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Staph we did this summer in Beetle blog

Posted by Blaps Nov 30, 2014

Emeline Favreau, our long-standing volunteer and recently graduated MRes in Biosystematics from Imperial College, London, and Josh Jenkins Shaw, also a long-standing volunteer and MSc Entomology student at Harper Adams share a little of what they did at the Museum this summer.


We have been quite busy this summer investigating the diversity of beetle infra-order Staphyliniformia. This is the group of Coleoptera whose popular members have short elytra (Staphylinidae), like the devil's coach horse. Using the same method as in the Biodiversity Initiative, we have used their DNA to unveil the evolutionary relationships between species.


The Devil's coach horse, Ocypus Olens, Müller, 1764


The idea was to understand the evolution of this group, as scientists have yet to pin point the exact placement of some families in the tree of life, like Pselaphidae for example. If we identify the close relatives to the Pselaphinae, we would be able to understand how this family evolved from a common ancestor. How would this common ancestor look like? What would have been its preferred habitat? What would it have been eating? These are the questions we want to answer.


In the laboratory, we first get the DNA from Staphyliniformia specimens and we spend (quite a lot of) time on a computer to figure out their evolution from molecular data. We use algorithms that convert the DNA into meaningful data, which in turn is used to create the tree of life (see the recent research on all insects). And this is when Josh comes in, as a fantastic volunteer in the molecular lab and here at Origins:


“I'm Josh, a volunteer in the molecular systematics lab at the NHM but I have previously volunteered in the beetle collection during the summer of 2011. Now I'm bringing the two areas together to complement each other.



Josh might be a little confused; this looks like the ladybird section; or is he just looking for out-groups?


This summer I've been working with MRes student Emeline Favreau trying to understand the phylogenetic and evolutionary relationships of the infra-order Staphyliniformia (that is the series that contains the Histeroids, Hydrophiloids and Staphylinoids - basically a lot of beetles - more than 74,000 described species!!)


Other than looking at DNA sequences on a computer and scratching my head a lot when faced with using odd computer programmes, I have been trying to identify specimens which have had their DNA sequenced already. Building phylogenetic trees is brilliant, but they only really make sense when the end points (nodes) have a name at the end! Identifying beetle specimens is often made much easier when you have a reference collection to hand, so it's rather fortuitous that the Coleoptera collection is two minutes' walk from where I've been based!


I also assisted Beulah with putting together a Staphylinid loan which mostly consisted of specimens belonging to the genus Bolitogyrus - a geographically interesting lineage, but they are also extremely cool looking!


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A collection drawer packed full of Bolitogyrus!


I recommend having a read/look at the photos in a recent taxonomic revision by Brunke & Solodovnikov:


A revision of the Neotropical species of Bolitogyrus Chevrolat, a geographically disjunct lineage of Staphylinini (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae)


This revision uses NHM specimens and also describes many new species. Some of the NHM specimens were collected over 100 years ago and form part of the BCA collection.



Ladybirds getting in on the act once more! Emeline at last Christmas' Coleoptera party...Happy Christmas!


Taxonomy and Phylogeny of the beetle family Prionoceridae (Coleoptera: Cleroidea) in the “Indo-Burma hotspot”


Michael Geiser, Department of Life Sciences, NHM

Wednesday 12 November 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Eight years of study on one of the most neglected and poorly-known beetle families revealed a number of taxonomic novelties and, for the first time, shed some light on this group’s ecology and distribution. In the framework of a PhD thesis, the fauna of the Indochinese subregion (largely congruent with the more recently proposed “Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot”) was revised. Two new genera and a 23 new species were described, several more are awaiting description. A molecular phylogeny of the family supported the new genera and revealed a number of interesting patterns in biogeography and life-history of these poorly-known beetles.


More information on attending seminars at


As the countdown to Science Uncovered 2014 begins, we have been busy behind the scenes thinking about how we talk about our science. How we make it interesting to YOU and how we can get YOU involved.


Making science accessible to all is one of our big challenges as a leading natural sciences organisation. With upwards of 80 million specimens (10 million of those are beetles!) we have a wealth of data that if only it were publicly mobilised would be even more relevant to the world at large, not just researchers in the natural sciences. Essentially we want to share our data; but, if I told you for our 10 million beetles we have just six curators, how is it even conceivable for us to make that data accessible?!


It took the creative mind of Ivvet Modinou the Museum's science communication manager and one of the leading people behind the Museum's participation in the EU's Researchers night to come up with a grand plan that would unite scientists and our visitors (YOU!) in making our data ever more accessible to the world at large. A few meetings later with Max Barclay (Coleoptera collections manager), Ben Scott (Data Portal Lead Architect) and Laurence Livermoore (digital analyst) the fledgling idea became reality.



Max with just a few beetles that we would love to be imaged!


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Laurence in the heady days of Hemiptera (true bug) research in the Coleoptera and Hemiptera  section before he moved over to the dark side...

Taking our Beetles and Bugs Flickr pages as a model the idea developed into something much more ambitious, and we want YOU to help us achieve this on the night! All you need is to turn up, be able to read and possess a smartphone or tablet – easy! Are you ready?


Ben explains, 'Live on the night we'll be showing the entire process of digitising specimens; from transcribing a label & crowd sourcing to data outputs via the Data Portal and visualisations.'


So how are we going to do this?

First we take a photo of the specimen which we upload to our Flickr site. After this a transcription app pulls the image from Flickr, and we ask any willing member of the public to transcribe the image. Once transcribed these data are added to our "Science Uncovered Transcriptions" data set. Then it's up to you to tweet about your good work!


You can even do it whilst having a beer! Don't worry if you're concerned about data accuracy, we've thought about that too.  Every specimen label will be transcribed multiple times, building up the level of accuracy and we will have our experienced team of digitisers and geo-referencers on hand to answer questions. After the event the dataset will be cleaned up by Ben, and then Max and Ben will work with the data to prepare it for entry in to our Museum database (imagine a database that has to cope with 80 million records!).


