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Curator of Diptera's blog

12 Posts tagged with the research tag


Posted by Erica McAlister Apr 30, 2015

OK, I have decided to create #Worldrobberflyday. All the time now, we hear that this large mammal or that large mammal has a 'day', and that got me thinking. Buglife have an invertebrate of the month, but even they are not very often the lesser-known insects, including the flies.


And I wanted global. Let the world celebrate! Why is it always the large stuff or the pretty (and, in my opinion, slightly less important) species? So I thought about it and decided it was about time that we championed more aggressively the rights of the small and endangered flies. These creatures are some of the most charismatic animals on the planet. The robberflies, or Asilidae, are truly worth celebrating for their looks, for their behaviour, for their good deeds to us, and because many of them are threatened.


The UK boasts 28 species of Asilidae (OK, so that's not a lot in terms of flies, but hold on – we have only 30 native terrestrial mammals, of which 17 are bats and 2 are native marine mammals). Globally there are more than 7,500 species, and as such, it is one of the largest families of insects today. In fact Torsten Dikow, a world expert on this group, has them as the third most speciose group of diptera. This is a group, therefore, that has a large impact on the environment in which they live.


Asilidae are Brachycerans (Fig. 1), which are the more advanced and robust flies. Asilidae are known from the Jurassic era, but some of the more important finds are from the Cretaceous, including those from the Crato Formation of north-eastern Brazil (approximately 112 million years old). This site is truly extraordinary in terms of the invertebrate remains that were found there (and just another reason for me to get back to Brazil!).



Figure 1. Phylogenetic arrangement of Diptera showing the more advanced Brachycerans and the position of the Asilidae (robberflies) within it.


It was again Linnaeus, or Linne, who described these flies in his 10th edition (1758) Systema Naturae when he erected the genus Asilus. Within this, eleven species were described and then a further four were added in the 12th edition. You may be unsurprised to know that most of these are no longer in the original genus! Ten have been moved to other genera, three we are unsure of due to the original descriptions being vague, so that leaves only two in the genus.


However, the species Asilus crabroniformis, commonly called the hornet robberfly in the UK – and the type species of the family – still sits within this genus in all its magnificence. The division of flies into different families came later with Latreille, a very eminent entomologist who tried to put some more organisation into the entomological hierarchy in 1802. Since then we have increased the number of species and have split the family into many subfamilies –14 in fact (Fig. 2) But as regular readers know, Dipteran taxonomists are still not satisfied and expect more movement in the future.



Figure 2. Subfamilies within Asilidae (image is Tigonomiminae © Thomas Shahan).


Even still, you can comprehend how much work has gone on into understanding the relationships within this family so far.


Moustaches and mouthparts


So why are people interested in these flies? Well once more, this is a family of flies that rock! And these rock harder than most. All armed with moustaches and powerful piercing mouthparts, these predators are aptly named, as they truly are the most vicious and effective aerial predators. These flies are venomous, probably both as adults and as larvae (although we know so very little about the offspring). The adults are able to catch, then sedate, their prey whilst on the wing, suck out the contents and then drop the husk of what was once a living breathing entity. It's almost poetry.


And to be fair, to catch these little predators you often have to become a predator yourself. There is no majestic leaping around the countryside, freely swinging your nets with wild exuberance: instead you must 'become the fly'. You stalk it; determine where it rests and then strike. If you are me, this is often followed by a squeal of delight or a wail of despair. I once spent a glorious afternoon on one of the Isles of Scilly at the beach (obviously working very hard) trying to stalk these flies. My volunteer and I tried to work in unison hunting them, and I could almost hear the flies mocking us…


The adults are most active during sunny, hot conditions. Again, another reason for loving flies – they have an affinity for the nicer weather conditions.


Although these flies range a lot in size, from 2mm to 6cm, they all share distinctive features that help identify the family. The adults have enormous eyes, which is one of the many tools that make them such efficient predators. And it also helps us recognise this family easily. The bulbous eyes and the distinct dip between the two eyes are very characteristic (see Fig. 3). They can swivel their heads around and their eyes can see what's going on behind them as well.



Figure 3. My, my... what big eyes you have...!


Some of them scout amongst the grasses, their rapid wingbeat enabling them to turn whilst hovering. These truly are the stealth-bombers of the insect world.


The leptogastriniiae are the skinniest of the Asilidae, with very long bodies and legs. They use these long, gangly first two pairs of legs to catch their prey whilst – we think – using the third pair to stabilise themselves. Not all actively scan like this: some will sit and wait, only darting out to impale their prey when they are ready. If fact, there are several different ways in which they hunt and, as with all good scientists, someone has devised a terminology for all of these (Fig. 4)



Figure 4. Lehr (1979) from the Geller-Grimm Asilidae site.


For that is another characteristic of this group – a well-formed, stout beak often hidden in a luxurious moustache or, more correctly termed, a mystax (Fig. 5).



Figure 5. Mouthparts of a robber fly (Brachycera: Asilidae). an=antenna; cl=clypeus; ip=hypopharynx; li=labium; ls=labrum (epipharynx); m=mystax; ms=maxillae; oc=eye; pm=maxillary palpus © Giancarlo Dessì. Licensed under CC BY NC SA 3.0 US.


It is the needle-like hypopharynx (Fig. 5) that pierces their prey. This is not for the faint-hearted, as they often try and pierce the soft parts of the insect, such as the neck or sometimes the eyes. They have this moustache (Mystax – Fig. 5) to help protect their mouthparts from the flailing prey.


They don't have to flail for long, though, as the fly injects saliva that contains nerve toxins that paralyse the prey, and proteolytic enzymes that dissolve the insides. They are nasty for insects, spiders, and occasionally a very unfortunate hummingbird, but apart from giving a nasty jab, they are not dangerous to humans. Research done by Adamovic in 1963 found that injecting robberfly saliva into invertebrates kills them instantly, but they never inject venom into humans. There are several researchers in the Natural History Museum who are now studying the venoms within these flies, so watch out for future Museum publications to follow what is happening in this field.


But this leads me to one of the first reasons that these flies are very important. It's because they are such good predators. Within the UK, between 1930 and 1933, Hobby produced a list of the prey records (Fig. 6).



Figure 6. Hobbies lists from Stubbs and Drake 2014.

We have spent the last century working out the prey species and now have a greater understanding of the potential impact these flies can have in helping control populations of species that we often consider as pests – with aphids being a classic example. Although they are opportunistic species, they can have an impact on the overall densities and therefore become the gardener's friends.


Flirty flies


So let's move on to courtship. As with most creatures, some do, some don't; with some species the males just grab, while others put a fair amount of time and effort into it and have different modifications on their bodies to both attract the opposite sex as well as hold on to them. And it's not just the males that do the flirting. Oh no - there are some females that entice the male.


The rather unusual courtship of the British robberfly Choerages marginatus was described by Ian Rabarts in 2009 (paraphrased from Alan Stubbs' rather amusing synopsis on the subject, in his and Martin Drake's book British Soldierflies and their Allies): Firstly the flies recognise that (a) they are the right species, and (b) that they are of the opposite sex (a very good start in most situations to do with copulation leading to fertilisation).


Then they check out each other's hunting moves and, if OK, the female stands facing the male in a sort of 'yeah, you'll do' posture. After this, she flies in a slow 'flaunting' circuit (hussy) very similar to that of a prey item (all very kinky). He attacks when he sees her 'shimmer-strip', whereupon she slows down her flight, but flies in an angular pattern. He realises then that this is his lady and adjusts his attack from one of capturing prey to one of copulation.


Alan then states in his book: 'Failure [of copulation] results in going back a few steps in the courtship sequence.' A not-unfamiliar event…


Bob Lavigne, a collaborator of mine and another international robberfly expert, wrote in 2003: 'It is postulated that courtship first developed when male search flights (which end abruptly with copulation), were consistently unsuccessful.' It sounds so final when it ends with copulation!


In fact, reading the literature when it comes to robberfly mating in copulation has been very entertaining. Morgan (1995) records that another species that were just about to do the do were scared off by a sheep! Given the size difference I too in a similar position may have been scared off...


