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 I talked about the transferring of specimens from outdated or transitory drawers into new, more permanent drawers, and of the amalgamation of the old Museum’s collections with newly acquired material, with particular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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Another hymenoptera look alike is Hemaris fuciformis.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Pseudandriasa mutata is a rather atypical sphingid

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Another master of disguise is Phylloxiphia oberthueri.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And now, the history bit...

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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The Main Collection.

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

 

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The Supplementary Collection.

 

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

 

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The Accession Collection.

 

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

 

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The British & Irish Collection.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


Thanks for reading.

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LIFE SCIENCES DEPARTMENT SEMINAR

 

 

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Taxonomic background information is essential for bee conservation

 

Denis Michez

Laboratory of Zoology,  University of Mons,  Belgium

 

Friday 31 of January 11:00

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


Bees are a monophyletic group of largely pollenivorous species derived from among the predatory apoid wasps. Their extant diversity is estimated to be about 20.000 species worldwide, with 2000 species known from Europe. Many European bee species are in strong decline and several working groups are currently analyzing potential drivers of range contraction. Here I would like to address the importance of clear taxonomic background information to correctly characterize bee decline and to develop a conservation program at global scale.

 

 

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

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Once again I have given up the blog to a worthy lady who is also a volunteer for me - Jasmin Perera. Here is her account of our recent trip to the Isles of Scilly -  Cornwall's detachable toes!

 

Isles of Scilly 2013


Greetings! I am one of the many volunteers at the Museum working for Erica McAlister in the diptera section, and recently I got a fantastic opportunity to travel along with her and some of the other curators to the Isles of Scilly! (p.s Thank you Erica for involving me in this project)

 

The aim of the trip was to gather up-to-date information on the flora and fauna populating the islands by collecting as many specimens as possible. This information will be useful in so many ways and will hopefully provide us with a better understanding of how the environment around us is changing.

 

I was not just working alongside the dipterists but also with lepidopterists, botanists and hymenopterists, to name but a few. And so in the process I learnt about many different methods of collecting.

 

Day 1 – Settling in


Disembarking the ferry at St Mary’s Island we were greeted by Mark Spencer (a Museum botanist specialising in British Flora) who had arrived a couple days before us. He was the main organiser for the trip and with much excitement he led us to our unusual home for the week.

 

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Home sweet home – The Woolpack.

 

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Residents of the Woolpack included this baby swallow.

 

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Wonderful cup-of-tea views from the top of the bunker. Needless to say, lots of teas were made!

 

We had the privilege of staying in a world war bunker, named the Woolpack. Built in the early 1900s the bunker has had many residents from soldiers to vagrants, but is currently in the care of the Scilly Isles Wildlife Trust. And for one week it was home to a group of keen Museum staff and volunteers!

 

Day 2 – An early Christmas and majestic elms


On the first morning Martin Honey (lepidopterist) retrieved his light trap which he had placed outside of the Woolpack on the previous evening. The light trap consisted of a large round container filled with carefully arranged empty egg cartons and a very bright light bulb on top. A couple of us huddled around him as he revealed what treasures were hidden in the crevices of the cartons. It felt like unwrapping presents at Christmas!

 

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Image of a very unfocused Ruby Tiger, Phragmatobia fuliginosa.  In the background is the light trap, Martin’s leg and a male Four Spotted Footman, Lithosia quadra (in egg carton).


Martin was able to identify many of the specimens on site and explained that he follows a code while collecting;  He will only collect what is needed for scientific purpose and the remaining moths that can be readily identified are set free in dense vegetation near their place of capture. The last bit is especially important as it gives them a fighting chance (to not become a birds breakfast!).

 

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Diverting off the footpath and into the elm wilderness - Holy Vale Nature Trail.

 

Now it was my turn - armed with my net and pooter, I went along with a fellow dipterist Zoe Adams and a Hymenopterist, Natalie Dale-Skey, to find some insects! We spent our first day exploring on St Mary’s Island, the main island. St Mary’s is one of the few places left in the UK where you can find mature elm trees after the devastating Dutch elm disease in the late 20th century wiped out most of the mainland UK population.

 

I felt very fortunate to be amongst these majestic trees whilst collecting on the Holy Vale Nature Trail. And more excitingly there were plenty of hoverflies in areas where the sun had broken through the trees’ high canopy, and crane flies in the lower vegetation. I also managed to catch a few Ichnumonids along the way.

