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Dung, fog and more dung in Borneo

Posted by Blaps Mar 25, 2013

This blog is from one of our excellent specimen preparators and research assistants,  Lucia Chmurova who was lucky enough to spend some time on one of the Museum expeditions to Borneo. Here she gives us an insight into beetle collecting in the tropics!

 

'I was very lucky to join a big NHM expedition to Borneo in August 2012. I was extremely excited because I have missed Borneo ever since I returned from my first trip there in 2010. Upon Max Barclay's advice I agreed to sample dung beetles as my project (and unwittingly I agreed to everything that comes with it…). I followed a set protocol developed for dung beetle trapping in order for future comparison with already sampled sites by other scientists. The protocol consists of 10 dung, and 2 carrion-baited pitfall traps and 2 flight interception traps. The Malaysian dung beetle fauna is well known, well represented in the museum's collection, and there are specialists that are able to identify them. Fulfilling these three criteria suggests a promising and achievable project. With my project chosen and kit assembled I was ready to go!

 

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A quick teaser for invertebrate fauna of Borneo; a predatory land flatworm or a ‘hammerhead worm’.

© Tim Cockerill

 

Our expedition started in the Danum Valley, perhaps one of the busiest research stations in the world. Located in the middle of a conservation area in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, the Danum Valley field station is very well equipped and has housed hundreds of scientists from around the world. The timing of our arrival was somewhat comical, coinciding with a visit from Prince William and The Duchess of Cambridge on a leg of their Southeast Asian tour. As the couple emerged, perfectly dressed, from their helicopter, our team covered in mud and sweat looked a bit less royal in comparison.

 

Some readers might not know that traps for catching dung beetles must first be baited by … well … dung. This involves preparing wrapped packages of dung and hanging them above the trap to lure beetles in. I thought to myself that I should be perhaps a bit more selective about where I would go and prepare my perfumed 'dung packages' so I don't put off potential future patrons of the station. As for the perfume, I was quite well-equipped and so the highly dreaded preparation of tens of dung packages wasn't so bad after all! I have to admit I opted out from Max's tip to use a plastic bag with a hole in its corner and squeeze dung out like I would do with icing for a cake! I used a fork instead.

 

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Me and THE package.

© Tim Cockerill

 

I am not going to go into much detail about what trapping techniques we used while in the field as these are already nicely described in the Tanzania blog , perhaps with the exceptions of water pan traps and fogging. Although not so much used by Coleopterists, water pan traps are very popular when trapping for wasps and bugs. These are simply plastic bowls of various colours (most commonly yellow or blue) filled with water and a few drops of detergent. Its smell in combination with yellow colour attracts insects that are eventually drawn inside the traps.

 

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Although the contents of this pan trap might not look like much, what looks like dust to our eyes, might in fact be hundreds of tiny Hymenoptera trapped inside.

© Tim Cockerill

 

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I could not resist showing you this sophisticated upgrade to a pitfall trap: chopsticks and a plate instead of a usual leaf to stop the trap filling with rainwater! (to find out what exactly a pitfall trap is, read …)

© Tim Cockerill

 

Fogging is perhaps the most efficient sampling method for insects - it collects vast amounts of all kinds of insects in a short period of time. A selective insecticide (which doesn't affect birds or mammals and evaporates quickly) is sprayed into a tree, under which collecting trays are placed to catch all falling insects.

 

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A fogger being hoisted up the tree.

© Neil Greenwood

 

 

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Collecting trays ready to collect falling insects.

© Tim Cockerill

 

This must be done in perfectly windless and rainless conditions, to avoid the insecticide being spread out into surrounding trees and insects sticking to the leaves once they are dead. As the name ‘RAIN’ forest hints, these conditions do not happen very often. All fogging kit assembled together is quite bulky so we were happy when a group of Oxford University students volunteered to help with carrying all the heavy kit for us. After a few attempts of waking up at 5 in the morning (as this is unfortunately the 'windlessest' hour of the day) and trekking to the field site only to discover that leaves are once again wet, we eventually managed to fog at least once!

 

At the start, the lucky chosen individual (in this case a professional fogger, Timothy), tries to start the fogger by moving the engine rod quickly in and out, looking comical and failing repeatedly. Eventually the fogger trembles vigorously and a sound similar to a lawn mower spreads through the forest. After this amusing start, thick fog starts spreading up the tree and the whole situation suddenly looks nothing but impressive. One has to wonder what insects live up 40m tall trees. It was amazing to realise that even my help and research could help to be a step closer to discovering diversity of one of the earth's least known faunas - that of tree canopies. 

