Tag Archives: life science

Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 5 Bonus: Insect research

Pinning and sorting

On the way to the dry collection, I passed through a lab that was bustling with activity. This is one of the preparation labs where specimens acquired by the museum are put through the preservation process. In particular, I got to see a few insect specimens that were in the middle of get preserved dry.

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If you’ve been to the museum, you’ll know that dry insect specimens are beautifully arranged – wings spread, legs in position, perky antennas – but that isn’t quite what they look like in the wild. For example, some butterflies usually close their wings when they’re resting, so you’d seldom see the upper side of their wings on display. When these insects die, they don’t get really get any better at modelling. They shrivel up, and their legs bunch together due to rigor mortis – you’ve had dead insects on your bathroom floor, you know it. So, what you see in the museum displays is no accident. Thank goodness for insect pinning.

Before a dead insect is irreversibly taken over by the jaws of rigor mortis, its form and structure can be rescued by pinning. Tiny needles are used to hold different parts of the insect: legs, wings, even the fine antennas, to keep them in place.

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The pinning board is then covered with cellophane paper to flatten and straighten out the wings, and the specimen is left to dry in a fume hood or a drying cabinet, which helps keep the moisture away. As time passes, the insect hardens into its intended shape. This process requires little to no chemicals; in fact, everything revolves around keeping the specimen as dry as possible, because moisture and humidity facilitate decomposition. You might be wondering about the insides of the insects – don’t they contain blood? Wet blood, and organs? You’re absolutely right. For small insects, their insides are so tiny in amount that they can dry out all by themselves after death. Larger insects, however, need to be gutted – a small incision is made in the side, from which their innards are scooped out or squeezed out. Sounds surgical, doesn’t it? That’s why the curator has an impressive array of instruments specially made for handling these fragile specimens – except maybe for that plastic spoon that looks like it was stolen from a Starbucks.

IMG_5404.jpgThis article is brought to you by entosupplies.com – I wish.

The pinning method is also used for other animals like spiders and even small crabs.

IMG_5398.jpgMore legs, more work.

Pinning isn’t the only thing going on in this lab. There’s also an ongoing project aiming to document all the insects in Singapore – a daunting task. This involves the collection of a huge plethora of insects… which then need to be sorted.

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Spencer, a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is painstakingly examining each tiny bug under a microscope, to determine their species and classification. Sitting between piles of reference books and jars filled with insects, it certainly looks like he’s got his work cut out for him. Salute.

11,12,14,19.jpgLet’s all pray for Spencer’s eyes.

 

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Hidden Treasures of the LKC Natural History Museum – Part 3: The Invertebrate Wet Collection

Warning: this article contains pictures of dead animals – but mostly the kinds that you’re used to seeing. You know, on dinner plates.

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Here we come to the specimens preserved in fluid. This entire floor is dedicated to the invertebrates: insects, crabs, snails, octopuses, all your classic crawly pals. While some of these animals could also be preserved dry, soft-bodied creatures like aphids and several types of insect larvae would shrivel up if they were to be left dry. Otherwise, it depends on the aims of the researchers themselves.

Specimens are kept in jars filled with formalin, denatured ethanol, or unmethylated ethanol. This is somewhat similar to how animals like snakes have been infused in wine and enjoyed by Chinese, Vietnamese and Southeast Asians for thousands of years. That is strictly a fun fact and NOT an endorsement of you breaking into the museum to get drunk off funky isopod liquor. Please, don’t.

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IMG_5523.jpgDon’t panic, those are just unfortunately placed barnacles.

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With the constant use of the specimens for research, the preservative liquid will evaporate, so the the curators top up the jars from time to time. These specimens can’t survive long without their booze.

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IMG_5595.jpgI stole this and it looks great on my coffee table. Just kidding.

Most of the specimens are from Southeast Asia, including specimens collected on expeditions. In fact, some of the museum’s scientists recently embarked on a two-week long deep sea expedition called the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition (SJADES 2018). It was led by the head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Professor Peter Ng, as well as Professor Dwi Listyo Rahayu, Senior Research Scientist of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). With their ship hovering over relatively unexplored deep seas, they collected over 12 000 deep sea animals, including over a dozen new species of hermit crabs, lobsters and prawns. Some of those specimens are now sitting in compactors specially labelled “Expeditions/Trips”, awaiting our scientists’ groundbreaking research.

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Next up is the vertebrates. See you in part 4!