But check out Pegesimallus teratodes (Fig.7) – these have amazing structures on their hind legs. These are used in the dance of the males to attract the females –they are indeed the peacocks of the robberfly world.



Figure 7. Pegesimallus teratodes and its amazing legs.


And that is not all that is fantastic about the males. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the genitalia of the males (Fig. 8).



Figure 8. The male Pegesimallus teratodes with his rather impressive genitalia.

And then there are specimens in our collection that we think give us an indication of a courtship story, although I doubt we will ever be able to find out for certain. Take, for example, two specimens of Mallophora infernalis from our collection (Fig. 9). Now, had the female caught the bush cricket and the male had thought:“Excellent! Both food and sex!”? Or, had the male caught the cricket to attract the female? Either way, it was not going to end well for the bush cricket (or in this case for the robberflies).



Figure 9. Male and Female of Mallophora infernalis who were caught mid air carrying this bush cricket.


So whether there is dancing, waving, differences in wingbeats, or offerings, the end result hopefully is the production of eggs. And blimey, the females have a big range of ovipositors (egg laying tubes) (Fig. 10)!



Figure 10. Ovipositors (adapted from Stubbs and Drake 2014).

Now this is where it gets tricky, as we know less about the egg and larval stage than any of the others. And this is the main reason why we should be concerned about these gorgeous creatures – many of the UK species are rare. We have no real idea for many species globally but can only assume that this is the case everywhere. In fact, several of our UK species are protected.


However we don't know much, if anything, about many of the species' diet, where they live, development and so on. In Collins' book The Conservation of Insects and their Habitats, he discusses how little is known about the species, despite the fact that they are classed as threatened.


Take one of the most charismatic insects in the UK (no bias there) the hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis – a mimic of (you guessed it) a hornet. There is still very little information. Previous work dating back to the 90s states that the eggs were laid in or under the old dung of cows, horses and rabbits, and soil nearby. Maybe the adults (and subsequent larvae) are that flexible in their habitat? The larvae are then thought to feed on dung beetles but again this has only been observed (and not by many authors) during late-stage instars. What do the little ones eat? It is a UK priority species and we need to know more about it. How can we consider conserving a species (if it needs it) if we don't know where it is or what it's getting up to? It's like a wayward teenager.


Now, if you want to know more about what is going on with UK robberflies, there are loads of pages giving you what information there is.

There is a nice little piece by naturespot (Fig. 11) featuring some of the UK species, and of course you must check out the Dipterists Forum for all of their information.



Figure 11. Nature spot.


But what we really want now is information coming the other way. Personal observations in the field, the location of eggs and the like, and species distributions are all critical in ensuring that we maintain and enhance our existing populations.


Martin Harvey @kitenet runs the UK recording scheme for these wonderful little animals (See Fig. 12 or visit the website) and you can send all your records to that site. Martin also runs many courses on these as do others in the Dipterists Forum, so sign up and go along to them.



Figure 12. The Soldierfly and allies recording scheme, which includes the robberflies.

So there you go - robberflies are amazing, and they do need celebrating. And if you still need convincing here is a little fluffy one to tug at your heartstrings. When asked what is my favourite fly, Laphria flava is at the center of my heart (Fig. 13).



Figure 13. Laphria flava male.


Here is the final installment of Dave's account of the fieldtrip to Peru. I have to say that it has been really interesting reading his musings on the trip. All of the things that we take for normal - the weird looks, the entertaining facilities, the near-death experiences, the discovery of new species - seen through new eyes has been a pleasure. So for the last time, over to Dave:


Out of the frying pan and back along the mighty Marañon and up, following a tributary that irrigates lush orchards - very much the oasis in the desert. Bursting through the tops of the orange trees, and we were climbing again, up the other side of the valley. Not having to drive I could enjoy the views of where we'd come from, and the ribbon of green where the little river had ploughed a green furrow in the dusty gorge.

Enjoying the views.


Sandy's keen eye spotted something clinging to a cliff and we stopped smartly. A single specimen of Nicotiniana glutinosa clinging lonesomely to a roadside crag. This variant of nightshade is a species of tobacco, as the name suggests, and is important as a "model organism" as it's resistant to the the tobacco mosaic virus. Useful therefore to the tobacco industry (so possibly best to leave it alone).


But there's no stopping the Sweep Sisters, who were already unpacked and sampling the area. The plant itself was out of reach to safely take a sweep at it, but there was no escape from The Mac, who began her assault with the hoover. She was just able to reach the tiny yellow-flowered specimen to get a suction sample. How unlucky was the fly that, of all the plants available, chose to alight on this lonely specimen that morning.


It occurred to me, not for the first time, that it was quite convenient for us that Solanaceae tend to colonise disturbed ground readily, as on our numerous stops we were often able to park the car and sample the area without having to hike too far into the brush.


Unfortunate invertebrates stashed once more, on we went. Higher, greener... greyer the skies. The prospect of rain? The road narrower still, and presently there came a tight right-hand corner, a loop where the high cliff was divided by one of the many deep, overgrown ravines where streams sliced the steep mountainsides. We stopped at Sandy's direction and wandered into the bush. So much lusher at this altitude, and to my untrained eye must be a much better prospect for mini-critters.


Sandy had also been employing me these past days in "DNA" duties, which consisted of picking the fruits from various solanaceae and carefully extracting the seeds for use by boffins back in London, which I did here to the best of my abilities.


Meanwhile, Sandy showed me a sapling - a young Solenum albidum - that to me looked a bit like a rubber plant, with its huge succulent dark-green leaves. The species grows well at mid-elevations (1,000m plus or so) round these parts. Sandy then showed me the adult plant nearby. Frankly, if this had been a human specimen I'd have suspected mummy had been a bit friendly with the milkman: the parent looked nothing like its offspring; this was a small, woody tree with small, veined, oak-shaped leaves. Sandy couldn't understand my surprise at the difference. But I suppose I have come to expect such metamorphoses in certain pupating insects - why not plants?

Sandy pointing out some interesting species.

Evelyn's arachnids.


Evelyn turned out her net to reveal two colourful-looking arachnids of respectable size.


Back in London the first was identified by Museum spiderwoman Jan Beccaloni as an orb-weaver, but the other remains tantalisingly unidentified many months later:


"That's a very interesting spider!" says Beccaloni. "It's in the family Nephilidae and most closely resembles the genus Clitaetra (one of only 4 genera), but it isn't one of the 6 species in that genus - given that they are from Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. I don't suppose you collected it did you?"


We didn't - as far as we know. Perhaps Evelyn did and it is preserved in Peru rather than in Blighty. What if it was a new species? Perhaps a target for the next trip.


Erica was well pleased in any case with her catch, which revealed plenty of interesting new pipunculids (literally "big-headed flies"). They like hanging around plants, laying eggs in other flies (useful in pest control) and the adults dine on honeydew (like Kubla Khan). Their bulbous "holoptic" eyes take up their whole heads: they look ridiculous and frankly should be ashamed of themselves. Because of the sheer weight of their eyeballs, pipunculids have to fly head-down-tail up, like a flying exclamation mark.


Now it began to rain. It was extraordinary how quick the weather had changed with elevation: an hour ago we were in a dustbowl. We headed upwards as the chasms to our right yawned at us anew. Erica was on the left-hand side of the vehicle so mercifully couldn't see the juicy drops we were narrowly avoiding. As we emerged into sun-dappled uplands and mist again, we came upon a tiny, adobe and-tin-roofed cafe with a rickety balcony overlooking the valleys, where we sat out the showers and had lunch. But it turned out the day's sampling was done. By 2pm! Turns out the insects don't like the rain either.


We still had a ways to go, but we were able wind along the tricky bends at a relaxed pace. Erica became relatively comfortable with the precipitous drops, and we were able to plan possible sampling sites the next day. I was just enjoying the views. We breached a pass in the Cordillera de Calla Calla at 3,600m. Sandy says the pass is so named because, before the road was built, "calla calla" is what locals, carts laden with booty for the market in Celendin, would call out before turning the narrow blind bends.




