News
News Home
Quick Bites
Exploradio
News Archive
News Channel
Special Features
NPR
nowplaying
On AirNewsClassical
Loading...
  
School Closings
WKSU Support
Funding for WKSU is made possible in part through support from the following businesses and organizations.

Hennes Paynter Communications

Metro RTA

Wayside Furniture


For more information on how your company or organization can support WKSU, download the WKSU Media Kit.

(WKSU Media Kit PDF icon )


Donate Your Vehicle to WKSU

Programs Schedule Make A Pledge Member BenefitsFAQ/HelpContact Us
Science and Technology




Exploradio: Archiving nature's diversity

The new curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a passion for mining collections for hidden treasures
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.



Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
The praying mantis is one of the few insects that stares back at you. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History is amassing one of the largest collections of mantids in the world, thanks to the passion and esteem of its new curator.
Courtesy of E. Monk
Download (WKSU Only)
In The Region:

The Victorians had an unbridled passion for collecting critters.  As a result, thousands of dried bugs have sat since the 1800’s in museum basements around the world.

And now Gavin Svenson, the new curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is bringing thousands of century-old specimens of one insect in particular to Cleveland, making Ohio a world center for research on the enigmatic praying mantis.

In this week’s Exploradio -  the science and art of archiving nature’s diversity.

Exploradio: Archiving nature's diversity

Other options:
MP3 Download (4:00)


(Click image for larger view.)

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.


Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - Dragons and Damsels
Monday, July 1, 2013

Exploradio - The dinosaur revolution
Monday, December 31, 2012

Exploradio: Dining on ground sloth in Ohio
Monday, April 7, 2014

Listener Comments:

It is fascinating to learn that there is such diversity among the mantis genus. Svenson has done an impressive amount of research in his 32 years.

I really enjoy the Exploradio reporting. Keep it up!


Posted by: Dorothy Lepp (Akron) on August 6, 2012 11:08AM
Add Your Comment
Name:

Location:

E-mail: (not published, only used to contact you about your comment)


Comments:




 
Page Options

Print this page

E-Mail this page / Send mp3

Share on Facebook



Support for Exploradio
provided by:








Stories with Recent Comments

Three exonerated of murder convictions from 18 years ago
Thanks heavens that none of them have been condemned to death. This alons should convince the USA to join the civilized world by abolishing the death penalty. E...

Kombucha: a sweet business brewed with fermented tea
Stevia is not an artificial sweetener. It is a plant. I have one growing in my sunroom. The leaves are dried and added to teas. It's harvested commercially and...

Bringing back ballet in Cleveland
I do think Ballet in Cleveland is doing good things, but the fact that director says "When we have flourishing companies like the New York City Ballet and the A...

Report confirms some Vietnam veterans may have been exposed to Agent Orange
was in nam 1969 exposed va stated lost medical records was in lawsuit from 197? till settled 0 $ 2010 ? said all nam vets will get back disability till 198? jus...

Mentorship grant program redefines "faith-based" provision
Can't anyone have values, beliefs, and morals anymore? How is it anymore unconstitutional for a school partner with a "faith-based" organization than any other ...

Exploradio: The challenge of finding a healthy balance with technology
Thank you, Jeff, for another well done Exploradio. I always learn something interesting about what is happening in NE Ohio.

Northeast Ohio's transgender community rallies around restroom issue
A good first step would be for Cleveland to require restaurants to have a public restroom. Cleveland is the only city I've ever been in where restaurants somet...

Vapor shops say tobacco tax hikes could hit them hard
Maybe you should be DOING a study, since every time you've tried to villianize them all that's happened was the opposite. I'm not a fan of alcohol that's flavor...

New law gives access to birth records to Ohio adoptees
Can siblings also look for their missing brother or sister? And how do we go about it?

Ida McKinley's tiara comes home, with the help of "Pawn Stars"
I donated to the fund to keep the tiara at the museum where I believe it belongs. I took my 16 year old granddaughter to the showing I dont think it will be som...

Copyright © 2015 WKSU Public Radio, All Rights Reserved.

 
In Partnership With:

NPR PRI Kent State University

listen in windows media format listen in realplayer format Car Talk Hosts: Tom & Ray Magliozzi Fresh Air Host: Terry Gross A Service of Kent State University 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. NPR Senior Correspondent: Noah Adams Living on Earth Host: Steve Curwood 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. A Service of Kent State University