Field journals have always fascinated me. The idea of the explorer’s notebook is thrilling, serving not only as a historical record or artist’s sketchbook before photographs existed, but in the roughest of times, as a travel companion, a place for reflection on even the most solitary of journeys. I made my own field journals when I was young, taping leaves into yarn-bound pages and illustrating butterflies that flew into my garden. Even though I’ve grown out of my making-books-with-yarn stage, I still love journals, and nature journals will always have a place on my shelf. However, I’d never had the chance to work with a real natural history collection notebook until Dr. Luciana Musetti, curator at the Triplehorn Insect Collection, assigned me a hunt for data within the field notes of William N. Tallant (1856-1905), a lepidopterist who resided for a brief spell in Columbus, Ohio.
She initially tasked me with transcribing Tallant’s notebooks, the pages of which she sent me in seven photocopied files of long, narrow pages thick with curling black ink. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Tallant project would blossom into a full-fledged scavenger hunt, taking me from pages of Tallant’s handwriting to reading books about the history of entomology in Ohio to searching through the Triplehorn Collection database and visiting the collection in person to examine Catocala specimens.
Tallant’s Lepidoptera collection was donated to the Ohio State University by his wife, Catherine Tallant, in 1910. Upon donation, the collection contained about 10,000 specimens, but the number today is speculated to be far fewer. Tallant typically pinned species determination labels to the first specimen in each tray, applying a particular species tag to every following insect without needing to label each one. This method relied heavily on no one isolating or rearranging their order. Over the years, however, parts of Tallant’s collection were separated, drifting off to classrooms for teaching. Many specimens from Tallant’s original collection may still be hiding within the rolling cabinets of the Triplehorn, unidentified due to lost or broken “W.N. Tallant Collection” labels.
Sadly, the specimens that are credited to Tallant’s collection often suffer from a scarcity of data. Several of Tallant’s labels merely state “Columbus, Ohio” for their geographic identification, omitting the specimens’ specific localities. Even worse, many of his specimens only possess a “W.N. Tallant Collection” label, excluding their date of collection and all other information that may be useful to scientific research.
The lack of data among Tallant’s specimens is highly unfortunate, since data is the key reason why insect collections continue to exist. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, entomology was considered a hobby rather than a true career. The entomologists of the era came from a range of diverse employment backgrounds, including medicine (many were doctors), education (students, teachers, and administrators alike), and industrial labor (Tallant’s friend, George R. Pilate, was a brass machinist). Tallant himself was employed as a clerk by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Despite the demands of their daily jobs, this group of unofficial entomologists were skilled collectors and observers of nature.
Early lepidopterists’ collections are vital in understanding the history of Ohio’s butterflies, but how can this research be conducted when information about their specimens isn’t provided? As for Tallant’s butterflies and moths, the answer lies in his field notes.
Unlike on his data labels, Tallant reported his finds in meticulous detail within his journals. Here, he not only cataloged the species he caught, but also recounted observations of larval and mating behavior, when specimens emerged from their cocoons and chrysalises, and on the rare occasion, what species of Lepidoptera flew into his home. We are lucky that, by chance, the Triplehorn collection was gifted a handful of Tallant’s journals, dated from his time in Columbus. (Presumably there are notebooks to record his ventures obtaining specimens from Texas, Indiana, and the other localities on his data labels, but these other journals are assumed missing.)
Tallant’s field journals are the perfect compendium of quantitative data and personal contemplations. He records the number of larvae he found on a maple tree, how many Actia Luna eggs hatched together, and a list of species he collected at “No End Swamp,” but also scribbles his reflections on the weather, hypotheses on why some of his butterflies died, and his feelings about his endeavors at large. Closing each month with a review of its collection success, he writes, “Collecting not encouraging during July” and “August collecting far froom [sic] good.” At the end of an entry from August 1, 1883, Tallant adds after an apparently unsatisfactory list of species names that he is “Disgusted.”
I was taken aback not only at the unexpected hilarity of his remarks, but how wonderfully human they are. Searching for insects under the dreary grey skies of a snowy Ohio March wouldn’t be a treat for anyone, but Tallant’s journal entries were the first to dissolve my notion of the stoic statue of a naturalist expeditioner, braving sleet and ice with little care or notice of his hostile surroundings.
Sentence-wise, Tallant’s notes are succinct and easy to follow; “Larvae of S. Juglandis on Walnut also 12 eggs of Luna on Walnut” is clear, concise, and provides the necessary data on the species to which he’s referring. However, there is bound to be a multitude of challenges and unpredicted problems during the transcription of one hundred hand-written journal pages. The main difficulties that I met during the process were the antiquated species names, as taxonomic classifications are ever-changing, and deciphering those names out of Tallant’s looping, swishy handwriting. Having never before done a large-scale transcription project like this, I quickly learned that a transcriber must equip herself with knowledge of the writer’s distinct alphabet at every stroke and letter, a familiarity only obtained through diligent practice.
Through such practice, I realized that Tallant’s lowercase n’s often closely resemble u’s, H’s may strongly look like N’s, and what I initially took to be J’s were really just T’s with fancy tails. The quirks of Tallant’s penmanship soon became commonplace to me; I discovered s’s may appear o-like, the dashes across t’s may run across the following letters, and b’s and f’s may appear indistinguishable in parts. Additionally, Tallant writes species names starting with a capital letter as opposed to the standard lowercase, so what I first took as a series of genera were actually capitalized species.
Furthermore, the speckled edges characteristic to photocopies frequently cut off parts of Tallant’s words, letters, and numbers. Many of their leftovers still allow the transcriber to glean the meaning of his pen marks, unless a drastic amount is obscured or fragmented. This didn’t affect the advance in the data hunt, though, the next step of which focused on the species that Tallant documented.
Dr. Musetti advised me to tabulate each species name into a spreadsheet to organize and consolidate the data from the field notes. This allowed future cross-referencing of the dates on which Tallant collected certain species. For each one, I entered the genus, species, dates, and locations, updating the entry whenever he mentioned the species again. Compiling this information provided me ample opportunity to double-check my transcriptions and wrestle with unfamiliar species names, though checking these names was primarily tricky for me because I lack a formal education in entomology. Whereas Dr. Musetti looked at the name Catocala and instantly knew the genera was that of moths, I was scrambling for my field guide and struggling with a guess-and-check game of whether A. Bicolor was spelled A. Bicalar, A. Bicalor, or A. Bicolar. It took an impressively long time for me to correctly realize its spelling; under Tallant’s pen, an o can look exactly like an a, and for the longest time, I mixed them up. (Besides, try typing “a bicolor moth” into Google. A surprising number of two-colored moths exist in the world!)
Now, however, I view the challenge – and the learning curve – as a vital part of my journey as a curatorial intern. After three months of probing the internet and the Butterflies of America database for spelling verifications of 419 scientific names, I developed a newfound confidence around unfamiliar species names. Learning another classification of butterfly or moth doesn’t feel so onerous now that I’ve done it 400 times before. Better yet, my comfort with species name recognition ended up benefiting me extraordinarily in the last piece of the quest: specimen matching.
Continue reading about the quest for Tallant’s moths in Part 2.
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.