I now see I was playing a bit fast and loose with the task of record-keeper. I remember fondly my Dad once recounting how he and his school mates would wind up the science teacher by recording the effects of experiments in florid prose: "the aluminium lit up like brimstone, its fiery refulgence white-hot" and so on.


My notes, too, were drifting into the arena of the unscientific. Under the "conditions" column it reads: "sun and stratocumulus; v warm; humid, but stiff breeze; like a tart's hairdryer". Elsewhere I seem to dabble with amateur meteorology: "Hot and sunny; but some shade. Good-natured cumulus flit across the sky heading west at about 3,800m asl." "Overcast, dull, but now warm (20C+) stratus dominates. All is grey. It is like Mordor. There is a little offshore breeze."


Under the column method of collection, "suction" evolves into "suck", "sucking", "sucky", "socktions" and even "suctionez". I'd thought no harm could come of this, thinking it was for Erica's eyes only.  But apparently it was given to a record keeper at the Museum who wrote it all down verbatim.


It was my way of amusing myself in the evenings while I copied my handwritten notes into spreadsheets. What I haven't mentioned yet, scandalously, is that every evening after a day of driving and sampling we unpacked the van and that was when the real work started. Every night I did the spreadsheets, while Sandy erected her plant drier and stared sorting her haul, carefully arranging the samples and layering them in paper sheets ready to dry the sample overnight. Erica and Evelyn sorted through the numerous bags and 'kill jars' from the day's sampling, emptying each one separately on to plastic trays, the thousands upon thousands of insects in each tray then to be sorted that night and either pinned individually with microscopic pins or preserved carefully in alcohol, noting species, date, time, location in lat/longitude, then slotted carefully into little polystyrene boxes, ready for the next day.


This red-eyed ritual happened every night before and after dinner till about 11.30pm, sometimes later. At around 6.30am the next morning, we would repack everything into the van (my job chiefly), Sandy having been up for an hour or so already, dismantling the plant drier and packing her samples with scrupulous care. All to be loaded into other boxes for transport eventually to the UK where the real work of identification, classification, labelling and record-keeping begins. And that's just the start - when the real science starts and the project begins to bear fruit. Erica and Sandy can tell you about that in various sober academic journals, I should wager.

Work continues into the evening...

Sandy packing samples with great care.

We arrived in Leymebamba in the late afternoon.  It is a quiet and friendly country village with a tiny well-kept plaza de armas, with narrow streets leading off, lined with with adobe-brick houses with renaissance-style balconies and big weathered wooden shutters. And a lovely stone church. It had a contended feel.


We found a little guesthouse up a side street. It knocked all the others we'd stayed at into a cocked fedora. The accommodation we'd been staying at, taxpayers, was more than comfortable, and very cheap - about $10 a night. This was only marginally more expensive, and not what you'd call luxury,  but the rooms were more modern - clean, and with the benefit of warm water. The hostel centred round a carefully tended courtyard stuffed with pot plants and rustic local knick-knacks. In one corner a pair of hummingbirds sucked nectar from a feeder. I kid you not. The upstairs balcony opened on to an idyllic view of the higgledy-piggledy red-clay rooftops, with the Andes tumbling into the distance beyond.


Someone very clever decided we should stay two nights this time and use Leymebamba as a base to strike out, and I didn't complain. I could have stayed there for a week or more.


This would be useful as a base to discover more sampling areas in a comparatively verdant habitat. We had in any case realised that we were now about as far east as we were going to get in the time available, and any further progress would have to be north and then westward to the coast again, on rather faster roads, to complete the 700-mile loop out of the Andes - the journey overall being about 1500 miles in all.


But I can't recount that here. I have to cut this short or I'll be here all year... oh wait: I have been already. Such is the curse of the day job, which I am sure you will now be hoping I'll stick to.


But in the days that followed if there was less in the way of climbing, offroading and hair-raising cliffhugging, there was no less incident. I got behind the wheel again, so of course the driving got better (...) My notes got worse if anything. There's a lot more to tell in a separate blog, which I'll share later elsewhere. If people are nice. It shall tell of exploding hotwater tanks, ancient ruins and getting caught in landslips. There may be mention of waterfalls, crooked cops, giant wasps, pelicans and bandits. And I lost my special stick.


Erica and Sandy are planning their final trip for the project (with an extra botanist as driver this time). Meanwhile, Erica and her team at the Museum are still going through the samples we took on our trip nine months later. Now I know what they're doing over there I see it's worth every penny. Their dedication and expertise impressed me endlessly.


If I had to take away one thing from the trip it would be that how astonishingly common it was for the scientists to identify new types of both plant and animal. As Erica says: "It's so nice you get to experience this. Every time I look down a microscope of my foreign material I know that realistically, I have new species. Right now in my study I have new species. God it rocks!"


That's under a trained eye: how often must inexperienced eyes come across new species without knowing it? It hammered home the fact that there must be species we haven't even seen yet becoming extinct through human activity every day. The work of Sandy and Erica and others at the Museum is just a small part of the important work being done to prevent this.


I count myself fortunate indeed that I was invited to take part in this trip with such distinguished scientists for the world's best natural history museum (and humbled that they entrusted me with their wellbeing on roads like those). Also, thanks to Erica for allowing me to hijack her blog for the best part of a year. But that's quite enough from me. Sorry it took so long. But don't blame me - I'm just the driver.


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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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...



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.


I have been away alot recently (that sounds familiar to all that know me) and one of those trips was a field trip to Peru. In fact I brought my partner with me to be our driver and field assistant. This is a big gamble - would we be able to cope without killing each other; would he understand and enjoy what we were doing; would he drive us off the cliff? These were all considerations that we pondered but eventually decided that it would be great - if we couldn't explain to him the value of our work then we reallly needed to work on our communication skills.


However it wasn't a holiday for him - as well as the driving we made him press plants, collect insects, take DNA samples, transcribe field data and also I made him write my blog . There was a lot so he will be doing it in instalments as he also has a day job . It has been enlightening reading it and seeing what we do through the eyes of another.


Without much further ado, I give you Dave:


For reasons best known to herself, The Doc thought it would be a good idea for me to come with her to Peru for two weeks as her field assistant/driver/Odd Job man. Part of the deal was to see if I could write her blog for a few days. Folly! The idea is that I might provide an outsider's perspective on what Erica does, as prior to this I had little experience with fieldwork beyond high-school geography. So I gave up two precious weeks of holiday and relented.


I've never been to South America. It's not something you pass up. I paid the air fare, but much of the (admittedly inexpensive) rest came free. As an editor in my job, at the very least this would be an opportunity for me to ask some awkward questions! So I'll be filling in for Erica and revealing what she and Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist extraordinaire and leader of this expedition, find in Darkest Peru (© Paddington Bear).



The gang.


It took 20 hours of flying and 14 hours (más o menos) of driving to get our first sample, so let it be known that the Museum goes far for our money. We were joined by two wonderful spirits of the insect and plant world: Evelyn Gamboa of the entomology dept of the University of San Marcos in Lima (the oldest in the Americas) and later by botanist Segundo Leiva Gonzales, Director of the herbarium at Antenoar Orrego University in Trujillo.


First question: what are we doing here? Is it worth it? Is this some sort of jolly? I'd suspected Erica led a charmed life coming on these trips, which she called work. But I had to keep an open mind. So of course we're here to collect plant and insect samples. Specifically it's plants of the Solenacaea family (i.e. nightshades - wild relatives of our cultivated tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes and tobacco) - and the pollinators, pests and associated microfauna thereof. In particular, we'll be collecting diptera - true flies, which you'll all by now know about already if you follow Erica's blog.


Sandy says this is the first study we know of that samples both the plant and associated insect population together, in situ. The success of this trip - or otherwise - could have extensive repercussions for future study. Naturally, this trip will also add to the Museum's (and by extension, the world's) knowledge of these species, and will boost Segundo's university's collection. We'll also be able to tell what's happening to the distribution, prevalence and range of these species over time (many records go back decades).


And the data they find here could have a wide variety of applications. For example, a changing climate might put stress on current cultivars of tomatoes. Crossing these staples with certain varieties of their hardier Peruvian cousins might increase pest resistance, or tolerance to drier conditions for instance - agricultural benefits with with knock-on effects for food security, natural pest control, biodiversity and species distribution.


