Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

NZAC: Caring for (curating) NZAC

Research work on individual groups of animals in the collection can only be as good as the material it is based on.

  • A few battered specimens from a limited number of sites are less valuable than a truly representative sample of the species as it occurs in nature.
  • Specimens do not outlive their usefulness as they become older: in fact, they become more valuable as:
    • reference specimens of completed studies;
    • representing populations from habitats that have been so altered that the species no longer exists there;

A lot of time may be required, therefore, to curate (care for and work on) older specimens.


Preparing individual insects for study is a very exacting process, because it is essential to have all the important features visible.

For instance, moths are usually pinned with the wings spread. This requires the specimen to be:

  • relaxed (softened)
  • carefully pinned out on a setting board
  • labelled
  • transferred to a storage container.
A competent insect preparator working with small moths could probably deal with only about 100 in a day.

The smallest insects:

  • may be "double-mounted" on strips of plastazote foam using tiny pins;
  • glued on card points;
  • may be mounted on glass slides for study under the microscope, a lengthy process involving a sequence of chemical treatments and careful manipulation. Perhaps as few as 8-10 permanent slides can be prepared by one person in a working day.

Because insects in collections tend to deteriorate, they must be protected from anything that can reduce their scientific value.

  • Soft specimens and those in bulk storage are:
    • "pickled" in 70% ethanol and thus prevented from decomposing;
    • kept in a darkened room to reduce phytochemical changes.
  • For pinned specimens the environment is controlled:
    • to prevent excessive humidity and temperature fluctuations (which leads to the growth of fungal mould);
    • to reduce ultraviolet radiation (which causes photochemical changes, e.g., decolouration).


The second part of curation is sorting, or "systematics-in-the-tray".


  • examine the specimens
  • name them (usually on a new label)
  • rearrange the specimens into systematic groups - usually by species, gender, and place of origin.
This process makes a vast store of information available on ecology, distribution, and geographic variation.