Insect Investigators

Scientists and schools, coming together to discover, document and describe Australia’s biodiversity.

Written by Susan Wright, Collection Manager (Entomology), Queensland Museum

Budding junior entomologists from 50 regional schools in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia have successfully collected thousands of insects as part of the citizen science project, Insect Investigators. Each school set-up an insect trap in March 2022 which they used to collect and monitor local insects over a four-week period.

The results are in!

Led by Dr Erinn Fagen-Jeffries (University of Adelaide) and Dr Andy Howe (in Queensland, University of the Sunshine Coast), 17 Queensland schools took part with the traps collecting mostly flying insects such as flies and wasps. From the collections, more than 14,000 insect specimens were selected to be DNA barcoded by the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at The University of Guelph in Canada.

Successful sequencing has added over 12,606 DNA barcodes to the Barcode of Life Database! The variation among these barcodes suggests that there are more than 5,000 different species present among the specimens, and just over 3,000 of those are brand new records on the database.

The Taxonomists and Museums

Each of these DNA barcodes relates back to an individual insect specimen that will be deposited in the entomology collections at the South Australian Museum, Queensland Museum, and the Western Australian Museum. Museums are the cornerstone of taxonomy: they house the specimens, and the scientists who study them! The Queensland Museum, for example, has a collection of 3.5 million insect specimens, many of which are undescribed.

Right now, Insect Investigators have some amazing taxonomists from all over Australia, including our own Dr Christine Lambkin, Dr Michael Rix and Dr Peter Allsopp, helping confirm the DNA barcode identifications. These taxonomists are looking out for undescribed, new-to-science species in one of their special groups.

If this is the case, the students help to choose the scientific name of this new species! The scientists will publish the new names and describe the new species with photos or drawings and the specimens will be deposited in their state museum for future research. Once a name is attached to a species all information related to that species can be found by using that name. Hence increasing our knowledge of Australia’s biodiversity.

School students catch and name new insect species

Through the citizen science project, Insect Investigators – scientists and schools across Australia have come together to discover and describe Australia’s biodiversity. The students trapped thousands of flying insects that were sequenced in Canada and returned to Australia for scientists to check their DNA barcode identifications. Taxonomists will describe species from their special groups, and students will choose the scientific name of the new species.

Dr Howe was met by avid entomologists in training at Back Plains State School, inspired by their principal Lara Waters.

Estimates suggest that greater than 70% of Australia’s insect diversity is still largely unknown to science, meaning they don’t have a formal name. Check out the Insect Investigators project and see how you can help scientists document Australia’s biodiversity at insectinvestigators.com.au

Want to learn more about this new national citizen science initiative? Check out Insect Investigators: Uncovering Australia’s Biodiversity at World Science Festival Brisbane in March 2023. Bookings available for primary and secondary school students.

Special thanks to this year’s participating Queensland schools:

Back Plains State SchoolGin Gin State High SchoolSpringsure State School
Beerwah State High SchoolGlenden State SchoolSt Patrick’s Catholic School, Winton
Belgian Gardens State SchoolKogan State SchoolTamborine Mountain State School
Blackall State SchoolMornington Island State SchoolYeppoon State High School
Cameron Downs State SchoolMount Molloy State SchoolYeronga State School
Columba Catholic CollegeProspect Creek State School

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