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What does the future hold for the Pangolin?  They are rapidly earning the reputation of being the mammal with the world’s highest level of illegal trade, yet many people have never heard of them.

 

Louise Tomsett, Mammal Curator at the NHM, is giving two Nature Live events on Saturday 21st February 2015 - World Pangolin Day - in order to raise awareness of these lesser-known animals, and to highlight the threat of extinction due to the illegal wildlife trade. She will be showing specimens from the NHM’s scientific collections, not normally on display to the public.

 

What are pangolins?


Pangolins are nicknamed "scaly anteaters" but they are not the same animal we generally think of as an anteater. Despite their distinctive appearance, making them hard to confuse with any other mammal, relatively few people know about them. The scales cover most of their body, giving them the appearance of a "living pine cone" or artichoke. They live in a variety of habitats such as grassland, rainforest and agricultural areas such as plantations. There are four species in Africa and four in Asia.

 

Sunda or Malyan pangolin ii.JPGThe Sunda or Malayan Pangolin


Pangolins are well adapted to their ecological niche. They feed primarily on ants and termites, using large, powerful claws to break open nests and mounds, and very long, sticky tongues to lick up the insects. Their specialised ears and eyelids can be closed to prevent attack by ants. The scales are an aid for digging burrows, and help some species climb trees in addition to acting as armour against ants and larger attackers such as lions.

 

pangolin_scales.JPGPangolin scales

 

When threatened pangolins curl up into a tight ball, rendering them virtually impenetrable, even to a lion’s teeth. Their common name ‘pangolin’ even comes from a Malay term generally meaning ‘rolled up’. Unfortunately it is this defence mechanism that also makes them rather easy for poachers to pick up and carry.


Conservation issues


The main threats to pangolins are the illegal wildlife trade and habitat destruction. Trade in pangolins (live and dead) is on an international scale, with confiscated shipments often amounting to tonnes. Quantities found in seized shipments represent only a fraction of the real numbers traded and estimates of the trade indicate as much as tens of thousands of individuals each year. The main drive for trade is the falsely attributed health benefits of pangolin meat and other body parts such as scales. Alleged benefits range from curing acne to curing cancer. In some countries, the sheer cost of the meat and being able to afford it is used as a status symbol. Pangolins are also used as bush meat, for indigenous folk-law rituals and for leather goods.

 

The traditional source for pangolins for the illegal trade is southeast Asia but this is now appearing to change, with African pangolins now a target as Asian pangolins run out.  The consequence is that all species of pangolins are now threated with extinction.


tree or African white-bellied pangolin.jpg

Tree or African White-Bellied Pangolin

 

Pangolins are easily stressed and many die during the hunting and trafficking process, or even once rescued. They are extremely difficult to keep in captivity due to the fact that very little is known about their biology and care. In addition to this a continuous food supply of live ants and termites is very difficult to source. They have rarely been bred successfully and usually only have one offspring at a time so with current hunting levels, populations are not sustainable.

 

giant African pangolin scale.JPGScale of the Giant African Pangolin

 

The NHM’s collections are used by scientific researchers from all over the world. Like many of our collections, the pangolin specimens we hold contain a wealth of information, much of it waiting to be unlocked. For example, the geographical information can provide historical species ranges, specimen tissue samples for DNA analysis shows the genetics of different populations and isotope analysis of samples indicates geographical sources and movements during an individual’s life. All of this information is extremely valuable for conservation.

 

Louise Tomsett

 

#worldpangolinday

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In his book titled ‘What is Life?', British-born scientist JBS Haldane wrote:

‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other’.

 

Beetle collection.jpg

An example of the beetle collections at the Museum.


Haldane was referring to the numerous nature of the coleopteran, or beetles as they are more commonly known. This order consists of more species than any other group. In fact, beetles make up around 40% of the total insects described. The Museum itself boasts an amazing collection of over 10 million species, meticulously stored in 22 thousand draws. This collection is constantly evolving and expanding.

 

Zambia

 

Nature Live took the opportunity to learn more about the entomologists' latest adventure – a trip to Zambia. Entomologist Lydia Smith spoke to the Nature Live team about their findings.


