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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! 

 

Thomas Simonsen and Daniel Martin-Vega analysing CT images of 5 pupae.jpg Thomas Simonsen and Daniel Martin-Vega operating Micro-CT scanner.jpg

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/

0

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.

0

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!


Lucilia sericata - Confocal high power - false colour sclerites named.jpg

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

0

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.

1

Every four years the International Society of Hymenopterists gather for a conference, in a different venue each time. This July, 120 or so wonderful waspy folk gathered in Cusco, in the Peruvian Andes.

 

Natalie Dale-Skey, Andrew Polaszek and I headed off from the Natural History Museum to the land of the Andean Condor (we didn’t see any) and the gateway to one of the wonders of the world, Machu Picchu (we didn’t visit).

 

The first important consideration, of course, was how many shirts to pack, given that we were also visiting a field station for a quick post-conference collecting trip at the end. One shirt per day, surely? Invest in a travel iron?

 

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Apparently real travellers (i.e. Natalie) carry three shirts at most, washing them daily in rainwater, and are prepared to make new clothes from abandoned sacking and banana leaves. I am not a real traveller.

 

What happens at a wasp conference?

 

Andy presented a new, interactive key for identification of Hymenoptera families that his intern, Miriam Gurpegui, had created. Natalie Dale-Skey presented a poster on the wonders of our chalcid collection. And I gave a presentation on the importance of reliable data when trying to interpret distributions of parasitoid wasps; basically, mistrust all the data and most of the identifications. It’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine at the moment.

 

I talked about the potential for using museum collections and light traps for quantifying changes in the distribution of British ichneumonid wasps, concentrating on nocturnal Ophion and Netelia species, with an example shown in the maps below. But most of the specimens have been misidentified in the past, and almost none of the literature can be trusted, so it is hard work interpreting whether or not big apparent changes in range are real. I also pointed out some examples of spurious results in published studies that are based on rubbish published data. As scientists we need to be aware of bias in our data.

 

Ophion_mocsaryi_maps.jpgThe first distribution maps for a British Ophion (an ichneumon wasp); pre-and post-2004. Real range expansion or just better recording?

 

In the session that I chaired, I forgot only one speaker, so it was really quite a success. And we were able to fit him in at the end of the day anyway.

 

So what’s going on in the world of wasps? Big data are big. We saw a phylogeny - the evolutionary development and history of a group of organisms - constructed from 30,000 genes. There are new approaches to phylogenomics that should allow us to sequence thousands of genes even from relatively old, pinned specimens.

 

But taxonomy, ecology and morphological phylogenetics are all still active fields. Some of my highlights were a presentation on the manipulation of spider behaviour by ichneumonid parasitoids and some innovative methods of examining fossil Hymenoptera – yes, fossilised wasps, bees, ants and sawflies. The student presentations were of uniformly great quality, which put the rest of us to shame.

 

Conference chums

 

New collaborations were forged, often over coffee and cakes (we all put on weight), and of course over beer in the evenings. The altitude (Cusco is at 3,500m) discouraged some of the wilder over-indulgence (at least at first) but we couldn’t resist cocktails in the wildly inappropriate ‘Era Caos’, a ‘disco lounge bar’, apparently the disco cousin of A Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milk Bar.


Era_caos.JPGEsteemed hymenopterists in their natural setting - Cusco's finest DiscoLoungeBar, shortly before being moved to another, even stranger room, to make way for people in suits, with more money.

 

For me, one of the highlights was meeting people I’d corresponded with and assisted. There was a large Brazilian contingent, testament to the funding for taxonomy in Brazil and the enthusiasm for working on their incredibly rich fauna.

 

Natural History Museum highlights

 

Other highlights for the Museum were John Noyes receiving (in his absence) the society’s distinguished research award for his decades of work on the Universal Chalcid Database and prolific taxonomic output, and Andy was voted president-elect of the society, taking over in two years’ time.

 

Bull’s testicles proved not to be a culinary highlight.

 

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Curator of Hymenoptera in Stockholm, Hege Vårdal, and Gavin are the envy of the other hymenopterists, with their big plate of bull's balls. The perspective is correct: the glasses of Chicha were unfeasibly large (photo courtesy of Kazuhiko Konishi).

