BOZEMAN — Three years ago, Montana State University sent the skeleton of a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex to Washington, D.C. Known as the Wankel T. rex, it is on loan for 50 years to be displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Now, the Smithsonian Institution has sent its entire collection of Lycidae beetles to MSU where it will be housed, curated and studied in the Montana Entomology Collection for at least 10 years.
The material was sent as a loan while the formal memorandum of understanding between the Smithsonian and MSU is finalized. That part of the process is imminent, said Floyd W. Shockley, collections manager for the Department of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History.
The collection is not for public display, but it is a research collection available to scientists around the world.
"It's really exciting," said MSU entomologist Michael Ivie, an internationally renowned beetle expert whose reputation, Shockley said, is responsible for the collection coming to Bozeman.
Ivie, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture, said Lycidae beetles are the closest relatives of fireflies, describing them as the “modest relatives who don’t go in for flashy.”
Lycidae beetles can be all yellow or all black, but most are some combination of yellow and black, orange and black, red and black or red and blue, he said. The colors can warn predators that the beetles taste so bad they aren't worth eating. Some of the Lycidae males are so much smaller than the females that it takes DNA testing to match the mates. The beetles in the Smithsonian collection range in size from a speck to about 2½ inches long.
Ivie said he was relieved when the 16,000 or so preserved beetles arrived safely after a weeklong trip by truck. He noted that while MSU had already conducted extensive research on the Wankel T. rex before sending it to the Smithsonian in April 2014, little is known about the Smithsonian’s net-winged beetles that had been stored in Maryland before arriving in Bozeman on Oct. 9.
"This collection is mostly unstudied,” he said. “It has never had anybody seriously work on it. They just had visiting experts and made small loans to researchers. They have a very large amount of material that really needs to be worked up."
The partnership with MSU is mutually beneficial, Shockley said, in that Ivie’s students can curate the collection to a state the museum is unable to do because of a lack of staff and a lack of in-house taxonomic expertise, while the students benefit from having access to the large collection that can be used for their research. The National Museum will provide the supplies and resources needed for the re-curation.
Ivie said researchers, including MSU undergraduates and graduate students, are sure to make many discoveries after the Smithsonian beetles are inventoried, organized and preserved with modern techniques.
"There are hundreds of discoveries to be made here, a lot of knowledge to be gained by working this up," Ivie said.
Vinicius Ferreira, a doctoral candidate on a scholarship from Brazil’s CNPq Science Without Borders program, is studying the group with Ivie.
"It's a big deal for entomologists who are interested in Lycidae,” Ferreira said.
Ferreira is a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, home of the Museum of Zoology of the University of Sao Paulo, which has South America's largest collection of Lycidae beetles. He came to MSU in 2015 to study MSU's Lycidae collection for his doctorate. Even before the arrival of the Smithsonian beetles, MSU’s Montana Entomology Collection had one of the world's largest and most complete collections of Lycidae, built by Ivie and two previous MSU entomologists, Ivie said. The only collections larger were in Paris, London and the Smithsonian.
Hundreds of collectors from around the world collected the Smithsonian beetles, some specimens more than 100 years old, others just a year old. Ivie and Ferreira, who will do most of the preparation work on the collection, have already found notations made by Richard Kleine, a respected European entomologist who lived from 1874 to 1948. One drawer alone contains specimens from the Ottoman Empire in 1895, India in 1922, China in 1929, Sumatra in 1932 and New Guinea in 1945.
The possibility of moving the Smithsonian collection to MSU had been discussed for about a year, although Ivie said he didn't think it would happen as MSU just didn't have the space for 52 more drawers and the four large metal cabinets specially made to protect insects from pests, water and humidity. But Charles Boyer, vice president of agriculture, and MSU President Waded Cruzado made sure it happened, he said.
Shockley said the temporary transfer of the Smithsonian collection is part of a legal partnership established under a memorandum of understanding that allows Ivie, and by extension MSU, to take full responsibility for a portion of the collection that aligns with his scientific interests and taxonomic expertise.
Ivie will have to report annually on what has been done in terms of curating, digitizing and researching the collection, as well as on the loans that have been made on the Smithsonian's behalf, Shockley said. Shockley or another Smithsonian employee will visit MSU every five years to inspect that progress, make sure the collection is safe and discuss the needs of the MSU curators to complete curating the collection. The memorandum of understanding is eligible for renewal every 10 years if MSU and the Smithsonian agree that it should continue.
"We don't have an in-house curator working on the group," Shockley said. "Mike's reputation is well known among Smithsonian Institution entomology curators, and he has made many trips here to study parts of our collection.
"Combined with the specific interest and growing expertise of Mike's student Vinicius on the family Lycidae, this was a very logical partnership for us to pursue," Shockley continued. "While in-house at Montana State, the Smithsonian expects Mike and Vinicius to fully re-curate the collection, as well as to conduct their own research, host visitors that want to examine the specimens contained therein, and to make loans to potential scientific collaborators, just as if the collection was still here in D.C.
"It is hoped that new specimens will be added by the host institution prior to its return so that the collection is not just enhanced through re-curation, but also through collection-building and growth in terms of taxonomic diversity," Shockley said.