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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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I am what you might describe as curious about the curious. If it's strange or surprising, remarkable or rare, it will pique my interest and usually find a place in my heart.

 

When I think about the mid-to-late-'teenth centuries, when a steady flow of goods from far-away places began arriving in European ports and populating the drawing rooms of those with a bit of social and cultural cachet, I get a little misty eyed.

 

Oh, to have had my own curiosity cabinet, filled with fossils and minerals and taxidermied creatures; my own window through which to experience exotic lands, and a reflection of my good taste and wealth...

 

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Cabinet of Curiosities, an oil painting by Domenico Remps (1620–1699) *swoon*.

 

But these cabinets weren't purely vanity projects. As scientific thought blossomed, the desire to possess items grew into a desire to understand them. Curiosity cabinets developed into natural history collections, and went on to form the future model, and in some cases, the actual contents, of the museums we still visit today.

 

Sir Hans Sloane's massive private collection of plants, animals, antiquities and curios was the founding core of the British Museum and later the Natural History Museum. And of course Walter Rothschild's personal museum went on to become our Museum at Tring.

 

At his peak, Rothschild had 300 men working for him in far-flung locations around the world sourcing specimens. Frederick Selous, an African big-game hunter, was responsible for procuring many mammalian specimens for us. (Selous died in WW1 and there is a memorial to him in the Central Hall on the left of the Darwin statue).

 

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A museum staff member photographed in 1932 surrounded by stuffed animals.

 

But in contrast to our taxidermic tendencies of the past, today the Museum's collecting interests focus on fossils, minerals, insects and plants.

 

When you consider that beetles make up 25% of all life forms, and that trees have dominated dry land for over 300 million years (far longer than dinosaurs or mammals), there's clearly a lot for us to discover within those fields.

 

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Fossil coral collected by Museum scientists in Indonesia in 2011. The fossils are helping researchers discover why the waters where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet are so rich in biodiversity and may also provide clues to how the area will be affected by climate change

 

In a recent chat with archivist and records manager Daisy Cunynghame I learned that the perception of the Museum's collections and collecting practices over time has been the source of much intrigue and even urban legend.

 

Daisy says:

There have been, over the last 100 years or so, a lot of rumours about what we're collecting behind the scenes.

 

Newspapers used to run stories saying things like we would pay £500 for a blue bottle fly or £50 for a smoked cigarette with its full length of ash still intact. Then we would be inundated with these things.

 

People have historically thought that we are the place for all these miscellaneous things.

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Newspaper clippings from January 1914 claiming Charles de Rothschild paid £1,000 for a rare flea, followed by a denial from Rothschild that he paid any such sum.

 

But we're not a repository for any old odds and sods. In fact, the Museum is one of the leading natural history institutions in the world and a global leader in scientific research.

 

Although that's not to say that we don't have a few curious, unusual and not-strictly-scientific specimens lurking around the place.

 

And it is with that in mind that I am launching a Specimen of the Month series on this blog, to reveal the stories behind some of (what I consider to be) the most fascinating items in our possession. Stay tuned.

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This week I celebrate 20 years at the Museum, and my diary has included preparing for a researchers' night highlighting museum science, Tweeting as part of #AskaCurator day and visiting a miniature steam railway.

 

Monday

 

Most of today has been spent preparing for Science Uncovered, our EU-funded researchers' night on Friday 27 September. The doors of the Museum will remain open after usual closing time and scientists like myself will be available to talk about our science, show specimens and chat. Presentations in the Nature Live Studio will also be held and it will be possible to book tours to areas of the Museum not normally open to the public.

 

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This core from the Atlantic SW of Ireland represents the last major glacial period showing glacial dropstones from colder periods (left) and white sections composed almost entirely of warm water microfossils (right). The green packets and plastic sleeve maintain an oxygen free environment.

 

We are showing some deep sea cores taken from the Atlantic Shelf off SW Ireland through sediment that was deposited during the last glaciation. It's a great opportunity to show the key role micropalaeontology plays in quantifying and dating past climatic episodes. The core relates to periods when icebergs broke off glaciers and traversed the North Atlantic.

 

Tuesday

 

A major part of my job is dealing with enquiries about our microfossil collections and subsequently hosting visits or preparing loans. Two main collections are our most requested, the Challenger Foraminifera and the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Since three specimens from our Blaschka collections have been on display in our Treasures Gallery, we have had an increased number of enquiries and visitors to view the other 180 specimens that are not currently on display.

