The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Respect your specimens

Since I finally submitted my manuscript to a journal (YAY!), I’ve been tying up the little loose ends remaining at the end of the project. You know: organizing the useful data and image files, tossing the files marked “MESSING_AROUND_WITH_DATA_v.29),  tidying up my R code, and, perhaps most importantly, curating my specimens.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the project here (I’m saving that for the “OMG PAPER ACCEPTED” post I hope to write in the not-too-distant future).  I will say, though, that the work I just completed includes just over 2,600 beetle specimens from a single location in Nunavut (Kugluktuk, where I spent my entire first field season).

Two major aspects of the physical work (as opposed to the thinking, reading and writing) involved in an ecological/entomological project such as this one are the pinning and the identifications. Some of the tasks are a bit tedious (cutting labels; entering data; gluing over 800 specimens of the same tiny, plain black ground beetle to paper points), and some of them are thrilling (finally getting over the “hump” of the morphological learning curve and feeling good and confident when working with your keys; having experts tell you “Yep, you got those all right”; discovering rare species or new regional species records).  In the end, in addition to the published (*knocks on wood*) paper,  you have boxes or drawers full of specimens.

The specimens are gold. (Read this post by Dr. Terry Wheeler to understand why.)

Unfortunately, they don’t always get treated as such.

In the two-ish years that I’ve been working in my lab, we’ve had two major “lab clean-up days”. The first managed to get rid of a lot of clutter (old papers, broken apparatus, random crap). The second involved going through the “stuff” that was eating up all the most valuable storage space: specimens. Years and years worth of graduate and undergraduate projects’ specimens, stashed in freezers, boxes, bags and vials of all shapes and sizes.

Some things were in good shape (pinned well, or in clear ethanol). Other things were, well, downright nasty: gooey beetles in sludgy brown ethanol, dried up bits of moth wings in plastic containers, and a little bit of “what in the name of pearl is growing on that agar plate???” in the fridge.

None of these items were kept – their value as useful specimens was nil. So, the physical representation of some student’s work – probably months or years worth of work – was tossed in the trash.

Others, happily, were tucked back into drawers and cupboards, because someone had taken the time to ensure the specimens were well-preserved.

However, even many of these were suffering from a serious issue: bad labels.

Allow me to illustrate the point. This is a bad label:

This is also a bad label:

The first, you’ll note, is written in ballpoint pen (which fades) on a torn piece of notebook paper and contains almost no information. The second, although it looks fancier and perhaps more sciencey, is just as bad: it contains a cryptic code that is useful only to the bearer of the lab notebook in which said code has been written down. Or, perhaps the code is completely intelligible to the researcher who developed it, but the key to it exists only in his or her head.

To everyone else, it is meaningless. Neither of these labels indicate who collected the specimen, where, when, or how. And we all know what happens in labs: upon completion of their degrees, students move on, email addresses change, notebooks are misplaced, data files are not backed up.  The labels’ codes can never be broken, and the scientific value of the specimens – *poof*.

While there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with using labels like these temporarily (although there is always a risk that they will be misinterpreted or misunderstood after a little while, even by the person who wrote them), they are absolutely useless as permanent records.

These are good labels:

These labels, properly affixed to a specimen, provide clear and universally understood information. One provides the location, including GPS coordinates, a method of collection, a date, the name of the collector(s).  The information that goes on this label can vary a bit (it may include information about the habitat or host plant, for example), but those are the basic requirements. The smaller label is typically affixed on the pin below the first, and contains the specimen’s scientific name and the name of the person who identified it (it is the “det. label”, i.e., “determined by”). These labels, and therefore the specimen with which they are associated, will remain useful for decades, even centuries.

I am totally guilty of both of the offenses I just explained (the gooky vials of nastiness and the bad labels). For my undergraduate honors project, I identified close to 8000 spiders, mites and insects to the Family level –  it was hundreds of hours of  microscope work. Then I stuffed all those specimens back into vials with cryptic little codes, like V-1-F(!), hand-written on STICKERS(!), which I placed on the LIDS(!) and not even in the vials themselves(!). Oh, and I’ve long since lost the notebook that contained my decoder key(!). THIS IS ALL SO BAD.  I have no doubt that those boxes of vials, which I once prized so highly and felt such pride for, have been unceremoniously tossed in the trash by my former advisor.

Well, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and from working with museum and other collection specimens. I now understand that each specimen is deserving of respect – it’s the original data after all – and that means it should be properly preserved, and labelled.


Last week I spent a great deal of time, as I said, tying up my loose ends. The last thing I needed to do was remove my cryptic labels (the second in the series up there is an actual example of one of my own “secret code” labels) and replace them with proper ones, sorting and tidying up the collection in the process. The end result?


