Skip navigation
0

Taxonomy

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 24, 2009

The museums business is all about taxonomy. We spend days studying specimens, trying to identify new material from other specimens within the collection and working through all the published material relating to the species or similar species. If you have ever read a taxonomic paper to say that they are dry is to say that Oliver Reed occasionally liked a wee tipple.... They are in a world of their own and each group of insects I have ever worked with have their own style of writing or different diagnostic characteristics that I have to get my head around.

 

I have just been reviewing a paper that is comparing the thoracic spiracular gills of a pupae of a limoniid, often referred to as pupal horns . My volunteers and I often work on a much more simpler taxonomy.

 

Yesterday for example I had a volunteer (another museum member of staff who helps out ever now and again to play with my cool flies) who was sorting through material that was collected from a malaise trap (this is very similar to a tent that traps flying insects) from Kenya in 1970. We have hundreds of jars like this that need sorting!. He was very excited about the stalk-eyed fly with boxing gloves. You know exactly what he means by that and it is much shorter than 'reduced tarsa on the foreleg with swollen tibia'. They are very cool flies. Then you have the flies with the big stabby mouthparts, the flies with the massive heads, the flies with the massive humped backs (these are acroceridae and you do get some in the UK and if you ever come across them living I would love to see them) etc.

 

Apart from destroying the very good world of taxonomy I am busy trying to sort out all of my correspondance ahead of the move to the Darwin Centre. We start packing next week and all of the returned loans I have on my desk need to be reincorporated back into the collection. I have some Brazilian visitors coming over for November and I need to ensure that I have things organised for them, such as passes, keys etc. I am in the habit of delaying and so always get told off for not sorting things out within the correct time period . And I have to sort out some field work that I will be undertaking in October, which will be great!

 

We are in the SPA this afternoon or the box (the display room) in the new Darwin Centre as we like to call it. I have some flies that I need to cut the wings off so that should appeal to any small child ....

0

I am glad that this week is coming to an end. And I am glad that the new Darwin Centre building is finally open and hopefully things can settle down a bit, a maybe, just maybe, I can spend more time looking at flies .

 

We are just about (the Diptera team) to start our move into the new building. We move a couple of weeks before the collection so it will be a tad hectic for a time - we have announced to all visitors, borrowers etc that we are closing down for a time to enable us to deal with this process as painlessly as possible. Some removals man came to look at my bay (and laugh) to discuss how many crates, packing etc. I have drawers of pinned specimens from Costa Rica, I have vials of samples from the UK, I have tubes containing Nigerian flies littered throughout my area...it will all need sorting. I am looking forward to finally moving though as although this building is gorgeous (we are in the main old building) it is dark and all I hear are other curators discussing their boiler problems .

 

At the same time we are creating a synoptic collection to go into the Angela Marmont Centre for UK biodiversity. The UK diptera species number is very high (over 7000 which is more than Lepidoptera and Coleoptera combined) we have lots of labels to make. I have found the most recent checklist of British species (from the Dipterists forum website) and am basing the collection on that. Our main British collection has a fair few species missing so this is a good opportunity to try and rectify this by either more collecting or asking people to donate material. The British diptera are often ignored by amateurs who go for the beetles and moths, which are easier to identify (no genitalia preps there....) but some of our flies are beautiful - check out some of the craneflies such as Ctenophora or Nephratoma . and who can fail to love a dolichopodid showing off over a pond .Once the labels have been made, and the drawers and trays turn up, then it's all hands to the decks to transfer the specimens in time for the Dipterists Forum AGM which we are holding the Museum in November . I will dedicate some time this afternoon though to identifying some more British material which will be a lovely way to finish one of the more stressful and at times depressing weeks that I have had here (drawers and trays seem to rule our lives )
0

A new Beginning...

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 16, 2009

So I thought that things would calm down but I was woefully wrong! After the national press day, there was the international press day..four hours in the 'box'. It has to be said though that thanks to the reflection from the windows unless people come up close we can not really see them...and then they look like they are on a TV screen...who is watching who? sadly I was not important enough to be invited to the event with Prince William and (to me the most important ) Sir David  or make it to the evening event but the remnants of the event are still scattered over the floor of the new building in the shape of thousands of paper butterflies. The press seemed to like the building and there was one report that even mentioned me (albeit as the friendly entomologist http://www.culture24.org.uk/science+%2526+nature/art71662).

