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The next of our new trainees to introduce themselves is Katy Potts. Katy is a keen entomologist and has volunteered with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and most recently with our own Coleoptera department before joining the traineeship programme.

 

I have been an amateur entomologist for the past 3 years and I am passionate about all aspects of wildlife, but particularly things with six legs. I recently graduated from Plymouth University where I studied Conservation Biology, since I graduated I have been keen to gain more knowledge in the identification of UK wildlife with particular focus on conservation. I am very interested in all aspects of wildlife but I am fascinated with insects, I find their morphology, behaviour and evolution extremely interesting.

 

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ID Trainer for the Future Katy Potts, with a drawer of coleoptera from the Museum's collection.

 

Over the last four years I have been involved with public engagement events with Opal and Buglife where we ran invertebrate surveys and BioBlitz projects to encourage the public to become interested in their local wildlife. I was also involved with a pollinator survey run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology that involved me surveying for hoverflies and bumblebees on Dartmoor and then identifying specimens to species level. This survey ignited my passion for identification further and I engaged in entomological and recording communities to develop my understanding.

 

Wildlife fascinates me, all aspects from trees, mosses and lichens to beetles and hoverflies, I find it all amazing to watch in the wild and also to learn about their ecology. The content of the traineeship enthused me as it covers core groups of UK wildlife. As I said, I have a particular interest in the six legged insects, particularly beetles.

 

After studying conservation at university I realised there has never been more importance for naturalists to have good biological skills, particuarly when species are under threat from habitat fragmentation and climate change. Naturalists need to have good biological skills in order to monitor and record trends in populations of wildlife, this can allow for the most optimal conservation of our wildlife. I knew I wanted to improve my identification skills after I left university so I came to the museum to volunteer in the Coleoptera department learning the basic skills in taxonomy and how to preserve biological records.

 

This traineeship is the next step in my path to becoming a wildlife expert. I am looking forward to engaging in the identifcation workshops and field trips where we will learn the key knowledge, principles and skills of taxonomy and biological recording. I am keen to develop my identification skills and this traineeship will equip me with the skills to begin my career as a UK wildlife scientist.

 

After this section of the training we can then apply this knowlege and pass it on to others by learning how to teach others about UK wildlife. This part of the traineeship can be done in a practical manner and I am particularly looking forward to fomulating my own identifcation workshops to teach others what I have learnt. I hope to engage others in the identification of insects in the UK by creating a guide to the commonly found insects by encouraging them to look around their local parks and woodlands. This should be fun and engage people with their local wildlife.

 

I feel inspired by this traineeship, a career in the biodiversity sector represents what I have been working towards during my degree and now as a graduate. I hope to gain a broad range of knowlege in UK wildlife identification skills, with a developing expertise in the insects. I would like to increase my skillset in biological recording both in the field and in the curation of biological records and I hope to improve my skills in science communication and public engagement, which will allow me to effectively teach others and raise awareness about natural history in the UK.

 

The Museum is an important resource for schools and many of the UK's future scientists, I am eager to ensure that future generations are able to identify the wildlife that is around them.

 

Thanks Katy! We'll be introducing the remaining 2 members of the first cohort of trainees over the next week. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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In the second post in our series introducing the new trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, meet Sally Hyslop a keen volunteer recorder who will be focussing on our Bluebells survey project in the next few weeks.

 

My curiosity for natural history stems from many years of study, both out in the field and academically. I studied Zoology at the University of Sheffield where I completed an undergraduate Masters degree. Volunteering, however, has always complimented my studies and I take any opportuity to learn a little more about the natural world. These experiences range from volunteering in the collections of my local museum to working with big cats in wildlife sanctuaries.

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ID Trainer for the Future Sally Hyslop, whose background is in zoology.

 

Since leaving university and returning to my home in Kent, I have become increasingly involved in recording and monitoring the biodiversity in my area, taking part in identification courses and surveys with orgnaisations such as Kent Wildlfie Trust, Kent Mammal Group and Plantlife. I also volunteer as a Meadow Champion for the Medway Valley Countryside Partnership, a community-focused project which aims to increase understanding and conservation of our remaining meadow habitats.

 

Prior to starting as a trainee at the Museum, I was Young Facilitator for the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, working alongside partner organisation The Conservation Volunteers on wildlife projects in Kent. I supported and led weekly sessions of school groups which were focused on inspiring environmental action and promoting outdoor learning. The children were always enthusiastic and inquisitive, making the challenge of explaining new ideas and concepts to them a pleasure.

 

Through my own amateur interest in ecology, I was able to introduce the children to basic identification, using all sorts of species encountered during the sessions as examples. Our sessions concentrated on creating new habitats in school grounds and I particularly enjoyed planting meadows with the children, an activity through which I could introduce the children to native wildflowers and their defining features. Working with school groups and at my local environment centre has given me new insight into wildlife education, which I hope will benefit my experience during the traineeship.

 

I look forward to developing my understainding of UK biodiversity throughout my time at the Museum, yet I am particularly excited about learning and developing creative ways to pass these skills on. I'm especially keen to start delving into the collections and it will be brilliant to have both the time and resources to improve on my identification - I also hope to use any spare moment practising scientific illustration!

 

Thanks Sally! We'll be introducing other members of the first cohort of trainees over the next couple of weeks. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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Welcome to our series of posts introducing our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. We start with Mike Waller, who over the coming months will be working particularly on our Orchid Observers project:

 

Hello! I'm Mike - a wildlife fanatic and general all round naturalist from Wolverhampton where I've been based in between my years at Aberystwyth University studying Physical Geography. I graduated with a 1st Class Honours degree in 2013 and since then I've been immersing myself in anything wildlife orientated with the long-term goal of a career in conservation. Most notably, I spent last summer working with the superb team at RSPB Ynys-hir running the visitor centre and assisting with practical conservation work on the reserve.

 

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ID Trainer for the Future Mike Waller, who has a keen interest in orchids.

 

In terms of my interests, I've always loved British wildlife in all its forms but I first specialised in birds, winning the RSPBs 'Young Birder of the Year' award aged eleven. In the depths of winter I dragged my mum to the freezing coastal plains of Norfolk and Southern Scotland for geese and waders and watched garden birds for hours on end.

 

From around the age of twelve I became fascinated with wildflowers and recorded every species within a three mile radius of my grandmother's house. It wasn't long before I saw my first bee orchid and instantly became fascinated with terrestrial European orchids. Over ten years I criss-crossed the country and amassed a large database of images in the pursuit of every UK species but it was the ecology of the bee orchid on which I ultimately focussed my dissertation.

 

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The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera). Watercolour by Arthur Harry Church, 17 June 1913.

