University of Calgary

Insect collection

February 10, 2010

Bug collection yields new discoveries

John Swann, right, and Robert Longair are working on the U of C’s collection of 1.5 million insect specimens. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
Look and you will find—that could be the motto of John Swann, recently appointed to manage the insect collection at the University of Calgary.

The collection houses an estimated 1.5 million insect specimens, gathered by researchers and students over the last several years, but only about one percent of those have been analyzed and identified.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” says Swann. “One trap the size of a soup bowl can yield thousands of specimens; specimens that can take up to 240 hours to prepare and catalog.”

Recently Swann’s efforts were rewarded, as two of the collection’s insects were formally recognized. One is a mirid, or plant bug found at the university’s Barrier Lake Field Station in Kananaskis. It had never been seen in Canada before. The second insect, also a plant bug, was new to Alberta. 

The discoveries were published by G.E.E Scudder in the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia.

The news comes as the United Nations today celebrates the North American launch of its International Year of Biodiversity. The UN event is designed to raise awareness around the globe about the importance of preserving the diversity of life on Earth. It points to an unprecedented loss of species as a result of human activity.

Many scientists argue more manpower needs to be invested world-wide to chart which species exist at the moment.

“Insects comprise the world’s most diverse group of plants or animals,” says Robert Longair, a senior instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences and curator of the U of C’s collection. “We’re signatories to international conventions that require us to understand the living things around us. We can only do that by putting resources into identifying the wealth of material we’ve already gathered.”

He’s optimistic that Swann’s appointment and his collaboration with researchers from other institutions will lead to more revelations in the future.

“We are beginning to find some very interesting things,” says Longair. “This is probably only the tip of the iceberg.”

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