On Wednesdays, the day the Schiele Museum’s volunteer curators come to work, Dawn Flynn is often first to arrive. The route to her museum office takes her by stuffed mammals, including an Alaskan brown bear that appears poised to attack. Flynn passes without a glance. The creatures that fascinate her are much smaller.
Once a week, Flynn and five colleagues gather in the museum’s Collections Department, where they tease order from nature’s seeming chaos, identifying and describing their specimens for posterity. They do it for free, because they love the work. But occasionally, as they peer into microscopes and flip through reference books, they wonder: What will become of the collections when they’re gone?
It’s more than a theoretical question. This group skews older. Flynn is 65. Fellow entomologist Dr. Henry Stockwell, a retired pediatrician, is 79. David Grant, a retired Davidson College biologist and spider expert, is 76. Fungi experts Allein Stanley and Deborah Langsam are 85 and 64, respectively. Stanley is a retired science teacher, Langsam a retired UNC Charlotte biologist. The youngest curator, Denise Furr, studies snails. She’s 55.
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Also, there’s a bigger issue: Their work has fallen out of fashion. Natural history, the observational study of plants and animals, has for years been sliding toward extinction, eclipsed by newer fields such as molecular biology. Many colleges have gotten rid of plant and animal collections, donating them to natural history museums like the Schiele. These days, taxonomy, the part of natural history that involves finding and classifying organisms, is rarely a paying job. If biologists want to identify an insect, they can test the DNA.
“Henry,” Flynn says, turning to Stockwell, “would you say within 50 to 75 years, most of the taxonomists are going to be gone?”
Stockwell looks up from a brown beetle and agrees. “If you’re a taxonomist and you’re applying for a job,” he says, “never, ever admit you’re interested in putting names on things.”
Unfashionable or not, their work energizes them, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Spend a few hours in the company of Stanley or Langsam and you scrutinize the mushroom in your lawn with new respect, knowing you’re viewing the fruit of an underground fungal web that’s aiding the growth of surrounding green plants.
Listen to Grant extol the wonders of spiders and you find yourself explaining to friends that newly hatched spiders can sail on updrafts 10,000 feet into the air. So high you could catch them with a net from a plane. Grant, who taught biology for 36 years, still gets excited when he describes the cunning hydraulics system a spider uses to extend its legs. “It’s a marvel!” he says.
From these people, you learn that a mushroom hunt is called a “foray,” and hunting insects is called “bugging” and hunting snails is called “snailing.” “I love using ‘snail’ as a verb,” Furr says.
Over lunch, there are often biology lessons. At a Showmars recently, Furr describes the inky cap mushrooms growing all over her yard – delicate little parasols that curl and melt away as the sun comes up.
“That’s how they distribute spores,” Langsam explains. Stanley adds: “An interesting way to dispense spores, to let them drip off.”
This reminds Grant of the reproductive patterns of a certain marine worm, which he decides not to share while they’re eating. Then he changes his mind, describing how the male worm shoves his tail down the throat of the female. As the male’s cellular wall dissolves, it releases the sperm. Both animals die, but the fertilized eggs go on.
“That’s weird,” Furr says.
“Exotic,” Grant counters.
Inventorying the world
Centuries ago, biology and natural history were one and the same. Long before DNA research or even microscopes, biology meant studying living things by collecting them and investigating their habitats and behaviors. Researchers tromped through forests and waded in streams to observe and collect specimens. That’s the kind of research Charles Darwin conducted to produce his theory of evolution.
The field has long attracted amateur naturalists, such as George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and, closer to home, the late R.M. “Bud” Schiele, a Gaston County Boy Scout executive whose donated collections created Gastonia’s Schiele Museum, which opened in 1961.
To get to the Schiele’s Collections Department, you climb narrow stairs to the second-floor offices. The curators work at tables and desks, surrounded by cabinets and drawers filled with meticulously organized specimens. The insects and fungi are dried. The snails and spiders float in jars of ethyl alcohol.
When Flynn became the museum’s first curator of life sciences in 1997, none of those specimens were there. Her task, part of a statewide effort, was to make a county inventory of insects and spiders and curate the collection. The inventory data would add to a permanent record of the plants and animals living in North Carolina. Seventeen years later, the museum holds 70,000 insect specimens, as well as thousands of spiders, fungi and snails.
It was a half-time position, but it was her dream job. Flynn, who’d volunteered with the museum for years, has loved studying insects since she took her first entomology course at Michigan’s Olivet College in 1970. One day that year, as she was making a specimen collection for class, two bugs – one green, one black – landed on her shirt. They were treehoppers, sap-sucking insects that often resemble a broken twig or thorn. To Flynn, they were beautiful.
Today, Flynn is a treehopper world authority with a collection of more than 8,000 specimens. She has described four new species, including one that Stockwell collected in Panama, where he lived for most of his medical career. On her computer screen, Flynn displays a magnified photo of that tiny treehopper, a red, yellow and black critter with body projections so whimsical you’d suspect Dr. Seuss had a hand in its design. She named it Umbelligerus stockwelli, in honor of the man who collected it. Stockwell, she recalls, smiled and blushed when she told him.