 

More recently I co-founded 'The Ghost Orchid Project' - a research initiative seeking to locate extant populations of the extremely rare ghost orchid through the training of willing volunteers to identify specific indicator species and habitat types. We are currently expanding our research and hopefully will be able to use the resources of the Museum to aid our understanding of this mysterious species.

 

Indeed, while I am here I plan to take full advantage of the rest of the Museum, especially the frequent lectures and seminars and opportunities for networking and building bridges with experts in some of my other fields of interest. I was particularly inspired to hear that Adrian Lister - an expert in Pleistocene megafauna - works at the Museum and it is people like this that I hope to get involved with, whether with the work they are doing or simply grill them for the answers to some burning questions.

 

Visiting different parts of the country and finding wildlife highlighted to me the importance of biological recording but equally the paucity of recording that actually takes place. This is particularly acute for some of the more 'difficult' species groups such as mosses, flies and earthworms (to name a few). This traineeship addresses that issue directly. Identifying and recording is not only essential but exciting and I know our fantastic public can be enthused given half the chance.

 

Simply having the chance to be shown the intricate diversity of the species groups in the workshop phase of our programme here at the Museum will be undoubtedly fascinating. Ultimately I hope to come out of this year with the confidence and knowledge to help others to unlock their passion for UK wildlife and the subtleties of identification. We have the longest and grandest tradition of biological recording anywhere in the world and we simply cannot allow that legacy to dwindle any further.

 

Thanks Mike! We'll be introducing other members of the first cohort of trainees over the next couple of weeks. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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Here is the final installment of Dave's account of the fieldtrip to Peru. I have to say that it has been really interesting reading his musings on the trip. All of the things that we take for normal - the weird looks, the entertaining facilities, the near-death experiences, the discovery of new species - seen through new eyes has been a pleasure. So for the last time, over to Dave:

 

Out of the frying pan and back along the mighty Marañon and up, following a tributary that irrigates lush orchards - very much the oasis in the desert. Bursting through the tops of the orange trees, and we were climbing again, up the other side of the valley. Not having to drive I could enjoy the views of where we'd come from, and the ribbon of green where the little river had ploughed a green furrow in the dusty gorge.

 

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Enjoying the views.

 

Sandy's keen eye spotted something clinging to a cliff and we stopped smartly. A single specimen of Nicotiniana glutinosa clinging lonesomely to a roadside crag. This variant of nightshade is a species of tobacco, as the name suggests, and is important as a "model organism" as it's resistant to the the tobacco mosaic virus. Useful therefore to the tobacco industry (so possibly best to leave it alone).

 

But there's no stopping the Sweep Sisters, who were already unpacked and sampling the area. The plant itself was out of reach to safely take a sweep at it, but there was no escape from The Mac, who began her assault with the hoover. She was just able to reach the tiny yellow-flowered specimen to get a suction sample. How unlucky was the fly that, of all the plants available, chose to alight on this lonely specimen that morning.

 

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that it was quite convenient for us that Solanaceae tend to colonise disturbed ground readily, as on our numerous stops we were often able to park the car and sample the area without having to hike too far into the brush.

 

Unfortunate invertebrates stashed once more, on we went. Higher, greener... greyer the skies. The prospect of rain? The road narrower still, and presently there came a tight right-hand corner, a loop where the high cliff was divided by one of the many deep, overgrown ravines where streams sliced the steep mountainsides. We stopped at Sandy's direction and wandered into the bush. So much lusher at this altitude, and to my untrained eye must be a much better prospect for mini-critters.

 

Sandy had also been employing me these past days in "DNA" duties, which consisted of picking the fruits from various solanaceae and carefully extracting the seeds for use by boffins back in London, which I did here to the best of my abilities.

 

Meanwhile, Sandy showed me a sapling - a young Solenum albidum - that to me looked a bit like a rubber plant, with its huge succulent dark-green leaves. The species grows well at mid-elevations (1,000m plus or so) round these parts. Sandy then showed me the adult plant nearby. Frankly, if this had been a human specimen I'd have suspected mummy had been a bit friendly with the milkman: the parent looked nothing like its offspring; this was a small, woody tree with small, veined, oak-shaped leaves. Sandy couldn't understand my surprise at the difference. But I suppose I have come to expect such metamorphoses in certain pupating insects - why not plants?

 

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Sandy pointing out some interesting species.

 

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Evelyn's arachnids.

 

Evelyn turned out her net to reveal two colourful-looking arachnids of respectable size.

 

Back in London the first was identified by Museum spiderwoman Jan Beccaloni as an orb-weaver, but the other remains tantalisingly unidentified many months later:

 

"That's a very interesting spider!" says Beccaloni. "It's in the family Nephilidae and most closely resembles the genus Clitaetra (one of only 4 genera), but it isn't one of the 6 species in that genus - given that they are from Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. I don't suppose you collected it did you?"

 

We didn't - as far as we know. Perhaps Evelyn did and it is preserved in Peru rather than in Blighty. What if it was a new species? Perhaps a target for the next trip.

 

Erica was well pleased in any case with her catch, which revealed plenty of interesting new pipunculids (literally "big-headed flies"). They like hanging around plants, laying eggs in other flies (useful in pest control) and the adults dine on honeydew (like Kubla Khan). Their bulbous "holoptic" eyes take up their whole heads: they look ridiculous and frankly should be ashamed of themselves. Because of the sheer weight of their eyeballs, pipunculids have to fly head-down-tail up, like a flying exclamation mark.

 

Now it began to rain. It was extraordinary how quick the weather had changed with elevation: an hour ago we were in a dustbowl. We headed upwards as the chasms to our right yawned at us anew. Erica was on the left-hand side of the vehicle so mercifully couldn't see the juicy drops we were narrowly avoiding. As we emerged into sun-dappled uplands and mist again, we came upon a tiny, adobe and-tin-roofed cafe with a rickety balcony overlooking the valleys, where we sat out the showers and had lunch. But it turned out the day's sampling was done. By 2pm! Turns out the insects don't like the rain either.

 

We still had a ways to go, but we were able wind along the tricky bends at a relaxed pace. Erica became relatively comfortable with the precipitous drops, and we were able to plan possible sampling sites the next day. I was just enjoying the views. We breached a pass in the Cordillera de Calla Calla at 3,600m. Sandy says the pass is so named because, before the road was built, "calla calla" is what locals, carts laden with booty for the market in Celendin, would call out before turning the narrow blind bends.

 

…..

 

I now see I was playing a bit fast and loose with the task of record-keeper. I remember fondly my Dad once recounting how he and his school mates would wind up the science teacher by recording the effects of experiments in florid prose: "the aluminium lit up like brimstone, its fiery refulgence white-hot" and so on.