So this is very exciting and a new way of looking at and accessing our collection. The Coleoptera team have already come a long way with digitisation of specimens. Our beetles and bugs Flickr page has been online since 2012, has had well over a million visits, and has led to an unprecedented rise in interest in our collections as a result. Not only do we use it to highlight specimens of special note, like this one collected by Alfred Russel Wallace,


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Thaumastopeus agni (Wallace A.R., 1867) image taken by Helena Maratheftis.
Species was named after the collector, a Mr. Lamb, but Wallace translated his name into Latin.


but also to get specimens identified. Each year we receive upwards of 50,000 specimens into the collection from recent collecting trips such as this beetle collected by me and Max in Borneo in 2013.


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Lepidiota stigma (Fabricius, 1798) collected in Borneo - a beetle capable of producing the purest form of white colour known to science.

Image taken by Helena Maratheftis



Identifying these beetles can be a lengthy process so putting them up online allows a first look for researchers and taxonomists all over the world. If they see something they think is interesting we can then send those specimens out on loan; eventually they will be returned identified and quite often there will be a few new species too!


Darwinilus sedarisi Chatzimanolis, 2014 Staphylinidae: Holotype newly described from Charles Darwin's collection held in the Museum


Hillery Warner (beetler and top specimen mounter) was one of the pioneers of our Flickr site, and here she explains why we began this most ground-breaking of projects.


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Sometimes, beetles just aren't enough to keep Hillery busy; she has to dabble in the dark arts of Mantodea too...


"The Flickr project started off as a way to see if our unidentified material might be voluntarily identified by specialists around the world if we provided it online.  While we did have some success with this, the project quickly evolved into not only a fantastic public outreach outlet, but also a way of maximising the usefulness of our digital loans.


Scientists scattered across the globe need to see specimens in our collection in order to do their work- identifying, describing, and revising life on earth.  Sometimes they need to take a really close look at every detail of a specimen, which means they have to fly over to London, (which is expensive), or we need to actually put the insects in a box and post them out on loan.  But sometimes they just need "to see it".  This is when the very best option is to take a picture and send it.  Job done.  We call that a "digital loan". Before the Flickr site, we would email the attachment to the scientist who asked for it, and we were the only people to ever see it.  What a waste!  These people are working on cool stuff.  And you should get to see it, too.  So now, we put it out onto Flickr for you too!"


Since the inception of our Flickr site the Museum has began digitising collections on an even larger scale and now employs a team of people to image and transcribe. They work on dedicated projects; the most recent one for Coleoptera being the digitisation of 9000 specimens of beetles belonging to the family Chrysomelidae (the leaf beetles), of which many species are known to be economically important crop pests, as part of the Crop and Pest Wild Relatives Initiative.


Here's some of the digitisation team you will meet on the night,


From back to front: Gerardo Mazzetta, Peter Wing, Joanna Durant, Flavia Toloni, Sophie Ledger, Elisa Cane, Jasmin Perera and Lyndsey Douglas



A drawer from the Coleoptera collection of members of the leaf beetle genus Diabrotica - all imaged and label data transcribed by the digitiser team


So, we look forward to working with you on the night! Let's see how many specimens we can transcribe… and remember, we need you to help make this a success!


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Image taken by artist and photographer in residence to the Coleoptera section, Helena Maratheftis


This is the first in a series of blogs about the Museum’s Biodiversity Initiative and its ambitious endeavour to research novel ways of describing insect species (though naturally our priority is beetles!) in tropical forests around the world. We endeavour to bring together DNA methods and traditional morphological taxonomy to help us make statements and answer questions on species richness and turnover, diversity and distribution as well as simply increasing our knowledge of the incredible (and seemingly infinite) diversity of species in the world’s most threatened of habitats, primary tropical forest.


Project assistant Julien Haran unwittingly demonstrating the scale of the forest in Santa Fe National Park.


As fieldwork and collections co-ordinator for the Panama project I had to make sure that any fieldwork we undertook was approved and regulated by the relevant authorities. As one of the world’s foremost institutions in natural history, we are governed by a strict code of practice and adhere to international regulations on Access and Benefit Sharing and the Convention on Biodiversity.


In order to fulfil our obligations to the countries and institutions we collaborate with, a permit will be agreed upon setting out the conditions and commitments we must abide by in order to collect insect specimens for scientific research.


On our collecting trip to Panama in March and April 2014 we were fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Panama, and Panama Wildlife Conservation - without their assistance this project would not have been possible.


Fast-forward four months and today is an exciting day. Finally, after months of tense negotiations with international couriers, many phones calls, texts and emails flying between Panama and the UK, we are finally expecting a very large package of carefully preserved insects…Those long minutes spent on hold to our excellent couriers listening to 'Aint no river wide enough' - on a loop, paid off...



The very wide and deep river we crossed everyday to get to our field site. Foreground, Luis Ureña, one of the project leaders in Panama and background, Julien Haran, with hopefully dry underpants!


So, this is a backwards way of introducing a major project on beetle genetics and Natural History Museum collections development but most importantly a very big thank you to all the amazing people and organisations that helped us realise this project.


In particular we want to thank Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña who we kind of left behind in the field in Santa Fe NP once our three weeks of collecting were over! As part of our commitment to collaboration with Panama, it was important to us to exchange expertise and knowledge; essentially capacity build. Our intention was to collect in the dry and rainy season which meant being in the field for at least 2 months (my tolerance for roughing it extends to three weeks maximum!) and also there is always a financial constriction on how much time we can spend in the field.



Vayron de Gracia with a fancy lizard (photo bomb Julien Haran!).



A somewhat nervous looking team we are about to leave behind to continue collecting. From left to right: Vayron Cheffin's Father, Bernardo, Julien, Cheffin, Senior Pastor; and most importantly, the faithful Rosinante!


It was an ideal situation to find two excellent, willing and able biology students from the University of Panama; eager to accompany us on this trip into the darkest interior of Santa Fe National Park to a locality previously never collected for insects before.



Learning all about yellow pan traps.


Vayron and Bernardo didn’t seem to mind living in a chicken pen and eating SPAM for weeks at a time (more on that in later instalments!) so they proved the ideal field companions! We trained them in biological recording techniques and beetle family identification which helped them to put the theory learned on their university course to practical use in the field. When we left (just on the edge of the dry season) Vyron and Bernardo stayed on for another five weeks to continue collecting using the methods they had learned from us.



