Skip navigation

Curator of Diptera's blog

5 Posts tagged with the collections tag
0

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?

 

panto+phyl.jpg

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!

 

species-table.jpg

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).

 

Untitled-1.jpg

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

 

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

 

Untitled-2.jpg

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…

 

beaks.jpg

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).

 

Untitled-3.jpg

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

 

Untitled-4.jpg

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.

 

verdigris.jpg

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).

 

taxa+names.jpg

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…

 

Untitled-5.jpg

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).

 

Untitled-6.jpg

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).

 

Untitled-7.jpg

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.

 

Untitled-8.jpg

 

Untitled-11.jpg

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.

0

It's been a while but we have now the penultimate installment of the Peruvian Adventure by Dave the driver Hall...enjoy.

 

I think that fourth night must have been the first one I've spent at 2,700m and I didn't seem any the worse for it. I tugged at the wooden shutters to see what day five on the road might have in store. Weather: acceptable for driving on dodgy roads. High, thin clouds cut with watery pastels. A shabby old town in diluted blue and sunbleached turquoise. The plaza mayor was just creaking into life. A cluster of women in straw hats held conference outside a grocer's. A policeman heaved open the giant wooden double doors of an eroded old police station, yawned, and spat.

 

I took a cold shower, dressed and started lugging trunks and sample boxes from last night's sorting. Prof. Knapp was already up (of course) dismantling the drier. The daily task of packing seemed a little more arduous this morning. Either the altitude, or the shin-barkingly steep antique stairs. The van was parked in a square pound at the back of the hotel, which looked appealingly like the OK Corral. Sandy had been a little concerned that the truck might not still be there this morning, but the locals seemed harmless enough to me, if not exactly chummy.

 

The growing light revealed our hotel to be of a certain vintage; much of the rear was semi-derelict and empty. I creaked back and forth with my boxes through creepy cavernous dusty backrooms, using the return trips to investigate dark passages and musty staircases leading nowhere, the only sounds my wheezing and the drip of an old tap. And here an appealingly dilapidated old dining room-dance hall I could imagine thronging with local revellers.

Untitled-1.jpg

Morning in Celendin.

 

After breakfast I took a few moments to explore the town, too. It might be old hat for the Dr Livingstones in our midst but I was unlikely to set eyes on the place again. Erica likes telling me how amusing it is reading my rhapsodic perspective on what she sees as routine grubby fieldwork: I see cascades of mountains; she sees dirty socks drying on the dashboard.

 

(Erica here - not exactly how I phrased it - he was bemoaning us for failing to see the beauty all around us - Sandy and I were concentrating on flies and spuds )

 

The market was already open for a day's easygoing trade. I ambled over. Three schoolboys kicked a burst ball to each other on the way to classes. The policeman hadn't moved. Stallholders unhurriedly erected awnings and set out their wares along the narrow thoroughfares, the alley-tunnels filled with the pungent aroma of meat, overripe fruit and hawker-stall breakfasts. I bought plump oranges and tomatoes for lunch from one of the impassively leather-faced vendors and wandered back to the hotel, ready for another day behind the wheel.

 

But no! Erica announced she'd be driving today, to 'give me a break'. The cheek. I protested firmly, in my quietest voice. This felt like cheating, but I was anticipating incredible scenery, ahead so I didn't flap.

 

(Erica again - they are long days driving- even we are not that nasty to make him drive continuously)

 

In contrast to other towns thus far it was a fair doddle finding the route out of town. Without at least two simultaneous sets of directions being offered in each ear, the going seemed somehow easier. Being fair, it wasn't hard to navigate. There was little traffic, and thanks to the colonial grid system we simply had to find the edge of the town and keep going until we hit a road going east.

 

Nevertheless, this road looked unpromising – a narrow back-street cluttered with the detritus of townsfolk's lives: bits of motorbike, smashed agricultural implements, underfed dogs...

 

But here a sign, which told us it was a mere 150km to our next stop, Leymebamba, and presently we started climbing.

 

The narrow road wound up again through foothills scarred with gold-mining quarries, many illegal. The locals had been protesting for some time, largely to deaf ears, that these mines – many sponsored by American multinationals – are polluting the water supply.