 

My notes, too, were drifting into the arena of the unscientific. Under the "conditions" column it reads: "sun and stratocumulus; v warm; humid, but stiff breeze; like a tart's hairdryer". Elsewhere I seem to dabble with amateur meteorology: "Hot and sunny; but some shade. Good-natured cumulus flit across the sky heading west at about 3,800m asl." "Overcast, dull, but now warm (20C+) stratus dominates. All is grey. It is like Mordor. There is a little offshore breeze."

 

Under the column method of collection, "suction" evolves into "suck", "sucking", "sucky", "socktions" and even "suctionez". I'd thought no harm could come of this, thinking it was for Erica's eyes only.  But apparently it was given to a record keeper at the Museum who wrote it all down verbatim.

 

It was my way of amusing myself in the evenings while I copied my handwritten notes into spreadsheets. What I haven't mentioned yet, scandalously, is that every evening after a day of driving and sampling we unpacked the van and that was when the real work started. Every night I did the spreadsheets, while Sandy erected her plant drier and stared sorting her haul, carefully arranging the samples and layering them in paper sheets ready to dry the sample overnight. Erica and Evelyn sorted through the numerous bags and 'kill jars' from the day's sampling, emptying each one separately on to plastic trays, the thousands upon thousands of insects in each tray then to be sorted that night and either pinned individually with microscopic pins or preserved carefully in alcohol, noting species, date, time, location in lat/longitude, then slotted carefully into little polystyrene boxes, ready for the next day.

 

This red-eyed ritual happened every night before and after dinner till about 11.30pm, sometimes later. At around 6.30am the next morning, we would repack everything into the van (my job chiefly), Sandy having been up for an hour or so already, dismantling the plant drier and packing her samples with scrupulous care. All to be loaded into other boxes for transport eventually to the UK where the real work of identification, classification, labelling and record-keeping begins. And that's just the start - when the real science starts and the project begins to bear fruit. Erica and Sandy can tell you about that in various sober academic journals, I should wager.

 

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Work continues into the evening...


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Sandy packing samples with great care.


We arrived in Leymebamba in the late afternoon.  It is a quiet and friendly country village with a tiny well-kept plaza de armas, with narrow streets leading off, lined with with adobe-brick houses with renaissance-style balconies and big weathered wooden shutters. And a lovely stone church. It had a contended feel.

 

We found a little guesthouse up a side street. It knocked all the others we'd stayed at into a cocked fedora. The accommodation we'd been staying at, taxpayers, was more than comfortable, and very cheap - about $10 a night. This was only marginally more expensive, and not what you'd call luxury,  but the rooms were more modern - clean, and with the benefit of warm water. The hostel centred round a carefully tended courtyard stuffed with pot plants and rustic local knick-knacks. In one corner a pair of hummingbirds sucked nectar from a feeder. I kid you not. The upstairs balcony opened on to an idyllic view of the higgledy-piggledy red-clay rooftops, with the Andes tumbling into the distance beyond.

 

Someone very clever decided we should stay two nights this time and use Leymebamba as a base to strike out, and I didn't complain. I could have stayed there for a week or more.

 

This would be useful as a base to discover more sampling areas in a comparatively verdant habitat. We had in any case realised that we were now about as far east as we were going to get in the time available, and any further progress would have to be north and then westward to the coast again, on rather faster roads, to complete the 700-mile loop out of the Andes - the journey overall being about 1500 miles in all.

 

But I can't recount that here. I have to cut this short or I'll be here all year... oh wait: I have been already. Such is the curse of the day job, which I am sure you will now be hoping I'll stick to.

 

But in the days that followed if there was less in the way of climbing, offroading and hair-raising cliffhugging, there was no less incident. I got behind the wheel again, so of course the driving got better (...) My notes got worse if anything. There's a lot more to tell in a separate blog, which I'll share later elsewhere. If people are nice. It shall tell of exploding hotwater tanks, ancient ruins and getting caught in landslips. There may be mention of waterfalls, crooked cops, giant wasps, pelicans and bandits. And I lost my special stick.

 

Erica and Sandy are planning their final trip for the project (with an extra botanist as driver this time). Meanwhile, Erica and her team at the Museum are still going through the samples we took on our trip nine months later. Now I know what they're doing over there I see it's worth every penny. Their dedication and expertise impressed me endlessly.

 

If I had to take away one thing from the trip it would be that how astonishingly common it was for the scientists to identify new types of both plant and animal. As Erica says: "It's so nice you get to experience this. Every time I look down a microscope of my foreign material I know that realistically, I have new species. Right now in my study I have new species. God it rocks!"

 

That's under a trained eye: how often must inexperienced eyes come across new species without knowing it? It hammered home the fact that there must be species we haven't even seen yet becoming extinct through human activity every day. The work of Sandy and Erica and others at the Museum is just a small part of the important work being done to prevent this.

 

I count myself fortunate indeed that I was invited to take part in this trip with such distinguished scientists for the world's best natural history museum (and humbled that they entrusted me with their wellbeing on roads like those). Also, thanks to Erica for allowing me to hijack her blog for the best part of a year. But that's quite enough from me. Sorry it took so long. But don't blame me - I'm just the driver.

 

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Welcome to the first blog post for the Museums Identification Trainers for the Future project! This exciting new project centers around 15 work-based traineeship positions that will be hosted at the Museum and has been designed to address the growing skills gap in species identification in the UK. We will be doing this by targeting species groups where there is a lack, or loss, of ID skills in biological recording.

 

Our first group of trainees started with us this month, having come through a very competitive selection process, and were selected from over 400 applications. Choosing our first cohort has meant we have had to make some difficult decisions: certainly by the standard of the 25 we invited to selection day back in January, there are some very capable and enthusiastic people out there, with everyone who came along performing extremely well. Hopefully that, of course, means great things for UK biodiversity and biological recording!

 

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Our first trainees taking part in the Identification Trainers for the Future project

L-R Sally Hyslop, Michael Waller, Katy Potts, Anthony Roach and Chloe Rose

 

Sally, Katy, Michael, Chloe and Anthony will be introducing themselves in their own blog posts which will appear here over the next few weeks, so I will save mentioning more about their backgrounds here. They have a very busy year in front of them getting involved in our work in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity as well as working with our specialist curation teams and helping out at Field Studies Council centres across the country.

 

They will be building their own species identification skills through a wide range of workshops, field visits and private study and later on we will be looking at building their communication and teaching skills so they can pass on to others what they have learnt, which is the priniciple purpose of our new project. In the mean time they will also be out and about at various Museum events throughout the year, and we will be reporting back on those too as soon as we can.

 

For now that leaves me only needing to say a big welcome to all our trainees, I look forward to working with you over the next 12 months!

 

Steph West

Project Manager - Identification Trainers for the Future

 

The ID Trainers for the Future project is sponsored through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme and is supported by the Field Studies Council and National Biodiversity Network Trust.

