Celebrating 100 Years
Don R. Davis: Entomologist at the Museum for Half a Century
Growing up on a small farm near Oklahoma City, Donald Ray Davis became fascinated with the natural world around him, not only the plants and animals but also the stars. By the age of twelve, he had developed a keen interest in Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and had started collecting specimens. In high school, he participated in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a nation-wide competition, and he later won a trip to Washington, DC, to compete in the 1952 National Science Fair. In Washington he had an opportunity to meet several Smithsonian entomologists, and his mounted specimens of moths attracted the attention of J.F. Gates Clarke, curator of Lepidoptera at the National Museum of Natural History. Gates Clarke encouraged Davis to pursue a career in entomology and later advised him to go to Cornell University to study under John Franclemont, an authority on moths. Davis completed his doctoral work on bagworm moths (Family Psychidae) in 1962.
Davis joined the scientific staff of the Smithsonian in 1961 as a research entomologist in Microlepidoptera. At that time, the Natural History Building was extremely crowded, and a new east wing was under construction. The entomology staff and the insect collections moved to an abandoned laundry building on Lamont Street, NW, off Georgia Avenue, where they remained for seven years. It was not until after the riots of 1968 that the Smithsonian administration moved the Department back to the National Mall, because it was feared that the collections were not safe. (During the riots an army truck with soldiers guarded the facility and surrounding area.) Even after this move, the Department continued to be housed in temporary quarters, in a variety of different locations throughout the museum building, until 2001.
During his long career at the Smithsonian, Dr. Davis's research on the biogeography and phylogeny of Microlepidoptera took him to more than forty countries, ranging from North and South America to Asia and Africa. He has done field work in Chile, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, countries linked to the ancient super continent Gondwanaland, trying to find phylogenetic relationships among the primitive moths that still live there. His extensive collecting trips, often assisted by his wife, Mignon Marie Davis, have resulted in the addition of about one million insect specimens to the Smithsonian collections. In addition, he was instrumental in acquiring a number of private collections of insects, including a major collection of amber with fossilized insects from the Dominican Republic.
Over his scientific career, Davis has named many new species and genera, even a new family of North American primitive moths (Acanthopteroctetidae Davis 1978). He has published widely on families of microlepidoptera that include tineid moths (clothes moths and moths that feed on organic substances from dead animals such as keratin in mammal horns), bagworm or case moths, plant-mining and cave-dwelling moths. He is the author of numerous monographs, book chapters and checklists relating to his area of research, and contributes entries to Lepidoptera ATOL (Assembling the Tree of Life), an online database maintained at the University of Maryland. He has also hosted a broad array of visiting scientists at the Museum, and has served as advisor to many postdoctoral fellows in entomology.
Davis continues the work of a long line of distinguished Smithsonian entomologists, including John Merton Aldrich, a dipterist in the early twentieth century, and Charles Valentine Riley, who served as the first curator of insects in the 1880s and also donated his personal collection to the Museum. The national entomological collections, which were formally organized in the late nineteenth century and are affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Systematic Entomology Laboratory, are the primary repository for insects of the United States and form a critical part of many national research programs, used especially for systematic research and the identification of insect pests. Today the entomology collections are one of the largest in the world, with over 35 million specimens. The Lepidoptera collection alone, with which Don Davis works, contains nearly three million specimens, with the most complete representation of both larvae (123,000 specimens) and adults in the Western Hemisphere.
Watch Smithsonian entomologist Don Davis talk about some of the specimens that he has collected — from the larvae of an unusual kind of clothes moth that feeds on the horns of animals, which he found and reared in South Africa, to insects 20-30 million years old preserved in amber.
- Read more about the history of the Smithsonian's entomology collections.
- Visit the Department of Entomology's site.
- See the Entomology Illustration Archive, and learn more about the scientific illustrators like George Venable, who draw these insects for their scientist colleagues in the Museum.
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