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Biodiversity Beetles in Focus

Posted by Blaps Feb 21, 2013

Here Tom Thomson, who is our lead researcher on the Coleoptera section's UKBAP project website, tells us a bit about the project and some of the interesting challenges of documenting Museum specimens! The UK Biodiversity Action Plan was first published in 1994, as part of the UK Government’s response to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It set out to describe the biological resources (including beetles!) of the UK in order to help conserve and aid recovery of species under threat or endangered. 

 

'Good day Friends, Romans and fellow Coleopterists!
An update for you on interesting and sometimes perplexing things encountered while working on many many lovely beetles from our collections as part of the Museum’s Biodiversity Action Plan species inventory of specimens and publication project (soon to be available on a scratchpad).

 

This project came about to address the balance in resources available to researchers working with these species all of which by definition are rare or endangered.  Many resources and organisations such as the  The National Federation of Biological Recorders (NFBR), and the NBN Gateway and other media often are unable to take account of the historical distribution of invertebrates of conservation importance through archive data.  Considering that within the NHM collections we have thousands of specimens going back to the early 19th century and beyond, (complete with specimen labels giving the distribution of species dating to a period before widespread habitat loss and pollution) this data is of incurable worth and highly significant. 

 

Knowing the present and historical distribution of a species is essential for any conservation work. In fact, many species are given conservation status specifically because they have declined, in many cases provable by the data available to ascertain if their present distribution is less than their historical distribution.  These former (wider) distributions can throw light on reasons for decline, and historic records may show modern day recorders valuable pointers for possible additional sparse populations of rare taxa, and estimate what their geographical limits might have been under more favourable conditions.

 

Of course the majority of information on the historical distribution of species is locked up in major museum collections and given the access possible via new online media is a great opportunity to bring ready transcribed label data, comprehensively checked and in a reliable form into open circulation from material that otherwise would often be difficult to interpret without expert curatorial assistance.
This often extremely cryptic data including collectors handwritten notes, habitat data and often multiple observations from generations of collectors and researchers on particularly old material is of international use and value and this projects’ main aim is to make this freely available to the whole conservation community for all UKBAP species of Coleoptera, to allow them to paint a more realistic picture of species’ distribution and status in the UK.

 

So onto the images that are an essential research to accompany this data, Well as many of you will probably know (and may well have some

experienced first-hand), getting high quality images of any small specimen is always a challenge, but something as complex and 3D as a preserved beetle (getting all the legs right up to the tarsi in focus particularly) can be more so than many things. Thankfully as technology is advancing fast in this area over recent years the better our computers and electronics in general become. For photographing most organisms we have moved on from manual cameras and spending long hours squinting down a view- finder fine focusing on tiny details; those days of developing negatives only to find that one diagnostic feature is blurred when you were sure it looked lovely and sharp when you took the image are now gone!

 

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So the advent of a digital camera as a readily available tool both as compact pocket types with good inbuilt macro facilities right through to full digital SLR's with dedicated macro lens and the ability to connect directly to a computer is such a gift to us entomologists I am sure you will agree! The ability to operate things shack-free on remote right from the computer screen has really changed things for the better as well as being able to see the results in seconds not hours or days even more so!

 

In recent times, the biggest change of all is the advent of sophisticated software to combine images of differing focal lengths and merge them into a single smooth crisp image.  For some subjects this makes the previously impossible relatively easy.  Views of small organisms and their wider background are improved by being both crisp in focus, way outside the normal depth of field of even the best lens and far better quality than single images dodged and burnt on a film negative projector. The power to combine 20, 50 or even 100 images into one polished finished frame is priceless.  For imaging work possible with the more traditional methods, it can have its downsides when left on its automatic settings; combining frames as shot as demonstrated by this image below of the ground beetle Carabus intricatus.

 

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These types of error are relativity easy to fix however, and this is the finished image:

 

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Thankfully this is a rather drastic example! For the most part it’s a wonderful quick and smooth process with results like this:

 

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Carabus intricatus dorsal view

 

This image took only 20 minutes with microscope and camera and less than this in the software.
The other end of the spectrum though is this fine specimen of Ampedus rufipennis in frontal view which is composite of 156 images and took around two hours to take with a similar amount to smooth and blend in the software.'

 

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Hello beetlers,

 

Now that spring has passed and summer is truly upon us, the field season begins. This is when entomologists get very excited about the prospect of going out in to the countryside (well, just ‘out’ really) with their sweep nets and collecting gear in pursuit of insects! Here in the coleoptera section, we are no exception, and when Max suggested a fieldwork day to Bookham Common, we literally jumped at the chance!

Here we are, literally jumping!

 

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From left to right Alex Sadek, Max Barclay, Malcolm Kerley, Libby Livermore, Beulah Garner, Laurence Livermore. Image courtesy of Libby livermore.

