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The Metamorphosis

For over a century, the Carnegie Museum's section of Invertebrate Zoology has saved examples of millions of insects. Now, they're trying to help save the world.

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Even in the fading daylight of a January afternoon, the butterfly's wingspan shone an incandescent blue. I had chosen the glass-topped drawer randomly from one of the tall wooden cabinets lining the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Section of Invertebrate Zoology. Not knowing whether I'd find a common house fly or some nightmarish monster, I peered inside and saw the butterfly, pinned next to 20-odd of its kin.

Judging from the label beside her, this particular Morpho amathonte was caught near Bogota, Columbia, in 1819, dried with her wings spread wide across wooden blocks, and pinned into place.

Morpho has been sitting there ever since. Along with approximately 11 million other specimens of invertebrates in the Carnegie's collection, she's been patiently waiting until the next time science requires her. And that time, says John Rawlins, is at hand.

John Rawlins, with a drawer containing a handful of the 11 million bugs in the Carnegie's collection - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • John Rawlins, with a drawer containing a handful of the 11 million bugs in the Carnegie's collection

With long-time collection manager Bob Davidson and associate curator Chen Young, Rawlins has been transforming the department from a dusty entomological information archives to one of the world's biggest players in insect studies.

And it may be happening just in time.

The science that Rawlins, Davidson and Young practice is called systematic entomology: the study and classification of the vast diversity within the insect world. Systematists like Rawlins can examine two seemingly identical moths, for example, and tell you what makes them different -- a process that often comes down to a microscopic difference between a set of legs or genitalia.

It's knowledge that's eccentric, esoteric -- and vital. In a world wracked with environmental change (called "EC" for short by scientists), we need people who can identify the effects of those changes. And as Rawlins says, "The first thing EC changes isn't snowstorms at the wrong time of year -- it's bug problems. Bugs are always at the heart."

Insects, he adds, are "acting as an agent involved in, or responding to, the crisis of our time: environmental change."

Systematists can trace a region's geological history through the bugs that live in it, and try to predict its future through their behaviors. They can tell whether trees are dying, or the climate is changing. And if one species of moth is harmless, while another is a plague of potentially Biblical proportions, it's handy to know which is which.

But academic climates can change as well, and systematics is itself endangered. Funding for research museums has been drying up, and over the past 25 years, the population of traditional systematists has dwindled. Starting in the 1960s, many scientists wrote off systematics as mere rhetoric or nomenclature -- the naming and renaming of species. Academic departments shifted gears, and researchers retired with no students to take their place.

By the time he got into the field, Rawlins says, systematics "was 'old science.' Now, with all the distractions of [technology] for young minds, we've been overwhelmed by our own tools, and complex subjects suffer. How many Latin or Greek scholars can you find under a toadstool nowadays?

"We're a species that can't reproduce," jokes Rawlins.

But while other museum departments have cut staff and collections, Rawlins' section has expanded. His researchers have, in fact, put themselves and their collection on the front lines defending against environmental disaster -- and even bioterrorism.

Walter Zanol - HEATHER MULL

"There's a weird feeling that we're about to do battle with the mother of all enemies," says Rawlins. "Environmental change [is] going to make our lives extremely rough. [Popular biology author] E.O. Wilson would say that, in the realm of biodiversity, we're going forward to the next engagement without our generals -- with no shamans to tell us how to fight off the evils now coming.

"But personally, I don't buy that. What I buy is that we're pre-adapted to win."

Rawlins has headed the department for more than 20 years. But the first time he visited the Carnegie's collection, he wasn't wielding a magnifying glass or a microscope. He was handed a rag instead.

Rawlins was then wrapping up a doctorate in entomology at Cornell, specializing in Lepidoptera -- the insect family that includes moths and butterflies like Morpho. And like Morpho herself, the Carnegie was a glittering find waiting to be uncovered.

"I'd met a famous moth [researcher] in Ottawa, and he said to me, 'Have you been down to Carnegie Museum?' 'No, no one's mentioned it,'" says Rawlins. Others in the field "all thought of it as this old dusty room with a bunch of junk in it, and nobody really went there. And this guy said to me, 'No, no, no. You've got to go there.'"

