Hidden Tallants: The Hunt for Data Among Our Lepidoptera Collection, Part 2 – by Rowan Killina

Check out Part 1 to follow the journey from the beginning.


I had visualized the data hunt step by step, but the progression of tasks before specimen matching were incessantly entangled. On a given work day, I could be transcribing Tallant’s notes, checking names against outside sources, and documenting collection dates within the species spreadsheet nearly seamlessly. The final destination of my and Dr. Musetti’s hunt, however – matching an actual butterfly or moth to a data point jotted in one of Tallant’s journals – turned out to be more isolated from the rest of our research, carving out not only a true culmination of our efforts, but a rewarding conclusion to the project.

That does not mean this final procedure was without challenge.

Using Triplehorn’s online database, I checked the species names in my spreadsheet with our collection’s cataloged specimen information. The biggest challenge in comparing the two was that Tallant carefully attended to dates in his notebooks, but rarely listed them on individual data labels. While I included Tallant’s original dates in my spreadsheet, the Triplehorn database only includes dates provided on his labels – which, of course, were largely lacking. He especially excluded the year, which is perhaps the most identifying piece of the date. “07-JUN” repeats every year; how do I know which 7th of June he’s referring to?

Three Catocala amica specimen matches.

This trait is not particular to Tallant’s collection; quite a few early entomologists didn’t include specimen collection years on their data labels, perhaps instead emphasizing the season at which the insect was most prominent. Tallant began consistently recording the year on his data labels in the mid 1900s. Alas, the only field notes we have of his end in 1901.

That we don’t have many complete collection dates for his earlier specimens made it even more thrilling when we discovered 16 matches, all of which provided more date-oriented data.

Finding the first match was a chance encounter, the right documents open on my screen at the right time. While scrolling through my transcript to check for typos, a familiar date snagged my attention back to my spreadsheet. Catocala epione, 3-JUL in the collection’s database and VII-3-1887 in the spreadsheet. C. epione was not the only Catocala listed in Tallant’s July 3rd entry; he also noted Catocala amica, which brought up yet another successful match in the database. I was ecstatic. Two matches found, with two specimens per species. I’d found four matches, and I was only on the second PDF of his notes. What potential matches did the rest of them hold?

Tallant’s July 3, 1887 entry served as the starting point for our specimen matching, discovered in the most fun way: by chance.

To find out more and meet the famous Catocala moths myself, I returned to Triplehorn in person. I’d never interacted with Tallant’s physical specimens before; all the background information I knew about them was concocted of a few imaged specimens, a newspaper clipping from a Herbert Osborn article on natural history collection in Ohio, and Dr. Musetti’s stories over Zoom. Up close, Tallant’s collection was as beautiful and well-preserved as Osborn reported in 1901. While Dr. Musetti photographed the July 3rd moths, she discovered another Catocala amica I hadn’t noticed in the database. Sure enough, when I checked, the moth brought up another successful match!

Although Tallant’s insects are undamaged after over a century on display, the labels have suffered greatly. Made out of regular parchment instead of today’s acid-free paper, the labels became weak and brittle over time, which was much clearer to witness in person. A few slipped off while Dr. Musetti worked, and it took great effort to reattach them to the pins. I watched her fold the paper back over a pinhole, attempting to reduce the size of the hole so the label wouldn’t slide off. She explained to me as she did so that “W.N. Tallant Collection” labels used to be attached to the first specimen in a tray, and were assumed to apply to the rest of the tray to identify every specimen organized within as once belonging to Tallant. After more than a century, though, many of these collection labels fell off, leaving the entire tray unmarked and anonymous. “There are more Tallant specimens than the database shows,” Dr. Musetti concluded, adding that they also hadn’t entered every specimen from Tallant’s collection into the database to begin with. This likely limited the number of matches I could make between Tallant’s field notes and the specimens in the database.

Catocala micronympha, known as Catocala fratercula within Tallant’s journals.