Here's home for eight weeks!


lunch-image_jpeg700.jpg'Lunch' on the go - combining beetle-sorting and lunch.



Arguably a more sanitary lunch break in the field with one of the project leaders, Eric Flores (left foreground).



Learning how to process insect samples in the field (no sign of lunch!).

Here is what they have to say about their experience working on a Natural History Museum fieldwork expedition (all good of course!)


And thank you Vayron and Bernardo; we can’t wait to start working on the specimens and finding out more about the beetle biodiversity of the beautiful country that is Panama!


Report on the training of Panamanian field assistants

By Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña


The collecting of insects developed in the Santa Fe National Park, allowed us for the first time to learn about collecting methods and about the traps used to capture insects in tropical forests. This was the first time we worked with these type of traps, in understory (FIT and Malaise), upper canopy (SLAM), on the ground (Pitfall) and Winkler traps (leaf litter); and the Yellow pan traps at ground level to capture other orders of insects such as Hymenoptera.


As undergraduate biology students at the University in Panama, we have only been taught about trapping for aquatic insects. Another important aspect was the way the traps were deployed on a plot by plot grid system that can be used in any tropical forest anywhere in the world, not just Panama. We did not know about this methodology to capture insects, in summary this was all new knowledge for us.


Julien, Bernardo and Vayron light trapping, with fierce competition from the moon!

This is the first Project of its kind in Santa Fe National Park (SFNP) and it has been an exciting experience to be part of it from the very beginning and to witness how traps need to be deployed -  the organization and methodology used in the field with experts from the Natural History Museum. Moreover, the data generated as a result of this study will be new for the SFNP and for Panama regarding the entomological fauna.


When Google maps go wrong - our plot design; co-ordinates for Santa Fe.


Now we have the capacity to transfer the information to other people on how to conduct insect collecting and to collaborate with other scientist in the future. It was also valuable to deal with the traps and collecting in the following months after the team from the Natural History Museum departed. For example, the harsh climatic conditions, some landslides near the path to the plots, and the damage to the SLAM traps.


On one day of normal field collection, we left the Isleta camp to empty our traps and we were astonished to find the SLAM traps of Plot 1 had some holes in the sheet, and the plastic pots were perforated (see pics). Our first guess was that the guilty guys were crickets and woodpeckers! We were really worried because we were alone in the field and had to solve the problem in situ, after all we were in charge of collecting in the field. Masking tape was the temporary solution to the damage of the traps and luckily it worked out until the end of the dry season sampling in Santa Fe.







Electrical tape saves the day!

Funny note:

Frequently communication was a barrier from the beginning since our level of English was really poor. However there were always funny moments and anecdotes. For example “Chefin” our field guide use to say “Hay cantidad” (There is a lot) of anything he thought could be important for us. At the end this phrase was learnt by Julien Haran who one day working toward the plot claimed: “Hay cantidad”, referring to many cockroaches wandering on the leaf litter…


Spring is marching on and keeping us all very busy. As the season progresses colour becomes more varied and the changes are noticed daily - its an exciting time!.


The dates of first flowers are early compared to last year's late Spring: trees in blossom this month - several of which first flowered in March - included Wild cherry (Prunus avium), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), bird cherry (Prunus padus), apple (Malus domestica), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and last week - also earlier than in previous years - elder (Sambucus nigra).

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Apple blossom, Malus domestica, from the 'Brownlees Russett' variety in the Wildlife Garden

© Jonathan Jackson


On the ground the variety of texture, scent and colour is changing even more dramatically, especially in woodland areas, which are now bright with whites: sweet woodruff (Galium odorata), wild garlic (Allium ursinum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); blues: bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), bugle (Ajuga reptans), wood speedwell (Veronica montana); and yellows: a few primroses and celendines remain with the more recent flowering of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon); and, of course, the deep pink of red campion (Silene dioica) as well as grasses wood millet (Milium effusum), false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) and more.


While in water, the delicate flowers of bogbean float daintily in the upper pond...


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Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata
© Jonathan Jackson


But the star of April is undoubtedly cowslip. In grassland areas cowslips have provided a long season - a few were spotted in flower on 25 February; ten days earlier than the first cowslip flower last year -  and there has been a succession ever since.


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Cowslip, Primula veris
© Derek Adams


Cowslips were once a common sight throughout April and May on chalk downland, and in meadows and pastures as well as hedge banks and railway embankments throughout downland areas of Britain.


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Cowslip on Wye National Nature Reserve
© Natural England


But although now sadly a rare sight generally, cowslips are still plentiful on nature reserves such as Wye NNR managed by Natural England and there are many conservation projects encouraging the return of cowslips to their former habitats…


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Cowslips in a restored meadow on the north downs in Kent this week.
© Peta Rudduck


And, some say they are returning to road sides and motorway embankments. In gardens once established they will reward you by continuing to spread both vegetatively and by seed. Our own chalk downland and pond-side meadow habitats have been crowded with cowslips all month.


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Chalk downland, with cowslips, in the Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson


And there are still a few in bud in our meadow where the flowering has been delayed due to recent grazing (at the end of March our sheep were here for a short visit, to graze the too-lush grasses in the meadow).


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March grazing in the meadow
© Sue Snell


In rural areas cowslips were traditionally harvested to make wine which was also taken medicinally. They are rich in nectar and, in former times when cowslips were a common sight, children would pick flowers and sip the nectar. Here in our Wildlife Garden, the nectar is strictly for the bees and early butterflies including the brimstone. Cowslip is also the food plant of the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary. Other insects benefit, including pollen beetles...


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A pollen beetle, Meligethes aeneus, pays a visit to a cowslip flower.
© Jonathan Jackson


Once cowslips are in bloom I feel that spring is really, truly here and although I want these beautiful flowers to last a little longer, there are now many seed heads amongst the blooms. Not so radiantly yellow, but it's good news for next year.