He did so in 1979 ... but found that much of the collection was covered in decades of industrial-town soot, thickened by a lack of use.

"I picked my way up through the junk, pulled out the first drawer and it was covered black, you couldn't see anything in it," Rawlins recalls.

But by the time he finished his dissertation on tiger moths, the Carnegie's collection had become known as second only to the British Museum's for that family of insects. Rawlins had done nothing to add to its collection -- but word had spread about its long-overlooked wealth of specimens.

Still, the Carnegie's IZ section is difficult to negotiate even today. Cut out of former exhibit space on the Museum's third floor, many of its rooms are false, built with "temporary" walls that have been there for years. Hallways are fashioned from bug cabinets on one side and stacks of homemade boxes, each filled with pinned bugs, on the other. And that's the organized part: In the Carnegie Institute's warren-like basement, freezers and more boxes hold jars full of unsorted samples -- called "residue" -- full of insects, leaves, twigs, and dirt suspended in alcohol.

Almost nothing related to insects is thrown away, one of the reasons why the Carnegie's collection of 11 million specimens (and growing) is so useful. Because the importance of insects lies, largely, in their numbers.

As big as the Carnegie's collection is, it's dwarfed by the number of insects found in a modest-sized parcel of Pennsylvania land -- where one study found roughly 425 million creatures per acre, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The diversity of species is almost as daunting: The PA Biodiversity Partnership estimates that more than half of the invertebrate species living in Pennsylvania alone remain undocumented by science. Worldwide, estimates range everywhere from 2 million individual species all the way up to 30 million. In any case, the million-plus species so far identified by science make up no more than half of what's out there.

Bob Androw - HEATHER MULL

"Most of the genetic diversity of the force that we call life on Earth, is bugs," says Rawlins.

Which is a source of both job security and environmental insecurity. The problem with having "so many bugs" and "so many species of bugs," Rawlins says, is that such diversity can do "so many bad things." Insect-borne diseases are amongst the top causes of human death in the world, and bugs can cause millions of dollars in agricultural and other damage every year.

On the other hand, Rawlins points out, bugs can also do "so many good things. ... The problems caused by the bad ones are, largely, best solved by the good ones."

That is, in fact, usually what happens, barring human interference. "Obviously, in nature, these things were not so wildly off kilter," Rawlins says.

Jane Highland - HEATHER MULL

Rawlins speaks with a comfortable Western drawl, the result of a rural Oregon upbringing and an influential stint teaching at the University of Texas in Austin. He also speaks with the practiced rhetoric of a man who has gone through 20 years of grant proposals and lectures to a sometimes skeptical public.

Some of the earliest and the most important indicators of environmental change were discovered through entomology. The disappearance of some European and British butterflies from their once-native habitats, for example, was being studied as an indicators of climate change by the beginning of the 1990s.

To study such factors, however, requires expertise in systematic biology -- the expertise to identify a species and to use knowledge of that species to make conclusions about its behavior. Having that knowledge requires researchers like Rawlins, and collections such as the Carnegie's.

The Carnegie, Rawlins says, is "just a little node in a worldwide network; one of many little rooms like this, with big bug boxes.

"We know all about this biology. We are the bug people."

And bug people everywhere are facing a similar chorus of questions. "What's the current environmental situation?" Rawlins asks rhetorically, harkening to his days as a lecturer as he itemizes the questions he's asked. "What can we do about it? How do we know it's real? Isn't this something made up by the Democrats?

"Eventually," he adds, "this line of questioning comes back to, 'Who told you?' Then you have to admit that, 'Well, the bugs told me.' It all comes back to the fundamental question, 'Why do we study bugs?'"

For many of those in the Carnegie's IZ section, part of the answer is Rawlins himself. "We're kind of a cult of personality around here," says Tim Tomon, who is working in the IZ section toward a master's degree in entomology at Penn State.

