June 11, 2012, 11 a.m.
Scientists are embarking on a mission to capture a 3D image of every ant species known to science.
The US team is visiting museums around the world to photograph all of the ant specimens in their collections.
They are using a technique that, for the first time, allows microscopic anatomical detail of the insects' bodies to be photographed.
The aim is to make an online catalogue called Antweb, providing a unique tool for scientists who study the insects.
It will also allow anyone with access to the internet a detailed glimpse of the diverse world of ants.
Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences is leading the study. He and his colleagues have started their "world ant tour" at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.
The team has already used the imaging technique on ant collections in the US, capturing snapshots of 8,000 ant species so far.
But there are approximately 15,000 species that have been "formally described" in science, and about 30,000 species in total.
Each named and described species has a specimen - an ant that provides the reference for what this species looks like - housed in a museum collection.
Dr Fisher and his team plan to capture a snapshot of every single one of these specimens.
"Our goal is to image 10,000 a year," he told BBC Nature. And for the the database to be complete, the team is taking several images of each species, including examples of all the different ant castes - queens, soldiers, minor workers - and the different sexes.
To achieve this, they need to find the museums with the most complete ant collections, and the NHM is the first one outside of the US that the team has targeted.
Dr Fisher says it has "one of the best ant collections in the world", with more than 6,000 species pinned into display cases in the museum's carefully curated store rooms.
The team will systematically work its way through every one of these boxes of long-dead and preserved ants, and use a special technique that takes dozens of highly magnified pictures all on a different plane of focus.
Combining all of these images into one final picture reveals each insect in unprecedented detail.
"You can zoom in and see fine hairs, the eyes, all of this detail," Dr Fisher explains. "And all of this, under a microscope, is not in focus.
"So this is actually the first time, as a scientist, I get to see this ant in 3D. It's very useful for scientists."
The researcher and his team hope to bring the ant world out of museum cupboards, not just for researchers studying the insects, but also to reveal the diversity of ants to the public.
"Many people don't know the amazing creatures that live in their back yards," he told BBC Nature.
"This project will mean that anybody, anywhere at any time will have access to these specimens that we hide in museums."