But, before all that can happen, we had to find them first. That meant a day of driving up the Panamericana north from Lima. We had the right car for it - a 4x4 Toyota the crew likes to call Freddie. It is owned by a man called Martin, who has never learned to drive it. I will be happy to test-drive it on this occasion. I will not be calling it Freddie...




Dave and Freddy.


Away from the sprawl of the capital


Once Freddie had escaped the sprawl and grubby winter permafog of the capital, we hugged the coast up the Panamericana and the fog lifted. The scenery slowly evolved from apocalyptic ashen desert into drifting caramel dunes, lonely pastel mountainscapes and roads that vanish on the horizon. We stopped in a roadside café made of reeds with a toilet located tellingly far from the main building that had no water, no toilet paper - but did have a colourful penguin collage painted optimistically on the outside. Yet here they served us the freshest and tastiest ceviche - perfect fodder when the thermometer is climbing above 30degC.


We spent that evening in Trujillo, where the crumbling colonial mansions and old courtyards of the old town seemed to me to be a vast improvement on what I'd seen of Lima at that point (which to be fair, was not much). Yet I felt I had been in the country for some time - a result of that temporal illusion you get when you're a bit jetlagged and you've crammed so much into a short period. But as Erica and I shared a beer at the end of a dusty day, I realised we hadn't even taken our first sample.


At 6.30 the next day we were off. We headed north again on the Panamericana and after an hour or two, turned right towards the distant mountains, roughly following the river Chicama. After a brief stop for grub in a charming market village called Roma we wound our way up a dry valley interspersed with fertile arable land into the foothills of the Andes. The dunes had given way to scrub - semi desert - where stately cacti pointed skyward and the road deteriorated into a dirt track full of entertaining potholes (n.b. not entertaining for everyone in the car). We stopped occasionally to sample the plants, and Erica showed Evelyn the ropes of how to collect with nets and Erica's primary weapon - the suction sampler. Basically this is a handheld vacuum cleaner with a net and container for catching the insects. Anyone wielding it looks like That Fourth Bloke in Ghostbusters. It looks daft, but it does its job. Vultures hovered hopefully in the blue as we inched inadvisably on.



The variety of landscapes.


Hours of lurching later, Sandy bade us stop at a loop in the road, an unconvincing turnoff to a place called Colbot, having seen a likely candidate. Her instincts were correct - a single specimen of Solanum habrochaites clung defiantly to a cleft in the bend. This is a wild tomato species that is found on the western slopes of the Andes from central Ecuador to central Peru. This species is notable partly because, with a bit of crafty crossbreeding, it yields 20 times more sugar than the cultivated tomato - a matter of keen interest to the Heinz family.


Erica and Evelyn got out and swept their nets gamely - Erica performing a more detailed local sample and, as had been decided, Evelyn with a more free role, performing a general sweep in all the sites we encountered. Sandy cropped herself a small sample when they'd finished swishing. Here Erica discovered a beefly among the other unfortunate captives in her killing jar. As we know, Erica gets soppy about beeflies. But not so soppy as to let them go.


Segundo took a sample of Capparis scabrida - a relative of the caper plant - sprouting in the dry riverbed. Then Erica and Evelyn swept the hell out of this area with their nets and Erica seemed interested to have caught a micropezidae - stalky, stick-legged flies, which she feels are "quite funky".


We stopped for lunch here. A local cowherd came and joined us and he told us that there hadn't been any rain that year, and that it was making life difficult. I can but try and imagine. I was finding it hard to believe we would find much in this environment. But not for the first time I would be proven wrong.



Life finds a way


A single mototaxi - a tuktuk - wobbled past us carting an old lady, probably from the market in Roma. We'd passed it several times and when we'd stopped to look for specimens and it had crawled past us, the tortoise to our hare.



The 'tortoise' to our hare


The vegetation became more abundant, as the road gathered height, along with my spirits. Not that I wasn't fascinated with the desert but, given a choice, I much prefer the mountains and greenery to deserts, and the scenery was becoming more and more preferable.


Several stops and samples later, we made a final stop in a bend where a stream passed under the road a mile on from a charming mountain village called San Benito. This location was teeming with life. Humans included. Children from the nearby village came to say hello, all curious to see what these gringos were doing on their patch. All except one young lad, who was having a bad day and preferred to throw stones at his friends. For this, his big brother took him home upside down.


village kids.jpg

Where there's water



Meanwhile, we swept for various insects, and I carried on my supplementary job of detailing the GPS location, weather conditions and general description of the sample site. I was also given the seed-collecting detail. Lots was found here.


sandy and plants.jpg


Sandy found three different kinds of wild tomato and then casually announced she had discovered  a new species of Browalia - a Solanacaea species sometimes grown ornamentally like petunias. This was something I found astonishing but to the experienced botanist, it was merely very interesting. And Erica discovered a few snail-killing Scyomyzids -the presence of moist liking flies was presumably testament to the damper conditions.


After an hour or so of sweeping, the mototaxi pottered round the corner, passed us again and disappeared round the corner for the last time. 



Colourful buildings of San Benito.



After a welcome supper in a very rustic kitchen in San Benito, where Segundo secured us berths in a municipal hotel, Erica and Evelyn started pinning the specimens, Sandy set up her plant-dryer - an insulated stack of card and wood heated overnight by a small gas flame - and I started logging the samples we had found on Erica's ancient laptop. By the time we had finished it was time for bed.



But first I felt I should at least reacquaint myself with the night skies of the southern hemisphere and say hello to the Southern Cross. I avoid the overused word 'awesome' if I can, but it seems perfectly fitting here. I've never seen the stars quite as clear as that night in San Benito. I thought I had made some sort of mistake - but no, it wasn't low cloud, but the distinct ghostly veil of the Milky Way. '


To be continued....



So that was Dave's first thoughts on fieldwork with us..More blog pieces to follow....



So this piece has come about because of my participation in Twitter's recent #MuseumWeek. This was a global series of twitter questions, answers, selfies, confessions, etc. about the work, specimens, collections and staff that reside in museums. As a consequence of I have been nominated to join in the '11 Museum Blogger Questions' by Emma-Louise Nicholls who wrote a fine blog piece herself, answering the same questions and then passed the challenge on to me to talk about my life in the Natural History Museum.


Right, I will get on and respond:


1) Who are you and what do you blog about?


I am one of the collection Managers at the Natural History Museum - I manage the team who are involved with the Diptera, Arachnida, Myriapoda and Siphonaptera collections and personally am responsible for part of the collection (the Larger Brachycera - big, chunky flies). We estimate that there are between 3 to 4 million specimens in the collection here but that is a conservative guess as there are many jars of unsorted material (volunteers anyone?).


So I blog about my professional life in and out of the Museum; the collections that I look after, the field trips I go on and all the other parts that make up an incredibly varied job! I sit at this desk below when i am not in the Darwin Centre Cocoon, or the lab responding to emails asking for flies that I will send off around the world.




2) Which post on your blog did you have the most fun writing?


OK, so this is a hard one. It’s great writing about my field trips (e.g. Ethiopia or Tajikistan) as it helps me remember all of the fantastic things that I have seen and come across, as well as documenting some of the more interesting finds. However, in truth, writing the blogs about the specimens is what I really like. The one on Nemestrinidae was great because not only do I get to show off the specimens that usually remain hidden in closed cabinets but also I get to learn something along the way.


longirostris (1).jpg

One very beautiful fly


I spend ages checking the nomenclature, reading the publications associated with the material, imaging the specimens and so really get to know set parts of the collection. It’s a win/win situation. Although anytime I get to write about maggots is a bonus.


3) If you could nominate anyone to write a blog on the subject of your choice, who would you ask and what would it be on?


Dead or alive? Hmm, I think it would have to be Harold Oldroyd – a dipterist who worked in the Department many years ago. He worked on many groups of diptera and had an incrediable knowledge of both flies and the collections at the Museum.


Amongst his many achievements he wrote a book on the Natural History of Flies which is one of the most beautifully written books I have read - his language is charming and whimsical! - and it is the dipterists bible so I often refer to it.