 

For more information, see our website

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With the forthcoming opening of our Sensational Butterflies exhibition in April, and the digitisation of our collections progressing gradually and efficiently, I thought it would be welcoming and encouraging to post a 3D art video on butterflies.

 

The video, titled “Gone?”, was made by Graham Macfarlane and Elitsa Dimitrova of Elyarch, a small but well-established and creative digital company, based in London.

 

I met Graham and Elitsa during the last Science Uncovered evening at the Museum in September, when they approached the Lepidoptera forest station to admire our displays and to chat about flight in Lepidoptera. They were particularly curious to know how butterflies and moths hold their legs during flight.

 

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The Lepidoptera display during last year's Science Uncovered.

 

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How do lepidopterans hold their legs while flying?

Top Hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) © Alessandro Giusti;

bottom Swallotail (Papilio machaon)© Lukas Jonaitis


“Difficult question!” I replied with a pondering smile. As a matter of fact I don’t think I had given the topic much consideration before then.

 

A few days later, after talking with some colleagues and having done a little research on the subject, I sent Graham and Elitsa an email saying that probably, in insects, the position of the legs during flight differs slightly according to groups.

 

Presumably, as in other insects, lepidopterans' legs hang more or less down under the body, and very likely their position changes according to the particular moment of flight, ie migration versus flying while feeding or moving short distances, or during courtships etc, and I suggested to look at images and slow motion videos of flying insects on the internet. 

 

A few weeks later they sent me the art video with thanks for the information I supplied, so I thought I'd share the video with you in case you haven’t seen it yet.

 

 

 

 

I really enjoyed the video; it's well-designed and captivating, even if the legs of the flying butterflies are probably not portrayed 100% correctly.

 

But let’s give the artists the benefit of poetic licence, and it shouldn’t matter after all, as long as the work entertains and stirs something in the viewer. Which I think “Gone?” does. 

 

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I like how the butterflies are taking off from an immobile position, as if they are all dormant inside a collection box, and a kind of imperceptible and secretive command suddenly wakes them up.

 

This makes me think of our collections, and how the digitisation projects currently taking place in our Museum are a sort of revival of our specimens and of all the useful data associated with them. A virtual awakening which makes our specimens more accessible.

 

But what I like most about the video is that it carries a nice message of hope, and it’s not just about butterflies, but also about any other organism we share our planet with: it’s an invitation for us all to reflect on the beauty, complexity and fragility of the natural world, and the responsibility each of us has to preserve it. A philosophy that is ingrained in the values of the Natural History Museum, as we have always aspired to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

 

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The vivid beams of light shining on the gliding butterflies and the shimmer created by the dislodged tiny scales of their wings give a wonderful sense of hope and awakening.

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It's been a while but we have now the penultimate installment of the Peruvian Adventure by Dave the driver Hall...enjoy.

 

I think that fourth night must have been the first one I've spent at 2,700m and I didn't seem any the worse for it. I tugged at the wooden shutters to see what day five on the road might have in store. Weather: acceptable for driving on dodgy roads. High, thin clouds cut with watery pastels. A shabby old town in diluted blue and sunbleached turquoise. The plaza mayor was just creaking into life. A cluster of women in straw hats held conference outside a grocer's. A policeman heaved open the giant wooden double doors of an eroded old police station, yawned, and spat.

 

I took a cold shower, dressed and started lugging trunks and sample boxes from last night's sorting. Prof. Knapp was already up (of course) dismantling the drier. The daily task of packing seemed a little more arduous this morning. Either the altitude, or the shin-barkingly steep antique stairs. The van was parked in a square pound at the back of the hotel, which looked appealingly like the OK Corral. Sandy had been a little concerned that the truck might not still be there this morning, but the locals seemed harmless enough to me, if not exactly chummy.

 

The growing light revealed our hotel to be of a certain vintage; much of the rear was semi-derelict and empty. I creaked back and forth with my boxes through creepy cavernous dusty backrooms, using the return trips to investigate dark passages and musty staircases leading nowhere, the only sounds my wheezing and the drip of an old tap. And here an appealingly dilapidated old dining room-dance hall I could imagine thronging with local revellers.

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Morning in Celendin.

 

After breakfast I took a few moments to explore the town, too. It might be old hat for the Dr Livingstones in our midst but I was unlikely to set eyes on the place again. Erica likes telling me how amusing it is reading my rhapsodic perspective on what she sees as routine grubby fieldwork: I see cascades of mountains; she sees dirty socks drying on the dashboard.

 

(Erica here - not exactly how I phrased it - he was bemoaning us for failing to see the beauty all around us - Sandy and I were concentrating on flies and spuds )

 

The market was already open for a day's easygoing trade. I ambled over. Three schoolboys kicked a burst ball to each other on the way to classes. The policeman hadn't moved. Stallholders unhurriedly erected awnings and set out their wares along the narrow thoroughfares, the alley-tunnels filled with the pungent aroma of meat, overripe fruit and hawker-stall breakfasts. I bought plump oranges and tomatoes for lunch from one of the impassively leather-faced vendors and wandered back to the hotel, ready for another day behind the wheel.

 

But no! Erica announced she'd be driving today, to 'give me a break'. The cheek. I protested firmly, in my quietest voice. This felt like cheating, but I was anticipating incredible scenery, ahead so I didn't flap.

 

(Erica again - they are long days driving- even we are not that nasty to make him drive continuously)

 

In contrast to other towns thus far it was a fair doddle finding the route out of town. Without at least two simultaneous sets of directions being offered in each ear, the going seemed somehow easier. Being fair, it wasn't hard to navigate. There was little traffic, and thanks to the colonial grid system we simply had to find the edge of the town and keep going until we hit a road going east.

 

Nevertheless, this road looked unpromising – a narrow back-street cluttered with the detritus of townsfolk's lives: bits of motorbike, smashed agricultural implements, underfed dogs...

 

But here a sign, which told us it was a mere 150km to our next stop, Leymebamba, and presently we started climbing.

 

The narrow road wound up again through foothills scarred with gold-mining quarries, many illegal. The locals had been protesting for some time, largely to deaf ears, that these mines – many sponsored by American multinationals – are polluting the water supply.

 

Above the scarred hillsides we rose... the road surface was perfect and I couldn't help thinking what an epic bike ride this would make for the stout of heart. Eventually the treeline gave way to rousing views of Celendin far below, where the light-blue double steeple of the church in the town square poked above the ramshackle rooftops. The town nestled in a half-bowl surrounded by hills. It must have looked attractive to the early Inca settlers and, unfortunately for them, the Spanish too. The head of the valley ended in an unseen drop, and far beyond were mountains whose peaks seemed oddly level with the town itself... now it was clear how high up the town was.