 

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Image of one of our Blaschka glass radiolarian models that was widely retweeted during #AskACurator day.

 

Today we are showing the undisplayed Blaschka collection to an artist, last week it was a glassworker from Imperial College and later this week it is a photographer hoping to create a book of images from Blaschka collections across Europe.

 

Wednesday

 

I have spent virtually the whole day on Twitter monitoring questions and providing answers as part of #AskACurator day. Fellow curators from over 500 different museums and 35 different countries have been fielding questions over Twitter causing the hashtag to trend. At one stage it was globally the second most discussed subject on Twitter.

 

I answered questions like:

 

'Do you require a masters degree to become a curator?'

'Which museum, other than your own, inspired you recently?' (the Foraminiferal Sculpture Park in China)

'Which specimens in your collection give you goosebumps when you see them?' (Blaschka glass models

'What sparked your interest to become a curator?'

'Do you need to be an obsessive to be a curator?'

'Which specimen not currently on display would you like to see being displayed?' (100 year old microfossil Christmas card).

 

Many of the questions I was able to expand on using links to blog posts, particularly the one entitled 'How to become a curator'. I started to reply to the 'what is a curator?' question but could not cram 'someone who cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users' into 140 characters.The day certainly showed what a varied job we all have, how passionate we are and that one day is never the same as another.

 

Thursday

 

My colleague Steve has worked out that we had 65 new interactions (messages, favourites, retweets, new followers) during #AskACurator day yesterday as well as some more hits to this blog. However, I am saddened as I read a well known museums blog that says that the best way to reach a wide audience is to avoid niche subjects like micropalaeontology and links direct to my blog as an example. It starts me wondering if accumulating vast numbers of hits really show that a blog is successful?

 

A string of meetings are scheduled too; we are applying for funding for a major 3 year conservation project, the photographer arrives to discuss his project and we are finishing an application to hire a new PhD project studying traits of evolution. Microfossils are extremely useful as their fossil record is relatively complete compared to other fossil groups and collections can be made relatively easily across large geographical areas.

 

Friday

 

Earlier in the week I got to work to find two of my train mad, three year old son Pelham's Thomas the Tank Engine stickers on my socks. On Monday he is starting nursery school so today we are taking him and his younger sister Blossom to one of our favourite places, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. I feel that this family day is a suitable way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my arrival at the Museum as a volunteer.

 

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Hello Beetlers!

 

Here Collections Manager Max Barclay talks us through the re-pinning process of historical beetle specimens. Along with Coleoptera Section volunteer Mellissa Williams, we learn about the importance of retaining historical data.

 

The star specimen, Carabus auratus, is 118 years old and is just one of thousands of specimens that were bequeathed to the Natural History Museum from the collection of AA Allen, who was a prolific British collector and expert entomologist.

 

Originally described in 1761 by Carl Linnaeus, C. auratus is not a British native and rarely encountered here. Native to west and central Europe it is a beautiful beetle with a rather unattractive habit of feeding on slugs, snails, worms and grubs; in fact there are records of this voracious predator even attacking young snakes! It's a sun loving species (thermophilic) and can be found on cultivated land, grassland and forest edges. This beetle disappears in the winter, hibernating until emerging to mate in the following spring.

 

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Phew, it's been a busy few weeks at the Museum!  With snow outside and schools on holiday, everyone was keen to visit the Museum and to mark the Easter holidays we decided to programme some suitably festive Nature Live events ... my favourite being Eggs-tinct! If you weren't able to see it in person, here are a few highlights:

 

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No egg event at the Museum is complete without reference to dinosaurs and Museum curator Lorna Steel brought along this beauty! A REAL dinosaur egg!

 

Equally, no egg event would be complete without the largest egg in the world ...

 

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No, this isn't some clever perspective, camera trickery - this really is the size of the largest kind of egg in the world (with Lorna's average sized hand above). This one belongs to an extinct Elephant Bird, a species that once lived in Madagascar. These birds were huge - at 3 m tall they were far larger than today's Ostriches - and consequently laid very, very big eggs. EGGs-traordinary!

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So, come Friday 23 September, it’ll be time for us dusty old curators to kick off our sensible sandals and get fashion forward for this year’s free Science Uncovered event.

 

If you were expecting this:

 

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...think again, because for one night only we are sexy, sophisticated and scientific – like this:

 

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No? If you don’t believe me, you better come along to find out

 

Science Uncovered 2010 was the first year that the Museum opened its doors to the public on such an unprecedented scale. We were expecting a few thousand; but after a few weeks of blogging, twittering and Face-booking over 6000 of you came to see the secrets of the Natural History Museum revealed – some for the first time.

