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Curator of Diptera's blog

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Posted on behalf of Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum.


I've just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It's not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it's still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Natural History Museum collection. That doesn't sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.

 

So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family... but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.

 

And for such large creatures we know very little about them. This family is considered to be within the infraorder Stratiomyomorpha, but they have not always been positioned here. Originally they were classified within the Tabanidae – the horseflies – and do superficially resemble them (just on steroids) but there are other differences. They were then moved, along with the Xylophagidae, into Xylophagomorpha, but this infraorder is no longer used, with Pantophthalmidae now being subsumed into Stratiomyomorpha leaving Xylophagidae to roam free along the taxonomic highway (Fig.1).

 

Pantophthalmidae are thought of as being in a relatively stable position snuggled alongside the Stratiomyidae (soldierflies) and Xylomyidae (wood soldierflies). However, I believe some recent work by Keith Bayless of North Carolina State University has now placed the freewheeling Xylophagidae into Tabanomorpha. Everyone up to speed?

 

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Figure 1. Tolweb organisation of Brachycera.

 

Now we have cleared up the higher taxonomy let's move onto distribution. They have only been found in the Neotropical region from Mexico down through Central America and down through Brazil and Paraguay and across to Venezuela and Columbia. And even though this is a vast area, they are infrequent in most collections.

 

The key work for this group was undertaken by Val in 1976. He states that these are rare in the collections, but in order to review all of the species and the types, you need to visit 23 different museums (this figure I presume has grown). That is a lot of effort for a handful of species but that would make a great road trip Although our collection goes back hundreds of years we have only 132 pinned specimens but we do have some important type material (Fig. 2). However we are still missing some of the species and one of the genera!

 

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Figure 2. Species in the Museum and whether type material is housed here.


I've always liked this group of flies because they are just so big, and we have actually had some fresh material that comes from some French Guiana material donated to the Museum. It has been sitting there patiently for the last couple of years waiting to be identified and now seemed the ideal time. They had been found by our volunteers, who were surprised by these beasts, as they were so much larger than all the other specimens in the pots.

 

These flies, as already stated, are big. Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862) with its wings spread, can reach 8.5cm in width. Fig.3 gives you an idea of their robust and chunky bodies … we found seven specimens in the donation (of about 50 samples).

 

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

 

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

 

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Figure 4. The differences between the males and the female heads of Pantophthalmidae.

 

And they have beaks! Actually these are a very useful diagnostic feature…

 

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Figure 5. Beaks of the Pantophthalmidae (from Val 1975).

 

The immature stages are not known from most of the species although we have a range of pinned, dry and spirit material of the larvae. And they too are big, like their mothers and fathers, but we have even fewer of them in the collection (Figure 6 & 7).

 

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

 

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Figure 7. The Museum spirit collection of Pantophthalmidae.

 

Why do we only have one jar? One of the problems is that the larvae are wood borers and inhabit galleries that are carved horizontally into the tree – dead or living depending upon the species. We still really don’t know what they are feeding on but many people believe that it could be fermenting sap. Others believe that the diet is a mixture of wood (either dead or in the process of dying) and micro-organisms.

 

Zumbado writes in his work from 2006 that they seem to prefer mucilaginous trees such as kapok or sap-producing trees such as figs. He goes on to describe how noisy these little critters are – several hundred may be in one trunk and they can be heard munching away from several metres.

 

The larvae have very robust head capsules and massive mandibles – they are some of the largest larvae I have seen (of all insects). When I read accounts of how many can be seen in one tree, I am quite overcome with envy. We don’t have many in the collection – one jar as shown – but it is a mighty jar. I don’t think I am allowed to say what exactly was said by various colleagues when we brought out some of the specimens but, suffice to say, they were impressed.

 

This collection was in a sorry state in old drawers and on slats. These are problematic because the pins are so firmly wedged that when you try and remove the pin from the board you often damage the specimens. The specimens themselves were showing some early signs of damage with verdigris on some of the pins (Fig. 8) Verdigris is when the lipids in the insect react with the copper in the pins. Nowadays we use stainless steel pins, so this doesn't happen, but most of the specimens in the collection are mostly older even than me.

 

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Figure 8. Verdigris on pins.