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Cowslip seed heads

© Jonathan Jackson


You can find out more about cowslips in folklore from Roy Vickery. If you are out and about this weekend and spot the violets of bluebells rather than the yellows of cowslips, do join in with the Museum's survey.


And at the end of May visit us here in the Garden and discover more about Britain's most common flower, the stinging nettle. Nettle Weekend is 31 May to 1 June. More on that soon...




It’s Science Uncovered time again beetlers! We can’t wait to show off our beetles to the thousands of you who will be visiting the Natural History Museum on the night. We'll be revealing specimens from our scientific collections hitherto never seen by the public before! Well, maybe on Monday at the TEDx event at the Royal Albert Hall we did reveal a few treasures, including specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, as seen below.



Lucia talking to the audience of TEDx ALbertopolis on Monday 23rd September.


lydtedweb.jpgLydia and Beulah spanning 250 years of Museum collections at TEDx Albertopolis.


Last year we met with about 8,500 of YOU – so that’s 8,500 more people that now love beetles, right? So, as converts, you may be coming back to see and learn some more about this most speciose and diverse of organisms or you may be a Science Uncovered virgin and no doubt will be heading straight to the beetles (found in the DCII Cocoon Atrium at the Forests Station).

This year the Coleoptera team will be displaying a variety of specimens, from the weird and wonderful to the beetles we simply cannot live without! Here’s what the team will be up to...

Max Barclay, Collections Manager and TEDx speaker
For Science Uncovered I will be talking about the diversity of beetles in the tropical forests of the world. I have spent almost a year of my life in field camps in various countries and continents, and have generally come back with thousands of specimens, including new species, for the collections of the Natural History Museum. I will explain how we preserve and mount specimens, and how collections we make today differ from those made by previous generations.


Crocker Range, Borneo - it's really hard work in the field...but, co-ordinating one's chair with one's butterfly net adds a certian sophistication.



The Museum encourages its staff to be respectful of and fully integrate with local cultures whilst on fieldwork. Here is Max demonstrating seemless cultural awareness by wearing a Llama print sweater in Peru.


I will also talk about the Cetoniine flower chafers collected and described by Alfred Russell Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, and how we recognise Wallace’s material from other contemporary specimens, as well as the similarities and differences between techniques used and the chafers collected in Borneo by Wallace in the 1860s, Bryant in the 1910s, and expeditions of ourselves and our colleagues in the 2000s.


Lydia Smith and Lucia Chmurova, Specimen Mounters and trainee acrobats
As part of the forest section at Science Uncovered this year we are going to have a table centred on the diversity of life that you may see and hear in tropical forests. Scientists at the Natural History Museum are regularly venturing out to remote locations around the world in search of new specimens for its ever expanding collection.


L&L acrobatic team on an undergraduate trip to Borneo with Plymouth University.


Maliau Basin, Borneo: Lucia injects some colour into an otherwise pedestrian flight interception trap


We will be displaying some of the traps used to catch insects (and most importantly beetles!) along with showing some specimens recently collected. We will also have a sound game where you can try your luck at guessing what noises go with what forest creatures. Good luck and we look forward to seeing you!


Hitoshi Takano, Scientific Associate and Museum Cricketer

Honey badgers, warthogs and Toto - yes, it can only be Africa! This year at Science Uncovered, I will be talking about the wondrous beetles of the African forests and showcasing some of the specimens collected on my recent fieldtrips as well as historic specimens collected on some of the greatest African expeditions led by explorers such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.



Museum cricket team, The Archetypes (yes, really!). Hitoshi walking off, centre field, triumphant! Far right, Tom Simpson, Cricket Captain and one of the excellent team organising Science Uncovered for us this year.


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Mount Hanang, Tanzania: Jungle fever is a common problem amongst NHM staff. Prolonged amounts of time in isolated forest environments can lead to peculiar behaviour and an inability to socialise...but don't worry, he'll be fine on the night...


There are more dung beetle species in Africa than anywhere else in the world - find out why, how I collect them and come and look at some of the new species that have been discovered in the past few years!!


Beulah Garner, Curator and part-time Anneka Rice body double

Not only do I curate adult beetles, I also look after the grubs! Yes, that's right, for the first time ever we will be revealing some of the secrets of the beetle larvae collection. I can't promise it will be pretty but it will be interesting! I'll be talkng about beetle life cycles and the importance of beetles in forest ecosystems. One of the reasons why beetles are amongst the most successful organisms on the planet is because of their ability to inhabit more than one habitat in the course of their life cycles.



Crocker Range, Borneo: fieldwork is often carried out on very tight budgets, food was scarce; ate deep fried Cicada to stay alive...



Nourages Research Station, French Guiana: museum scientists are often deposited in inacessible habitats by request from the Queen; not all breaks for freedom are successful.


On display will be some horrors of the collection and the opportunity to perhaps discuss and sample what it will be like to live in a future where beetle larvae have become a staple food source (or entomophagy if you want to be precise about it)...go on, I dare you!


Chris Lyal, Coleoptera Researcher specialising in Weevils (Curculionidae) and champion games master

With the world in the throes of a biodiversity crisis, and the sixth extinction going on, Nations have agreed a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. The first target is to increase understanding of biodiversity and steps we can take to conserve it and use it sustainably. That puts the responsibility for increasing this understanding fairly and squarely on people like us. Now, some scientists give lectures, illustrated with complex and rigorously-constructed graphs and diagrams. Others set out physical evidence on tables, expounding with great authority on the details of the natural world. Us – we’re going to play games.



Ecosystem collapse! (partially collapsed).


Thrill to Ecosystem Collapse! and try to predict when the complex structure will fall apart as one after another species is consigned to oblivion. Guess why the brazil nut tree is dependent on the bucket orchid! Try your luck at the Survival? game and see if you make it to species survival or go extinct. Match the threatened species in Domino Effect! Snakes and ladders as you’ve not played it before! For the more intellectual, there’s a trophic level card game (assuming we can understand the rules in time). All of this coupled with the chance to discuss some of the major issues facing the natural world (and us humans) with Museum staff and each other.



Here Chris tells us a joke:

'Why did the entomologists choose the rice weevil over the acorn weevil?'

