Adventures in the field: How do insect museums get these specimens anyway?

As you pour over images of our fascinating CalBug specimens, you may ask yourself how these insects ended up in the museum in the first place. Many of the labels you are transcribing date back to 60-100 years ago, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that museums are places to that just store old specimens. Scientists are still adding to museum collections every day, but how we use specimens now is often in ways that Entomologists 60 years ago could not have imagined.

As a PhD student in the Essig Museum of Entomology, I have had many opportunities to work with insect specimens within a museum. However, this summer I had the chance to go on a month-long expedition in the Appalachian Mountains of North America to collect live insects in the field. My dissertation research involves understanding the diversification and evolution of ground beetles in the genus Scaphinotus. Often referred to as “snail-eaters,” these nocturnal beetles have developed an elongate head and mouthparts, including escargot fork-like jaws and huge sensory palps that allow them to find and feed on snails and slugs. They are flightless and live in predominantly montane habitats. This makes them interesting candidates for studying how body-forms of species change over time, possibly adapting to feeding preferences.

Scaphinotus5

Insect specimens already housed in museums provide a great deal of information about morphology, distribution, seasonality and even behavior, however there is one thing they generally cannot provide- good quality DNA! So today entomologists are frequently heading to the field to collect specimens specifically to extract their DNA. This is why I went on my recent trip to the Appalachians, where I hoped to collect as many as 20 Scaphinotus species to use in my research.

A month-long field excursion requires careful planning and preparation. My trip included visits to 5 states and as many National Forests, where I camped and hiked long-forgotten trails in search of these elusive little beetles. Of course no amount of planning can prevent one from running into a month-long bout of stormy weather! And so it was, my first big trip into the field was vexed by torrential rains, flooding, lightning, thunder, and even a tornado! But in spite of all that heavy weather, rain and mud, I did manage to find a few Scaphinotus (the beetles were possibly as unhappy about the weather as I was!).

Flooded

I came away from the trip with a far greater understanding and appreciation of what it is like to be in the field collecting specimens first hand. I also chalked up nine additional species whose DNA will contribute to my dissertation research, and will be made available to other scientists worldwide via CalBug and the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley.

-Meghan Culpepper

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One response to “Adventures in the field: How do insect museums get these specimens anyway?”

  1. Heather Elizabeth says :

    I’m curious (not judgmental), wanting to know, do they kill the specimens or wait for them to die?

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