Entomology Collection at Drexel University in Philadelphia

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia is America’s oldest natural history museum. Established in 1812, it has a collection of 19 million specimens, with 4 million insect specimens, representing about 100,000 species of insects. 

Jon Gelhaus is Curator of Entomology at the ANS, where he has worked since 1990. He looks after the Entomology Collection. Since 2012, he has also been Professor in the Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science department where he teaches courses in Conservation Biology, Entomology, and Plant and Animal Identification. Entomology is the study of insects.

Jon Gelhaus and Jennifer Sontchi, Senior Director of Exhibits and Public Spaces at The Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS), presented a small portion of the collection during a live streaming event on 12 August 2021.

Titian Peale Butterfly Collection

Collecting insect specimens is important because it informs scientists on the location, development, movement, eating habits, and history of insects. For example, if a species of insect has not been sighted, or collected, for many years, it might be a signal of their decline and vulnerability to extinction, or that they have migrated to a different location due to urban development or other factors.

One of the collections shown during the presentation was the Titian Peale Butterfly Collection (Lepidoptera Collection). Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885) was an American ornithologist, entomologist, photographer, scientific illustrator, and explorer. Titian Peale donated his Butterfly Collection to the ANS, which was received in 1899, with specimens from Central America, South America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Titian Peale was an enthusiastic Lepidoptera collector from a young age, when he started drawing and collecting butterflies and moths at his childhood home in Germantown in America. 

Butterflies are very delicate, difficult to catch, and a challenge to preserve over time. Peale’s fascination with these insects led him to this predicament: How can a collection of Lepidoptera best be preserved for future research without being altered, changed, or damaged? His specimens were sensitive to light, pests, and humidity, so Peale had to find a way to protect his butterflies from harm. 

Peale treated his butterfly specimens with camphor and heat and hermetically sealed them in shallow, glass-faced wooden boxes, which were lined with tinfoil. The boxes had glass on the top and bottom, so that he could view the upper parts of the butterflies and the underparts at the same time. Peale’s invention, known as the Peale Box, fully protects the specimens while allowing a researcher to view them from above and below.

Peale’s diverse collection of butterflies has been well-preserved in The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia thanks to the Peale Box. 

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia
Titian Peale Butterfly Collection
Titian Peale Butterfly Collection
Peale Box of the Titian Peale Butterfly Collection

Location of photographs: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, America (via live broadcast)

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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