Updates and thoughts on course materials

As I posted before (in February and again in March), we’re in the midst of reinventing our upper level course on insect biodiversity and evolution. Our long term mission has always been to make these materials available broadly, under a license with few restrictions (probably CC BY). We’ve started pushing materials to our GitHub repo, so that people can clone, use, edit, add, push, etc.—a process that I expect to be slow—and the time seems right for an update.

Over the last month or so we spent about 60 hours on what was the least developed handout: Amphiesmenoptera. I always teach this taxon at the end of the course, and by then we are usually running out of steam. We removed all uncredited images and replaced them with our own photos, CC-licensed photos from Flickr, and out-of-copyright illustrations from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). All are referenced and linked back to their sources. See Figure 13 in the Amphiesmenoptera handout, for example:


The process is definitely taking longer than I anticipated, although this handout needed way more work than most. We want each handout to represent a unit of knowledge, in this case amphiesmenopteran diversity, evolution, adaptations, diagnostic characters, and natural history. The lab and lecture components will likely be fused in future iterations of the course: we introduce the focal taxa, discuss some higher-level adaptations and things to watch for when looking at specimens in lab, then we break to look at specimens, using the handout as a guide. There will be many opportunities to take breaks and discuss what we’ve found (mini lectures mixed in with lab). At the end we answer some big picture questions as a group.

Some other thoughts, in random list form:

  • The BHL is an incredible resource. We will be using it more in other handouts! I will likely edit the .bst file to render linked DOI and URIs, so that readers can see the source in one click from the PDF.
  • We need to move away from using content whose license is not controlled by my lab group or our collaborators. Image source and permissions management gets increasingly difficult in rapidly evolving, image-rich content. This situation gave us ideas for student exercises involving camera phones and microscopy. More on that later.
  • GitHub and Overleaf are awesome tools, with great synergy, but I wish there was a seamless way to push changes made in Overleaf to our GitHub repo. This post gets me halfway there … but I am (arguably too) reliant on Overleaf as my primary LaTeX editor.
  • We’re looking for more graded exercise ideas if you have any. I am especially interested in alternatives to collection making. Would you let a student curate the research collection for credit?

My next move, which might happen right now, is to push the remaining handouts to GitHub. Onwards!

Collaborative, open access course materials

It’s time to follow up on my post last month, in which I established a starting point for our collaborative course on insect biodiversity and evolution. We’ve had extensive back and forth here, about how to establish a robust, user-friendly environment for contributing edits and content to course materials. We settled on GitHub: https://github.com/adeans/InsectBiodiversityEvolution

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.31.10 AM

And we’ve started migrating materials there. Probably the best place to start if you’re interested in learning more about the project or want to contribute your own materials is our wiki: https://github.com/adeans/InsectBiodiversityEvolution/wiki

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.41.08 AM

We’re drafting some help documents this week that will guide one through the process of submitting issues, downloading (cloning) files, submitting changes, etc.

Riker mounts: rescue, re-purpose, or recycle?

The ongoing salvage operation here has unearthed hundreds of Riker mounts, whose occupants span the spectrum from frass to fascinating. What should we do with them? Here’s a sampling of what we’re dealing with:

Now multiply that by five or maybe even ten. We have tons of these displays … and I’m not a fan of the medium. Here’s what I hate about Riker mounts:

  1. They’re inefficient. We have a whole tall cabinet full of Rikers, which, if they were pinned specimens, could be compressed to a couple drawers worth of insects. Space is at a premium here and just about everywhere.
  2. They make for terrible displays. The three dimensionality is lost, for one, and the cotton often appears as if it’s the intended subject (see below). Rikers also look dated to me, right from the day they’re created. They appear before me like some holdover from several decades ago, back before we knew how to properly preserve insects.
  3. Related to that, specimens in these contraptions are inaccessible. I guess that’s the point of a Riker mount. They’re usually used for aesthetics or for educating non-experts, like kids. (What’s wrong with a shadow box?)
  4. I also don’t find them to be especially protective. Specimens are pressed right up against the glass in many cases (maybe these are bad mounts?), which causes appendage (see below) and scale loss.

Ok, so I don’t like Rikers. What should we do with them then? About 25% hold what I’d call valuable specimens:

Cool skippers! And they’re in great shape and have data associated with them (handwritten on the back)! They were collected almost a century ago, which is pretty awesome, but can we trust the data? There is no name associated with most of these specimens.

We have many displays like this – butterflies collected in the early 1900s, all in great shape and most with data that we can easily interpret. Should they be sprung from their cotton confinement (insert bad joke about Riker’s here), or should we continue to store them like this – as one original unit? Can we pull specimens out and pin them? Sounds dubious. I’d like to do something efficient and archival with these specimens, given their historic value. I want to move them into a situation where people can actually benefit from their data (or at the very least their pretty wings).

One final note about storing them in their original condition: These Rikers were stored in the same room as that old teaching collection and a handful of specimens have been eaten by dermestids. That affected <10% of the Rikers, though, so it’s not such a big deal. A more common problem is damage to the mount itself from silverfish (see below). Again, not a dire situation, but I definitely feel like the clock is ticking to take action.

UPDATE: I posted this question to the Entomological Collections Network email list, which resulted in some good dialog.

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?

course lab madness

It’s been a busy summer, what with a new baby, a new house, a new job … and an impending new class. And now it’s time to batten down the lab for a wild fall semester. My three ambitious goals for the hopefully near future:

  1. Migrate all the content of my lab handouts from MS Word to LaTeX. Part of this process will be to replace all unattributed images (my bad) with my own figures or Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) images. The reasoning behind this move is probably evident (hint: I want to share them confidently and broadly), but I’ll write a more detailed post about the process later. I’m pretty much still a TeX n00b, though, so don’t expect that post in the immediate future.
  2. Organize our collecting gear and preparation supplies. What kind of self-respecting insect museum has more Sherman small mammal traps (>50!) than insect pins (0)?! We do, that’s who. I’ve ordered a bunch of things (props to my boss for the support) and am slowly overcoming the shock and awe of our supply closet’s entropic, depleted condition. On the plus side, we’re rigged to the nines with aquatic sampling gear and have enough slides and coverslips to mount every aphid and louse in Pennsylvania.
  3. The real reason I write this post, though, is that I have to substantially revamp the teaching collection. Headhouse 3 serves as the setting for the ENT497B labs and as the clearing house for old collections from defunct classes. The resulting morass obscures the specimens’ provenance (though several people have said “assume they’re yours”) and breeds dermestids:
dermestid damage

A heavily damaged butterfly from one of the scattered, orphaned collections in our building.

So, what’s to be done with these scattered teaching collections? I’m conflicted. The official teaching collection for my course is definitely deficient, for many taxa. And the Frost Museum’s research collection (which is protected from pests and separate from the teaching materials) is OFF LIMITS for teaching – absolutely, under no circumstances will we pilfer research material for teaching.

Time is short, so I’m actually toying with the idea of folding actively infested specimens* in with my pristine (but beggard) teaching collection. The rub is that I won’t be able to fully treat this chimeric collection until probably late in the semester. Maybe it’s not a big deal, as dermestids seem to be pretty slow destroyers. This idea does defy common sense, though, and will probably cause a great disturbance in the collective curator’s Force. Will I recover from this fiasco?

* I haven’t confirmed this yet. Maybe the dermestids are all dead. UPDATE: (21 Aug 2012 4:00pm) There are indeed many live dermestids in those drawers of horrors. Sigh.