the tragedy of orphaned insect collections

A funny thing happens when you evaluate the condition of insect specimens in a 24-drawer cabinet by only glancing at 2–3 drawers in the middle – you vastly underestimate the abomination that lies in the lower drawers. I haven’t done the research (nor the lit search) to say this definitively, but I bet any experienced collection manager would tell you that dermestids are more prevalent in drawers near the floor. Either that or they prefer leps über alles. Witness:

dermestid damage

Dermestid-damaged specimens in drawers close to the floor.

Wow. Now multiply that by several drawers (many hundreds of specimens). “You’re gonna hafta nuke it from orbit” said one of my colleagues. In some of those drawers one could see live dermestid larvae scurrying like rats, several per unit tray.

Let’s step back.

Have you ever made an insect collection? The process is chronophagous, for sure, yet immensely rewarding. Time in the field (+ gas $, which isn’t cheap) + time sorting + time mounting (+ pinning resources, which aren’t cheap) + time making labels + time labeling specimens + time determining specimens + time adding yet more labels + time curating, etc. Read Gimmel & Ferro (2010), who nicely summarize the intensity of building a collection. It’s a metric sh!t-ton of work, and people are rightfully proud of the accomplishment afterwards. They deserve better than to have their intellectual investment end like this:

trashed specimens

Specimens ready for the dumpster.

And biodiversity researchers deserve better as well. I discarded material (in some cases only the labels remained) from Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Texas, Arizona, as well as Pennsylvania, from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and every decade until the 2000s. Some of these specimens had host plant or host insect data (even host remains). What a waste. What a preventable tragedy. This situation is exactly why I don’t allow students to keep their insect collections, and it should never happen to those students who donate their material to museum.

So, what about my plan to salvage specimens for the teaching collection? Several drawers, especially near the top of the cabinets, were loaded with (apparently) untainted gems, including families we didn’t have represented in the teaching collection (Bittacidae) or which were underrepresented (Phoridae). There were also some crazy awesome tropical species – showy, colorful, metallic, large … some great surprises. This was probably this biggest surprise, though:

bird egg collection

Bird egg collection.

Still deciding its fate. Any ideas?

One thought on “the tragedy of orphaned insect collections

  1. Dermestids are the worst!
    Bird eggs should be of value to almost any zoological museum, provided they have good locality data. Even if there is not much interesting, they have been used for retrospective surveys of environmental contamination.

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