The IZ section includes 13 staffers from diverse backgrounds -- ranging from work-study students who've never left to an amateur bug-collector who once managed a Long John Silver's. Several speak of having been long-time enthusiasts, slaving away on a private bug collection before volunteering to work at the Carnegie -- and never leaving.

Chen Yung - HEATHER MULL

For Bob Androw, for example, bugs began as just another childhood obsession in Mansfield, Ohio: One week it was Wiffle ball, the next collecting bugs. But "A week later, the other kids had all moved on to other things," says Androw. "I was still collecting butterflies."

Androw's early experiments left much to be desired: No one had told him to kill the bugs before trying to pin them, so his early trophies wound up flying around the house with pins sticking through them. But in his 20s, he got an entomology degree from Ohio State University ... and 15 years into a successful retail-management career, he got the call.

"John had a one-year, [grant-funded] position open up, and I was faced with a big decision. I figured, for at least that one year, I'll have that prime job I've wanted -- working in a museum, working with the bugs -- and then I'll go back to retail. Well, here I am in the twelfth year of that one-year position."

Rawlins, associate curator Chen Young, and collection manager Bob Davidson have been together at the section for the better part of three decades, and together the trio's specialties represent three of the four primary insect eco-types. Young studies crane flies, the long-legged mosquito-like flies that appear around streams and forests in summertime. They are detrivores -- feeding on decaying matter. Davidson's specialty, ground beetles, are predators, and Rawlins' moths and butterflies are herbivores. (An expert on parasites would complete the section's expertise.)

But the department has changed greatly since Young and Davidson -- the section's veterans -- started out in the 1970s.

"When I first arrived here, it was concentrated very much on material purchased in the 1950s from other collectors," Young says. "But since Bob and John came here, they've been collecting new material from different parts of the world."

Tim Tomon - HEATHER MULL

"In the '80s, [Rawlins] was really big on getting in international collections," says David Koenig, who started working in the IZ section as a University of Pittsburgh work-study student in 1988. "That translates into more credibility for the collection. And for this staff, that means going out and getting it ourselves."

Standing in front of a wall-sized map of the world, Rawlins points at locations that could have been culled from a CNN news-ticker: Ghana, Congo, Haiti, Peru Indonesia ... And the Carnegie's IZ staff has visited them all, hoping to capture present conditions so they can track future changes.

"To go to these exotic, dangerous places, it's not something you can just do whenever you want," says Young. "We have to think that's the last time we'll ever be there. For some of these countries, in that development stage, they're not thinking about conservation -- it's got no priority. So we have to establish a reference to the past."

"It's salvage work," says Bob Androw. "We're taking samples, and don't have time to prepare them now, but we're putting them away for the future. It could be two years, could be 20, could be 50. Somebody goes back to those samples and looks at 'em. It's kind of a time capsule."

David Koenig - HEATHER MULL

Along the way, they've encountered everything from malaria to scorpion bites to an African-rebel prison cell. Yet it was only in Mexico -- a two-hour drive from the Texas border -- that Rawlins ever thought he could die while collecting bugs.

"Down there," he says, smiling, "it's easier to kill you than to just rob you."

Rawlins sometimes sounds like a misplaced 19th-century explorer, an impression reinforced by his graying beard. But the reason for his travels is pure 2008.

The journeys have often been "salvage surveys," in which entomologists conduct an intensive insect census of an area. The surveys are carried out in "hot spots" -- parts of the world where a diversity of species is combined with a socio-political situation that threatens the native habitat.

Mexico in particular isn't just the "most dangerous place to go collect bugs," Rawlins says -- it's also "one of the most important places for us to know about." His topographic map has no boundaries, and Rawlins runs his hand up the Sierra Madre mountains through the Rockies -- the spinal mountain ranges that, along with other geographic and climatological factors, bind North America together. "What belongs to Mexico or America -- that's irrelevant," he says. "It's just a fact -- that's all us."

Partly as a result of these travels, the Carnegie's collection is now considered one of the world's best, particularly in specialties such as Lepidoptera and beetles. And the collection now maintains millions of specimens from around the world, as well as jars of unprocessed sample materials -- material that perhaps hasn't thoroughly studied, but at least is there for future scientists.