 

Above the scarred hillsides we rose... the road surface was perfect and I couldn't help thinking what an epic bike ride this would make for the stout of heart. Eventually the treeline gave way to rousing views of Celendin far below, where the light-blue double steeple of the church in the town square poked above the ramshackle rooftops. The town nestled in a half-bowl surrounded by hills. It must have looked attractive to the early Inca settlers and, unfortunately for them, the Spanish too. The head of the valley ended in an unseen drop, and far beyond were mountains whose peaks seemed oddly level with the town itself... now it was clear how high up the town was.

 

Still we climbed, this time without finding any locals to pester about their potatoes. Spying as yet no specimens, we meandered upward and upward, through rugged moorland, ever closer to the clouds that before had seemed so far off. As the sun finally renewed hostilities and the clouds began to leak a bit of sunshine, we reached a high pass of about 3,500m where a tiny village sat incongruously amid the rugged landscape, complete with a tiny football pitch and neatly planted conifers. The place had a strangely manicured feel.

 

Then, suddenly, the other side. As we breached the other side of the pass, a completely different panorama opened up. A dramatic series of valleys and mountain ranges rolled into the east, rib upon rib wreathed in mist, multiple horizons fading toward the Amazon. Somewhere to our right, far below and well beyond view, the Marañón River was thundering on its 1,700km looping journey toward the king of rivers. My head span at the spectacle. Sandy and Evelyn discussed tomatoes. Erica drove on without comment.

 

Our way wasn't getting any wider. As we wound downwards, hugging the cliffsides, the road only narrowed further. The bends were like fishhooks, and here and there were patches where the roadworks had not reached or where recent repairs had simply slid down the cliff. There were no barriers to protect motorists from the yawning 1,000-foot drops a matter of inches from the wheels. Superfluous roadsigns warned us to slow down and keep right. Erica didn't need much encouragement. Everyone in the car seemed to become silent. I tried to look far ahead to see if anything was coming the other way. We could only imagine what it must be like for lorry and bus drivers.

 

I was beginning to enjoy myself.

 

Untitled-3.jpg

A yawning 1,000-foot drop inches to the left.

 

In the clouds now. I like being in clouds, but it doesn't help with the driving. Breaks in the mist revealed teasing glimpses of dark, sheer mountainsides. Here and there the sun poked through and a rainbow made a perfect technicolor arch over the road.

 

Untitled-4.jpg

Driving through the Peruvian mountains.

 

Then just as suddenly, out of the mist, full sunshine, the scenery changing from hairpin to hairpin. We were descending toward a lush shoulder of high land, an upper valley nestled in a crown of mountains far below, dotted with tiny farmhouses and quiltwork cornfields, into which the road descended in a series of insane switchbacks. It was a perfect lost valley; a prime spot for Eldorado.

 

Untitled-5.jpg

A prime spot for Eldorado.

 

I still have no idea how Sandy spots specimens from the car even at the modest speeds we were achieving. But at last Prof Knapp bade us stop for our first samples amid a gradually drier landscape.

 

The sun was melting the clouds away and the morning was mellowing nicely. Nearby, an allotment of sorts, a small bungalow and what I thought were petrol pumps. The immediate area was lush, catching runoff rainwater in a small series of irrigation ditches. Prime mozzie territory, I thought. Again, parts of the area had been cleared recently – the solanum species again proving keener than mustard to move in quick on new space.

 

My ridiculous sample notes about the sampling area – for 'twas my job – read: “A small irrigation ditch is nearby and a 'petrol station' nearby also.”  I see now it was not a petrol station, but someone's dwelling, but their toilets seemed public enough at the time.

 

Sandy and the Fly Girls exited, rummaged in the back for Sucky and Sweep, then set off into the undergrowth. Evelyn swished gamely. Erica bothered a bush. I made notes. Sandy snagged some excellent samples of Solanum dilleni. I went to the toilet again.

 

(Erica once more - many conversations on fieldtrips revolve around toilets - how often you need to go, the facilities etc)

 

On we went. As we sank riverwards, hopes rose in the back of the truck that the ever-more arid terrain may harbour the tomato relatives we had encountered in similar habitats earlier in the trip: habrochaites perhaps. It was getting drier and drier. I prefer the lush stuff up in the mountains.

