Born To Love Bugs

By Lee Anna Sherman

There are two kinds of entomologists: those who love insects intellectually and those who love them viscerally. Without a doubt, Chris Marshall fits into the second category.

The love of bugs smote him early, and it smote him hard. He grew up combing the fields and woodlands of his New England neighborhood with a glass jar and a copy of the Junior Golden Guide to Insects. In the beginning he used a butterfly net. But the fluttering Lepidoptera didn’t fascinate him nearly as much as the creeping Coleoptera, the hard-winged beetles secreted among rotten logs and fallen leaves. Young Chris’s finest moments were stalking tiger beetles along reedy creek beds and unearthing carrion beetles in the detritus of hardwood forests.

When he hit his teens, however, Chris veered away from insects. He majored in evolutionary biology at Reed College in Portland, where he dabbled in frog research. His first job after graduation — studying amphibians in a Harvard University herpetology lab — failed to inspire him.

But his long-dormant love of bugs was stirring. At Harvard he enrolled in his first-ever formal entomology class. Then, one fateful day he dropped in at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, where Harvard’s insect collection is housed. A week later, he was volunteering. “I had never been behind the scenes at a natural history museum,” he recalls. “I knew right then I had found where I wanted to be. I fell in love.”

It wasn’t long before he was doing graduate work at Cornell. He was struggling to find a compelling Ph.D. research topic when he took a six-week ecology course in Costa Rica with the Organization for Tropical Studies. “I was flipping logs, looking for bugs, and I saw these big, shiny black beetles,” he recalls. “What was really neat about them was that they were teeming with these little mites.” Once home, he learned that there is an entire fauna of mites found exclusively on this one species of patent-leather beetle. The co-evolution of these two organisms became the subject of his doctoral thesis.

He came to the Oregon State Arthropod Collection in the fall of 2005 after a stint with the Smithsonian Institution and another with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. As curator, Marshall oversees 3 million specimens from the world over, the perfect job for channeling what he readily admits is a compulsion.

“A lot of people are rabid bug collectors as kids,” he says. “Most of them get over it. I never did.”


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