Zambia.jpg

The  landscape in Zambia.

 

Lydia spent 6 weeks travelling around Zambia collecting samples. Zambia has very varied terrain which provides plenty of scope for a diverse community of beetles and other organisms. The Museum's team worked closely with local guides to navigate the hostile environments. Lydia explained that their help was invaluable, she described them as ‘extremely helpful and excitable people’.

 

Lydia and team.jpg

Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.

 

Panorama.jpg

The team vehicle surrounded by dense vegetation.


Being in Zambia, the team was constantly surrounded an incredible array of wildlife, some of which interfered with their sampling. Hyenas and civet cats were both suspected of disturbing the insect traps.

 

Elephant at night.jpg

An elephant caught on film by a camera trap.

 

Camera traps caught glimpses of a variety of species, from elephants to elephant shrews. One day Lydia recalls picking up a beetle and receiving quite a shock – the beetle's backend exploded in her hand!  She had encountered a beetle she had only previously read about, the elusive ‘Bombardier beetle’. As a defence mechanism, this particular type of ground beetle ejects a chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen,  accompanied by a loud popping sound.


Field techniques

 

During the expedition, a number of techniques were used in order to obtain samples. Light traps were used at dusk to attract insects onto a large sheet or tent like structure where they could then be collected. This type of trap can be extremely effective at gaining samples of nocturnal species.

 

The team often used pitfall traps, which consist of a plastic cup that is submerged in the soil and partially filled with a preservative. An attractant is then suspended above the traps to draw insects towards the area. Dung or carrion is typically used. The dung is collected from local ungulates – or, in more remote areas, the dung is supplied by the researchers themselves!

 

image-700.jpg

Dung and carrion are used to lure insects into these pitfall traps.

 

Mid-flight traps consist of a piece of Perspex suspended in the air and below the Perspex, a number of colourful trays that contain a small amount of water.

Perspex trap.jpgMid-flight traps in action

 

Another method involves beating branches and collecting the falling samples on a modified umbrella to capture tree-dwelling species. A pooter is then used to collect the samples from the umbrella.


Lydia explained the critical nature of the permits that allowed the team to bring samples back into the country. Samples, usually suspended in alcohol for preservation, are drained ready for transportation. They are then flown back. Upon hearing this, a younger member of the Nature Live audience curiously enquired…


‘Do the beetles sit next to you on the flight?’


Sadly invertebrates are not permitted in the cabin and are relegated to the hold. Once back at the Museum, the samples are refreshed with a new batch of alcohol and then the sorting process begins.


Back at the Museum


After a six week trip the team will spend up to six months processing all of their findings. While Lydia’s team is only particularly interested in beetles, they process the entire selection and divide the other insects into orders. These insects are then sent to their respective experts for further classification.

 

Ciccindellidae Zambia Beetle.jpg

A tiger beetle from the subfamily Cicindelinae, collected by Lydia Smith and the rest of the team.

 

From this particular expedition, the team have identified a number of new species, including wasps and rove beetles. The total number of new species is difficult to define as a rigorous procedure is followed, involving a number of different specialists before a final decision is made. Often insects are named after the region in which they are found, which helps to highlight the importance of the region and increase the likeliness that this area will be protected in the future.


Beetlemania was yet another superb insight into work at the Museum and in the field. If you are interested in beetles and would like to chat to an expert, there will be a number of the collections displayed at the Museum's upcoming event Science Uncovered on the 26 September.

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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.

julien+in+the+jungle700.jpg

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...

 

aint+no+river+wide+enough700.jpg

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+with+a+frog700.jpg

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

 

image_jpeg700.jpg

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.

 

learngin+about+ypt700.jpg

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.

 

home-image_jpeg700.jpg

Here's home for eight weeks!

 

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

 

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

 

learning+how+to+sort+with+julien+and+beaula700.jpg

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+trapping700.jpg

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.

santa+fe+google+maps700.jpg

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.

