Many, many mantises
We’re in the well-lit and dust free basement of the museum. It is, however, littered floor to ceiling with trays. Each holds neatly pinned insects. Pallet-sized stacks of butterflies and moths await sorting as Svenson begins the mammoth task of reorganizing the museum’s estimated 1 million insect specimens. He’s making room for thousands more on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Svenson shows me a few of the 9,000 mounted specimens of praying mantises from the Smithsonian collection, plus ones from other U.S. and European museums now in his care in Cleveland.
The long dead bugs, some plucked from the Brazilian rain forest more than a century ago, are in fact precious relics of a bygone age. He says, there are specimens from habitats that don’t exist anymore based on habitat destruction, clear cutting forests -- "and they might be gone, we don’t know."
Mining for hidden treasures
Svenson says many species new to science are represented only in collections like the one he’s amassing in Cleveland. Museums hold specimens that are basically a treasure trove of information about the diversity of certain insect groups, says Svenson. Although the praying mantis is popular in folk lore, it hasn't been studied much by scientists. That's one reason why at the age of 32 he's been able to make an impact in the field, and with the academic respect he's earned, gather significant collections to his new post in Cleveland. He’s already named 20 new species. Some of them are now extinct in the wild.
Hunters for 200 million years
Svenson says part of the lasting allure of mantids is, as predators, they appear fearless. He say they are one of the few insects that stare back at you, which for him means it "seems like there’s more going on there with them.”
Mantises praying front legs, armed with piercing spines, subdue mostly insect prey at lightning speed, but they do occasionally take on larger prey. There is a YouTube video of one catching a hummingbird. But Svenson says the majestic praying mantis has a humble forebear - “They’re basically highly modified cockroaches" Svenson says the relationship between praying mantises and cockroaches is one of the closest among families in the insect kingdom. About 2,500 types of praying mantises evolved since the two lineages split 200 million years ago.
The art of archiving
Svenson is finding new species hidden among the more than 15,000 specimens he’s gathered in Cleveland. Next to the penciled labels on the 19th century bugs, he’s adding 21st century tracking technology. A matrix bar code sits next to each praying mantis specimen. He says the labels will eventually be linked to the online database by scanning the specimen code on the actual specimen so that scientists around the world will have access to where and when the insect was collected.
Svenson has introduced another modern tool his Victorian counterparts couldn’t imagine. The new $150,000 DNA lab allows researchers to unlock the genetic connections among species that scientists struggle to understand just by looking at an insect. Just as Svenson is organizing the physical collection of praying mantises, he’s using the DNA lab to clean up knowledge of how the species evolved and diverged over time. He says an assumption made by an expert in the past can now be evaluated genetically.
Still, as caretaker of one of the world’s largest collection of praying mantises, Gavin Svenson is honored to follow in the footsteps of the naturalists before him. Svenson’s lifelong passion for these insects, like his predecessors who gathered them, may be all that keeps them from disappearing from memory altogether by carrying on the mission of archiving nature’s fragile diversity.
I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.