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Curator of Diptera's blog

9 Posts tagged with the darwin_centre tag
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It is a Tuesday morning and I have a stinking cold. I have this now as yesterday I spent the day recovering from the last three weeks and so my body thought it was time to give me all the infections that had been going around the department previously which it had been storing up for a special occasion!

 

The melt down has occurred through a culmination of the collection moving, a synoptic collection being created and the hosting of the Dipterists Forum at the weekend based in the New Darwin Centre. However it was fab. For months now I had been organising catering, room booking, way-signs etc etc with the rest of the team being enlisted to make labels, print forms, lug equipment around etc. And yet still on Saturday morning when everyone turned up there were still things that went wrong (not helped by the tube shutting both the district and circle lines!!! ). I guess that had to be expected.

 

But we had four fabulous talks on Saturday morning to an audience of just under 60 in the new Neil Chalmers Lecture theatre. First up was Chris Thompson (eminent American Dipterologist) who talked about the state of Diptera identification from it's beginnings to now. It is always lovely to hear someone from the States to say how brilliant the UK is about certain things, one of which is level of which our fauna is studied and the passion of the wider community for recording etc. This is seen with things like the hoverfly recording scheme. Looking at a world map showing spots where records had been added to GBIF etc. The UK is absolutely covered with the rest of the world showing a distinct lack of sites (apart from Chris's backyard!).

 

Next was the fabulous Geoff Hancock (Glasgow Museum - all the more fabulous for stepping in at late notice) who gave a talk on specific craneflies that you could identify through the pupal cases that they left behind. This is a secondary character that enables ecologists to monitor populations without killing any of the specimens so are crucial when dealing with rare and/or endangered species.

 

After coffee we started with Graham Rotheray (Edinburgh Museum) who discussed higher Dipteran larvae, specifically their feeding apparatus. Some excellent photographs showing the very reduced structures associated with the heads. And finally Stuart Ball who gave a talk on recent work on Hoverflies. Lot's of fun with modelling of the data! We dragged everyone upstairs to our lovely new common room giving a few people vertigo on the way for lunch! The afternoon resumed with the AGM followed by individual recording groups detailing the years activity. Some lovely photographs supplied by Judy Webb for Peter Chandlers Mycetophila talk.

 

Then off to the pub! followed by a meal. Brilliant

 

The next day a fair number of people returned to the museum for a tour and then to play in the collections! The tour started with Hannah Cornish giving an introduction and show round of the AMC for UK biodiversity.

 

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They were impressed by the space and hopefully you will see some workshops on Diptera identification being run from there soon. Next was the UK Diptera synoptic collection. This collection was finished on Friday at 4.15pm!! Nigel Wyatt, Kim G, Hannah and I have worked solidly over the last two weeks to get the collection in. I was a walking zombie often leaving past nine at night. One night even my Mum helped although she did spend a fair amount of time laughing at all the species names. But against much adversity it was completed (albeit the slide and the ones that we had no pads for! they turned up this morning!) But by the time the tour started 250 drawers were in the synoptic collection and being looked over by the amateur specialists. It was such a lovely site.

 

We then carried up to see the spirit collection (and try and presuade them that they wanted to help sort material ) followed by a look in the imaging lab. Finally we showed them the cocoon ends and the main British and World collection in their new homes. They loved it! People split off and either corrected the synoptic collection, retrieved data off labels, used the collection to aid in identifications, or generally just nosed around 'ohhing' and 'ahhing' every now and again. People donated material and there were many offers of future donations to fill the main gaps in the collection

 

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We have decided to hold another session similar to this in February before the sampling kicks in again to provide opportunities for the group to cross check material etc. My highlights were the hedgehog fly and i have to say I was very impressed with some of the Tachinids (not a group i usually look at). Stuart Balls comment of having walk through genitalia was my favourite of the day

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Normality

Posted by Erica McAlister Nov 3, 2009

We have been in the new building a couple of weeks now and things appear to be calming down. I have started sending out loans again as previously we held off on them due to the time involved to sort them out. Today I sent some of the largest Asilids (robber flies) from our collection to Belgium to be worked on. I do hope that they will get there ok. Each specimen is cross-pinned to ensure that it does not move around. The box is then sealed with cellophane and then this box is put in another box. It should be ok but we have had many an abdomen lost (not that anything is going anywhere for a while...). I have many current loans and many overdue loans. I have one that is overdue from 20 years ago and it is only one fly! I find it hard to believe that people take that long to look at one specimen. The more probable answer is that they have lost the material and do not want to disclose this fact! I would much prefer that they stated this though rather than being stuck in limbo! A few of us our discussing an elite loan recovery squad to jet off round the world, abseiling into museums, labs etc to find the missing specimens

 

Two of my colleagues and I did our first Nature live in the new Attenborough Studio last Thursday night. We were talking about flies, parasitic lice and parasitoids. It was nice to have a session that did not lookat all the traditional insects that everyone thinks of as cute or beautiful,and actually point out that these groups are incredibly important and show them some amazing specimens. Gavin Brood (the parasitic hymenopterist) did bringalong the worlds smallest insect so maybe they didn't get to see so much of some of them!! I brought along a Darwin specimen of a Therevid that was sent back along with many others from Valpariso, Chile. The fly had seen better days with three legs, a wing and its antenna missing!! We talked about the collection, collecting techniques and our individual areas of research. The public seemed to enjoy it and one was even heard commenting on the way out that they had no idea that scientists were witty . I guess the reason why we do this public outreach is the demystify ourselves as well as our work...

