Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 28, 2001Volume 30, Number 4

Raymond Pupedis (left) and Leonard Munstermann show off some of the specimens from Yale's prized Lepidoptera collection while standing amidst stacks of cigar boxes that once contained specimens sent to the University for its entomology collection.

Peabody's insects inspire fascination
in scholars far and near

Parasites, stink bugs, owl flies, green lacewings, tiger beetles, all kinds of exotic mosquitoes and poisonous spiders -- you name an insect, and it can most assuredly be found at Yale.

The University, in fact, is home to more than one million insects.

The squeamish need not squirm, however: These "bugs" are dead.

In fact, they are stored carefully in cabinet drawers, jars, plastic containers of different sorts -- even old cigar boxes -- in the Division of Entomology's temporary quarters in the basement of the Kline Geology Laboratory. There, they are awaiting their move sometime next year into their permanent home in the new Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center (see story below).

Part of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Division of Entomology maintains the museum's large collection of insect specimens from around the globe. The collection is used by researchers and educators worldwide who are helping to further a scientific understanding of how insects look and behave, as well as to discover more about how they have evolved.

Comprised of both rare and common insect species, the collection includes some 931,000 specimens that are mounted with pins. Among these are diverse and exotic species of butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and mosquitoes. Another 120,000 insects are preserved on slides, in fluid (especially butterfly larvae and pupae) or mounted using other techniques. Yet another 800,000 insects scattered among the shelves and other storage areas are "uncurated" -- that is, they have not undergone the labeling and other procedures needed before they can be incorporated into the main research and teaching collection.

Yale's insect collection was established in the 1860s, when it was first maintained by the Invertebrate Zoology Division. In 1948, a separate Division of Entomology was formed. Much of the current collection was put together by Charles L. Remington, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, who in 1948 became the first full-time entomologist on the University's faculty. A noted lepidopterist (specialist in the study of butterflies and moths), he was curator of the entomology collection for some four decades, and is credited with creating a prized Lepidoptera collection at Yale. More than 270,000 of the insects in the collection are Lepidoptera specimens.

Arranged by species, the collection also includes 129,000 beetles and other specimens in insect order Coleoptera; 77,000 mosquitoes and flies (Diptera); and approximately 89,000 bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera). The remainder of specimens in the collection represents about a dozen other major insect groups.

Some of the rarest specimens in the collection are insects that are endangered, according to Leonard Munstermann, a research scientist in epidemiology and public health, who has served as curator of the collection since Remington's retirement in 1996. Among these are species of tropical butterflies called "Bird Wings," and the "American Burying Beetle"; there is only one colony of the latter species left, on Block Island. Rare local species include the "Puritan Tiger Beetle," which lives along the Connecticut River.

A specimen's rarity, however, does not necessarily make it especially valuable from a scientific standpoint, notes Raymond Pupedis, manager of the entomology collection since 1990.

"The most important insects we have here are what we call 'primary types,' which are the one specimen that serve as the symbol for an entire species," he explains. "When you describe a new species, there is only one 'type' or name-bearer in the whole world chosen to represent the entire species. It is a reference specimen that has to last forever. If for some reason it is ever destroyed, there is a long procedure on how to name a new one. So if everything was burning down, these are the ones you'd run to save."

There are approximately 200 primary types in the Peabody Museum collection, says Pupedis. However, the collection also boasts about 3,800 specimens that are called "secondary types," i.e., insects that are associated with the primary type and are thus considered scientifically important.

To preserve its collection, the entomology division has strict rules about how specimens are used and handled. Touching the dried insects is, for the most part, prohibited.

"As a research collection, we are often called upon to send our specimens out to students or other scientists," says Pupedis. "Anyone who wants to use one of our specimens basically has to go through a formal process to convince us that they have credentials. And we never send specimens directly to a student; if a student needs them, they have to be signed out by his or her adviser."

Staff of the collection will, however, make available some specimens for what they call "destructive sampling" -- work by a researcher that requires the use of a small part of an insect. "We only allow this when we have duplicates of a specimen -- and would never allow this on a type specimen," says Munstermann. "But there are occasions, such as in research on DNA sequencing or morphological construction, when someone might need to take an insect's leg, for example. We will allow this if we have numerous samples."

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges of maintaining an entomological collection, say Munstermann and Pupedis, is keeping live bugs away from the collection's dead ones. Pupedis and the entomology division's handful of volunteers systematically check every collection drawer in search of pests that could damage the specimens. When live bugs are found, the infested part of the collection is placed in a special freezer to kill the live insects. No chemicals are ever used on the fragile specimens.

In addition to identifying, labeling and processing uncurated specimens to make them available to researchers, Pupedis is currently engaged in a long-term project to create a computerized database of the insect collection. He and Munstermann are also frequently called upon by both scientists and non-scientists alike to answer questions about various insects.

