200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 105: “Entomologist on eBay ”

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photo on entomologist with insect specimens
Dr. Jon Gelhaus shows one of the 19 boxes of insect specimens he purchased on eBay.

Entomologist on eBay

Jon Gelhaus doesn’t usually go on eBay. But three years ago, his son was surfing the site when Jon had an interesting idea. He asked his son to type in “Entomology” to see what came up. Lo and behold, they saw something special.

“Most collections on eBay are sold as teaching collections, so the specimens don’t have data attached on where they were collected—they just have an identification label,” explains Jon. “But these specimens had all their data, as we would need for a research collection, and there were red labels indicating type specimens.” (A type specimen has a special value in science because it was labeled at the time a species was described and serves as the ultimate specimen representing a species.)

After a bidding war, Jon obtained the collection of 19 boxes containing more than 1,000 pinned insects. When he picked it up from the seller, he learned that the specimens had been found in an abandoned storage unit after a “Storage Wars”-like auction. After looking at the collection labels, Jon figured out the name of the entomologist the collection must have belonged to, and he found an online obituary for the scientist dating several years before the sale.

“The entomologist obviously cared for the collection, and now because we are working on it, it will be available for entomologists forever,” says Jon. “This story serves as a cautionary tale to anyone with a scientifically valuable collection of specimens, documents, or other items, that they should have a plan for the collection to ensure its safety and access to future scientists. In this case everything worked out and it ended up at the Academy, not in the trash. I have to think he would be pleased.”

Now that the collection is at the Academy, Jon is working on inventorying it during his work in Entomologists Inside the Box, which is part of our Bugs…Outside the Box exhibit featuring enormous, scientifically accurate insect sculptures by Italian artist Lorenzo Possenti. You may catch Jon and his fellow scientists working on these and other specimens any day of the week. But hurry in—the exhibit closes on January 16!

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