 

And not only our prized treasures of science, but our scientific staff, who, just like our specimens, don’t get out much! My experience last year was incredible, from 5pm to 10pm my colleagues and I did not stop talking – to you! It was simply amazing, invigorating and yes, exhausting to have the opportunity to engage on such a wide scale, and also on such an intimate scale with hundreds of conversations about the Museum, our specimens, and most pertinently our research.

 

Last year I spent my time on the Identification and Advisory Service’s ‘Identification Roadshow’ where we invited you to bring along your natural history finds for on the spot identification. Here I am, looking a little bit overwhelmed, along with Stuart Hine, Richard Lane and Gill Stevens in the foreground, along Dino-way, where this year you will find the entomology station.

 

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But this year I move over to my first love, the beetles!

 

Here’s one I found in Southeast London this summer, you may recognise it? And it may make an appearance on the night!

 

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With over 400,000 species of beetles in the world, and the NHM’s collection holding representatives of at least half of that figure, it’s quite hard to choose what we might talk about or put on display on the night. But because beetles are so diverse and occupy so many niches in the natural and unnatural environment we won’t be short on conversation; naturally we will show you specimens that exhibit sexual dimorphism (differences between the sexes), the incredible size range of beetles – from the smallest to the largest:

 

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Here is Conrad, a Scarab expert who will be there on the night, with one of the largest beetles in the world, the aptly named Titanus giganteus which may make an appearance…

 

We will also show you some of the most beautiful creatures in the world, for example this wonderful Plusiotis, a member of the shining leaf-chafer beetle sub-family. Chrysina aurigans (Rothschild & Jordan, 1894): collected by Martin Brendell in the cloud forests of Costa Rica.

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Here is Max Barclay, who will be available on the night at our entomology fieldwork Science Station armed with field equipment and some examples of what we find when we head off to research remote areas throughout the world.

 

Other colleagues include Hillery Warner, who is expert in photographing our specimens; see some of her work on Flickr here.

 

And the formidable Peter Hammond, previously senior researcher in Coleoptera, and now a Scientific associate, here is Peter, armed with those two most important of entomologist accessories: a pint of beer and a specimen tube (for beetles, of course…!)

 

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We can’t wait…can you?

 

About Science Uncovered 2011:

 

Science Uncovered is a free event on Friday 23 September 2011 at the Natural History Museum.  All events and tours at Science Uncovered will be free but, due to time and space constraints, some will require you to book free tickets in advance.

To find out more visit Science Uncovered on the Museum’s website.

 

The Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, will also be holding its own Science Uncovered event. Find out more about Science Uncovered in Tring.

 

Online community

 

To get involved before the night, visit our Science Uncovered online community where you can get previews of what’s happening and join in with discussions and debates.

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Hi Beetlers,

 

The last few months my trusty volunteer Katie and I have been slowly but surely working on a huge re-curation project. And we chose our group well, a very large and tricky genus of the beautiful flower chafers (sub-family Cetoniinae) the Protaetia Burmeister, 1842. In the sub-family Cetoniinae there are approximately 4000 known species, within this sub-family is the tribe Cetoniini which includes 107 genera, of which the Protaetia is one. The Museum collection currently has 271 species, and counting. These beetles are so attractive and collectable they attract a good deal of research, though little is known about their natural ecology. If you would like to find out more about some of the research going on try here:  http://cetoniinae.blogspot.com/ and here is the checklist we have followed for the re-curation http://www3.famille.ne.jp/~kazuo/

 

Here is Katie with a drawer of Protaetia, and she now is going to tell us all about her experience with these beauties:

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"I have to say that as I’m not a Coleoptera expert I feel quite honoured to be asked to write in the beetle blog. The current project I am working on is the recuration of a genus of beetles called the Protaetia - I have been working on it one day a week for the last few months. Here is how I have been spending my Fridays. 
Recuration  of the Protaetia
I didn’t know what the Protaetia were before I started this task but I do now! They are a big genus of chafer beetles that seem to be found just about everywhere in the world. They are currently taking up 35 drawers in the Coleoptera collection and I’m sure that number is set to increase in the near future. They range in size from about 1-3cm long and come in a variety of colours; some very plain and some with very intricate markings.
After looking through all the drawers (what did I sign myself up for?) and making sure that there weren’t any loose body parts or specimens that needed some attention, my first task was to label all the unit trays containing the specimens with the basic taxonomic information (species, subgenus, genus, author etc). Although it sounds like an easy job this actually was the part that took the longest. The Protaetia have undergone a revision since the labels were last written (if they even had a label to begin with!) and most species are now placed into a subgenus (there are approximately 49 subgenera!) and some of the species were sitting under a synonym.