"We occasionally get criticized because we're still out collecting bugs even though we've got millions here that aren't properly cataloged," says Davidson. "But the world's going extinct faster than we can collect it. This is not the generation to sit back on your haunches and tidy up your nest. This is the generation to get out and get to places that we know, in 50 years, are going to be gone."

Vanessa Verdecia stands over a trunk-like freezer -- the kind a corner store might fill with ice cream. Inside are dozens of plastic bags, labeled in indelible ink, containing dead moths. She holds up one bag, and I look closely inside, trying to see something that might make it more interesting than the moths that lay dead inside my windowpanes some summer nights.

These moths actually aren't that different, Verdecia explains. They even died in a similar way -- but instead of being lured inside by my living-room bulbs, they were attracted to the moon-like glow of a light-baited trap. The important thing about these moths is what they aren't: Spodoptera litura.

Commonly know as the old-world armyworm or cutworm, the larvae and caterpillars of Spodoptera can be a disastrous agricultural pest. And in November, a regular U.S. Department of Agriculture survey in Miami turned up what might have been a Spodoptera. The USDA called the Carnegie's IZ section and, on a week's notice, brought them into the middle of the situation -- running traps, sorting the samples, and identifying the moths.

"It was a big to-do, because they couldn't identify it," says Rawlins. "But turns out they were right -- they had the bad one." The moths in Verdecia's bag were harmless, but other samples weren't. "It's a known, dreaded species, one that could cause millions, if not billions, of dollars in agricultural damage, and here's the problem: The damn thing looks just like species that occur right here in North America."

Not every foreign species that turns up in a new habitat is a threat. Androw points to the species of Asian Ambrosia Beetle that the Carnegie discovered near the Pittsburgh International Airport in 2006. "It's a fairly obscure species in its native [Russia], but somehow was introduced here," Androw says. "It seems to occur in every county around Allegheny now, and it doesn't look like it does any damage."

Such immigrants are called "exotics," but are mostly benign. But when other species are unleashed into habitats where they have no natural enemies, they can cause mayhem -- and become a so-called "invasive." A good example is the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian beetle that has destroyed 6 million ash trees in Michigan, and recently appeared in Western Pennsylvania.

"When an insect is out of its native habitat, you don't know what it's capable of," says Androw.

The Carnegie's ability to respond rapidly to the Miami threat is the result of a new direction it took in 2006. That year, the IZ section opened its Biodiversity Services Facility, which sells its insect expertise to purchasers -- primarily the federal government.

"[T]he Museum's resources will give you the best data the fastest and the cheapest," says Rawlins. "Now what we have to do is begin to value that, as a society, and devise a way that they get paid for it." Through the BSF, the IZ section was able to raise the funds necessary to maintain and expand its expansion. Employees funded with BSF money spend 60 percent of their time on Facility projects, and the rest on maintaining the department and its collection.

And instead of being hidden away in the Carnegie's dimmer recesses, the IZ section is now able to market its knowledge to the outside world. The presence of "so many bad things," Rawlins points out, "requires knowing what you've got." Salvage surveys, and other insect counts that had once been academic exercises, turned into more focused processes, with researchers looking for things like tree-eating bark beetles, or the forest-devouring sirex wood wasp.

"Our targeted pests are mostly invasive species -- exotic species of bark beetles," says Androw, who heads the BSF's sorting and identification process. But the researchers keep their eyes open for the unknown as well, and the scientific methods are the same. "We screen for the hit list, but also screen for other species that we know shouldn't be here, and that's the tricky part -- you have to know the natives before you can know what looks wrong."

And time is of the essence. When the Miami outbreak of Spodoptera began, the federal government realized it couldn't go through a time-consuming contract process. So the USDA and the Carnegie Institute cut a blanket purchase agreement, allowing for quick response time in such situations.

