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In the last few posts of my blog I have been talking about the Museum’s holdings of hawkmoths, which amount to 289,000 specimens, and how the Lepidoptera section is dealing with the re-housing, care and accession of this important group.

 

This will be my last post related to this subject and in concluding I want to talk about a private collection of hawkmoths, specifically the Cadiou Collection, which has enriched and transformed the Museum lepidoptera holdings.

 

This large and valuable collection was purchased by the Natural History Museum in August 2008, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of the public.

 

Picture1edited.jpgThe Cadiou Collection with its 230,000 specimens was acquired for the nation and for science in August 2008.

 

 

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Dr Jean-Marie Cadiou was a non-professional lepidopterist with an interest in hawkmoths.


 

Cadiou began amassing his collection while working for IBM in California in the late 1960s, and continued during his subsequent employment with NATO and the EU Directorates General. At the time of his unexpected and untimely death in May 2007, he had authored or co-authored 32 scientific papers and one book, described 65 species and subspecies of hawkmoths and managed to create an extensive collection of thousands of specimens.

 

Picture3.jpgFour hawkmoths described by Cadiou. From top left clockwise: Eupanacra busiris ssp. myosotis (Sulawesi), Orecta venedictoffae (Ecuador), Xylophanes haxairei (French Guiana, Colombia, Ecuador, north Brazil) and Rhodoprasina corrigenda (Thailand).

 

The Cadiou collection contained an estimated total of almost 230,000 pinned and papered specimens and when this collection was put on sale after Cadiou’s death the Museum couldn’t miss the chance to acquire it.

 

The reasons behind this interest were multiple:

  • The majority of the Cadiou material was post-1970 with precise locality data.
  • The collection contained at least one genus and 99 species and subspecies not represented in the Museum.
  • It was also rich in species of which the Museum had only five specimens or fewer (at least 200).

 

In comparison the Sphingidae collections of the Museum at that time comprised 60,000 pinned specimens, many of which were over 100 years old.

 

Pic4 Cadiou's mixed boxes.jpgTwo colleagues of mine went to Belgium to pick up the collection in Cadiou’s house. The plentiful and various types of boxes containing the specimens had to be packed into large cardboard boxes for ease of transport.

 

Copy of Picture5.jpg430 cardboard boxes containing the collection were loaded into a hired large track for transport.

 

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Meanwhile back in the UK a large freezer was hired to quarantine the material before transferring it into the collection areas.

 

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After 21 days in the freezer at -40°C, the boxes were finally moved in the collection area.

 

At that time the Lepidoptera collection was housed in one of the Museum's storage places in Wandsworth, while the new building that would have housed the entomology and part of the botany collections, namely the Darwin Centre, was being built in South Kensington.

 

Once in the collection, we started the process of transferring the pinned specimens from various kind of boxes and drawers of the Cadiou collection into refurbished Rothschild drawers. Many curators and a volunteer were involved in the transferring of the material, and eventually, just before the Lepidoptera collection was ready to join the other entomology collections in the newly built Darwin Centre, in South Kensington, all pinned specimens from the Cadiou collections were transferred into Rothschild drawers and ready to be moved in their new home.

 

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Our long-term volunteer John Owen transferring some hawkmoths from Cadiou’s boxes into Rothschild drawers.

 

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At the end we had filled around 750 Rothschild drawers with pinned Sphingidae (top) and an extra 70 different types of drawers with non-sphingid Lepidoptera (bottom), all these from the Cadiou material.

 

We are now left with 120 boxes containing papered material, some of which has already been sent to Prague for mounting.

 

The actual amalgamation of all the Sphingidae in one large collection started in May 2010 and is still in progress. In this project I work alongside Ian Kitching, one of the researchers in our section and a world expert on Sphingidae. The aim of the project is to re-house the specimens from the main, supplementary, accession and the recently purchased Cadiou collections, into one collection inside refurbished Rothschild drawers.

 

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Some of the re-housed drawers of Sphingidae. From top left, clockwise: Langia zenzeroides ssp. formosana, Platysphinx stigmatica, Smerinthus ocellata ssp. atlanticus, Falcatula falcatus.

 

I am transferring the specimens using a relatively new way of arrangement which consists of rows of specimens facing each other. This method is particularly easy to carry out thanks to the falcate shapes of the dry pinned sphingids and has helped in increasing the number of specimens that fit in each drawer, therefore reducing the total number of drawers and ultimately the space necessary for their housing.

 

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By February 2014 I created 877 Rothschild drawers of hawkmoths from merging main, supplementary, accession and Cadiou collections. A total of approximately 45,000 specimens have been transferred so far. These include 105 genera out of a total of 207. The re-housed taxa have all been labelled and had their location, with other important details, recorded in our electronic database.

 

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Allow me to make a plea, before concluding. Of the 207 genera of Sphingidae so far known 206 are represented in our collections. The only one currently missing is the genus Baniwa which has only one species described in it, Baniwa yavitensis, from Venezuela. We really would like to have one!

 

However, this is not an invitation to collect it from the wild as this species is very rare and almost certainly protected. We certainly don’t endorse indiscriminate and illegal collecting, and specimens entering our collections need to be accompanied by a regular collecting permit. So, if there are some collections out there with surplus specimens of Baniwa, keen on giving one away (I can hear someone laughing mockingly), please get in touch. We shall provide it with a comfortable, and most of all protected, accommodation.

 

That’s it! I shall now officially relieve you from any further information about sphingids…well, only for a while though, because as you may have noticed, I have a soft spot for hawkmoths and can’t resist conversing regularly about them.

 

Thanks very much for following this blog trend on hawkmoths; I shall keep you posted with more news on lepidopterans and the Museum’s collections.

 

One last thing, don’t forget to visit our Sensational Butterfly exhibit, which opens on 3 April 2014. There are also some moths in the house and who knows, you might be lucky enough to be brushed past by a skilful and hurried flyer…did someone just mention a hawkmoth.

 

C. hylas edited.jpgI photographed this beautiful Cephonodes hylas resting and feeding on the flowers of the a Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in a previous Butterfly Exhibit here at the Museum. Perhaps we'll be able to enjoy some nice hawkmoths this year too.