'It was the lesser of two weevils'

IMG_7063.jpgJoana Cristovao, Chris's student and assistant games mistress!

Big Nature Day at the Museum: Joana with a... what's this? This is no beetle!


One last thought, things can get a bit out of hand late at night in the Museum, it's not just the scientists that like to come out and play once a year, it's the dinosaurs too...


We look forward to meeting you all on the night!


In previous posts I described how I have been lucky enough to travel to Borneo on fieldwork for the Museum. I explained how moths are collected using light traps, and we also got to meet some of the moths I found during this trip.


The four light traps at our camp were obviously very popular with many different species of moths, but when you put up a light trap in areas which are biologically rich - and this is particularly true in tropical regions - a whole range of other insects show up too.

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Enthralled by the many exotic species of moths attracted to one of our light traps.


Many species of beetles, attracted by the bright ultraviolet light of our traps, kept the coleopterists on the trip, Beulah, Max and Howard, busy collecting their favourite invertebrates.

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Collecting our favourite species at the light traps.


Some interesting and rare species were sampled in this way, including the magnificent Chalcosoma, a dynastine beetle.

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The striking dynastine beetle Chalcosoma moellenkampi (female on the left and male on the right) was one of the many interesting and rare insects visiting the light trap.


Other frequent visitors to the light traps were mantises and crickets which, true to their predatory habit, invariably found a tasty prey to feed upon. Hefty cicadas and large bees and wasps were also numerous; their blatant cries and unpredictable flight paths were a source of constant distraction for us, as we tried to concentrate on less vociferous and placid species. Many flies, stink-bugs, frog- and leaf-hoppers, parasitic wasps and flying ants and termites were also regular visitors at our light traps.


A great variety of other species of insects are commonly attracted by light traps.


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…and even a terrestrial crab!


At times, it seemed that the arthropod fauna of the entire neighbourhood was paying a visit to our light traps and every night we were pleasantly surprised to find a new species of moth or beetle appearing at the trap for the first time. The number of insects visiting the traps only decreased during a few nights at the end of the trip; this is because the moon was full and clearly visible from early evening to late night. However we were still up late, trying to collect the few interesting species which, untouched by the resplendent show in the sky, were still paying a visit to our comparatively dingy traps.

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There is no way a light trap can compete with such a large and incredibly luminous celestial body!


During the mornings, while my colleagues were checking the Flight Interception and Malaise traps we put up in the forest, or collecting beetles using other methods, I was busy pinning the moths collected the night before. 



Setting micro- and macromoths in the field.


This has definitely been an amazing field working experience and judging by the number of specimens we have brought back a very successful one too. We’ve collected in the region of 13,000 specimens, which, after having gone through the freezing process, will soon be ready to be sorted and identified, mounted and labelled, electronically recorded and finally incorporated in our ever growing collections.


One of the things scientists do today that never happened in the past is to request official permission to conduct scientific research in another country. It might seem a bit bureaucratic and overly pernickety, but the issue of permits for collecting is an important way in which tropical countries rich in biodiversity manage their natural resources – probably the most important of which is biodiversity itself.


In Peru, all permissions for collection are managed through the Ministry of Agriculture, and there are clearly laid out rules for how to apply. I already have a permit for collecting Solanaceae – but this year I needed to sort out a permit for new work to be done under the Museum’s science initiatives.


The Museum's Natural Resources Initiative has three strands:


  • Critical Elements managed by Richard Herrington of Earth Sciences
  • Neglected and Emerging Diseases managed by Tim Littlewood of Life Sciences
  • Crop and Pest Wild Relatives (CPWR), managed by me – we jokingly call it the rocks, pox and crops initiative!


Crop and Pest Wild Relatives

Our main idea in the CPWR strand is to use the data from our and other collections to look at the distributions of crop wild relatives and the wild relatives of major crop pests, then use these data to model both plant and insect responses to the changing environment, taking into account the evolutionary relationships of each of the groups, a sort of orthogonal axis.


We have chosen to begin with the rich Solanaceae dataset I and collaborators have amassed over many years of databasing specimens in herbaria all over the world and manage through Solanaceae Source – it means the plant layer is done already! We will then begin to digitise (image, database and geolocate) all the Museum’s specimens of three major pest groups – beetles (relatives of the Colorado Potato Beetle, one of the worst pests of potato), leafhoppers or jumping plant lice (devastating pests of all kinds of crops), and fruit flies (big pests of tomato and aubergine). We also will do a new kind of collecting, where entomologists and botanists go in the field together – we will collect all the insects associated with particular Solanaceae species (well, really from any we see), thus compiling data on who lives where and on whom.


Hence the need to collect insects on Solanaceae in Peru – the centre of diversity for both wild potatoes and tomatoes. And the necessity of obtaining a legal permit to export the specimens so they can be compared with our collections and identified; I completed all the paperwork last night, and submitted it all at the Ministry today.


The importance of doing this now is that we are taking advantage of my current collecting trip to Peru for Tiina and my joint project on endemics, and two Museum entomologists are joining us in the middle of May – Erica McAlister (curator of flies and well known from her flygirl blog!) and Diana Percy (researcher on leafhoppers) will test out our collecting protocols and get the first field data for the initiative. It is exciting, as it feels like things are really starting!


Changes in Peru


Lima is a funny place – it is big, chaotic and has a very energetic, almost frenetic feel. It is in the dry coastal zone of Peru, so rain never (or very rarely) falls – the only moisture is fog from the sea. Getting to the Ministry involves wild taxi rides through crowded streets – dodging accidents and traffic jams. I lived in Peru in the 1980s, at a difficult time for the country; it was in the grip of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist threat then.


Today Lima is a more open, vibrant place – and things are really happening. Even the huge multistory tower that is part of the Social Security complex next to the Peruvian National Natural History Museum looks like it is due for changes – the sign says 'Soon this tower will be at your service. After 30 years'. This building has stood empty since the early 1980s, towering over the museum gardens. So, let’s see if things really do change!



The Seguro Social tower - ready for a long-delayed makeover!


We head to the north on Sunday – passing through the herbaria of Trujillo and Cajamarca to enter data from specimens of endemic species into Solanaceae Source. Then the fieldwork blog will really be about field work at last!


