A Name for Everything

Students Conduct Hands-on Research in Entomology Lab

Candice Sawyer, an ecological, evolutionary, and organismal biology major, and biology professor Don Miller with two birdwing butterflies. They were collected by Miller from Papua New Guinea and are some the world’s largest butterflies.

Biology professor Don Miller was traveling through Papua New Guinea in 2011 in search of insect specimens he could bring back with him to Chico. Soon, he noticed his camp was crawling with spiders. Instead of ignoring them or moving his camp, Miller saw the opportunity he was waiting for.

It was his third trip to Papua New Guinea and he was in an untouched rainforest that no westerner had ever visited. He was there to survey butterflies, moths and spiders. He knew these spiders that were crawling all over his stick bed were part of a yet-undescribed species, and he knew he needed to collect them.

Soon those spiders found a new home inside Holt Hall as part of the University’s entomology collection. They joined the more than 25,000 species of insects already housed there, including butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, moths, and dragonflies.

The collection was built from scratch in 1959 largely through the personal collection of biology professor emeritus David Kistner, who retired in 1992. The collection has since been expanded on by Miller, who began his work as curator in the fall of 2012, through personal trips to Europe, East Asia, and Papua New Guinea. Student workers, who Miller considers assistant curators, have helped to organize and identify the collection. 

“Not only do I not have the means to keep them,” Miller said, “I think of them as an institutional acquisition. They deserve some sort of long-term security.”

Located in Holt 141, the lab represents more than 50 years of student effort and dedication and countless hours of student-conducted research. Students get to work hands-on with specimens and learn technical skills that are required in organizing and preparing a collection. They also develop research skills needed in identifying insect species. 

The lab also represents a large cross-section of insect life in Northern America and specimens outside of North America.

Jamie Sydnor, an ecological, evolutionary, and organismal biology major, with a spider from Papua New Guinea that was collected by biology professor Don Miller.

Jamie Sydnor, an ecological, evolutionary, and organismal biology major, with a spider from Papua New Guinea that was collected by biology professor Don Miller.

“I’ve had people come in from time to time, from as far away as the Smithsonian Institution,” Miller said. “They want to know what we have in our collection. We have significant holdings of invaluable specimens.”

One of the students working in the lab this semester is Candice Sawyer, an ecological, evolutionary, and organismal biology major, who is specializing in identifying butterflies native to Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. Sawyer spends her lab hours poring through books to help identify and organize her specimens; often it takes her 30 minutes to an hour to identify a single butterfly.

To the untrained eye, the species may all look the same, but Sawyer is learning the subtle characteristics unique to each type.

“When I took entomology, it took me a really long time to identify a species,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy now that I can look at something now and say, ‘Oh, it’s this or that.’”

When Miller brought back spiders from Papua New Guinea, he needed someone to classify them. He had learned that 50 percent of spiders in that region were unidentified, so there was a lot of work to be done.

Jamie Sydnor, also an ecological, evolutionary, and organismal biology major, came to Miller with an interest in studying the spiders he had brought back from that region.

“He took a chance on me, he noticed that I had interest, and he had the tools to give me an opportunity and he didn’t have to,” Sydnor said. “This is my first opportunity to work in a lab. It’s my first foot in the door. That’s what’s really exciting for me: it’s the beginning of, hopefully, a very long-lasting career.”

Now, Sydnor has the difficult task of identifying 150 spider specimens. Because the region of Papua New Guinea is a largely untouched part of a diverse ecosystem, the chances of finding a species new to science are very high. 

“I think these spiders deserve a lot of respect,” Sydnor said. “It’s such an untouched part of the ecosystem in the tropics and they have such an important role.”

“We take Google and Wikipedia for granted. Imagine trying to look up a spider and there is nothing,” Sawyer added.

On working with Miller, both Sawyer and Sydnor said the biology professor gives them the ideal level of autonomy for learning and growing. More than anything, Miller considers himself a coach to the students working in the lab.

“He’s very supportive,” Sawyer said. “He’s very passionate. He’ll let you do what you want while still guiding you.”

—Story and photos by Ernesto Rivera, Public Affairs and Publications



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