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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Dead Bug Library

KNAU/Bonnie Stevens

Some people collect stamps, others collect baseball cards. Neil Cobb collects dead bugs...250,000 of them and counting. Cobb is the director of the Merriam Powell Center for Environmental Research at Northern Arizona University, and he's compiling his collection of hissing cockroaches, tarantulas and other bugs into a massive electronic insect library.

Cobb says there are up to a 250,000,000 insect specimens in bug collections across the U.S. He and his researchers have digitized about 6,000,000 of them, so far. "Once we get the database," Cobb says, "we can make predictions about how species can be impacted by things like climate change and land management issues. But for many areas, we don't even know what's there."

Cobb says every bug plays a role in the ecosystem - from butterflies to beetles. But, he says we can't manage our effect on an insect if we don't know it exists.

"There's no way we can estimate the impact of our activities on biodiversity unless we know what that biodiversity is," Cobb says. "Right now, only 11% of the species that occur in North America do we have enough data on to say something about how they would be impacted by human activities. You just take 3 groups - ants, termites and bees - and it's predicted you'd get global ecosystem collapse if you removed just those groups."

Cobb says understanding the role of insects, whether it's pollination of plants, recycling leaves or serving as food for other animals, is critical in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, especially in a changing climate.