 

Still we climbed, this time without finding any locals to pester about their potatoes. Spying as yet no specimens, we meandered upward and upward, through rugged moorland, ever closer to the clouds that before had seemed so far off. As the sun finally renewed hostilities and the clouds began to leak a bit of sunshine, we reached a high pass of about 3,500m where a tiny village sat incongruously amid the rugged landscape, complete with a tiny football pitch and neatly planted conifers. The place had a strangely manicured feel.

 

Then, suddenly, the other side. As we breached the other side of the pass, a completely different panorama opened up. A dramatic series of valleys and mountain ranges rolled into the east, rib upon rib wreathed in mist, multiple horizons fading toward the Amazon. Somewhere to our right, far below and well beyond view, the Marañón River was thundering on its 1,700km looping journey toward the king of rivers. My head span at the spectacle. Sandy and Evelyn discussed tomatoes. Erica drove on without comment.

 

Our way wasn't getting any wider. As we wound downwards, hugging the cliffsides, the road only narrowed further. The bends were like fishhooks, and here and there were patches where the roadworks had not reached or where recent repairs had simply slid down the cliff. There were no barriers to protect motorists from the yawning 1,000-foot drops a matter of inches from the wheels. Superfluous roadsigns warned us to slow down and keep right. Erica didn't need much encouragement. Everyone in the car seemed to become silent. I tried to look far ahead to see if anything was coming the other way. We could only imagine what it must be like for lorry and bus drivers.

 

I was beginning to enjoy myself.

 

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A yawning 1,000-foot drop inches to the left.

 

In the clouds now. I like being in clouds, but it doesn't help with the driving. Breaks in the mist revealed teasing glimpses of dark, sheer mountainsides. Here and there the sun poked through and a rainbow made a perfect technicolor arch over the road.

 

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Driving through the Peruvian mountains.

 

Then just as suddenly, out of the mist, full sunshine, the scenery changing from hairpin to hairpin. We were descending toward a lush shoulder of high land, an upper valley nestled in a crown of mountains far below, dotted with tiny farmhouses and quiltwork cornfields, into which the road descended in a series of insane switchbacks. It was a perfect lost valley; a prime spot for Eldorado.

 

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A prime spot for Eldorado.

 

I still have no idea how Sandy spots specimens from the car even at the modest speeds we were achieving. But at last Prof Knapp bade us stop for our first samples amid a gradually drier landscape.

 

The sun was melting the clouds away and the morning was mellowing nicely. Nearby, an allotment of sorts, a small bungalow and what I thought were petrol pumps. The immediate area was lush, catching runoff rainwater in a small series of irrigation ditches. Prime mozzie territory, I thought. Again, parts of the area had been cleared recently – the solanum species again proving keener than mustard to move in quick on new space.

 

My ridiculous sample notes about the sampling area – for 'twas my job – read: “A small irrigation ditch is nearby and a 'petrol station' nearby also.”  I see now it was not a petrol station, but someone's dwelling, but their toilets seemed public enough at the time.

 

Sandy and the Fly Girls exited, rummaged in the back for Sucky and Sweep, then set off into the undergrowth. Evelyn swished gamely. Erica bothered a bush. I made notes. Sandy snagged some excellent samples of Solanum dilleni. I went to the toilet again.

 

(Erica once more - many conversations on fieldtrips revolve around toilets - how often you need to go, the facilities etc)

 

On we went. As we sank riverwards, hopes rose in the back of the truck that the ever-more arid terrain may harbour the tomato relatives we had encountered in similar habitats earlier in the trip: habrochaites perhaps. It was getting drier and drier. I prefer the lush stuff up in the mountains.

 

We fairly freewheeled to the next stop a couple of miles hence, where a sharp bend in the road concealed a small clutch of solenum arcanum known from Sandy's notes to be in this location many years previously. It was still there. All manner of insects waited to be sucked from the bushes, but nearby sat a sizeable troop of Homosapiens Peruensis, taking a break from mending the road. They were much animated by the sight of Erica's immense suction apparatus. We had disturbed the species in its natural habitat, so had to bear with good grace the sniggering and what I imagined to be Spanish double entendres. The Challenges of Fieldwork.

 

My notes say we came away with some samples of “Solanum simplefolium” but, according to Google, this doesn't exist. That's a shame – I liked that name. I can only imagine it was Solanum pimpenellifolium. This sports little purple flowers and tiny tomatoes – tomatillos – which are edible. It's a really close relative of our tomatoes. Indeed, it is sometimes called a wild tomato.

 

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Some Peruvian geology.

 

Further we sank toward the Marañón in our search for tomato and potato data, through spectacular peaks and pyramids of twisted volcanic rock where lava seams poked through like ribcages, past abandoned pasture and the occasional hungry-looking donkey picking through the brush.

 

At last we reached the valley floor, at the village of Chacanto in the district of Las Balsas – gateway to the Amazonas region. It was now all firmly semi-desert, reminiscent of parts of Nevada or Utah, catching the full ferocity of the sun. It felt like being stir-fried. The river looked inviting, but the Marañón slides through at a good clip here even in the dry season. It is a mere stream compared with what it would become downstream, but the bridge that spans it is a good 100m in length. We rolled over the bridge, stopped only a few minutes for a coffee in the sleepy village, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go...

 

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The Marañón River at the bottom of the valley.

 

Erica - since writing these blog pieces we have been analysing some of the data and trying to figure out what some of the insects that we sampled are. It has taken months to do this and there have been at least 9 people so far going through the insects. many are about to be sent of to specialists across the globe. Upstairs from where I am typing this at my desk we have two people imaging some of the specimens before they are sequenced for their DNA....its a very exciting time for this project.

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Hello Super-flies and Parasites fans!

 

We are back with all things nasty from the Parasites and Vectors division here at the Museum. There have been some exciting developments in the New Year, most importantly the launch of the Museum’s brand new website!

 

This is another ‘Forever Flies’ series of blog posts, bringing you news from the Museum'sforensic entomologygroup.

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Forever Flies is our forensic entomology blog series. This image shows a carrion-eating greenbottle blowfly.

 


Forensic Entomology

You will remember from my previous Forever Flies post that forensic entomology is the study of the insects and arthropods found at a crime scene. The most common role for Museum forensic entomologists is establishing a minimum time since death in suspicious cases, by analysing the carrion insects on the body.

 

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Blowflies use the bodies of dead animals to grow and develop. The rate at which they do this, going from egg to larva to pupa to adult fly, is pretty consistent and depends largely on ambient temperature. Forensic entomologists use this to determine the minimum post-mortem interval (PMImin), which helps crime scene investigators determine approximate time-of-death.