The dipterist's bible


It would be great to read him waxing-lyrical about all the additions and changes that have occurred in the last 50 years since this book was published. I think his take on the different ways in which we can use technology to help describe new species from highly specialised microscopes to molecular techniques would be most insightful.


4) Why do you work in a museum?


Because it is the best place to work - simple. Where else would you get such an interesting, varied job! One minute I explaining the mating habits of flies to 200 people, the next I am holding on to the side of Peruvian mountains, and then I am recurating a collection containing specimens that were donated by Darwin. I am sampled flies from poo all over the world - there are not many people who get to put that on their CV!


5) If you could spend a year in a ‘job swap’ with someone at another museum, who would it be?


Hmmm. OK would I go for specimens or the curator. Oh, this is hard. Right if you forced me to chose just one - it would be with Torsten Dikow at the Smithsonian. I really like the group of flies called Asilidae (Robberflies - see below) and he is one of the leading experts in the field.


Ommatius discalis (3).jpg


He also manages the fly collection there and thanks to his interests in the Asilidae, the collection is mighty fine.


6) If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?


Easy - I want to go and see the Entomology collection at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii. It is an enormous collection with some excellent dipterists looking after it (and a real expert on Bombyliidae - the beeflies), and it contains so many endemic species only found in Hawaii. The collection also has the added bonus of holding the bombyliid collections from other institutes including the Smithsonian. In fact maybe I should change my earlier answer and spend the year there instead. It does have the added advantage of being in Hawaii...


7) What’s the one thing in your average week at work that you look forward to doing the most?


Looking at flies. I do this job primarily for the love of the insects that I work on. Identifying specimens and knowing that this information will be used to help us understand pollination events, climate change, vector distributions, etc. is just a bonus to looking down the microscope at some of the most gorgeous specimens.





8) Please share a museum selfie.


OK, here's me and Daz....


me and daz.JPG


9) If you could sell something in your museum shop (that you don’t already), what would it be?


Either sweep nets, microscopes or Steve Marshall's book on flies. I have all of these and would be loathe to part with any. Maybe skittles [the sweet] would be good as well, for when I get mid-day cravings.


10) What is it about the people you have chosen to nominate next, that made you think they were a good choice?


I am going to nominate my colleague Alessandro Guisti. He works on the more showbiz insects (butterflies and moths) but I dont hold that against him. There is always so much going on that sometimes the only way you can keep up with colleagues is to read about what they are doing via their blogs. He writes very well and you can really feel his passion for his subject matter.


The second is Richard Jones who, although he dosent work for a museum, did once spend some time working for one and I think would have an interesting slant on blogs


11) If you turned into a devious miscreant over night, which specimen in your museum would you steal and why?


Either one of the diamonds or one of the meteorites. I’m not daft though - not the biggest but one I can sell and then buy a tropical island and then carry on collecting flies. I wouldn’t take an insect as that wouldn’t be right…


OK nominated bloggers, it's your turn and here’s what you have to do:


Answer the 11 questions I have listed for you below (you can adapt them slightly to fit your blog if you wish).


Make sure you include the BEST BLOG image (see the top of this page) in your post, and link the blog back to me, or this blog post.


Think of who to nominate next, I’d recommend two or three though it is up to you, and either give them the same 11 questions or change them however you wish.


Your questions are;


1. Who are you and what do you blog about?


2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most?


3. What made you want to start a blog?


4. What is the best thing about working in a museum?


5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?


6. What is your earliest museum memory?


7. If you could be the director of any museum, which one would it be and why?


8. Share a museum selfie?


9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why?


10. What is the most popular post on your blog?


11. What’s the oddest question you have received in relation to a blog post?


Good luck!


Last week I and several colleagues (including Daniel Whitmore and Mindy Syfert) arrived back from deepest, darkest Peru. This is not the first time that I have been on a museum trip to Peru; in fact it is part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sandy Knapp and she joined us for part of it (read her blog about it).


So instead of telling you about the project (which Sandy has already covered) or about the amazing exciting insects there, I thought I would take time out to explain some of the less glamorous things associated with fieldwork. This little blog will detail the annoyances and the downright bizarre things involved.


First there are the 3 am drives to the airport; or rather the 2:30 drive because the taxi had arrived early. And so, on the day of travel, you find that your consumption of coffee increases exponentially... so, before I have left my flat I have my first coffee. Then your driver is Jensen Button and as such has broken every speed limit on the way to the airport and is exceptionally pleased with himself in the process. Consequently, you arrive at the airport way too early and there is nothing to do. An hour of twiddling thumbs sitting on my rucksack before the bag drop desk opens. I get through and have some more coffee.


Finally a few hours later, we board and depart during the most glorious sunset (ok, so that was nice). Then we arrive in Madrid, which I have to say is one of the worst airports in terms of having something to do; I have another coffee and wait a further four hours for my long haul flight. There is nothing to say about a flight that takes 12 hours apart from that it is not fun. Not at all. Especially when there is turbulence for half of it ... several glasses of wine and more coffee sorts that out though. My colleague Dan's flight was slightly more traumatic as he was surrounded by many children under the age of 2 :-)


So that was just the start of the trip - I wrote most of this blog sitting in my hotel room at the end with decidedly dodgy insides. I can't decide if it was the food, the altitude, a parasite or just the tiredness from these crazy roads but, at the time I was writing, all was not well in the land of Erica. I missed the last full day of fieldwork as well which was annoying, but just couldn't risk it.


The last time I was in Peru, we were on the road less travelled (as the Lonely Planet described our route). This time around, we didn't even make that! A few places that we were planning to stay were in the guide but often just with a passing reference. It was all up to Paul - our intrepid Peruvian Botanist - to lead us on our potato quest. Not always so easy in a country that does not really do road signs.


Let me continue with the less glamorous side to fieldwork. There are always the early starts (and not just the flight). Potatoes and tomatoes have to be sorted out...


So, the main reason why the team are in Peru is that at the Museum there is a group of us trying to establish what species of insects are associated with the wild relatives of potatoes and tomatoes. The collections of both the plants (Solanacea) and the known associated insects at the Museum are being digitised at the moment and that information will help us model the distributions. The fieldwork side, though, is to see what is actually there - there are many new species waiting to be described for both the insects and plants!


I never thought, however, that this would lead to me scrambling around cliff faces 4,000m up, looking for tiny potatoes, but that is what has happened. But the problem with these high altitude loving species is that we have to get up there in the first place. And this is why we have upsettingly early starts, to enable us to get high enough to find them.


high altitutde.jpg

Striking landscapes at high altitude, but don't try pootering here when you can barely breath...


For our first base of the trip we stayed in a town called Canta. We were only 2,800m above sea level but we could feel it - even walking up the stairs at this altitude was odd. And this was one of the lower altitudes of the trip!


We collected up to 4,800m - trying to pooter at this altitude is almost impossible – you have no ability to breath and so the fly just sits there on the leaf wondering what you are doing whilst you are desperately trying to suck the little thing up into a tube. If you have never experienced high altitudes it is like strapping an enormous rugby player to your chest as they hold on with an overpowering squeeze.


misty mountain hop.jpg

Canta and other high altitude towns were often shrowded in mist from about 3pm onwards, giving them a surreal appeal.


The accommodation is often not the most glamorous of hotels or field stations that you think of most of the time. Here we are all sleeping in one large room that felt like we had stepped out of a Enid Blyton novel ... except with added snoring ...


dorm room.jpg

Not the Ritz Hotel


Now, please, add ontop of the snoring: dogs barking, car horns and alarms, and weird South American pop music for the entire night, to truely immerse yourself in the experience.


So, if the early starts are not going to kill you, then the roads definitely will. As I have already mentioned above, these plants like to get up and around in the mountains which meant some long and sometimes dangerous journeys on less than great roads - I had my stomach in my mouth many a time ... And that's assuming that you could see the roads in the first place ...


13133787504_56f530d7f1_o.jpgThere's a road along the edge of the cliff here somewhere...



Not sure where the road goes here ...


Then there was the traffic - there are crazy drivers over here. We learnt that road signs, regulations etc. are generally just there for their purely aesthetic qualities rather than anything else:


No adelantar (don't overtake): translation - of course you can overtake and the less you can see in front of you the better! Blind bend you say; we laugh in its face, haha.


