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Curator of Diptera's blog

2 Posts tagged with the collections tag

Again I have been absent too long with writing a blog piece. I had two started; one on a recent field trip down to Dartmoor with the Dipterists Forum and the second on the lopsided fly that I have been donated (believe me I will finish that one as it is a very cool story – albeit all stories about flies are very cool..but maybe this one is slightly more)



But instead I am sitting outside my hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (ah the fun of fieldwork) writing a blog about a ‘Fight Club’ that I am due to participate in at The Natural History Museum on 23 September. This will be one small part of an enormous event – Science Uncovered 2011.



Let me fill in the details of what goes on. Basically we let the scientists loose in the Museum; out from their labs and officesJ. From behind the scenes about 300 of all sizes and hairstyles will be presented to all who care to attend (and there are many) this free event, from 4 in the afternoon till 10 at night.





This is Dr Mark Spencer pontificating about the finer points of some lovely plants (can you tell that I am not a botanist!!)



And there will be many different types of activities, ranging from desks (aka Science Stations) where we bring out our specimens, to forensic science demonstrations, to the ‘Fight Club’ in which I am involved, … and le't not forget bars!



In our Fight Club, Dr Richie Abel, and I will be arguing about keeping specimens both for perpetuity and accessibility. He will argue against the need to keep specimens accessible due to modern techniques of taxonomic identification whilst I will argue for the need for collections, such as ours, within which people can come and freely access the material. This is by no means a new debate; in fact my last blog piece was all about the subject of why we museum’s need to maintain collections and some of the many uses for them. This is one step further in the discussion as to why we need to let people have access to them. Let me begin to explain the case for and against this access and then you can respond.


The NHM has over 80 million specimens, with the entomology department having about 32 million of them (just a guess mind you!).



Some of the collection….




What’s the point of having all of these specimens you may ask? Well there are several (in fact there are many more than several but that would spoil the fight wouldn’t it if I gave away everything here!!). But let me just concentrate on one for the moment….



I covered in my previous blog piece about why there is a need for the killing of specimens as identification of invertebrates is very difficult when they are still alive.... Oh I knew that I could get genitalia into this piece if I tried!! Now Richie is the king of the MicroCT Scanner – a very fancy piece of kit that theoretically can do whole body scans of very small creatures (we have looked at the insides of beetles and moths). Ideally we can use this to make 3-dimensional images of the internal anatomy of any specimen that we choose to study.


This video on the Museum's website is of the external morphology of a Rhinoceros Beetle Oryctes boas


Imagine putting on some special goggles and being able to walk inside an insect! That would be most cool….some crazy entomological theme park….


But there are problems. My flies are very weak internally – not many of them have sclerotised genitalia (i.e. it is made from very soft internal tissues) especially the females. You need to use certain products to stain the material to ensure that they are seen by the scanner, which is permanent (how comfortable would you feel doing that with a Linnaeus type? Or one of Darwin’s specimens? Or the only specimen in the collection of a species?) But lets for argument sack ignore those issues. We scanned the specimen and now Richie has us throw away the material as we have a great 3D image of the specimen. Let’s say for arguments sake that we have also sequenced the specimen. And let’s say we have removed all the label data and uploaded this to the database. Oh and have digitally imaged the specimen, head, ventral (bottom up), dorsal (top down), both sides, wings and genitalia (I have a lot of rude insect pictures J). I think that’s it for now. So let’s get on with the other 31,999,999 specimens in the Entomology department……. we could throw away or lock up the present collection in say…quite a few thousand years! Dr Vince Smith and Dr Vladimir Blagoderov calculated recently that to digitise the Museum’s collection (that is just photographing a specimen and uploading the label data) would take 1400 years! …and that of course is presuming that we do not develop any new techniques to aid in identification (because that has not happened previously has it ;) ) and I wonder where we would get both the money and staff to do this?




We are just not ready to throw away the keys. And that is only for the specimens that are already in the collection. We have maybe in the collection a representation of half of the global diversity that is has been described on Earth but this is approximately only 1.9 ma specimens. Our present guess is that this does not even come close to the total number of species alive at the moment. In fact we think that we have a further 5 to 10 million to go. Only in the last few days was there a news piece on the work of estimating global species richness and the techniques that we would have to employ to do this.




We need these new techniques to help us identify things quickly but we need to retain the specimens as a reference for us to cross examine with these new specimens as already pointed out – we have not the time, money or equipment to do all of that at the moment!



A second point that Richie maintains is that OK we may need the specimens but why can’t we keep them locked up and away from harms way, with just the images on display/ online etc. The specimens are not just maintained in the museum for the scientists/academics/naturalists etc but also for all that want to look at nature. My argument for that is to just go and look at the galleries. Sure, we can all read books, download images or watch documentaries. But nothing will replace the experience of being able to stand next to the blue whale and take in the sheer size of it, or look at the diversity of insects in the Darwin Centre that is evident to the visitors as they walk around.



One way to think about this Richie, is to ask ‘why go on holiday?’ Why not just look at other people’s photos? If we are to inspire the next generation, and the generation after that to maintain the biodiversity of the planet then we need to engage them in the subject matter.






The blue whale




Specimens in the Darwin Centre Cocoon



P.S. If you would like to help us pick a topic for the Fight Club debates, visit this thread in our Science Uncovered online community and join in.


