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Behind the Research: Chris Wirth

About the feature

Many people are involved in the remarkable range of programs, services and facilities that undergird research in the College of Agriculture. Collectively they’re integral to the college fulfilling its research mission. “Behind the Research” explores their individual roles. Each academic year, we profile six people whose work supports the College of Agriculture’s global reputation for developing innovative, multidisciplinary solutions to challenges and then putting those solutions into action.

Chris Wirth, Manager, Purdue Entomological Research Collection, Department of Entomology

• Enables research through access, loans and specimen data from Indiana’s largest entomological collection — more than 1.3 million insect and other arthropod specimens — located in the basement of Smith Hall.

• Provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to learn valuable specimen-based research skills in a natural history collection.

• Increases our knowledge of insect species found in Indiana, which contributes to understanding current and historical biodiversity in the state.

Chris Wirth first became interested in bugs as a kid growing up in central Pennsylvania. When his family moved to Virginia during his middle-school years, the change in scenery only enhanced his fascination with insects.

“We’d moved from a largely agricultural landscape to couple of forested acres, so that drew my focus from butterflies toward beetles,” he recalls. “The naturalist E. O. Wilson said, ‘Every kid has a bug phase, I just never grew out of mine.’ I very much identify with that.”

After completing a bachelor’s degree at Randolph-Macon College, Wirth earned a PhD in entomology in 2022 at Purdue in the lab of Aaron Smith, associate professor of entomology and director of the Purdue Entomological Research Collection. During his dissertation research on darkling beetles, Wirth worked with museum collections around the U.S. and Europe, developing skills he brought to his current position in June 2022, filling a vacancy of several years.

Wirth especially learned the value of historical collections. “Natural history collections are unique resources,” he explains. “They are repositories of specimens collected over decades, if not hundreds, of years. You can’t go out and re-collect these specimens. It’s the closest thing to a time machine that exists.”

The Purdue collection includes material from Indiana that dates to the mid-1880s. Many especially valuable specimens were collected by naturalist and author Willis S. Blatchley, who donated his collection to Purdue when the university’s entomology programs were young.

When Wirth became collection manager, he wanted to encourage others to use what he viewed as an underutilized resource. “We could use our specimens in all mission areas — research, teaching and extension,” he says. “It was a unique opportunity to share the importance of the collection and enrich efforts across these areas.”

Wirth provides specimens to faculty and instructors for classes in the Department of Entomology, the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science and Honors College; and examples of pests and potentially invasive species to Purdue Extension educators. He also creates displays sent to counties around the state. He sends specimens, images and data to Purdue, U.S. and international researchers. In the last two years, he has enabled more than 35 research articles, dissertations and theses.

Last year, more than 22,000 specimens were donated to the collection, and student volunteers were instrumental to accessioning them. These undergraduate and graduate students helped sort, identify and incorporate new specimens. “I cannot speak highly enough of my student volunteers,” Wirth says. In turn, he mentors students working on capstone projects and conducting independent research.

“We’re still adding species,” he notes. “Not every specimen is the collection is identified. We frequently send specimens out to experts or have visiting researchers identify new species for the collection.”

The collection also includes specimens of extinct species, such as the Xerces blue butterfly from California, rocky mountain locust and greater chestnut weevil. Because of habitat changes in Indiana, other species in the collection can no longer be found in the state. “Together, our specimens provide a glimpse of insect diversity through time,” Wirth says.

“There’s an almost continual discovery of something new or different,” he adds. “It’s not only exciting but a privilege to work with our historical specimens. Enriching these specimens with data from archival materials — for example, we linked 20 butterfly specimens to field notes and found not only where they were collected but that these specimens were nearly 140 years old — these historical connections fascinate me.”

For use in outreach, Wirth has prepared displays of showier insects he calls the “Oh, my!” collection for the reaction they elicit from audiences. “We try to showcase insect diversity, a range of forms and functions, and show off some species that are disarming, even beautiful, to create an opportunity where we can highlight the importance and value of insects,” he says.

In his spare time, the former camera store manager enjoys taking macro photographs of insects, including at the annual Indiana Academy of Sciences BioBlitz. “It’s an impactful way of sharing my appreciation and love for insects with a broader audience,” he says. “I take these photos for fun but also weave them into my other activities.”

Wirth is joking — but not really — when he says, “There’s so many bugs and so little time.”

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