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Close-up of a German wasp's face.
Curator James Carpenter uses a technique called photomontage to bring selected areas of insects, such as this German wasp, into focus.
© AMNH/J. Carpenter.

Each of the 41 intriguing images in Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies tells a fascinating story about research or conservation projects. Here’s the last in a series of four snapshots.

New imaging technologies have revolutionized the age-old scientific tasks of observation and classification. And for James Carpenter, a curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, they’ve opened up a new way of seeing.

Dr. Carpenter is tracing the ancestry of various wasps, which he does by examining the insects’ physical features to identify them and place them in their evolutionary context. His lab’s current project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is to reconstruct the phylogeny, or evolutionary history, of Vespinae, a subfamily of wasps consisting of hornets and yellowjackets.

Carpenter’s methods include photomontage—essentially digital photography—which allows him to stack images to focus on specific features. A head shot of a German wasp, part of the ongoing exhibition Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies now on view in the Akeley Gallery and curated by Mark Siddall, uses this technique to bring selected areas into sharp focus. These snapshots enable Carpenter to place the insect in the tree of life.

His lab also uses a variety of high-tech microscopes, including an environmental scanning electron microscope. This instrument highlights minuscule features without destroying the specimen, as often happened with earlier versions of the technology. Once Carpenter has the traits, he plugs the data into a computer program that synthesizes them at rapid speed.

Another imaging project of the lab involves putting photographs of the Museum’s collection of 1,200 wasp nests—the world’s largest—online so that researchers worldwide can study them. Details of nest architecture will aid Vespinae’s reconstruction as well—and sometimes, it’s the most basic evidence that counts. “Wasp nests have a certain development, much like the ontogeny of an organism,” Carpenter says. “Early stages are widely shared across many taxa.” By analyzing a nest that was never finished or a fragment from the base of a nest, scientists can learn more about its former inhabitants’ broader relationship to the rest of the family.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.