The other day, I found myself sharing a room with 3 million dead bugs. Many years ago, this would have shocked and horrified me. I can see my five-year-old self, arms crossed stubbornly, adamantly refusing to even step through the door. Now, three years into my zoology degree, I understand how incredible arthropods really are. I even learned that they can play an important role in conservation.
But first, a few more details. And no, I wasn’t exploring some sort of bizarre insect cemetery. I was visiting the Oregon State Arthropod Collection (OSAC), a misleadingly commonplace room on the fourth floor of Cordley Hall on OSU’s main campus. Though minimally advertised, this organismal library is comprised of cabinets with boxes full of arthropods, carefully preserved and delicately pinned into place. Remove the lids to those boxes, and the collection flashes to life with bright colors: metallic glimmerings of beetle exoskeletons, satiny blue shimmers of butterfly wings.
The collection ranges from breath-taking to bizarre, like the eye-catching tarantula. While intimidating, the giant spider is much less of a threat when perfectly preserved and floating in a glass jar. OSAC hosts the largest collection of Pacific Northwest insects in the world, while also including many other arthropods such as spiders and scorpions.
So why doesn’t everyone know about OSAC? First of all, it serves the scientific community by providing a resource to researchers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. In a monumental effort to make the collection more accessible online, staff members are digitizing the entire collection. In addition to these services, OSAC occasionally collects its own specimens when time and funding allows, adding material to its holdings yearly.
The museum is open to the public by appointment but focuses on meeting the needs of visitors with research-related questions. And unlike a giant exhibition museum, there is no admission charge.
“There’s a strength that comes from being a small, regional collection with a really great legacy and history,” says Chris Marshall, curator and manager for the collection. “While we’re not currently out collecting samples , we’re seeking to help other groups who are doing work like that, and they can reciprocate by depositing material.”
This function highlights the importance of regional collections. OSAC allows researchers to go beyond the limitations of field guides. For example, when conservationists with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation needed to acquaint themselves with a specific butterfly before surveying it in the wild, they came to OSAC for help. By directly observing the butterflies in OSAC’s collection, the conservationists learned how to recognize the species they were going to study. Further enriching the resource, labels on the specimens told them when and where to look for the butterfly.
“For these conservationists, one of the first steps toward understanding how to preserve them is learning how to recognize them,” Marshall points out. “A photograph in a field guide is just not the same as seeing twenty preserved butterflies in a drawer.”
In the future, researchers can look back at these records and see how butterfly populations have changed. In much the same way, OSAC’s collection of arthropods, which includes specimens at least a century old, is a physical representation of past conditions. Scientists can look at an insect and its label and know where it was at a certain time.
What We’ve Lost
Collections are the historical records of science, playing an especially vital role in conservation. If we don’t know how things once were, how can we know that anything is different? Robert Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society, correlates the loss of species with the impoverishment of human knowledge, what he calls the “extinction of experience.” It’s an unconscious lowering of standards.
This is a concept that Randy Olson, a scientist and filmmaker, features in his project, Shifting Baselines. “Shifting baselines” is “the failure to notice change,” says Olson. His project focuses on marine conservation, but the general idea can be applied to any environment. Olson describes the beautiful, vibrant nature of Jamaican coral reefs in the 1970s. He cites Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who says that coral bleaching and overfishing have now reduced these corals to algae-covered messes.
That’s where shifting baselines come into play. If Jackson hadn’t kept records, if that colorful coral reef were not his baseline, who would know it had ever existed? Our present day baseline would be a lack of corals, and slowly, our concept of the world before human interference would grow unclear.
Baseline of Bugs
With its stockpile of preserved arthropods, OSAC is creating a baseline of its own. Many species are in decline, and should extinction happen, OSAC provides the means to see what we have lost. Its role in arthropod surveys also contributes to record-keeping.
“We don’t have the arrogance to say we’re the best collection in the country by any means,” Marshall adds. This may be true in terms of numbers; the Smithsonian has over 35 million specimens. But for the Pacific Northwest, there couldn’t be a more important arthropod collection.
Oregon may seem to be brimming with insects today, but how does that compare to fifty years ago? Think how it will compare to fifty years from now.
As I walked out of OSU’s impressive arthropod collection, I imagined a hypothetical day when Oregon’s great insect biodiversity might be limited to the confines of that room. Despite my youthful aversion to “bugs,” I would hate to see them gone for good.