This week we published a new paper, "Automated identification of insect vectors of Chagas disease in Brazil and Mexico: the Virtual Vector Lab", in PeerJ. This is the first of (hopefully) many products to come out of the Virtual Vector Lab project, which started at the University of Kansas when I was in the last year of my PhD program. The aim of the project is to facilitate the identification of potential insect disease vectors to species by public health workers by uniting technology with taxonomic expertise. The project is interdisciplinary, involving biologists, computer scientists, and artists at institutions in the US, Brazil, and Mexico.
My role in the project was to read through the taxonomic literature on triatomine insects (aka assassin bugs, the vectors of Chagas disease) and identify potential morphological landmarks from which we could obtain measurements to identify specimens. I then performed the measurements by hand using digital images of museum specimens and developed a preliminary classification algorithm for identifying the specimens. Based on this preliminary work and in collaboration with an expert on image recognition software, I then optimized the landmarks for identification power and automatability of measurement collection.
My collaborators were further able to further improve the ability of our workflow to automatically identify insects by generating a candidate species lists based on distribution maps of all triatomine vectors and the location from which the image was collected (this information is available as a matter of course when an image is taken with a smartphone, all of which have built-in GPS). When all was said and done, we had an automated identification success rate of over 80%. Not bad for a computer!
To further improve our success rate in the future, we are working to facilitate the collection of standardized through a 3D printable smartphone stand that will provide a standard background color, lighting, and distance from the subject.
It's another exciting day in the life of a museum scientist!
Gurgel-Gonçalves, R., Komp, E., Campbell, L.P., Khalighifar, A., Mellenbruch, J., Mendonça, V.J., Owens, H.L., de la Cruz Felix, K., Peterson, A.T. and Ramsey, J.M., 2017. Automated identification of insect vectors of Chagas disease in Brazil and Mexico: the Virtual Vector Lab. PeerJ, 5, p.e3040.
Open access article:
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