A Bounty of Butterflies Arrives at the Smithsonian

Entomologist Floyd Shockley drove across the country to pick up a premier butterfly and moth collection

The new acquisition contains butterflies and moths from around the world and bolsters the museum’s holdings of species from western North America. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

In October 2022, entomologist Floyd Shockley hit the road to round up butterflies. Instead of catching new butterfly and moth specimens, Shockley, who manages the National Museum of Natural History’s National Insect Collection, was amassing entire collections of the winged insects. So he left the butterfly net behind and got behind the wheel of an empty moving truck ready to haul hundreds of drawers brimming with butterflies across the country.

Over a twelve day period, Shockley drove more than 4,000 miles through sixteen different states. He drove through snow (twice), encountered a herd of thousands of elk and even had to shuffle his schedule on the fly due to covid precautions. In New Mexico, the truck’s rear door was jammed. Half an hour later when he finally was able to close the door, he nearly hit a mule deer crossing the road.

But the headaches of a cross country road trip were worth it because of the butterflies in the back of Shockley’s truck. “Given the almost immediate improvement to our collection in terms of both taxonomic and geographic representation, the specimens were absolutely worth the effort to retrieve them,” he said.

A sampling of some of the museum’s new moth specimens, including several yellow and brown imperial moths that have evolved to resemble rotting leaves. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

He stopped in Utah to pick up a trove of specimens deposited at Utah State University by the late entomologist, Henry Keith Townes, Jr. But the trip’s biggest acquisition was a sprawling private cache of butterflies and moths assembled by Valeriu Albu, a physician living near Fresno, California. Over the decades, he had collected specimens from around the world, curating a diverse assortment ranging from tiny skipper butterflies to giant luna moths, whose pale green wings are adorned with eye-like spots to spook predators.

Packing up all these specimens was an undertaking in its own right. Maru Losada, a contractor in the museum’s entomology department, flew out to California to help Shockley prepare the collection. She said that the arduous process, which included banding the different drawers together to ensure they remained stable, is a vital part of ensuring the specimens survive the long drive to Washington. “It’s very important to keep learning the best ways to move collections to ensure that the specimens arrive in the same shape that they were when we packed them,” Losada said.

In total, Shockley loaded 24 cabinets containing nearly 300 specimen drawers into the back of the truck. This cargo contained some 48,000 butterfly and moth specimens representing roughly 8,400 different species.

The new haul includes thousands of mounted butterflies and moths, including these red underwing moths (far left). Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

These specimens were bound for the museum’s Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) Collection, which already contains more than 4 million specimens from locales as distant as New Zealand and Japan. Most of these specimens are pinned with their wings fanned out. This displays the ornate patterning and bright colors that help entomologists differentiate them. These fastened fliers are deposited into drawers by the dozens, making them easily accessible to researchers.

"Getting the collection back to DC is actually the easy part. Rehousing and incorporating it into the collection once it is here is where the bulk of the work is." — Floyd Shockley, Collection Manager of Entomology

Before the new haul could be incorporated among the museum’s pinned masses, the specimens were stored in a walk-in freezer for several weeks at the museum’s offsite collection facility in Suitland, Maryland. This was to ensure that no pests that hitched a ride infiltrated the entomology collection. “By freezing them, it prevents us from needing to use chemicals that could potentially be harmful for humans,” Shockley said. Once they made it through the deep freeze, they were loaded onto two trucks and driven downtown to the museum for the final — and shortest — leg of their journey.

The specimens were stored in two dozen cabinets and driven across the country in the back of a truck by Floyd Shockley (left). After spending weeks in a freezer, the cabinets were moved into hallways of the Entomology department until the specimens are incorporated into the collection (right). Paul Goldstein, USDA

Shockley believes this bounty of butterflies is a boon to the museum’s collection. The strength of the new acquisition is species from western North America, which bolsters a region that was not well represented by the museum’s current holdings. The location  where each butterfly was found was meticulously labeled by the collector, making it relatively easy to incorporate the well-organized assembly into the existing collection.

The butterflies are also brimming with quality DNA. “These specimens are a gold mine,” said Paul Goldstein, a lepidopteran specialist in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory, which is housed at the museum. Fragile genetic data like DNA degrades as specimens age. But the new specimens “are recent enough that we can get quality DNA out of them,” said Goldstein.

Several large specimens, like these luna moths (left) and silk moths (right) will likely be stored at the museum’s offsite collection facility. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

Because the new collection represents such a wide breadth of different butterfly and moth species, there is something intriguing for everyone who specializes on these insects. “Every lepidopterist on this floor is excited because they’re about to get a whole cabinet of new stuff,” Goldstein said. He thinks that sifting through the new specimens will also provide an impetus to curate other parts of the Lepidoptera collection that are overdue for a closer look.

“It’s what we don’t know is in the collection that's going to be so cool. It’s the surprises that are most interesting.” – Paul Goldstein, research entomologist in the USDA Systematic Entomology Laboratory

Shockley points out that this cache of specimens will not just be useful for the researchers that visit the museum today. “We don’t receive collections just for the work of our own scientists,” he said. “We collect for future generations that will have better optics, imaging, and genetic techniques and technology at their disposal.”

The new haul is a trove of lepidoptera diversity that includes everything from bright butterflies to cryptically colored moths. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

When asked if he has a favorite specimen among the cargo of colorful butterflies and cryptic moths he drove across the country, Shockley struggles to pick just one.

“That’s like asking which is my favorite child—I don’t have one,” Shockley said. “Every new specimen added to the collection provides an improved picture of past and present species diversity.”

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