 

Guinea pig also proved unpopular but Alpaca was a hit. Pisco sours were even more popular. I think everybody was sick of pan pipes after about ten minutes.

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Hymenopterists getting sunburnt.


 

An excursion day allowed some of us to add a few nice birds to our lists. Giant Hummingbird was, indeed, big. For a hummingbird.


Time for a wasp hunt


 

Of the several post-conference collecting options, we headed off to the Wayqecha research station, in the cloud forest of the Kosñipata Valley. Mainly because ‘cloud forest’ sounded rather cool. It was indeed cool, in both senses of the word. Nights were very chilly and collecting was fitful as clouds and rain drifted in and out of the valley.

 

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Clouds rolling in, Kosñipata Valley.

 

We were treated to Hooded Mountain-tanagers eating fruit above our heads and Amethyst-throated Sunangels (hummingbirds again) zipping around. When the sun did shine the wasps were flying and we managed a fairly good haul. At least for Natalie and I, this was our first experience of live Eucharitidae. These are strange chalcid parasitoids of ant larvae. Elegant but bumbling, an undescribed Orasema species is common at Wayqecha.

 

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Lovely, bumbling male of an undescribed Orasema sp. (Hymenoptera: Eucharitidae) (photo courtesy of Miles Zhang).

 

John Heraty and his students had managed to find its host on the first night there, partly through the ingenious deployment of cookie crumbs, but mainly through luckily uprooting some vegetation, revealing an ant nest with eucharitid pupae.

 

Most excitingly, there is a canopy walkway, a rather wobbly affair taking you through the tree-tops at the level of the bromeliads and orchids. Leaning over the edge and tapping the vegetation over a net caught me about five Hymenoptera but obviously had to be done for the heroics.

 

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Thrilling canopy walkway at Wayqecha.


collecting.jpg Collecting (ineffectively) from the walkway (photo courtesy of Miles Zhang).


 

What do we gain from a conference like this? Specimens, obviously, although not all that many, from three days’ collecting. Much more importantly, we get to network, get involved in grant applications, spread the word about the work we do at the Natural History Museum, hear what exciting work is being carried out elsewhere, make friends, taste strange foods and feel like an appreciated part of a vibrant community of researchers, in a refreshing break from work. Now to put the renewed enthusiasm in to practice, back in London. After coffee. Or tomorrow.

 

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Light-trapping at Wayqecha.

 

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And saying goodbye (reluctantly) to Wayqecha (photo courtesy of Miles Zhang).

3

So I am interrupting the Peruvian blog instalments for an exciting little group of flies. One of my colleagues - Hillery Warner - left this on my desk the other day. She works many floors above me on the mantid collection and whilst recurating that collection this little critter was discovered.

 

At first she thought it may have just been some ‘crud’ (my technical term), but very quickly realised what it was (after all, we are the Natural History Museum and can spot and describe insects from 100 yards – we're more likely to walk into walls etc than the average person but nevertheless very good at the little things) .

 

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Can you see it? Upon closer inspection I became very excited.

 

Ok here is a close up:

 

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Still nothing? a mutated spider maybe?

 

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The very strange-looking batlice fly.

 

The family of flies that I am writing about are the Nycteribiidae – the batlice flies. These are some of the oddest looking flies that you will come across. For a start they are wingless – and no they are not therefore referred to as walks… But we do know that they are flies as they have retained their halteres (balancing organs). Their weird body shape is because all of their wing muscles have atrophied – they have completely dissolved away resulting in an incredibly small thorax.

 

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The batlice fly has an extremely small thorax.

 

So the head and legs are basically dorsal insertions of the thorax – they stick out of the top of the fly rather than at the side which is the more usual way. It is really difficult to work out which way is up as the head does not resemble anything that you are used to.

 

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The head is the hairy ovoid structure inserted after the 2 front legs and is conspicuously small with either no eyes or very small ones.

And just look at their legs – amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats. Their tarsal segments are completely bendy with huge claws.

 

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Their legs are amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats.

