What the Randy Morgan Insect Collection Tells Us About Lycaenid Butterflies in Santa Cruz County

August 05, 2019

By Alexandra Ahmad 

randy examining a manzanita

Randall Morgan (1947-2017), dedicated his long life to preserving the many ecosystems of his native Santa Cruz County. Fascinated by the natural world from an early age, Randall Morgan nursed his passion for plants and animals through childhood and into adulthood. Driven by his love for natural history, Morgan attended UC Santa Cruz and graduated with the second graduating class at the institution. During his time at UCSC, Morgan worked at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, where he also began collecting. Morgan’s first notable collection, started in 1974, was coined the “Bird File,” and is used widely throughout Santa Cruz County to this day. Not long after, Morgan started collecting insects from and re-surveying 39 sites in Santa Cruz County, over the span of 11 years. This project produced the Randall Morgan Insect Collection, which is now housed in UC Santa Cruz’s Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History. 

The Randall Morgan Insect Collection contains insect specimens collected over from 1988 to 1999 in Santa Cruz County. Morgan attempted to visit 3-6 sites a year with 39 sites total, where he meticulously documented species of insect pollinators that he found. There are approximately 75,000 dried local insects in the collection. The insect collection consists largely of butterflies and bees, as Morgan was deeply fascinated by pollinator species. Importantly, the Randall Morgan Insect Collection contains notes of which plants the insects were associated with, making it invaluable for studying plant-pollinator interactions and making it the most valuable collection at the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History.  Norris Center Staff, graduate fellow Andy Kulikowski, and dozens of volunteers and interns have been working for the past 2.5 years to identify the insects, digitize the collections, and make the collection publicly available.

a beeThe Randall Morgan Insect Collection is a valuable resource for researchers at UC Santa Cruz. The collection has been utilized by both undergraduate and graduate students at the university. In 2018, two undergraduate students, Jesse Laine and Daniel Simoni, used the collection for their senior research projects. Jesse Laine’s research project relied on the collection to characterize plant-pollinator interactions of bumblebee (Bombus) species in Santa Cruz County. Laine found that coastal prairie habitat in Santa Cruz County hosted the highest Bombus diversity, whereas the sandhill chaparral habitat Bombus populations were much less diverse. Daniel Simoni studied Bombus populations as well for his senior research project, but focused his efforts on exploring bumblebee phenology and plant associations. Simoni found that female and male populations peak at different times of the year, as do queen and worker bee populations. The findings of both Simoni and Laine provide important insights for future conservation work and for insect natural history.

lycaenid butterflies from randy's collectionI, too, used the collection as a resource for my senior research project that aimed to characterize the historic Lycaenidae community of Santa Cruz County in the context of a changing climate. I found that lycaenid butterflies changed drastically in species richness over the years. However, there were no strong correlations between temperature and species richess at the sites that Randy sampled. This could be due to large, natural inter-annual variation in Lycaenid species richness, or the fact that temperature itself increases incrimentally and with variation over a short 10-year timescale. With the increasing temperature over the past 20 years, lycaenid diversity may have changed significantly at Randy's sites.

It would be interesting to collect Lycaenidae data today and compare the present community dynamics with that of the past. This is exactly what graduate student Angelita Aschbacher did with bees. She used the collection to complete her dissertation on the effects of climate stress on plant-pollinator interactions in the Santa Cruz Sandhills. Throughout her research, Aschbacher found that climate stresses were causing phenological mismatches between pollinator and plant populations, and because of this, fewer plant-pollinator interactions occurred. 

The Randall Morgan Insect Collection provides invaluable insight into the historic insect communities of Santa Cruz County. The collection fosters better understanding of Santa Cruz’s natural history and provides countless research opportunities for students, faculty, and interested community members.

Curation and digitization of the Randall Morgan Insect Collection has been made possible by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and financial support from the UC Santa Cruz Board Opportunity Fund, Nancy Burnett, Julie Packard, Joanna Miller, Tom and Tamia Marg, the Helen and Will Webster Foundation, the March Conservation Fund, and numerous other private donors who wanted to continue Randall Morgan’s legacy.