Raspberry Pi helps entomologists study elusive insects

A team of researchers at Florida International University has used Raspberry Pi to solve one of the biggest problems in studying insects.

Their device, called the portable locomotion activity monitor (pLAM), helps entomologists determine when insects are most active. This helps them study the behaviour of nocturnal insects in the field.

Why are insects so tricky to track?

It’s hard to track small and fast flying animals, especially when those animals tend to hang out during low-light hours. Commercial activity monitors can be expensive and closed-source, and they’re generally limited to laboratory settings. But the Florida team wanted to observe insects in their natural habitat to build a better picture of their ecology.

Image courtesy of Ecology and Evolution

pLAM is a much more affordable solution, coming in at under $100 to build. That’s a tiny fraction of the lab-based technology that can cost a few thousand dollars. Better still, it uses open source motion tracking software, and it’s easy to assemble and use in the field. It runs off grid and uses infrared lights to support low-light tracking, and it also has programmable LEDs that can run simulated light cycles.

How does it work?

Insects fly into a mesh cage where their motion and behaviour are captured by an infrared camera. A Raspberry Pi runs Motion software to capture and transfer data from the camera for analysis. The team used Motion as a starting point and put together their own processing pipeline in Python.

We found this image by Sondhi et al on hackster.io

Here are the parts which make up pLAM:

Yash Sondhi sets up the pLAM at a field station in Costa Rica, where researchers tested the equipment on butterflies in the cloud forests of Monteverde.
Yash Sondhi sets up the pLAM for testing in Costa Rica (Photo courtesy of Sondhi et al)

You can read a detailed abstract of the team’s full research paper, Portable locomotion activity monitor (pLAM): A cost-effective setup for robust activity tracking in small animals, for free.

Check out Florida’s natural history

Have a read of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s article on pLAM. It features lots of juicy insights from the research paper’s lead author Yash Sondhi and co-author Akito Kawahara.

Rothschilds silkmoth
A Rothschild’s silk moth, borrowed from the museum’s article on this project

Thanks to Jerald Pinson at the museum for flagging this project to us. Also, the museum’s Instagram is equal parts easy on the eye and informative. Give them a follow. Hang on – their YouTube is also pretty cool. Except for the megalodon stuff. Hard pass there.

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