Dominican insects, digitized

2 min read

It’s the brilliant colors and otherworldly shapes of the Dominican insects that catch the eye and draw a viewer in. It’s the alien forms magnified for all to see clearly that keeps one standing before the images hung at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, studying them. The digital images are one-third of the center’s show “Tre: Dominican Contemporaneity,” which is the result of a collaboration by three Dominican artists, sociologist Soraya Arecena, and Harvard entomologist Brian D. Farrell, professor of biology and curator of entomology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ).

Farrell’s images are just the tip of a digital iceberg, a growing catalog of the Dominican Republic’s insect life that Dominican and Harvard students have been compiling for four years and that stands now at 40,000 images representing 6,000 species.

“This is the front end of a growing encyclopedia of life of the Dominican Republic,” said Farrell on a walk-through of the gallery.

Farrell’s project to catalog Dominican biodiversity began with a student field trip in his insect biology course in 2002. Students on that excursion fogged trees and collected the insects that fell onto cloth sheets slung below. The students helped identify 500 insects, including many new species, which were then digitally scanned and entered into a database.

Since then, Farrell has enlisted a growing corps of both U.S. and Dominican scientists and students from museums and universities in both countries.

The students, directed by the scientists, continue to collect, catalog, and scan insects. They occasionally make significant finds, such as the discovery last year of a citrus tree pest previously unknown in the Dominican Republic and responsible for millions of dollars of losses elsewhere.