The first thing that I do when I recurate a collection is to find all of the recent as well as the historical literature in catalogues and monographs, and update the database. The Museum database for this family had not been edited for at least 20 years. But luckily, when going through the literature, I discovered that with this family, not a lot had happened in that time. But our records were still inaccurate, and for a family with very few species people kept changing their mind about the number of genera and where the different species sat. Sorting that out took the most time in terms of overall curation, as there were so many new combinations and I had to be certain of all the taxonomic rearrangements. You should have heard my sighing as I was typing in the data (I promise it was just sighing).

 

Remember that there were only 20 described species of which we had (past tense is important here and I’ll come back to that) only 15? Well, the number of taxonomic records we now have in the database of all the original combinations and numerous synonyms (the many, many synonyms) is about three times as many as the actual number of species (Fig. 9).

 

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Figure 9. Taxonomic names for genera and species.

 

Once this was sorted out, I started on the production of the labels. I have to produce an initial first draft of the list of species names (Fig. 10) as I need to ascertain where and what all of the types were, as well as how many unit trays of each size are needed. I have many lists scattered around my desk so one more can’t hurt…

 

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Figure 10. Lovely lists of the species of Pantophthalmidae in the Natural History Museum Collection.

 

N.B. See – hardly any valid species names without synonyms!

 

Next I needed to make my unit trays up. My lists have codes on them indicating what the type was and how many of which size trays – there is an awful lot of organising with curation and it definitely fulfils my OCD tendencies…We have three sizes of unit trays that we use for Diptera recuration but somehow I knew that I probably wouldn’t be needing any of the very small A trays (Figure 11).

 

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Figure 11. Unit trays –C, B and A.

 

N.B ok that is quite a nerdy photograph!

 

The new sparkly labels (ok the sparkly bit is a lie) were placed into the unit trays and then I started transferring the material across. As the specimens were moved they were inspected for damage – any verdigris removed and any legs etc. placed into gelatine capsules. Three new main drawers later and the collection was now housed in museum-standard drawers, conservation-grade trays and labels, completely updated on the database and new material incorporated into it (Fig. 12).

 

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Figure 12. The largest smallest recuration project.

 

So let’s go back to this new material consisting of just a few specimens. Not a lot you may think – but remember this collection is not very big. For large flies, they were slightly difficult to ID. In fact, as the samples had come out of the window traps (the specimens collect in alcohol) they were very greasy.

 

Chris Raper, a fellow Dipterist at the Museum and lover of these flies, suggested that I give them a bath in ethyl acetate. I was a little nervous about leaving these precise specimens overnight in this rather noxious fluid. But lo and behold! What wonders were to great me the next day! Wonderful, they were – just wonderful. And suddenly we were able to see features that were previously hidden, such as thoracic patterns and, rather more importantly, hairs on the eyeballs. This feature alone split the two different genera and so we realised that for the first time, our collection now has ONE Opetiops alienus (Fig. 13). I believe this is also the first time that it has been collected from French Guiana.

 

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Figure 13. Opetiops alienus – check out not only the hairy eyeballs but also the beak!

 

So one database updated, one collection rehoused and once more new material has been added to the collection. Happiness reigns in the Land of the Curator.

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#Worldrobberflyday

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!).

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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)

 

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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).

 

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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).

 

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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).

 

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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)!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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).

 

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Figure 13. Laphria flava male.

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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.

 

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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?

 

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Sandy pointing out some interesting species.

 

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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.

 

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Work continues into the evening...


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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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...

 

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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.

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More Peruvian adventures

Posted by Erica McAlister Nov 18, 2014

So here is the next blog installment from Dave 'Dave' Hall', who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year. He apologises again for the lateness of the blog but once more his actual work got in the way of writing my blog . So without any further delay here you go...

 

Day 4: Cajamarca to Celendin

 

I would first like to reiterate that the account expressed herein is my own. My amateurish observations are a flimsy scientific account that probably fails to demonstrate either these samples’ importance or what further work subsequently will be made possible by Sandy and Erica’s project. It will leave a rich permanent legacy for generations to build on. In digging up background information on some of the species we found, I keep coming across Sandy, Segundo and Erica’s names in academic work. It goes deep.

