The Shortest Stories in the World: How Specimen Data Labels Aid Research and Connect Us to the Past

I didn’t use to think much about specimen labels. I hadn’t interacted with them a lot before the pandemic; most of the hands-on work I was doing as a volunteer at the Triplehorn Insect Collection, such as sorting and arranging insects in new trays, involved more focus on the specimens themselves than the data associated with them. The only characteristic I really understood about the labels was their slipperiness during the imaging process. When I started doing data transcription, however, I began to learn why these labels were crucial.

Data transcription is the process by which the information on each specimen label is copied, word for word, into the collection’s database. The transcription of the pictured label, for instance, would read “Erie County, OHIO. Ruggles. V-29-1933. Edward S. Thomas.”

Data transcription is the process by which the information on each specimen label is copied, word for word, into the collection’s database. The transcription of the pictured label, for instance, would read “Erie County, OHIO. Ruggles. V-29-1933. Edward S. Thomas.”

I admired these labels from the start due to their organization within each drawer, but before knowing how to interpret them, I didn’t get much more out of them than aesthetic value. After typing out the contents of many of these labels as practice for data transcription work, I began to see them differently, and found a new respect for these mismatched scraps of paper.

Labels tell snippets of a story, a tale of where specimens were found and how they were trapped, who discovered the species and whose collection it was a part of. With no figurative language or tantalizing descriptions, they are skeletal stories at best that rely entirely on how much information the individual who made the label provided.

Some labels are ultra-specific, while others describe a vague area in Vancouver, Mexico, or halfway across the world. The extremely specific geographic identifiers occasionally leave me picturing a location risibly different from reality. Such was the case with “Xmas tree Pass S of Searchlight” from Clark County, Nevada. I, who knew nothing of Nevada, imagined a fantastical road of snowy pines with a single peering light sweeping across the land. Clearly, I need to work on my geography skills. Christmas Tree Pass lacks the storybook winter village I envisioned, but a travel website I found shows that there are plenty of desert plants and spiky junipers.

The level of detail on specific labels like this one is useful because the geographic range is pin-pointed, and the collector has indicated the larger state in which that area can be found. Vague geographic data or the lack of the location where a specimen was found makes it more difficult to determine what species that insect belongs to.

Listing location matters immensely due to the sheer biodiversity of insects. Insects are the most diverse group of organisms on the planet, covering every continent – including Antarctica with its Antarctic midge (Belgica antarctica). On top of how hard species determination can be when labels contain little geographic data, these incomplete labels can also complicate scientific research.

Insect collections such as the Triplehorn are often utilized for research in medical and agricultural fields, as well as studies of biological invasions, climate change, and much more. Researchers and scientists look through specimens intending to discover information about them, so it is important to have specimen data readily available – especially in regards to where and when the insects were collected. Imagine observing a beetle and attempting to figure out where it came from and what type of beetle it is without any clues from the person who collected it. Among all the orders of insects, Coleoptera (beetles) is the most diverse. There are so many species of beetles that it could be quite difficult to even settle on the country one came from.

In some cases, not a lot of research has been done to fully explore a group of insects, such as parasitoid wasps. According to Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson in her book Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects, newly updated knowledge reveals that numbers of parasitoid wasp species are growing as entomologists explore more about them. It is a lot easier to conduct research on new species if information about previously classified species – especially where they originated from – is available from the start.

Some of the labels I’ve encountered:

Even though they aren’t always complete, the older labels dated from the late 1800s and early 1900s – especially the few yellowed labels I have encountered with black pen ink scrawled across their aging faces – have been some of my favorites. I hesitate when transcribing them, not only because the writing is thick and curling, so certain letters can be difficult to discern, but because of the beauty and timelessness they represent. People have been collecting insects for hundreds of years, and these old labels tie the past to the present. I didn’t expect to consider one of the great constants throughout history to be insect collecting, but the dates on these labels show otherwise. On top of how simply awesome that is, being able to look back through insects over time benefits research in a multitude of fields. Studies in evolutionary biology, disease patterns, parasites, and pesticides continue to support the relevance and importance of insect collections. And a collection wouldn’t be a hub for information without its organized data labels.

I had forgotten how physically miniscule the labels were until I returned to the Triplehorn in person in July. Magnified by the image zoom button during online data transcription, I was used to seeing them take up one to two inches of my computer screen. In actuality, they are barely bigger than my fingertip. While moving specimens into temporary trays for further curation, I stopped a few times to examine the labels beneath them. I was glad my mask covered my overjoyed expressions as I caught myself grinning for the sixth time at the tiny font I could now read and understand.

It felt good to be back in the building, pinching pins, aligning insects in initially rather wobbly rows, and realigning them until I got the hang of being neat and precise once more. And this time, I had better comprehension and appreciation for not only the work I was doing, but the data labels and the collection at large.

More pictures:

Several labels are provided for these butterfly (family Nymphalidae) and beetle (family Scarabaeidae) specimens, with their collection dates and locations listed clearly. Species determination is also included among these labels.

These butterflies’ specimen labels, however, leave much to be desired. Although the species of the first is identified, the lack of geographic data is unhelpful because Adelpha fessonia exists throughout Mexico and Central America all the way through Panama.

About the Author: Rowan Killina is currently an intern at the Triplehorn Insect Collection.