Randall Morgan Insect Collection

Background on Randall Morgan and his Insect Collection

Randall Morgan (1947-2017) was one of our premier contemporary naturalists of the Central Coast of California. He devoted his life to documenting biodiversity and advocating for conservation in Santa Cruz County. As a botanist, Morgan tracked the diversity of plants in the Santa Cruz Mountains since the early 1970s. His voucher collection of over 5,000 plants (all held by the Norris Center) and plant releveés from over 500 locations spanning the last 35 years have formed the basis for our understanding of the current botanical diversity within the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 2005, Morgan published An Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, which contains a full list of Santa Cruz County plants as well as detailed taxonomic notes, lists of endangered plants and county endemics, and maps of the diverse habitats found in the county. As a plant taxonomist, Morgan described a number of new species, including: Agrostis lacuni-vernalis, Chorizanthe robusta Parry var. hartwegii, Polygonum hickmanii, Piperia candida, P. colemanii, P. elegans, Rydb. subsp. decurtata, P. yadonii, Trifolium jokerstii (in press), and Trifolium piorkowskii (in press). His continued work on several species complexes within the Trifolium genus have led him to collect and observe species of Trifolium beyond central California. His extensive notes and collected specimens from over 20 years of study made him a world authority on this genus.

A closeup on one of Morgan's specimensIn the late 1980’s Morgan turned his attention to insects as well as plants. Beginning in 1989, Morgan collected insects from over 39 sites, all of which were areas where he had already documented plant diversity for (in some cases) over 15 years. His collection consists of over 70,000 vouchered specimens (held by the Norris Center), with each specimen containing specific floral association data. Morgan discovered several new insect species while creating this collection. These include the Ohlone Tiger Beetle, Cicindela ohlone (Kavanaugh and Morgan 1993), which was immediately listed as a federally endangered species. In addition, Morgan discovered several other new species that currently await formal description. These include a solitary bee (Hesperapis sp.), a robber fly (Stenopogon sp.), and two flesh flies (Metopia sp. and Senotainia sp.). Through his observations of plants and insects, Morgan re-discovered several species once thought to be extinct, including the Scotts Valley spineflower (Chorizanthe robusta var. hartwegii), a rare popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys glaber), and the Antioch sphecid wasp (Philanthus nasalis).

In addition to documenting biodiversity, Morgan was one of our most effective advocates for local conservation in Santa Cruz County. Over the years, his efforts led to the recognition of several biodiversity hotspots within Santa Cruz County, including the Santa Cruz Sandhills and coastal prairie habitats. A number of protected areas in the county have resulted from his work, including three reserves/parks in sandhill chaparral (one of which is named the Morgan Preserve) and one in coastal prairie. Morgan also worked as a biodiversity expert with the Santa Cruz County Land Trust to create A Conservation Blueprint (published in early 2011), consisting of a comprehensive assessment of the natural resources of the county with recommendations to the community about protecting and enhancing these resources for future generations.

A specimen from Morgan's collection

The Morgan Plant/Pollinator Collection

Morgan’s pollinator collection is by far his most significant work. From 1989-1999, Morgan collected over 70,000 insect specimens from 39 different locations county-wide. His intention was to document potential pollinator visits to all flowering plants at a given site over an entire year. To accomplish this task, he visited a site once every three weeks for an entire year (approximately 17 visits). At each site he walked a transect that included representatives of every plant species he knew to exist there (based on his extensive plant surveys dating back to the 1970s). Using a sweep net along each transect, Morgan collected every insect he found on or near each plant. If multiple individuals from one species of insect were present, he often collected all of them and recorded which plant/flower they were collected from. The only exception he made to this was for honey bees (Apis mellifera). In this case, he just recorded which plants he saw them visiting and how many were at each plant. For any insect that he failed to catch with his sweep net, he recorded it in his notes (with an ID to the best of his ability) along with its floral associate. In addition to pollinator specimens, Morgan kept detailed plant phenological notes over the entire year, including: beginning and end bloom dates for each plant species, a list of plant species in bloom during each collection day, the intensity of bloom for each flowering species (e.g. early bloom, peak bloom, past peak, etc.), and in some cases the relative abundance of each plant species at each site.

As his collection accumulated durinAn Odonata specimeng the 1990s, Morgan stored his specimens at the California Academy of Sciences (CAL-ACAD) in San Francisco. To facilitate work on species determinations, he established connections with many taxonomists at CAL-ACAD (including Dave Kavanaugh- tiger beetles, Paul Arnault- various Diptera families, and Helen Court- sphecid wasps) as well as several other taxonomists in California (Jerry Powell- lepidoptera, Robbin Thorp- bees) and outside California (Robertson- bumblebees, etc…). Due to lack of space at the California Academy and the desire to house his collection locally, Morgan transferred his collection in 2002 to what is now the Norris Center (formerly the UCSC Museum of Natural History Collections). 

From 2002 to 2015, Norris Center curators collaborated with Morgan to continue work on the collection. This included performing periodic preventative damage inspections, labeling approximately 15,000 unlabeled specimens with date, locality, and collector information, sorting approximately 20,000 specimens into orders, families, and morpho-species,A box with some of Morgan's collected Lepidoptera identifying 2700 more specimens by continuing to collaborate with taxonomic experts, retrieving approximately 24 drawers of specimens that had accidently been assimilated into the CAL-ACAD’s general collections, databasing all of the bumblebee records in the collection, beginning to transcribe some of Morgan’s phenological records into quantifiable spreadsheets, georeferencing some of his collection sites, GPS-ing some of his exact transect paths, partially resampling at 3 collection sites, presenting findings about local plant/pollinator relationship to local conservation groups, and advising local land conservation organizations.  

In 2016, the Norris Center received a 2-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to continue curation of Morgan's colleciton and upload data from 30,000 records of pollinators to widely accessible online databases managed by the National Science Foundation-funded iDigBio project