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Could NFTs Fund the Discovery of New Insect Species?

3D model of parasitoid wasp

Three-dimensional models of insects—such as this one of an undescribed species of parasitoid wasp from Baltic amber, generated using micro-CT—are immensely valuable substitutes for real specimens because they can be shared with the entire taxonomic community. In a new paper in the journal Megataxa, an entomologist envisions a future in which non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could drive collecting of 3D virtual models of insect holotype specimens, thereby subsidizing increased digitization of entomological collections and discovery of new species. (Image courtesy of Jonathan Bremer and Elijah Talamas, Florida State Collection of Arthropods)

By Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.

Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.

Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.

A mass extinction is underway. Climate change, habitat destruction, and the use of pesticides appear to be causing the numbers of insects to nosedive throughout the world. And yet scientists have only discovered and described about one-fifth of all the world’s insect species. As Rome burns, a new type of asset is rapidly growing in popularity. The non-fungible token, or NFT, allows virtual ownership of almost anything, from Jack Dorsey’s first tweet to a GIF depicting a pop-tart bodied cat.

These tokens seem emblematic of Nero’s madness, for their production requires a vast amount of energy, resulting in a colossal carbon footprint. However, the carbon emissions caused by non-fungible tokens should soon plummet. Ethereum, the main platform for NFTs, is about to cut its energy use by more than 99 percent. Assuming this happens, is it possible to use NFTs as a force for good in the world? Is a new and better kind of NFT on the way?

I am a taxonomist that hopes so. The most disheartening thing about being a taxonomist in modern times is the realization that we will not be able to discover and describe many of the world’s arthropod species before they go extinct. There are still millions of unknown species out there, especially in the tropical regions of the world. The problem is exacerbated by the availability of the most critical specimens, what we call holotypes. A holotype is the single most important specimen from which a species was named and described.

In the megadiverse parts of the tropics, taxonomists are hampered in their efforts to describe new species because most holotypes from those regions are housed in museums all over Europe and North America. Taxonomists require access to holotypes for comparison with new species. This is to make sure that those species are truly new to science rather than just a variant of another closely related species that is already described. However, because holotypes are so precious, curators are often reluctant to loan them out, assuming that they are even at liberty to do so; some museums prohibit loans of holotypes. How do we rectify this? How do we ensure that everyone can view holotypes, many of which are locked away in dusty old cabinets?

VERO vs. NFT

While non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have a mixed reputation, a proposal for a new application of the NFT concept called a “virtual equivalent of a real object” (VERO) could allow precious, rare objects to be bought and collected virtually. In a new paper in the journal Megataxa, an entomologist envisions a future in which VEROs could drive collecting of 3D virtual models of insect holotype specimens, thereby subsidizing increased digitization of entomological collections and discovery of new species. (Image courtesy of Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.)

NFTs may provide the solution. My colleague Joe Cora is a software engineer with a background in biodiversity informatics, and he and I just published a scientific paper—which is more predictive than inventive—in which we define a type of NFT that confers virtual ownership of a 3D model representative of a real and rare object, such as a holotype. We term this NFT the virtual equivalent of a real object (VERO). From the moment the VERO is minted, the real object and the virtual equivalent can be sold as separate assets by the owner. Because most regular NFTs lack interactivity, it’s difficult for their owners to feel in possession of them. Compare Jack Dorsey’s first tweet with a VERO of the Eiffel Tower. VEROs would provide a heightened sense of virtual ownership in online virtual worlds, where the owner can show them off to anyone and potentially everyone. Collectors will also be able to manipulate and display their VEROs without worrying about loss, theft, or damage.

How would VEROs help us to describe new species? High-resolution 3D models of holotypes are immensely valuable substitutes for real specimens. Once generated using some form of technology, for example a confocal laser scanning microscope or micro-CT, these 3D models can be shared with the entire taxonomic community. But generating these 3D models is expensive. This is one of the main impediments to the description of new species. VEROs provide a possible solution by allowing museums to use 3D models of specimens to mint and sell VEROs. A rare or one-off specimen, such as a holotype, should fetch enough money to pay for some or all of the costs of generating a realistic 3D model from that specimen. This would make the production of 3D models much more affordable. Just like regular NFTs, anyone can view these 3D models, allowing taxonomists in tropical regions, where so many species still await description, to describe new species without being heavily hampered by the availability of holotypes. This in turn leads to the generation of more holotypes, in turn leading to more funds through the production of more VEROs.

NFTs may therefore provide an important solution to a problem that has created a roadblock to taxonomists for many decades. But buying a VERO would not just be a favor to science. VEROs would be able to anchor online virtual worlds to our real world. In virtual worlds tailored to VEROs, every object is the one and only version of a real-world object. It is appropriate, then, that “vero” is also Italian for authentic.

But perhaps the real appeal of VEROs is that they would remove many of the burdens associated with collecting. This is especially true for entomologists. There can be little doubt that many would-be insect collectors are put off by the technical and practical challenges of building up and maintaining an insect collection. Specialist knowledge is needed along with funds to travel. Many insects are also highly fragile and susceptible to damage. By placing these burdens on professional collections, VEROs could provide an altogether easier collecting experience for individuals that cannot afford the time needed to build a serious collection of real insects.

3D model of mite

Three-dimensional models of insects—such as this one of an undescribed species of mite, generated via confocal laser scanning microscopy—are immensely valuable substitutes for real specimens because they can be shared with the entire taxonomic community. In a new paper in the journal Megataxa, an entomologist envisions a future in which non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could drive collecting of 3D virtual models of insect holotype specimens, thereby subsidizing increased digitization of entomological collections and discovery of new species. (Image courtesy of Samuel Bolton, Ph.D.)

VEROs can also be incorporated into online games and apps, where buyers can interact with them. You might make your VERO your avatar or team member in some online virtual world. And, unlike real insects, VERO insects cannot be damaged through interaction. VEROs also take up no space, neither physical nor on your hard drive. This means that if you’re cooped up in some small apartment or house, you don’t need to worry about where you are going to store your collection, and you don’t need to worry about keeping your collections free of pests. You don’t even need to step out of your front door to acquire your collection. Perhaps for these reasons, VEROs may completely change how many people choose to collect.

If VEROs become valuable because they can support the conversion of millions of scientifically important specimens into virtual assets, then they may also attract serious investors as well as collectors. Unspoiled environments such as tropical rainforests would become rich grounds for collecting biodiversity, the raw material needed to generate VEROs of holotypes. Fortunately, discovering and describing new species is environmentally innocuous. Indeed, keeping these environments unspoiled ensures they remain a rich source of biodiversity. It would be ironic if it took the creation of a virtual commodity to lead us to take better care of the natural world. But we can hope.

Samuel Bolton, Ph.D., is curator of Acari at the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Plant Industry. Website: www.vero-nft.org. Email: samuel.bolton@fdacs.gov.

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