 

Some of the joys of field work:

 

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Coleopterist Peter Hammond and lichenologist Pat Wolseley forgot their waterproofs, bin bags did well enough.

© Neil Greenwood

 

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#Hymenopterist Andy Polaszek after a sword fight (or leech fight?!).

© Neil Greenwood

 

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Some serious work after a successful fogging day. In case you don't recognise us, from left:

Neil Greenwood, Andrew Polaszek, Lucia Chmurova and Tim Cockerill.

© Neil Greenwood

 

 

 

Our last stop was Maliau Basin. The forest here looked a bit different to that in the Danum Valley; here there were many more old growth trees present with open spaces between them in comparison to vine and rattan-entwined trees in the first field station. It felt a bit less disturbed, and even the bearded pigs looked attractively slimmer here. My pitfall traps were getting so full after one day of collecting that beetles started literally spilling over and escaping from them. A picture below shows the contents of a single pit-fall trap!

 

 

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The contents of a single dung pitfall trap.

© Tim Cockerill

 

 

After a few days in the Maliau Basin, and collecting kilos of dung beetles, our trip came to an end. Although very sad when leaving Borneo, I was happy about my successful trapping. At the moment, my collected material is still in Malaysia but will hopefully be sent to London soon so I can have a look at the wonderful diversity of beetles that scientific trapping reveals'.

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A tenebrionid couple.

© Tim Cockerill


 

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Some moths (notably members of the Arctiidae family) pupate in a woven basket of the caterpillar’s body hairs rather than silk.

© Tim Cockerill

 

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Coccinellidae

© Lucia Chmurova


 

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A cockroach shedding its skin.

© Lucia Chmurova

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News from the field, this year Zambia. Here we hear from Scientific Associate Hitoshi Takano on his latest collecting adventures...

 

'November 1855. The Zambezi River. What must Dr David Livingstone have felt when he happened upon Victoria Falls?

 

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“…scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” is what Dr Livingstone is said to have commented as he looked out over the falls. It truly is a beautiful sight.

 

He had heard many years before about a “Great Waterfall” on the Zambezi River but it was not until 16 November, 1855 that he paddled across to one of the giant landmasses in the middle of the river overlooking the falls. He named this great discovery in honour of the Queen of England.

 

Last week I flew into the quaint town of Livingstone, the capital of Zambia’s Southern Province, some 10km from Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwe border. The landscape is dry woodland for as far as the eye can see, except for a big winding river and what looks like a huge cloud hovering above the falls; there is no hint of the 100m drop in the Zambezi.

 

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The Livingstone Museum in the town of Livingstone, has on display many items of Livingstone memorabilia including his coat and weapons, as well as some of his original letters.

 

The local name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya which translates rather poetically as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. It is the perfect description. It is now approaching the end of the rainy season and the amount of water flowing over the falls is enormous. A short walk over the aptly named Knife-Edge Bridge brings you face-to-face with the wall of water. And a wall of noise. It is an exhilarating experience; the spray from the waterfall is so great that most of the time nothing is visible, a huge rainstorm swirling around you. Rain coming at you from every direction. And then the wind blows in a different direction bringing sunlight and a clear view of the face of the falls. It was a most beautiful and breathless sight; one feels very small and insignificant in the presence of the immense power of nature.

 

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Face-to-face with Victoria Falls. I was completely drenched by this point and my camera nearly died from all the water everywhere!

 

Today, the 19 March, is David Livingstone’s 200th birthday (1813-1873). His exploits from his upbringings in Scotland, his exploration of Central Africa and the search for the source of the Nile are well documented. But perhaps the natural history discoveries made on these expeditions are not quite as well known. Today is as good a day as any to showcase some of the beetle specimens from the Natural History Museum collections associated with Livingstone and his Zambezi Expedition (1858-1864).

 

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The first specimen is of a Cetoniine fruit chafer Marmylida impressa (Goldfuss, 1805), caught in Tete by Dr. Livingstone himself. Tete was an important mission town in Mozambique on the Zambezi River.

 

The second specimen was collected by the botanist and physician on the Zambezi Expedition, Sir John Kirk (1832-1922). One of the main aims of the Zambezi Expedition, aside from identifying the natural resources and availability of raw materials in the Zambezi area, was to find cotton, an important commodity in post-Industrial Revolution Britain.

 

Kirk collected a beautiful Goliathus species “among the hills of Kebrabassa, which is situated about forty miles beyond the Portuguese town of Tete [a town in modern-day Mozambique]”. This large beetle was described as Goliathus kirkianus by George Robert Gray (1808-1872) in 1864, the then Assistant Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum of Natural History. This species was later synonymised with Goliathus albosignatus (Boheman, 1857).

