Biodiversity Institute a global magnet for research, collections

In a building connected to the Public Safety Office on Kansas University’s West Campus sits a large room filled with insects from all over the world.

A tray of American Boring Beetles, which are a federally endangered species.

Some are bees that aren’t the usual yellow and black but more of a shimmering blue. There are beetles that aren’t the small ones Kansans might find in their backyard, but instead are the size of a fist.

These odd — and fortunately dead — insects share the room with stuffed birds, animal bones and plants –all gathered over the years by traveling professors, scientists and students with the institute. The plants, animals and other items are from all over the world, part of a collection within the Biodiversity Institute, the research center for the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.

“We have scientists going all over the world to do research and have scientists from all over the world who want to come here, see collections and meet scientists and students,” botany curator Mark Mort said.

Mort has traveled to the Canary Islands and South Africa to collect species of plants. He’s one of many scientists at the institute who make trips around the world regularly to conduct research.

Entomology curator Andrew Short specifically studies aquatic beetles, and he travels to South America for three or four weeks a few times a year.

“You have to plan for all kinds of scenarios that may or may not happen,” Short said.

The research may vary from field to field, but the process of planning and conducting the world trips are similar. The trips are coordinated months in advance. The scientists must bring the correct supplies they’ll need, have a planned schedule to follow and the permits necessary to bring back the plants, bones, bugs or animals they’ve captured.

Mark Robbins, the Biodiversity Institute collection manager, said depending on the researcher and purpose of the visit, undergraduate or graduate students may participate on these international trips.

“They learn field techniques, they learn how to do the whole process from getting permits to dealing with colleagues,” Robbins said. “Students learn very basics of how to form a collaboration, how to form an inventory and how to preserve specimens.”

Most of the trips are funded through external grants, and sometimes the institute is able to help fund the travel for undergraduate and graduate students.

Short said he has taken students on starter trips where there is lodging and easily accessible water. However, he said, when he is pressed for time or going on a more remote trip, he tends to not bring students with him.

Robbins, who has taken students to Peru, Fiji and Vietnam, said he typically brings along a couple graduate students. It’s a good learning experience and teaching opportunity, he says. Many times they’ll fly into the country, take a bus out of the city, hike into the mountains and stay in a remote camp for up to three weeks.

“We learn as we go … we train beforehand, but we’re always pointing out things,” Robbins said.

The students learn mostly about their field of expertise and capturing and preserving whatever specimens they’re studying, but a trip also serves as a chance to learn about survival skills and prepare to do independent research when they start their own careers.

“These are the kinds of things that are important to know, because if you make the wrong decision in one of these places it could cost you your life,” Robbins said.