Scientists at the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s Systematic Entomology Laboratory in Washington identify some 100,000 insect specimens a year. A misidentification can be extremely costly: A cargo of food could be needlessly impounded at the border, or one loaded with harmful insects could be unwittingly admitted. Yet there's a shortage of trained taxonomists--and the written keys to taxonomy are hard to use, requiring that traits be looked up in a specific order.
Computers are coming to the rescue. An Agriculture computer program that is now under development lets inspectors tap into data bases that categorize species by their individual traits. With each characteristic entered, the computer eliminates species that don't fit the bill, until the field narrows to one choice. So far, the software can handle only fruit flies. Other insects, seeds, and plants will be added to the data base. While Agriculture's system requires the operator to use technical lingo, several companies are working on programs that are easier for nonscientists to use.