40km speed restriction: translation - surely that is just for mototaxi? I am a car/lorry/bus and I laugh at that speed restriction; if I am not going double then I am not happy!


One-way: translation - really? I am sure that it will be fine if I go 'my' one way, they will move.


Solo carril (single lane): translation - surely you are joking? I know it is a mountain pass but I must get through now ...


No Mototaxi (on main road): translation - then I shall use the hard shoulder instead, that is not the main road ...


And as for livestock...



Charging bulls can be a little intimidating, even in a car



... however, goats were better behaved



... never trust animals with long eyelashes when they are on the road ...


road traffic.jpg

And, as for the llamas ... the guy was wearing a safety helmet!!


petrol station.jpg

And then there were the petrol stations ...



... but at least that one had a hose ... and a wall.



"I nonchalantly lean at the possibility of a road existing here..."
We saw this a lot on the road too. Usually it meant that either there was no road to drive on, or that it had lots of potholes, or they were creating avalanches...


And more annoyingly sometimes there were good roads but we couldn't take them:


Me: Paul, why can't we take that road?
Paul: It's not good
Me: ... but it's much quicker
Paul: ... it's dangerous
Me (thinking about all crazy roads so far): Really?
Paul: Men with guns
Me: Oh... ok, let's go on other road


And what about the diet? Some of the food was a tad rich for my liking - check out these cakes...



Ummm, cakes. Rich, rich cakes.


This was a country that eats guinea pig, both the populous and their pets. We came across a dog eating a guinea pig and I thought of how my sister would feel if she knew that my childhood pet was feasting upon hers!


We shopped everywhere for food. Street corners were a must but receipts for the inevitable claim forms at the end of the trip were often scraps of paper if anything!




Then of course there is the Health and Safety aspect of the trip. Not forgetting the dodgy stomachs resulting from god knows what there are the other things that we must consider.


You had to remember the repellent before collecting near a river or your life becomes a living hell. Dan (modelling the mere handful of bites) had to sit through several days of Mindy and I complaining about the couple we had ourselves, knowing that we were being smug in our irritations.



Dan's legs model the latest must have fashion, just a 'few' bites


So next time you think that we are all swanning around having a lovely time remember that ... it is mostly true :-)


Even all the things that make fieldwork hard are also the things that we reminisce over and smile about! It is an amazing experience to be able to collect new material including new species from such remote and challenging places! You will often here us hidden in the corner of a pub trying to outcompete each other over who had the worst fieldwork belly or internal parasite. Sadly, my next tall pub tales will not be quite so good ... I did not get a human botfly this time!


So Last week I performed a HUGE 9 minute set for a Museums show off. People from all over the museums and libraries sector come and present a skit on something about their work or their museum. Now I choose to highlight the wonderful creatures that are maggots. They are all over my desk, I get sent them in the post, yesterday I, alongside a colleague, were hunting for them in the wildlife garden, I was rearing them from poo in the towers – in fact, maggots are very dominating in my job. And quite rightly so.


So I thought that I would convert that into a blog about these fantastic things and why the collections and the staff at the Natural History Museum are so important with maggot research! I have briefly touched upon maggots before but i thought that I would go into some more detail.



Let’s first clarify what a maggot is. The term maggot is not really a technical term and if you type in ‘what is a maggot’ on Google you get this!


maggot definition.jpg


To this date I have never heard someone describe something they yearn for as a maggot but who can say what will happen tomorrow with language fashions.


The maggot is a juvenile or, as I prefer to call it, the immature stage of a fly. These vary in form across the order from the primitive groups of flies (Nematocerans) to the more advanced groups (Brachycerans). The primitive groups have a more defined form in having a distinct head capsule with chewing mouthparts and we refer to these as Culiciform (gnat shaped).


mossi larvae.jpg A mosquito larva which is culiform (gnat shaped).


Those more advanced flies whose larvae are without a head capsule and mouth parts that have just been reduced to hooks are called Vermiform (literally meaning worm shaped); and it is the later group that we generally call maggots!


blowfly maggots.jpgA slightly more informative picture of some Vermiform larvae - the maggots of a blowfly.


We can label describe these head capsules further into three types;

  • Eucephalic (distinct capsule and mandibles)
  • Hemicephalic (incomplete capsule and partly retractable mandibles)
  • Acephalic (no distinct capsule with mouthparts forming a cephalopharyngeal skeleton)


trichoceridae larvae c Matt Bertone.jpgA trichoceridae larvae (eucephalic) © Matt Bertone.



dipteraathericidae hemicephalic.jpgAn Atherceridae larvae (Hemicephalic).



And a housefly maggot (Acephalic larvae).



However for the purpose of this blog I will use the term maggots to include all Dipteran Larvae as there are some very important (and incredibly attractive) larvae from some of the more primitive groups. And they differ from most other insect larvae by the lack of jointed legs on their thorax. Beetles larvae are grubs, Butterflies and moths are caterpillars, bugs just have mini-versions of the adults, but they all have jointed limbs.


tipulidae drawings.jpgAbove are some of the more incredible images of a cranefly larva. But these are not the heads of the cranefly larvae but rather their anal or posterior spiracles (breathing tubes). Anytime I need cheering up I flick through images of posterior spiracles.


cranefly-larvae-resize-12feb14.jpgMost people just view the larvae from either above or parallel but these are from bottom on! (these above diagrams are from the brilliant book by Kenneth Smith on Identification of British Insects) but as you can see some of the more interesting features are from this angle.


These spiracles form part of a breathing system that enables the maggot to breathe whilst feeding. These vary across the fly group with there being 7 different set ups of the spiracles.

maggot-spiracles--resize-12feb14.jpgLocation of spiracles on the body of a maggot, shown with dots and circles.


The above diagram from top left to bottom middle shows (by dots and circles) where the spiracles are on the body. Some systems are very common such as the amphinuestic set up being found in most Diptera whilst others are very specialised such as the proneustic systems (only found in some fungus gnats). Some of them have taken their spiracle and run with it (as it were). Check out the rat-tailed maggot below (larvae of a hoverfly).


rat tailed maggot.jpg

Rat-tailed maggot (larvae of a hoverfly).


The mouth can concentrate on ingesting food solidly – just imagine 24/7 eating. Now the maggot stage is the one designed for eating. I often wonder what it would be like to have the lifestyle of a fly – born, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, mate, die…..and therefore they don’t have to have all of the equipment of the adult.


As I have already mentioned the larvae of Diptera do not have legs as other groups do such as the moths or the ants. This is because they are highly specialised examples of precocious larvae i.e. examples of very early hatching. And this is what arguably has lead to the most diverse range of habitat exploitation of all insects. They are plastic; they can squeeze themselves into tiny holes and between surfaces and therefore take advantage of so many different food sources.


In the wonderful book by Harold Oldroyd – The Natural History of flies - there is a sentence that states that the larva and adult are more different from each other than many Orders of Insects. And so in many ways with many species you could argue that flies fit two lifetimes into one as they are often completely different, both in form but also in diet and habitat.


Maggoty enquiries


The Diptera team have been talking maggots a lot recently. One of us, Nigel Wyatt, is something of an expert already on most things maggoty, working on most commercial, consultancy and public queries relating to maggots.


I had one recently from a friend of mine. She is a vet and one of her colleagues works with Police Dogs. Her colleague was a little confused and concerned about a maggot that was defecated by one of the dogs as she had not seen one so large before. My friend immediately thought of me and sent it to the Museum in a little tube of alcohol. Despite the alcohol it was quite fragrant by the time it arrived on my desk but it was easily identifiable as a cranefly larvae. Now cranefly larvae are incredibly versatile in terms of their habitat – they live in moss, swamps, ponds, decaying wood, streams and soil but as I far as I know the inside of a dogs alimentary canal is not a known habitat. They consume algae, microflora, and living or decomposing plant matter, including wood and some are predatory but parasites they are not. This one had miraculously come through the entire digestive tract of a dog without being destroyed. No harm done except to ones nasal cavities.