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The re-housing of the Museum’s hawkmoths collection, one of my curatorial responsibilities, has been the subject of the last couple of posts. I talked about the transferring of specimens from outdated or transitory drawers into new, more permanent drawers, and of the amalgamation of the old Museum’s collections with newly acquired material, with particular reference to the collection of hawkmoths (Sphingidae).

 

I have also introduced some of the species from the Museum’s extended sphingid collection, consisting of around 289,000 specimens and, in this post, I would like to briefly tell of the history of the Museum's collection of hawkmoths. However, before I start delving into the past, I’d like to finish with the introduction of some of the species of hawkmoths I began in the previous post… so here are some other fascinating sphingids.

 

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Some hawkmoths have a short and stout body, transparent wings, a distinct pattern and behaviour that make them look like bees or wasps.

 

This is Cephonodes hylas, a daily flying moth, widely distributed in Asia where it is often found in urban parks and gardens attracted by Gardenia, one of the caterpillar's food plants. When the adult moth emerges from the pupa, the wings are entirely covered with greyish scales. These come off in a little cloud after the first flight.

 

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Another hymenoptera look alike is Hemaris fuciformis.

 

This little and pretty hawkmoth, with its plump body covered by yellowish and reddish hairs, and its transparent wings, looks very much like a bumble bee, and it flies rapidly like one too! This specie is widespread all over Europe eastward across northern Turkey, northern Afghanistan, southern Siberia, northern Amurskaya to Primorskiy Kray and Sakhalin Island. It has also been recorded from Tajikistan and northwest India.

 

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Sataspes infernalis is another daily flying hawkmoth that very convincingly mimics a carpenter bee.

 

Its wings are devoid of scales and are darker, more opaque and somehow iridescent compared to the previous two hawkmoths. This species is distributed in India, West China, Burma and Borneo.

 

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Eye-spots are a common feature on the wings of Lepidoptera and hawkmoths are no exception. This stunning hawkmoth is Compsulyx cochereaui, an endemic species of New Caledonia.

 

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Eye-spots are also found on the hind-wings of the species of hawkmoths belonging to the genus Smerinthus.

 

This genus includes 11 species and one of them is the eyed hawkmoth (Smerinthus ocellata). In the resting position the fore-wings cover the hind-wings with the eye spots, when the moth feels threatened, the fore-wings are suddenly pushed upward revealing the hind-wings decorated with intense blue and black 'eyes' on a pinkish and brown background.

 

The flashing of these false eye-spots may help in startling a potential predator giving the moth a chance to quickly fly away. The eyed hawkmoth is distributed across all of Europe (including the UK), through to Russia as far east as the Ob valley and to eastern Kazakhstan and the Altai. It has also been recorded in north and western China.

 

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Pseudandriasa mutata is a rather atypical sphingid

 

It doesn’t look particularly streamlined nor are its wings elongated like those of a typical hawkmoth. In fact when in 1855, Francis Walker - while studying specimens and describing new species from our Museum - came across a specimen of this hawkmoth, he recognized it as a new species but named it Lymantria mutata, thinking it belonged to the family of moths called Lymantriidae (Tussock moths).

 

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Hayesiana triopus is a lovely daily flying sphingid with translucent wings and a discontinuous pinkish-red belt and orange spots on a black abdomen.

 

The underside of the body, particularly of the thorax, abdomen and hind wings is reddish orange. This moth is a fast flyer but its rapid movements seem rather clumsy and, apparently, it's not particularly precise when aiming the proboscis into a flower. It is distributed in Nepal, northeastern India, southern China, and Thailand.

 

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Callionima inuus is certainly a very elegant hawkmoth thanks to the decorations on its forewings.

 

The scale pattern forms motifs which resembles a cover of cobwebs blended with small, dark and light brown wavy markings; there is also a patch of silver scales in the shape of a plump and twisted “Y”. The pattern is beautiful, but most of all indispensable, for perfectly disguising this moth in the environment where it lives. This species is well distributed in the entire Neotropical region, from Mexico to Argentina.

 

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Another master of disguise is Phylloxiphia oberthueri.

 

When in the resting position, hanging from a plant, this hawkmoth looks very convincingly like a bunch of dry leaves. This species is distributed through West Africa.

 

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Doesn’t Hypaedalea insignis look like the vehicle of a superhero character?

 

An innovative hawkmoth bat-car! But again, this pattern has not evolved to impress we humans; the amazing discontinuous and wavy lines and blotches, coloured with different tints of brown and grey, are all essential for making this hawkmoth hard to spot against the vegetation. This moth is distributed in West Africa.

 

And now, the history bit...

 

The Museum's collections are based on Sir Hans Sloane’s collection which was purchased by the British Museum in 1753. Amongst them were his entomological holdings, with around 5,500 specimens including Lepidoptera, and thus were the earliest Sphingidae housed in the Museum.

 

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A drawer with specimens of Lepidoptera from the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane. The hawkmoths in this drawer (Smerinthus ocellata in the top left, Agrius convolvuli and Sphinx ligustri bottom left and right respectively) were collected more than 350 years ago and are amongst the oldest Lepidoptera specimens in our collections.

 

Afterwards, the earliest and most significant benefactors who presented Lepidoptera - and particularly Sphingidae - to the Museum were, Horsfield, the Honorable East India Company, and Museum appointees like Edward Doubleday.

 

Later 19th Century benefactors of major significance were Bates, Wallace, Stainton, Zeller, Bainbrigge-Fletcher, Hewitson, Leech and Godman and Salvin. And in the 20th Century the sphingids holdings of the Museum were to be enriched with the collections of Lord Walsingham, Swinhoe, Moore, Joicey, Levick, Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, Cockayne and Kettlewell, Inoue and others.

 

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Some of the most significant donors of Lepidoptera (and particularly of Sphingidae) to the Museum.

 

The date of acquisition, the number of specimens and some of the history behind each of these valuable collections of moths and butterflies is often well documented, but it is much more difficult to know the exact number of specimens of any particular family that came with any of them. However, we know that the majority of the hawkmoths - around 45,000 specimens - came to the Museum in 1939 when Lord Rothschild bequested approximately 2.5 million specimens of Lepidoptera.