Thanks to entomological expertise (Greek – entomo = insect, logos = knowledge) scientists can collect insects from a corpse and/or crime scene, determine what stage in their life cycle the insects have reached and, using their knowledge on the duration of each stage of the insects’ life cycle, determine how long ago the parent insect laid her eggs on the corpse.

 

This gives an incredibly useful estimate of the minimum amount of time this body has been dead (minimum post-mortem interval - PMImin), which helps crime scene investigators determine approximate time-of-death. The more accurate this minimum post-mortem interval is, the more accurate the time of death can be. Knowing time of death can focus the police investigation and suggest the likelihood of a suspect’s involvement.

 

Scientists can also use these insects to determine if the body has been moved since death and how long a body was exposed above ground before burial.

 

Metamorphosis in pupae


Flies spend over 50% of their developmental life in the pupae stage, protectively encased inside a hard shell (called a puparium) where they slowly transform from a maggot into a fly in a process called metamorphosis (Greek again - Meta = change, morphe = form).

 

A puparium looks quite bland and boring but underneath there are all sorts of wonderful things going on. Scientists can remove the shell and, using traditional microscopy, take a look at the fascinating changes of metamorphosis. But this process does destroy the pupa sample, making it difficult to work out how long it takes for the pupa to go through the different stages of metamorphosis.

 

Scientists know that the length of time metamorphosis takes to complete really depends on temperature, the question is can we use our knowledge of the process to pinpoint a more accurate estimate of PMImin?  What forensic scientists need is a standardised method to work out:

  1. At what stage in the metamorphosis process is the pupa
  2. how long did it take to reach this stage

 

If these two points can be determined then scientists can provide a far more accurate PMImin.

 

The ‘MORPHIC’ project

 

Dr Daniel Martin-Vega, a forensic entomologist, has joined the Museum from the University of Alcalá in Spain to research carrion fly pupae and to develop a standardised protocol for aging pupae (as in determining their age) that can be used by forensic scientists. This project is called MORPHIC and is funded by the European Commission through a Marie-Curie fellowship.

 

It sounds all neat, logical and tidy but there is A LOT of work and dedication involved!

 

For this projectDaniel is raising two species of the carrion-loving blowflies, the greenbottle blowfly Lucilia sericata and the bluebottle blowfly Calliphora vicina. The flies live in netting covered cages, where they feed and reproduce whilst he monitors them.

 

Daniel feeding flies_resized2.jpgDaniel showing me the Diptera (insect) culture room. Each netting-covered box has a species of carrion blowfly in it. He is researching the pupae of these flies to see if he can improve the estimate of  PMImin and thus improve the information given to crime scene investigators.


He also has to collect the post-feeding maggots and place them in a box with some nice clean soil for them to happily grow until they are ready to start the metamorphosis process. These boxes are then placed in a cabinet kept at a specific temperature. Since the rate of metamorphosis largely depends on temperature it is very important the Daniel can control this environmental factor in order to document the rate of change at different temperatures.

 

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The maggot house! This is a comfy box with soil where maggots crawl around and prepare to pupate. When the maggots start pupating Daniel has to come in every 6 hours or so to monitor and collect them for his research

 

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Blowfly maggots and pupae.

 

 

Once the maggots start to pupate Daniel has to collect the pupae:

 

I come in every 6 hours when the maggots start to pupariate in order to collect blowfly pupae at 6-hour intervals during the first 48 hours after puparium formation (the period when the greatest morphological changes of metamorphosis occur). Luckily, I only do this from time to time. After that, the collection of pupae is just daily until the adult flies’ emergence.

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Daniel sieving out the pupae from the box.

 

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Maggots and pupae, oh my!

 

Watch those maggots wriggle about!

 

He then has to sieve out the pupae from the soil and carefully place them in a petridish labelled with the blowfly species name, the date collected and the time collected. These petridishes are also placed in the special temperature-control cabinet.

 

 

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Daniel has separated out the pupae of different species of blowfly. Each petridish with pupae has the species name, the date collected and the time collected.

 

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The petridishes are kept at a specific temperature. Since the rate of metamorphosis largely depends on temperature it is very important the Daniel can control this environmental factor.

 

Daniel uses the Museum’s wonderful micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scanner to take detailed images of the inside of the pupae without destroying them. A micro-CT scanner is a type of X-ray scanner that produces 3D images, much like a hospital CAT scanner, but at a much smaller scale and a higher resolution. The results are like 3D microscope images! 

 

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Daniel with colleague Dr Thomas Simonsen using the Museum’s micro-CT scanner to look at 3D images of blow-fly pupae. The micro-CT scanner uses x-ray technology to produce 3D 'microscopy' images at high resolution without damaging the sample.

 

By using the Museum’s micro-CT scanner Daniel can take these detailed images at specific time points of the metamorphosis process.  He will then have a catalogue of images of the blow fly pupal development at specific temperatures. This catalogue of images will be used to develop a standardised tool to determine the age of blow fly pupae. Then when pupae are collected from a crime scene, they can be compared to this catalogue and scientists will be able to determine how long the fly has been in its pupal stage. Giving scientists a more accurate estimate of PMImin! Ta daaaaa!

 

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Micro-CT scanner images of a bluebottle blowfly Calliphora vicina pupa. The one on the left is at 48 hours, the one on the right at 216 hours. You can see the difference in development between the two pupa images.

 

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Dorsal micro-CT scanner image of a blowfly pupa.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you fancy a stab at a bit of CSI work why not check out the Museum's Crime Scene Live After Hours events.

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Two species of wasp have been identified as belonging to a whole new genus endemic to the isolated Atlantic island of St Helena.

 

St Helena, a British Overseas Territory, is home to more than 400 species that can't be found anywhere else. However, the wildlife is under serious threat from development and invasive species.

Napoleon complex

The new wasp genus, named Helenanomalon in honour of its home territory, belongs to a family of parasitoid wasps - those that spend a part of their lifecycle on another organism that they eventually kill. However, little is known about the specific lifestyle of Helenanomalon since only a handful of specimens are known to exist.

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One of the new wasps species, Helenanomalon bonapartei

 

The most recent specimens came to the Museum following a collecting expedition in 2006 that included the former Head of Entomology collections at the Museum, Howard Mendel. On re-examining the specimens, and a couple of others at the Musée de l'Afrique Centrale, Museum hymenoptera curator Dr Gavin Broad assigned them to two different species in the new genus:

These little wasps belong to the family Ichneumonidae, a huge family with over 24,000 described species in the world, but with only six species known to have made it all the way to St Helena. That two of these species form a genus not known anywhere else in the world is remarkable.

One of the new species, Helenanomalon bonapartei, is named after St Helena's most famous exile, whilst Helenanomalon ashmolei is named after Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, who have led recent work in exploring and documenting the fauna of St Helena.

