Field Notes: A Tool for Making Digital Species Drawings

By Joshua Rapp Learn

The user can draw using a simple mouse and pressing the shift key on the keyboard to digitally ink the pencil line.

Image Credit: Giuseppe Montesanto

The identification of species with new digital illustration techniques could help taxonomists reluctant to go back to the drawing board, according to a new study.

“Species illustration for me is one of the most important parts of taxonomic work,” said Giuseppe Montesanto, an informatics technician in the biology department at the University of Pisa in Italy. Montesanto is the lead author in a new paper published in ZooKeys that illustrates the method in several steps.

Complete image from above. Image Credit:  Giuseppe Montesanto

Complete image from above. Image Credit: Giuseppe Montesanto

Faced with funding problems for new research in his area of expertise in Italy —the taxonomy of species of terrestrial isopods, or so-called pillbugs or woodlice — Montesanto wanted to develop something that would help other researchers on a limited budget.

“I cannot imagine my future without these animals,” he said of the isopods, “even if my wife is not so happy because my house is full of specimens.”

While it may seem strange to turn to drawings of any kind in the age of digital photography, sometimes drawings can provide better detail, particularly when it comes to defining species aspects that a taxonomist is attempting to highlight.

But Montesanto makes use of bitmap graphics in the GNU Image Manipulation Program to produce accurate, highly detailed lines that are visible at very high resolutions on free or inexpensive software. He said that while he’s terrible at drawing with pencils, it’s easier to use a mouse. To darken the ink lines, he uses the shift key and the whole process ends up being quite fast, and visible at high resolution.

“This method could be invented by anyone,” he said. “Really, I didn’t invent something — it’s my personal method.”

Check out the video below to see Montesanto highlight the method. Click here to watch the whole series.


Video Credit: Gipo Montesanto

“When you describe a new species for scientific literature, the illustrations are not an addition to your description. They are an integral part of it. You may not be a great artist (although many biologists are talented artists), but with this method you can learn to do adequate drawings,” Montesanto said in a release.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

Read more of Joshua's articles.