 

Here is a lovely description of them from Metafysica:

The upper surface of the thorax is little more than a framework of hard chitin, joined together with large areas of soft membrane, and the head is a grotesque structure apparently sitting on top of the thorax. Indeed, any one seeing a Nycteribiid for the first time is likely to mistake the under surface for the upper, and fail to find the head at all!  The eyes are greatly reduced, and may be absent altogether. When they are present they are quite unlike those of other adult flies, being either a single, round facet, or two little lenses on a black mount.

 

These things are only on average 5mm but adaptation to their environment is what it is all about. So batlice flies, as the name suggests, live on bats – they are ectoparasites (living externally on the host) and feed exclusively on their blood (both the male and female flies). Every five days they take in their own body weight in blood. Little and often is definitely their motto.

 

What is odd about the specimen that appeared on my desk is that it came off a mantid – one could only presume that it was using the mantid for transport (phoresis) but that leads to the next question of where was the mantid? Was it hanging around caves etc? Very puzzling.

 

Globally there are 274 described species. Most of them are found in the old world tropics although there are species in the Neotropics and Europe. Upon researching this group most of the species that have recently been described are from South America although this is probably a reflection on how many dipterists live in South America rather than it suddenly being species rich.

 

SUBFAMILY

GENERA

DISTRIBUTION

HOST

Archinycteribiinae

Archinycteribia

Malaysia - Bismark

Megachiroptera

Cyclopodiinae

Cyclopodia>

Paleotropical

Megachiroptera

 

Dipseliopoda

 

Eucampsipoda

 

Leptocyclopodia

Nycteribiinae

Basilia

Worldwide

Microchiroptera

 

Hershkovitzia

 

Nycteribia

 

Penicillidia

 

Phthiridium

 

Stereomyia

 

Now within Europe we only have 13 of these crazy little things, but that drops to just 3 in the British Isles.

 

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There we go - the British pinned collection of batlice flies.


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The world pinned collection does not look that much better…

 

So I think that you may be able to work out from this that most of the collection is not pinned. Some have been nicely pinned (as pictured) but most of the time they are just mangled legs on a pin.

 

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Most of our collection of batlice flies is either preserved as slide material or spirit material.

 

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The slide material is of much higher quality than the pinned and you can see some very clear features – check out the shoulder pads on this one.

 

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This is the bulk of our collection – the spirit material. In the collection we have 235 species listed in the catalogue – which is excellent!

 

Now below is the page on batlice flies from the Dipterists Forum:

 

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Which leads me onto the very exciting larval stage – ahhh maggots – once more back into familiar territory. Now batlice flies, along with the rest of the Hippoboscoidea (the superfamily which includes this family and about 4 others – I say about as there is some dispute..), do not lay eggs. In fact, they are much more like mini-mammals (ok so I am stretching that one a bit). In fact they have a specific larval development referred to as Adenotrophic (gland-fed) viviparity (live birth).

 

All of the larval stages (of which this family has three) occur within a genital chamber. When they say there is very little parental care we can name hundreds of species within Diptera that do so. I know that I may come across as biased at times but flies really are the only species that you ever need to study. The head of the larva is enclosed in the anterior part of the uterus and receives nourishment from these milk glands.

 

The females leave the bat host when they are about to give birth (as it were). She crawls onto the wall of the cave and the pre-pupal stage emerges. This is an incredibly short stage as the larva pupate within hours. Now there are some great larval body adaptations to help this wee one stick to the cave wall. They are hemi ovoid – and have sticky secretions which are also helped by a narrow marginal skirt (see diagram below).

 

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The movement of the pre-pual stage ensures that it has an airtight seal. But – BUT -  just to make sure the female backs over it and presses down on it with her body! Incredible. If anyone has a film that I could see of that I would be forever in your debt! What a fantastically odd family.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Learning all about yellow pan traps.

 

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

 

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Here's home for eight weeks!

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

Report on the training of Panamanian field assistants

By Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Monkey?!


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Orthoptera?


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Electrical tape saves the day!


Funny note:

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

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Sorry folks – my fault on the delay. Five million visitors and a conference have waylaid me in posting this! Worth the wait though…here's the next installment from my partner Dave, who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year.

