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Curator of Diptera's blog

3 Posts tagged with the collection tag
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Posted on behalf of Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum.


I've just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It's not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it's still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Natural History Museum collection. That doesn't sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.

 

So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family... but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.

 

And for such large creatures we know very little about them. This family is considered to be within the infraorder Stratiomyomorpha, but they have not always been positioned here. Originally they were classified within the Tabanidae – the horseflies – and do superficially resemble them (just on steroids) but there are other differences. They were then moved, along with the Xylophagidae, into Xylophagomorpha, but this infraorder is no longer used, with Pantophthalmidae now being subsumed into Stratiomyomorpha leaving Xylophagidae to roam free along the taxonomic highway (Fig.1).

 

Pantophthalmidae are thought of as being in a relatively stable position snuggled alongside the Stratiomyidae (soldierflies) and Xylomyidae (wood soldierflies). However, I believe some recent work by Keith Bayless of North Carolina State University has now placed the freewheeling Xylophagidae into Tabanomorpha. Everyone up to speed?

 

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Figure 1. Tolweb organisation of Brachycera.

 

Now we have cleared up the higher taxonomy let's move onto distribution. They have only been found in the Neotropical region from Mexico down through Central America and down through Brazil and Paraguay and across to Venezuela and Columbia. And even though this is a vast area, they are infrequent in most collections.

 

The key work for this group was undertaken by Val in 1976. He states that these are rare in the collections, but in order to review all of the species and the types, you need to visit 23 different museums (this figure I presume has grown). That is a lot of effort for a handful of species but that would make a great road trip Although our collection goes back hundreds of years we have only 132 pinned specimens but we do have some important type material (Fig. 2). However we are still missing some of the species and one of the genera!

 

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Figure 2. Species in the Museum and whether type material is housed here.


I've always liked this group of flies because they are just so big, and we have actually had some fresh material that comes from some French Guiana material donated to the Museum. It has been sitting there patiently for the last couple of years waiting to be identified and now seemed the ideal time. They had been found by our volunteers, who were surprised by these beasts, as they were so much larger than all the other specimens in the pots.

 

These flies, as already stated, are big. Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862) with its wings spread, can reach 8.5cm in width. Fig.3 gives you an idea of their robust and chunky bodies … we found seven specimens in the donation (of about 50 samples).

 

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Figure 3. One of the glorious specimens - Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862).

 

The adults are sexually dimorphic with the males having holoptic heads (all eyeballs!)

 

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Figure 4. The differences between the males and the female heads of Pantophthalmidae.

 

And they have beaks! Actually these are a very useful diagnostic feature…

 

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Figure 5. Beaks of the Pantophthalmidae (from Val 1975).

 

The immature stages are not known from most of the species although we have a range of pinned, dry and spirit material of the larvae. And they too are big, like their mothers and fathers, but we have even fewer of them in the collection (Figure 6 & 7).

 

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Figure 6. Pantophthalmid larvae in relation to adult (abdomen shown).

 

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Figure 7. The Museum spirit collection of Pantophthalmidae.

 

Why do we only have one jar? One of the problems is that the larvae are wood borers and inhabit galleries that are carved horizontally into the tree – dead or living depending upon the species. We still really don’t know what they are feeding on but many people believe that it could be fermenting sap. Others believe that the diet is a mixture of wood (either dead or in the process of dying) and micro-organisms.

 

Zumbado writes in his work from 2006 that they seem to prefer mucilaginous trees such as kapok or sap-producing trees such as figs. He goes on to describe how noisy these little critters are – several hundred may be in one trunk and they can be heard munching away from several metres.

 

The larvae have very robust head capsules and massive mandibles – they are some of the largest larvae I have seen (of all insects). When I read accounts of how many can be seen in one tree, I am quite overcome with envy. We don’t have many in the collection – one jar as shown – but it is a mighty jar. I don’t think I am allowed to say what exactly was said by various colleagues when we brought out some of the specimens but, suffice to say, they were impressed.

 

This collection was in a sorry state in old drawers and on slats. These are problematic because the pins are so firmly wedged that when you try and remove the pin from the board you often damage the specimens. The specimens themselves were showing some early signs of damage with verdigris on some of the pins (Fig. 8) Verdigris is when the lipids in the insect react with the copper in the pins. Nowadays we use stainless steel pins, so this doesn't happen, but most of the specimens in the collection are mostly older even than me.

 

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Figure 8. Verdigris on pins.


The first thing that I do when I recurate a collection is to find all of the recent as well as the historical literature in catalogues and monographs, and update the database. The Museum database for this family had not been edited for at least 20 years. But luckily, when going through the literature, I discovered that with this family, not a lot had happened in that time. But our records were still inaccurate, and for a family with very few species people kept changing their mind about the number of genera and where the different species sat. Sorting that out took the most time in terms of overall curation, as there were so many new combinations and I had to be certain of all the taxonomic rearrangements. You should have heard my sighing as I was typing in the data (I promise it was just sighing).

