The Bug House:
The Lepidoptera of Dr. Richard B. Dominick
What is a lepidopteran?
Lepidoptera is an Order of insects (Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Arthropoda, Class Insecta) that includes moths and butterflies. With 126 lepidopteran families, globally about 95% of lepidoptera are moths; the remaining 5% are butterflies, which are believed to be derived from moths. Of the 1221 species represented in the Dominick Moth & Butterfly Collection, 98 species (or 8%) are butterflies.
Below are some very general differences between moths & butterflies (there are many exceptions):
- Butterflies have club shaped antennae; moths have feathery or tapered antennae.
- Numerous butterflies hold their wings vertically over their back; many moths hold wings horizontally covering the thorax.
- Butterflies pupate in a shiny chrysalis; many moths pupate in a silky cocoon, though many moth caterpillars pupate in a shelter made from plant leaves.
- Most butterflies are diurnal, or fly during the day, while most, but not all, moth species are nocturnal.
Life Stages & Metamorphosis
Many of us learned about the metamorphosis of butterflies as school children, but this process is not unique to butterflies or even lepidoptera. Most insects undergo some sort of transformation with multiple steps between egg and adult. Lepidoptera go through a ‘complete metamorphosis’ that includes 4 life stages:
- Egg – the first stage of all forms of animal life, beginning with a single cell that divides multiple times to form a larva.
- Larva – in this stage many immature insects are somewhat worm-like, with no wings and simple compound eyes. For the lepidoptera, this is the caterpillar, but for other insects, the larvae are called maggots or grubs. The primary job of a larva is to eat, so often eggs are laid onto host plants. Because they grow quickly many larvae pass through successive developmental stages, called instars. Caterpillars often exhibit mimicry, are brightly colored, and develop toxic poisons as defense mechanisms to deter predation.
- Pupa – in this phase, the larva stops eating and appears dormant, however drastic changes are taking place; the larva is metamorphosing into an adult. Butterfly pupae form a chrysalis, while moths form a silky cocoon or even make a shelter from plant leaves.
- Adult – this is the reproductive phase of the insect, and the stage that is often the most visible. The body and wings of the adult are covered by scales, and mouth parts are transformed into a coiled proboscis used for sucking water, nectar and other liquids. Some species do not feed as adults. The primary purpose of the adult lepidopteran is mating and laying eggs.
(Top) Callosamia promethea (Promethea Silkmoth) – female, 3rd instar (19 days old)
(Bottom) Callosamia promethea (Promethea Silkmoth) – female, 5th instar (full grown)
Dr. Richard B. Dominick, a decorated Marine Corps aviator and then ophthalmologist by trade, was a hobby lepidopterist who assembled an impressive collection of moths and butterflies from The Wedge Plantation, McClellanville, SC. This is even the type locality of 11 species in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to the more than 26,000 lepidopteran specimens, the University of SC also stewards personal objects from Dominick’s lab (at McKissick Museum) and botanical specimens (presumably host plants) are held in the UofSC Herbarium.
Dominick’s work is notable not only because he collected a massive number of moths and butterflies in just 10 years at The Wedge, but also due to his pioneering work in preservation of specimens and photographic techniques. When many entomologists began freeze drying larvae or preserving them in alcohol, Dominick experimented with the antiquated technique of “blowing” specimens. These inflated specimens lack internal organs, but are more stable in dry storage and appear more lifelike. Dominick was also unsatisfied with the state of published lepidopteran photos and devised a methodology of lighting specimens from above (at differing angles) and below to reduce shadows.
Dominick also founded The Wedge Entomological Research Foundation (WERF) in order to publish The Moths of America North of Mexico series. WERF continues important work in lepidopteran research. He was recognized as a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, an Associate Fellow of Bradford College, and a Research Associate of the Charleston Museum for his contributions to lepidopteran research.
Dominick with male and female Callosamia securifera (identified as C. carolina) at The Wedge, May 8, 1971. Photo by Tatiana Dominick.
Dominick & Charles Edwards photographing adult moth specimens. This photo stand is Dominick’s design, with light sources at many different angles – including from below – to reduce shadows. Today digitizers use an LED lightbox to create shadowless images.
The importance of the Wedge collection
Named for the triangular shape of its property, the Wedge Plantation on the South Santee River was the location of an impressive and ambitious amateur collecting effort. Beginning in 1966, Dr. Dominick began capturing moths and butterflies that passed through the 1,350 acres of his property. Comprised of eggs, caterpillars, cocoons, and mature adult specimens, the Dominick Moth and Butterfly Collection contains nearly 26,000 examples representing about 1,200 species. This collection holds immense values as it documents a very complete fauna from a single location in South Carolina, a state that has generally been poorly represented in lepidopteran research. Future research may also shed light on how climate change over the last 50 years has impacted or altered The Wedge fauna.
Aerial photograph of The Wedge property. The ‘Highlands’ property is located in Charleston County and is outlined in red on the left plate (south of the river). The ‘Lowlands’ property in Georgetown County is north of the river on the two right plates. This lowland parcel was largely used as rice fields during the 19th century until about 1914.
In 2016 McKissick Museum applied for and was awarded a Advanced Support for Innovative Research Excellence (ASPIRE) award from the University of South Carolina. The project objectives were threefold:
- Digitize objects and associated archives of significant historic collections from the University of South Carolina’s collecting institutions (A.C. Moore Herbarium, McKissick Museum, and South Caroliniana Library)
- Merge those digital records of natural history collections into a comprehensive, cross-referenced database accessible to the public online
- Utilize newly created digital images to enhance exhibits through interactive touchscreens
In 2018 the project was expanded through funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This new phase of the project added the archives, specimens, and objects related to seven additional naturalists, as well as materials held at The Charleston Museum. Additionally, 3 digital exhibitions featuring McKissick’s collections were developed.
These archival collections not only document the 19th-century investigations of the natural environment in South Carolina, but they also illustrate the establishment and advancement of the field of natural history. The material collections, including botanical, fossil, and mineral specimens, exemplify the natural world that existed two hundred years ago, and are sometimes the only representatives of these taxa in existence due to extinction and loss of geologic localities. Additionally, these objects are not always appropriate for exhibition due to their sensitive or fragile nature; digitizing them will allow for use in on-site exhibitions as well as an online resource.
Other features of this website include video vignettes and a timeline of these naturalists’ investigations. This resource is in no way complete; however, it focuses on the naturalists associated with the University and includes significant events in US and global history. Rather than highlighting historic naturalists, the video vignettes feature modern researchers from the University as they demonstrate the collection, documentation, and preservation of objects for future generations.
Explore the HSN site here.
This project is a collaboration of the following UofSC organizations and the Charleston Museum and was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Project # MA-30-18-0048-18).
The Charleston Museum