Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A second look at Wallace's cabinet

Images © Robert Heggestad 2009 – All Rights Reserved

Just 4 days after my post about the specimens collected by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, I was thrilled to receive an e-mail from the very man who now owns the cabinet! Robert Heggestad explained that he had heard about my blog from a friend in Indonesia and offered to send me more information, which he did. The photos above and the data below are selected from the 800-page PowerPoint containing the results of his research and a 68-page paper in which he connects the specimens to the scientist’s unique travels and research. “As you can imagine,” Heggestad writes, “after spending the past three years learning about his multifaceted life, I have become a great Wallace fan.” He notes that the cabinet is no longer on exhibit, but is still at the American Museum of Natural History cared for by Dr. David Grimaldi, Curator of Diptera, Fossil Insects & Lepidoptera, who will publish a paper on the historical and scientific significance of the collection. “I think this is a fabulous thing…a national treasure, actually,” says Dr. Grimaldi.

The collection contains some 1679 specimens in 26 glass-topped drawers that were originally hermetically sealed. Of dragon-flies, I have many pretty species… Wallace wrote in a letter from Singapore in 1854, and indeed the cabinet contains 36 dragon and caddis flies (1st image). The drawers in which the 398 butterflies and 294 moths were pinned had been built with a compartment along the front filled with camphor crystals, used to prevent damage to insect collections by other small insects. Wallace’s butterfly specimens include a “cracker” butterfly (Papilio amphinome, 2nd image), native to South America and named for the unusual sound the males produce as part of their territorial displays; a brush-footed butterfly (Papilio clymena, 3rd image) collected in Brazil and commonly known as an “88” because of the pattern on its wings. The moths include a blue underwing (Catocala fraxini, 4th image), named for the bright hindwings hidden beneath dull forewings, and 2 species of sphinx moth (Sphingidae jambica, 5th image, and Sphingidae rustica, 6th image), known for their quick and sustained flying ability, for which they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. Of the sphinx moth, Wallace wrote, “this moth, shortly after its immergence from the cocoon, as shown by the bloom on its unruffled scales, may be seen poised stationary in the air, with its long hair-like proboscis uncurled and inserted into the minute orifices of flowers; and no one, I believe, has ever seen this moth learning to perform its difficult task which requires such unerring aim.

Among the 396 shells (7th image) and stones and 86 pods and botanical specimens (8th image) is the fruit of a large leguminous tree of Brazil (Hymenaea, 9th image), the pulpy center of which is edible. But perhaps the most intriguing specimen is the skin of an African sun bird (10th image), an Old World bird also reminiscent of hummingbirds because of the iridescent coloration of the males.

The collection also includes a British butterfly that is now extinct, fireflies and bedbugs captured by Wallace when he was 11 years old, and glasswing butterflies. The cabinet includes 2 specimens of the death’s-head moth featured in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Wallace gathered insects with “protective resemblances” - beetles that look like dewdrops, and moths that look like leaves, sticks, and bird droppings – and insects that mimic each other. He had many examples of protective coloration. He collected multiples of a single species to show individual variation. Wallace believed “that a superior intelligence, acting nevertheless through natural and universal laws, has guided the development of man in a definite direction and for a special purpose” - a more theistic view than Darwin, and the equivalent of today’s theory of “intelligent design.”

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous collection. I'm so glad that Robert Heggestad got in touch with you & gave you even more information on such a wonderful treasure. Thank you for sharing it with us!


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