 

slam+teeth700.jpg

Monkey?!


slam+net+damage700.jpg

Orthoptera?


slam+tape700.jpg

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…

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Author: Stefanie White

Date: 25t June 2014

Temperature: -22.4 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 7.7 kts 40 NE

Temp with wind chill: -31.7 degrees celcius

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A

 

Passing through the conservation laboratory at Scott Base is a memorable and extraordinary experience. There is continuously a spectacular display of different objects in various stages of conservation treatment.

Image 1.JPG

Working Lab

One bench displays the mid-treatment of metal food liners and boxes, another bench reveals 32 ration bags filled with cocoa powder, flour, cereals and curry powder and another bench modestly exhibits penguin skeletons.

Image 2.JPG

Sledging ration bags containing cocoa powder, cereals, flour and spices

Every day each one of us is presented with challenges and discussion in material science and the conservation of such objects. Meg is currently conserving a wooden tent frame, 2 penguin skeletons and a box of cement for a seismograph.

Image 3.JPG

Meg conserving two Penguin skeletons

Sue is carrying out the conservation treatment of an iron alloy supply box filled with sugar cubes that are largely dissolved and recrystallized into a solid mass, and I am working on the 32 ration bags, a wooden stool and lead bucket with layers of paint on its surface.

Looking around the lab today it reminds me of how fortunate object conservators are to work on such a large and varied selection of materials.

Image 4.JPG

Stefanie conserving Lead bucket and Sue conserving sugar in metal liner.

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Author: Meg Absolon

Date: 02/07/2014

Temperature: -28 degrees Celcius

Windspeed: 0kts

Temperature with Wind Chill: -28 degrees Celcius

Sunrise: NA

Sunset: NA

 

 

Let there be light… and heat!

The flick of the switch is usually all it takes for us to enjoy a good read on the couch in a warm room on a cold winter evening. There may be a wood fire or central heating, an electric blanket, underfloor heating or even a lovely heated towel rack in the bathroom. A microwave is a handy way to warm the hot chocolate and the light dimmers can create some ambiance. And everything smells as good as the roast that comes out of the oven. Ahhh…

Back to reality. Lucky for me, my reality is most of the above combined with corrosion removal during the day. And I've just completed conserving a fabulous large Homelight Lamp Oil fuel can from Discovery Hut which was a provision of the British Antarctic Expedition.

Homelight Lamp Oil can.JPG

Homelight Lamp Oil can

 

The same brand of oil was also sent down in this beautiful wooden box.

 

Wooden Box.JPG

Wooden Box

 

I've also recently worked on small oil cans containing oil in remarkably good condition. There were many types of oils and fuels, including calcium carbide for acetylene lighting, brought down on the historic expeditions to create heat and light for the long winters, with seal blubber as the final resort.

 

Small Oil can.JPG

Small Oil can

At Scott Base today we have all the heat and lighting required to live an exceptionally comfortable winter existence provided mostly by diesel fuel generation with an impressive 22% of delivery by wind power. Plus a toasty gas powered 'log' fire to read Scott's Journal in front of.

 

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Recently, a nice coincidence occurred in the lab while we were beginning conservation work on a new series of objects from the collection at Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut at Hut Point.

As I was documenting this French cognac bottle,

AHT11088_1!_Side1_BT (Medium).JPG

Picture of  French cognac bottle, before treatment.

My colleague Sue, object conservator, came to me with an unidentifiable paper fragment that she found in one of the objects she was treating (a billy, repurposed from a food tin by a member of Captain Scott's party). As the paper conservator of the team, I am in charge of the conservation of every paper artefact.

AHT11064_1!_Side1_AT (Medium).JPG

Picture of a billy, where the paper fragment was found.

 

But how big was my surprise when I realised that this fragment of paper was actually the missing part of the label from this bottle!

What are the chances of that happening? How incredible is it that on this particular day I actually had on my bench the bottle from which this paper fragment originated? Especially when you consider that 50 artefacts pass through the lab each week, every week! Thanks to this coincidence, we have been able to re-assemble and give back to an artefact a part of its history and identity that had been lost.

