Natural history mysteries revealed in new TV series

11 March 2010

The filming of the BBC documentary Museum of Life, which starts next Thursday, has helped to solve a 120-year-old mystery in the beetle collection.

With BBC cameras looking on, Museum scientists and forensics experts discovered that a beetle from the collections, Goliathus goliatus, had small circular holes in its armour and must have been shot.

Forensic science at the Museum

The goliath beetle, Goliathus goliatus, in the Museum's collections

The goliath beetle in the Museum's collections

Museum forensic scientist Heather Bonney confirmed the unusual discovery after curator Max Barclay showed her the beetle. She identified the entry and exit wounds, and used X-rays to reveal a shotgun pellet still inside its body.

The entry wounds in the wing cases do not match up with the holes in the wings, proving that the insect was in flight when it died.

However, the forensic evidence also reveals that the insect wasn’t shot from underneath but in its back, presumably while performing one of the displays of aeronautics that makes these beetles so notoriously hard to catch.

Many forensic scientists work at the Museum and are consulted by the police in a range of cases, including murder investigations and discoveries of smuggled goods like ivory. The BBC Two documentary, Museum of Life, shows some of this work in action.

Mysteries in the collections

The Museum is home to over 70 million specimens and there is much still to be learned from them.

Beetle curator Max Barclay said, ‘Our collections are full of mysteries and every year scientists are discovering more about them and using them as evidence to help understand the world around us.

‘The number of new discoveries just waiting to be made in these collections is astronomical.’

Museum of Life documentary

You can hear more about the mystery of the shot goliath beetle in the BBC Two documentary Museum of Life.

This 6-part series shows scientists at work behind the scenes in the Museum and on fieldwork trips around the world.

It begins on BBC Two at 8pm on Thursday 18 March.

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