After Flynn arrived at the Schiele, volunteer scientists soon joined her, thrilled to have a place to store their specimens and happy to help inventory local species. Langsam says she began volunteering mostly so she could work with Stanley, whose amateur contribution to the study of fungi, known as mycology, is so impressive that she was honored in 2010 by the North American Mycological Association.
The number of specimens at the Schiele keeps growing, mostly from donations, including 30,000 insects that a retired UNCC biologist’s students collected over the years. Flynn and Stockwell are working through them. Stanley donated her collection of 2,000 fungi, and when she goes on forays on Schiele property, wicker basket in hand, she still finds species she’s never found before. Fungi fruitings may come only once a decade, so mycologists can find new varieties on the same land over many years.
Until Furr, no one had inventoried snails in Gaston County. She estimates 75 species live in the area. She has collected 70. When she discovers immature varieties that she wants to study as adults, she takes them home to grow. They live in plastic containers, feeding on a diet of carrots, eggshells and food pellets. Snails, as you might guess, are usually quiet pets, but she did evict them from her bedroom. The scraping sound of tiny teeth on eggshells was keeping her awake.
Decline of collecting
Over the years, several of these naturalists have made collecting expeditions together, traveling as far as Panama. On most Wednesdays, they go to lunch, where they discuss their lives and research. This is all to say that they know each other well, and so in November 2009, when Flynn sent them letters revealing a major life change, it didn’t come as a total shock.
Until 2009, Dawn Flynn was Duane Flynn. After wrestling with gender identity issues since he was 8, Duane had come to understand he was meant to be a woman. He told his colleagues he was transitioning.
Her colleagues supported her decision, Langsam says, because it made Flynn happy. The hardest thing was remembering to say Dawn, not Duane. “Now,” she says, “it seems so natural.”
There were more difficult changes ahead. In July 2013, after state budget cuts, Schiele administrators reluctantly eliminated Flynn’s half-time position. Flynn had no other job, so she had to find work.
Her friends worried, not only about Flynn, but about the future of the collections. It takes a knowledgeable person to maintain specimens. “We’ve seen so many collections that have been essentially tossed out of places, because of time and space considerations,” Langsam says.
Collections seem less essential these days because more biologists are studying single-celled organisms in labs instead of doing field work. The trend in biology is “to be experimental, not collecting,” says Swarthmore College biologist Scott Gilbert, who has studied the history of biology. Gilbert traces this change to the ascendancy of physics and atomic theory. As physics gained prominence, there was a feeling, he says, that if biology was to call itself a science, it “had to become experimental and come indoors.” Soon, studying evolution meant studying genetics – not natural history.
Molecular biology has led to breathtaking advances – the sequencing of the human genome, for one thing. But in recent decades, some scientists have argued that the devaluing of field research and specimen collection has come at a cost. They point to century-old museum specimens that they still use to study how habitats and species change over time. They wonder what future scientists will use when they need specimens from the present day.
“Without this natural history, we have a dearth of questions,” Gilbert says. “We’re asking questions that can be answered by our lab animals, and most animals don’t grow in a lab. So there are a whole lot of questions we’re not asking.”
Scientists say we know only a fraction of the species on our planet. We don’t know how many kinds of beetles there are in North Carolina. We may not even know about all the snails in Gaston County.
“We live on a planet with millions of species that evolved over hundreds of millions of years,” says David Wilcove, a Princeton University ecologist. “It’s sheer madness to believe we can successfully manage that planet without knowing a lot more about what those species are and how they lead their lives.”
The thrill of identification
Along with being an entomologist, Flynn is also an ordained minister. In February, she found a job as part-time pastor of Charlotte’s New Life Metropolitan Community Church. The job forced her to cut back on the volunteering she had done since she was laid off, but she vowed to keep coming in on Wednesdays. “I absolutely love what I do,” she says. “I couldn’t stop doing it.”
Alan May, the Schiele’s research coordinator, was grateful, but not surprised. “She demonstrated initially and continues to demonstrate her life and her world revolves around these collections.”
It’s unclear what the future holds. For now, the collections remain in good hands.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Flynn began, as she often does, with a mystery insect glued to a paper tab on a pin. She also had a “dichotomous key,” a series of questions about a specimen’s characteristics that researchers use to narrow choices and lead them to an identification.
When Flynn and Stockwell are identifying common species, they can breeze through several hundred a day. But the identity of the tiny, yellowish-green insect was turning out to be elusive. Sometimes, an uncommon specimen, like an obscure crossword puzzle clue, can stump Flynn for days.
Flynn knew that the insect, from the University of Georgia’s collection, was a treehopper from Guatemala. She held it under a microscope, comparing its wings to the wings of a specimen in a photo.
The genus, she thought, was Acutalus. She narrowed her possibilities to three species. None seemed right. She concluded she was in the wrong genus. Then she had another idea. She opened a drawer and retrieved a treehopper named Thrasymedes dubia that had been collected from the same area. She compared the two. They were a match.
Another identification made. Even now, after so many years, Dawn Flynn gets a thrill.