Curiosity can take you a long way. My husband and I recently acted on our longstanding curiosity about our nation's capital and traveled to Washington, D.C. Among our trip highlights was meeting scientific illustrator Taina Litwak, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. For more than a decade, she has also been creating illustrations for Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. You might recall a Young Naturalists story with her richly colored image of a shimmering cicada or one with vivid water molecules. She has illustrated how blue jays vocalize and how biologists survey fish populations.
Taina took us behind the scenes of the world's largest natural history collection to the entomology department. We crossed an inside bridge from the museum into a labyrinth of cabinets and drawers housing some 35 million insect specimens. On different floors, Taina opened cabinets and pulled out drawers full of butterflies, moths, bees, and flies precisely pinned and covered with glass. The smell of mothballs wafted through the air, warding off hungry beetles likely to devour specimens, she said.
When a scientist discovers a new insect species, Taina collaborates with the scientist to create an illustration that accurately depicts the creature in exquisite detail. In addition to the dead insect specimen, her reference material might include field photographs, digital images taken through a microscope, and herbarium sheets of pressed plants. She uses scanning electron micrographs (SEM photo images) to get details of the very smallest things not visible with a normal microscope. After doing a preliminary line drawing, she moves to a computer tucked into a corner of her small office. There she uses software to draw and paint the finest of details to complete the illustration, which will accompany the scientist's text for scientific journals.
A website describing the Entomology Illustration Archives explains: "Scientific illustrations form an integral part of any research publication, and without them the task of describing processes, species, genera, or biological diversity would be next to impossible." That artistic ability to explain science is also the reason we have turned to Taina over the years to illuminate all kinds of natural phenomena. In "Wild Vision" she showed how wild animals see. And in "Special Delivery" she diagrammed eggs of bird, butterfly, fish, amphibian, and reptile.
"Impressions are made very young, I think," Taina said. "I was taken on a very memorable visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City when I was about 5, and it hooked me for life."
Scientific curiosity, when well nourished, can grow for a lifetime, as "The Young Naturalists" story in this issue makes clear. Drawing from her book A Love Affair With Birds, Sue Leaf tells the story of teenage Thomas Sadler Roberts and his young colleagues collaborating to investigate and document the flora and fauna of Minnesota in the 1870s. They collected rocks and fossils, prepared bird skins, pressed plants, and pinned insects.
As Leaf reports in her book, the young naturalists' collection of about 500 plant specimens eventually went to geologist Warren Upham, who was working with Newton Horace Winchell on the state's first survey of geological and natural history. Winchell proposed a natural history museum to house the survey's specimens.
Roberts' passion for studying birds led him to methodically refine the list of Minnesota bird species started by Philo Hatch in 1874. In 1915 Roberts wrote "The Winter Bird-Life of Minnesota" for Fins, Feathers and Fur, the predecessor to the Conservation Volunteer. At age 57, Dr. Roberts retired from medical practice and helped establish the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History, which still holds some of his original collection of bird skins. In 1932 his two-volume illustrated book The Birds of Minnesota was published. Roberts called the publication of his life work "the end of a long, long trail."
Behind natural history museums, books, and illustrations are the collections. And behind the collections are the women, men, and children whose natural curiosity started it all.
Kathleen Weflen, editor