 

Rotschild Sphingidae Last edited.jpg

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild was a keen naturalist who went on to amass one of the greatest collections of animals ever assembled by an individual. In 1939 around 2.5 million specimens of butterflies and moths from the Rothschild collection, were entrusted to the Museum in thousands of drawers. Two of these drawers, containing hawkmoths, are shown in the picture.

 

The Sphingidae collection, like the majority of the other Lepidoptera families, has since 1904 been housed in the Museum in 4 separated blocks:

 

Main Coll. Dr1.jpg

The Main Collection.

This is the reference collection and contains drawers with type specimens and representative series of any particular family, often of the oldest material. In the picture, one of the main collection drawers with the hawkmoth Callionima inuus.

 

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The Supplementary Collection.

 

It contains other specimens, belonging to any particular family, of identified material which arrived later and for which there was not space in the main collection. In the picture, one of the supplementary drawers with the hawkmoth Agrius convolvuli.

 

Accession Dr1.jpg

The Accession Collection.

 

It contains unsorted and often unidentified material which was later added to the family. In the picture, one of the accession drawers with different species of hawkmoths from the original Rothschild Collection.

 

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The British & Irish Collection.

 

It contains specimens of the 20 species of Sphingidae occurring in the British Isles. In the picture, one of the British and Irish Collection drawers with the hawkmoth Daphnis nerii.

 

Only relatively recently we began to amalgamate all specimens from the main, supplementary and accession collections into one collection for each family. Each of the 5 curators in the Lepidoptera section is responsible, amongst other things, of the re-housing of one or more families of moths and butterflies.

 

With a collection of almost 9 million specimens and around 135 families of Lepidoptera to take into account the work to do can seem endless; it will certainly take a long time and a lot of effort before this is accomplished, but slowly and surely we are improving the care, storage and accessibility of our collections.

 

In August 2008, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of the public, the Museum was able to acquire one of the largest private collections of Sphingidae, the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

And it’s about this prodigious private Collection, containig a staggering total of around 230,000 specimens, the majority of which are sphingids, that I will be telling you in my next post. Make sure to come back then.


Thanks for reading.

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In my last post I described one of my curatorial tasks here at the Museum: the re-housing of our extensive collections of hawkmoths, made up of around 289,000 specimens.

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The re-housing of the Museum’s extensive collection of hawkmoths will keep me busy for the next few months (did I hear someone say years?)

 

In this post I would like you to meet the actual stars of this project, the hawkmoths themselves. Hawkmoths belong to the Lepidoptera family called Sphingidae, a relatively small family if compared with other families in the order Lepidoptera; so far there are 208 genera and 1,492 species described. Untitled-2.jpgHawkmoths are insects belonging to the family Sphingidae in the order Lepidoptera. 208 genera and 1492 species of hawkmoths have been described so far. Top row (L-R): Deilephila elpenor (Elephant hawkmoth), Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth), Elibia dolichus. Middle row (L-R): Cechenena sp., Hayesiana triopus, Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth). Bottom row (L-R): Mimas tiliae (Lime hawkmoth), Hyles sp., Hyles lineata (Striped hawkmoth), Akbesia davidi.

 

Species belonging to this family usually have falcate (curved and hooked) wings and their body is characteristically streamlined. The majority of species have a very swift and agile flight, and hover rapidly in front of flowers feeding on nectar with their tongue, which is often very long.

 

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The long tongue of many species of hawkmoths is mainly used to feed on nectar from flowers or occasionally, as in the case of this Argentinean Xylophanes schreiteri, on sweet breakfast leftovers! This photo was kindly provided by Tony Pittaway. Check Tony’s interesting websites, Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic and Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic, for more information and pictures of hawkmoths.

 

Hawkmoths caterpillars are large and have a curved horn on the rear end. When disturbed, they usually rear up with their anterior segments arched, in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian sphinx. These two larval features explain why these moths are also known with the common names of hornworms and sphinx-moths, while the common name hawkmoth refers to the rapid flight and falcate wing shape of the adult.

 

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Sphingid caterpillars have a horn of various shapes on the last abdominal segment. From top right clockwise: Cephonodes hylas, Dolbina inexacta, Eumorpha analis and Daphnis nerii (Oleander hawkmoth). All pictures by Tony Pittaway.

 

The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public; consequently these moths have become one of the most widely collected groups of insects.

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The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public.

 

Hawkmoths are generally well represented in every insect collection, large or small, and they are frequently reared from caterpillars, which has helped in providing a great deal of information on their biology and life history. Most species are also readily attracted to artificial light sources and this helps in surveying them when conducting biodiversity inventories of an area, which in turn has provided us with considerable insights into their distributional patterns and ranges.

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Many species of hawkmoths are attracted to artificial light sources.

 

The following pictures, taken from specimens in the Museum collections, show the ample variation that exists in size, shape, features and wing patterns among the different species in this family of moths.

 

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The stunningly emerald green Euchloron maegera. This species is commonly distributed in all Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

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Oryba kadeni is another wonderfully green hawkmoth. It’s characterised by very large eyes and relatively short antennae. This species is found from Belize southward to Brazil.

 

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Some sphingids like dressing in pink, such as this lovely elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor). This species is relatively common and widely distributed. It occurs in all Europe (with the exception of northern Scandinavia, northern Scotland and parts of the Iberian Peninsula), eastward through temperate Russia to the Pacific coast, Korea & Japan. It is also found in China as far as the provinces of Sichuan and Guangdong. It is a common species in the UK.

 

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Leucophlebia lineata is another pretty hawkmoth sporting a series of pink, yellow and white stripes on the forewings. This species is found from Pakistan through India and Sri Lanka, to eastern and southern China, down to South East Asia.

 

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Neococytius cluentius is one of the largest hawkmoths with a wingspan that can reach 17cm, and a long tongue of up to 22cm. It occurs from Mexico to Argentina, and has also been recorded as a stray in north Illinois and south Michigan.