Lost giants

Islands like St Helena often host unique organisms that have evolved in isolation for millions of years. However, these species are also extremely vulnerable to changes such as introduced predators and habitat loss.

 

St Helena used to be home to the world's largest earwig, the giant earwig, which reached over 8cm long and lived in deep burrows. Only a few specimens of the giant earwig have been recorded, and several scouting trips since the 1960s have failed to find any living examples. It is now considered extinct.

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St Helena giant earwig, Labidura herculeana

 

Says Dr Broad:

The extinction of the giant earwig was a sad reminder of how vulnerable island endemics can be. There is still much work to be done on assessing just how unique the St Helena fauna is, and Philip Ashmole tells me that they have collected other potentially new genera of insects and spiders but the taxonomy of the groups concerned is difficult and there are few people with the expertise.

 

The native vegetation has been massively reduced by the usual pressures of introduced goats, non-native species, inappropriate agriculture, and so on. Restoring the native vegetation, particularly the seriously denuded forests, is the most important step in conserving the unique invertebrates.

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A Kickstarter project has launched to raise funds for a new app that reveals the beauty and diversity of the world's bees, using many Museum specimens.

 

1000 Bees is an interactive art project to raise the profile of bees and highlight their plight across the globe. While many people are aware that honeybee colonies are facing collapse, 'honeybee' is a term applied to just 11 species, and many other bee species are also important pollinators.

 

As the project creators Ana Tiquia and Callum Cooper say:

Wild bees are just as important for pollination and play a crucial role in ecosystems throughout the world. Many wild bees face similar threats to the honeybee: bee-killing pesticides, loss of habitat for forage and nest sites, and climate change.

1000 Bees aims to raise £90,000 in order to create the dynamic app, including an animation that flicks through all of the one thousand species in its gallery.

Enormous bee resource

The 1000 Bees app will showcase high-resolution images of bee specimens, many of which are housed at the Museum. As well as photographs, the Museum contributed information on specific bee specimens, including a couple of bees collected at least 212 years ago and a giant bee collected by noted naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

 

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A giant carpenter bee, Xylocopa perforator, collected by Alfred Russel Wallace on the island of Timor.

 

 

Museum bee curator David Notton said:

As a curator, art projects aren’t my core work but it’s nice to have one now and again, as it gets the collection to new audiences and realises the wider cultural value of the collection.

There are over 20,000 species of bee in the world, but Notton's favourite is probably a rare species he recently managed to find on Blackheath in southeast London called the shrill carder bee. Described by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust as 'probably the UK's rarest species of bumblebee', it is one of 90 bee species found on Blackheath and was spotted by Notton while intensively surveying the area for bees during 2014.

 

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

 

Day 4: Cajamarca to Celendin

 

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

 

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

 

This Is Fieldwork, soldier.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Difficult to press: Solanum oblongifolium.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Sandy talking tubers with the locals.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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C3PO impression?

 

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

 

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

 

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Peak District or Peruvian highlands?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Unfortunate political decoration.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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A young Quechua woman weaving a giant llama wool carpet.

 

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

 

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

 

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Plaza de Armas in Celendin.

 

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

 

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A school parade welcomes us to Celendin.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Michael Geiser, Department of Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 12 November 11:00


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


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

 

More information on attending seminars at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/news-events/seminars/

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On Sunday I helped with a workshop at the Museum as part of the the nationwide 'Big Draw' initiative. ‘Experimenting with observational drawing, algorithms and natural form’ was the mutant offspring of the brilliant artists Gemma Anderson and Prof William Latham.

 

We meticulously observed natural history specimens then drew them. Then drew them from memory. This was before we started mutating various fundamental shapes according to William’s FormSynth rules which then took a further step as Gemma introduced fundamental rules of symmetry and body forms across the natural world and we evolved these forms through random processes in a practice Gemma calls isomorphogenesis. Which sounds like an interesting way to spend a Sunday, and it was.

 

I can’t draw

 

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Puffer fish - In real life they look much more like a bad pencil sketch than that mounted specimen would have you believe...

 

I’m rather embarrassed to show these pictures here. I hadn’t seriously held a pencil for probably 20 years and I was disappointed to discover that I can’t draw a nice curve, never mind sketch a dodecahedron. This took me miles outside of my comfort zone.

 

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My attempt at drawing forms mutating according to rules of isomorphogenesis (this takes quite some explaining).

 

There were some seriously good artists in the room who produced some amazing drawings. But the principle is intriguing, even to the artistically challenged, such as me. My horribly drawn shapes evolve into weird and wonderful structures. There’s something strange going on, with parallels to evolution.

 

What does this have to do with wasps?

 

What’s the wasp connection here? The link is our collections at the museum. One of the pleasures of my job is to make the collections accessible to artists (I should point out this is only a small part of my job; I really am a curator, busily curating and stuff…).

 

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Gratuitous wasp photo - Degithina davidi (Ichneumonidae) looking very welcoming.

 

Not long after I started at the Museum I was introduced to Tessa Farmer, who was an artist in residence for six marvellous months. Tessa took inspiration from the parasitoid wasps that I work on, and her malevolent little fairies adopted some of the behaviour of parasitoids in their quest to enslave and torment other creatures. Tessa’s installation in Hintze Hall (previously Central Hall) featured a stop-motion animation with brilliantly otherworldly sounds by Mark Pilkington, which created an eery atmosphere first thing in the morning, before the crowds filled the space.

 

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Detail from Tessa Farmer's 'Little Savages' (2007), exhibited at the Natural History Museum, featuring a chrysidid wasp and an unfortunate fox (copyright Tessa Farmer).

 

Returning to Gemma Anderson, Gemma has had a long association with the Natural History Museum, reclassifying our collections on the basis of shared forms and symmetries, rather than the classic taxonomy that we use to lay out our collections. So Gemma would draw a wasp nest, with its arrays of perfectly hexagonal cells and juxtapose it alongside hexagonal minerals, plants and other natural objects in beautiful dioramas.

 

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Gemma Anderson's Hexagon etching, featuring wasp nests (and other hexagons) © Gemma Anderson.

 

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Hexagons in wasp nests: nests of Apoica pallens, a neotropical polistine (paper wasp).

 

This process was termed ‘Isomorphology’ by Gemma. The next step, which we were experimenting with at Sunday’s workshop, is the introduction of evolution from ‘bauplan’ shapes (fundamental forms), which she calls ‘Isomorphogenesis’.

 

The art of evolution

 

Anyway, Tessa’s fairies evolved, and they continue to evolve in interesting directions, displaying ever more complex behaviours. Gemma’s shapes evolve in surprisingly unpredictable ways. Recently I met Daisy Ginsberg, a designer and artist who is exploring the possibilities and perils of synthetic biology, amongst other things. I gave a talk at a workshop she ran but Daisy was really interested in how we classify our organisms, when I gave a tour of the Hymenoptera collections.

