The Paulson Parasite Collection

The Paulson parasite collection was orphaned to the entomology department from Dr. Paulson, brother of Dr. Sally Paulson. It is fascinating, to say the least, composed mainly of endo- and ectoparasites collected from various small mammals, with dates on the specimens ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s. However, the jars and vials in the collection not only contain the parasites found on and in the animals, but oftentimes the entire animal itself or, strangely enough, just the animal’s baculum or stomach. In fact, we found that a large amount of the vials in the collection were stomachs from small mammals, such as voles and squirrels, ranging from fully intact to completely deteriorated.

Katy Lawler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek's lab, refilling vials. Pictured in front are vials of stomachs of the eastern chipmunk.

Katy Lawler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek’s lab, refilling vials. Pictured up close are vials of stomachs of the eastern chipmunk.

Nina Zegler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek's lab, refilling a vial with 80% EtOH

Nina Zegler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek’s lab, refilling a vial with 80% EtOH

Over the course of the semester, Katy Lawler and I took on the task of going through and performing curatorial work on the Paulson parasite collection. Our main goal was to help to preserve this extensive collection for future study. The collection is full of great specimens that have the potential to be very useful in future research, but it was in desperate need of some TLC. Many of the specimens in the vials were either already too dried out to be rehydrated or were very close to being at that point. The collection was contained in three large cardboard boxes, with most of the vials organized in smaller boxes placed haphazardly inside and others just floating freely. The vials that were organized into smaller boxes were usually grouped by what species of animal the specimen was taken from. None of the vials were identified by what parasite was actually present.

One out of three large cardboard boxes containing the Paulson parasite collection.

One out of three large cardboard boxes containing the Paulson parasite collection.

Smaller boxes, containing specimens from one species of animal.

Smaller box, containing specimens all from the red chipmunk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took the time to go through every box and top off the vials that could be refilled (determined by at least some moisture being present but with low alcohol content) with 80% ethyl alcohol. After going through an entire smaller box of vials, we specified on the side of the box the number of vials topped off over the total number of vials in the box, the alcohol used, and the date this was done. In many cases, an entire small box might be filled with stomachs from Tamias striatus, the eastern chipmunk. In other cases, a box might be filled with jars containing different life stages of Microtus pennsylvanicus, the North American vole. Other specimens found in the vials included fleas, lice, nematodes, and bot fly larvae.

Bot fly larva (genus Cuterebra)

Bot fly larva (genus Cuterebra)

Working on this collection presented exciting, albeit often unpleasant, surprises at every opening of a new box. We were quick to share with one another whatever astonishingly foul smell or strange specimen we each came across.

As we went through the collection, we noticed that many vials were labeled with numbers as though they were part of a catalog. Upon searching in the three boxes for some sort of record of this catalog, the only thing we found was an old floppy disk, the contents of which we excitedly opened only to find several funny gifs.

It is evident that lots of time and skill went into compiling this vast collection, which makes it surprising that it had become so disorganized. While the collection is now in much better shape, it still could use more work, including photographing and documenting the specimens present. We plan to try to contact Dr. Paulson to inquire about the mysterious missing catalog and to get more information on the collection.

 

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McGinleying

VTech Insect Collection Assessment

Over the past month our lab has been taking part in an activity we have fondly come to refer to as “McGinleying.” Ronald J. McGinley was a curator at the National Museum of Natural History in the Department of Entomology from 1983 to 2000, during which time he published two papers detailing how to properly curate and assess the quality of an insect collection (1989, 1993). As part of this assessment, each drawer of specimens would be ranked on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being emergency-level (such as active dermestid beetle pests) and 10 being perfect. In 2011, the NC State University Insect Museum adapted this profiling system for modern day collections, adding such technologically advanced curatorial methods as barcoding, and reducing the scale to 8 possible levels.