 

Day 3: San Benito to Cajamarca

 

Another early start. As the mountains began to blush with colour, we (I) loaded up the van with samples and sweepers and the ubiquitous “Fanny” trout and tomato sandwich materials. The idea was to get to Cajamarca, 150km away, by the end of the day. It is the main town in the region, and the only road for us was over a mountain pass some 50km away and then down by a similarly circuitous route. In all, some 150km away, which sounds a doddle, but by now I had an inkling what 150K would be like up here.

 

Erica here - just thought I would interupt at this point. On the previous trip Dave decided to track our movements. We had to travel 100km in a day and he informed us that Google said that this would take maybe two hours...10 hours later...

 

With the van wrapped, packed and strapped, we lurched once more upward on the dusty track in the cool morning air. Our pace was slow, all the better to spot more of the introverted nightshade family. Our first landmark was a village called Guzmango, where we might have stayed in had we made better progress the previous day. It looked close on a map, but it was also above us by some stretch – mile upon mile of precipitous mountain track with yawning roadside drops. I enjoyed this very much. Erica enjoyed it less – Erica’s happier when she’s driving, but seems to be quite a nervous passenger, even if my driving is impeccable.

 

Erica - ...

 

The scenery became more and more spectacular – much more like the prior idea I’d had in my head of Peru. We were now above 2,000m, and the vegetation was more varied – still dry, but with pines and deciduous trees dotting well-cultivated land. San Benito was far below us.

 

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Driving up into the moutains, with San Benito far below us.

 

As the road rose and we turned yet another hairpin bend, Sandy called for a stop – she’d spotted something. There was a good clump of Solanum habrochaites, the wild tomato we saw yesterday with its distinctive yellow flowers, nestled in the shady bend. I parked the beast, and the science people took up their weapons of choice, while I padded about enjoying the breathtaking views, taking field notes and observing the cows. Cows mean faeces and faeces means flies. I was learning.

 

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Erica and the team searching for specimens by the roadside.

 

Sandy interrupted my reverie with a job – collecting the seeds for DNA sequencing from another Solanaceae species – possibly a S. neorickii  – she had spotted on the verge. This was a wild relative of tobacco. Like many of the Solanum genus, it appears to like disturbed ground, and these plants were clinging to a road cutting. It has sticky ova protecting hundreds of tiny seeds. I collected a small handful, feeling pleased with myself, until Segundo revealed his fistful.

 

Meanwhile Erica and Evelyn flapped about filling flasks and baggies full of lovely winged beasties of every description – already enough for several hours’ pinning. We were ready to get a wiggle on, but all hopes of further progress were abandoned when Erica spied a lonely Bombyliid (beefly) minding its business on a roadside leaf. An excited Erica stalked clumsily upon it through the treacherous underbrush, I felt it polite to point out that there were clouds of them in the air above her head.

 

Erica - I would like to have thought as myself as an elegant creature of the countryside...

 

As Erica’s knickers eventually become untwisted, she was able to explain that this was a rather exciting beefly mating display. Other minibeasts flitted about in jubilant swarms enjoying the early sunshine, including a very handsome black bumble bee displaying unusual hovering behaviour.

 

No matter: all were swept into the nets with gruesome efficiency and inhaled into the killing jars. Many of the unfortunate beeflies were rewarded for their display with a dose of deadly ethyl acetate. Science is a cruel mistress.

 

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Animals obstacles on the dirt roads.

 

Eventually we were able to make further (slow) progress, every lurch of the truck met with protest, as I swerved goats and pigs and ambitious wheelchasing mutts, all the while stopping for samples along the way. We picked up more Solanaceae of various description, and an interesting purple Iochroma.

 

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A purple Iochroma found at the side of the road.

 

Our last morning stop was off the main “highway” and down an even narrower mud track, where I had to drop the crew off and keep driving in order to find a place to turn round. I don’t know how Segundo finds these sites, but you can bet we wouldn’t have without him. It was in the lee of a hill, facing a fantastic valley full of cornfields and grassland, some crops perched at seemingly impossible angles on the side of mountains. Here oxen will beat your tractor any day in a ploughing competition.

 

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We made slow progress along hillside tracks.

