Saving our natural heritage, one stopper at a time

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

The Illinois Natural History Survey Insect Collection holds more than 350,000 vials with more than 3 million insect and arthropod specimens inside. About 70 percent of these are in vials with stoppers that are – or could soon be – melting. This is a collections management catastrophe.

The problem had its origin about 30 years ago. Someone at a container supply company changed the exact composition of the rubber used in the vial stoppers the INHS used to store soft-bodied insects and other arthropods in 75-percent ethanol. For the first 10-15 years they were used, the gray vials did not show any signs of decay. That has recently changed. Thousands of vial stoppers in the collection have started to melt.

The melting is slow, but steady, and seems to be worse in different parts of the collection. Millimeter by millimeter, the melting rubber is collapsing into or around the glass vials that store millions of priceless specimens.

Hope is not lost, however. Thanks to a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research grant, most of the spiders, beetles, caterpillars and lacewings have already been saved. The Prairie Research Institute also has used emergency funds to purchase an additional 60,000 vials. This is allowing us to begin the slow process of replacing them.


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