Bugs in the basement

University of Alaska Museum curator of insects Derek Sikes takes a look at fly specimens in the old cabinets. Photo by Nina Schwinghammer/The Sun Star

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Contributor

After years of cramped chaos, the University of Alaska Museum of the North’s insect collection can finally spread its wings thanks to a new grant. The National Science Foundation has funded a grant of more than $258,000 which the museum has dedicated to updating and improving the storage and cataloging capabilities of the museum’s 250,000 insect specimens.

The grant paid for new cabinets, space-saving rolling carriages, a new floor, and student labor costs. The change isn’t just an upgrade, said Curator of Insects Derek Sikes, but an “infrastructure improvement,” that will open the door to new research and teaching opportunities.

Interim Curator James Kruse began building the collection with another NSF grant in 2000. He assembled a mosaic of large donations but didn’t have the resources to sort them into an integrated single collection. Space was limited and they were housed in several incompatible types of outdated cabinets.

When Sikes took over as curator in 2006, he found cabinets held together with tape and boxes of wet specimens stacked upon one another. The collection, said Sikes, needed “significant curatorial attention.” With the completion last month of the new storage system, Sikes can now focus on organizing the diverse collection. He has been upgrading the filing system and aggressively databasing the invertebrates. A fifth of the specimens now have a bar code corresponding to an electronic data entry. The process is very laborious but worth the trouble. Both the database and the space-saving purchases have made organization and retrieval of specimens much easier.

Student employee Carolene Coon, an anthropology major, said she likes working with the new cabinets and the new system, and that “it will be nice to have everything uniform and organized.” Sikes agreed and said the old system had the specimens “packed to the gills.” He said the improvements will allow them to streamline, which “frees us up to really begin expanding our research efforts in the state.”

Donations to the collection are continually being added and some yield surprises. Amid the countless vials of alcohol-preserved specimens lies a tiny twisted winged parasite, captured by Dominique Collet on the Kenai Peninsula. It is the only preserved evidence that the species is in Alaska. Collet, author of the book, “Insects of South-central Alaska,” has donated over 17,000 specimens dating back to the 1980s.

Sikes said that one of the big questions he’s investigating is whether the museum’s dry specimens have salvageable DNA. If the museum is able to sequence DNA from older specimens, changes within Alaskan species could have a historical backdrop. Sikes said that he and other entomologists are “being vigilant for major changes.” He looks for indications of various species moving north. The inventory being done now will help Alaskans know how their state is changing.

Sikes connects with the public in talks, online adult education courses and through the cooperative extension program. He said that he tries to quell rumors, such as the false reports of brown recluse, and help the public understand and identify Fairbanks’ insect residents. In general, the public knows very little about insects, and Sikes said that he is “trying to get them jazzed about how fascinating insects are.”

With the new storage system in place, the curator can put his mind at ease that the insect collection is safe and sound for future research. One of the disadvantages of the old decrepit cabinetry was that it allowed Dermestid beetles to creep into the boxes and drawers. These scavengers feed on dry animal tissue and are sometimes used by natural history museums to clean animal skeletons. The insect collection was like a smorgasbord for the beetles.

“We have a lot of headless flies up there,” said Sikes.

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1 Response

  1. Amy Gobroksi says:

    Very informative and well written article! I enjoyed it very much.

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