 

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Goliathus kirkianus (Type specimen label just visible underneath the specimen).

 

 

Both of these species are widespread throughout Southern Africa and I have collected them on my previous trips to Tanzania. To think the specimens I collected sit in the same drawer of the Museum collections as those collected by Dr Livingstone is really quite mindboggling!

 

Unsurprisingly, many species of plant and animal have been named after Dr Livingstone over the years. One of the most spectacular is a species of Manticora ground beetle from the vicinity of Lake Ngami, north of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Francois Laporte, The Count of Castelnau, often known as Laporte de Castelnau (1812-1880) described Manticora livingstoni in 1863 in honour of the great explorer; (despite Livingstone having reached Lake Ngami in 1849, the specimens used by Castelnau for the description were not collected by Livingstone but by local collectors sent out by Castelnau).

 

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The formidable Manticora livingstoni.

 

From the Great Waterfall at Livingstone, I will now be heading north-west to the forests of the Angola-Zambia-Congo borders, very near to the source of the River which brought Dr Livingstone so much joy as well as despair.

 

 

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A statue of Dr David Livingstone at the entrance to Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia

 

Happy Birthday Dr Livingstone!'

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The Etymology of Entomology!

Posted by Blaps Mar 8, 2013

As our beetle blog heads towards 50,000 views, it is fast becoming one of the most important interfaces between the Coleoptera Section and the world at large, but it is not the only public outreach that we do here on the section. As well as very regular Nature Live Events and Night Safaris at the Museum, we make occasional forays into radio and television, and one such example was on the 30th January when presenter Dr. George McGavin and BBC producer Andrea Rangecroft came to the Collections to record an interview on the 'Etymology of Entomology'

 

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Max Barclay and George McGavin having a friendly chat about taxonomy, probably!

 

Even since the biblical instruction to Adam in the Garden of Eden to give 'a name to every creature' (leading to the oft-repeated quip that taxonomy, rather than anything else, is the 'oldest profession'), or perhaps more seriously since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae in 1758 which marks the start of formal Zoological Nomenclature, people have trying to name and classify the breathtaking biodiversity they see around them. There is considerable debate as to what is actually the largest group of organisms, with nematodes, some microbes, Hymenoptera (bees, ants and especially wasps) and Diptera (flies) all competing with beetles for the hypothetical species-richness crown, but of one thing we are certain: None of these groups has been so exhaustively and comprehensively named as the Coleoptera. Over 400,000 described species of beetles (about 20% of known biodiversity) shows an average rate, still undiminished, of 1000-2000 scientific names proposed each year since 1758 for beetles alone. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a BBC team interested in the 'Etymology or Entomology' should have wanted to pay a visit to the beetle section..

 

Dr. George McGavin, the presenter of the show is an entomologist and zoologist and was once a student based at the Natural History Museum, so he is no stranger to the whiff of naphthalene and the ranks of cabinets and drawers that house one of the biggest slices of Earth's biodiversity to exist in one place anywhere in the world. His background of course meant that he knew many of us, and also pretty much what he wanted to see. In the radio show, he interviews a number of entomologists, (including me), and nomenclators in the UK and the US, such as the staff of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (the august body based at the Natural History Museum, that regulates the naming of animals). To hear a sneak preview click on Radio 4!

 

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The ranks of cabinets of the Coleoptera section holding over half of the World's known species

 

To provide a bit of background, Linnaeus's system, that is still used today, requires that each species has a unique scientific name, based (loosely) on Latin or Greek, and consisting of two parts, the genus name and the species name. These names are 'universal', i.e. used by scientists throughout the world and allow us to know exactly what species we are talking about; I have had many conversations with entomologists with whom I have no common language, that consist of pointing at specimens and saying scientific names, and it seems to work. Most of these names are serious, often descriptive, referring to colour (e.g. ruber, niger, albus, viridis), shape (spinosus, elongatus, angulatus), habitat (marinus, sylvaticus, montanus, campestris), size (maximus, minimus, pusillus, giganteus, nanus). Others refer to places of origin (germanicus, africanus, yorkensis, londonensis) or to people who the describer wanted to honour or commemorate. In the last case, the name is formed by adding a latin genitive '-i' or '-ii' for a man, '-ae' for a woman, or '-orum' for more than one person, to the end of the name in question (e.g. Eulipoa wallacei, Wallace's Megapode; Ischnura fountaineae, Margaret Fountaine's damselfly; Apion hookerorum, a weevil named after the Hooker brothers). Often the person honoured will be the collector, but sometimes it will be a figure from outside the world of science, a writer or entertainer or whatever, and in some cases a politician.