 

I noticed there were quite a few gum trees prevalent in the area. As they aren’t native I couldn’t fathom what they were doing up here, but Sandy says they were planted for firewood – quick growing and very flammable. I could have worked that out if I’d tried. Altitude?

 

We reached the top of the pass about noon. Time for a sandwich stop, and for me to properly take in the views at the top of the mountain. Some steps had been carved into the hillside where vegetables were growing. I ventured up, and soon started to feel how the altitude – about 3,400m – was indeed affecting my progress. Everything seemed a little a bit harder.

 

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After a climb up the hillside the effects of high altitude were more obvious than ever.

 

The steps began to peter out. Then they disappeared into a maelstrom of brambles. But as I reached the brow of the hill a hint of a way seemed to reveal itself. I followed it for a few metres, scratching the hell out of my legs then vaulted an ancient wall at the top to reveal a grassy oasis at the summit, surrounded by an unforgettable panorama.

 

Worth the effort. Driving, you don’t always get to appreciate the view until you stop.

 

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View from the top - well worth the climb.

 

Now it was a bumpy, dusty ride mostly downhill all the way to Cajamarca, still some way off.

 

I was expecting a smallish town, but it’s a sizeable settlement with some style – it has a lovely cathedral and church either side of a spacious Plaza de Armas, and atmospheric, narrow streets lined with colourful colonial mansions where campesinos in traditional dress mix comfortably with sharp-suited 9-5ers. Also, plenty of cheese shops. I found it bizarre that we reached such a place by dirt track.

 

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Cajamarca, our next stop.


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Beautiful old buildings in Cajamarca.

 

We checked into our hostel dead beat, dusty and desirous of a beer, but we’d had a good day and a terrific haul.

 

Erica - it was a great haul. Today (20 August) - all the material that I and evelyn collected and put into ethanol every night has only just been sorted into Order Level (beetles, bugs, flies etc)...As Dave comes to the end of the journey I may have some results to tell you about the amazing insects we found. Till next time!

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Guest post by Daisy Cunynghame

 

Much is known about the Museum's work and contribution to the efforts of the Second World War. One of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) workshops was even housed in the Museum, where new weapons, explosives and sabotage techniques were invented and developed by the British war organisation. But less is known about the contributions made in the First World War - both by individuals and as a Museum collective.

 

The Museum made important contributions to the war effort in a wide range of areas - supplying departmental expertise, furthering public education, providing public services and, of course, undertaking military service. The work helped solve many practical day-to-day problems, as well as developing innovations that aided in military strategy. Often the solutions found or attempted were ingenious and imaginative.

 

A number of Museum workers volunteered for military service, although casualties were inevitable and 13 were killed. Supplying men for the British Expeditionary Force was obviously one important facet of the Museum's role in the war, but there were many others. Some people translated German reports and correspondence. A number of scientists used their contacts on the continent to distribute propaganda, including The Manifesto of the Intellectuals and Gee! I Wish I Were a Man. The Museum also provided British prisoners of war with scientific publications for a little light reading.

 

There were several war-related projects and exhibitions at the Museum for the soldiers and the general public. A war farm was built at the eastern end of the grounds, which was tended by wounded soldiers as well as staff. The Museum was kept open to the public throughout the war, to provide an escape for convalescing solders and to educate the public on important matters related to the war effort.

 

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Staff and convalescent soldiers, pictured in 1917, tend the 'war farm' at the eastern end of the Museum's grounds.

 

Special exhibitions included managing wartime allotments, dealing with infestations of various bugs, and how to prevent the killing of carrier pigeons by differentiation from the feral type.

 

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A Museum display, ca. 1918, of carrier pigeons like those that saved lives by relaying messages from downed pilots or disabled ships during WWI.

 

The Entomology Department's part in the war effort was very important, having direct effects on the health of soldiers, food supplies and military operations. Work was done to find solutions to tick- and mite-related damage - on humans, army horses and food supplies. Additionally, important research was undertaken on how to protect the envelopes of air ships from attacks by insects, how to minimise the impact of mosquitoes and scabies on soldiers in the trenches and mites attacking food stores, and how to protect telephone and telegraph cables in the tropics.

