I grew up in the Chicago suburbs going to the Field Museum of Natural History on days off from school. It was always a treat to head downtown on the train, get lost wandering around the public exhibit spaces, and learn something new. I recently got to visit the Field for work. It was still a treat. I still got lost, but this time it was in the labyrinth of offices and collections spaces hidden from public view, and I still learned something new.
In addition to meeting with researchers working with beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, and microplants (translation: mosses and friends) to discuss how the Notes From Nature project might facilitate citizen scientists' participation in digitization efforts, I digitized over 150 butterfly specimens from 30 species. Spoiler alert: those images will be coming soon to Notes From Nature.
The butterfly collection at the Field is particularly special because it is the home of the Herman Strecker Collection. Strecker was a 19th century sculptor and amateur lepidopterist, who, at the time of his death had collected over 50,000 specimens. While the collection is old, it has been incredibly well-preserved and cared for. The majority of the species of interest for my work are represented in Strecker's collection, and in some cases, represent localities from which butterflies can no longer be acquired, either because they have been locally extirpated due to habitat loss, or because of changes in the accessibility of the locality.
As an additional treat while I was visiting the Field's insect collections, my host, Crystal Maier, showed me the Field's collection of inflated caterpillars. Modern caterpillar specimens are stored in alcohol to preserve internal structures. Historically, however, the guts of the specimen would be carefully squeezed out, and then the empty skin would be inflated like a little balloon and roasted over an alcohol lamp to cure and dry the skin. Not super-useful from a modern scientific standpoint, but aesthetically and as a teaching tool, really cool.
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