During the last 100 years, the environmental conditions within the huts have been harsh and damaging to the paper objects. Sometimes parts are lost, as the paper is very light and becomes very brittle and fragile in this environment. I felt a great sense of satisfaction in being able to re-construct the label on this bottle and keep its history and memory intact.

 

AHT11088_1!_Side1_AT (Medium).JPG

Picture of a French cognac bottle, after treatment.

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Author: Meg Absolon

Date: 02/04/2014

Temperature: -34 degrees celcius

Wind speed: 0 knots

Temperature with wind chill: -34 degrees celcius

Sunrise: 0926

Sunset: 1826

 

Oh the frustration of losing things. It's a bit late for the owner now but it's nice to have found his second sock. Of course it couldn't have been in the washing machine, and it wasn't under the bed. It was in fact under the floorboards of Discovery hut. Why and how did it get there is anyone's guess. The magical mystery of missing things may never be understood. Interestingly though, the sock was also under the floorboards with other objects including empty ration bags, twine and cordage, a dust-brush, sardine can and safety pin.

 

SECOND SOCK.jpg

Second sock

 

The objects were recovered from under the floor by the outgoing AHT summer team who were undertaking structural stabilisation work on the hut which involved lifting some of the floorboards. So how did these objects manage to find their way there? Of course we can only speculate but it's likely they were simply swept into a hole in the floor which had been created by the Ross Sea Party.

The empty ration bags are unmarked and so we can't ever know what meal they contributed to. One of the bags is still tied at the top and ripped open down the side. One appears to be covered in cocoa and white crystalline grains, perhaps sugar. Taste testing is not advised for obvious reasons. Others contain a soft waxy substance also of unknown identity. I'm curious as to what they actually contained and what the men were up to on the day they emptied those bags. The image below shows the ration bags drying after being washed to remove damaging acids and salts. All stains, soot and contents are retained as important historic information.

 

RATION BAGS DRYING.jpg

Ration bags drying

 

Another interesting part of the underfloor assemblage of objects is a beautifully retained length of twined rope with a particularly strong smell. The smell isn't altogether unpleasant but it's distinctive as you open the door to the workspace each morning. The smell is very similar to pine tar which was used to saturate hemp fibres for pre-prepared wooden ship caulking, which is likely the purpose of this rope.

 

CAULKING.jpg

Caulking

It's been an interesting week contemplating the discarded or lost objects under the hut and I wonder if the loss of that sock was ever of torment to its owner.

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Author: Aline Leclercq

Date: 26/03/2014

Temperature: -25 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 20 knots

Temperature with Wind Chill: -40 degrees celcius

Sunrise: 08.21

Sunset: 19.34

 

A paper conservator back in Spain, I arrived in the Antarctic knowing that the artefacts I would be working on for the Antarctic Heritage Trust would be very different to the European manuscripts I am used to.

Last week I had a very good example of the challenge that represents the conservation of a paper artefact here. Two wads of paper arrived on my bench in such bad condition that all the fragments of pages were stuck together. 

 

1.jpg

 

Before treatment artefacts

 

The challenge that I was presented with was multiple; being able to understand its structure, identity, history and devise a conservation plan appropriate to the context of Scott's Discovery Hut, where the items were found. The paper was very fragile and the shape it arrived in was the result of degradation. Moreover, I had to make the correct decision about the presentation of the artefact after treatment, for its return to Discovery Hut.

 

6.JPG

Aline treating the paper fragments

 

Sharing opinions and knowledge with my colleagues was very beneficial as well and together we made a decision. I discovered that the fragments were from two different newspapers, one unidentifiable and the other one from a British newspaper called 'The Review of Reviews' published in July 1893. Thanks to this information and the known history of Discovery Hut (built by Scott and his party in 1902 but where various expeditions also spent time), we decided to keep the artefact folded so as to not intervene with the shape in which it was found, but rather to access as much information contained within the pages themselves through the conservation treatment. 

