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2 Posts tagged with the zambesi tag

Dr Livingstone I presume?

Posted by Blaps Oct 23, 2014

Max Barclay, collections manager for Coleoptera and Hitoshi Takano, leader of the Coleoptera section's Africa expeditions including extensive exploration of Tanzania and Zambia,  tell us about a very exciting find for us... Dr. Livingstone's beetles...


Livingstone on the Zambezi


David Livingstone returned to England a national hero in 1856 after becoming the first man to undertake a trans-continental journey from the port of Luanda on the Atlantic Coast of Angola to Quelimane in Mozambique where the Zambezi River meets the Indian Ocean. He published a book of his travels in 1857 titled Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa selling a remarkable 70,000 copies making him a very wealthy man. With the huge amount of public support behind him, he persuaded Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister to finance an expedition to the Zambezi River to open it up as an ‘economic highway’ to allow cotton and sugar to be grown in large quantities on the floodplains of this river. Livingstone abhorred slavery and had hoped that it could be banished through legitimate commerce.


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Dr David Livingstone at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park



On the 10th March 1858, Livingstone set sail from Liverpool docks with his team which consisted of his brother Charles, naturalist and medical doctor John Kirk, geologist Richard Thornton (who came with a glowing recommendation by President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison), artist and storekeeper Thomas Baines RA and engineer George Rae.


Within only a few months of arrival, the expedition was doomed. On his earlier voyage down the Zambezi, Livingstone was told about, but did not investigate, a set of rapids known as Cahora Bassa (in modern day Mozambique). This set of rapids made it impossible for any vessel to sail up the river even at full flood at the end of the rains. Despite this disappointment, he navigated a tributary of the Zambezi, the Shire River, and became the first Westerner to accurately document Lake Malawi.

The expedition was eventually recalled from London as the results could not justify the cost.

The major positives to come out of the expedition were the scientific specimens and observations made by Livingstone and his team.



Hitoshi on the banks of the Zambezi at Ngonye Falls


The natural history specimens


There were large quantities of natural history specimens (plants, birds, mammals and reptiles) collected on this expedition. In the years following the return of the expedition (1864-1865), many lists and new species were published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Heinrich Dohrn published on the mussels, George Robert Gray & John Edward Gray on birds/mammals/reptiles, Albert Gunther on reptiles/fish and Kirk on mammals (and birds in the journal IBIS). Many of these specimens are in the NHM.

It is interesting that there were no lists of insects published from this expedition despite the fact that in the very same year (1864), the insects collected by Captain John Hanning Speke on his pioneering trip to the Great Lakes of Africa were published by Frederick Smith of the BMNH.

Livingstone himself writes in the introduction of his book 'Narrative of and expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries' (1865) on p.11 that "the collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose."


But where did the beetles go?

150 years after the 2nd Zambezi Expedition, two beetle specimens were known.kirkianus.JPG

Goliathus kirkianus Gray, 1864; Holotype BMNH 1864-10

This small number is remarkable when one considers that Livingstone’s was a major, government funded expedition at the height of the age of exploration and collecting. For comparison, Alfred Russel Wallace, during eight years in the Malay Archipelago (1854-1862), almost single-handedly collected more than 83,200 beetles, that is over 10,000 a year, and it is hard to spend a day in the collections without finding more of his material. Of course Wallace was not government funded, and collected at least in part in order to pay his expenses by selling his specimens through Stevens’ Auctions in London, a major Natural History auction house that was patronised by the collectors (and indeed the museums) of the world.

If we look at the two ‘known’ Livingstone specimens, the first, difficult to overlook because of its huge size and striking pattern, is a Goliath Beetle described as a new species in 1864 by G. R. Gray who states “Dr. Kirk has, on his return from the Zambesi, added to our knowledge a species of the genus Goliathus, which he obtained as long ago as November 1858 when he picked it up among the hills of Kebrabassa”. Kebrabassa is the same as Cahora Bassa, the site of the rapids that were to doom the whole expedition, and Kirk evidently stumbled across the beetle during the first year of the trip, and dutifully traipsed it around Africa for more than half a decade, bringing it to Gray soon after his return along with a motley collection of other curios. He was rewarded by a very swift description and a name in his honour; perhaps it was all a bit too swift, because Goliathus kirkianus was soon synonymised with the widespread Goliathus albosignatus Boheman, 1857, which had trumped it for priority by 7 years. The Holotype remains in the collection of the NHM, and bears the registration number ‘1864-10’. It was hoped that by following up this registration number in the immaculately written massive, longhand leather-bound registers held in the library, that we could learn more about what else came back from the expedition, but the register entry for ‘1864-10’ (‘presented by Dr. Kirk and collected by himself’) lists only 16 specimens – a motley selection of 11 leaf beetles (‘Cassida’ and ‘Haltica’), a hermit crab with a shell, a locust, an assassin bug, and two caterpillars in spirits! It doesn’t even mention the goliath beetle. It seems that Gray, perhaps in his haste and excitement at finding such a gem in a mixed bag of African oddments, skimped on the paperwork and failed to list the specimen. Of course, this raises the question of what else might have been put in the collection without being properly listed, and may still be lurking there. The registers are much easier to search through than 22,000 drawers of almost 10 million beetles.