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Curation in progress!


Once I knew what was in each unit tray the next task was to arrange them in the correct sequence. First should come the Protaetia that are not in a subgenus and they are ordered according to their geographical location. Then come the various subgenera in alphabetical order; this task was quite an undertaking.The only sensible way to get them in the correct order was to lay all the drawers out over any available desk space – even so the drawers had to be stacked several deep. (Most of the credit for that has to go to Beulah; without her I would have been lost under a pile of drawers!) One important thing we also had to remember was to leave space for later expansion; there are many species in the Protaetia that the museum currently has no meterial for. 

 

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Drawers piled up and laid out!

 

The final ongoing stage is databasing all the species of Protaetia that are present in the collection. When I’m finished each will have basic information on taxonomy, location in the collection,  whether any type material is present and the geographical localities of the specimens. I’ve been keeping a count as I go along; I’ve done over a hundred species so far and I’m just over the half way point.
I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to work on such a fascinating and varied group of beetles. I wish I could show you pictures of all my favourite species but there are just too many to go into."

 

 

Here are a few:

 

Photograph of P. cuprea ignicollis

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Striking colour variability in the Protaetia


Protaetia cuprea is probably the quintessential Protaetia that comes to my mind. This picture shows the subspecies Cuprea ignicollis. The elytra and most of the body are a metallic green and the pronotum and scutellum are a beautiful coppery colour.
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Photograph of P. bifenestrata

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P. bifenestrata is another of my favourites. I think it looks like a domino piece!

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Rare bird and egg specimens collected more than 100 years ago take the spotlight in an intriguing new exhibition, the Secret World of Museum Science, opening today, 16 May, in the Natural History Museum at Tring's Gallery 2. The exhibition is free and runs until 6 November.

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Rare specimens in The Secret World of Museum Science exhibition opening today at our Tring Museum have helped scientists in their research. Left: Peregrine falcon egg similar to ones used to explain the dramatic decline of the species back in the 1960s. Right: Rockhopper penguin, Eudyptes chrysocome, feather samples have recently been analysed against live birds today to find out why there is a drop in population.

Our Tring Museum has the largest collection of bird specimens in the world and this new showcase will give us a glimpse not only of these historic, behind-the-scenes specimens and their stories, but of their importance to Museum research and science.

 

'The exhibition explores the relevance of what has been collected and identifed at Tring and demonstrates how the collection is being used for current scientific purposes' says Dr Robert Prys-Jones, head bird curator at Natural History Museum at Tring.

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Another highlight in the exhibition is a rare composite skeleton of a dodo (left) Raphus cucullatus collected during the 1860s from the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is seldom seen on public display.

 

I asked Alice Dowswell the exhibition's curator how things were going with the installation:

 

'We’ve been working closely with the bird group curators to install all the specimens, including the fragile dodo skeleton. Staff members have been testing out the video unit, watching clips of interviews with our bird curators talking about some of the projects they and our specimens have been involved in including clips about Darwin’s mockingbirds, fraud in the collections and peregrine falcon eggs.

 

'We’ve also been having fun with our dodo dig - brushing away sand to reveal model dodo bones and comparing them to the real thing on display nearby.'

 

The exhibition includes games and four videos of bird research, historic and current, featuring Darwin's mockingbirds research, the restoration of the Mauritian ecoystem where the dodo became extinct, the Meinertzhagen collection fraud and peregrine falcon egg findings.

 

You can see one of these online on our website. Watch the Restoring the Mauritian ecoysytem home of the dodo video.

 

Find out about visiting Tring Museum

 

More about our bird research at Tring

Enjoy some more photos of specimens featuring in the exhibition. Select them to enlarge.

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This Blue lorikeet parrot, Vini peruviana, from an island in southeast Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean, is one of  the oldest specimens in the Tring bird collection. It was probably  collected on one of Captain Cook's voyages between 1768 and 1779. That  means it's at least 232 years old.
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Wild budgerigars, Melopsittacus undulatus, are small, streamlined parrots, the wild ancestors to pet budgies. There are many such specimens in the Tring collections. Budgerigars can see ultraviolet (UV) light and have patches of plumage that glow under IV.