DSC00834.JPG

After treatment artefacts

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Author: Stefanie White

Date: 19th March 2013

Temperature: -14.0 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 5/8 knts

Temp with Wind Chill: -21 degrees celcius

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A

 

In Discovery Hut there is a bed (or sleeping platform) that is composed of a section of tongue and groove, originally from the ceiling of the hut itself and positioned on supply boxes beside the stove area. The area surrounding the stove became a cozy den for several desperate explorers seeking security from the harsh Antarctic environment. In the words of Dick Richards of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party (Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917): The hut may have been a dark cheerless place but to us it represented security. We lived the life of troglodytes. We slept in our clothes in old sleeping bags which rested on planks raised above the floor by wooden provision cases.

 

Image 1.JPG

Bed platform and sleeping aea in the hut. Credit: Stefanie White.

 

 

Before returning to Scott Base this week, Meg and I completed the conservation of the supply boxes that raised the bed. After many hours working in the soot and seal blubber drenched dark room, we learned how to overcome the difficulties working in the cold and dark of the hut. We wore leather padded gloves as opposed to nitrile gloves, which freeze immediately in cold environments. We wore Extreme Cold Weather gear and head lamps as opposed to our white lab coats and magnifying bench lights. We also defrosted ice to wash our tools and hands on the stove that we light every morning in our working container nearby.

 

Image 2 .JPG

 

Stefanie conserving the area under the bed platform in the sleeping area beside the stove.

Image 3.JPG

 

Area under bed platform mid treatment.

We devised a method to systematically map each piece of the bed platform so that upon their return after conservation our interference left minimal mark. As well as leaving minimum traces of our presence in the hut, by taking back all of our equipment and waste to Scott Base every night we also left no trace in the environment.

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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.

Re-housing sphingidae edited.jpg

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.

Recently Collected from bolivia.jpg

Drawer with unsorted moths recently collected in Bolivia.

 

Donation & Purchased specimens.jpg

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. 

 

Cabinet with re-housed sphingidae drawers.jpg

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.

 

Original Roth drawer with Daphnis nerii edited.jpg

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.

 

The National Hawkmoth Collection edited.jpg

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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Coral.jpg

 

Conservation of reef corals of the world: why phylogeny matters


Danwei Huang

Postdoctoral scholar, University of Iowa

 

Friday 18 October 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


One third of the world's reef-building corals are facing heightened extinction risk from anthropogenic climate change and local impacts. Extinction probabilities aside, species are not equal. Rather, evolutionary processes render each species, or species assemblage in general, unique with a distinctive history that can be characterised for conservation. My research is aimed at quantifying these patterns based on a robust understanding of the coral tree of life. In this talk, I will show that it is critical to consider species' contribution to evolutionary diversity in conjunction with their extinction risk when setting priorities to safeguard biodiversity.

 

My analyses identify the most endangered lineages that would not be given top priority on the basis of risk alone, and further demonstrate that corals susceptible to impacts such as bleaching and disease tend to be close relatives. One of Earth's most threatened reef regions, the Coral Triangle, is also famously the most biodiverse. While competing ideas are plentiful, the dynamics underlying this biogeographic pattern remain poorly understood. Phylogenetic modelling adds a valuable dimension to these explanations, and can help us uncover the evolutionary processes that have shaped coral richness in the hotspot. Indeed, conservation of the world's reef corals requires protecting the historical sources of diversity, particularly the evolutionarily distinct species and the drivers of its geographic diversity gradient.

 

For additional details on attending this or other seminars see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/seminars-events/index.html

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There's something about these two very different beasts: The enigmatic elephant with its swaying trunk and flapping ears atop those giant lumbering legs. And the endangered gharial with its cracked skin, eyes popping as it floats in the murky waters with its brood. Both fitting subjects, captured beautifully in unique portraits by this year's two grand title winning Wildlife Photographers of the Year. These images will take pride of place in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 exhibition opening here at the Museum this Friday, 18 October.

 

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Essence of elephants portraying a herd gathered at a waterhole in Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve, has made Greg du Toit the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year. To depict these gentle giants in this ghostly way, Greg used a slow shutter speed and wide-angle lens tilted up.