 

Our armies in Egypt sent many enquiries to the Zoology Department, most of them relating to flat-worms, snails and the like, from a perspective of disease, food supply, water supply and commerce. Zoology contributed important work in other areas as well, including the use of crustaceans to determine the age of wrecks when examining sunken submarines, and an ambitious study on the use of gulls to locate enemy submarines. Gulls were successfully trained to identify submerged submarines by circling above them - although teaching them to distinguish between a 'Fritz' and a 'Tommy' sub proved less successful. While this particular study did not produce the desired result, it is a great example of just how creative Museum scientists were during the war.

 

The Botany Department gave advice to the military on topics such as the use of moss for surgical dressings, suitable food for humans and horses in foreign climes, and seaweeds and fungi safe for human consumption. Other areas of guidance included camouflaging weapons, the right timber to use for airplanes and air ships to avoid issues with insects and fungi, and how to prevent tents from being destroyed by fungi.

 

The Geology Department provided advice on where to drill for water and mine, based on fossil specimens. But perhaps their most important work was in relation to the battlegrounds themselves, where they gave information and guidance on the geology of the Italian and Belgian fronts. In addition, the department played a key role in finding a way to build and maintain cement platforms in salt water for the docking of naval vessels.

 

The staff in the Museum played an important role in the war effort, but the specimens themselves also proved invaluable. External visitors used the collections for a variety of ends. Mineralogy specimens were used to study the make-up of German trench cement and Austrian steel components, while overseas governments examined entomological collections to identify pests and insects of potential economic significance.

 

This, of course, is just a small sample of the extensive impact of the Museum's staff and collections on the war effort. Owing to the ingenuity and dedication of individuals, as well as the value of the collections for a myriad of purposes, the Natural History Museum can rightly claim to have played an integral part during WWI.

 

Further WWI posts:


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A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Rachel Clark writes about their final day in the field.


25 July 2014

 

Today was the last day of sampling and we all loved it! Unfortunately Sara had to leave today, so we took the final photograph of us all together before we set off for sampling.

 

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All of us looking a little more tanned than when we arrived. Front row (left to right): Jan, Ryan, Fez, Georgie and Sara. Back row (left to right): Rachel, Thomas, George, Miranda and Beau.

 

Every evening this week we've been preparing the specimens we collected back at the field centre, and it's fiddly work!

 

The new age of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

 

Some of the specimens collected during our fieldwork are destined for the Museum’s new Molecular Collections Facility (MRF), where they will be stored in liquid nitrogen at −150 °C to form a collection that can be used by scientists worldwide who want to study the DNA and other cellular contents of the species in question.

 

Over three evenings, after our lovely cooked meal served by Shaun from the FSC, two groups of four carefully collected tissue samples from freshly killed specimens.

 

The sample tissue (often the legs) were put into special small plastic vials then placed into liquid nitrogen vapour in a dry shipper, which freezes and preserves them.

 

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Left: the small vials which contain tissue samples. Right: a dry shipper with nitrogen vapour inside.

 

In total we spent 49.5 person-hours over three days preparing the samples from 220 specimens, each sample taking on average 14 minutes to process. We tried to ensure that we only collected a maximum of two of each species - all being larger invertebrates (flies, grasshoppers, wasps, spiders etc).

 

Our last site!

 

While some enjoyed sweeping, pootering and collecting butterflies, two of us (Miranda and I) went in search for a new site on the lake to put down yellow pan traps. We ended up on the edge of Slapton village - a four-mile round trip!

 

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The large, miles-long Slapton Ley!

 

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The beautiful walkway created by the FSC, which runs through the swamp fen in the south grounds of the Nature Reserve.

 

We did get some amazing views and got to sample right in the middle of Slapton’s Swamp Fen, which is something we would not have achieved! The photograph above shows just how big the Ley is: miles!

 

Our last Supper


In the evening we headed off to our last dinner together before we packed up to head home. This was held in the main FSC centre in Slapton.

We would like to say a massive thank you for the staff that looked after our stomachs during our time in Slapton, and particularly Shaun who was there every day serving us breakfast and dinner!

 

Thank you for reading - I hope you have enjoyed our blogging!

Rachel

 

Goodbye beautiful Slapton!

 

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The sun setting over Devon, from the field across from our base, Start Bay Centre.