 

Day 3 – Pelistry Bay


During the morning I wandered with Erica along Pelistry Bay, also on St Mary’s,  to get some sweep samples by the coast.

 

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Pelistry Bay – Bladderrack kingdom.

 

Walking on rocks covered in slippery bladderwrack seaweed, I soon realised my balance needed to be in sync with my sweeping and pootering action.

 

Day 4 – The Eastern Isles


Today we were very lucky as a few of us had the opportunity to visit the uninhabited Eastern Isles. Accompanied by the warden for the Wildlife Trust we sailed to Ganilly Island, which is filled with curious bees and beautiful landscapes. Trying to sweep proved tricky on the grassy areas due to the hundreds of solitary bees buzzing around my legs. I wish I had taken a picture of them as several sat sleepily inside the net refusing to leave.

 

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View from Ganilly Island.

 

Erica and I ended up on a rocky shore hunting for Asilids to the chorus of singing seals. Asilids are speedy little predators but Erica was a font of helpful tips when it came to catching these stealthy mini beasts: In order to catch one, you require a lot of patience! 

 

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Asilidae caught from West Porth Beach, Great Ganilly.

 

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Erica in a Fern jungle! On our way to Nornour island (in the background).

 

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Seals welcomed us to the Eastern Isles.

 

And so the waiting game began. Whilst being entertained by the song of a distant seal, Erica and I sat quite still on opposite rocks. Asilids wait for a fair while on a rock until a potential prey appears. Once one was spotted, we held our nets close to the ground, and crept towards it. When the Asilid is within ‘net range’, we lunged at the flies thrusting the net down over the individual. To my dismay, I need more practise but it was great watching Erica at work!

 

Day 5 – Ruby Cow Dung


On an overcast day we decided to stay close to bay and seek out the beautiful Ruby Cows that are being bred on St Mary’s island. The ‘Scilly’ cows are curious creatures and they watched and followed us swooping our nets and pootering flies within their enclosure.

 

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‘Peculiar human’.

 

However, it was not the cows we were interested in but their poo! We huddled around a fresh piece and watched male sepsid flies fluttering their wings in hope of attracting a mate. We were also hoping to see some Scathophagid flies mate. This is a far more barbaric ordeal compared to the Sepsidae as the female often gets ripped to shreds from a bombardment of eager males.

 

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Erica capturing the moment.

 

Each day ended around the dinner table, where people took turns to cook. We used a lot of local produce and any edible plants growing nearby like Rock Samphire (as sourced by Mark). It was a perfect time to find out what everyone had been up to and wind down for the night. One of the rooms in the bunker was converted temporarily into a lab and the ping-pong table in there did a good job as an insect pinning area!

 

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Behold: pinning area. I spent the evenings here perfecting the art of spreading out the wings and legs of tiny flies.

 

In summary this was a valuable and enjoyable fieldtrip in the most amazing location. With my specimens pinned I left feeling inspired and raring to go on another one! (hint, hint, Erica!)

 

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Our field trip was even documented by a film crew!

 

Watch the Isles of Scilly fieldwork video to see more of our trip.

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So let me tell you about my last bit of work experience - if you've already been enjoying Beulah Garner's Beetle blog, you'll know that recently she and her fellow coleopterists went on a trip to Borneo. For the sake of completeness, I should point out that the Borneo team for the trip also had a lepidopterist on board. And that was me! Hence, in the company of three beetle zealots that go by the name of Beulah the blaps, Max the Macrodonta and Howard the Temerarious, I thought I’d be up for a challenging field work experience.

 

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Alessandro, Max, Howard, and Beulah socializing and relaxing in Kota Kinabalu, before the hard work begins.

 

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Despite being a moth curator, I can’t resist showing a picture portraying myself with a beautiful newly emerged Troides amphrysus, a papilionid butterfly.


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And here I am again, this time face to face with a handsome hawkmoth (Daphnis hypothous).

 

Once in the field the four of us did a great deal of sniffing, inspecting and probing, trying to ascertain each others’ intentions; and after our exigencies and flaws had been determined we recognized where each of us stood and accepted our echelons.

