fine details on an insect scale. 

But researchers at Australia's national science agency think they may have a solution. They've developed a 3D-imaging proposal to bring rare and delicate insect specimens into the digital domain so they can be "more readily shared, analyzed, annotated and compared." 

The plan, outlined in a Plos One paper published this month, was developed for the Australian National Insect Collection. 

Their idea: Take two-dimensional images of the insect using many, many different vantage points, then infer a three-dimensional model from those two-dimensional images.

Look how many angles they needed of this bee to develop a detailed image of its wing: 

Researchers say this method produces far clearer images than alternate imaging methods or magnification of existing photographs.

Consider the image at the top of this article. It's an extreme close-up of a granary weevil, a wheat-eating insect that's smaller than the head of a matchstick. For some perspective, the same weevil is the one on the far left, below. 

The new imaging method works so well, researchers say, that it  allows for "easier specimen examination than the actual specimen being viewed under a microscope."

They hope it will help entomologists who want to swap specimens, teachers who could use high-quality 3D images as educational tools, and even public officials who need to identity invasive species. 

Researchers can also use 3D printing technology to turn 3D images into larger-than-life replicas of otherwise minuscule bugs. These physical models allow scientists to study the details of insects' anatomy in ways not before possible. Researchers at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, test-printed some of their models in titanium—a choice they say reflected aesthetic sensibilities over scientific ones.

Eleanor Gates-Stuart/CSIRO

Here's CSIRO's Chad Henry with some of the models:

Eleanor Gates-Stuart/CSIRO

Practical and artistic applications aside, the imaging is a reminder about how technology has an uncanny habit of zooming in and zooming out, turning our perspectives of the world into something superhuman. 

One moment, we may see high-definition video of an airplane from above or the faraway speck of our little home planet from across the solar system. The next, we are back on Earth, faced with the dimpled snout of a creature we might never know existed. 

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Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBUR. More

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications.

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