Millions of Fishes
The Chicago Field Museum of Natural History is home to a collection of over 30,000,000 specimens collected for scientific research, of which only 0.1% are on display to the public. The include dinosaur bones, microscopic stardust, fossilized plants, and millions of fishes collected from around the world, dating back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Smelling a fish removed from its jar of formaldehyde for the first time in a century is easily the most pungent memory this nose can recall.
Imagine a dead fish smell cranked up to the intensity level of a 400-foot-drop. It’s difficult to think or act clearly. The process of digitizing a specimen must be swift and fool-proof. Field Museum interns will be subjected to the process for many years to come.
The main stakeholders are researchers conducting rapid assessments in the field today. Ideally, analysis of a specimen will require only a single standardized photograph of each fish. This will facilitate parity between analysis of specimens in the laboratory versus the field.
Framework and Process Design
A system of fish measurement is devised by the client, Barry Chernoff, curator and head of the Division of Fishes in the Department of Zoology at the Field Museum, and Rapid Assessment Program team leader.
Analysis of a specimen will be a two-phase process. First, take a photograph of each fish well-lit on a backdrop next to a ruler. Second, use a computer to tag the photograph with geometric points. This enables the process to begin with researchers in the field and finish with interns in the lab.
Software design is based on the ichthyologist’s formulas for comparison between fish geometry. Graph theory is employed in the analysis of specimens based on their geometry. Once ingested into this standard framework, any combination of specimens can be compared, resulting in a geometric analysis of the difference between the samples.
The system, originally built in the laboratory, is easily reproducible in the field. Also, this work is the precursor to developing a mobile app for this purpose in the future.
The process of digitizing all of the millions of fishes if simply too monstrous to actually complete. Instead, this framework and process facilitates iteration.
When preparing for a rapid inventory mission, researchers search the museum catalog for specimens which ought to be digitized ahead of time. Then, the platform will be prepared to make rapid comparisons to specimens located in the field.
And to this day, two decades later, museum interns are thrilled to get those fish back in the jar ASAP.