 

Below is a picture of some butterflies (honest). I used it to demonstrate that you can't just leave the collection, it needs to be checked regularly!!

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I have some Brazilian visitors over here at the moment looking at the Diptera collection. They both work at the University of Sao Paulo although at different departments within it with one of them working as the Head of Invertebrates at the Museum there. They have been impressed so far with the building and the collection. But already one has been working on unidentified material and found new species! The Brazilian Government has spent a lot funding the study of Taxonomy and it is obvious in the standard of researcher (we have many masters students requesting our material) that we see. They will be here for the next couple of weeks so I am hoping for a few more new species turning up

 

Right, off to an all day meeting.....

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So I am in the new Darwin Centre and unpacked. And I have to say it is lovely. I have my specimens that I am working on in a cabinet directly behind me. I have a spacious desk with all my catalogues arranged close by. I have a wet lab for sorting my specimens in alcohol a minute away. And it is so light that desk lamps are redundant. And I have a foot rest. I can finally get back to work (there is still the minor problem of the collection that is yet to move into the building though….early November for that and my, it will be crazy). And I have to find a quick route from my desk to the staff entrance..

 

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My bay

 

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View from our floor over the Cocoon

 

Yesterday, though, I got to work on some recuration. I had lent (and by that I mean the Museum) all of our Sisyrnodytes specimens to a researcher in South Africa. These are a genus of Robber flies and the researcher in question is a leading authority. The specimens returned some while ago but I have not been able to put them back in the collection as he had designated one a Lectotype and described two new species from the material.

 

When new species are discovered and named, if it comes from a series then the author may choose to call all of the specimens from the same collecting event etc ‘Syntypes’ (we often have 10+ syntypes). This is not very helpful when it comes to descriptions, so what often happens is that one of them at a later point will be designated a Lectotype. To have this accepted along with the new species that he described, he needed to publish his descriptions.

 

This has now happened so I am able to link the material to the publication, update our system and reinstate the material (all lovingly housed in new Museum standard trays) back into the collection. I have now only another couple of thousand drawers to recurate and a whole lot more of unidentified material…..

 

old style drawers:

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And my nice new ones

 

We are off on fieldwork tomorrow. We have five days based in BridgNorth, near Wolverhampton….Not familiar at all with the area so it should be interesting. It is with the Dipterists Forum and I think that there will be about 10 of us.Today and yesterday the three of us from the Museum that are going have been organising our equipment. We have nets, microscopes, wellies, id guides etc etc that are waiting to be loaded up.

 

These trips are brilliant for many reasons. We get to run round the countryside, we learn a lot more about the British Fauna and we get to socialise with some of the top Dipterists in the UK. We are prioritising at the moment for species that we don’t have in our collection. It does seem odd that there are some UK species missing from the national collection but it has not been a collection priority for a while.

 

This is all changing with the opening of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK biodiversity. With over 7000 species of fly in the UK we should be kept busy hunting for a while

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Leaving home

Posted by Erica McAlister Oct 1, 2009

When I first started at the museum I was based in the old Entomology building, full of old cabinets, rooms stuffed full of specimens and hidden corners.

moving desks (8).JPG I was only volunteering or on contract work and so my first 'real' home was in the Origins Gallery, half way along on the bounciest part of the floor (we are on a mezzanine which bounces quite violently at times). So it is with some sadness that I have now nearly packed it all up and am ready for our move to the Darwin Centre on Tuesday.

 

The amount of dust is ridiculous! All the little presents that I have been given over the last couple of years have now been boxed up and all books, microscopes etc are ready for the movers!moving desks (9).JPG

 

I have spent the day filing correspondence and incorporating loan material that has been returned, back into the collection. It is good to have a sort out now and again other wise I will end up retiring and there being boxes of material everywhere....

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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 ....

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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 )
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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.

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I am sitting at my desk recovering from my first day back in the ‘office’…..my head is thumping. I have had a nasty cold the last two days of my hols (which were fab as I went sailing in Cornwall!) and I was a tad worried that I had the dreaded SF…but as of 6.30 this morning it seemed ok! 

 

So where do I begin? I think I will start at the last bit of fieldwork that I undertook with another colleague Kim. We headed down south to lovely Somerset. It was sooo nice. We went down on the Monday having arranged to see five farms and one animal park over the course of three days.  My friend from Bath Spa University had arranged for us to use their freezers, which although were not minus eighty meant that the dry ice that we kept the dead specimens on would last the distance. 