 

I am not a morning person. Normally I creak wearily into life long after the flowers unfurl. But I began to be grateful we made such good use of our days. Being on the road by 8am began to feel like a late start. Given the distances we had to cover and the frequent stops for samples, it was essential. 

 

This Is Fieldwork, soldier.

 

Everyone seemed to have slept well, and we were in high spirits loading up. But I remembered sadly that we were a man down. We had said goodbye to Segundo at the end of the previous day. Sandy in particular had been grateful of his expertise, and we were all glad of his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the terrain. He seemed to know the entire region; all the best sampling spots – even some of the local people – intimately. Would we cope without him?

 

After a great coffee and a bad omelette, we were off.

 

We were in for a shorter ride than the previous day, so we could take our time over the samples. We negotiated the baffling one-way grid system out of Cajamarca, weaving the narrow streets between bread sellers and campesinos, mixed incongruously with smart office workers in sharp suits picking their way through the building traffic, eventually threading our way through Banos de los Incas upward into hills once again.

 

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Difficult to press: Solanum oblongifolium.

 

It was still slightly overcast as we stopped to take our first sample. Here Knapp bagged a Solanum oblongifolium – which sports “young stems and leaves variously pubescent with loose, translucent dendritic trichomes”, according to Solanaceaesource.org, (and therefore possibly Sandy, whose pictures are there from a previous Peruvian visit). It’s a fairly common shrub at altitudes above 2,000m and likes open places near pastures and roadsides. Its fruit looked to me like tiny, hard tomatoes, which they are, sort of, and they are difficult to press.

 

Sandy also bagged an Iochroma umbellatum - a rareish purple-flowered plant that has poisonous sap, rarely recorded but successfully so by one Segundo Leiva I see from one record. To top it off we snipped off a few samples from a species of Cestrum. which isn’t bad at at all for a single sample location.

 

The fly camp did equally as well here; Erica and Evelyn showing great dedication as they scrambled down a steep bank after their quarry, rummaging in the bushes, pooter wheezing. Dozens of fly species met their doom (which they are still sorting out I might add) along with numerous parasitic wasps, beetles and even a stick insect, which escaped.

 

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The bushes sometimes have a habit of fighting back...


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Erica reemerged covered in matter, mostly insects, seeds and pollen.

 

I contented myself record-keeping and observing a striking hummingbird fluttering about the treetops. 

 

On we went, winding steadily upwards through quite fertile, mostly arable landscape at a gentle, solanum-spotting pace until, barely an hour later, above the little town of Encanada, Sandy loudly expressed an interest in stopping. I did so smartly. Sandy had spotted what we thought must be another rarity – could this be a new species again?

 

She soon emerged from a farmer’s field with what appeared to me to be a domestic potato. As if to confirm this, on the other side of the road, three local people in Quechua gear were tending to their very own field of potatoes, filling hessian sacks full of plump spuds. While Sandy went to talk tubers with the locals, the ‘E’-team whipped out the nets and the positron collider for a short suction sample.

 

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Sandy talking tubers with the locals.

 

Then Evelyn and Erica joined Sandy for a jolly chat and a rummage about the spuds. Apparently if we wanted a sample of potatoes, the two women wanted sweets. Erica obliged. Later I discovered Erica had obliged with the sweets I had bought for the office. Bargaining “chips” if you will.

 

Meanwhile I, as the least-accomplished Spanish speaker among us, “guarded” the car, while nearby, a solemn tethered bull chewed dispassionately.

 

The sun was breaking through as we set off again. The sun was well past halfway; intermittent bursts of it felt quite powerful when the clouds broke. The arable land was giving way to more typical high Andean scrub and grassland. The scenery was as spectacular as the roads were narrow.

 

Did I mention the roads were narrow? And in sections, bits of it were falling away at the edges. Must be why the guide book, with its entire half-page devoted to this route, deters tourists from taking this “road less travelled” in the wet season.

 

Yet, in fairness, efforts had recently been made to patch it up. As we progressed, we often passed workmen replacing the surface. Nevertheless, the drops on Erica’s side of the vehicle were exhilarating, but Erica had a funny way of expressing it, especially when I suggested getting a closer look.