 

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The record for the longest tongue belongs to Xanthopan morganii subsp. praedicta, a relatively large hawkmoth found in Madagascar famous for its long proboscis used for probing on flowers to feed on nectar. Thanks to its long proboscis, which can reach 25cm, this moth is well adapted for feeding from the flowers of star orchids, in which the nectar is kept at the bottom of a very long spur. While doing so the hawkmoth secures the pollination of the orchid.

 

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On the other hand, the adult of the hawkmoths in the subfamily Smerinthini, such as this Laothoe populi (the poplar hawkmoth), have extremely reduced mouthparts and are unable to feed. This moth is well distributed across Europe, as far as southern Turkey and eastward through Russia, and as far east as Irkutsk. It’s probably the most common hawkmoth in the UK where the adults fly between May and July.

 

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Sphingonaepiopsis gorgoniades with its 2-3 cm wing span is the smallest hawkmoth. It occurs in some countries in South-East Europe, Turkey, Ukraine, Southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It has also been recorded in parts of the Middle East.

 

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The hawkmoth Euryglottis aper reminds me a bit of one of those soft toy puppets. It is a very hairy species as it flies at elevation of up to 2800m in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

 

The Museum collection contains representive specimens of 207 genera and around 1,300 species of hawkmoths; a global coverage of 85%. Of the 289,000 specimens of Sphingidae held in the Museum collections, 113,000 are dry pinned and a further 176,000 are unset and still in their original envelopes. The  Museum's collection is certainly the largest and most complete collection of sphingid in the world.

 

In the next post I will be featuring more pictures and information on other species of hawkmoths and I will also give a little bit of history about the original hawkmoths collection of the Natural History Museum. I hope you'll be back then.

 

Thanks for reading and I take this opportunity to wish all the readers a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

 

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A friendly convolvulus hawkmoth I met on a recent trip to Bulgaria. Isn't he cute?

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Hello again!

 

Some of the enquirers during the recent #askacurator day event on Twitter were curious to know what curators do every day in their work. Well, I suppose it really depends on the type of collections in their care, and curators in a natural history museum might deal with different tasks compared to curators in an art collection for example.

 

Around 35% of mine and of my colleagues’ working time is dedicated to re-housing specimens, which is the transferring of pinned specimens from outdated or transitory drawers into new, more permanent drawers.

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Re-housing specimens of hawkmoths in the collection.

 

Many of the original drawers in our collections are not up to scratch with respect to the most recent guidelines of conservation and collections policy, therefore we are actively replacing them with refurbished or brand new drawers.

 

oct13.jpgTwo old types of drawers in our collection. We have already emptied & refurbished thousands of them, but there are still quite a few left to clear.

 

Once emptied, the majority of the old drawers are sent for refurbishment and then re-use in the collection; other old drawers, as well as many boxes that come in with acquisitioned material, are sold and the proceeds used to buy new drawers or furniture for the collection.

 

Many drawers in our collections still contain unsorted and often unidentified material; this is because new material has been regularly added to the Museum through fieldwork, donations and purchases since the very early days.

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Drawer with unsorted moths recently collected in Bolivia.

 

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Specimens are also often donated to our Museum and others are purchased.

 

We always identify specimens before transferring them into new drawers along with the identified material already in the main collection. Eventually, when newly re-housed drawers are created, they need new labels, and their location, with other important details, are recorded in our electronic database.

 

These are all necessary steps if we want to make sure our collections are useful and easily accessible. If you consider that our section is made up of more than 80,000 drawers, it is crucial for us and for our visitors to know precisely where a particular drawer is located. 

 

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Re-housed drawers in their new location. Each curated drawer has internal labels stating the scientific name of the species inside, and also two external labels specifying the content. It also has a unique number; these details are all recorded in our electronic database so that specimens can be easily found in our extensive collection.

 

One of my current tasks is the re-housing of the entire Museum collection of hawkmoths (Sphingidae), which contains “only” around 114,000 specimens housed in about 2,130 drawers, and an extra 176,000 papered specimens, still in their original envelopes, waiting to be mounted.

 

Before August 2008 the Museum’s collection of Sphingidae contained ca. 60,000 pinned specimens, the vast majority of which were from the Rothschild Collection, dated pre-1930.

 

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An original Rothschild drawer with specimens of the Oleander Hawk-moth waiting to be re-housed into new drawers.

 

Then, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis Foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of our public, the Museum was able to acquire one of the largest private collections of Sphingidae, the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

The Cadiou collection, which contained 53,000 pinned specimens and 176,000 unset and still in the original envelopes, doubled the size of the Museum's original holdings and has provided modern material that was lacking in our collection.

 

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The Museum’s hawkmoth collection has been transformed by the arrival of the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

Follow me in the next few posts, where I will talk about both the original Museum and the recently purchased Cadiou sphingid collections. I will explain how the current curation of the important and comprehensive Museum’s collection of sphingid into modern unit trays and refurbished Rothschild drawers is taking place.

 

Thanks for reading.

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This is my 50th blog post, so I thought I would look back and make a list of benefits that have come directly from blogging about my job and the collections in my care. These include an enhanced profile of the collection, help with collections management, fundraising, research collaboration offers and an enhanced personal profile.

 

There are probably more that can't be directly measured but here are 20 to be going on with:

 

Press coverage

1. The post on microfossil Christmas cards inspired an article in the Independent in December 2012.

2. The item on specialist curators was published in full on the Museums Association (MA) website.

3. The same post was one of the most read for 2012 on the MA website.

4. The Guardian used my post on specialist curators as a basis for an on-line poll.

5. The first paragraph of my post on volunteers was quoted in the Museums Journal under the title 'Best of Blogs'.

6. Images of slides from the collection were reproduced on the ScienceFocus website.

 

Collection management

7. I have been able to answer a number of internal and external enquiries by providing a link to blog posts.

8. A researcher from University College London has offered some grant money towards CT-scanning some of our holotype specimens.

9. Some readers have provided information to enhance the collections by identifying unnamed specimens.

10. I have been able to expand my knowledge about some important parts of the collection that previously I knew little about.