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Red kite, Milvus milvus, became extinct in England from 1871 but was introduced in 1989 in the Chilterns with a growing population today. This is the first specimen of this species in our collection from the Chilterns area since their re-introduction and was donated to the Museum after it was found dead on a roadside.

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This is the only example of the extinct
Fiji bar-winged rail, Nesoclopeus poecilopterus, preserved in spirit anywhere in the world, held in our collection.

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Clutches of cuckoo and host eggs, like the nightingale and hedge sparrow used to research how cuckoo eggs match the host eggs

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Beautiful tail feathers of the Bohemian waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus, carefully cleaned and preserved by our curators. This specimen is a recent addition to the collections and was presented to the Museum in the winter of 2010 after it collided with a window and died.

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Specimens like this Steller's sea eagle, Haliaeetus pelagicus, claw shows the structure of the foot, with bones and tendons still in place

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Meet Ollie Crimmen, fish section, Zoology. A scientist with a 37 year history at NHM. Earlier today I hosted his event (14:30 to be precise, come see a Nature Live sometime!) where he spoke with our audience about the likelihood of great whites in the UK. It seems the water temperature would suit and they have certainly been known to travel huge distances before. Food sources aren't a problem here either. So why no confirmed sightings? Maybe it's just a matter of time.....

The specimen here is from the massive collections Ollie cares for and is from a great white found stranded on a beach in Port Fairy, Australia. From at least as far back as 1831. For those of you located on UK shores, pop Ollie on your speed dial. He'll want to be the first to know if you spot Carchorodon carcharias roaming our coastal waters....
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Who doesn't love a good dinosaur event?!  Triceratops, T-Rex, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus....the list goes on.  But have you ever heard of Scelidosaurus, the topic of our event last Sunday??

 

I certainly hadn't until I met Palaeontology Curator Tim Ewin.  Scelidosaurus was the first whole dinosaur ever to be discovered (before that, only parts of dinosaurs had been found, and no-one had discovered any skulls)....and what's more, it was found right here in England, along the coast at Lyme Regis.

 

 

Scelidosaurus wasn't a massive dinosaur, diplodocus and the like were all ALOT bigger, but it had some fantastic armour plating which may have helped protect it from predators but also may have acted as a form of display, to deter opponents or attract a mate.

 

 

But what's so special about the Scelidosaur remains in Lyme Regis (which are continually being discovered as the cliffs slowly erode) is their quality.  The fossils have been brilliantly preserved and scientists are able to study the bodies of these animals in great detail, including their skin which remarkably has also been fossilised.  

 

 

So next time you're talking about your favourite dinosaur, spare a thought for the often (and wrongly) forgotten Scelidosaurus.  The first whole dinosaur ever to be discovered, found right here on our fair isle and with fossilised skin too - you don't get much better than that!

 

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Scelidosaurus is the dinosaur at the bottom of the picture.  Megalosaurus is at the top.

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Today's Nature Live event was a real crowd pleaser.  Almost as popular as a dinosaur event (!), we caught up with the curator of our Pterosaur collection, Lorna Steel. 

 

Lorna did a great job of enthusing about the myriad of Pterosaur species that once filled the skies.  With an incredible variety of shapes and sizes, these creatures were around during the time of the dinosaurs and were very successful until the mysterious extinction that caused their demise as well as that of the dinosaurs.

 

Pterosaurs were flying reptiles and ranged in size - some were as small as the your average garden bird, others had a 10 - 12 metre wingspan!

 

There are a range of images on the Museum website, showing what these impressive animals may have looked like.  My favourite is the Tapejara

 

 

Lorna's off to a conference on Pterosaurs in China soon, so hopefully she'll find out the very latest on Pterosaur research and be able to fill us in at her next event.  She's already on a mission to count how many bones are in an average Pterosaur skeleton and how fast they flew....

 

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Picture:  Pteranodon was a giant flying reptile - a pterosaur - a close relation of the dinosaur. They lived during the Cretaceous period aroun 85 to 75 million years ago. Illustration by Neave Parker.

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Oops, it's been a while since my last post, apologies, all got a bit hectic for a while but I shall try to ensure it doesn't happen again! 

 

We've had lots happening - International Biological Diversity Day (or Biodiversity Day for short) where I finally got to meet and interview Chris Packham (well, I was excited, even if most of my friends didn't know who I was talking about!), half term holidays with a range of drop-in events with our scientists, the May evening event (very topical, all about synthetic biology) and plenty more besides.

