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Curating a kaleidoscope

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bradley Howie displaying a butterfly.

Thousands of butterfly and moth specimens have been patiently waiting 70 years for their chance to be seen again. Ernest Leonard James donated the collection of more than 5,000 insect specimens to the Department of Biology in the 196­0’s. Now, they will awaken from hibernation and fly into the digital age.

“This co-op work term has allowed me to live out my dream,” says Bradley Howie. “I’ve always had an interest in collecting and studying insects ever since I was in tenth grade. I call myself an amateur entomologist.”

Second-year biochemistry student, Howie, is working as a Lepidoptera Curator for his first co-op work term. Lepidoptera is the family that contains butterflies and moths.

Due to space limitations, the collection had been kept stored away in the basement of Biology 1 building. The James Collection contains just over 2,000 specimens from Canada and 18 other countries around the world including, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, England, Germany, Honduras, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Columbia, Madagascar, Peru, China, Japan, New Zealand, New Guinea and the United States.  

A case of butterflies and moth.

Continuing Lecturers ­Vivian Dayeh and Marcel Pinheiro along with Department Technician Jim Tremain are also helping to revive the collection.  

“The goal of this project is to repurpose the collection for teaching and outreach initiatives,” says Dayeh.

The goal is to create an online, searchable catalogue that students will be able to use for their labs. Introductory Zoology (BIOL 110) along with Invertebrate Zoology (BIOL 310) are two of the courses in which the catalogue will be used. This will give students the opportunity to learn at home and allow the community to identify what they see in the field.

Some specimens can been seen flying over a piece of Metasequoia glyptostroboides wood in the biology-themed table located on the second floor of the Science Teaching Complex. A few butterflies will potentially be used to make an eye-catching wall display for the Science Teaching Complex. The display will also contain a touch system allowing people to identify and learn more about the butterfly in the display.

Howie’s role is instrumental to the specimens’ preservation and identification. Using proper entomological technique, he carefully handles and removes the butterflies from their cases and then prepares them for preservation. Next, he takes photos of each specimen for the digital catalogue after verifying the butterfly’s taxonomy. 

Data from a catalogue book that was created by E.L. James as well as his own information are then added into an Excel-based digital catalogue. The entire catalogue is expected to be done by the end of April.

Howie’s ultimate goal is to become a professor. He says that he would not have had an experience like this at another school.

“Waterloo’s co-op program really gives students the chance to branch out and do what they have always wanted to try,” says Howie. “I’ve gain­­ed valuable skills that I can apply when I’m ready for the transition from school to the workforce.”

Howie encourages all students to reach out to professors and employers for potential job opportunities to test out the vast careers that science has to offer.

After all, as scientists, it’s all about experimentation.

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