"We get queries ranging from 'Is it possible that my child can get sick from the mosquito that just bit him in the backyard?' to calls from the government about endangered species," Pupedis says. "We're here to provide information -- whether it be in the form of an insect body, a label about its origins or a call from a concerned member of the community about a specific insect." Several years ago, he recalls, someone brought to the Peabody Museum a South American blue morpho butterfly found in a New Haven garden, where it had arrived after traveling thousands of miles from home.

The entomology division's staff also helps organize Peabody Museum exhibits on insects and have begun hosting an annual "Edible Insects" event at which museum guests can sample a food made with insects while learning more about them. (See related story)

Along the way, both Pupedis and Munstermann hope that the insect knowledge they share with others will fuel a passion for the creatures in younger generations, who can then go on to benefit from and protect collections like the Peabody Museum's.

"I was raised on a farm, and wanted to get away from insects when I was younger," says Munstermann, who eventually studied mosquito genetics and is now noted for his work on genetic mapping and taxonomy of mosquitoes and population genetics of phlebotomine sand flies "Mosquitoes are found everywhere in the world, and with diseases such as the West Nile virus, there's now a lot of support for training people to study the role of mosquitoes in transmitting such diseases."

Pupedis, who originally began a career in electronics, became interested in an insect called the spongillafly while taking a course in biology. For him, the excitement of discovery is one of the rewards of studying the tiny aquatic flies.

"Every 50 years or so, someone picks these insects up and does some new research on them; after that, they languish for another 50 years," he says. "So it's an area where I felt I could make a contribution. I've seen and discovered things about them that had never been known before. They're bizarre little creatures, but fascinating ones nonetheless."

Creepy crawly things come in unusual packages to Peabody

While he was in the Peace Corps in Ghana, West Africa, with the assignment of teaching biology, entomologist Leonard Munstermann noticed that all kinds of strange-looking insects were flying in the windows.

He decided to start a collection as part of his classroom's laboratory project. Then, a friend who had studied with noted Yale entomologist Charles L. Remington told him that Remington would be grateful if Munstermann would start sending some of the tropical creatures to Yale for its entomology collection in the Peabody Museum's Division of Entomology. Happy to help in the cause, Munstermann began shipping out the insects in cigar boxes he had obtained from the American ambassador there.

Some of those boxes unexpectedly turned up while Munstermann, curator of entomology, and Raymond Pupedis, collections manager, recently prepared for the collection's move to the Kline Geology Laboratory (KGL), where the Division of Entomology has been temporarily relocated until it moves into the newly built Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center adjacent to the Peabody Museum.

"It was like coming full circle to find some of those boxes I sent over 35 years ago," says Munstermann, an expert on mosquitoes who came to Yale in 1996 after a 20-year career as an entomologist at the University of Notre Dame.

The insect-filled packages he forwarded are among hundreds that have been sent to the Peabody Museum over the past 50 years by private collectors and others from all over the world. Many of these insects have yet to be formally incorporated into the main research and teaching collection.

"We're now trying to inventory and organize some 800,000 specimens so we can add them to our main collection," says Pupedis. That process, he notes, sometimes involves some detective work by the entomology staff members, who are sometimes stumped over the identity of an insect.

Pupedis "uncovered" many boxes and containers while packing for the move to the KGL. The Division of Entomology had previously inhabited nine rooms at the Peabody Museum, and was transferring the massive collection to three, so the effort required some "attic cleaning," says Pupedis.

In the most recent issue of Explorer, the Peabody Museum's newsletter, Pupedis described some of what he found: "British Players cigarette tins from Uganda; 1940s wooden boxes from Iraq inscribed with the logo of the 'Lion of Baghdad Date Co.'; film canisters; pill canisters; British cookie and biscuit tins from various African colonies; bright red boxes of Lion Brand mosquito incense coils from Canton, China; Helmar Turkish and Egyptian cigarette boxes with pithy Arabic quotes (interestingly enough, the cigarettes were manufactured in New Jersey); Lipton tea containers from Ceylon; and all manner of small ingenious wooden boxes."

The most popular choice of container to send insects in, however, was the cigar box, Pupedis noted. He now has some 450 emptied ones piled high along one wall, where he enjoys drawing attention to them while he ponders what to do with them.

"The art on these cigar boxes is worthy of an exhibit in itself; subjects range from whiskered gentlemen of historical note or industrial fame to bonneted ladies of all countries, Shakespearean plays, and pastoral scenes," he wrote in Explorer.

To his own astonishment, Pupedis discovered that there is a website on the Internet devoted to the subject of cigar boxes and that those in pristine shape have fetched a fair amount of money at auctions. "Of course, we are not going to auction ours off, but we would like to be able to find someone who might be interested in them for their artistic or educational merit," he says, noting that some have historical value.

Pupedis admits, however, that he will be a bit sad to part with the collection, even though his primary focus is on the insects they contained.

"We'll certainly keep a small sample of them, just to show some of the more interesting containers insect collectors have used throughout the years," he says. "I suppose that makes us pack-rats. But the fact is, they are pretty much on the verge of extinction as far as being used by insect collectors. Today, we mostly receive insects in plastic containers."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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Campus Notes

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