 

Right now, I'm preparing for a daytime event tomorrow all about Richard Owen (ever heard of him?!) and this month's evening event - Six-Legged Wonders: The Return!  http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/events/programs/naturelive/six-legged_wonders%3A_the_return.html?date=24.06.2010  The perfect night out if you'd like to learn more about the mini-beasts in our collections and sample some edible insects!  We'll be joined by Erica McAlister (our infamous diptera blogger) plus a butterfly/moth curator and a soil biologist (who secretly prefers worms from insects but we're going to try and convince him that six-legged creatures are more interesting!)  If you can't make the event, fear not, we'll be tweeting live (@NatureLive) during the event with all the juicy bits!

 

Exciting times!

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Easter eggs in Nature Live

Posted by Aoife Apr 6, 2010

From the tiny Hummingbird egg, to the awesome Ostrich egg, for Easter Nature Live went a little egg-crazy.

 

I have to apologise in advance, its going to be impossible to get through this without making some terrible egg-related puns. So I might as well start with one.

 

Our egg-cellent egg curator Douglas Russell joined us from the bird group, based out at the NHM in Tring, Hertfordshire, for our eggy celebrations. Douglas looks after some really rather special collections, going back hundreds of years, and his egg-spert knowledge was put to good use as he egg-splained why he thinks eggs are 'The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe'.

 

Its all to do with just how perfectly they have evolved to look after the tiny, developing chick - and to show us, he cracked open a massive Ostrich egg - its much easier to see the features scaled up! From tiny pores that allow the exchange of gas through the shell, to a self-righting system inside so that the embryonic chick is always closest to the warmth from its brooding parents, all a tiny bird could need to start its life off is contained within the calcium carbonate shell. The same features are present right down to the tiniest bird eggs around - the Hummingbird egg, about the size of your little finger nail!

 

Although Ostriches produce the biggest egg of any bird alive today, there used to be one to beat it - the Elephant Bird, now sadly extinct, used to produce an egg even bigger!

 

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And if you want to see for yourself, you can see a range of amazing eggs if you visit the Bird Gallery, in the Green Zone at the Museum.

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Today the studio was taken over by lichen. Yes, lichen.

 

The first question for me (embarrassingly) was 'what are they…or it?' Turns out, pretty cool.

 

Pat Wolseley who works in our Botany department explained that lichens are actually two types of organisms living together, a fungus and an alga. They have managed to carve out an existence by working together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus makes the body that protects the alga and the alga provides the food for the fungus. Who said nature is red in tooth and claw!

 

Fun fact of the day No. 2, lichens are hardcore. They have been found everywhere from the cold arctic and hot deserts to rocky beaches and inner-city gravestones. Not only are some very tough, others are very sensitive to air quality and this makes them perfect when it comes to monitioring air pollution.

 

In simple terms, if you see this fluffy greenish beard lichen on trees (Usnea florida) you can be sure the air is clean or getting cleaner. However, if you find trees and stones covered with the golden shield lichen (Xanthoria parietina) there is a lot of nitrogen about.

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Image caption: Usnea florida (above) and Xanthoria parietina (below)

 

Now you can tell the difference why don't you get involved in the OPAL air survey? Join the hundreds of people logging on and helping scientists answer questions about the quality of the air we breathe.

 

To help scientists collect data on the air quality in your local area visit http://www.opalexplorenature.org/

 

Happy surveying!

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Why do scientists insist on using long complicated scientific names?


Well one reason is that they are universal. Take the common grove snail (below). In English this creature is also known as the brown-lipped snail or the dark lipped banded snail. It becomes even more confusing if you go abroad; in Germany the same creature is called Hain-Baenderschnecke. So how do scientists make sure they’re all speaking the same language? They speak in science of course; usually a combo of Latin and Greek.

There are estimated to be 6809 different languages spoken around the world but wherever you go ‘Cepaea nemoralis’ will always mean the grove snail (or the brown-lipped snail or Hain-Baenderschnecke).


Some Latin names can be weird and wonderful; take Osedaz mucofloris, also known as the bone eating snot-flower. In today’s show we asked our visitors to pit their wits against a panel of scientists and guess which one was lying. Can you work it out? Which of these names is made up?


Abra cadabra or Megadoris russelensis or Rasta thiophila

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Image: Cepaea nemoralis - or the common grove snail in England or the Hain-Baenderschnecke in Germany