What is in this article?:
- Southwest insect collection coming to life
- Protecting the collection
- The UAIC's substantial collection of Southwestern insect specimens makes it an important research resource among North America's insect collections.
Let the mind's eye travel, as a fly might, having just wandered in from the outdoor desert air, up the sweeping, terraced stairwell that leads to the fourth floor of the Forbes building on the University of Arizona campus.
Tucked away in the department of entomology at the end of a long corridor is a crowded collection room, overflowing with an impressive assembly of cabinets, handmade in the 1950s and painted the period's favored shade of avocado green.
If you opened the cabinets you would find countless insect specimens, carefully organized and nestled side-by-side in over-crowded trays, identified to the species-level and diligently labeled for future reference. The wings of many butterflies overlap, for want of space to spread them apart. The beetles' legs are interlaced, and the flies rest nose-to-nose.
Many of them have been here for more than 50 years.
This is the UA Insect Collection, or UAIC, with more than 2 million specimens representing a substantial portion of the Southwest's known insect life.
Wendy Moore, assistant professor of insect systematics in the department of entomology and curator of the UAIC, recently received two grants worth more than $2 million to revitalize the collection, as well as an endowment to support research by visiting scholars.
"The majority of our specimens are from this region," said Moore. "Sometimes faculty members will conduct research in exotic places such as Australia or Africa and bring some specimens back, but most of our specimens are from the Southwest."
The UAIC's substantial collection of Southwestern insect specimens makes it an important research resource among North America's insect collections.
"There is no large centralized insect collection for the Southwestern United States," said Moore, like the collections for the Northeastern U.S., such as those housed at the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard or the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
The lack of a large centralized insect collection of Southwest insects "makes the UAIC holdings unique and valuable," said Moore. "Especially since this is an enormously bio-diverse region with a very high insect population."
The NSF Biological Infrastructure grant for $468,000 will support physical renovation of the UAIC. Long bereaved of a secure permanent lodging, the insects have bunked in the avocado cabinets since the collection was begun.
Although there are standard sizes of insect cabinets and drawers that are mass-manufactured for all the insect collections of North America, "ours are unique," said Moore. The uniqueness of the UAIC's cabinets presents a major drawback: The doors don't seal tightly. Improperly shutting doors, benign as that may seem, spell danger for a dried insect collection.
The insects are protected from decay by both their firm exoskeletons and Arizona's famously arid climate, said Moore. But they do have one enemy: "The biggest threat to this collection is other insects called dermestid beetles," said Moore. "Dermestids eat dead dried insects. Once they are able to get inside the cabinets and drawers, they begin to eat the collection."