 

We fairly freewheeled to the next stop a couple of miles hence, where a sharp bend in the road concealed a small clutch of solenum arcanum known from Sandy's notes to be in this location many years previously. It was still there. All manner of insects waited to be sucked from the bushes, but nearby sat a sizeable troop of Homosapiens Peruensis, taking a break from mending the road. They were much animated by the sight of Erica's immense suction apparatus. We had disturbed the species in its natural habitat, so had to bear with good grace the sniggering and what I imagined to be Spanish double entendres. The Challenges of Fieldwork.

 

My notes say we came away with some samples of “Solanum simplefolium” but, according to Google, this doesn't exist. That's a shame – I liked that name. I can only imagine it was Solanum pimpenellifolium. This sports little purple flowers and tiny tomatoes – tomatillos – which are edible. It's a really close relative of our tomatoes. Indeed, it is sometimes called a wild tomato.

 

Untitled-6.jpg

Some Peruvian geology.

 

Further we sank toward the Marañón in our search for tomato and potato data, through spectacular peaks and pyramids of twisted volcanic rock where lava seams poked through like ribcages, past abandoned pasture and the occasional hungry-looking donkey picking through the brush.

 

At last we reached the valley floor, at the village of Chacanto in the district of Las Balsas – gateway to the Amazonas region. It was now all firmly semi-desert, reminiscent of parts of Nevada or Utah, catching the full ferocity of the sun. It felt like being stir-fried. The river looked inviting, but the Marañón slides through at a good clip here even in the dry season. It is a mere stream compared with what it would become downstream, but the bridge that spans it is a good 100m in length. We rolled over the bridge, stopped only a few minutes for a coffee in the sleepy village, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go...

 

Untitled-7.jpg

The Marañón River at the bottom of the valley.

 

Erica - since writing these blog pieces we have been analysing some of the data and trying to figure out what some of the insects that we sampled are. It has taken months to do this and there have been at least 9 people so far going through the insects. many are about to be sent of to specialists across the globe. Upstairs from where I am typing this at my desk we have two people imaging some of the specimens before they are sequenced for their DNA....its a very exciting time for this project.

3

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) .

 

_DSC0663-700.jpg

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

 

Ok here is a close up:

 

Nycteribiidae+lateral+view-700.jpg

Still nothing? a mutated spider maybe?

 

Nycteribiidae+dorsal+view-700.jpg

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.

 

oldroyd_37.jpg

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.

 

head of nycteribiidae.jpg

 

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.

 

Penillidia_fulvida_front_claw_6.3x-700.jpg

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.

 

_DSC0664-700.jpg

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


world+collection+nycteribiidae-700.jpg

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.

 

Penillidia_fulvida_whole_1.25x-700.jpg

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

 

Cyclopodia_horsfieldi_slide_whole_0.8x-001-700.jpg

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.

 

_DSC0665-700.jpg

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:

 

dip+forum+nyct+wiki-700.jpg

 

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).

 

Nycteribiidae, Nycteribia kolenatii.jpgpupal case.jpg

 

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.

0

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.

 

su-night-leafing-past.jpg

 

 

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….

collection.jpg

 

 

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.

 

blue-whale-slide_13435_1.jpg

 

 

 

The blue whale

 

cocoon-glass-cabinet-walkway-490_38095_1.jpg

 

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.

0

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 (http://natsca.info/content/about-us). 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!

 

IMG_0209.JPG

they were so attentive as students!

 

IMG_0210.JPG

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!)

 

IMG_0206.JPG

 

 

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.

 

IMG_0225.JPG

(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

Copy of IMG_4658.JPG

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

 

Copy of IMG_4664.JPG

 

The conference itself was a SPNHC *the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections) http://140.247.98.87/ 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 http://www.canacoll.org/ and the storage facilities for the Canadian Museum of Nature http://nature.ca/en/home. They were both very different! The first had the collections amongst the staff (in Diptera this included Scott Brooks http://www.canacoll.org/Diptera/Staff/Brooks/Brooks.htm, Bradley Sinclair http://www.canacoll.org/CFIA/Staff/Sinclair/Sinclair.htm and Jeff Cummings http://www.canacoll.org/Diptera/Staff/Cumming/Cumming.htm, 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

IMG_4839.JPG

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

IMG_4840.JPG

 

 

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!

IMG_4876.JPG

And these were pretty smart too...

IMG_4870.JPG

 

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.

View Erica McAlister's profile