 

And so began our fieldwork experience which, apart from the rare squabbles caused by blunt episodes of trespassing in our private boundaries, turned out to be a rather successful one. After all we were there with a common aim that could have only been achieved with a team effort and we certainly had the enthusiasm to go with it.

 

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Our first supper at the camp. Little did we know that from that day onwards, rice was to be the fundamental ingredient of all our meals, breakfast included…not to mention the questionable rice wine.

 

The aim of this trip was to collect insects from an area near the western edge of the Crocker Range, in the Sabah region of Borneo, an area not well represented in our Museum collections; all in order to expand our knowledge of the world’s biodiversity.

 

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Our base was at ca. 1,200 metres above sea level and we had amazing views of the surrounding valleys and mountains.

 

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Further in the distance the impressive 4,095 metre high Mount Kinabalu seemed to keep a constant vigil on our camp.

 

Different sampling methods are used to collect different groups of insects, and during this trip we employed a good range of them. We set up 7 malaise traps and 7 flight interceptor traps (FIT) in selected sites of the forest around the camp, to collect flying insects such as beetles, flies and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps).

 

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Putting up flight interceptor and malaise traps, and digging for victory (or was it for dung traps?).

 

We gathered leaf litter, dead wood and other organic material, such as figs, Asplenium ferns and bracket fungi, and sampled them separately in Winkler bags or by hand; we filled buckets with rotting fish, fermented fruits and dung (I won't tell you whose it was) to attract beetles and other unfussy insects. We regularly went for long walks in nearby areas to collect insects by sweeping with nets.

 

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On one of our long walks collecting insects by netting. We were often also sampling for insects in different types of organic material.

 

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Some days the field work was so exhausting that even the experienced and indefatigable amongst us had to take a nap.

 

And as if that wasn’t enough, every day after having being mesmerized by yet another magnificent and unique sunset, we would turn on our light traps (4 of them to be precise) and spend hours checking each of them in turn, collecting whatever we thought was worth recording.

 

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Every evening the sky and landscape around the camp would become the backdrop to breathtaking and exclusive sunsets.

 

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Can photographing sunsets every evening, have disturbing consequences on people’s size? 

 

Sorry if I haven’t talked much about lepidopterans in this post, but I thought it was important to give a little introduction before getting down to business. So if you enjoyed reading this make sure you don’t miss my next entry where I will actually feature some lepidopterans and talk about catching moths in Borneo.

 

But ... just to wet your appetite...

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Large - and beautiful - Atlas moths were regular visitors at our moth traps. This is Archaeoattacus staudingeri, a relative of the more common Attacus atlas, found in Borneo and other areas of the Sundaland region.

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Michael Kuhlmann and colleagues have put the beta version of the “Checklist of Western Palaearctic Bees” online (http://westpalbees.myspecies.info) using the NHM-developed Scratchpads as a platform.

 

Bees are the most important pollinators worldwide and the checklist provides access to taxonomic information and distribution data on country level to about 3350 bee species in 102 genera in the western Palaearctic region, with almost 2000 species recorded for Europe alone. The site contains regularly updated information from both published and unpublished sources including data from a whole range of private and public collections that are provided by European wild bee experts. The checklist reflects the current state of knowledge on the taxonomy and distribution of western Palaearctic bees, making it a prime source of information not only for taxonomists but also ecologists and agricultural scientists.

 

The checklist project started in 2008 and it quickly became clear that taxonomic expertise is globally lacking for several genera and that this gap is likely to grow quickly due to the progressive ageing of the community of bee taxonomists . The places most heavily affected by the loss of taxonomic knowledge are the “hotspots” of species diversity and endemism around the Mediterranean, in Turkey and the Middle East. Unfortunately, these are the areas that are most likely to be heavily affected by climate and landscape change. For this reason it seems possible that most of the predicted changes and losses of unique fauna will go unnoticed.

 

IMG_0579.jpgBombus (Pyrobombus) pratorum, the early bumblebee on Pentaglottis sempervirens

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There are several ways to sample insects and other invertebrates and the Quantitative Inventory (QI) team are using six of them! The QI team is visiting three different areas of lowland tropical rainforest during this visit to Sabah and we will be sampling in Danum Valley Conservation Area, the SAFE project area and in Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

 

Both Danum and Maliau are old growth (primary) forest reserves and are good examples of lowland tropical forest. We will be able to compare the invertebrates we find in these two reserves and discover how many species they have in common and how many are unique to one reserve or the other.