 

Collection usage

11. We have had a marked increase in the number of artists using the collection.

12. Some collection images featured on the blog have been sold via the Museum's Picture Library.

13. We have had three exhibition loan requests to display microfossil-related items, including a CT scan.

 

My research

14. I was asked to co-author a paper following my post on virtual loans.

15. I have had a request to participate in an exciting research project on ocean acidification that includes funding for more CT scanning.

16. A high profile journal has asked me to review a microfossil-related book.

 

Advisory role

17. A number of people have requested career advice, with one recently accepting a job in collection management.

18. We were approached by PalaeoCast to make a podcast about micropalaeontology.

19. I have had requests for advice on starting a blog.

 

And finally, relating to my personal development ....

 

20. I feel that blogging has helped me to write faster and more concisely.

 

I hope you will agree that this blog has enhanced the profile of the micropalaeontology collections both within and outside the Museum. There are still plenty of interesting issues and collections to write about. Please keep reading to find out how our microfossil specimens play a major role in climate studies and how a microfossil sculpture park in China relates to our collections.

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Today I am observing the fieldwork methods of Museum scientists Jo Wilbraham (algae, including seaweed) and Mary Spencer Jones (bryozoans). We depart on the boat from St.Mary's to St. Agnes at 10.15am in calm waters, under clear blue skies.

 

St. Agnes is a beautiful island, with many interesting locations to collect specimens. We arrive at low tide, which is ideal for finding a diverse range of seaweed and bryozoan specimens. Jo chooses a beach 10 minutes walk east of the quay, where it is possible to wade far out. It takes a while, and some skilled rock climbing to reach where we are going but once we arrive at the tidal interface the diverse range of species is quickly apparent. We see a wide range of seaweeds, sea anemones and polychetes patiently waiting for the tide to come back in and relieve them from the stress of exposure to the mid-day August sunshine.

st-agnes-seaweed.jpgJo Wilbraham examines seaweeds great and small at the beach on St. Agnes.

 

Jo seems quite happy with the spot and comments on the range of species whilst pulling collecting bags and knife out of her pocket and rucksack to begin collecting, making the most of the low tide. The method of exploring and collecting are surprisingly similar to the methods that I use when working in the landscape or on a residency, although the selection criteria and motivation differ considerably. Some of the specimens collected are Furcellaria, Bifurcaria bifurcata and Palmaria palmata.

 

By this point my walking shoes have flooded after being submerged in shin deep seawater and I am inspired to draw some of the collected species on dry land. I am also preparing for the drawing workshop of creative morphology (a method inspired by Goethe’s ‘Delicate Empiricism’) at Phoenix art studios in the evening.

seaweed-field-drawing.jpgDrying out my feet and drawing seaweed specimens on the beach.

 

The free drawing workshop is fully booked, and attendees will be almost exactly half Museum scientists and half St.Marys residents or visitors. Due to the demands of fieldwork some of the Museum scientists are late, which means they have a bit of catching up to do. The workshop builds up observational drawing techniques that prepare the individual for a creative exploration of the morphology of the specimen.

 

Creative morphology drawing workshop

 

The group produce some very interesting drawings and discussions. One scientist remarks that they did not expect drawing to have method, rather that it was something they associated with scientific work. This point was important as it helped the scientist to acknowledge artistic research and methodology.

 

Another scientist remarks that drawing helped them to identify important characters of the specimen, and to engage with it. This was helpful as it led to a discussion of the values of drawing and photography/SEM technologies in scientific work. We end the workshop by considering the relationship between the practice of creative morphology and creative evolutionary processes. 

herbarium-sheet-specimen.jpgSpecimens collected at the beach on St. Agnes are arranged on a herbarium sheet, ready for entering the Museum's collections.

 

After the drawing workshop I put a few questions to Jasmin Perera, an entomologist at the Museum:

GA: Do you feel the method helped you to 'know' or think about the specimen in a new or different way? If so, could you try to describe this difference?

JP: Yes the method did make me think a lot more about the specimen. It made it far more memorable structurally. There are parts that I would never have thought of analysing so much that I now know exist, which is great because I would feel far more confident in identifying the specimen if I came across it in future.

 

GA: Do you feel that the method helped you to deepen your engagement with the specimen?

JP: I think I did engage a lot with the specimen, however I feel I get a similar experience when identifying flies under the microscope as the keys we have to follow go into details as little as the length and direction of the little hairs on their body.

 

GA: Do you think this method could be useful in your scientific or artistic work? If so, how?

JP: I would find this method useful in a scientific environment as it would really make me remember any specimen I came across. Especially by pulling the specimen apart, figuring out all the bits that put it together.

 

After the drawing workshop I visit the Museum field station at the Garrison, St.Mary’s, where I find Jo sorting through the day's collections, soaking and pressing before carefully arranging on a herbarium sheet. The sun is setting, the team is tired and tomorrow awaits...the marvellous world of insects!

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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According to January 2013 figures on their websites, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has more than 32 million specimens, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington over 126 million  and the Natural History Museum over 70 million. Do we really know how many specimens we have here at the Museum? Are these figures meaningful and does it matter if we haven't estimated correctly?

 

When I consider the collections in my care I often have a chuckle about these figures and wonder if I could ever even get close to estimating the actual number of specimens in my collection. Take the jars and bottles below for example; there are literally hundreds of thousands of microfossils in there.

 

In this post I take you through a recent calculation to estimate the number of items we have in our micropalaeontology collection, and conclude that understanding how these collection sizes have been estimated is essential in deciding how to manage them.

 

P1020725_blog.jpgBottles of microfossil residues containing literally uncountable numbers of specimens.

 

It is relatively easy to make a quick and accurate size calculation for some parts of the microfossil collection. Slides are housed in standard cabinets holding 105 drawers that each hold 55 slides. The 24 standard cabinets in the Heron-Allen Microfossil Library therefore contain roughly 138,600 slides if they are full. By similar calculations, the Former Aberystwyth University Microfossil Collection contains a total of about 60,000 slides and the Former BP Microfossil Collection 300,000.

 

However, some cabinets are not completely full so we estimated percentage of expansion space and scaled down the figures accordingly. The total number of microfossil slides in the entire collection is estimated to be about 550,000.

