How not to pin a specimen, or: how I learned hundreds of entomological lessons by re-curating the PSUC teaching collection. I’ve written about our teaching collection several times already (see posts 1, 2, and 3). Now that I am nearing the end of my effort to inventory and re-house these specimens it’s time to provide my insights and a plea for new specimens.
First, here is the spreadsheet of families I cover in my Insect Biodiversity and Evolution (ENT 432) course. This spreadsheet also accounts for which specimens we have in our teaching collection and which we ones we need badly. I will pursue all leads, so let me know if you can help! We’re happy to offer specimens or other favors in return! Here are a few lessons:
Lesson 1: All entomologists should receive training in how to prepare a specimen. Seems obvious, right? There were so many bad specimen preps in this collection that I was openly and vigorously weeping. See the lycid specimen in the above image: no labels, HUGE point, sewing needle, excessive glue, etc. (On a related note, Hancock et al. (2011) offer a fascinating read about pins, proper and otherwise, in entomology.) Maybe that’s par for the course in a teaching collection, but it shouldn’t be. My mission is now to make sure that no specimens are wasted, that there are no inadequate preparations. Solution: update our specimen preparation SOPs (dried insects, Odonata, wet specimens, slide mounting) and generate a comprehensive list of suggestions for different taxa. We will also reject all donations of substandard specimens (unless ultra rare, of course).
Lesson 2: All entomologists need to be informed about curatorial issues. For example, we have a mix of USNM, Cornell, and <some yet-to-be-determined> storage standards right now in our collections. The vast majority of our cabinets/drawers/unit trays are USNM. But the 8% or so that are different … well, it’s like someone threw a giant monkey wrench into our plans to reorganize the collections. Solution: We standardized all teaching materials on the Cornell system and all research materials on USNM. The third standard is being discarded. It’s a huge, time- and resource-wasting effort that could’ve been avoided had people been aware of these issues. I’m also developing an exercise for future ENT 432 students; they will each be responsible for re-curating designated drawers in the teaching collection and reporting back at the end of the semester.
Lesson 3: Teaching collections should be assembled with input from systematists to prevent high value specimens from being exposed to unstable conditions. There were at least 12 drawers of material—about 17% of all specimens—that were inappropriate for a collection that is frequently handled by inexperienced hands and, at least historically, neglected by collection managers. A few examples:
Solution: All of this material was removed, freeze-treated, and added to our research collection.
Lesson 4: Specimen breakage is, unfortunately, inevitable in a collection like this. Students usually enter this class with little to no specimen handling experience. I am surprised, however, at their overall resilience. As stated above, some of these specimens have been around for almost a century. Solution: Develop demonstrations for specimen handling best practices and crack down on irresponsible handling. The curation exercise should also instill in these students a deep sense of respect for the collection. They’ll have to re-curate their drawers after the lab(s), which, in my experience, can be quite messy.