Tom is blogging on behalf of Dan Carpenter


I thought I would fill you in on some of the other work that is taking place here in Sabah during the trip. Soil biodiversity is not the only thing being studied. We have been accompanied throughout by Holger Thüs and Pat Wolseley, two lichenologists from the Museum.


Pat and Holger worked with us on our New Forest project surveying the lichens of both the terrestrial and freshwater habitats.  The collaboration was so successful that we were very pleased that they could join us on the Borneo trip.



A lichen quadrat on a tree


They are using the same sampling technique here in Sabah as that which they used in the New Forest. In each plot (the same plot we sample invertebrates in) they select 12 trees and put a quadrat on the trunk. They then record the lichen species and their frequency on the tree.  They do this for four sides of each of the twelve trees.  Additionally they also collect five leaves from plants around each tree that have lichens on them.



Lichenologists at lunch


They have used the same method in Danum, SAFE and Maliau, so they will be able to directly compare the lichens that they have found in each site.  This will tell them (amongst other things) what effect deforestation has on lichen diversity and how many species are in common between two primary forest reserves (Danum and Maliau) and how many are unique to one or the other. Combined with our invertebrate data this will gives us a lot of information about the three sites we have visited.



A large leaf-like lichen


Many of you may be familiar with lichens from walls or trees that you have seen around your homes or places of work.  But closer inspection is a must to appreciate the delicate beauty of these organisms. They take myriad forms, such as a writing-like pattern, branching patterns, leaf-like lichens and even ones that look like small volcanoes. A good magnifying glass or hand lens will help you to see them more closely.



Lichen frog


One of the joys of working with, and occasionally helping, Pat and Holger is discovering some of the animals that mimic lichens for camouflage.  I have included photos of a frog and an insect which I think is a member of Orthoptera (grasshoppers and others), but I have never seen anything like so I am not sure! We have also found a small spider hiding on one of the leaves Holger collected.  You can see how well they are adapted to life on lichen covered trees.



Insect (Orthoptera?) using lichen camouflage

You will hear more about lichens via Charlotte’s Nature Live blog, so check that soon.


Dan Carpenter

Tom is blogging on behalf of Tom Carpenter...


There are a lot of insects and other invertebrates in a tropical rainforest. All of them are beautiful in their own ways, but some have that wow factor. They come in all different shapes and sizes, from those barely the size of a full stop on this page, to those as large as the palm of my hand. Here are some photos of some of the more impressive invertebrates that we have encountered in Borneo.



The magnificent male rhinoceros beetle


Many of the bigger insects we have seen come to the lights of the dining halls, both here at Maliau but also in Danum. This Rhinoceros beetle is a member of the Scarabaeoidea, the dung beetles and chafers. This magnificent male flew rather haphazardly into the dining hall at Maliau and crashed into the wall. It uses those large horns to grapple with other males to get the best spots for attracting a mate. Another frequent visitor to the dining halls of Maliau and Danum is the Lyssa moth. Its wingspan is about 20 cm.



The moth is Lyssa zampa (Uraniidae)


This bizarre but beautiful creature is a member of the Family Fulgoridae, in the Order Hemiptera, the true bugs. It has a long nose, big eyes and is a beautiful green colour. Generally, Hemiptera feed on plants.



A Folgorid bug


We have seen a couple of different types of millipedes. The first picture is of one I found on the road in Danum one morning on my way to breakfast. This one was as long as my foot!



Millipede found on the road at Danum



Pill millipede found at SAFE


The second is of one we found in one of our SAFE plots. This one can roll up into an almost perfect ball.



Flat backed (Polydesmida) millipede


The third is a Polydesmid millipede and has a flat back. If you rub this one it smells like almonds due to a cyanide like poison it exudes from its back. One not to be licked!



Camponotus gigas ants fighting over a cricket


This photos shows two members of one of the largest species of ants in the world, Camponotus gigas, fighting over a cricket. These ants are everywhere in the forest and quite happily wander over us and our equipment in search of food. They might look intimidating, but they are not aggressive and run away if you try and touch them.


I hope this gives a flavour of some of the more charismatic invertebrates of Borneo.


Dan Carpenter


Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, BorneoThere are three different teams of scientists from across the Life Sciences department of the Museum who have travelled to work in Sabah on our current trip to Borneo. The first team is collecting parasitic wasps (Hymenoptera) and beetles (Coleoptera). The second is sampling freshwater invertebrates. The third (known as the Quantitative Inventory - i.e. QI - team), of which I am a member, is sampling soil and leaf litter invertebrates and lichens.


The teams are visiting a number of different areas in Sabah. We will spend the first week in Danum Valley Conservation Area in the east of Sabah. Teams will also visit Maliau Basin Conservation Area, the SAFE project area, the area around Sandakan and the freshwater team will also be visiting ponds and lakes near to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital.


The total length of the trip is 6 weeks, but only the QI team will be in Sabah for the entire period.


This is an extraordinary opportunity to document the diversity of tropical rainforests and tropical freshwaters.  We will almost certainly discover new species and in some cases as much as 50% of or samples will be species new to science.


In later posts I will explain a bit more about what the QI team is doing, the techniques we are using and the sorts of invertebrates we are collecting. So come back soon to find out more.


Dan Carpenter


Following the amazing success of last year's event, we're gearing up for our second Science Uncovered festival on Friday 23 September.


The Museum's Science Uncovered event celebrates European Researchers' Night in London, and we join over 300 other cities across Europe in our festivities.


This year looks set to be on a much grander and more impressive scale than in 2010. We're opening a lot more of the Museum on the night. The dazzling array of shows, discussion opportunities, behind-the-scenes tours and fun activities such as Crime Scene Live and Science Fight Club, will reveal just how varied and cutting-edge our scientific research is here.


To avoid disappointment through some activities being over-subscribed on the night, you can pre-book tickets in advance. The evening is free to attend and all the activiities are free. Even if you don't pre-book, there are lots of things to drop-in on and enjoy during the evening and some family activities that start in the late afternoon.