 

My “field notes” record “periods of bright sunshine; v warm, but clumps of cumulus congestus aren’t far away.” We found ourselves in the congestus before long as we reached a pass some 3,700m up. That’s about as high as I’ve been without a fuselage around me – how exciting. 

 

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Following historical data on previous locations of solanum, Sandy directed us off the road and up a muddy track. After I had backed The Beast (aka Freddy - Erica Here - both Sandy and I tried to win Dave around to Freddy but Dave was not having it and referred the whole time to him as the Beast - jealousy is ugly) clumsily into an open gate, the equipment was once again unpacked and the entomologas poked around the foliage as a little brook babbled nearby.

 

I busied myself with lunch duties, piling up the now-ubiquitous avocado, cheese and tomato buns with a liberal application of the local relish – a somewhat energetic Peruvian salsa called rojo.

 

Erica sidled up with a few samples, one of which I swear she called a black-and-yellow blackfly. “Why isn’t it simply called a yellow and blackfly? I asked. “Or a yellow-striped blackfly? It looks like a hoverfly. Why not a black yellow-fly?”

 

She now denies this ever happened, but I swear it annoyed her at the time. I suppose this is why you should never confuse entomology and etymology.

 

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C3PO impression?

 

I distributed the butties from the back of the truck. Unfortunately, I had overestimated the average tolerance for rojo. Even Evelyn, who I had imagined would have polished hers off with local panache, seemed a little agitated. As the three teary-eyed scientists scraped off the lion’s share of the salsa from their buns, a mystery dog, which had appeared out of nowhere to share our lunch, also went in search of a drink in the stream. Some don’t like it hot.

 

At the risk of ridicule, can I say here that I thought the topography up here was not that dissimilar to parts of the Peak District. Rolling, rough pasture, grazing material, moorland – though not as managed, or as wet. And about 15 times the altitude.

 

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Peak District or Peruvian highlands?

 

Sandy made the comment that all the vegetation I was seeing would have been quite different as recently as 500-600 years ago - that is, preconquest – when there would have been more native scrub: small shrubs, berberis, vemonia.

 

Chiefly, the difference was the grass – the land use here chiefly “calafatal” grazing vegetation – which had been imported for domestic use and had then spread. Spread? Given that we were on an isolated moorland some 3,000 metres up and grass was chiefly what the eye could see for 40 miles in any direction, I found the idea this was all alien to Peru a bit challenging. What had happened to the original flora and fauna? How had grass been so successful in such a short time? And why then was I having such a hard time getting it to grow on our lawn?

 

A further three stops on our gradual descent yielded bounty of both flora and fauna; a triumphant Sandy found a healthy clump of Solanum zahlbruckneri first found in this area in 1936, according to records. This clump was found just outside the rather, um, rustic-smelling village of Cruz Campo.

 

A gleeful Erica applied her suck machine on a clump of modest shrubbery festooned with interesting pests for her to dispatch in the name of Science. And once again Sandy took a healthy sample of S.dilonii on the roadside near to human habitation and irrigation, proving once again that the solanum species do like a nice bit of disturbed soil.   

 

As we gently descended on the other side to the valley floor, we remarked on the gaudy but colourful election slogans that adorn every wall, even in the remotest habitations. All this for an election that is over a year away. I understand the owners get a small fee to allow parties to do the daubings. Imagine if ‘Dave’ Cameron came a-knocking and offered you a tenner to paint graffiti on your house?

 

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Unfortunate political decoration.

 

As we meandered into the outskirts of Celendin, Sandy bade us stop one last time, as she had spied a species of tobacco plant. She strode off into a nearby field.

 

Hold on, isn’t that someone’s garden? I hope she doesn’t get caught. What is one of the world’s foremost botanists doing hedgehopping in a Peruvian veg patch? Answer: science, pal.

 

As we sunk lower into our seats, a lovely scene unfolded on the other side of the road, as a young Quechua woman, strapped into a giant loom as if flying a giant kite, wove an enormous carpet from a mountain of llama wool at her side.

 

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A young Quechua woman weaving a giant llama wool carpet.

 

Her fingers working deftly and nimbly, body strained against the many strands hitched to the roof of her house. Weaving of this type has been practised for centuries in the Andes, and girls start learning their craft from age 6 or 7.