The insect collection here at Virginia Tech has seen relatively little attention paid to it since Dr. Michael Kosztarab left in the early 90’s. It is also kept several miles off campus, and so we endeavored to move the collection back onto campus, and in the process improve curatorial quality. Hence, about a month ago, we began “McGinleying” in earnest, going through each of our nearly 800 insect drawers and assigning values based on the NC State modified McGinley curation scale.

The McGinley scale has been adopted by many large insect collections due to its common sense approach and usefulness in collection triage. When a drawer is scored as a “1”, for example, we know that there is something seriously wrong that must be dealt with as soon as possible. A drawer scored a “3” certainly is not perfect, but immediate improvement is not necessary. The following is a breakdown of the stipulations for each McGinley level, along with our thoughts and experiences:

Level 1: A drawer scored a “1” is in dire need of attention, either due to a live dermestid colony (upon the discovery of which we placed the drawer in a freezer for at least 72 hours; Fig. 1), a total lack of labels (Fig. 2), specimens lying on their sides, and fungus or rust on the pin or specimen (Fig. 3) which, if left unchecked, can cause serious damage to the specimen. Any other issues, such as drawer or cabinet uniformity may also dictate a “1” score, though we did not think uniformity was particularly important at this stage of our collection improvement.

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Fig. 1:
Evidence of dermestid damage. Dermestid feeding is frequently accompanied by dust underneath the specimen, and entry holes can be found on the specimen’s abdomen or thorax.

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Fig. 2:
A specimen lacking any identification or locality labels.

 

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Fig. 3:
The pin in the center of the photograph is covered in green rust, which has invaded the specimen.

Level 2: Drawers with unsorted and/or under identified, but labeled, specimens are ranked as a “2” (Fig. 4). “Unsorted” refers to a mix of individuals from different orders, families and/or genera in the same tray. A tray of unsorted specimens would not constitute “loanable” units, which are trays that can be loaned out to interested parties (Fig. 5). We made exceptions to this rule, however, for very small families. If the totality of the individuals from a single family, for example Phengodidae, housed in the collection can fit into one tray then that is a loanable unit.   Large families such as Curculionidae or Tachinidae would not be exceptions to this rule, and would therefore need to be sorted to genera to constitute a “3”.

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Fig. 4:
A level “2” drawer made up of unsorted weevils.

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Fig. 5:
An example of a loanable unit.

One problem we frequently encountered was a mix of unsorted specimens and well curated specimens in the same drawer. For these situations we decided that if over 25% of the specimens in a drawer were unsorted then that drawer received a “2”. If an otherwise well curated drawer has less than a quarter of unsorted material then it would be inefficient to rank it as a “2”.

Level 3: Drawers of sorted specimens in loanable units identified to genera are ranked as a “3” (Fig. 6). These specimens can be loaned out, but are not identified below the genera level and are therefore accessible by the scientific community but lack valuable information.

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Fig. 6:
An example of a level 3 drawer, where specimens are identified to genus and represent loanable units.

Level 4: This level is unique in that it is more of a ranking subset than a true rank on its own. Loans which are returned to the collection but have yet to be reincorporated are given a “4” (Fig. 7). These are not common, and if there is no written information accompanying such drawers then they can be easily mistaken for another rank.

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Fig. 7:
An example of unincorporated specimens, which we have concentrated into one cabinet.

Level 5: Drawers given a “5” contain a majority of specimens which are identified to species, though general curatorial quality may be low (Fig. 8). Issues with these drawers are minimal, such as a lack of room for expansion, missing header labels and/or specimens in hard-bottomed trays.

Level 6: No curatorial issues can be found. All specimens are identified to species, there is space for expansion and header labels are present. We were unwilling to rank any of our drawers as a “6”, as that would indicate that we were finished with basic curation, and the time required to properly assess curation completion was too great (the identification of each individual specimen would need to be verified).

Level 7: Drawer digitization. This includes photographs and collection of data on number of individuals, taxa and any ancillary data.