I asked Stephen Roberts, the Museum's Nature Live team manager, who's masterminding this science extravaganza to tell us more:


'This year's Science Uncovered is a mind-boggling realisation! There are hundreds of different opportunities for visitors to spend time with some of the world's greatest scientists who are coming out, for one night only, in the stunning setting of the Museum at night, and over a drink too.

A star attraction at the Zoology Science Station in Fossil Way is sure to be the Tasmanian tiger cub specimen held in our collections. The above is a mounted adult specimen of the now extinct Tasmanian tiger.

'Two hundred of our own scientists are joined by over 100 other researchers from around London whose expertise ranges from mammoths to Mars, phytoplankton to philosophy and surgery to spiders. There is, quite literally, something for everybody.


'As well as the amazing objects coming out of the collections for the first time, like the now extinct Tasmanian tiger (pictured above) an unprecedented 92 tours will take visitors to some of our favourite places and spaces in and around the Museum.


'The word unmissable is bandied about in the media, but if ever there were a time to use it for something happening at the Museum, this is it!'


Meteorites like Tamdakht above, which fell in Morocco 2008, are helping our scientists reveal the secrets of our solar system. The meteorite is on show at Science Uncovered's Space Station in the Museum's Red Zone.

Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum says: 'We’re looking forward to welcoming even more people to this year’s event [about 7,000 visitors came in 2010], and inspiring them to take a fresh look at a subject they thought they already knew.'



So with five bars open and over 150 activites to join, it should be a great night out.


Have a look at our website to find out what's on. And if you're nearer Hertfordshire than London, our Tring Museum is also joining us on the night with its own celebrations.


See what's on at Science Uncovered at the Natual History Museum, London


Find out what's on at Science Uncovered at the Tring Museum


Book online for Science Uncovered ticketed events


You can also join our Science Uncovered community online now to see what scientists are preparing to discuss on the night and for more news and views.


Right: One of the Museum tours at Science Uncovered takes visitors into our Conservation Unit, pictured here, where you'll see how we mend everything from broken bones to casts and books.


On a summer’s day in the Wildlife Garden and the Museum grounds, you might find several hundred different kinds of insects. If you count the individuals, including the honey bees and ants, then maybe thousands. Who knows, they might even outnumber the daily throng of human visitors to our galleries and exhibitions.


Indeed, there are more species of insect in the world than any other  group - experts have named over 1 million. (Some entomologists even  estimate 10 million species.) And not a day goes by for us humans, I’m  sure, without an encounter with at least one or many of them.


Discover insect life this weekend in the Wildlife Garden as you  explore the meadows by the ponds. There are displays, activities and  tours and also talks in the nearby Darwin Dentre to join.

Come along on Saturday and Sunday, 2 and 3 July, to Insect Weekend in the Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre and meet some of this multitudinous and diverse group. Find out about the buzzers, flutterers and crawlers from bees to beetles and damelflies to butterflies and moths.


On both days, there will be lots of fun activities for all ages, and many displays to explore.

What will you see at Insect Weekend under the microscope? And tread carefully by the ponds, froglets are about. Select images to enlarge

Recent sightings in the garden includes lots of butterflies, from large white to comma, holly blue and speckled wood varieties.


Tiny froglets and toadlets are emerging from the ponds, so you'll need to tread carefully in the grasslands by the ponds. And don't forget the hundreds of tropical butterflies to see next door on the East lawn in our Sensational Butterflies exhibition.


Another highlight of the weekend event on Sunday will be botany expert Roy Vickery's tour of the garden about the 'forgotten uses of wild plants'. The 30-minute tours start around 1.45 and 3.15.


Spiders are distant relatives of insects but that doesn't seem to bother them when it comes to their dietary requirements. Not sure what would escape this spider web photographed recently in the Wildlife Garden!

Visitors will get an insight into the insect diets of other creatures like bats, spiders and frogs. Apparently, at last month's Bat Festival in the Wildlife Garden, a lttle pipestrelle  bat spent nearly an hour flying over and around the main pond, in  pursuit of midges and other small insects. It caused a bit of a stir! And the Wildlife Garden team will be doing a bat survey on Saturday.


Max Barclay's Beetlemania talk and his collection highlights on Saturday are sure to be popular and another talk on Sunday, Caught in a Trap, will reveal the secrets of collecting insects. Both free talks are in the Attenborough Studio at 12.30 and 14.30.


Find out about the Wildlife Garden online

What is an insect?

Insects (from the Latin insectum) are a class of living creatures within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae.


Find out more about insects and spiders on our Nature Online pages


Every day we get enquiries about identifying strange looking insects on our online Identification forum


Join the OPAL Bugs Count survey - an amazing 204,205 bugs have already been counted so far.


Read the Bug Count launch news story and find out the 6 minibeasts to look out for


There's no doubt about it, when you join us for our Big Nature Day extravaganza this Sunday on 22 May, you'll get your hands dirty.

But that's pretty essential if you're going to help our scientists and wildlife experts in the Big Nature Count to find and identify how many different species of plant and animal there are in our Museum Wildlife Garden. It's a 24-hour census - or a bioblitz race for those familiar with the term -  to celebrate International Day for Biological Diversity and International Year of Forests, as well as the start of the UN's Decade on Biodiversity.

Can you handle it? Find out which worm charmer to be on Big Nature Day with our experts in the BBC film clip on our website

As Stuart HIne, manager of our Centre for UK Biodiversity says: 'We have many visitors to the Wildlife Garden, from our regular human ones to more unusual visitors such as honeybees, damselflies and hawkmoths. In fact, since the garden opened in 1995, we’ve recorded more than 2,000 different species and it would be great to know what's about on Sunday.'


Along with the regular Big Nature Count guided tours, worm charming (above) will be a popular highlight of the day. There are two sessions at 12.00 and 15.00. The recent rain should help lure the worms to the ground's surface. Although we're hoping that the sun will shine gloriously on the day, of course.


Spot the spots on the ladybirds you find and watch out for cockchafer May bugs on the Big Nature Count guided tours. Select images to enlarge

Other garden action includes the Bugs Count, Tree Hunt, moth trap checking, investigating pond life, and check out the Bee Tree.


