A collection of collections

Of the millions of species of insects on earth, many are undescribed, many are currently impossible to identify from published keys or photos, and many identification keys are not as clear as they could be. That’s not news to people who regularly identify insect species, but it’s often a surprising realization to new students starting out in the field. One of the Rules of Identification is: even though your specimen keyed to species X, that doesn’t mean it is species X. We need to verify identifications. And this is where well-organized insect collections are a priceless resource, especially with poorly-known groups of insects.

In our lab, we work mostly on Diptera (although we have a surprisingly busy group of Hymenoptera people in the lab this year too). We’ve been actively building our Diptera collection since 1995, largely through the efforts of some fantastic students, but also through some valuable exchanges of material with colleagues. Our fly collection is now the largest component of the pinned collection in the Lyman Museum, and it’s very well-curated, which makes it a lot easier for students to check their mystery specimens against identified material in the collection. That being said, we still have gaps in our collection and our expertise, so we can’t solve all our identifications in house. This is when being in Montreal becomes very convenient.

The Lyman Museum is not the only big insect collection in the region – we have very valuable neighbors not too far away – at the Université de Montréal (a fantastic collection, especially of aquatic insects) and at the Canadian National Collection of Insects in Ottawa (one of the world’s great collections, especially for Diptera).

The Neatby Building, home of the CNC

I visited the CNC yesterday for just a few hours and, as usual, came away with some valuable information, wise advice, and interesting ideas for future collaborations. And this is the great thing about having a world-renowned collection, staffed by great researchers, just a short drive away.

Since I’ve been at McGill, most of my students have spent time at the CNC, confirming their own identifications of specimens, sorting species in the collection as part of their projects, gaining valuable training and advice from the world experts in some diverse and difficult groups of insects, and talking science with colleagues. Thousands of specimens have travelled the highway back and forth between our museums in the past few years and I like to think that both collections have benefited from that interaction. Of course, the interaction has taken other forms too: three of my former students are now researchers at CNC and it’s nice to catch up with them whenever I visit. And two of my current grad students worked as summer students at CNC before coming to McGill.

It’s very satisfying to walk into the CNC collection with a box of mystery flies and come away with names on the specimens. Or to finally see an identified specimen of a species that we’d never actually seen before. Or to turn a five-minute conversation at the lunch table into a potential collaboration that will strengthen a student’s thesis or help them learn their way around a tricky group of flies. That’s the real value of getting to know other collections, and other researchers. Science moves forward by sharing information.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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