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Fig. 8:
An example of a level 5 drawer. All specimens are identified to species, but there are hard bottom trays, some missing headers and, in this case, probably a little too much room for expansion.

Level 8: Individual specimen digitization and barcoding.

Tips: One thing to keep in mind when scoring a collection using a pre-existing grading scale is the reason that scoring is taking place. If unlabeled specimens are not something that you or your institution deems as needing immediate attention than score them as a “2” and move on. When grading hundreds of specimen drawers it is important to be both consistent and fast, and in that regard one must have delineated, preferably before beginning collection profiling, what each scale should indicate for those who will be repairing or improving the collection. Using a pre-existing scale can lead to placing more importance on following the scale than on modifying the scale to one’s own needs. That being said, by following an established grading scale institutions can hold themselves and each other to a universal level of quality, and can more easily communicate needs for collection improvement. A balance must therefore be struck between slavishly following a prescribed ranking system to the detriment of the efficiency and developing a unique ranking system that other institutions will have difficulty understanding or following.

We found that “McGinleying” the collection was a two-person job, with one individual taking notes while the other manipulates the drawers, and both coming to a consensus on drawer rank. We also timed ourselves throughout and found that our average time was around a minute per drawer. Figure 9 shows the percentages of our cabinets that fell within each McGinley level. The majority of our drawers were either “2s” or “5s”, which may indicate that, in the past, once a drawer did receive attention most of the individuals were identified to species and sorted correctly. Luckily, only about 10% of our drawers were ranked as “1s”, and, as stated above, those with dermestid issues were immediately placed in a freezer for about 3 days. The form we used for recording the rank and comments for each drawer can be seen in Figure 10.

McGinley Level Breakdown
Fig. 9:
A pie chart showing the percentages of our drawers that were in each category. The categories, from 1 to 5 are on the left with their corresponding color.

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Fig. 10:
An example of the form we used for data collection.

We now have a roadmap for targeting the areas within our collection that can be quickly improved, and with relatively little effort we can make huge enhancements. Overall the process was fun and informative, and often resulted in exciting (and time consuming as we ooo’d and awww’d) discoveries (Fig. 11)!

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Fig. 11:
Often you’ll find yourself too distracted by all the fascinating specimens to keep scoring!

References:

  • Deans, A. (2011). Profiling the pinned collection. 2014, from blog.insectmuseum.org/?p=2347
  • McGinley, R. (1989). Entomological collection management—Are we really managing? Insect Collection News, 2, 19-24.
  • McGinley, R. (1993). Where’s the management in collections management. In C. Rose, S. Williams & J. Gisbert (Eds.), Congreso Mundial Sobre Preservación y Conservación de Colecciones de Historia Natural. Vol. 3. Temas de Actualidad, Iniciativas y Direcciones Futuras sobre Preservación y Conservación de Colecciones de Historia Natural (Vol. 3, pp. 309-338). Madrid: Dirección General de Bellas Artes y Archivos.

 

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New logo!

VPIC_logo

Fresh off the presses, the Virginia Tech Insect Collection now has a logo! While designing it, I wanted it to be (a) classic looking and (b) include a beetle or a butterfly. I thought about an animated gif like the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania‘s flashing firefly logo, or with an entomological oddity like the Royal Entomological Society‘s logo with a strepsipteran, or even the Entomological Society of British Columbia‘s with a snow scorpion.

I ultimately ended up with the Diana fritillary, Speyeria diana. Though, I’m still considering an animated gif with a male and a female flashing on and off (the male colors are completely different, they’re orange and black). The female, shown in the logo, is deep midnight blue with sky and pale blue highlights. Just the female is part of the black mimicry ring that also includes the Pipevine swallowtail and our state butterfly the Eastern tiger swallowtail, among several other species.

The Diana is native throughout the eastern U.S. and can be found at the edges of rich moist forests, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. One unique aspect of this species is that the female oviposits besides its host plant, a violet, and not directly on it. The larvae then burrow into the ground to overwinter then emerge in the spring to feed.