 

The way we lay out our collections on taxonomic lines, reflecting the evolution of these insects, has directly influenced Daisy’s Design Taxonomy, futuristic biosynthetic cars that evolve to work efficiently in different climates and for different tasks.

 

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Cars of the future: Daisy Ginsberg's 'Design Taxonomy'.

 

This got a lot of attention at the London Design Festival. As well as the wonderful premise, these model cars look like really tasty little cakes.

 

Art and wasps

 

These artists, and others I haven’t mentioned, have taught me the value of observing. They are incredibly good at observing the details of the specimens in front of them. Hopefully I’m not too bad at observing: after all, I am a taxonomist, looking at tiny differences and describing new species. But fresh perspectives on the natural world are invaluable and help me see the value of our collections, and the beauty of the beasts, in fresh ways.

 

It’s lovely to see wasps in art; they obviously make good subjects, being generally beautiful, elegant and doing fantastically interesting things. But it’s also gratifying to see artists take inspiration from the organisation and philosophy of our collections as a whole. And to see that the idea of mutation and evolution is so compelling artistically as well as scientifically.

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Hello Super-flies & Parasites fans!

 

This time we are departing from the familiar world of blood flukes and having a look at something new and exciting: Welcome to the ‘Forever Flies’series of blog posts. I’ve really enjoyed writing this bit as it’s totally new to me and I’m learning so much from our wonderful scientists in the Forensic Entomology group of the Parasites & Vectors division here at the Museum.

 

About forensic entomology


I think I mentioned forensic entomology way back in the first ever Super-flies and Parasites post. But to refresh our memories and delve a bit deeper here’s an explanation taken from the group’s website:

'Forensic entomology is the study of insects and other arthropods (ie spiders, mites) in a situation where a crime may have been committed. The insects recovered from a crime scene can provide vital information for the investigating team. The most common role for Museum forensic entomologists is establishing a minimum time since death in suspicious cases, by analysing the carrion insects on the body.'

 

Flies use the bodies of dead animals to grow and develop, fulfilling a vital nutrient recycling role in an ecosystem. They can turn one vertebrate body into thousands or millions of flies, which are then fed on by other animals - insects, frogs and birds for example. The rate at which they do this, going from eggs to larvae to pupa to adult fly, is pretty consistent.

 

Knowing enough about the species of flies we can exploit this information when they develop on corpses. By determining how long the insects have been feeding on the tissues of the corpse, we can determine the length of time elapsed since flies found the body; thereby providing crime scene investigators with a minimum post-mortem interval.

 

Some flies however don’t hang about and wait for death, they prefer feeding on live animal tissues, and can cause a horrible disease called myiasis, a major economic and animal welfare problem.


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Female Bluebottle blow fly, Calliphora vicina, and maggots feeding on a dead pig.

 

Dr Martin Hall and colleagues within the Museum and around the world work together on the taxonomy and biology of flies that develop as larvae on living or dead vertebrate animals. Their expertise and research greatly contributes to the control of a painful and damaging disease, myiasis, but also to the field of forensic entomology, helping CSIs determine crucial information from a crime scene.

 

So there you have it, some real life crime scene investigation stuff! These are the guys CSIs turn to for help! (Cue CSI theme song!)

 

The beauty of maggots lies in their mouthparts

 

I asked Martin for a little blurb to get the Forever Flies series rolling and he sent me some surprisingly beautiful photos of maggots! Here’s what he has to say about them:

To most people maggots are repulsive creatures; they all look much the same and have zero redeeming features.

 

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Maggots, thought of as repulsive creatures with zero redeeming features. Read on to see how they are transformed by confocal microscopy into beautiful works of art.


However, viewed under a microscope they become much more interesting, with a range of characters that can be used in discrimination, especially when you look at the business end of the maggot, its mouthparts!

 

It’s not so easy to ask a tiny 2mm long newly hatched maggot to 'open wide' to view the teeth, and traditionally we have been limited to viewing slide-mounted specimens by light microscopy. Scanning electron microscopy has its merits, but only for the external features. In normal light microscopy, imaging of these mouthpart structures is limited by problems of resolution, illumination and depth of field.


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Greenbottle blowfly, Lucilia sericata light microscope high power image. With normal light microscopy the relationship of the sclerites of the cephaloskeleton (mouthparts) to each other is unclear.

 

At the Museum we have been using a laser confocal microscope for the first time to look inside these maggots to view the mouthparts, the so-called cephaloskeleton, in three dimensions. The mouthparts are crucial to the maggots in establishing themselves on their food source, be it a live animal or a decomposing corpse. The images produced by the confocal microscope rely on the autofluorescence of structures of the cephaloskeleton.


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Greenbottle blowfly, Lucilia sericata confocal microscope low power image - relationships are still unclear but, with the autofluorescence under laser light, the structures look so much more beautiful!

 

We were especially interested in the relationships of the small sclerites to each other and the so called 'hump', present in newly hatched larvae of Lucilia greenbottle blowflies but absent in Calliphora bluebottles.


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Greenbottle blowfly, Lucilia sericata confocal microscope high power image: The structure relationships are becoming clearer (the 'hump' is arrowed) and this is finalised in the next image.

 

The 177 optical sections scanned by the confocal microscope enabled us to rotate and view this structure in three dimensions (see green false-coloured sclerite in image below) and see clearly for the first time how it relates to other structures.

 

In addition to their academic and practical value in identification, the images are also things of beauty in their own right and would not look out of place in an art gallery!


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Greenbottle blowfly, Lucilia sericata confocal microscope high power image and false colour sclerites. We have rotated the original to give three dimensionality. The red wavelength was selected, as this is the wavelength that gave most autofluorescence of the cephaloskeleton, to enable us to discard other structures and here false-colour has been added to show the different structures, including the 'hump' (in green) or epistomal sclerite.

 

The work was done at the Museum and involved Drs Andrzej Grzywacz (a visitor under the EC-funded SYNTHESIS project) and Krzysztof Szpila from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in ToruĊ„, Poland, collaborating with Tomasz Góral and Martin Hall. We used the Museum’s Nikon A1-Si Confocal Microscope.

 

For more information see the article published online in Parasitology Research on 19 September 2014.


By Dr Martin Hall

 

I hope you enjoyed the first 'Forever Flies' post. For more on flies head over to Erica McAlister's Diptera blog.

 

There will be more coming soon but just to let you know there may be a couple of weeks break whilst some important maintenance work is done to the site and my life

 

See you soon

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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’.

 

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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.


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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’.

 

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Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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.