 

We found our way to a Plaza de Armas in the little provincial capital Celendin with little fuss. We checked into a charming tumbledown ex-colonial hotel on the square, where creaky wooden galleries looked broodily on to a dusty courtyard with fading art-deco tiles. 

 

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Plaza de Armas in Celendin.

 

As we unpacked and set up gear for another evening of recording, pinning and plant-drying, a school parade passed by as if to welcome us, breaking the silence of the sleepy town with a dash of local colour.

 

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A school parade welcomes us to Celendin.

 

I woke up strangely out of breath that night – a novel sensation I hadn’t experienced before. Elevation. How quaint.

 

But we slept soundly, ready for the next leg where we would be heading into the mysterious-sounding Marañon (means cashew fruit in Spanish, oddly enough!!) valley – gateway to the Amazon. 

 

Erica again - It is just as well that you are getting this blog piece in parts as it is giving us time back home to go through some specimens! Hopefully by the time we are leaving Peru in this blog I will be able to amaze you with some of the great finds that we collected along the way.

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How to catch a fly

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 19, 2014

A short instructive video

 

 

By Erica McAlister and Douglas Downing

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So I am interrupting the Peruvian blog instalments for an exciting little group of flies. One of my colleagues - Hillery Warner - left this on my desk the other day. She works many floors above me on the mantid collection and whilst recurating that collection this little critter was discovered.

 

At first she thought it may have just been some ‘crud’ (my technical term), but very quickly realised what it was (after all, we are the Natural History Museum and can spot and describe insects from 100 yards – we're more likely to walk into walls etc than the average person but nevertheless very good at the little things) .

 

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

 

Ok here is a close up:

 

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Still nothing? a mutated spider maybe?

 

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The very strange-looking batlice fly.

 

The family of flies that I am writing about are the Nycteribiidae – the batlice flies. These are some of the oddest looking flies that you will come across. For a start they are wingless – and no they are not therefore referred to as walks… But we do know that they are flies as they have retained their halteres (balancing organs). Their weird body shape is because all of their wing muscles have atrophied – they have completely dissolved away resulting in an incredibly small thorax.

 

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The batlice fly has an extremely small thorax.

 

So the head and legs are basically dorsal insertions of the thorax – they stick out of the top of the fly rather than at the side which is the more usual way. It is really difficult to work out which way is up as the head does not resemble anything that you are used to.

 

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The head is the hairy ovoid structure inserted after the 2 front legs and is conspicuously small with either no eyes or very small ones.

And just look at their legs – amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats. Their tarsal segments are completely bendy with huge claws.

 

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Their legs are amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats.

 

Here is a lovely description of them from Metafysica:

The upper surface of the thorax is little more than a framework of hard chitin, joined together with large areas of soft membrane, and the head is a grotesque structure apparently sitting on top of the thorax. Indeed, any one seeing a Nycteribiid for the first time is likely to mistake the under surface for the upper, and fail to find the head at all!  The eyes are greatly reduced, and may be absent altogether. When they are present they are quite unlike those of other adult flies, being either a single, round facet, or two little lenses on a black mount.

 

These things are only on average 5mm but adaptation to their environment is what it is all about. So batlice flies, as the name suggests, live on bats – they are ectoparasites (living externally on the host) and feed exclusively on their blood (both the male and female flies). Every five days they take in their own body weight in blood. Little and often is definitely their motto.

 

What is odd about the specimen that appeared on my desk is that it came off a mantid – one could only presume that it was using the mantid for transport (phoresis) but that leads to the next question of where was the mantid? Was it hanging around caves etc? Very puzzling.

 

Globally there are 274 described species. Most of them are found in the old world tropics although there are species in the Neotropics and Europe. Upon researching this group most of the species that have recently been described are from South America although this is probably a reflection on how many dipterists live in South America rather than it suddenly being species rich.

 

SUBFAMILY

GENERA

DISTRIBUTION

HOST

Archinycteribiinae

Archinycteribia

Malaysia - Bismark

Megachiroptera

Cyclopodiinae

Cyclopodia>

Paleotropical

Megachiroptera

 

Dipseliopoda

 

Eucampsipoda

 

Leptocyclopodia

Nycteribiinae

Basilia

Worldwide

Microchiroptera

 

Hershkovitzia

 

Nycteribia

 

Penicillidia

 

Phthiridium

 

Stereomyia

 

Now within Europe we only have 13 of these crazy little things, but that drops to just 3 in the British Isles.