 

But it should calm down now on the public offer side, not!  We have some filming tomorrow with the BBC about the sampling that we carried out earlier in the year on Bookham Common. My desk is covered in flies at the moment trying to go through the samples! I have sorted them into the major insect orders and passed on the different groups to the relevant curators. I have been pinning flies and sorting them to family. One of the other curators in Diptera specialises in Calyptrates but is also very good on all types of flies...(very handy). He has just identified my pipunculids (Big headed flies ), sadly none are particularly uncommon. There are lots of Dolichopodidae (the boys have enormous external genitalia...), some lovely robberflies, loads of Empids (dance flies- they have great piercing mouthparts) etc etc. I will be sorting for quite a while. This, along with all the material that I and other members of staff have collected throughout the year from various collecting trips (most of which were with the Dipterists Forum), will go into the main British Collection as well as the Synoptic collection that goes into the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. We have an assistant in our section at the moment who is producing the labels for all the trays (there are 7000+ species of flies in the UK). All I can hear behind me is the swish swish of the guillotine .

 

I was visited today by a lad who does the most amazing biological drawings of insects. He first came to us a couple of years ago for a behind the scenes tour that I gave of the Entomology department. He was sadly too young to volunteer for us then but has kept in contact. He now is able to volunteer (over 18) and also brings in flies each time that we can identify together. What was very exciting this week was that he sampled from his garden a relatively new species of Hoverfly to the UK. It has two previous recordings only and we do not have any in our collection that were collected from the UK - it's great , i love adding to the collection.

0
So I have finally said goodbye to the Tajiks. It has been nearly two weeks of mosquito fieldwork, lectures, larval rearing, crashing minibuses, lab techniques, Brighton Pier, Elisa techniques to determine malarial parasites, Salsa dancing, pinning adults (mosquitoes that is) to name just a part of it. We went out for a final meal last night and all toasted ourselves on how brilliantly it went! Really looking forward to going back over to Tajikistan next year.


We were in one of the final meetings yesterday trying to sort out the methodology of the sampling strategy and it was amazing that even that still needed lots of work. It is the critical part of the project – without a sound scientific methodology the results could at best be unclear and at worst, meaningless. We were not sure half the time whether it was a language barrier or a scientific one. There will lots of emails of the next couple of months to see how things are going. They got to go on a tour of the new cocoon area of the Darwin Centre before they went to play on the interactive displays. My lovely interpreter squealed at the video I filmed in Thailand and Vietnam. They were taking photos of the video…….

 

I had to spend the afternoon in the SPA (specimen preparation area inside the cocoon). This is the bit on the tour where a scientist sits in a preparation area and the public can ask them anything about what they are doing. We had the press yesterday. I took along some recuration work that I needed to finish soon, but with one thing and another it is not progressing as fast as I would like. The work is the bee-fly collection and I love bee-flies (Bombyliidae) – amazing flies, small, furry with a long proboscis (mouth part) and they are parasites of ants J. My favourite flies do tend to be the bitey stabby piercing maiming ones – must be something about my personality.  Anyway, the press…well I don’t think that they were particularly interested in my flies (I never understand when people aren’t….) but they liked the building and I think that they understood the concept. Some of the papers had quotes of ‘10 million bugs’ amongst other things……that would be something if that was true but there are only approximately 3 million (true bugs that is). I do believe that a bit of my hand made it into the metro though….I will be in the ‘box’ tomorrow, again recurating bee-flies but this time to the international press so I will try and drum up some more enthusiasm for my little ones.

0

A new week

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 1, 2009
Well, nearly the end of today

So far – I got absolutely soaking cycling in to work, I’ve had one pupal death and three larval deaths over the weekend but I have three adults which are now pinned (mosquitoes ) , a meeting on the databasing system, visitors, and several loans to prepare….. on my desk i have a load on new flies that a colleague has given me from his garden as well as some from Cameroon that a student dropped off (albeit he has bugs confused with flies….)

But the Tajiks are at the London School to study some techniques so at least i can relax. The mini-bus went back today and no one has screamed at me because of the damage…..We took the Tajiks to a Salsa club on Friday night to show them some of London and it was their first night club!! and then on Saturday (and Sunday and Monday) we were in to monitor the mosquito larvae that are developing in one of the labs in the tower. We have a little production line. Bowls at the front for the very small larvae, once the develop to about the 4th in-star stage (just before they pupate) we separate them out into their own breeding tubes. Then when they pupate we remove the skin and store in alcohol, to which we will add the pupal skin when the adult emerges. Once the adult has emerged we have to leave it for 24hours to let the genitalia rotate into place . It’s all going well.

We have a new visitor in Diptera today from Spain who will be with us for a month. It is all becoming a rush at the moment as we are beginning to shut down the hatches to the collection in preparation for the move. It feels like this ominous event looming towards us…..
Erica McAlister

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

View Erica McAlister's profile