 

Remember that there were only 20 described species of which we had (past tense is important here and I’ll come back to that) only 15? Well, the number of taxonomic records we now have in the database of all the original combinations and numerous synonyms (the many, many synonyms) is about three times as many as the actual number of species (Fig. 9).

 

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Figure 9. Taxonomic names for genera and species.

 

Once this was sorted out, I started on the production of the labels. I have to produce an initial first draft of the list of species names (Fig. 10) as I need to ascertain where and what all of the types were, as well as how many unit trays of each size are needed. I have many lists scattered around my desk so one more can’t hurt…

 

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Figure 10. Lovely lists of the species of Pantophthalmidae in the Natural History Museum Collection.

 

N.B. See – hardly any valid species names without synonyms!

 

Next I needed to make my unit trays up. My lists have codes on them indicating what the type was and how many of which size trays – there is an awful lot of organising with curation and it definitely fulfils my OCD tendencies…We have three sizes of unit trays that we use for Diptera recuration but somehow I knew that I probably wouldn’t be needing any of the very small A trays (Figure 11).

 

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Figure 11. Unit trays –C, B and A.

 

N.B ok that is quite a nerdy photograph!

 

The new sparkly labels (ok the sparkly bit is a lie) were placed into the unit trays and then I started transferring the material across. As the specimens were moved they were inspected for damage – any verdigris removed and any legs etc. placed into gelatine capsules. Three new main drawers later and the collection was now housed in museum-standard drawers, conservation-grade trays and labels, completely updated on the database and new material incorporated into it (Fig. 12).

 

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Figure 12. The largest smallest recuration project.

 

So let’s go back to this new material consisting of just a few specimens. Not a lot you may think – but remember this collection is not very big. For large flies, they were slightly difficult to ID. In fact, as the samples had come out of the window traps (the specimens collect in alcohol) they were very greasy.

 

Chris Raper, a fellow Dipterist at the Museum and lover of these flies, suggested that I give them a bath in ethyl acetate. I was a little nervous about leaving these precise specimens overnight in this rather noxious fluid. But lo and behold! What wonders were to great me the next day! Wonderful, they were – just wonderful. And suddenly we were able to see features that were previously hidden, such as thoracic patterns and, rather more importantly, hairs on the eyeballs. This feature alone split the two different genera and so we realised that for the first time, our collection now has ONE Opetiops alienus (Fig. 13). I believe this is also the first time that it has been collected from French Guiana.

 

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Figure 13. Opetiops alienus – check out not only the hairy eyeballs but also the beak!

 

So one database updated, one collection rehoused and once more new material has been added to the collection. Happiness reigns in the Land of the Curator.

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So I am interrupting the Peruvian blog instalments for an exciting little group of flies. One of my colleagues - Hillery Warner - left this on my desk the other day. She works many floors above me on the mantid collection and whilst recurating that collection this little critter was discovered.

 

At first she thought it may have just been some ‘crud’ (my technical term), but very quickly realised what it was (after all, we are the Natural History Museum and can spot and describe insects from 100 yards – we're more likely to walk into walls etc than the average person but nevertheless very good at the little things) .

 

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Can you see it? Upon closer inspection I became very excited.

 

Ok here is a close up:

 

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Still nothing? a mutated spider maybe?

 

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The very strange-looking batlice fly.

 

The family of flies that I am writing about are the Nycteribiidae – the batlice flies. These are some of the oddest looking flies that you will come across. For a start they are wingless – and no they are not therefore referred to as walks… But we do know that they are flies as they have retained their halteres (balancing organs). Their weird body shape is because all of their wing muscles have atrophied – they have completely dissolved away resulting in an incredibly small thorax.

 

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The batlice fly has an extremely small thorax.

 

So the head and legs are basically dorsal insertions of the thorax – they stick out of the top of the fly rather than at the side which is the more usual way. It is really difficult to work out which way is up as the head does not resemble anything that you are used to.

 

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The head is the hairy ovoid structure inserted after the 2 front legs and is conspicuously small with either no eyes or very small ones.

And just look at their legs – amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats. Their tarsal segments are completely bendy with huge claws.

 

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Their legs are amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats.

 

Here is a lovely description of them from Metafysica:

The upper surface of the thorax is little more than a framework of hard chitin, joined together with large areas of soft membrane, and the head is a grotesque structure apparently sitting on top of the thorax. Indeed, any one seeing a Nycteribiid for the first time is likely to mistake the under surface for the upper, and fail to find the head at all!  The eyes are greatly reduced, and may be absent altogether. When they are present they are quite unlike those of other adult flies, being either a single, round facet, or two little lenses on a black mount.

 

These things are only on average 5mm but adaptation to their environment is what it is all about. So batlice flies, as the name suggests, live on bats – they are ectoparasites (living externally on the host) and feed exclusively on their blood (both the male and female flies). Every five days they take in their own body weight in blood. Little and often is definitely their motto.