Inside the Darwin Centre, head over to the Specimen Roadshow to identify your favourite specimens (or bring in a picture) and there are nature talks in the Darwin Centre's Attenborough Studio.


Look around and above, plants and trees may hide moths (like this Poplar hawkmoth, left) and butterflies. There are eight common trees in the Wildlife Garden to identify. Select images to enlarge

Take pictures on the day

Most important of all, though, bring your cameras or have your mobile phone to the ready to snap the species you do manage to spot. With these, you can help us create a spectacular Photo Wall in the Darwin Centre atrium at the Interactive Media area. You can print your pictures here for the display or upload them with your comments to our Big Nature Day guestbook on the computers available or at home afterwards.


Big Nature Day is a free, drop-in event that will appeal to all ages, but you'll need to book on the tours and worm charming sessions.


When you arrive at the Museum head for the West lawn or Darwin Centre atrium where you'll be directed to the Base Camp in the Darwin Centre Courtyard, the hub for the day's activities, and where you can see lots of special displays.


Keep up to date on our Big Nature Day website for the Big Nature Count tours schedule and latest information


Get prepared for the activities on Big Nature Day by watching some great how-to nature videos on our website


Explore the Museum's Wildlife Garden


Discover what else is on for the International Year of Biodiversity


Visit our newly-launched Decade on Biodiversity website


Yann Arthus-Bertrand film treats at the French Institute on 22 May and on the International Year of Forests website

If you want to see an amazing nature documentary by The Earth From Above photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, head over to the nearby French Institute for a special free screening of Home at 18.30. Our Museum botanist Sandy Knap is introducing the film. Although it's free you need to book a place on their website.


Find out about booking for the special screening of Home at the French Institute


You can also catch a glimpse of Yann's special short fiilm for the International Year of Forests on the official website



Well 'tis the season - fieldwork season that is, and also the rainy season in Tanzania - which is NOT the season for fieldwork! But, if you are Hitoshi Takano, and determined to find that elusive species new to science, then needs must. This week, our fledgling entomologist has flown the NHM Coleoptera nest and managed (against the odds) to send us his 'notes from the field'. Here are the highs and lows thus far:


“For the rain it raineth every day”


It has been tough. It has seemed like everything has been against us – a long and drawn out April Fool’s joke that Feste in Twelfth Night would be proud of. The wet season in tropical Africa really is a most unforgiving place. Especially up in the mountains.

Our drive from Dar es Salaam to the village of Maskati in the Nguru Mountains should only take 7 hours or so in normal conditions; it took nearly 14 hours this time. The roads leading up to Maskati are winding and contain some pretty challenging uphill hairpins and turns with huge 100m drop offs. Dangerous enough in the dry season, let alone with the torrential rainfall. The deforestation on these slopes don’t help at all. The topsoil just erodes away and flows into the rivers; landslides are not uncommon in this region.



Half way up to Maskati the back wheel of our trusty vehicle slipped off a concrete bridge. The whole vehicle ground to a halt with its weight bearing down solely on the differential! It took us nearly 2 hours of lifting and pushing with the help of the locals to get the car out. We thought this was bad enough; 200m further up the road, up an especially tricky uphill turn, the vehicle nearly flipped onto its side; it slipped down hill and ended up with its front left tyre completely off the ground! There were many points along this road where we had to unload the kit from the vehicle, reload it only to get stuck 100m further down the road. There were times where we thought it would just be impossible to make it to the village due to the atrocious roads. But Maskati and the Ngurus are well worth the effort. With the sun setting behind the mountains, the village must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I would guess this is the kind of place James Hilton imagined when he described Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. The air is cool and refreshing. Maskati has been known to the Europeans for over a century. The mission and the church in the village were built by the Germans in 1909 and are still the pride of the village.


The walk into the mountains is also very tough. Two serious up-hills interjected by fast rivers flowing over slippery granite. Having overcome this obstacle, one reaches an incredible ridge at about 2100m. Beyond this ridge is a 200m drop off into what feels like Jurassic Park; a prehistoric forest with wonderful streams and rivers which contain many endemic frogs and chameleons, tree ferns, mosses and lichens. Many of the neighbouring forests have been logged out but because it is so difficult to get here (and to get the timber out) this area has escaped the deforestation.

To rub salt into the wound, this long walk was undertaken during a torrential downpour! I made a massive hash of packing my kit and because none of my clothes were in dry bags, absolutely everything got wet! Thank goodness we had three hours sunlight on top of the ridge to dry my clothes. I was not very happy with my schoolboy error!



During my time in the Ngurus it really did rain a lot. If we had less than 10 hours rain in the day, we were lucky; on bad days, it rained for 12 hours and more. Cold and wet. Nothing dries - putting on wet clothes in the morning has got to be one of the more unpleasant experiences when in the field.

The wet season also means that two of my fears become a palpable reality. Firstly, lightning and thunder which in their own right are extraordinary spectacles, but camped perilously on an exposed ridge with quite a lot of metal from all our equipment is not in the least bit amusing! Secondly, slugs and snails – my inordinate fear. They are everywhere. On the forest floor, on my tent, even in my tent. When walking at night looking for insects, every leaf you look at and every log you turn over, there is always some filthy slimy creature waiting for me! Give me spiders and scorpions any day!

Having managed to get up to the mountains and to base camp in the forest, we found to our despair that the generator we bought with us did not survive the journey. Light trapping is such an important weapon in an entomologist’s armoury that without it, comprehensive collection becomes very difficult. We painstakingly had another generator sent up into the forest and although it seemed like it was working, this too failed to light our Mercury Vapour lamp! Unbelievable! Other things which decided to die at crucial points included our inverter/battery charger, the choke for one of the actinic tubes and a digital camera. At this point it seemed very clear that it was worth cutting our losses and returning to Dar es Salaam to sort out our electrical problems; we really need it working for the rest of the trip. It is a terrible shame but we will be returning to the mountains towards the end of the trip to light trap high in the cloud forest.


I will now be heading south to the Udzungwa Mountains where elephants and buffalos await – and no doubt, more rain!


Next time, we see some Tanzanian beetles encountered along the way...