Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.


Inside the Treasure Box: Week Five

This week we’re leaving behind elegant mosaics and million-year-old fossils as we venture into the creepy, crawly world of invertebrates. Even if insects send a shiver up your spine, keep reading! Today’s post covers a unique blend of entymology and invertebrate history that may just knock your socks off. Let’s get started, shall we?

One of the most important and interesting specimens in the recent invertebrates department is the preserved holotype specimen of the beetle Huleechius marroni, which was described by former curator Harley Brown in 1981. Let’s pause here and review some vocabulary. A holotype is an extremely valuable specimen because it is the official specimen linked to the first named individual of the species. For example, say someone stumbles upon a wolf for the very first time, and a team of scientists decide to call it Canis lupus. That very dog is now a holotype for the entire species, meaning it is the specimen for which all wolves are named. That’s the Huleechius marroni beetle.


This beetle is part of the group of beetles known as the Elmidae, or “riffle beetles”, a group that is found throughout the world in freshwater streams.  The larvae of these beetles are often found feeding on submerged wood, and the adults can swim on the surface and under the water. Impressive, right? This specimen was collected and described from San Carlos River, east of San Carlos, Arizona. Actually, in Arizona, there is an endangered subspecies of this beetle known as the Marron’s San Carlos riffle beetle (Huleechius marroni carolus.) This subspecies can only be found in one very specific location in Arizona, which makes it an exceptionally rare species.

Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s post, and we know you’re just dying to impress your friends with this newfound wisdom. Of course, there’s plenty more where that came from! For fun facts about the supercontinent Pangea, check out last week’s post. Then be sure to mark your calendars for next week’s ITTB! We’re traveling deep into the heart of Mexican history, and we’re bringing you along for the ride. 

The Man Behind the Camera

Last Friday, May 3, recent University of Oklahoma graduate and noted photographer Thomas Shahan visited the Sam Noble Museum for a Gallery Talk, a chance to discuss photography techniques, Oklahoma spiders, and everything in between. Shahan also spoke about his work on display in the museum’s exhibit, Beautiful Beasts: The Unseen Life of Oklahoma Spiders and Insects.

imageShahan discussing his work.

All eyes and ears were on Shahan as he walked through his process of shooting his captivating, insect models. Many guests were astonished to hear that all of Shahan’s work features local spiders and insects, many of which he discovered biking through Norman, Oklahoma.

 imageShahan and his glamorously furry model.

This was no ordinary lecture, however. Shahan’s animated personality lit up the room as he actively engaged his audience. Shahan structured the Gallery Talk as more of a two-way discussion rather than a straightforward lecture, which many of his visitors appreciated. By engaging guests in his discussion, Shahan engaged them in his art.


Shahan interacts with some young fans during the Gallery Talk.

After the Gallery Talk concluded, guests stuck around for a chance to socialize with Shahan during the reception. Over some complimentary hor d’ouevres, visitors chatted with Shahan one-on-one as they caught a rare glimpse of the man behind the camera.


What a spread!


Guests chatting with Shahan after the Gallery Talk.

New Year, New Blog

Greetings! I apologize for being so long in updating, but we were moving some cyber-things around to different servers here in museum cyberspace before the holiday break, and there were a few glitches, one of which involved access to our blog. But the new year brings fresh opportunities!

Beetles from the Recent Invertebrates collection

Lets talk about invertebrates. The museum has an invertebrate collection that doesn’t get a lot of public attention. At present there is no full-time curator for this collection, but that doesn’t mean that it’s in mothballs, (if you’ll pardon the insect reference). In fact, it’s undergoing a renaissance of epic proportions.

The invertebrate collection includes a wide range of specimens. Insects and spiders, as we know, account for an estimated 90% or more of all life on earth. A quick reference check tells us that there are 241 species of grasshopper in Oklahoma alone. But the collection also houses molluscs, jellyfish, corals… think of all the different types of animals without a backbone and they’re in there. There are a minimum of half a million specimens housed in this collection. And at present only about 7 % of them are cataloged.

Now, that may seem as if someone’s not doing their job, but believe it or not, most invertebrate collections in museums around the world are not cataloged: meaning each specimen is not given an individual catalog number. Perhaps this is because of the sheer numbers of invertebrates often found in natural history collections, or possibly it has to do with the fact that many of these institutional collections grew out of personal collections organized by the scientist or hobbyist according to his or her own design. I don’t know. But Dr. Janet Braun, the museum’s curator of mammals who has oversight of the collection, assures me that it is true.

Our museum is in the process of changing that. Slowly but surely, those half- million specimens are being numbered, cataloged, labeled and stored using state-of-the-art practices and materials. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.

Dragonflies from Recent Invertebrate collection

Brenda Smith-Patten is collection manager for Invertebrates, and must have the patience of Job and the mental focus of a yogi. She recently finished cataloging the collection’s dragonflies and one genera of bumble bees. Each specimen has been placed in an individual clear sleeve, given a catalog number, and databased (you can visit the collection’s catalog, and all of our catalogs, online if you want to:  just go to http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/db2/index.htm and you can browse Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species). Brenda has also compiled any information she can find regarding the date and site of collection, the collector and the up-to-date species name. This involves painstaking de-coding of the sometimes cryptic hand-written field notes, labels and records dating to the 1940s or earlier, as well as research into the latest taxonomic information. Species names sometimes change over time, and both the former name and the current name must be noted.

The same has been done for the mollusc collection. More molluscs are listed as a conservation concern than any other animals in Oklahoma because they are impacted by water quality and quantity. This group was therefore given a high priority for cataloging, and a grant provided new cases and supplies. Brenda completed the necessary research into the provenance of each specimen, then created new labels, numbers and database entries for all of them and tucked them away in their nice new drawers.

So that’s three groups down… untold hundreds to go.

On my recent tour of the collection I saw drawer after drawer filled with tiny little boxes of mosquitoes, jars of dragonfly larvae and boxes bristling with pinned insects.  I understand that our museum boasts the largest collection of riffle beetles in the world – some 150,000 of them – both pinned and in liquid storage. These last represent the life’s work of the late Dr. Harley Brown, former curator of the collection.

Needless to say, Brenda has her work cut out for her.

Would you like to visit the invertebrate collection yourself? It’s open to museum members, along with all the other museum collections and laboratories, one night a year: Members Night Behind the Scenes, held each year in October. All you have to do is become a museum member and you’ll receive a personal invitation to attend.