Research, preservation for nearly 80 year old insect collection at the Au Sable Institute

Don’t tell Joe Sheldon they’re not beautiful — he’ll argue otherwise.

“Look at this color, this can’t be man made, it can’t be created anywhere else, it’s just gorgeous,” Sheldon said.

Lately, things have been crawling Sheldon’s way and that couldn’t make the instructor at the Au Sable Pacific Rim campus south of Coupeville any happier.

Sheldon just wrapped another sabbatical spent at the Pacific Rim campus, and this week he returned to Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., where he is a distinguished professor of biology and environmental science during the school year.

“Oh, I’m going to have so many great stories to tell,” Sheldon said.

What has Sheldon excited, and other folks at Au Sable and beyond, for that matter, is Sheldon’s work with an insect collection that was first started by a Whidbey Islander nearly 80 years ago.

The Pratt collection — gathered by islander Robert Pratt in the mid- to late-1930s — is a collection of thousands of insect specimens gathered largely on Whidbey, but also in Seattle and other areas of Washington.

Pratt attended the University of Washington around 1935-39 and earned a degree in biology. While there, he studied with the likes of Melville Hatch, a famed entomologist with a love for beetles.

Au Sable obtained the collection four years ago when it was discovered in the Whidbey Island home once owned by Pratt.

For over 50 years it had been housed in a damp basement. Sheldon said that he and Au Sable’s Rob Harbour were pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t much damage to the collection considering many insect specimens’ need for strict climate control.

For the last two summers, Sheldon has come to the Pacific Rim campus to work with the collection. He spent long hours transferring the existing collection to proper storage to assure its long-term preservation and use as an educational and research tool.

Sheldon wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I feel called to care for the environment, and as a Christian I have a passion and respect for creation,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon has been a part of the Au Sable faculty since 1988 and has been at the Pacific Rim campus for the last nine years. He has a doctorate in insect ecology from the University of Illinois, and his specialty is working with beetles, wasps and grasshoppers. He is currently doing an extensive study about the grasshoppers of Pennsylvania.

The Pratt collection will become a future reference of knowledge for insects of this area at the turn of the century, Sheldon said.

“We want to encourage a more effective and forward entomological understanding of this part of the Pacific Northwest, and specifically this area of Western Washington,” he said.

The collection will be a research tool, Sheldon said.

What has been lost? What has been gained? What has seen the impact of development?

The drawer upon drawer of specimens may lead to answers, but perhaps not right away.

“I’ve initiated what will be a long-term study,” Sheldon said.

The collection has a high number of coleoptra (beetles) among it, since that was Pratt’s specialty and favorite.

Sheldon suspects Pratt’s love for beetles come from his work with Hatch, who Sheldon believes was a professor of Pratt’s at the University of Washington.

“I think that’s where Pratt’s fondness for beetles comes from, and why other groups of insects he completely ignored,” Sheldon said. “All the same it is a very extensive collection and one of the best representatives of collections from the time.”

Pratt’s devotion to beetles left some gaps in the collection, which only has two grasshoppers and no butterflies. The Pratt collection has not touched on soil dwelling insects, which Sheldon hopes to do.

In addition to the beetle population, the collection also includes specimens from insect groups such as: Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Orthoptera (crickets, grasshoppers and locusts), Hemiptera (true bugs), Dermaptera (earwigs), Isoptera (termites, white ants), Neuroptera (lacewings, antlions, dobsonflies, alderflies, and owlflies), Raphidioptera (snakeflies), Diptera (true flies), and Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, bees, sawflies, horntails).

The collection also includes two drawers of exotic insects.

“He most likely found insect collectors in other countries and traded for them or paid outright for some of the specimens,” Sheldon said.

The original Pratt collection had some 2,500 to 3,000 specimens, Sheldon estimates, although he admits with all the research, curating and collecting of new bugs, he’s never really had time to count. In the past two summers he’s helped add 400-500 specimens to the collection, and he’s only just begun.

“I plan to retire to Whidbey soon and I see working with the island’s insects in my future,” Sheldon said. “The big question for many people is why we should be worrying about insects at all. As a conservation biologist I realize the living organisms of the world provide ecological services that we depend upon for our survival.”

Sheldon said that understanding insects is a step toward better biodiveristy, and human survival depends that this critical balance be maintained.

“Many people don’t know what species there are out there in the world beyond the big charismatic ones they hear about all the time,” he said. “But what about grasshoppers, butterfly larva and all the organisms that can be found in soil?”

A cubic foot of soil alone can hold half a million living organisms, Sheldon said.

“People shouldn’t just take species existence for granted out of ignorance,” Sheldon said. “It’s all about proper stewardship. There are a lot of species that people couldn’t give a rip about that are critical in this world.”

The Pratt collection project also touches on other missions of the Au Sable Pacific Rim campus, including nature conservation efforts between the campus and a number of nationally recognized environmental and conservation groups that help revitalize and preserve island lands.

The existing collection and the collecting that Sheldon is doing will give some indications of how the island has changed over the years.

“We’re seeing a lot of ecological recovery,” Sheldon said. “There’s been regrowth and it’s better now for forest specimens than in years’ past.”

In the 80 years since Pratt’s collection, and even before that, Sheldon said that Whidbey has experienced deforestation, loss of prairie lands and immense development.

While thousands upon thousands of acres of untouched prairie lands once existed, Sheldon said now the untouched, truly pioneer soil remains scarce to none. The 3.5-acre parcel owned by Au Sable is considered a gem.

“We’re trying to get footholds and extend out the prairie remnants out into the periphery,” Sheldon said.

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