Who shot Goliath? Natural history mysteries revealed in new TV series

Press release - 11 March 2010

The filming of a new documentary has helped to solve a 120-year-old mystery in the Natural History Museum’s beetle collection.

In 2009, an entomologist at the Museum approached beetle curator, Max Barclay, with a specimen of Goliathus goliatus from the collections that had mysterious, small, circular holes in its armour. One of the largest beetles in the world, goliath beetles fly high up in the canopy and can be very hard to catch, so the pair wondered if the beetle’s nineteenth-century collector had resorted to firearms.

It was only when cameras started rolling for BBC Two’s Museum of Life and Max enrolled the Museum’s forensic scientist, Heather Bonney, in the mystery that she confirmed the insect had been shot. Heather’s investigation identified the points of entry and exit wounds, while x-rays revealed a shotgun pellet still inside the beetle. The entry wounds in the wing cases do not match with the holes in the wings, proving the insect was in flight when it met its end. However, the forensic evidence reveals 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.

Max 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, and every one of the Museum’s 70 million specimens has a story to tell.’

Filmed in the Museum and on locations all over the UK and around the world, Museum of Life is a six-part series that traces the dramatic, pioneering and often surprising scientific work of a much-loved institution. It premières on BBC Two at 20.00 on Thursday 18 March 2010.

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Notes for editors

  • Winner of Visit London’s 2009 Best London for Free Experience Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in over 68 countries.
  • The Natural History Museum is part of the worldwide celebrations of the International Year of Biodiversity 2010. The diversity of life on Earth is crucial for human well-being and now is the time to act to preserve it. For information on events, initiatives and exhibitions across the UK, visit www.biodiversityislife.net