 

Bridge into the forestA river in the forest

(Click images to see them full sized)

 

By doing this we will be able to tell how many reserves are necessary to conserve all of the diversity found in tropical rainforests. If the reserves have exactly the same species then only one is necessary. But if they have completely different species then two reserves are necessary to retain all of the diversity. Obviously, this is only true for the species we are sampling and this may not be the case for a wide range of other species, e.g. birds, plants, reptiles and so on.

 

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The SAFE project is rather different. This is an area of forest that has already been logged. Much of the forest here is due to be cut down to make way for oil palm plantations. However, some fragments of the forest will be left and this will allow scientists to study the impact that fragmentation has on forest areas. We will be sampling in the areas that will be left behind once the logging takes place later this year; we hope to come back in 5 years and repeat our sampling to find out what has happened to the species in these forests during that period.

 

In each of these sites we will be sampling in eight, one hectare plots. In each plot we use six methods to sample insects. Three of our methods are done along a 100 m transect through the middle of the plot. Every 7 m we dig a hole and take out any invertebrates we find in there. Termites, beetle larvae and ants are generally what we find in soil.

 

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We also sieve a square metre of litter every 7 m and hang the resulting sieved litter in a Winkler bag. This contraption dries out the litter and, as it does so, the invertebrates fall out of it and collect in a pot below. We have 75 of these Winkler bags hanging up at Danum! In litter, ants and beetles are the most abundant insects.

 

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Along 50 m of the transect we also sample dead wood. Any dead wood that the transect crosses, we break open and remove any invertebrates we find. Again termites and ants are the most common, but also centipedes and scorpions have been found so far.

 

The other three methods are trapping methods. The first are pitfall traps. These consist of plastic pint glasses buried in the ground so that the opening is flush with the soil surface. Insects run along the ground and fall into the pit. We then come along three days later, empty them out to see what we find. They have been full of ants and cockroaches so far.

 

 

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We also have two types of Malaise traps. One type is put up at ground level and the other is pulled up in to the lower part of the trees. Both of these traps work by having a barrier that insects fly into. The insects then fly upwards into a funnel and eventually into a pot at the top. These traps are excellent at collecting flies and parasitic wasps (Hymenoptera), but also collect beetles.

 

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Using these methods we collect a lot of material. This material will eventually make it back to the Museum in London so that we can begin to sort and identify it.

 

Dan Carpenter

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Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, BorneoThere are three different teams of scientists from across the Life Sciences department of the Museum who have travelled to work in Sabah on our current trip to Borneo. The first team is collecting parasitic wasps (Hymenoptera) and beetles (Coleoptera). The second is sampling freshwater invertebrates. The third (known as the Quantitative Inventory - i.e. QI - team), of which I am a member, is sampling soil and leaf litter invertebrates and lichens.

 

The teams are visiting a number of different areas in Sabah. We will spend the first week in Danum Valley Conservation Area in the east of Sabah. Teams will also visit Maliau Basin Conservation Area, the SAFE project area, the area around Sandakan and the freshwater team will also be visiting ponds and lakes near to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital.

 

The total length of the trip is 6 weeks, but only the QI team will be in Sabah for the entire period.

 

This is an extraordinary opportunity to document the diversity of tropical rainforests and tropical freshwaters.  We will almost certainly discover new species and in some cases as much as 50% of or samples will be species new to science.

 

In later posts I will explain a bit more about what the QI team is doing, the techniques we are using and the sorts of invertebrates we are collecting. So come back soon to find out more.

 

Dan Carpenter

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Monday 14 May

 

The team flies to Kisangani on a Monusco flight provided free by UNESCO

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We took care to follow the detailed instructions for using the on-board facilities…

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Stocking up two weeks’ worth of provisions in Kisangani – mainly sardines and corned beef –

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..and eventually able to locate a source of reasonable quality ethanol (for insect preservation, of course).

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Heading out of Kisangani by road and river to Yangambi

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The first of many ferry crossings – this one was pretty straightforward for our two 4-wheel drive vehicles

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The next was a little more complicated....

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as the video below shows....

