On the value of collections: pinning down the answer

All around the world, natural history collections are under a major threat. This major threat comes not from ravenous specimen eating beasties, or changes in the ethics of collecting specimens with the insidious infiltration of the idea that a mixture of DNA and photography can be as good as a real sample, or the general aging of the curator workforce (although all of these things do constitute small and present dangers). No, the real threat come from ignorance, a lack of knowledge and value about how vital these collections are. Once something is perceived as of little value then it becomes vulnerable in the inevitable next round of cost cutting. All around the world collections are under threat from closure in order to save money. That’s certainly the case here at Lincoln University where our Entomology Research Museum, one of the largest collections of New Zealand insects in the world, is under this threat of closure, as well as the loss of our curator John Marris, in order to save money.

A modern insect collection, complete with curator
(clearly not aging!).

So why are collections important? Incidents such as the recent Queensland fruit fly scare, the spread of the clover root weevil throughout New Zealand’s productive pastures and the devastating impact that potato/tomato psyllid has had on the potato and tomato industries highlight the importance of insects to our economy and environment. A fundamental part of any pure and applied insect study depends on properly identifying specimens due to their great diversity, small size and the often similar appearance of species. In New Zealand we have over 10000 named species and an estimated 10000 more yet to be named. We have more than 1000 introduced species, many of which are significant pest species inflicting multi-million dollar costs to primary production as well as impacting on our natural environment.

Insect reference collections are vital in providing certainty as to what organism is being studied. In entomology this is not a straightforward issue to deal with due to the great diversity of insects and their similarity of form. Much of the New Zealand taxonomic literature dates back to the 1800s when species descriptions were rudimentary and insufficient to allow successful subsequent identification of species. The role of insect collections is not limited to identification. Collections are used as a basis for new species descriptions, as records of insect presence, abundance and variation in time and space and, with recent developments in molecular methods, provide a valuable source of DNA for a wide range of analyses.

The 133 year old Hutton collection,
complete with original draws

In order to emphasise the importance and long-term value of a ‘working’ collection, John Marris (our curator) offers this story about just one of our 250000 pinned specimens.

“Ostenia robusta is an endemic New Zealand fly, described over 100 years ago by F.W. Hutton, who was Professor of Biology at Canterbury College. Hutton taught natural sciences at Lincoln over the first two years of its existence (1880-81). Hutton’s collection of insect reference specimens is held in the Entomology Research Museum 133 years on and remains in active use for research. After Hutton’s description, this innocuous fly was largely ignored until the 1991 publication of a Fauna of New Zealand volume by Dr Dan Bickel, an entomologist at the Australian Museum interested in this group of flies. Bickel noted the appearance of O. robusta adults suggested that their larvae fed on some common resource and that discovering what this resource was would be of interest. Dr Bickel has visited the Entomology Research Museum and currently has specimens on loan from the collection for his research.

A pinned Ostenia robusta specimen

In 2012, Richard Chynoweth, a former AGLS Faculty postgraduate student, and now a Research Manager at the Foundation for Arable Research (FAR), fortuitously discovered fly larvae attacking grass grub (Costelytra zealandica (White, 1846)) pupae while sampling soil near Southbridge, 25 minutes from Lincoln. Grass grub, is one of New Zealand’s most damaging pasture pests, responsible for multi-million dollar losses annually. These larvae were reared through to adult flies by Bruce Chapman, Lincoln University Associate Professor in Entomology.  Subsequently, the flies were given to John Marris, Curator of the Entomology Research Museum, who identified them as Ostenia robusta by comparison with specimens held in the Museum, including one collected by long-term Lincoln staff member Margaret McPherson in 1967, around the time that the Museum was established. Distribution records for the species were obtained from consultation with curators from other New Zealand entomology collections, including John Early from Auckland Museum, a former Lincoln University staff member, and Dr Cor Vink from Canterbury Museum, who completed his PhD in invertebrate taxonomy at Lincoln. Larvae of O. robusta had never before been reared to the adult stage and, despite many decades of intensive research on grass grub, these larvae had never been recorded attacking the beetle pupae. However, DNA molecular analysis of the specimens was used by Dr Karen Armstrong and Dr Anastasia Chomic from the Bio-Protection Centre to assist in identification. The identification was subsequently confirmed by Dr Renato Capellari, a dolichopodid fly specialist from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Over the 2013-2014 summer, Lincoln University undergraduate student Lisa Watkins won a FAR summer scholarship in which she completed further research on Ostenia biology. This research may lead to enhanced biological control of grass grub and reduce losses inflicted by this pest.”

O. robusta larvae feasting on a grass grub

This is just one example of many that demonstrates the value of the Entomology Research Museum in providing fundamental support for research and education, much of it revenue earning. The Museum is not a dusty old Victorian institution. It is a modern, relevant and vital asset that helps to maintain Lincoln’s longstanding reputation for excellence in insect research. This is why the Museum must not be lost from Lincoln University.

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