Entomology on the road: thoughts on three trips

I haven’t been in the lab much since early June. Summer is the time when the teaching ends and administration tends to slow down, so I can finally devote more of my time to research. A lot of my research happens here in the Lyman Museum – there are (too) many manuscripts already on my computer in various states of completion, and thousands of specimens in my cabinets just waiting for me to find the time to carry the drawers over to the microscope. The students are all working away on their own projects and there is never a shortage of questions or discussion topics. That being said, sometimes I have to get out on the road to move a project forward. In this post, I’ll talk about a couple of recent trips that got me out of the Lyman on a quest for some very old flies and some very new flies.

I travelled to Washington DC in June with my M.Sc. student Heather Cumming. We both had taxonomy on our minds and the United States National Museum of Natural History (AKA “the USNM” AKA “the Smithsonian”) was the destination. Every insect collection has certain shared qualities, but each also has its own unique history, strengths and specimens. We, for example, have a lot of material that the USNM does not have, despite our much smaller collection, but they have one of the finest fly collections in the world and for somebody working on Chloropidae (my favorite family of flies), a visit to the USNM is a must. I’ve been visiting and working there since 2000 and still find new things every single trip. On this visit, I was trying to establish the identity of some arctic chloropid flies that I’ve been working on, and that meant looking at some very old specimens in the USNM collection to compare my species to specimens studied and described by some pioneers of chloropid taxonomy back in the early 20th Century. In Heather’s case, her flies of choice are Callomyia – a fairly rare genus of flat-footed flies (family Platypezidae), so any material she can find is valuable. On a previous trip to Washington, I had tallied up their platypezid holdings so Heather knew there would be great things to keep her occupied during our visit. As much as we all talk about the digitization of museum collections, and on-line accessibility of collections, and the awesome power of social media and the internet, sometimes you simply have to travel to a place, walk in the door and open the cabinets. Specimens need to be taken out of drawers, flipped over, turned around, scrutinized under the microscope, ferreted out in unexpected places. You can’t easily do that on-line (yet). Of course, the other great advantage of going on an actual, physical visit, is the opportunity to interact with colleagues. And by “interact” I mean shake hands, say hello, catch up on projects and lives, chat, walk up and down the rows of cabinets with them and look at things. I can talk to people on Skype or email or Facebook or the phone, but there’s simply no substitute for being able to connect (in 3-D!) with colleagues and friends and be able to stand around the Diptera section and introduce my students to some of the people who I’ve been interacting with since I was a student. Insect collections are so much more than simply repositories of dead specimens; they’re each a unique and irreplaceable source of new data and  new discoveries. And they’re also a place where we can connect or reconnect with old friends and new colleagues.

A few days after we returned from Washington I was off again, this time to Alberta, not for museum work this time, but fieldwork. Just as taxonomic research often requires us to access old museum specimens for valuable data and insights, sometimes we have to get out into the field for fresh material. In this case, my M.Sc. student Anna Solecki was on a search for some fresh specimens of some key species for her project on the population genetics of flies in northern Canadian grasslands. Although our ability to extract and amplify DNA from dried specimens has made great strides in recent years, sometimes it’s highly desirable to have freshly collected material, especially for some of the more finicky genes. In addition, if you’re going to unravel the genetic diversity and history of a species, you need to extract DNA from a reasonable number of specimens per location in order to understand the amount of genetic variation in the group. Based on some fieldwork in 2011 and 2012, Anna knew which species she wanted and how many specimens of each. So this collecting trip was a pretty focused one, to a pretty defined set of grasslands up in the Peace River Valley, a few hours north of Edmonton. A sort of hit-and-run field trip, but still a very necessary part of the whole research game.

Home from Alberta, unpack, mow the lawn, check in with the lab, repack, and I was off again. Fieldwork again, but a longer trip this time, with a more diffuse set of goals and a bit more travelling. I was off to the Yukon for the third year in a row, with two new students along, both eager to start exploring the diversity of northern flies for themselves. A trip this big needs a whole blog post of its own . . .

About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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