Notably, the Diana was  described in 1777 by the Dutch entomologist Pieter Cramer based on specimens collected near Jamestown, Virginia. Unfortunately, S. diana has not been seen in the area since the 1950s, and it’s believed extirpated from most of the eastern part of Virginia. In contrast you can find S. diana in the mountains of southwestern Virginia (including one spot just north of Blacksburg) and in restricted pockets throughout the southeastern U.S.

Further reading

  • Carlton, C. E., & Nobles, L. S. (1996). Distribution of Speyeria diana (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in the highlands of Arkansas, Missouri & Oklahoma, with comments on conservation. Entomological News, 107, 213-219.
  • Howe, W. H. (1975). The butterflies of North America (p. 633). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Scholtens, B. (2004). Diana fritillary, species description. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Online at: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/cwcs/pdf/DianaFritillary.pdf
  • Vaughan, D. M., & Shepherd, M. D. (2005). Species Profile: Speyeria diana. In: Red List of Pollinator Insects of North America. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Online at: http://www.xerces.org/diana-fritillary/

 

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Taking a Look Around

I am a graduate student in the department of entomology and I  signed up for an independent class with Dr. Paul Marek.  The idea has been that I can learn things about our collection and curating.  You might imagine that insect collections are delicate things, and you would be right.  Preserving, identifying, and organizing tens of thousands of insects is a huge job.  Since Dr. Marek is now taking over the collection, we need to measure it to see what work has to be done to protect the collection and to make it more accessible.  The collection is a big sleeping giant of a research tool.  Each specimen has information for us.  We collect a bug and record the date, location, and sometimes the habits of the insects, then place it and its label information into the collection.  This doesn’t sound big, but when you multiply that information by the hundreds of thousands of specimens, you get an idea of just how much information is housed in these cabinets.

Collections conserve snapshots of the world around them so they can be used in the future, like a really well organized time capsule.  When you make a collection you need to figure out how to save specimens, then identify and organize specimens so others can use it in the future.  The future is here.  Dr. Marek arrived at Virginia Tech this summer as a new hire and is now curating the collection.  That means that he has come upon a huge time capsule.

Let’s open it!

One of the double cabinets filled with insect drawers (manufactured by prisoners in the Virginia prison system).

One of the double cabinets filled with insect drawers (manufactured by prisoners in the Virginia prison system)

How do you measure boxes of bugs?  Well, carefully.

A drawer from the Virginia Tech Insect Collection

A drawer from the Virginia Tech Insect Collection

Each cabinet has 20 or 40 of these drawers that are all organized taxonomically.  Each drawer is also organized down to the family, subfamily, tribe, genus and species levels. Eventually you can go look for one species and be able to find it quickly in a box like this:

A box of one species of Assassin Bugs (Reduviidae)

A box of one species of Assassin Bugs (Reduviidae)

There are museums where scientists curate huge collections, while simultaneously trying to do research and manage their collections.  To keep their jobs, they have to explain to other folks what they do, and why it’s important.  Some collections require huge amounts of work while others can be dormant for long periods of time.  To measure the status of their collections and to show just what needs to be done, scientists have come up with some measuring tools.  First they focus on the conservation of the specimens, then the organization level, and eventually on how accessible is the information surrounding the specimens.  This is where we started.  We opened up a cabinet, pulled out some drawers and measured things up.  We used the combination of a method described by McGinley at the Smithsonian in 1993 and by our neighbors at the North Carolina State Insect Collection.  We looked at each drawer as a unit and in it assessed the status of the specimens.  Were they all pinned, labeled, organized, and accessible for research?  All of this allowed us to come up with a grade for each drawer.  Take a look at what we came up with, and check back here later to see how we tied my field research in with this project.

Our review of the Lady Bird Beetles (Coccinellids) in the collection

Our review of the Lady Bird Beetles (Coccinellids) in the collection

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