 

The two coveted prizes for the 2013 competition were awarded to Greg du Toit and 14-year-old Udayan Rao Pawar earlier this evening, 15 October, at the glittering awards ceremony held here at the Natural History Museum. The two winning images swayed the judges and beat nearly 43,000 other entries from 96 countries.

 

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Mother's little headful snapped by 14-year-old Udayan Rao Pawar depicts a mother gharial crocodilian crowned by her babies in the waters of India's threatened Chambal River. Competition judge Tui De Roy described the image as wonderfully playful and thought-provoking and the deserving 2013 Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

 

Both winning photographers are pictured below. They were among several other photographers and competition judges who gathered last night in readiness for the awards ceremony where the winners were announced.

 

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On location: Greg du Toit and Udayan Rao Pawar - this year's grand title winners.

 

'It was amazing and almost emotional to see young Udayan meet his hero, acclaimed wildlife photographer and competition judge Steve Winter,' says Gemma Ward, competition manager.

 

'I'm staggered by the standard of photography from the youngsters and how seriously they take their interest and how much nature and the camera means to them.

 

'And I'm also really impressed by the winner of the Eric Hosking Portfolio Award this year. This award highlights a sequence of images from a budding photographer between the ages of 18 and 26 years. It's an exceptionally strong portfolio of pictures and subjects from Canada's Connor Stefanison, with each one a stand-out.'

 

Enjoy all 100 prize-winning photographs from the 18 award categories in the 2013 competition and find out more about the stories and people behind them in the 2013 gallery.

 

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Book tickets for the exhibition opening on 18 October

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Terry Pennington and I, together with Bolivian botanist Alejandro Araujo and Herencia Director, Juan-Fernando Reyes have spent the last few days visiting the communities that we would like to work with to guage their interest and support as part of our Darwin Initiative project. It was also an opportunity to see what species of Inga trees they have growing in the vicinity of their villages. We went to the communities of Motacusal and Palacios - about 150 km of dirt-track east of Cobija - all of which is bordered by cattle ranches. Their giant fields punctuated by the beautiful and eery, still-upright-remains of what once must have been canopy trees.

 

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In the Pando, rural communities comprising several families are granted 500 ha each communally, most of which is Brazil nut and rubber forest and some of which they clear for agriculture by slash-and-burn. This requires constant clearing as soil fertility drops rapidly. Our aim is to reduce slash-and-burn by converting exhausted pastures and cultivated land into Inga agroforest. For this to work we need to have the trust of the communities, also they have to see this as a sensible approach for them. For this reason we are working with Herencia and specifically their 'Bosque de Ninos' (Children's Forests) project. This provides us with a site that has already been set aside by communties for communal use. It means that we can work with the future generation to develop and run our demonstration plots, providing educational and project opportunties for the children, and it also places our agroforest at the heart of the community.

 

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Left: Alex introducing the Inga agroforest system. Right: Small boy with pet Agouti

 

Our presentation of the project and how we saw it integrating with their development plan was well received and we got plenty of questions. As everywhere the future of their children is paramount to them and so they were very keen for us to involve them and their teachers as much as possible. The children themselves attended the presentation and seemed very confident and happy, many brought their pets too. Including a little boy with his pet Agouti (above) and a little girl with a small pet parrot. These communities currently live from Brazil nuts which they collect in the new year. Brazil nut trees can produce 500 to 1000 capsules each a season. Wild rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) are tapped for about six months of the year and sold as blocks of about 3 kg for about £1.40 a kilo. Finding a market for this rubber abroad that they can connect with should greatly increase their income from these trees and so the economic value of this forest.

 

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Left: Block of raw coagulated rubber. Right: Boots made from smoked rubber.

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When I joined Kew on secondment as a botanist last year I hadn't really expected to be negotiating the sourcing and planting of ca. 25,000 tree seedlings in the Bolivian Amazon. Many possibilities went through my mind, but not that one. That is what makes being a botanist so much fun! Contrary to the stereotype, you never know where your knowledge and contacts will lead you next.

 

Terry Pennington, Bente Klitgaard and myself are now in the Bolivian Amazon as part of a Kew Garden's Darwin Initiative project to reduce pressure on the incredibly biodiverse forests of the Bolivian Amazon, amongst the richest in Amazonia.

