Venerable museum breaks out the bugs

Judith Mendelsohn takes a closer look at a Titanacris grasshopper during a tour of insects at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University on Logan Circle. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Judith Mendelsohn takes a closer look at a Titanacris grasshopper during a tour of insects at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University on Logan Circle. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

In bicentennial year, academy has a trove to show off.

Posted: August 27, 2012

Grasshoppers whose rainbow-colored wings look like something from Dr. Seuss.

Trays full of locusts, thought to be the same species as in the biblical plague in the book of Exodus.

A horned beetle bigger than an ice-cream sandwich.

If you have made it this far without squirming, then step behind the scenes at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. In the midst of its bicentennial year, the nation's oldest natural history museum is offering the public a chance to ogle some its millions of scientific treasures that normally are stored out of sight.

This month the theme is insects, and curatorial assistant Greg Cowper enthusiastically darted through the storage aisles Saturday morning, pulling out shelves of preserved specimens as he kept up a steady stream of patter.

The critter that's bigger than an ice-cream sandwich? Found in the tropics of French Guiana, it is the world's largest species of beetle, Cowper said.

"Titanus giganteus," he announced with delight. "Even the name is big."

The redbrick building on Logan Circle is best known to the public as a museum whose displays include dinosaurs, vintage dioramas, a butterfly garden, and an Egyptian mummy.

But for scientists, the real value of the place is as a center for research. Row upon row of cabinets contain carefully labeled plants and animals - 18 million in all. They enable researchers to answer a litany of questions. How are species related? How have their numbers waxed and waned with the advent of industry and other human activity? What can they reveal about the transmission of human disease?

The behind-the-scenes tours run through February, with a different topic each month. Future themes include ichthyology (fish); diatoms (microscopic algae, crucial to the study of water quality); and malacology (bivalves, snails and octopi). Tours are given twice a day Thursday through Monday, no reservations necessary.

No one showed for the Saturday morning tour, but three people came in the afternoon. Tours have drawn as many as 20, Cowper said.

The academy's insect collection, with four million specimens, is not the world's largest, but among its most important and historic. Some specimens date to 1820, when they were collected by Titian Ramsay Peale, son of famed naturalist Charles Willson Peale.

Among the four million are 13,000 "type" specimens, meaning they are acknowledged as the official scientific representative of their species. Any scientist who wants to determine if an insect represents a new species would have to compare it with the relevant type specimen.

The academy's adult insects are dried and mounted in cases; larvae are preserved in small vials of alcohol. The dried ones are currently in the process of being frozen for a few days, ironically, to protect them from insects.

A small type of beetle called Dermestidae is known to prey on preserved insects, but their larvae die after spending three days at 20 degrees below zero. This careful process is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Cowper's fascination with insects began at age 7, when he was playing outside with toy trucks in Falls Church, Va. Suddenly, a golf-ball-sized scarab beetle crawled in front of him. "I went, 'Wow, this is way cooler than these trucks,' " he recalled.

He befriended another insect collector in the neighborhood, an older boy who had cases and pins for mounting his finds. Cowper later learned that the scarab he saw was Dynastes tityus, the largest scarab in North America. He took out a tray full of that very insect on Saturday, noting that it is depicted in the logo of the American Entomological Society.

Cowper's research specialty is the "true bugs," which include stinkbugs, assassin bugs, and water striders - insects with piercing, sucking mouth parts and wings that are both leathery and membranous. They are called "true" bugs to distinguish from the way the general public uses the word.

"Everyone else uses bug as kind of an all-inclusive thing for anything creepy-crawly," Cowper said.


If You Go

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will offer behind-the-scenes insect-themed tours through August. Future topics include fish, shells, and dinosaurs.

Where: 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway

When: Thursdays through Mondays,

11 a.m. and 2 p.m., through February

Cost: Regular admission, plus $5 for Academy members or $7.50 for nonmembers.

Information: 215-299-1000 or www.ansp.org/visit/

activities/behind-the-

scenes-tours


To see the world's largest beetle and

other critters, visit

www.philly.com/insects


Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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