 

So what does field work mean to us? Well, we don’t just go out and collect insects - we go out looking for insects. We may have an idea of what we might expect to find, especially at any given time of the year, habitat or host plant. And when we find them, we record them. This information can then be fed in to local as well as national databases which record distribution of species across the UK. This is vital information to inform those that are involved in habitat and species protection / conservation, as well as climatologists (insects are very good indicators of climate change) and politicians!
Here is the link to the National Biodiversity Network http://www.nbn.org.uk/

 

Thereby much of what we find, we record and set free. However, should we be looking for a specific species, especially if it is not commonly found in the habitat in which we are collecting, we will retain the specimen for confirmation of identification and to provide what we call a voucher specimen. A ‘voucher’ provides tangible proof that the species exists and was found in a certain location. This voucher is then deposited in the Museum collection to act as a permanent record for the future.

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Here is the striking wasp mimic Clytus arietis (Cerambycidae), which we did set free! Image courtesy of David Oram.

 

So off we set to Bookham Common. Why Bookham Common, well it is a very important area for wildlife and has species records dating back over fifty years meaning it is one of the best and most comprehensively recorded sights in Britain. The various habitats include wet grassland, low lying meadows, scrub, ponds and (ancient) woodland. So here, not only can the past inform the future by for example, the analysis of species distribution trends or species ecology, such as time of insect emergence correlated with weather, but we can continue to build on this data by regular recording of what wildlife is present.
The commons are managed by the National Trust and principally recorded by members of the London Natural History Society; follow the link to find out more about the LNHS.
http://www.lnhs.org.uk/

 

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Here is Roger Booth demonstrating his 'pootering' technique to some fascinated passers-by! For those of you that don't know, he is holding a 'beating tray'. This is placed underneath a selected tree, the tree is beaten with a big stick, and hopefully some interesting insects fall out!

 

 

The coleoptera section has got some shiny new collecting equipment that we couldn’t wait to try out - seriously!
These new traps are called Lindgren funnel traps and are a series of black funnels connected together with a collecting trap at the bottom and a bait trap in the centre.

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Lingren funnel trap in the tree canopy. Image courtesy of David Oram.  Here is Malcolm Kerley (right) demonstrating the addictive properties of the bait trap!

 

The idea is that insects are attracted to the pheromone bait and fly into the funnels – the funnels are so shaped that the insects cannot fly out, but rather end up in the bottom of the trap which contains a collecting fluid such as ethanol with a drop of washing-up liquid to break the surface tension. These traps are commonly used in the USA to collect forest pests such as bark beetles (Scolytidae). The traps are hoisted into the canopy of the tree and secured by a long rope.

Imagine the logistics of first selecting a suitable tree, and then working out just how to get the trap into the canopy of said tree. This part of the fieldwork took some time, and involved much throwing of rope:
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Throwing the rope!

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Standing around thinking about throwing the rope!

 

 

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Letting go of the end of the rope so that it landed completely over the other side of said tree and not actually in the tree…

And so it went on until eventually there was success!

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Question: how many entomologists does it take to throw a rope?

From left to right Malcolm Kerley, Alex Sadek, Max Barclay, Max Barclay (stuck in a tree?) Roger Booth, David Oram.

 

 

But the major event of the day was the finding of the Scarlett Malachite Beetle, Malachius aeneus (Malachiidae - Soft-winged flower beetles).
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© Chris Gibson


This beetle, whose range has declined to such an extent that it is listed as 'rare' on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=5155 is currently only known from eight sites throughout the UK.

 

 

For more information on this beautiful beetle, and especially if you would like to attempt to see it in the wild, go to Buglife, who are currently running a Scarlet Malachite Beetle Survey to help monitor this beetles’ populations.
http://www.buglife.org.uk/

 

 

OPAL (Open Air Laboratories), who have just launched their fantastic Bug Hunt Survey, will also help you to get outside and go collecting – more details here:
http://www.opalexplorenature.org/


Our Plymouth University intern Lucia Chmurova was sweeping a verge in the early afternoon consisting of mixed vegetation of rough grasses, buttercups, cow parsley and dock, when this beetle was caught in her net. This was truly an amazing find as this beetle hasn’t been recorded in Surrey for more than 50 years (Denton, 2005) and is a first record for Bookham! So well done Lucia, perhaps we are all ‘scarlet’ with envy, rather than green, at this find!
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Here is Lucia investigating the undergrowth!

 

Lucia’s note will be published in the next edition of the Coleopterist.
http://www.coleopterist.org.uk/

 

 

For some excellent cinematic photos of the day follow Libby Livermore’s (our official capturer of entomologists in action) link here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/evilibby/sets/72157626652914393/with/5748748470/