However, cranefly larvae or leatherjackets as they are sometimes called have caused some problems to lawns due to them consuming grass roots. Wikipedia – the great font of scientific knowledge cites from Ward’s Cricket's Strangest Matches ‘In 1935, Lord's Cricket Ground in London was among venues affected by leatherjackets. Several thousand were collected by ground staff and burned, because they caused bald patches on the wicket and the pitch took unaccustomed spin for much of the season.’


Apart from the staff who help with identifications we are helping further with outreach by helping with development of a new, hotly awaited book on British Craneflies. Alan Stubbs (not the retired footballer but the rather more impressive Dipterist and all round Natural History Good Egg) and John Krammer (retired teacher and superb Cranefly specialist) have been working on this fantastic tome for a while now and we have all been trying and re-trying the keys to ensure that they work. Preparations of gentailia, wings and larvae have been undertaken at the Museum on both Museum specimens and ones donated by John, and images and drawings of these been done. Carim Nahaboo has been drafted in for some of the drawings so expect great things.


This is an adult Dolichopodidae but it is a fine example of Carim Nahaboo's artwork.


Flies and their offspring have a terrible reputation. People are disgusted by most of them. However, they are essential both for our health and habitat but also for telling us what is happening.


Dr Steve Brooks and his group at the Museum work on Chironomidae (non-biting midges), and more specifically the immature stages – their larvae. Chironomid larvae are quite primitive and as such have a complete head capsule which is … as the larval stages develop they shed their head capsules and grow new ones, and these discarded ones can be used to determine the environmental conditions of the habitat both now and in the past as well as monitoring heavy metals.


hgrimshawi-48125-1.JPG Head capsule of a chironomid, which can be used to determine past environmental conditions.


I first came to the Museum as a professional grown up thanks to Steve as I was conducting a study using Chironomids as indicators of environmental health as they are fantastic bioindicators. Many Chironomid species can tolerate very anoxic environments as they, unlike most insects, have a haemoglobin analog which is able to absorb a greater amount of oxygen from the surrounding water body. This often gives the larvae a deep red colour which is why they are often called blood worms. Although slightly fiddly as you have to dissolve the body in acid, the use of head capsules for identification (image above) is fairly straight forward. The little crown like structures that you can see are actually rows of teeth and these are very good diagnostic features. Steve has worked for a long time on the taxonomy of these species and his (and his groups) expertise has been used globally.

So as well as looking funky we can use them to tell us many things about the world of today and yesterday. More on maggots in the future.


Once again I have given up the blog to a worthy lady who is also a volunteer for me - Jasmin Perera. Here is her account of our recent trip to the Isles of Scilly -  Cornwall's detachable toes!


Isles of Scilly 2013

Greetings! I am one of the many volunteers at the Museum working for Erica McAlister in the diptera section, and recently I got a fantastic opportunity to travel along with her and some of the other curators to the Isles of Scilly! (p.s Thank you Erica for involving me in this project)


The aim of the trip was to gather up-to-date information on the flora and fauna populating the islands by collecting as many specimens as possible. This information will be useful in so many ways and will hopefully provide us with a better understanding of how the environment around us is changing.


I was not just working alongside the dipterists but also with lepidopterists, botanists and hymenopterists, to name but a few. And so in the process I learnt about many different methods of collecting.


Day 1 – Settling in

Disembarking the ferry at St Mary’s Island we were greeted by Mark Spencer (a Museum botanist specialising in British Flora) who had arrived a couple days before us. He was the main organiser for the trip and with much excitement he led us to our unusual home for the week.


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Home sweet home – The Woolpack.


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Residents of the Woolpack included this baby swallow.


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Wonderful cup-of-tea views from the top of the bunker. Needless to say, lots of teas were made!


We had the privilege of staying in a world war bunker, named the Woolpack. Built in the early 1900s the bunker has had many residents from soldiers to vagrants, but is currently in the care of the Scilly Isles Wildlife Trust. And for one week it was home to a group of keen Museum staff and volunteers!


Day 2 – An early Christmas and majestic elms

On the first morning Martin Honey (lepidopterist) retrieved his light trap which he had placed outside of the Woolpack on the previous evening. The light trap consisted of a large round container filled with carefully arranged empty egg cartons and a very bright light bulb on top. A couple of us huddled around him as he revealed what treasures were hidden in the crevices of the cartons. It felt like unwrapping presents at Christmas!


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Image of a very unfocused Ruby Tiger, Phragmatobia fuliginosa.  In the background is the light trap, Martin’s leg and a male Four Spotted Footman, Lithosia quadra (in egg carton).

Martin was able to identify many of the specimens on site and explained that he follows a code while collecting;  He will only collect what is needed for scientific purpose and the remaining moths that can be readily identified are set free in dense vegetation near their place of capture. The last bit is especially important as it gives them a fighting chance (to not become a birds breakfast!).


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Diverting off the footpath and into the elm wilderness - Holy Vale Nature Trail.


Now it was my turn - armed with my net and pooter, I went along with a fellow dipterist Zoe Adams and a Hymenopterist, Natalie Dale-Skey, to find some insects! We spent our first day exploring on St Mary’s Island, the main island. St Mary’s is one of the few places left in the UK where you can find mature elm trees after the devastating Dutch elm disease in the late 20th century wiped out most of the mainland UK population.


I felt very fortunate to be amongst these majestic trees whilst collecting on the Holy Vale Nature Trail. And more excitingly there were plenty of hoverflies in areas where the sun had broken through the trees’ high canopy, and crane flies in the lower vegetation. I also managed to catch a few Ichnumonids along the way.


Day 3 – Pelistry Bay

During the morning I wandered with Erica along Pelistry Bay, also on St Mary’s,  to get some sweep samples by the coast.


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Pelistry Bay – Bladderrack kingdom.


Walking on rocks covered in slippery bladderwrack seaweed, I soon realised my balance needed to be in sync with my sweeping and pootering action.


Day 4 – The Eastern Isles

Today we were very lucky as a few of us had the opportunity to visit the uninhabited Eastern Isles. Accompanied by the warden for the Wildlife Trust we sailed to Ganilly Island, which is filled with curious bees and beautiful landscapes. Trying to sweep proved tricky on the grassy areas due to the hundreds of solitary bees buzzing around my legs. I wish I had taken a picture of them as several sat sleepily inside the net refusing to leave.


7 Ganilly island.jpg

View from Ganilly Island.


Erica and I ended up on a rocky shore hunting for Asilids to the chorus of singing seals. Asilids are speedy little predators but Erica was a font of helpful tips when it came to catching these stealthy mini beasts: In order to catch one, you require a lot of patience! 



Asilidae caught from West Porth Beach, Great Ganilly.


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Erica in a Fern jungle! On our way to Nornour island (in the background).


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Seals welcomed us to the Eastern Isles.


And so the waiting game began. Whilst being entertained by the song of a distant seal, Erica and I sat quite still on opposite rocks. Asilids wait for a fair while on a rock until a potential prey appears. Once one was spotted, we held our nets close to the ground, and crept towards it. When the Asilid is within ‘net range’, we lunged at the flies thrusting the net down over the individual. To my dismay, I need more practise but it was great watching Erica at work!


Day 5 – Ruby Cow Dung

On an overcast day we decided to stay close to bay and seek out the beautiful Ruby Cows that are being bred on St Mary’s island. The ‘Scilly’ cows are curious creatures and they watched and followed us swooping our nets and pootering flies within their enclosure.


11 cows.jpg

‘Peculiar human’.


However, it was not the cows we were interested in but their poo! We huddled around a fresh piece and watched male sepsid flies fluttering their wings in hope of attracting a mate. We were also hoping to see some Scathophagid flies mate. This is a far more barbaric ordeal compared to the Sepsidae as the female often gets ripped to shreds from a bombardment of eager males.


12 poo.jpg

Erica capturing the moment.


Each day ended around the dinner table, where people took turns to cook. We used a lot of local produce and any edible plants growing nearby like Rock Samphire (as sourced by Mark). It was a perfect time to find out what everyone had been up to and wind down for the night. One of the rooms in the bunker was converted temporarily into a lab and the ping-pong table in there did a good job as an insect pinning area!