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The opening of new roads - an initiative by the Bolivian Government to give land to the landless rural poor of the Andes - and pressure on the land from Brazil are important threats to the future of much of the forest. Devising approaches to agriculture and forest use, and raising awareness of the economic and ecological value of these forests are tools that can reduce and mitigate some of these threats.

 

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View from the air of the Cobija area of the Bolivian Amazon.

 

As part of this aim we plan to introduce a very old but largely abandoned type of agroforest farming based on a group of trees in the bean family known as Inga. These trees grow very quickly (3m in the first year) and are able to tolerate very damaged and degraded soils such as those found in cattle farms or abandoned soya or pineapple plantations. These forms of farming are very profitable in the short-term but soon exhaust the ancient soils often found in the tropics and on which the tropical forest grows.

 

The result is that a farmer or agribusiness needs to clear forest on a regular basis to maintain an economic yield and leaves degraded pasture, a kind of grassy desert, in its wake. What we are aiming to do is provide a technique whereby farmers can restore this exhausted land to productivity, for growing food, fruit trees, cash crops, timber or even fodder and at the same time obtain a plentiful supply of fuelwood for cooking. This is known as Inga agroforest.

 

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Left: A two-year old Inga tree near Cobija. Right: Inga fruit with seeds below (click images to see them full size)
Inga has a pod within which are seeds (green) covered in a white, fluffy, very sweet and juicy flesh. The tree is commonly grown for its fruit but also has tremendous potential for the restoration of degraded land in Latin America, as it is very fast growing and tolerant of damaged soils.

 

The Inga agroforest approach involves planting dense alleys of Inga seedlings spaced several metres apart and letting them grow for 2 years, by which time they are about 6 metres tall (see photo above). Then all their branches are removed and a crop of beans, cassava, maize, Cacao or whatever is wanted is planted.

 

The Inga branches grow back very quickly and need to be cut every 6 months, providing a valuable source of fuel wood for cooking. The key to this system is that once the Inga trees are about 6 metres tall their side branches meet and so completely cover the alley, thereby suppressing weeds. And, just as importantly, they generate a rich leaf-litter that forms the basis of a nutritious soil for whatever crop is to be planted subsequently.

 

So far we have identified a number of trees that could act as sources of seed from three or four species, including one community that could probably provide all of the seed that we need, a good sign for our first day out in the field!

 

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Inga fruit with its seeds exposed to show their covering of edible white flesh.

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Terry Pennington, world expert on Inga trees, and I arrived in Cobija in the Bolivian Amazon after almost two days travelling from London. We seem to have tracked down the English summer that never was and are rapidly getting used to the warm temperatures and high humidity. Cobija is a small town on the Brazilian border with a population of ca. 55,000.

 

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The town of Cobija in the Bolivian Amazon

 

It lives mainly from cross-border trade in Brazil nuts. It is the capital of the Departamento de Pando region of Bolivia and I was last here in 1988 when I participated in an undergraduate expedition organized by Terry’s son. It was quite emotional to be back after so long and I was really surprised at how little it has changed since then.

 

We have come here to meet our main partners - the local communities of Palacios, San José and Motacusal and Herencia - to revise and fine-tune our proposal so as to ensure that it remains viable and succeeds. No mean feat when you think that we are planning to plant 25,000 trees over the next two years and that we have yet to source seed.

 

Juan-Fernando Reyes of Herencia will be our main partner on the agroforest side of the project and has been working in the Pando for 16 years. The communities we are working with are mainly Brazil nut harvesters and the one that we are thinking of working with comprises migrants from the Andes.

 

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Juan Fernando Reyes and Toby Pennington in the Herencia Offices

 

One of the reasons for this project is the very recent and rapid colonisation of the Bolivian Amazon by landless Andean farmers. As you can imagine, a farmer who is used to farming at 3,000 m elevation in the grassland dominated Andes will struggle when faced with a 50 m high tropical forest close to sea-level. Finding farming techniques that are not too destructive and relatively simple will help support their successful integration.