 

What is odd about the specimen that appeared on my desk is that it came off a mantid – one could only presume that it was using the mantid for transport (phoresis) but that leads to the next question of where was the mantid? Was it hanging around caves etc? Very puzzling.

 

Globally there are 274 described species. Most of them are found in the old world tropics although there are species in the Neotropics and Europe. Upon researching this group most of the species that have recently been described are from South America although this is probably a reflection on how many dipterists live in South America rather than it suddenly being species rich.

 

SUBFAMILY

GENERA

DISTRIBUTION

HOST

Archinycteribiinae

Archinycteribia

Malaysia - Bismark

Megachiroptera

Cyclopodiinae

Cyclopodia>

Paleotropical

Megachiroptera

 

Dipseliopoda

 

Eucampsipoda

 

Leptocyclopodia

Nycteribiinae

Basilia

Worldwide

Microchiroptera

 

Hershkovitzia

 

Nycteribia

 

Penicillidia

 

Phthiridium

 

Stereomyia

 

Now within Europe we only have 13 of these crazy little things, but that drops to just 3 in the British Isles.

 

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There we go - the British pinned collection of batlice flies.


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The world pinned collection does not look that much better…

 

So I think that you may be able to work out from this that most of the collection is not pinned. Some have been nicely pinned (as pictured) but most of the time they are just mangled legs on a pin.

 

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Most of our collection of batlice flies is either preserved as slide material or spirit material.

 

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The slide material is of much higher quality than the pinned and you can see some very clear features – check out the shoulder pads on this one.

 

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This is the bulk of our collection – the spirit material. In the collection we have 235 species listed in the catalogue – which is excellent!

 

Now below is the page on batlice flies from the Dipterists Forum:

 

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Which leads me onto the very exciting larval stage – ahhh maggots – once more back into familiar territory. Now batlice flies, along with the rest of the Hippoboscoidea (the superfamily which includes this family and about 4 others – I say about as there is some dispute..), do not lay eggs. In fact, they are much more like mini-mammals (ok so I am stretching that one a bit). In fact they have a specific larval development referred to as Adenotrophic (gland-fed) viviparity (live birth).

 

All of the larval stages (of which this family has three) occur within a genital chamber. When they say there is very little parental care we can name hundreds of species within Diptera that do so. I know that I may come across as biased at times but flies really are the only species that you ever need to study. The head of the larva is enclosed in the anterior part of the uterus and receives nourishment from these milk glands.

 

The females leave the bat host when they are about to give birth (as it were). She crawls onto the wall of the cave and the pre-pupal stage emerges. This is an incredibly short stage as the larva pupate within hours. Now there are some great larval body adaptations to help this wee one stick to the cave wall. They are hemi ovoid – and have sticky secretions which are also helped by a narrow marginal skirt (see diagram below).

 

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The movement of the pre-pual stage ensures that it has an airtight seal. But – BUT -  just to make sure the female backs over it and presses down on it with her body! Incredible. If anyone has a film that I could see of that I would be forever in your debt! What a fantastically odd family.

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Help - volunteers wanted

Posted by Erica McAlister Jan 29, 2010

Afternoon!

 

This is just a quick post as at the moment I am trying to edit the database and sort out all the dirty records! I have two work experience students who are recurating some of the British collection and edit the records as they go along. There have been so many changes from when these records were originally added and now, with many species having been synonymised (they are now recognised as not valid species) and many having been misidentified in the first place! I have about 8 screens open on my monitor and a pile of books to check all the references and the currently agreed names. But enough of my friday afternoon fun...

 

My French Guiana material needs to be looked at and I have advertised for volunteers.

 

https://gs12.globalsuccessor.com/fe/tpl_nhm01.asp?s=jsUrXCzMkBNsPpBkh&jobid=48317,4961231223&key=19345732&c=791225360298&pagestamp=sefoyrqffsklkvcqhs

 

I have a selfish reason for this in that i will get to spend a fair amount of the time with the volunteers going through the material. If anyone would love to come and help, please do!

 

Right back to work. I have an A-level tour group on Monday morning which i have to bring down some exhibition drawers of non-diptera material to my cocoon end (it's mine you see ). We are explaining the relevance of Museums collections and how we enhance them. I get to talk about fieldwork!

 

Speaking of which - i was very happy to learn that I will be off to Stockholm, Sweden to carry out a work placement there for three week. I am just trying to figure out dates (in between other bits of fieldwork, tours, Dinosnores, training courses and the rest!!) but it should be a very useful trip. I will be working with a researcher who as well as looking at Stilt flies also deals a lot with specimen level databases. He should hopefully be able to show me the many different ways in which he enables his collection to be accessed on line. That might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world I realise but it is all about enabling greater access to the collections, which has to benefit everyone!

 

I have digressed! I really must get back to work now....



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.

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