My Night at the Museum

Where last we left off I was explaining my plan to look at butterflies held in museum collections in order to compare them to field caught butterflies. To this end, I spent a week in November in this nation’s capitol. Behind the scenes! At the SMITHSONIAN Museum of Natural History! For some reason, this whole endeavor was super exciting to me…  On my drive to DC I was having visions of Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum” where exhibits were coming to life and I was running away from dinosaurs. All I knew is that they had about 500 specimens in the collection that were relevant to my study and they were giving me a “no-escort” badge so I could come and go as I pleased.

While being at the museums and seeing the collection is exciting, processing museum animals is more tedious than riveting.  Walking into the entomology department at Smithsonian looks like row after row of non-descript metal closets.

They showed me the Colias cabinet and opened the drawers.


This is my little set up at the museum:

To make direct comparisons to field collected specimens, I need to take the same exact measurements on the preserved specimens. This includes: measuring body length, wing length, and taking photos of the wings to estimate how dark they are. In live specimens, this is pretty straight forward. I place the bug between two pieces of plexiglass (one of which is buffered with bubble wrap) then I can measure it, and photograph it no problem. With the museum specimens, they pinned with the relevant information written on a tiny piece of paper and impaled just below the bug. So to measure and photograph these guys, I have to remove the piece of paper, flip the bug over so that the underside is exposed to the camera, and use microcalipers to measure (without touching) the animal.


First I take off all of the papers and then record the information. Then I measure each one. Then I photograph them. Then I reattach the paper and place them back in the museum drawer. The oldest specimen that I processed was from 1892!

Despite my working late, nothing came to life during my visit to the museum.



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