The Louisiana State Arthropod Museum is one of the LSU AgCenter’s hidden gems. Containing more than a million pinned, curated insect specimens and many more preserved in ethanol, it is an incredible resource and a gold mine of insect specimens from Louisiana, the Southeastern United States and many countries around the world.
Researchers working in the museum have the opportunity to build unique research programs focused on insects from Louisiana to New Zealand, gain experience as insect diagnosticians, and form collaborations with researchers in the state and around the world.
Within the museum’s long history of supporting insect taxonomists and systematists, current scientific efforts focus on a group of beetles found in forest litter, flood debris, soil and caves. These beetles – members of the family Staphylinidae, the “rove beetles” – are the most diverse family of animals on the planet, with more than 60,000 described and many undescribed species. Studying these beetles offers insight into the processes of evolution responsible for current patterns of biogeography and biodiversity. The quest for these little coleopterans has led museum scientists on road trips from Baton Rouge to Mt. Rainier and on plane flights from LSU to Auckland, New Zealand. Such studies have resulted in the description of new species and the incorporation of molecular phylogenetics from specimens around the world. But a strong focus on the Southeastern U.S. fauna remains a driver behind ongoing research efforts. Museum taxonomists spend hours “collecting” in the museum, sorting through specimens collected locally and abroad. In a recent publication, 10 new species of beetles from the Arthropod Museum, including one known from a single specimen collected in Louisiana, were identified. Discoveries like this highlight biodiversity in Louisiana and the importance of research based on natural history collections with a local focus.
As taxonomic consultants, museum scientists also aid other scientists in the state by providing identifications for their research projects. Over the past two years, museum researchers have contributed to several projects focusing not on beetles, but on native bee faunas. Data from these surveys have been combined with the Louisiana bee species in the museum to create the most comprehensive checklist of native bee species in the state, including more than 20 new species records for Louisiana. Again, by “collecting” in the museum, taxonomists uncovered several undescribed species of bees from Louisiana. Together with collaborators they have prepared critical collections and data, allowing researchers to catalog an essential element of the native pollinator fauna. These results highlight the importance of maintaining active insect collection-based research with a strong regional focus.
Current research in insect taxonomy, phylogenetics, diagnostic work and taxonomic consulting at LSU is profoundly shaped by the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum. From molecular phylogenetic work on beetles in Oceania to studies of pollinator faunas within endangered habitats in Louisiana, the resources available at the museum facilitate both far-reaching opportunities for discovery abroad and commitment to the research community in Louisiana.
Brittany Owens is a doctoral student in the Department of Entomology.
(This article appears in the spring 2017 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine, which featured the LSU College of Agriculture.)
Brittany Owens, a doctoral student in the Department of Entomology, conducts research projects at the Louisiana Arthropod Museum, which is part of the department. Photo by Tobie Blanchard