University of Calgary

Museum manager takes university’s thriving insect collection on the road

UToday HomeMay 23, 2013

By Jennifer Allford

John Swann, manager of the invertebrate section of the Museum of ZoologyJohn Swann, manager of the invertebrate section of the Museum of Zoology, often gives public presentations at Calgary schools and at other gatherings. Photos by Riley Brandt
John Swann loves to talk about bugs.

And the manager of the invertebrate section of the Museum of Zoology in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science loves to take his show on the road.

The museum has about 1.5 million insect specimens from all over the world and more coming in all the time. “I have three collection donations coming in for this year and I expect a couple more,” he says. “Since 2010 there have been nine donations of material to the invert collection with roughly 63,060 specimens.”

He says the collection — which has specimens dating back to the 1890s — is worth about $8 million and offers invaluable insight into understanding the biodiversity around us.

Swann, who has been chasing insects since he was a little kid, says there is a story behind every collection donated to the university. Take the Brett-Davies collection of butterflies from Southeast Asia.

“He was in peninsular Malaysia working on a forestry project when the trans-Malaysian highway was being opened,” says Swann. “Many of the sites he collected in would have been virgin forest and at least one of the species in his collection is also found in the British Museum in London — the only the only other known material of the species/subspecies."

Another donation, from Dr. N.C. Meigier Drees, includes specimens collected between 1925 and 1940 by M.E. Walsh, a woman who managed a tea plantation on Java.

“The Japanese army was going to be invading,” says Swann, “and she softened up all the butterflies off the pins, folded them into little triangles of papers with all the data on them, stuffed them in coffee cans and hid them in the tea plantation until she could leave the country with the clothes on her back and her whole collection.”

Swann, who often takes specimens from the collection out to classrooms and other gatherings in Calgary (and people can make appointments to come in), relishes how people react when he tells them: “Here’s one collected from 1910 in Uganda.”

He’s looking forward to more opportunities to show the collection to the public. “They are surprisingly resilient specimens. I wouldn’t let them touch them if I didn’t think it was safe.”

In the meantime, Swann will be among dozens of volunteers who are collecting specimens in the BioBlitz this weekend, a 24-hour survey of all the living species on St. Patrick’s Island. For more info:


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