Entomology museum’s growth catalogs the changes in the natural world

The small slip of paper sat tucked away, all but forgotten among the drawers of insect specimens. Its words, “on loan to Wallace,” offered the only clue to the location of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of Hesperotettix. If JoVonn Hill wanted to study them, he’d have to channel Sherlock Holmes and solve the mystery. Call it the Case of the Hidden Hoppers.

An assistant research professor at Mississippi State University, Hill is conducting research that involves hundreds of preserved grasshoppers on long-term loan from the institute. Despite the dozens of full specimen drawers stacked in his office, the missing Hesperotettix, a genus of spur-throated grasshopper, left a hole in his project.

“I didn’t know who Wallace was. He wasn’t a grasshopper researcher I had heard of,” Hill explained. “I did some digging and found a paper he published as part of his Ph.D. in the 1960s and that gave me his full name—Herbert S. Wallace.”

Still, Hill said he struggled to find out what happened to the man until the right combination of Google search terms turned up Wallace’s 1984 obituary, which mentioned his employment at the University of Louisiana, Monroe. A few emails and phone calls later, the missing grasshoppers were successfully located in the basement of the Warhawks’ track stadium, among the rest of the school’s biological specimen collection.

“I was eventually able to make the trip down to pick up the Hesperotettix, and I got to glance at the rest of the collection,” Hill said. “They had a large grasshopper collection and I said if they ever decided that they could no longer house it, we would be interested.”

That would have been the end of things, but almost a year later, an impassioned plea from a ULM staffer appeared on Facebook asking the scientific community for help rehoming the university’s natural history collection, including thousands of plants, insects and fish. Hill said he immediately reached out to request the entomological specimens.

“There was some paperwork and we had to pay $100, but that was it,” Hill explained. “We drove down with a 17-foot U-Haul and picked up the insects.”

The total ULM insect collection includes approximately 16,000 specimens. Among those are the more than 2,000 grasshoppers, many of which were supplied by Wallace during his career. It also held a few surprises: an example of the extinct Rocky Mountain locust and a dozen specimens of Xerces blue, a butterfly known as the first invertebrate species made extinct by human actions.

“These are specimens that were previously unknown to science,” Hill explained. “You can’t just go get more of these, so there are a limited number available to study. This just adds to the data set for the species. It’s something incredible to find and add to our collection.”

Hill said this is the third large-scale entomology collection Mississippi State University has obtained from other institutions in recent years.

“These collections take up a lot of space, and space is always a big commodity at universities,” Hill said. “Plus, they can be expensive to maintain, but there’s a ton of research value in them. We need these collections. It’s sort of a library of life.

“We are fortunate here at MSU to have a lot of support from the administration,” he continued. “We have one of the better collections around and as we take in these orphaned collections, it’s getting stronger.”

Known as the Mississippi Entomological Museum, Mississippi State’s insect collection is hosted in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology. With a collection that started in the 1890s, it is now home to more than 1.6 million specimens, a number that grows by more than 35,000 each year.

“The more specimens you pull together, the better picture you have of living history,” Hill said. “We have specimens going back 100 years and when you start looking at those and adding to it, you can see how the insect distribution has changed over time and is changing now.”

Since 2012, the museum, a unit of the university’s Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, has hosted more than 100 visiting scholars from around the world and made 128 research loans of more than 23,750 specimens. This value as a scholarly recourse led the National Science Foundation to award Mississippi State a $292,055 collection improvement grant, which will allow the university to install, among other things, movable shelving to provide better access to its growing collection and make space available for expansion.

Joe MacGown, an ant expert with the museum, said Mississippi State is unique among its peers.

“We’re rare because we’re a university collection that’s thriving,” MacGown boasted. “Many collections are folding, but we’re not thanks to certain projects. We usually have 25 people or more working at a time.”

MacGown has been part of numerous funded projects regarding ants in the Southeast, including the invasive and costly tawny crazy ant. This species is one of the pests explored through the museum’s educational outreach initiative Bug Blues, which strives to educate the public about the ecologic and economic dangers of nonnative insects.

Mississippi State students and staff are also working with the NSF-supported Lep-Net project, a web-based information hub focused on Lepidoptera, an order that includes butterflies and moths. The searchable database will include data and high-resolution images of specimens. The museum also houses a United States Department of Agriculture screening center, which is a first line of defense against invasive species gaining a foothold in the Southeast.

“It’s like surveillance,” Hill explained. “We collect trap material from all over the region and document what insects are present. We’re mainly looking for invasive species, so we can monitor the spread and distribution. It’s a large but important data set we’re keeping.

“We’re not just a museum,” Hill continued. “We have a research collection and a screening center, and we do conservation work. We’re multifaceted.”

Hill said many people think the only new insect discoveries will come from remote, exotic locations, but the museum’s work proves that’s not the case. It just takes knowing what to ask and where to look.

“A lot of people think you have to go to the rainforest to find new and interesting things, but there’s so much in our backyard that hasn’t been recorded,” Hill explained. “People are finally recognizing the biological significance we have right here in the South.”

In the past four years, Hill has described—or assigned names to—24 previously unrecognized species of grasshopper found in the Southeast. He speculates that many of these might be in danger of disappearing as their habitat changes. Museum director Richard Brown, a W.L. Giles Distinguished Professor, said that underlies the importance of Mississippi State’s entomological work.

“It’s so important to document the animals and plants that are out there,” Brown said. “We need to find out what’s there now, so we can protect unique habitats and species.”

To help find these unique specimens, the department hosts the W.H. Cross Expedition, an annual faculty-led collection trip named for museum founder William H. Cross. Finds from this excursion, as well as those from faculty and staff research and amateur collectors, contribute to the museum’s growth, which Brown said increases its scientific value and regional prominence each year.

“If there’s no growth, you’re dead and then you have problems,” Brown explained. “What we want is continual growth because there’s so much more to be studied. We’ve only scratched the surface.”

By Susan Lassetter | Photos by Megan Bean | Video by David Garraway