 

 

Always lots of interesting people to meet

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Including well-brought-up children helping with the washing-up

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and down the road towards Yangambi

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After a couple of hours we arrive at the WWF Yangambi Forest Reserve Station which is to be our base for the next couple of weeks.

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We meet our cook Michel, who makes such a major difference to our quality of life during our stay at Yangambi with his excellent cooking, especially the local chicken.

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That night Geoff sets out the light sheet with the mercury vapour lamp, and we collect a bumper harvest of all kinds of night-flying insects.

 

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Tuesday 15 May

 

Among the harvest of the previous night’s collecting at light is a remarkable-looking female fig wasp – Agaon sp. (thanks to Simon van Noort, Iziko Museum, Cape Town South Africa for the Identification). Figs (Ficus spp.) live in an obligatory symbiosis with these wasps without which they can’t be fertilised. The intricate biology and interrelationships between the fig species, their pollinating wasps and many obligatory associated species is fascinating and still needs to be unravelled for many species associations.

 

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Wednesday 16 May

 

Geoff and Lorna sort through the wealth of the material already collected, revealing a spectacular mosquito reared by Lorna from larvae collected in a hollow tree trunk. The filthy black water, which Lorna inadvertently managed to swallow while collecting larvae by siphoning up the water, yielded several specimens of this voracious predatory mosquito – a species of Toxorhynchites – also known as the “elephant mosquito”. In order to rear these specimens to adulthood Lorna had to keep them supplied with food in the form of smaller mosquito larvae.

 

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The colourful irridescent scales of Toxorhynchites bring to mind butterfly wing scales – far removed from our usual perception of mosquitoes and their unpleasant associations.

 

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Thursday 17 May

 

Andy rides pillion to the main area of pristine primary forest in the Yangambi Forest Reserve……

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…to set up the Malaise Trap – an interception trap for (mainly) flying insects, ands a series of Yellow Pan Traps – simple water-filled bowls with a little detergent to break the surface tension – attractive to many insects due to the colour resembling young vegetation. Both trapping systems are extremely efficient, low maintenance collecting methods.

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Sorting through the first results of the Malaise Trap and Yellow Pan Traps placed in the forest

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The Yellow Pans yielded the rare ponerine ant Phrynoponera sveni – described from the Congo in 1916 – nearly 100 years ago. These are the first Congolese specimens for the NHM collection

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and the ubiquitous “African stink ant” Pachycondyla tarsata which lived up to its common name.

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When Andy sorted the first Malaise Trap sample he found something that he wasn’t even certain was a beetle, which was identified later by Max Barclay as an aleocharine staphylinid, probably a myrmecophilous species. Any suggestions as to its identity gratefully received (note the unusual reduced tarsi)

 

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– also for the following prionine cerambycid collected at light, which is absent from the NHM collection and has so far defeated more than one international specialist....

 

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Friday 18 May

 

Friday was market day in Yangambi - we saw a lot of interesting things on sale – Lorna successfully bargained for a bag of chilli peppers – “piment” –

 

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which spiced up our regular lunch menu of imported corned beef and local avocado  – a perfect combination (at least according to Geoff).

 

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Saturday 19 – Friday 25 May

 

Getting towards the end of the trip. The last week has been incredibly productive with night-light trapping, yellow pans and Malaise trapping, and screen-sweeping of (mainly) microhymenoptera. We have collected tens of thousands of specimens, many of which will undoubtedly be new to Science, and the majority will be new records for the D.R. Congo, with so many new acquisitions for the NHM. Thanks to our colleagues at UNESCO, WWF and Tervuren Museum, this has been a very successful expedition.

 

Many thanks to the team  ……

 

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…..and au revoir le Congo

 

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Museum entomologists are on their way to Congo to carry out field work. We join them on the first part of their journey:

 

Friday 11 May

4 pm St Pancras to Brussels on the Eurostar. Dinner in picturesque Leuven (Louvaine), home to the Stella Artois factory, and a visit to the famous memorial to badly pinned buprestids that graces the town square:

 

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Click on images to see them full size

 

An excellent evening, with birthday cake for Jurate de Prins. Jurate and husband Willy are lepidopterists, based at Terveuren Museum outside Brussels; the other expedition member Knud Larssen is an amateur lepidopterist from Denmark.

