Before Alfred Kinsey revolutionized the study of human sexuality, he was an entomologist with a very specific and impassioned focus: gall wasps.
Kinsey did his doctoral thesis on the insect and covered 18,000 miles in 36 states collecting samples for his work. His first scientific paper was published in the bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, and when Kinsey died, his wife donated the specimens to the museum (conveniently, they were already there).
You can see part of the enormous Kinsey collection in the AMNH’s most recent episode of Shelf Life. Of the 18 million specimens in the museum's insect collection, an astonishing 7.5 million of them are Kinsey's wasps and associated galls. The collection is so large that it hasn't yet been entirely unpacked. Kinsey had collected leaf samples in his travels and reared the wasps from the galls—those bumps you often see protruding from the smooth surface of a leaf. Galls occur when a female lays her eggs into a plant, and the larva hatches and feeds on the leaf tissue. The galls are the plant’s response to larval saliva, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
Through the collection, researchers are able to learn more about the species and hunt for “ancient DNA,” which simply means DNA in preserved specimens. With a creature as small as a gall wasp, the specimens often need to be destroyed in order to recover any of the DNA. Thanks to Kinsey, those sort of casualties aren’t much of a concern—they’re just a drop in the bucket of his massive assemblage.
In An Introduction to Biology, Kinsey wrote about the joys of collecting: “Most of us like to collect things, and some of us have quite a dose of that instinct. Some folks collect stamps, others collect cigar-bands, or autographs, a pocketful of junk, or dollars and dollars. Whatever their value or lack of money value, all collections are very real possessions to their owner. If your collection is larger, even a shade larger, than any other like it in the world, that greatly increases your happiness.”
Mission accomplished, Al. To see Kinsey's wasps, check out AMNH's Shelf Life below.