 

But this is an estimate for the number of slides, not specimens. One slide, like the residue bottle, may contain 10s, 100s or even 1000s of specimens. Is it worth counting all of these? Probably not. You'd be there forever. Obviously when calculating the 70 million specimen figure, these vast numbers of additional specimens have not been taken into consideration otherwise the microfossil collection would have accounted for a large percentage of the total 70 million figure and perhaps even surpassed it!

 

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This slide was counted as a single item in our size estimate for the microfossil collection. Each square contains a different species and multiple specimens are present, so these counts could legitimately be added to our total number of specimens for the collection.

 

It would appear that by counting slides and not the specimens on them, we are making the microfossil collection and hence the Museum collection appear smaller than it is. So does this matter?

 

This really depends on how you use the information. I think it is fine to give estimated figures like we do on the Museum website as it gives members of the public an idea of the vast size of the collection. On the other hand, if you use these figures to make decisions on how to allocate resources to the collection, then it becomes really important to account for the way in which the data is generated.

 

It wouldn't be right for example, to decide how much funding to give a museum relative to another one based on figures like these, without knowing how they had been generated. It's probably unwise to take too much notice of website details of the relative sizes of collections at the AMNH, Smithsonian and Natural History Museum, as the data has almost certainly been gathered in a different way by each institution.

PF_70832_Various_Foraminifera_Christmas_1921.jpgAnother slide with multiple specimens that counts for a single item within the 550,000 slides in the microfossil collection. The story behind this slide can be found in my Microfossil Christmas Card post.

 

If we have 70 million specimens in the Museum, and just over half a million in the microfossil collection, which is looked after by one curator, it would, on average, suggest that we need 140 curators to manage the entire collection. The actual figure is closer to 100. Taking these figures literally would therefore suggest that I am doing well to only have to manage half a million specimens!

 

Of course it is not that simple. Data derived from other parts of the Museum collection are not comparable. A tray of 100 identical sharks teeth for example would have been counted as 100 individual specimens, whereas the squared microfossil slide shown above would have counted as an individual item. Other parts of the collection might appear to require more management resources, until they are compared on an equal basis by separating out curatorial units sometimes referred to as 'collection lots'. The tray of 100 sharks teeth in this instance would count as one collection lot.

 

It would be wrong to suggest that collection size estimates are the only factors taken into consideration when deciding how to allocate resources across a vast collection like ours. Monetary value, state of conservation, suitability for display, visitor and loan demand, educational, scientific and historical significance are also taken into account. 

 

I would say that 70 million is probably an under-estimate of the size of the Museum collection if you take into consideration the 'microfossil factor' of collections where there are simply uncountable numbers of specimens within collection lots. I don't think we will ever come to a meaningful total if we attempt to count individual specimens.

 

However, it is vital that we are consistent in how we interpret the figures derived from our own collection, especially if we use them to help make decisions on how to manage it in the future. An estimation of the number of lots rather than specimens would help towards this.

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Hello, I am Alessandro Giusti, one the curators in the Life Sciences department of the Museum where I work alongside 4 other curators in the Lepidoptera section, which includes moths and butterflies.

 

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Setting micro-moths during a recent field work trip.

 

The Lepidoptera section comprises around 9 million specimens housed in about 80 thousand wooden drawers. As a curator I look after part of this large and comprehensive collection. The groups of moths I’m responsible for include the hawk-moths (Family Sphingidae) and the slug moths (Family Limacodidae). Curators are the guardians of the collections and some of my main tasks include re-housing and labelling specimens, recording them into databases and answering enquiries made to our section about particular species of moths.

 

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Rothschild type drawers like the one in the picture are used for housing the hawk-moth (Sphingidae) collection in the Museum. The species in this drawer is a Neotropical eyed hawk-moth called Smerinthus jamaicensis.

 

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One of the 80 thousand drawers containing the extensive Lepidoptera collection of the Museum. The specimens in this drawer are various species of slug moths of the genus Parasa.

 

Curators also look after visitors who come to our Museum from other institutions to study certain groups of organism. Sometimes we supervise students who are here on work experience and volunteers who offer invaluable help. We often contribute to educational activities involving public and schools; occasionally we go out on fieldwork to collect new material, and to conferences where we can learn new skills and share our knowledge and work procedures.

 

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Collecting moths at a light trap in Sabah, Borneo.

 

So, I thought it was about time that the Lepidoptera section set forth into the informal world of blogging, and here it is my first post. I know you’ve been waiting for it eagerly...haven’t you? After all, ours is one of the largest sections in the Terrestrial Invertebrate Division of the Life Sciences Department in the Museum, occupying 4 of the 7 floors of the cocoon which houses the entomology and botany collections in the new Darwin Centre building.

 

"Only because many Lepidoptera specimens are rather large!", I hear some of my non-lepidoptera colleague entomologists murmur. Well that may be true, but with around 9 million specimens the lepidoptera collection is nevertheless one of the largest of the Museum’s invertebrate collections, which hold approximately 28 million specimens altogether.

 

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North view of the Cocoon, inside the new Darwin Building of the Museum. The Cocoon houses millions of specimens of the entomology and botany collections and it also has an impressive public space where Museum visitors can enjoy science in action.

 

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The collection areas at the centre of the Cocoon accommodate more than 5 thousands metal cabinets. These cabinets, which have tight closing doors, contain thousands of drawers with our specimens and help us preserve our important collections for posterity.

 

In my next few posts I will talk about my last field work experience, which was in Borneo, so I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction and that you'll join me for the next post. See you soon and thanks for reading!

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Breakfast was sausages – yes! Salty and oily they took my good friends rice and beans to a whole new level.

 

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(Click the images to see them full size)

 

Today we set off from our hut, to the camp we are going to stay at for the next two days – N 09 08 09.4, W 082 57 38.4 are the co-ordinates: view on a map.

 

Our route took us along the river.

 

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We walked for a couple of hours before climbing up to a point called Jardin. This area is completely different from anything I have seen so far on the trip – it’s a peat bog and is dominated by tree ferns that have islands of mosses, lichens and sedges growing around them. It was a rare break in the forest canopy and there were some spectacular views.

