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News that a blazing fire destroyed Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro came as a shock to scientists thousands of miles away in Bozeman.

“It’s just an unbelievable tragedy for everybody in the biodiversity community – worldwide,” said Michael Ivie, associate professor and curator of entomology at Montana State University.

Sharing the news with two graduate students from Brazil, Ivie said, “There were tears in the lab.”

MSU had sent about 100 of its insect specimens on loan to researchers at the Rio museum, and those were lost in Sunday night’s fire. At the same time, about 100 of the Rio museum’s insect specimens had been sent on loan to MSU, and those are safe.

Luckily, Ivie said, MSU’s Marsh Lab has duplicates of some of the destroyed Rio insects, including some from the West Indies he’s researching.

Still, it’s estimated that the Rio fire incinerated more than 5 million insect specimens – some dating to the 1880s. That’s not counting the loss of Egyptian artifacts, dinosaur bones and Luzia, a fossilized human skull dated 11,000 to 12,000 years old, among the oldest human remains in the Americas.

“It’s really the equivalent of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum burning – it’s that important internationally,” Ivie said. “It has been treated a lot like it’s a tragedy for Brazil,” yet it’s really a tragedy for the scientific world.

Erich Spiessberger, 27, a master’s degree entomology student from Rio, said his wife told him the museum was on fire and when he went on the internet, he could see the entire building blazing.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I’m still really sad. I went there as a kid, I did biology there as an undergraduate.”

Vinicius Ferreira, 28, a Ph.D. entomology student from Sao Paolo, said he visited the National Museum last January as part of his research on beetles. His mother texted him about the fire.

“I was completely shocked. Out of words,” he said.

The Brazilian students came to MSU, Ferreira said, because “we’re all beetle guys.” MSU has the best collection of the beetles he’s studying, he said, and Ivie has great expertise.

Marsh Lab has about 3 million insect specimens, from tiny bugs to beetles that look like dragons and Rastafarians, to the frighteningly large Titanus Giganteus. Most are pinned in boxes and kept safe in cabinets or freezers. Ivie said they have explosion-proof fire cabinets and fire sprinklers to protect the lab and its contents.

The scientists said they feel badly especially for colleagues, who put two or five or 50 years of work into research, only to have all their specimens burn up, their microscopes burn up, their computers and backup computers burn up.

“Most important, we didn’t lose anybody,” Ivie said.

So why should people care if a bunch of dead bugs and beetles burn up?

Ivie said without beetles and other insects, the forests Montanans enjoy wouldn’t be there in 50 years. There would be no beetles to break down dead wood on the forest floor, no beetles to recycle poop on the ground. Without insects, there’d be no pollinators, nothing to control weeds.

“There would be no trout,” Ivie said. “Grizzly bears would be hungrier,” because they fatten up on moths every summer.

There would be no ladybug beetles to eat the aphids, mites and other sucking insects that plague farmers and gardeners.

Besides, Ferreira said, students get excited when they see “how diverse they are, how cool they are, how pretty they are.”

“Ed Wilson calls them, ‘the little things that run the world,’” Ivie said. “We think we run the world, but we don’t.”

Rio will rebuild its national museum, and scientists all over the world will contribute specimens, Ivie predicted. “But we’ll never replace what was lost.”

“The truth is we will never get over it,” Ferreira said. “Nothing will bring it back, nothing.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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