13 lab.jpg

Behold: pinning area. I spent the evenings here perfecting the art of spreading out the wings and legs of tiny flies.


In summary this was a valuable and enjoyable fieldtrip in the most amazing location. With my specimens pinned I left feeling inspired and raring to go on another one! (hint, hint, Erica!)


12 film crew.jpg

Our field trip was even documented by a film crew!


Watch the Isles of Scilly fieldwork video to see more of our trip.


This blog piece is written by the young and keen Victoria Burton, who rashly agreed to come away with the Museum's team of dipterists and the Dipterists Forum to Speyside in is her story.


Hello, I’m Victoria and I have just finished an MSc in Taxonomy and Biodiversity,  run here at the Natural History Museum, London.


I am also a fly fan, so when Erica mentioned there may be a space on the Museum’s collection trip to Scotland with the Dipterists Forum I had to tag along! As a born and bred Southron this was my first trip over the border and a great opportunity to see some of the habitats and species which are not found ‘down south’.


The trip started on a Saturday in September with an early meet up at the Museum to pack equipment into our hired people carrier or ‘van’ as it became affectionately known, before the long drive north. This was also a good opportunity to get to know the fellow dipterists I would be staying with for the next week and their dipteron predilections:

  • Duncan, our native interpreter/navigator.
  • ‘New boy’ Dan, fan of bristly flies.
  • Zoe, who spent a lot of time paddling for simuliids.
  • Vladimir, fungus gnat aficionado.
  • Not forgetting ‘The Boss’ Erica herself whom we rescued from the side of road after she was rudely dumped by an incompetent taxi driver!


After democratically deciding who would be sharing a room, copious wine and conversation were had before I retired, excited for my first visit into the wilds of Scotland. This began with being introduced to Dipterists Forum members and the customary discussion over maps.



Suggestions for a collective noun for dipterists?


We started with the Rothiemurchus Estate and on my first step into the Caledonian pine forest I was immediately struck by the wonderful scent of pine. The dipterists disappeared in all directions, and I began the sweep-stick head in net-poot ritual, although I had many escapes being distracted by the yummy bilberries (or blaeberries as they are known here) appearing in my net.


There were lots of the big hoverfly Sericomyia silentis, the first time I had seen live individuals; this impressive hoverfly became a familiar sight over the week, and always made a big fuss when caught in a net.


Sericomyia silentis having a wash and brush up on a leaf.


A long day of diptera in the field is inevitably followed by a long evening with diptera in the laboratory and so with a little bit of table rearrangement we soon had a makeshift lab in our cottage.



Must be the cosiest ‘lab’ I have ever worked in.


Our second day took us to Inshriach Forest, first stop Uath Lochans. These lochans, which our ‘native’ informed us meant ‘little lochs’ were breathtakingly still in the morning light, with a perfect reflection of the sky and mountains.



The beautiful Uath Lochans.


Around the lochans grew a colourful springy patchwork of heaths and other plants, mosses and lichens, dotted about with fungi including bright red Russula.


Bright red Russula fungi.


A handy boardwalk has been constructed around the boggy edges of the Lochans, from which I swept an amazing little fly. Running around in the pooter it looked like it was wearing boxing gloves and I was soon informed it was a shore fly (Ephydridae) called Ochthera.


Back in the lab I was encouraged to unhinge its raptorial forelegs, which inspire its common name, mantis fly. There is a lovely description in Colyer and Hammond’s Flies of the British Isles in their engaging style describing its “terrible fore-legs” with “tibiae curved and folded back upon the femora like the blade of a pocket knife, forming a trap from which the unhappy victim has little hope of escaping”.


Raptorial forelegs occur widely in insects, famously in the mantids, but also other groups of flies such as the hybotid dance flies which we found lots of during the week, and mantisflies, which confusingly are neither mantids nor flies but in the order Neuroptera.



The mantis fly Ochthera (probably O. mantis).

On day three we visited sites around Carrbridge, where I swept my first ever hippoboscid in Beananach Wood - these were Lipoptena cervi, the deer ked. They are very strange, flattened flies resembling lice, and must look even more louse-like when they settle down on a host and shed their wings; indeed Carl Linneaus originally classified them with headlice. Another peculiarity is that the females produce just one big larva at a time, nourishing it mammal-style inside their body, giving birth just when it is ready to pupate – aw.



Lipoptena cervi - I went a bit lepidopterist with this specimen, the wings are normally held over the abdomen, but you do get to see its bristly bum.


On Wednesday we headed to the seaside to visit Culbin Sands but unfortunately the weather was miserable (dreich in Scots-speak) so a midweek day off was announced.



Dan and Vladimir make a valiant effort to catch seaweed-inhabiting flies.

We met up with Duncan’s mum Sheena, aunty Moira, and friend for some tea and cake in Elgin before being brought to meet the Gordon clan and fed fresh homemade drop scones (Scotch pancakes) complete with homemade fruit preserves – heavenly!



Duncan's Aunty Moira and scones.

More deliciousness was to come when it was revealed that Duncan’s cousin Euan worked for BenRiach local distillery, so before long we were whisked off for a private tour and tasting session! Despite (or maybe because of) all the whiskey I managed my turn to cook dinner and all survived.



Euan presiding over the tasting session (whisky taxonomy?).



“And not a single fly was caught that day…” (Actually we did get a few!)


The fourth day of our trip arrived with better weather and surprisingly few sore heads, and we headed off to Insh Marshes which I was much looking forward to since I had heard great things about it, and I was certainly not disappointed. It was one of those sites that whisper “I’m special”.


On sorting my catch later I found my first ever pipunculid, or big-headed fly, which I like to describe as “massive head, all eyes”. Their heads are also notorious for falling off, so I was quite proud when I managed to micropin my specimen without casualty, only for this to be dashed when I later staged it.



Zoe and Erica sweeping their way along a valley in Insh Marshes.

Our last collecting day took us to some calcareous sites, and after nearly a week of acidic habitats it was quite a contrast to see some calcicole plants, many of which I am very familiar with, living as I do between two great ridges of chalk in Hampshire. Our first site was Fodderletter, a tiny but wonderful unimproved wetland SSSI huddled away on the Glen Livet Estate. Here we found lots of lovely big blowflies feeding on ragwort flowers, including the giant Cynomya mortuorum which caused much excitement, only slightly deadened by Alan Stubbs stating “oh yes it is quite common in Scotland”.



Handsome male Cynomya mortuorum with its lovely orange face and ‘mane’.


I was fortunate to catch a female on our next site, Creag Chalcaidh Quarry near Tomintoul. This was an intriguing site with springs spilling through the old quarry walls, producing chalky mats of algae. There were lots of unusual craneflies, which I don’t yet ‘do’ - their tendency for legs to fall off bothers my perfectionist nature, although this is soon to be addressed on a cranefly identification course.



Alan hunting rare craneflies in classic dipterist pose.


Our final site of the day, and indeed the trip was Bochel Wood, where I managed to catch an empid along with its meal, a bibionid. Since dipterists are, in my partner’s words “obsessed with genitalia” it would be remiss if I didn’t include a photograph of the impressive equipment possessed by this Rhamphomyia.



Crazy, crazy genitals…


On that note I’d better hand back to Erica, after raising a wee dram to great food, drink and company, and above all great flies!



A chilly Culbin Sands group shot.

With thanks to Daniel, Duncan, Erica, Vladimir, Zoe and the Dipterists Forum

Thanks also to Chris and the Angela Marmont Centre for use of the photo stacking system.


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

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


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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....



Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 26, 2009

I have a splitting headache :(


But on the bright side we are off again tomorrow (The Tajiks and several of us NHM staff) to Vauxhall Urban Farm on fieldwork. I must admit that it does seem that I spend an awful lot of time sucking up insects, and yes at the moment I am. This is a tad unusual though. I am usually more tied to my desk and as a result my desk is a mess (if anyone wants to volunteer to come and organise it I would be most grateful) and I have loans needing to do and visits to arrange from other countries, as well as a new short term contract to organise involving amongst other things fungus gnat genitalia :) they have all dried up and we need to rehydrate them…


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!

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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