 

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


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The world pinned collection does not look that much better…

 

So I think that you may be able to work out from this that most of the collection is not pinned. Some have been nicely pinned (as pictured) but most of the time they are just mangled legs on a pin.

 

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

 

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The slide material is of much higher quality than the pinned and you can see some very clear features – check out the shoulder pads on this one.

 

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This is the bulk of our collection – the spirit material. In the collection we have 235 species listed in the catalogue – which is excellent!

 

Now below is the page on batlice flies from the Dipterists Forum:

 

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Which leads me onto the very exciting larval stage – ahhh maggots – once more back into familiar territory. Now batlice flies, along with the rest of the Hippoboscoidea (the superfamily which includes this family and about 4 others – I say about as there is some dispute..), do not lay eggs. In fact, they are much more like mini-mammals (ok so I am stretching that one a bit). In fact they have a specific larval development referred to as Adenotrophic (gland-fed) viviparity (live birth).

 

All of the larval stages (of which this family has three) occur within a genital chamber. When they say there is very little parental care we can name hundreds of species within Diptera that do so. I know that I may come across as biased at times but flies really are the only species that you ever need to study. The head of the larva is enclosed in the anterior part of the uterus and receives nourishment from these milk glands.

 

The females leave the bat host when they are about to give birth (as it were). She crawls onto the wall of the cave and the pre-pupal stage emerges. This is an incredibly short stage as the larva pupate within hours. Now there are some great larval body adaptations to help this wee one stick to the cave wall. They are hemi ovoid – and have sticky secretions which are also helped by a narrow marginal skirt (see diagram below).

 

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The movement of the pre-pual stage ensures that it has an airtight seal. But – BUT -  just to make sure the female backs over it and presses down on it with her body! Incredible. If anyone has a film that I could see of that I would be forever in your debt! What a fantastically odd family.

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Sorry folks – my fault on the delay. Five million visitors and a conference have waylaid me in posting this! Worth the wait though…here's the next installment from my partner Dave, who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year.

 

Day 3: San Benito to Cajamarca

 

Another early start. As the mountains began to blush with colour, we (I) loaded up the van with samples and sweepers and the ubiquitous “Fanny” trout and tomato sandwich materials. The idea was to get to Cajamarca, 150km away, by the end of the day. It is the main town in the region, and the only road for us was over a mountain pass some 50km away and then down by a similarly circuitous route. In all, some 150km away, which sounds a doddle, but by now I had an inkling what 150K would be like up here.

 

Erica here - just thought I would interupt at this point. On the previous trip Dave decided to track our movements. We had to travel 100km in a day and he informed us that Google said that this would take maybe two hours...10 hours later...

 

With the van wrapped, packed and strapped, we lurched once more upward on the dusty track in the cool morning air. Our pace was slow, all the better to spot more of the introverted nightshade family. Our first landmark was a village called Guzmango, where we might have stayed in had we made better progress the previous day. It looked close on a map, but it was also above us by some stretch – mile upon mile of precipitous mountain track with yawning roadside drops. I enjoyed this very much. Erica enjoyed it less – Erica’s happier when she’s driving, but seems to be quite a nervous passenger, even if my driving is impeccable.

 

Erica - ...

 

The scenery became more and more spectacular – much more like the prior idea I’d had in my head of Peru. We were now above 2,000m, and the vegetation was more varied – still dry, but with pines and deciduous trees dotting well-cultivated land. San Benito was far below us.

 

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Driving up into the moutains, with San Benito far below us.

 

As the road rose and we turned yet another hairpin bend, Sandy called for a stop – she’d spotted something. There was a good clump of Solanum habrochaites, the wild tomato we saw yesterday with its distinctive yellow flowers, nestled in the shady bend. I parked the beast, and the science people took up their weapons of choice, while I padded about enjoying the breathtaking views, taking field notes and observing the cows. Cows mean faeces and faeces means flies. I was learning.

 

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Erica and the team searching for specimens by the roadside.