This brings us to the second specimen, a common flower chafer Marmylida impressa, found by Hitoshi Takano in a drawer full of the same, common, species but distinguished by a small typewritten label next to it saying ‘specimen collected by Dr. Livingstone’. This label was apparently provided by a curator, probably former scarab curator Mick Bacchus in the 1960s or 1970s, to draw attention to the specimen’s interesting provenance. The specimen itself is labelled ‘Zambezi, Coll. By Dr. Livingstone’ and has a registration number ‘1924-176 E. Y. Western’. Western was a private collector, whose collection of some 10,000 unsorted beetles was presented to the Museum by his daughter after his death in 1924.


Marmylida impressa (Goldfuss), 1805

That was the end of the story until, in 2014, curator Max Barclay was doing a routine inspection of some old boxes of unincorporated material. Every museum has unincorporated accessions, though in recent years we been systematically sorting, recurating, databasing and incorporating ours into the main collections, where the specimens are safe from pests and available to the world scientific community. After many years of concerted efforts in this direction, we are getting to the bottom of the barrel where old unincorporated accessions are concerned, and most of what is still in loose boxes has been picked over and judged to be of little interest by successive generations of curators. One particular box was identified as a priority for incorporation - not because it was ostensibly special material - it was 19th century specimens of common beetles with poor data and in relatively poor condition - but the box had warped and split, and posed an unacceptable risk to its contents.

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The original E.Y. Western store box in much need of curatorial care

While recurating the material a decapitated histerid beetle of the giant species Pactolinus gigas caught Max’s attention, initially because it needed to be repaired - until he noticed the label ‘Zambezi, Coll. By Dr. Livingstone’, identical to the one on the Marmylida flower chafer found in the main collection by Hitoshi. Looking at the side of the box Max saw the initials ‘EYW’ and realised that these few last dusty boxes were the remaining few residues of the 10,000 specimen collection donated by E. Y. Western, the rest of which had been incorporated in the 90 years since the collector’s death. Western was the same collector who had provided the Marmylida. Hastily Max went through the remaining half dozen boxes and found spread among them a total of 14 specimens of 9 species and three families, all labelled in exactly the same way. All were common African species. 


Beetles from E.Y. Western's store box of beetles collected by Livingstone

Western’s collection in 1924 would have consisted of hundreds of boxes, and for nearly a century, most of the curators employed on the beetle section would have extracted, accession-labelled, and incorporated whatever they considered to be of interest. The Elateridae would have been processed by Christine von Hayek, the scarabs by Mick Bacchus, tenebrionids by Martin Brendell, melyrids and dermestids by Enid Peacock, staphylinids by Peter Hammond, chrysomelids by Sharon Shute, weevils by Sir Guy Marshall and Richard Thompson, water beetles by Balfour-Browne, coccinellids by Bob Pope - the gaps in the boxes read like a roll-call (maybe a rogue’s gallery) of curators and researchers of the past. What is left, by extension, is what was not considered to be of much interest by anyone, though it is apparent that they were all looking at it from a taxonomic rather than a historical point of view. In those days the modern curatorial practice of taking a box and emptying it, in order to reduce the number of boxes and systematically complete recuration and incorporation one collection after another, and then making a record of what you did, was not established.  Therefore, it seems likely that the 14 specimens remaining in the boxes were but a fraction of the Livingstone material possessed by Western. It was not held as a separate collection, but placed taxonomically across his series, so it seems likely that the vast majority of it has already been incorporated, but the logistics of searching for individual specimens in a whole collection without knowing what species they belong to makes looking for a needle in a haystack seem a matter of routine. We did experiment with picking common species likely to occur in Zambezi and then searching through the main series, and this revealed 4 specimens of the very common flower chafer Diplognatha gagates, but so far nothing else has been traced. Systematic databasing of the collection will no doubt eventually reveal everything, but this is a slow process and has only just begun.

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Max Barclay with the Livingstone beetles in the Waterhouse building of the  Natural History Museum

So, the interesting question is, how did Edward Young Western (1837-1924), a lawyer based in Craven Hill, Bayswater, come to have Livingstone collected materials, especially considering Livingstone’s belief that the specimens were ‘government property’? The most parsimonious explanation is that another member of the expedition had fewer scruples, or less financial security than Livingstone, and specimens were sold.  The registers show the Natural History Museum in 1862 purchased 9 Zambezi specimens at Steven’s Auctions from ‘Dr. Livingstone’s exhibition [sic]’. This is interesting because in 1862 Livingstone was still in Africa- it could be that someone was sending material back to Stevens for sale without the boss’s knowledge. There may have been other lots where the Museum did not bid, or was outbid, and possibly these, or some of these, were bought by Western for his private collection. 

Of course, if well looked-after, the life-span of an insect specimen is many times the life-span of a collector, so private collections like E.Y. Western’s usually come to museums, like rivers and streams ultimately flow into the sea. The clearing of accessions and unincorporated material, as well as widespread databasing and digitising of material in the collections, will no doubt continue to throw up surprises and treasures for years to come. Livingstone explored with maps, a bible and a gun, and a medicine chest, but today some of the last frontiers for exploration are the great Natural History Collections themselves. How much of Dr. Livingstone’s material remains to be discovered in such collections, we can only presume.


There has been some press coverage on the discovery of Livingstone’s beetles, including a brief BBC Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ interview with Max Barclay



The story was covered on the Natural History Museum’s website


Other press coverage includes


The Independent, 20.09.14, Pg 32




The Times of India


The Livingstone specimens were first shown to the public at ‘Science Uncovered’ on 26th September by Hitoshi Takano, and are now available to view in ‘Dinosaur Way’ in the Public Galleries of the Natural History Museum, for a limited time only.



Termophilum alternatum Bates, 1878


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?



“…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.



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.



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).



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).



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).



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.




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


Happy Birthday Dr Livingstone!'



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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