 

One of the beetles that George asked to see is one of the most controversial to be named after a famous person, a blind cave beetle forever cursed by its describer Oscar Scheibel with the name Anophthalmus hitleri. Scheibel presumably collected and named that species in 1936, because it was published in 1937, and it shows that one should never name anything after politicians, or at least wait until they are good and dead, since you never know what they are going to do.

 

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Scheibel's unfortunately named beetle!

 

Other politically named beetles include Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller's slime mould beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium rumsfeldi and Agathidium cheneyi, named after US republican leaders. It is a popular misconception that in such cases the beetles are named as an insult, because beetles are considered somehow unpleasant (especially when they live in or feed on slime-moulds), but this is nonsense- we love our beetles too much! No professional coleopterist considers beetles to be unpleasant, and the names above are certainly honorific (in fact at least one of the scientists also named species after his wife). 

 

On the subject of naming of insects after partners or prospective ones, George Willis Kirkaldy (1873-1910)  deserves a mention. British born and based in Hawaii working for the sugar plantations, he studied the true bugs (Heteroptera) and discovered that the Greek suffix -chisme sounds, when spoken aloud, sufficiently like 'kiss me' that he prefixed a lot of genus names with words that sounded like the names of young ladies (or at least, the kinds of names that young ladies had in the early 20th century) - Dolichisme, Elachisme, Florichisme, Peggichisme, and Polychisme. Apparently Kirkaldy was criticised for frivolity at the Zoological Society of London, and one can imagine that a young man using the scientific nomenclature to crow about his romantic conquests might have raised a few eyebrows among the bewhiskered Edwardian patrons of that learned institution. A close contemporary of Kirkaldy, Horace Donisthorpe (1870-1951), whose collection is also at the NHM, apparently employed a similar strategy: many of his species and subspecies are named after young women of the day, some examples being primroseae, irenae, florenceae. The striking thing about these names is that none of them have stood the test of time- all have been shown by subsequent workers not to be distinct. One is drawn to the conclusion that Donisthorpe looked at something that the young ladies in question had collected, told them it was new, and went as far as formally naming it after them, but that his motives in doing so were perhaps not entirely scientific...

 

We also discussed the Russian entomologist Nikolay Nikolaevich Plavilstshikov (1892-1962), who (perhaps unsurprisingly) was drawn to complicated names and gave the world the longest scientific name, Brachyta interrogationis interrogationis var. nigrohumeralisscutellohumeroconjuncta Plavilstshikov, 1936 - a rather attractive, 1cm-long yellow and black longhorn beetle that lives in peonies in northern Eurasia. Plavilstshikov is also remembered for bringing a gun into work and shooting at his line-manager, and getting away with it, but that is another story...

 

With 400,000 beetles one can only imagine how many stories, told and untold, surround the choosing of their names. We have attempted on 'Etymology of Entomology' to tell just a few of the best of those stories, and our colleagues from other institutes and other countries have told others. We do hope you'll tune in at 10.30 on Saturday 9th March, and we'll provide live links as we get them

 

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Max shows George some of the species talked about in the radio show

 

To find out a little more about the programme please read on...and tune in on Saturday 9th March at 10.30am

 

On Saturday 9th March at 10.30am on BBC Radio 4, popular culture meets science as zoologist Dr George McGavin delves into the strange, and often bizarre, names given to insects.

 

There are an estimated 8-10 million living insect species with new specimens being discovered almost daily. Entomologists are turning to ever more imaginative names, referencing everything from literary figures, celebrities and politicians to playground puns.

 

There are flies named Pieza kake (piece of cake) and Scaptia beyonceae after the singer; beetles with political connections - Anophthalmus hitleri, Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi; even entomologists who name discoveries after romantic conquests. Unsurprisingly, names can prove controversial but, once set, are difficult to change.

 

"Taxonomy is the foundation stone of science…without a stable system of classification, science would be nothing but a jumble of uncorrelated observations."

 

George takes us into the complex and intriguing world of the taxonomist. From the 18th century father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus, to the present day, he explains why naming the things that surround us is the foundation of all science.

 

George pieces together his story at Linnaeus’ original collection at The Linnaean Society, and at the capital’s Natural History Museum and London Zoo. He also reveals some insects named after him at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Blaps

Blaps

Member since: Sep 15, 2009

I'm Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department. The Museum's collection of beetles is housed in 22,000 drawers, holding approximately 9,000,000 specimens. This little collection keeps us quite busy!

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