 

Sandy interrupted my reverie with a job – collecting the seeds for DNA sequencing from another Solanaceae species – possibly a S. neorickii  – she had spotted on the verge. This was a wild relative of tobacco. Like many of the Solanum genus, it appears to like disturbed ground, and these plants were clinging to a road cutting. It has sticky ova protecting hundreds of tiny seeds. I collected a small handful, feeling pleased with myself, until Segundo revealed his fistful.

 

Meanwhile Erica and Evelyn flapped about filling flasks and baggies full of lovely winged beasties of every description – already enough for several hours’ pinning. We were ready to get a wiggle on, but all hopes of further progress were abandoned when Erica spied a lonely Bombyliid (beefly) minding its business on a roadside leaf. An excited Erica stalked clumsily upon it through the treacherous underbrush, I felt it polite to point out that there were clouds of them in the air above her head.

 

Erica - I would like to have thought as myself as an elegant creature of the countryside...

 

As Erica’s knickers eventually become untwisted, she was able to explain that this was a rather exciting beefly mating display. Other minibeasts flitted about in jubilant swarms enjoying the early sunshine, including a very handsome black bumble bee displaying unusual hovering behaviour.

 

No matter: all were swept into the nets with gruesome efficiency and inhaled into the killing jars. Many of the unfortunate beeflies were rewarded for their display with a dose of deadly ethyl acetate. Science is a cruel mistress.

 

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Animals obstacles on the dirt roads.

 

Eventually we were able to make further (slow) progress, every lurch of the truck met with protest, as I swerved goats and pigs and ambitious wheelchasing mutts, all the while stopping for samples along the way. We picked up more Solanaceae of various description, and an interesting purple Iochroma.

 

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A purple Iochroma found at the side of the road.

 

Our last morning stop was off the main “highway” and down an even narrower mud track, where I had to drop the crew off and keep driving in order to find a place to turn round. I don’t know how Segundo finds these sites, but you can bet we wouldn’t have without him. It was in the lee of a hill, facing a fantastic valley full of cornfields and grassland, some crops perched at seemingly impossible angles on the side of mountains. Here oxen will beat your tractor any day in a ploughing competition.

 

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We made slow progress along hillside tracks.

 

I noticed there were quite a few gum trees prevalent in the area. As they aren’t native I couldn’t fathom what they were doing up here, but Sandy says they were planted for firewood – quick growing and very flammable. I could have worked that out if I’d tried. Altitude?

 

We reached the top of the pass about noon. Time for a sandwich stop, and for me to properly take in the views at the top of the mountain. Some steps had been carved into the hillside where vegetables were growing. I ventured up, and soon started to feel how the altitude – about 3,400m – was indeed affecting my progress. Everything seemed a little a bit harder.

 

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After a climb up the hillside the effects of high altitude were more obvious than ever.

 

The steps began to peter out. Then they disappeared into a maelstrom of brambles. But as I reached the brow of the hill a hint of a way seemed to reveal itself. I followed it for a few metres, scratching the hell out of my legs then vaulted an ancient wall at the top to reveal a grassy oasis at the summit, surrounded by an unforgettable panorama.

 

Worth the effort. Driving, you don’t always get to appreciate the view until you stop.

 

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View from the top - well worth the climb.

 

Now it was a bumpy, dusty ride mostly downhill all the way to Cajamarca, still some way off.

 

I was expecting a smallish town, but it’s a sizeable settlement with some style – it has a lovely cathedral and church either side of a spacious Plaza de Armas, and atmospheric, narrow streets lined with colourful colonial mansions where campesinos in traditional dress mix comfortably with sharp-suited 9-5ers. Also, plenty of cheese shops. I found it bizarre that we reached such a place by dirt track.

 

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Cajamarca, our next stop.


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Beautiful old buildings in Cajamarca.

 

We checked into our hostel dead beat, dusty and desirous of a beer, but we’d had a good day and a terrific haul.

 

Erica - it was a great haul. Today (20 August) - all the material that I and evelyn collected and put into ethanol every night has only just been sorted into Order Level (beetles, bugs, flies etc)...As Dave comes to the end of the journey I may have some results to tell you about the amazing insects we found. Till next time!

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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).

 

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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...

