UAlberta's rural campus rallies for rare insect gift

(Camrose) It was the equivalent of finding a beautifully mounted dodo bird at a garage sale.

When developmental biologist Tom Terzin discovered the mint-condition, extinct Urania sloanus on an eBay auction, both his academic interest and his collector’s spirit were set ablaze.

The gorgeous, jewel-toned, day-flying Jamaican moth was last recorded in 1895. The seller had placed a reserve bid of nearly $6,000 on the specimen, and Terzin couldn’t meet the minimum amount on his own to add it to his enormous private collection. He sent out a message to his colleagues at Augustana Campus in Camrose, in hopes that they would enjoy the sight of the rare moth before it was snapped up by a large museum or private collector.

U. sloanus is one of the world's most beautiful moths—if not the most beautiful one,” he wrote, estimating its value at closer to $25,000. “Unfortunately it is gone forever. There are only several specimens preserved in the most prestigious world collections, and the one offered on eBay is in a perfect condition, maybe the best-preserved specimen in existence!”

Terzin’s tone of mixed regret and enthusiasm struck a charitable chord. In amounts of $50 to $100, a flood of donations came in. The first arrived within an hour of the email. There was $1,700 in pledges within another half-hour, and the remainder was contributed in less than a day. The 300-strong Augustana faculty and staff contributed enough to meet—and exceed—the reserve bid.

Along with the donations came comments of support from Augustana’s interdisciplinary community.

“Very beautiful specimen!” wrote chemistry professor James Kariuki along with his pledge. “I couldn’t stop thinking of all the chemical reactions producing such brilliant colours.”

“It struck me that we might need a soundtrack for this magical moth fundraising,” wrote music professor Alex Carpenter as he submitted a link to Johann Strauss’s Nachtfalter Waltz (“Moth Waltz”).

“I’m not crazy about insects,” wrote mathematics professor Bill Hackborn along with his pledge, “but your moth is really beautiful—even mathematically so—and the wildfire you started here on campus is irresistible!”

Flying under the online-auction radar, the moth had only one bidder: Augustana. Urania sloanus is now on its way to the Camrose-based campus, and Terzin is overwhelmed by his colleagues’ generosity. The moth will belong to the University of Alberta, to be used for teaching and research—including a course that mixes art and biology—as well as for public education exhibits that Terzin mounts using his own exotic collection.

Terzin is deeply touched by how the campus pulled together to make his dream come true. “It is a day I treasure in my heart, regardless of winning the moth,” he said. “I believed somehow from the very beginning that something important would happen, but I could not dream of the extent of support I received! What I feel is that we are one big family.”

“I’m always on the side of whatsoever things are beautiful,” wrote visual arts professor Keith Harder, paraphrasing the University of Alberta motto, as he contributed. “Though this moth will be less about what we win and more about how we win it. That little critter may well become emblematic about the kind of things we—as Augustana—are prepared to rally around!”