Termites are one of the most ecologically important groups of terrestrial life, particularly in the tropics, where they can consume nearly all of the dead and dying plant matter within a forest. The AMNH collection of termites is, without question, the largest and most comprehensive in the world for these insects, and fully global in scope. It was largely assembled by Alfred E. Emerson (1896-1976), who was a professor at the University of Chicago, a Research Associate at the AMNH, and arguably the most influential worker on termites. It was donated by Emerson to the AMNH in 1962. The collection was further developed through field work and exchanges by Kumar Krishna, Professor Emeritus of Biology at City University of New York and a resident Research Associate at the AMNH. The collection consists of over a million specimens belonging to about 80% of the world's species (excluding the plethora of species recently described from China). Nearly half of the world's species are represented by primary types - holotypes, paratypes, syntypes, lectotypes, and neotypes. This part of the collection is catalogued, with the data label on each vial entered on 3x5 cards, which cite locality, collector, identifier, type status, castes, and ecological and behavioral notes. The uncatalogued part of the collection consists of well-documented specimens identified to genus, donated by important researchers such as Adamson, Hill, Kirby, and Light, which are available for systematic work. The collection of Recent termites is augmented by extensive fossil Isoptera, from the Eocene of Florissant, Colorado, Miocene of Hispaniola (amber), and diverse species from the Cretaceous. A reference library on termites contains the most comprehensive archive of original publications on the systematics of Isoptera.
The museum also houses the Kirby and Cleveland collections of flagellate and ciliate protist symbionts of termites. All termites within the basal families (all those except the Termitidae) harbor within their digestive tract symbiotic protists that metabolize cellulose. Nearly 500 species exist, known entirely from within termites. Most of the termite symbionts are represented in the Kirby and Cleveland collections, which consists of thousands of slides.
Curator-in-Charge: David Grimaldi
Collection Assistant: Lesley Thayer