 

The first farm was a goat farm – it was great. 100s of them (i think 800 to be precise) just staring at us, bleating away with their funny little giblet things dangling from their throats (no idea what they are all about). Then we went onto a cow farm that had a massive outside brush which the cows could use as a type of car wash – brilliant. Both very successful placed for mosquitoes and the second had a house that I would love to live in .

 

Day two and brilliant sunshine and we were off to the animal farm. I love these places and so do the mosquitoes . In with the pigs, the llamas, the sheep, the donkeys- just everywhere!! We caused much amusement to the holiday makers and the very charming owners' son spent the morning with us…a nice bonus! After lunch we went on to another cow herd. Not as many mossis here but the cows were very friendly. The guy that I had contacted was the owners' son and he had forgotten to mention it to his father. We got accosted by a rather confused gentlemen wondering what on earth we were doing wandering round his yard with suction machines strapped to our backs. 

 

The final day we went to a lovely little farm that had cottages to let (beautiful next to a river, hares in the field). We did not find any in the cow sheds. the problem with modern day farming methods is that they are so very clean!! But we did find some males along the river so that was good. The afternoon was at a rather enthusiastic females farm who wanted us to remove every single fly. She was being plagued by house flies but they were the wrong sort of fly for us! But we found some and some larvae and so were very pleased to have a 6/6 success  

 

We drove back to the museum on Thursday. We stopped at a service station on the way back and Kim bought one of those teddies that was in Ice age (the one with the nut..never seen them sorry). We were getting back into the car when a wasp followed us in. You would have been impressed by the professionalism of two museum entomologists. Kim pelted it from the car taking her new teddy with her and I was laughing so much I couldn’t get the wasp out of the car…people just stared at our incompetence..  but we made it back in time for the friends and family event for the opening of the cocoon in the Darwin Centre.

 

Finally saw the game that I helped with and am completely embarrased about myself…how many years will this exhibit be for? I am praying for some minor electrical fault..Apart from that it is looking good. Each time we see it more things are completed. Not long now before the official opening. Not that we Dipterists will be in the building yet as our collection does not move till October. 

 

Then on Friday, Saturday and Sunday I gave 7 talks……I was numb by the end of it…The first five were for our corporate sponsors. I talked to mainly children about venomous and poisonous arthropods..and I think either managed to scare them into never leaving their homes again or creating monsters that their parents will hate after they have poisoned a sibling by making them eating ladybirds (apparently there was a friend of the department who could speciate ladybirds by licking them as they have a unique taste). Still, maybe there will be a few that will start looking around them at the smaller more important things in life.

 

The Sunday talks were about my work in the department. I just get to talk about me collecting and killing which is what most people focus on. Oh and how do I identify and sex them….it is tough talking genitalia to a mixed aged audience.  I needed my holiday.  And then today. I arrived, the Tajikistanis arrived.  And we headed down to Kent to look for mosquito larvae. Which was successful. They turned up however with no wellies, no rain coat and the translator was in stilettos! Oh well, I have taken undergraduate students out in worse! It was a fab British summer day as well, one minute lovely sunshine and then the clouds would open lots of squeals as everyone pegged it to the minibus….It was interesting that they had said that they had all done this sampling before and knew all the procedures and then once in the field they seemed to have forgotten everything (again reminding me of undergraduates). But we got larvae and quite a few of several different species. They are now in the tower of the museum hopefully growing into adults (and then we kill and pin them!)  however my day was not complete until I smacked the hired minibus into the scaffolding of the freezers in the back car park…most annoying and I am blaming it on the blue car parked really close…  I have no idea how the next three weeks will be as this is only day two of their visit. I think that I may be tunrning to vodka…

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Hi, I'm Erica

Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 29, 2009
This is my first post! l will be writing about the life behind the scenes at the museum, mainly my work and my obsession with insects.

I have just arrived back from a lovely week away to the trauma of hundreds of emails, meetings, loans, identifications etc etc.  Everything is very busy in the Museum at the moment- it is the school holidays and the public areas are packed! And behind the scenes most of us are getting ready for the big opening and move into the new Darwin Centre. I am now just looking forward to moving into the new building – it seems to have been a long time ago that we moved out of the old Entomology builiding. I love my desk in the old ‘Origins Gallery’ (our tempory home) with the different animals carved into the stonework but i won’t miss the bouncy floor, the poor lighting and noisy staff

I am involved with many different projects at the moment including some on mosquitoes (in the UK and Tajikistan, Thailand and Vietnam), recuration of Bombyliidae (amazing beeflies), making slides of fungus gnat wings and organising a Dipterists Forum AGM and meeting here at the NHM. As well as this I have my day to day tasks which may include Loans of flies to people from around the world, answering enquiries about flies , and updating the database.  There are field visits to go on, samples to sort and and awful lot of specimens to look after!

at the moment i am trying to contact pigeon fanciers to see if they will let me sample mosquitoes in their lofts!


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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