 

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It was a really challenging crossing - impossible to know whether your next step was going to hold fast or leave you knee deep in the bog.

 

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We then dipped backed down through the forest – not so much a trail as a thrash through the bush!

 

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Once at the camp, I set up the equipment for sending you my post - solar charger and satellite phone - and made a little tour of the camp.

 

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On the way here I saw the first sign of a wild cat – this is Ocelot poo, apparently!

 

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Species of the day goes to Neil (though Alex is making a spurious claim!). It is in the genus Pilea (in the nettle family) and Alex thinks it may be a new species! He is a world expert in the nettle family and, in particular, this genus - although this looks similar to another species of Pilea it has a key difference in that the leaves are of equal size to each other as opposed to being different sizes.

 

If it is a new species Alex will be able to publish a description of it and give it a name, but he can only be sure that this is a new species once he has checked it against similar species housed in herbaria.

 

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This really highlights the importance of the trip and of collecting in general. In order to know exactly what is in the park and make as complete a check-list of the species as possible, we have to know what lives here. These specimens will be available for future generations, who may have other uses for the data they provide.

 

Of course, it is important not to collect too much, we rarely collect a whole plant and always make sure we don’t collect without the correct permits which are provided by the Costa Rican government.

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Our current exhibition from the Natural History Museum, Scott’s Last Expedition, has given me the opportunity to check out our own Antarctic collection to see what we have. And we have a surprising amount of material relating to Antarctic exploration, covering some four centuries. We have maps and charts, including a wonderful map of Captain James Cook’s three Antarctic voyages which dates to 1784. We have documentation of the first French contributions to Antarctic exploration – that of the Dumont D’Urville’s 1837-1840 expedition, which included an attempt to discover the south magnetic pole and claim it for France. And something quite different is the artwork for a costume designed by Frances Rouse for the play Counting Icebergs, about the life of Captain James Cook’s wife, Elizabeth. It has a map of Antarctica and Cook’s voyages on the skirt (see image).

 

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Painting. Costume design for Elizabeth Cook, 'Cross Antarctic Circle' 1985. Maker: Frances Rouse

 

Robert Falcon Scott is of course one of the names synonymous with Antarctic exploration and we have two published volumes from his first British Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904, which included an attempt to reach the South Pole. We have also acquired a fine selection of Herbert Ponting’s more famous photographs from the Terra Nova expedition. Ponting was the first professional photographer to be taken on any Antarctic expedition. He took black and white and colour photographic stills, and recorded short clips, becoming one of the first to use a movie camera and to take colour photographs in Antarctica. But he couldn’t be everywhere, so others were given lessons in how to use the photographic equipment.

 

The museum has a collection of 35 stereoscopic cards which we are gradually identifying and adding to our eMuseum collection. Here's one taken by the Australian geologist Frank Debenham – see the string he’s using to operate the camera? This happy bunch were celebrating Christmas Day 1911 out at Granite Harbour.

 

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Stereoscope card. Second Western Party at the Cape Geology Christmas Party, 1911. Photographer: Frank Debenham

 

Read more about our Antarctic collection.

Explore our eMuseum.

 

Lindsey Shaw, Curator
Australian National Maritime Museum

 

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http://www.anmm.gov.au/scott

 

To commemorate the centenary of the Terra Nova expedition and celebrate its achievements the Natural History Museum, London, the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Antarctic Heritage Trust, New Zealand, have collaborated to create this international exhibition, which will be touring between 2011-2013.

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Just a quick link through to a NERC blog on the use of Araucaria trees in investigating plant responses to higher carbon dioxide levels. The visiting researchers used NHM botany collections and those of a number of other institutions, in addition to growing and experimenting on living plants.

 

Araucaria includes the familar garden Monkey Puzzle tree and are part of a group of plants that reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods between 200 and 65 million years ago.  It is known that in conditions of higher or lower carbon dioxide, plants will have different numbers of gas-exchange pores (stomata) on their leaves.  The interest of Araucaria lies in whether the number of stomata in fossils can be used to understand more about past patterns of carbon dioxide variation and hence climate change linked to atmospheric changes.

 

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Fossil Araucaria cones from the Jurassic

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Why collect? Do we need more? Why keep such large collections?  What is the relevance to modern science? Having a collection of around 70 million objects that has been growing since 1753 means that we get asked these questions from time to time.

 

In essence, the reason is that science relies upon physical evidence: we want to see for ourselves. Scientists are trained to be sceptical: to question ideas; to measure and re-examine data; to look at what is known through new eyes; and to pursue what is not yet known. This is fundamentally what natural history is about. The “natural” in natural history is not a direct reference to our modern ideas of nature, although it includes living things and the geological.  Instead it refers to what is real, physical, observable, measurable. The “history” means investigation, or account—so natural history is about investigating real things.

 

That’s why we collect—this and other massive collections represent natural diversity—a resource that has been developed by thousands of people all over the world for three hundred years. So we are developing an intellectual and scientific capital, a bank of evidence and ideas that connect to what has been found out through science in the past and that can be re-examined and questioned.

 

Crucially, although they were developed usually to investigate the diversity of species, the collections can also be used to ask new questions about issues of new concern.  There is huge current interest in natural diversity and how organisms enable ecosystems to function, but what about issues such as climate change? A group of scientists in the Museum have been looking again at the collections to assess their value in understanding how the biosphere—the totality of living things—responds to climate change. 

 

They have just produced a paper in BioScience (Johnson et al. 2011) that outlines the value of collections and points to new directions for scientific collaboration and collections development to answer climate change questions and predict future trends in the impacts on living things.

 

In particular, there is interest in our collection in terms of:

 

  • Investigating how geographical distribution changed in the past as climate changed, using location and dates of collection;
  • Understanding how extinction of species and populations has happened in the past as climate changed—so mammoths were reduced to small populations that clung on in some locations for long periods even after climate had reduced their range of distribution;
  • Looking at how flowering times have changed over time—plants are collected as they flower in many cases and the dates of flowering with respect to temperature can be tracked;
  • Examining changes in diet as climate changes—different diets leave traces in bone and other tissue. Changes in food sources may reduce survival.
  • Understanding changes in genetic diversity from DNA as populations respond to environmental change

 

There are many other possibilities and the challenge for the Museum is to enable its own and collaborating scientists to work effectively with the collection in new ways to answer these questions. We also need to think about what is collected now, and how it is stored; and think about how information on collections is best stored on databases to allow research to take place. This is an opportunity for a wide network of museums that will also need to work with other scientific collections to provide the evidence to understand the future.