One of the things that's made the BSF unique is an online database developed by the section's Jim Fetzner. Fetzner, associate curator of crustacea, is the department's resident crayfish expert: This year, in fact, he hopes to begin the first modern survey determining what species of crayfish live in the waters of Pennsylvania. But on the side, Fetzner has developed the Biodiversity Services Facility's unique client database. The database offers clients such up-to-date features as a Google-map that plots each specimen's location. "The minute that database went online, we became unique," says Rawlins.

Between such technological advances, the BSF's growing reputation with federal agencies, and the massive potential workload, Rawlins sees possibilities beyond the current agreement with the USDA.

"We could become an identification facility for world insects, which is no small undertaking," he says.

And it's getting larger all the time. The fear now isn't just that an invasive species could arrive accidentally, stowed inside packing material or a ship's hull. The fear is bioterrorism: someone introducing an invasive species on purpose.

The danger may sound strange, even comical -- one pictures Osama bin Laden carrying a jar with holes punched in the lid. But experts say the scenario is real.

"One of the cheapest and most destructive weapons available to terrorists today is also one of the most widely ignored: insects," entomologist Jeffrey A. Lockwood wrote in the Boston Globe last October. "These biological warfare agents are easy to sneak across borders, reproduce quickly, spread disease, and devastate crops." Lockwood cited a 1989 threat made by a shadowy group known as The Breeders, who claimed to be responsible for an infestation of the Mediterranean fruit fly in agricultural areas of California. The group's culpability was never established, but Lockwood writes that such an attack "could easily escalate into the billions of dollars, and the resulting disruption of our food supply -- and our sense of well-being -- could be devastating. Yet the government focuses on shoe bombs and anthrax while virtually ignoring insect insurgents."

That may be changing: Earlier this month, federal Customs officials (under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security) announced the creation of a deputy executive director of "Agricultural Operational Oversight," charged with keeping the bugs at bay.

"How would you know an [exotic] species from North Korea is going to blow up and cause problems for the soybean fields of the greater good of America?" says Rawlins. "You've got to have expertise."

In a corner of the section's main work room, Jane Hyland and co-worker Walter Zanol pin the collection's new bug additions, using a process much like the one that captured Morpho amathonte in 1819. But now she's holding open a book of sketches, like an art student's portfolio. They seem postmodernist and abstract at first, but closer inspection reveals an architect's organization and anatomist's attention to detail. Hyland removes one illustration, of a moth's leg, and points out the individual hairs, each one larger in her drawing than the moth itself.

Hyland is one of John Rawlins' more left-field discoveries. A native of Melbourne, Australia, and former contemporary dancer, she arrived at the Carnegie with experience as assistant to a London entertainment lawyer (working for The Who and Blondie, among others), a sign-language interpreter and a freelance artist.

Nowadays, Hyland specializes in drawing insects -- one eye on a microscope, the other on her pen. Details don't come through in a photograph, she says, and details are vital. Hyland pulls a set of drawings from her books and explains that they're moth genitalia, for Tim Tomon's master's thesis project. He's trying to prove that three different species of common moths are actually all the same species, and these drawings will help.

The mass-scale diversity is what attracts people like Tomon and Hyland to bugs, but it represents a challenge as well.

"It's fine to send satellites out to Mars, but we don't know a tenth of what lives here on earth," Tomon says. "And [systematists] are the people, here, responsible for recording and studying that. And they're going extinct, too."

Saving his own species of researcher is Rawlins' other hope, and he's not alone. The National Science Board has called the declining base of insect knowledge a "global crisis," and in 1999, the National Science Foundation introduced a special competition in systematic biology. The goal is to encourage and reward the training of new systematists, and reverse what the NSF calls the "rate of 'extinction'" in the field.

"We don't want to wind up driven by the market's needs," says Rawlins. "Nobody's in this business for money. I want to sustain a bunch of young people -- and I've got some nice ones.

"We're sitting here with world-class collections, the entire world history of literature on our shelves, and a staff that gets a kick out of it. To leave us by the wayside, when you have a desperate need to be out there finding and intercepting new invasive species, and monitoring and checking on the expansion of ones we already know are here -- well, that would just be stupid."

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