 

 

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Dave and Freddy.


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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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. 

 

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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....

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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See....gorgeous!

 

8) Please share a museum selfie.

 

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

 

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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!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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 ...

 

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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...

 

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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...

 

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

 

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... however, goats were better behaved

 

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

 

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

 

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And then there were the petrol stations ...

 

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

 

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"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...

 

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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!

 

shopping.jpg

 

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.

 

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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!

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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).

 

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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).

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

4 moth trap.jpg

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!).

 

5 holy Vale.jpg

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.

 

6 Pelistry Bay.jpg

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-fieldtip-scilly.jpg

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.

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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 Scotland....here 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.

 

Untitled-1.jpg

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.

image2.jpg

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.

 

image3.jpg

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.

 

image4.jpg

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.

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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.

 

image6.jpg

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.

 

image7.jpg

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.

 

image8.jpg

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!

 

image9.jpg

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.

 

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

 

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“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.

 

image12.jpg

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”.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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.

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Next Friday, 27th of September, the Museum is once more opening its doors to the great and unwashed (oh sorry that is the staff...) for an afternoon and evening finding out what our scientists get up to behind the scenes. It is Science Uncovered 2013!

 

I’ll start the day in a relaxed fashion... I will be either hosting two or three Dinosnores shows for the kids of Kensington and Chelsea (up to 500 children...). I will be talking about the most venomous and poisonous insects, spiders and scorpions, and bringing out from the collection specimens to highlight these facts. 

Su-post-1.jpgThe bombardier beetle and its volitile behind...

 

There are always a lot of questions and faces being pulled, as well as some charging round as very angry bees…

 

Later on in the day we open our doors fully to the after-hours events and it is here that the chaos ensues. There will be hundreds of scientists of all forms and persuasions touting specimens that have rarely been brought out to the public. And amongst those will be me, with me maggots. 

 

There are stations dotted around the Museum with different themes e.g. Antarctica, Evolution, Space and the best one, Parasites and Pests. I was offered a station in the woods but decided that it was parasites that I wanted. I spend a lot of time discussing maggots one way or another and generally in a way that causes people to feel squeamish.

 

Su-post-img2.jpgThe maggots will be out in force at Science Uncovered.

 

But I thought that it was time to right a wrong. Many of these parasites and pests (the maggots are the dominant - and sometimes only - feeding stage of flies) are actually essential in limiting the effects of pest species as well as maintaining balance within an ecosystem.

 

So instead of just bringing out my maggots in skin, the jars of myasis flies and so on, I will bring out the adult flies and show everyone common species found in their gardens and talk about what their larvae do. An example is the wonderful Episyrphus balteatus, the marmalade hoverfly which is incredibly common throughout the UK.

 

Su-post-img3.jpgEpisyrphus balteatus, the marmalade hoverfly

 

I have just been collecting down in the Isles of Scilly and then I high tailed it up to the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands. And the marmalade hoverfly was common everywhere I went. This little beauty can crush pollen as an adult but it is the predatory nature of the larvae that I am interested in. These and many other species in this family feed on aphids! They love them! Can’t get enough of them!

 

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Dipterists undercover in Scotland...

 

Then there are the aphid midges, Aphidoletes aphidimyza, who graze on over 70 species of aphid. The larvae are vicious little predators and can consume over 80 aphids a day!!

 

Predatory_midge.jpgPredatory aphid midges, Aphidoletes aphidimyza.

 

 

And let’s not forget the truly wonderful parasitic flies – the Tachinids, whose larvae live and eat inside many a troublesome insect. Chris Raper, who is one of the leading Tachinid experts, will also be there on the night representing the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity – I suspect that he will have a few drawers of flies too….

 

But I can’t help myself and so I will bring out some of the parasitoids that we would not necessarily approve of, as they kill solitary bees and other associated kin – the Acroceridae or hunchback flies. These are too cute to be real. And yet, they have the most fascinating larvae. These youngsters have two different body forms – one for high-tailing it into the nest and the second for lazing around, gorging themselves till it’s time for them to pupate!

 

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The hunchback fly - cute are they not?

 

And have I said that there are bars? Always best to grab a scientist in their favoured environment – flies and wine…a winning combination.

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Erica McAlister

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

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