Student Research Spotlight - Emily Sandall
Posted: March 17, 2017
Defrosting the Past
by Ryan Reynolds
Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. With climate change being a very pressing concern, scientists are using many different sources of stored information to understand our past; some use rocks, some use ice, some use old weather reports, Emily Sandall uses dragonflies.
Sandall is a graduate student at the Frost Entomological Museum where they have been hoarding insects for almost a century (insect exoskeletons keep themselves from rotting). Just to clarify, insect collections are exactly what they sound like, but what takes a collection from a hobby to a profession is in the detail. Each specimen comes with its own label, which includes when, where, by whom, and how it was collected, and its species name (if you’re lucky).
As Emily says, “[Insect collections] hold all kinds of information about changes in distribution, relative numbers of insects, and potential new species in areas…[and]… We don’t have to start at square one-there are plenty of questions to ask about the specimens we already have.” And now she gets to answer some of those questions…
By compiling specimen data from her own collecting, the Frost Museum, and other online databases, Sandall can tell where dragonflies (and their close cousins, damselflies) have been collected over many years. Using computer modeling with satellite imagery, she can then take all these individual records to predict the range that an entire species occupied. With enough of these insect labels, she should be able to see where these insects have been living and moving for over 80 years. Once she has the ranges predicted over time, she can then add another layer into the model to see which environmental factors best predict their habitat shifts.
Although in its adolescents, her research has already identified some trends in the collections. Initial results seem to show Northern range expansion for some species (since warmer temperatures mean that insects have potential to move into habitats that were previously too cold) but the exact causes aren’t clear just yet.
In addition to teasing apart climate effects, we are also beginning to unpack the full potential of insect collections. Sandall reiterates that museums are “troves of data that can be used for biodiversity analyses” sometimes spanning hundreds of years. Like opening a fine wine, all the effort that go into preparing them isn’t useful until someone can finally tap into them. And after all the numbers have been crunched, the specimens sorted, and the models painstakingly tuned, she may be able to use insects to help us understand our past so that we may prepare for our future.