I am sorry - I have been away, again, several times..and well, it is hard to keep up to date with the blog...and so I have fallen behind, I can but apologise and add lots of pretty pictures in the hope of making amends!!


Ok so a couple of weeks ago I went to a NatSCA (Natural Sciences Collections Associations) conference, in Plymouth ( It was a good conference and dealing with natural history on museum webpages. All sorts of talks about how different museums around the UK deal with their natural history collections and how they advertise them. So many people do not realise how many natural history collections are dotted about the UK, hidden within County Museums that house so many interesting specimens. I have just read something very sad about a natural history collection in Sao Paulo that was destroyed due to a fire. This is a very great loss for Natural History and societies like NatSCA are trying to prevent this type of loss through the mixing of procedures and ideas around UK museums. This conference brought home to us about the importance of the web and the use of museums and institutes to search for natural history information (we all do very badly!)


I have been teaching on a masters course last week down in Bristol on insect sampling and surveying including the use of insects for rapid bioassessment. I still really like lecturing (I did a lot before starting at the museum) as I basically like to talk about insects as much as possible! The course is designed for future ecolological consultants and I am always amazedat how few have actually studied insects before, most had conducted surveys with bats, newts etc. I will always argue that this gives you a very limited picture of the habitat etc.


Being away a lot at the moment i still have to keep up with the day to day life of a curator. I am still reciving loan enquiries and requests for other bits of information which i had to deal with. I have been sent requests for photographs of specimens, missing papers of an obscure reference from an even obscurer journal  as well as type specimens. I am very lucky though with very understanding colleagues at the moment who I am passing the urgent requests to! As it is there are many late evenings and weekend working to keep my head above water. It is unusual to be doing so much travel but everything seems to have come at once!


Oh and another Dinosnores...and then at 6.30 the next morning I was on another trip back to Tajikistan! It was just me retuning this time with our coordinator to train up the researchers on ELISA (Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) protocols. We had 3 huge bags of lab equipment which we were both surprised that arrived intact and unharmed! It was a very productive training session and by the end i feel that they were happy to carry out the procedure which is the outcome that we wanted.  It was odd teaching people how to use pipettes again!



they were so attentive as students!



Project Leader (sitting down!) and Dilsod, who looks like he is about to go running!!


And the final product (the yellow wells indicate that there is a positive identification for Malaria - although in this case we cheated to see whether the technique works!)





We did not have any problems with flights this time although we did get stopped in Turkey to check whether we had recieved Polio vaccinations and if not, would we like to as there was a Polio outbreak in the city!


Oh and Dilshod named his daughter Erica, as she was born when he was over here being trained by me


When I got back to the Museum, there was the Internation Biodiversity Day, where the museum brought out a lot of collections that are normally hidden away, and Ed Baker and I gave a talk on Big and Beautiful Insects.



(You may recognise some of these!!!)


I attended a conference in Ottawa last week, and spent the week before in New York on my way over as a minibreak but did manage to go and check out the American Museum of Natural History, which has a good biodiversity wall and some very old fashioned Dioramas.


Biodiversity wall

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It was all very dark but I guess many are after living in the Darwin Centre and having so much light. There were some good dioramas featuring earthworms though that i was particularly pleased about


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The conference itself was a SPNHC *the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections) conference and the talks were manly from North American Museums and University collections. On the first day we went round two of the major collections in Ottawa; The Canadian National Collection (CNC) of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes and the storage facilities for the Canadian Museum of Nature They were both very different! The first had the collections amongst the staff (in Diptera this included Scott Brooks, Bradley Sinclair and Jeff Cummings, all of which are exceptionally good dipterists). This has its advantages in that you can access the material but there is no way you can control the environmental variables or pests!


Owen, the Collection Manager with one of the Drawers


Cabinets full of Vials of Mosquito larva etc....




The second storage facilities were state of the art and there was so much space. Oh how I would love space but sadly, in London, that is something that we do not have! However, they were distinctly lacking in flies!!


I loved this drawer!


And these were pretty smart too...



The talks themselves focused either on collection management and conservation or on digitisation of the collections. Everywhere is seeing a real push to digitise the collections, both the specimens themselves and the metadata attached to them. However, everyone faces the same problem in the lack of funding. Many discussions were given over to how we should be prioritising what we digitise! If anyone would like to volunteer to come in and photograph our specimens that would be most useful!


I gave a talk on the New Darwin Centre and how the museum was becoming much more interactive with the public (including this blog) as well as highlighting the research that is undertaken here. Sue Ryder from the department lead a session on Integrated Pest Management whilst Geoff Martin presented a poster on the Lepidoptera collection move. There were others from the NHM from both Zoology and Botany so it was nice to drink beer with colleagues in the pleasant evening atmosphere! It was the 25th Anniversary of SPNHC and there was a banquet towards the end of the week and man, the dancing!! I do not want to bring it to the front of my mind again let alone have it written down for all eternity in a blog


I have been back at my desk for a week! Trying to catch up. However I am posting this to you on a Saturday night (well technically Sunday morning) after just coming home from doing another Dinosnores. It was a good event again and no one cried, which when talking about all the insects etc than can kill you - I think is a positive. Tomorrow morning though I am off for a week to South Wales to catch flies with the Dipterists Forum - it will be great to go out hunting again....

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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