Bálint Zsolt at the Hungarian Natural History Museum

Digitizing the Lepidoptera collection

The full digitization of the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) collection at the Hungarian Natural History Museum (HNHM) began in March 2021. A high-resolution digital image of the drawers is taken at the workstation established in one of the collection rooms. The workflow was designed and supervised by the team (Zsolt Bálint, Gergely Katona and Balázs Tóth), and the Phase One high-resolution digital capture system is operated by Andrea Bényi. 

The HNHM holdings, together with the collections kept as private depositories, contain nearly 1.8 million specimens, stored in approximately 12,000 standard museum glass-lid drawers keeping the material dry and protected from light and dust, either on shelves or in cabinets. The origin of the oldest specimens can be traced back to the late 1700s. The drawers’ content can be broadly classified as (1) main collection, (2) supplementary collections, and (3) collections of specimens waiting to be categorized.

The main collections are (a) national (Carpathian Basin) collection and (b) World collections. Specimens are classified according to their taxonomic position. In the national collection, the material is determined at the species level and registered by the cabinet cadaster inventory.  

The objects are mostly determined at the species level, but since new specimen regularly come in, there are ongoing taxonomic revision and curatorial work taking place, especially on the World collections. 

All objects are stored in cabinet and drawer-based register, but approximately 50,000 specimens are individually databased. These are representatives of species protected by national or international law and they normally carry a commercial value, historical or type material, or collection parts curated in the last decades according to the most recent scientific knowledge. 

For this project, the team used their Phase One XF IQ4 150MP camera system, with a Blue Ring 80mm/f2.8 LS lens, mounted on a Kaiser RSP-MOT copy stand. 

Supplementary collections: These are handled separately from the main collection: (a) they are important from a history of science view or (b) special collections. The series of drawers containing material from Tobias Koy (1757-1829), Ferdinand Ochsenheimer (1767-1822), Friedrich Treitschke (1776-1842) and Imre Frivaldszky (1799-1870) consisting of specimens from the classical period of lepidopterology (18th-19th centuries) are of scientific historical significance. The collections of developmental forms (eggs, caterpillars and chrysalids), the herbaria of Lepidoptera mines and other plant-damage traces, and genital preparation slides are special.

Material waiting to be processed contain (a) specimens properly prepared, labeled, and identified mostly on genus level that can only be incorporated to the main collection trunk after the taxonomic revision of the appropriate part; or (b) specimens that are awaiting preparation and labeling so that scientific and curatorial work may begin with them and be incorporated to the collection.

The Phase One XF camera was mounted on a copy stand with LED panels for even lighting. It took a team of three people with one handling the objects by making any fixes or adjustments. One was in charge for capturing and processing, while the third person added the correct metadata. They used a GoldenThread object level target with every capture to ensure image quality is consistent throughout the whole project.

In the followings, we give some highlights of certain parts of the collection. All the specimens of the parts presented are individually databased, and curated using tray system adopted from the beginning of the 2000’s.

Collection Ochsenheimer

The Viennese actor Ferdinand Ochsenheimer was the first to publish a multi-volume monographic work on European Lepidoptera. His collection was purchased in 1823 by the National Museum of Hungary. In the flood of 1838 in Pest, much of it was destroyed. The surviving specimens were incorporated to the main collection and were kept hidden. Later, Lajos Kovács (1900-1971) retrieved and separated them in some drawers. Based on his notes, it seems that he intended to identify and typify the specimen and to compile a catalog of the material secured. 

The collection holds 692 species, 1554 specimen, stored in 27 drawers.

 World Collection of Troidini (Birdwings)

There are 90 species and more than 1000 specimen which are stored in 71 drawers. Representatives of the tribus “Birdwings” are among the most spectacular butterflies, highly sought after by private collectors. For this reason, their sample in natural habitats, their trade and their research are governed by strict international conventions and laws. In addition to the specimens of many rare species, the HNHM Birdwing collection is of historical significance, as it contains a number of specimens collected by famous explorers such as Lajos Biró, Sámuel Fenichel and Gyula Madarász, and some specimens are name-bearing types. The collection also provides important sample material for materials science and biophysical research.  

The National Collection of Eupitheciini (Pugs)

This collection is stored in 41 drawers with more than 80 species and more than 16,000 specimen.  

The Tribus (Pug moths) was intensively studied already in the middle of the 19th century during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy by Friedrich Treitschke, Imre Frivaldszky and Otto Bohatsch (1843-1901). In general, this group of moths is considered to be one of the most difficult groups to identify, and it is also one of the most diverse ones. The interest of Hungarian researchers in the group did neither wane later. It was Lajos Kovács (1900-1971) who gave a general overview of the species’ distribution recorded for the fauna of Hungary. Later his student András Vojnits (1941-2021) became a world-renown specialist of the tribe, discovering and describing hundreds of species for science.  

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