Ohio State University: Triplehorn Collection receives nearly $500,000 grant from National Science Foundation

The Ohio State University is home to one of the country’s larger collections of some of the planet’s smaller creatures. The C.A. Triplehorn Insect Collection holds more than 4 million dry pinned insect specimens and another 2.5 million wet specimens.

“These kinds of collections provide research materials for scientists literally around the world,” said Norman Johnson, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology. Johnson is also the third director of the Triplehorn Collection, which is named for Charles A. Triplehorn, the collection’s second director.

Last summer, the collection’s team was awarded a nearly half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. The $484,000 allows for substantial curatorial upgrades to specimen housing and labeling, specifically that of the beetle specimens, which number in the hundreds of thousands. These changes will in turn support the digitizing of the collection’s data, a necessary evolution in 2022.

“That was the point of this grant for us, to enable us to rehouse this monstrously large beetle collection so that we could then get it in database form to provide greater access,” Johnson said.

The size of the beetle holding is in part due to its age – it dates back to the 1800s, said Luciana Musetti, curator of the collection. The NSF grant will address the challenges created over time.

“The problem with the collection is that, because it’s an old collection, the curatorial work that has been done was old, too,” Musetti said. “Some parts of the collection were 60 years old the last time the materials were upgraded.”

Collections of this type initially kept specimens pinned in wooden boxes lined with foam or cork. As a result, most of the materials housing specimens were vulnerable to humidity. The metal pins rusted, the wooden drawers warped, the cork and foam degraded, Musetti said.

Musetti and her team will be replacing these drawers with glass-topped models and the specimen placed in movable individual foam-lined trays. It is a time-consuming task that requires steady hands. She has hired six undergraduate students to help with the project. Not only will the work be completed more quickly, but the students gain valuable experience as well.

“We train them to work in an insect collection environment,” she said. “They get basic training in terms of what it is to work with scientific data. I always tell the students two things: Don’t break the bugs and you have to deal with our data. If you’re transcribing data, you need to be true to what is there so we have the exact information.”

In addition to the student workers, volunteers assist Musetti’s work.

“We have one volunteer that has been with us for six years now,” Musetti shared. “She’s a retired dental hygienist – she likes to work with small things.”

Another one of Musetti’s volunteers is familiar to many in the Ohio State community: Former executive vice president and provost Bruce McPheron has helped with the upgrade project. An entomologist himself, McPheron was the university’s provost from 2016-2021, and returned to the department last year to resume teaching.

“Once he stepped down, he said, ‘can I come help with the collection?’” Musetti said. “I said, ‘absolutely!’”

Once the curatorial upgrades are complete, photos of the specimens will be uploaded to Notes from Nature, a platform that allows non-scientists to aid in data transcription. This help not only supports the Triplehorn Collection, but also promotes public interest in this resource. As Johnson notes, collections like this belong to the public, not just the institutions that house them.

“The specimens were collected by university staff, faculty, students, they’re housed by the university, and, ultimately, all of this is paid for by the taxpayers,” he said. “It should be free and open.”

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