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Curator of Diptera's blog

23 Posts tagged with the flies tag
1

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!!

Damaged drawer.jpg

 

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.....

0

Taxonomy

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 24, 2009

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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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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Working at weekends

Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 16, 2009
It is Sunday morning and I am in work. I will be giving a Nature Live today about my job in the Museum and my favourite insects. Just checked on the web page and they have a massive stag beetle connected to my talk. But I am talking about flies! Oh well.

I was in all day yesterday talking to some of our corporate sponsors' families. I gave four talks on venomous and poisonous arthropods and I think that I may have traumatised some of the people. It is amazing how much people do and do not know.

I am still recovering after my fieldwork down in Somerset. It was lots of fun though and I will write a little piece with photos about that soon. I am off on holiday tonight so away from the blog. I am really looking forward to some sleep. I am trying to tidy my desk at the moment as there are flies all over it that need to be put away etc. Other members of my department leave me little jars of flies from their collecting holidays - what nice presents we leave for each other

I am also playing with my new toy today, which is a dinolight microscope which is fab. I have it set up to the computer and it takes lovely photographs. I have some beetle bums to take some photos of to send to someone in Brazil!

Have a nice week – I will.
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Pinning flies

Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 4, 2009
We undertook some fieldwork on Bookham Common a while back, which was being filmed by the BBC.  We set up some pitfall traps, a malaise trap (a tent!) and then undertook some canopy sampling. I have finally had a bit of time today to start sorting through these specimens. The beetles have been studied from many years on the common and so it is nice to look at the fly population. There are lots of fungus gnats, Dolichopodids, hoverflies, houseflies, and some robber flies (which are very cool). I have only just started on the pinning of the specimens from the malaise trap and there are several hundred to do!! Once pinned, I will sort to family level and pass them on to the appropriate people to identify if not within my area.  It’s good to be able to look at specimens as most of the day I have been answering emails and constructing lists. Tomorrow I will be spending the entire day making labels to put in our new Synoptic collection.

I have just recieved an internal grant to have someone recurate and incorporate a collection of fungus gnats from Russia into our collection. This was a research collection and all the names are in Russian, some on dodgy pins, there is dried up genitalia everywhere (a common problem!!) and no label saying that the material is ours. Our new assistant has her work cut out!
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Sampling

Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 29, 2009
OK. So i will not be finding out about sampling in pigeon lofts till thursday night but in the meantime we have hopefully organised sampling in Hounslow Farm and Richmond Park, fingers crossed. Going to suck the mosquitoes of pigs and Alpacas

Also just spoke to an old friend of mine about sampling down on the Somerset Levels, again for mosquitoes, as he works at a University down there. This is critical as we need a minus 80 freezer (he is a microbiologist - very handy) to ensure that the genetic material of the viruses (if there are any) does not denature.  The area should be great mosquito habitat and we need to contact some farmers to see if we can sample round their cow sheds etc. It is so much more complicated sampling in the UK as in Thailand/Vietnam everyone had a cow shed!!

Started working on the synoptic collection of UK Flies today that will be going into the New Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where we luck out as there are a lot of species of flies in the UK (more than beetles and butterflies and moths put together!). Just doing the labels for the collection will take a couple of weeks! It will be good to have them more accessible though.
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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!
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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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