UCR Receives One of World’s Largest Insect Collections

May 14, 2010

Richard Whitten’s favorite piece of his collection is the bird-wing butterfly of New Guinea; an exquisite and rare butterfly that he says is also “as big as your head.” Also in Whitten’s assortment of arthropods – insects, arachnids, centipedes and other types of creepy crawlers – are walking stick bugs and millipedes the size of one’s forearm, beetles the size of a mouse and spiders that look like they could eat a small bird (for example, the aptly named “Goliath bird-eating spider”).

All of these creatures, comprising thousands of species, will be donated to the University of Costa Rica’s (UCR) biology department.

“I just grew up loving insects,” Whitten said. “It’s a hobby that got out of hand.”

The one hundred boxes of mounted organisms, including scorpions, moths, cockroaches of all shapes and surprisingly gigantic sizes eventually will be housed in a new building on the UCR campus. The collection will rival the world’s largest arthropod collections such as those of the Smithsonian Institute and the New York Museum of Natural History. Some of the more exotic creatures come from as far away as Ghana and Papua New Guinea.

Whitten and his wife, Margaret, lived in Monteverde, Costa Rica for 16 years, and he accumulated many bugs in his collection while living in the country. Whitten now lives in Idaho, and he had planned to donate the collection to a children’s a museum in the United States upon his return home. However, permit issues made that plan too complicated, so he decided that the UCR was a better option.

The decision thrilled the UCR biology department. Close to 50 students and professors packed into a classroom at the UCR along with the cases of mounted bugs on Tuesday to receive the donation. Whitten was floored by how crowded the room was. But the university’s staff understands the significance of such a massive collection.

“The value is in principle,” said Hammer Salazar, who works at the Biological Reserve on UCR’s campus. “The value doses not serve us in economical terms. The value is in the nature (of the collection).”

–Matt Levin

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