Collecting at the Smithsonian
Curating a museum of insects and arachnids.
Somebody notify Nicolas Cage — the U.S. Constitution isn’t the only national treasure housed in Washington, D.C. As acting collections manager in the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Floyd Shockley, MS ’00, looks after one of the world’s largest collections of insects and arachnids. “The amount of science generated based on our 35 million-specimen collection is unfathomable,” Shockley says.
The ever-evolving collection’s oldest specimens date from the early 1800s. As new specimens enter the collection, scientists can investigate broad questions such as the influence of climate change and human-caused environmental destruction in ways that few other resources would allow, Shockley says. For instance, he says, “As global climate changes, not only do species distributions — where they are found — change, but some are at risk of extinction. We can see this change because we have a deep picture of insect biodiversity over the past 200 years.”
Shockley handles all aspects of department logistics, including purchasing supplies, overseeing collections improvement projects and contracts, and coordinating space and collection needs for more than 70 staff members from three federal agencies. Part of his role is to help decide which specimens remain in downtown Washington at the natural history museum (70 percent), which will be housed at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland (20 percent), and which will be housed at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland (10 percent).
Shockley began his graduate education looking at insect-plant interaction in a single model system: alfalfa and potato leafhopper. “That’s when I really learned how to do science and more importantly discovered my passion for insect diversity and taxonomy,” he says. A traditional path would have been to find work in the agricultural industry, but Shockley went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Georgia in insect systematics. “I felt a stronger draw to describing new species, studying aspects of their evolution and discovering new things about insect natural history,” Shockley says, “but I wouldn’t change a thing about my time at Mizzou. It gave me the opportunity to find my niché.”