 

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The Congo Carry On Team: l-r Andy Polaszek (UK), Geoff Martin (UK), Jurate de Prins (Lithuania), Knud Larssen (Denmark), Willy de Prins (Belgium), Lorna Culverwell (UK).

 

 

Overnight in Brussels, with an early start for the morning flight to Kinshasa

 

Saturday 12 May

Arrived Kinshasa late afternoon, with a long, dark and bumpy ride to the Meriba Hotel for a much-needed rest in very comfortable conditions.

 

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Sunday 13 May

Geoff and Andy fail miserably to catch dragonflies around the (under construction) swimming pool.

 

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Visiting Kinshasa, sampling excellent local food…

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And back for a 5.00 am start tomorrow for Kisangani.

 

 

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As well as a marauding mass of volunteers….

 

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I also take on work experience students who are in Year 10 (this means nothing to me). I thought that you would like to know what he thinks of it so far....

 

Hey,

 

My name is Elliot Neillands and I am currently doing work experience in the Entomology Department with my supervisor Erica McAlister and one thing I’ve learnt so far from “working” here is that a lot of Entomologists have an un-healthy obsession with genitalia simply mention the word and they get all excited and worked up about how they are going to dye, dissect or scan a poor fly or beetles whatsits. And yet they insist it’s perfectly natural and healthy even to poke about an insect’s nether regions. Although they seem to be perfectly friendly I often wonder if they are actually bordering on the insane. But in all fairness they have been extremely nice despite some scarring conversations involving masking tape.

 

I have actually been doing some pretty interesting things here including sorting a bowl of tiny insect soup from French  Guiana into their groups. I have learnt the proper names for some of the groups including Diptera for flies, Hymenoptera for bees, wasps and ants and lepidoptera for moths and butterflies. I have also learnt how to tell these groups apart using their number of wings and the structure of their body. I had the pleasure of enlightening some students (yes, from uni) about how the bark beetle was attracted to ethanol of which all of the insects were drenched in with the smell leaking onto me (this lead to some vicious look from old ladies’ on the tube.) My next task of the day after writing this is to remove the wings from flies which I find Ironic since that is often in the nature of cruel little children to do, albeit they will be dead when I do it (I think.)

 

I will be here all next week.
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I have titled this blog so as at the moment it really does feel like it! There are virtually no science staff (most are on holiday) but 5 million visitors!! The Museum is exceptionally busy at the moment and the fact that it has not stopped raining has compounded the problem!! The public are queuing around the ice rink!! Just getting through the public galleries is an ordeal!! I feel nicely tucked away in my bay just listening to the few other entomologists typing away . I have been reading papers on the use of museum specimens for DNA analyses and am now itching to get back into the lab and have another go at extracting. We are working on some UK mosquitoes at the moment that were collected from our various fieldtrips this year that have been stored in the freezer to prevent the DNA degrading.


I have spent the morning in the Specimen Preparation area in the Cocoon. I have been waiting to properly get my hands dirty with the material that came from French Guyana and so though that this would be the perfect opportunity. For some reason there are an awful lot of horse flies. Several of us have commented on this fact that when using malaise traps (tent like trap for catching small flying insects) there is always an abundance of them. The speaker system was not working though and I spent a long time scribbling down things for the public. These samples have an abundance of dung beetles, cockroaches, hymenoptera of all sorts, bark beetles and of course my babies! As well as all of the horse flies (and some long tongued ones!) and the robberflies there are also some very pretty soldier flies . I cant decide which is better - knowing that there is loads of new, undescribed species or being able to say what is in there already. It's all terribly exciting - I will calm down soon!

 

I was trying to write down little facts for the public as I sorted. I am not sure that they were happy about some of them. There are the Phorid flies of which some burrow down into coffins whilst others decapitate ants! Then there were the assassin bugs of which some are blood feeders on us! There are the dung beetles where i described my fieldwork of collecting them using various different types of dung....

 

...I will have to change the alcohol that the sample arrived in though as after two hours i was a little bit vacant to say the least!

 

This afternoon i am writing a case study for sampling insects in Costa Rica for a book to be published later on in the year. I have written a draft already but it needs to be more concise. I see an afternoon of red pen!

 

I am preparing myself for the sleepover as well. I have been revising my knowledge of all arthropods that can harm, maim, cause death etc. I will be such a hit at the New Years Eve party I am going to!