The University of Arizona

A Bug’s Afterlife: Revitalizing the UA Insect Collection

By Shelley Littin, University Communications | July 11, 2012
Butterfly specimens in boxes
Butterfly specimens in boxes

Two grants totaling more than $2 million, plus a $625,000 endowment to support research by visiting scholars, has been awarded to the UA Insect Collection. The grants will support revitalization of the collection, the largest in existence for the Sonoran Desert region.

Cardboard boxes with jewel scarabs sorted by species
Cardboard boxes with jewel scarabs sorted by species
Wendy Moore, curator of the UA's insect collections, with butterfly specimens
Wendy Moore, curator of the UA's insect collections, with butterfly specimens

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."

"One of the biggest concerns about keeping an insect collection forever as a research resource is protecting them from these dermestids," said Moore. A feat which, in their present condition, the mal-fitting cabinets fail to achieve.

"We have to use chemicals to keep out the dermestids, a fight that can be both time-consuming and expensive," said Moore. "With the award of this grant we are going to have new cabinets and drawers that are modern and shut tightly, and unit trays of standard size so that the collection can grow without calling a carpenter to make more cabinets or drawers."

"We will be able to make much better use of the space that's allotted to the collection," said Moore. "This preserves the safety of the collection and also makes more efficient use of the space."

"This grant will also allow us to incorporate orphaned collections into the main collection," she added. "We'll have room for about 50 percent additional growth."

Moore is also a co-principle investigator with Neil Cobb, an associate research professor in the department of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University, on a three-year NSF Emerging Frontiers grant for $1.9 million, which will support the digitization of the UAIC and 10 other Southwest insect collections.

Like an encyclopedia of Southwest insects, the digital database will include photographs of species as well as information captured from the data labels on the specimens, including their species names, classification and the precise day and location where they were collected.

"The goal of this NSF award is to capture label data from specimens of ground-dwelling arthropods in our collection and digitize them to create a database that includes the identity of the specimens and all the taxonomic information," said Moore.

The digital database also will include geographic information to generate maps of species distributions. "We will eventually be able to do a search for a species' distribution and will be able to draw data from our collection, and from 10 collaborating institutions in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Utah, all on an interactive website," said Moore.

The department of entomology also received an endowment of $625,000 from the Schlinger Foundation to support collaborations with scientists from other institutions.

Supported by the endowment, visiting researchers will be able to advance their own research interests using the UAIC as a resource, said Moore, "while at the same time, this unique gift will facilitate great advances in our knowledge of Sonoran Desert insect systematics, biogeography and evolutionary history."

Many species that live in the Desert Southwest occur nowhere else in the U.S., she said.

"One of my research programs is documenting the biodiversity and patterns of distribution of the ground-dwelling arthropods in the Madrean sky islands, here in the Sonoran Desert region," said Moore. "The sky islands are mountains with pine and mixed conifer forests at the top, such as you find on top of Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains."

"In this region, there are endemic flightless insects which are only found on top of an individual mountain," said Moore. "Their closest relatives live on neighboring mountaintops, yet they are isolated from one another by the desert."

"Because mountains offer elevation gradients, they can find just the right spot with the right temperature and humidity to sustain their life," she said.

Their unique morphology, from the shape of their wings to the keenness of their sight and their genetic makeup, represent clues about how they live and what traits they need to survive – clues that are vital for scientists to understand insect evolution in the Desert Southwest and to predict how these species might respond to future climate and environmental change.

Nestled inside UAIC's avocado-colored cabinets, the insects are ambassadors of the past, little biological records of past microclimates where they lived, and the evolutionary history that allowed them to adapt as climates have changed over millennia.

Said Moore: "Understanding past species distributions under different climate regimes will help us predict and prepare for future changes in insect communities in the Desert Southwest."