Nevertheless, more matching Catocala were discovered shortly after. This time, Tallant did give us a year, which was the only way I recognized the matches. With these additional matches, the successful finds are as follows:

Catocala amica, July 3, 1887, OSUC 829212 (Original date: “3-JUL”)

Catocala amica, July 3, 1887, OSUC 829232 (Original date: “3-JUL”)

Catocala amica, July 3, 1887, OSUC 829233 (Original date: “3-JUL”)

Catocala clintonii, July 8, 1889, OSUC 830758 (Original date: “JUL-1889”)

Catocala clintonii, June 22, 1892, OSUC 830755 (Original date: “22-JUN”)

Catocala clintonii, June 22, 1892, OSUC 830756 (Original date: “22-JUN”)

Catocala coccinata, July 1, 1889, OSUC 830763 (Original date: “JUL-1889”)

Catocala coccinata, July 1, 1889, OSUC 830765 (Original date: “JUL-1889”)

Catocala coccinata, July 1, 1889, OSUC 830769 (Original date: “JUL-1889”)

Catocala dulciola, June 23, 1892, OSUC 831121 (Original date: “23-JUN”)

Catocala epione, July 3, 1887, OSUC 829322 (Original date: “3-JUL”)

Catocala epione, July 3, 1887, OSUC 829325 (Original date: “3-JUL”)

Catocala innubens var. scintillans, July 3, 1887, OSUC 831173 (Original date: “1887”)

Catocala fratercula, July 8, 1889, OSUC 829455 (Original date: “JUL-1889”)

Catocala marmorata, July 1887, OSUC 826724 (Original date: “1887”)

Phyciodes tharos, May 30, 1885, OSUC 717400 (Original date: “30-MAY”)

 

Catocala amica, July 3, 1887.

Catocala amica, July 3, 1887.

Catocala amica, July 3, 1887.

 

Catocala clintonii, June 22, 1892.

Catocala clintonii, July 8, 1889.

Catocala coccinata, July 1, 1889.

Catocala epione, July 3, 1887.

Catocala epione, July 3, 1887.

Catocala dulciola, June 23, 1892.

Catocala micronympha, July 8, 1889.

 

Through dedicated detective work, we revealed essential pieces of 16 specimens’ collection dates that we didn’t know before. 16 may sound like an inconsequential number, but verifying just one match between Tallant’s field journals and the Triplehorn database would validate the data transcription, databasing, and digitalization work of institutions everywhere.

These matches’ significance lies also in the potential of scavenger hunt-esque projects to come. Future work along these lines could be applied to any natural specimen, from insect to mollusk to mammal, and depending on what field journals, collection records, or online databases are available, further data may very well be extracted from the sources natural history museums have on hand today.

As exhilarating and gratifying as this research was, the only drawback was its duration of time. Dr. Musetti first assigned Tallant’s field journal transcriptions to me on January 27, 2022. I didn’t find a match until April. Working every day on the project would have lessened the number of months it spanned, since I currently only intern at Triplehorn for a few hours on Thursdays and Fridays. Devoting most of those hours to a data search on Tallant’s Lepidoptera gave me absolutely no unease, but if another institution desired a similar data hunt while also wanting to maximize volunteer and staff efficiency, would it be worth it?

At the very start of my internship in 2019, Dr. Musetti gave me access to a handful of articles on the importance of insect collections. Every one of them remarked on the value of natural history collections as an innate source of scientific data. Whether observed by agriculturists, medical researchers, or an evolutionary biologist looking for patterns in phenotypic traits, collected specimens are so eminent in the study of nature because of the information they provide about the world around us. Researching the population trends of a type of insect in a specific locality within a particular date range – for example, Catocala epione from the midwestern United States through the 1800s and 1900s – would be virtually impossible if the details behind collected specimens were barely fleshed out. Expanding on the accessible information that collections can provide to researchers and entomology enthusiasts alike is an impressive enough accomplishment that I would fully encourage others to take on the burden of sifting through old documents at the chance of uncovering previously unknown data. If one has the required amount of time and staff or volunteership at their disposal, I advocate they move forward with any attempt to close current data holes.

A Catocala coccinata specimen from one of Tallant’s journal entries. Seeing his moths in person was even more meaningful after putting in all the work it took to find them!

To fill in some of this data for the Triplehorn collection was a challenge, but it has also been a genuine delight. I’ve learned the inner workings of the collection database, the merit of the data transcription work I complete, and that Lepidoptera doesn’t only include butterflies and moths (to my surprise, skippers are part of the order, too)!

If you, too, are someone who nurtures a fascination with centuries-old journals, who is allured by antique-looking measuring devices and the handwritten documents of people long gone, then you might want to visit your local natural history museum. Participating in the preservation of history and biology is a venerable way to contribute to our community, and the first step is learning more. Volunteering typically grants further access to museum collections, and allows organizations in need of people to undertake larger-scale tasks such as the Tallant data hunt. Who knows, you might unveil more data than you thought – and find hidden talents within yourself along the way.

 

About the Author: Rowan Killina started interning at Triplehorn Insect Collection in October 2019 as a junior at Columbus Alternative High School. She is currently a student at Bryn Mawr College.

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