 

Kenneth G. Johnson, Stephen J. Brooks, Phillip B. Fenberg, Adrian G. Glover, Karen E. James, Adrian M. Lister, Ellinor Michel, Mark Spencer, Jonathan A. Todd, Eugenia Valsami-Jones, Jeremy R. Young, John R. Stewart Climate Change and Biosphere Response: Unlocking the Collections Vault (pp. 147-153) DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.2.10 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/bio.2011.61.2.10

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Charles Darwin, during his voyage on HMS Beagle, collected a single juvenile tortoise from James (San  Salvador or Santiago) Island in the Galápagos Archipelago.

 

This animal was returned to England with three other small tortoises and examined by J.E. Gray, who became Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum (the natural history departments at the BM eventually became what is now the Natural History Museum).

 

The subsequent fate of Darwin’s pet tortoise has been the source of much speculation. Some have claimed that it was transported to Australia (where it lived to an age of more than 175 years); others that it remained in England but disappeared without trace.

 

However, a new paper by Colin McCarthy (Zoology) and Aaron Bauer describes how Darwin’s pet was in fact registered in the British  Museum collection in 1837 and that the specimen still exists:albeit with its registration details hidden on the inner face of the lower shell (plastron).

 

The obscurity of the labelling probably caused these data to be overlooked for more than 170 years. The chelonian (tortoises and turtle) catalogues of Gray, Günther and Boulenger, published between 1844 and 1889, all failed to recognise this specimen as Darwin’s tortoise, mentioning it only as a stuffed juvenile of unknown provenance.

 

Despite this, Günther placed the specimen in his newly defined species Testudo ephippium, which was subsequently regarded as endemic to Abingdon (Pinta) Island in the Galapagos. The confirmation of the specimen’s James Island origin means, however, that Darwin’s pet tortoise is, most appropriately,  a member of the species Chelonoidis darwini.

Bauer, A.M. & McCarthy, C.J. 2010. Darwin’s pet Galápagos tortoise, Chelonoidis darwini, rediscovered.  Chelonian Conservation and Biology 9: 270-276.

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Understanding the diversity of life is central to the mission of the Natural History Museum. Science sees diversity in many ways: populations, species, ecosystems, individuals or genes and the Museum's collections of more than 70 million items are used by scientists for research on many aspects of diversity.  The collections have developed over the past 250 years with a very strong emphasis on the idea of the species, but reflect diversity within species as well - the differences between populations from different areas, for example.

 

What separates one species from another is not always an easy question: it is a key question for the science of taxonomy and has important practical implications.  The established biological species concept defines two species as two groups of organisms that cannot interbreed to produce fertile young when in the same location.  When different species are present in the same location, this can be observed in theory.  However, when two groups of similar organisms are geographically separate, are they different populations, different subspecies, or different species? This will be the case for many thousands of species and has led to heated debate among scientists who have taken different views.

 

Beyond science, this is of importance because the species is often used in practical policy-making and economic activity.  There needs to be accurate definition for biodiversity conservation, pest control in agriculture, human health and other activities.

 

A group of collaborating scientists from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and from BirdLife International have used the Museum's bird collections to try to define a reliable standard for species. They aimed to define how much genetic, morphological and behavioural distance there was between known species and subspecies, and within species.

 

The scientists looked at pairs of 58 closely-related species and subspecies, including European swallows and linnets, North American blackbirds and tyrant flycatchers and African Illadopsis. They examined more than 2,000 specimens from the NHM bird collections and more than 140 from Louisana State University for morphological data and plumage, and looked also at song, ecological and behavioural differences. The intention was to use this suite of characters to define a reliable and objective difference between species.

 

Tobias et. al (2010) published their results in the journal Ibis, concluding that this is a reliable way of confirming species separations and propose that this could be used increasingly to improve the reliability of understanding of bird diversity. An article in Nature (Brooks and Helgen, 2010), commenting on the paper, suggested that there could be very interesting possibilities in applying similar techniques to other groups of organisms and with DNA data.

 

Thousands of visiting scientists routinely use the Museum's collections as a research resource: the collection represents a body of evidence to address new questions and test established knowledge of natural diversity, and continues to develop as research interests expand.

 


TOBIAS, J. A., SEDDON, N., SPOTTISWOODE, C. N., PILGRIM, J. D.,  FISHPOOL, L. D. C. and COLLAR, N. J. (2010), Quantitative criteria for  species delimitation. Ibis, 152: 724–746.  doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2010.01051.x

 

Brooks, T. M. and K. M. Helgen (2010). "Biodiversity: A standard for species." Nature 467(7315): 540-541.

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The Museum's collections are used for research by more than 8,000 visiting scientists each year, and many thousands of specimens are sent on loan to other institutions for research purposes.

 

Scientists from the University of East Anglia, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Universities of Sussex and Kent have used the NHM botany collections and those of other institutions to look at how the flowering time of orchids varies with spring temperatures.  They looked at recent field records of flowering date and temperature (1975-2006) for the UK Early Spider Orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, and compared these with historical temperature records and dated flowering specimens in collections (1848-1958).

 

Their research, published in the Journal of Ecology, showed that the orchids responded to temperature in the same way in the two periods.  This means that collection specimens could be of significant value in looking at the responses of plants to past climate patterns for periods when there were no records kept of flowering dates.

 

This work indicates the potential value of collections for investigating ecological responses to climate and as research resources for new scientific interests.

 

 

Karen M. Robbirt, Anthony J. Davy, Michael J. Hutchings and David L. Roberts (2011) Validation of biological collections as a source of phenological data for use in climate change studies: a case study with the orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Journal of Ecology, 99, 235–241 doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2010.01727.x