Frankly, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also enormously scientifically valuable. These specimens will be deposited in various nationally-important collections and museums, like the CNC.

As a matter of fact, just last week I was at the CNC, and I saw specimens bearing the name of the last person to do a comprehensive survey of the insects in Kugluktuk, back in 1955. That tiny but so-important label suddenly made me feel connected to the man who, almost 60 years earlier, had stood on the same stretch of tundra as me, holding and perhaps delighting in the very specimen that I held in my own hand.

Giving my specimens the respect they deserve is worth it, not only for the scientific value, but also because perhaps, 60 years from now, another grad student will discover my name on a specimen’s det. label. Perhaps she, too, will feel that same wondrous sense of connection to the the greater scheme of scientific discovery…

28 responses to “Respect your specimens

  1. Adrian D. Thysse June 25, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    That’s fantastic, Crystal! What a beautiful and precisely arranged collection. The kind of patience, skill and knowledge to do what you have done is part of the reason why entomologists impress me so much.

  2. terry wheeler June 25, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    Word up, Geek! This is exactly the message that is transmitted (i.e. hammered into) every new student who comes into the lab. I like to treat every specimen as a potential new species waiting to be discovered and described. And the label is just as much a part of the specimen as the legs and antennae (cryptic crappy code labels make me cry).

    That connection across time to the Old Collectors is a powerful thing. Every year a few of the undergrad students come into the museum to see our oldest specimen – one little beetle from a little expedition by a ship called The Beagle. It’s not enough for some of the students to just look at the thing; they have to reach out slowwwwly and touch the head of the pin.

    And now I guess we better make some more &$@# space in the $#%@$ beetle collection for some of these beautifully curated critters . . .

    • TGIQ June 25, 2012 at 9:46 AM

      Wait, what? The Beagle? I did not know we had that. Next time I’m at the museum, I NEED TO SEE THAT.
      Also, my beetles will appreciate the making of new space for them (it’ll be worth it, promise 🙂 )

    • Brigette June 25, 2012 at 10:48 PM

      Haha, I totally did that. Was worth it reading all the labels in the beetle collection to see that specimen!

  3. JS June 25, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    A thing of beauty indeed. Perhaps you can make room for a print-out of your blog post tucked in a drawer so that in 180 years someone can marvel at it. You know, in the post-internet age.

  4. Ted C. MacRae June 25, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    This is absolutely gorgeous! Well done.

    I do note a problem with your ID labels – the parentheses enclosing the subgenus name should be in normal text rather than italics (ducks head and runs…)

  5. Lee June 25, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    Very nice! As someone who once had to spend a summer sorting through drawers upon drawers of badly labeled carabids, I approve. No matter what Ted says about your italics usage.

  6. dfg June 25, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    Beautiful. How many different species are represented there? Did you find the 60 year old specimens useful in your research?

    • TGIQ July 1, 2012 at 4:49 PM

      There are about 30 species in those three boxes…I have another 18 or so Staphylinidae species which are not included there yet (they are few in number but extraordinarily diverse). I haven’t used the older specimens yet, other than to examine for the purposes of identifying my own specimens. I’m hoping to give the older ones a proper treatment in the next year or so…

  7. Megan M. June 25, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    Lovely! I’d also like to put a word out to encourage the use of acid-free paper and pigma ink (or an equivalent) – they are less likely to get brittle in 100 years!

  8. Brigette June 25, 2012 at 10:49 PM

    Thanks for reminding me I need to catch up with labeling my moths! Now I know what I’m going to do with the next few rainy days.

  9. Mauro Mandrioli June 26, 2012 at 12:14 PM

    great collection and great post! My co-workers need to read it!! 😀

  10. Pingback: Each specimen is deserving of respect! « the aphid room

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  13. Mika June 30, 2012 at 12:52 AM

    The exact same problem faces geoscience and our eternal rock collections.

    So, um…. Would you be willing to attempt identifying a little black beetle found in Vancouver? His tiny horns make us think rhino beetle, but I didn’t think they lived here.

    • TGIQ July 1, 2012 at 5:31 PM

      I suspect it’s an issue for any science involving the collection and curation of specimens…
      and yes, I’d be glad to try your beetle. Pictures, or specimen?

  14. ZL 'Kai' Burington July 1, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    Loved this. Some day, I really need to write up an article on the cryptic code of the Skip Carlson specimens at Clemson University. There’s 10s of thousands of aquatic invertebrate specimens, all labeled with a code system that has to be deciphered using an accompaning booklet.

    I appreciate your attention to detail and your good ethic of doing things right. Thank you.

  15. Pingback: Respect your specimens « ESC-SEC Blog

  16. Jon Q August 17, 2012 at 2:38 AM

    Great to see sooooooo many ground dwellers so well preserved 😀 my favorite family, what a treat.

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