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Over the weekend as you may have noticed if you follow my Twitter feeds (@NHM_Brachiopoda and @NHM_Cephalopoda) I have been on the Isle of Wight. We arrived on a very wet afternoon on Friday 8 November.

 

The main reason for our trip was to participate in the Dinosaur Isle Museum's "Blast from the Past" event which gathers local collectors, universities and museums together to talk to the public about palaeontology, fossil collecting and metal detecting.

 

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Me with our display of cephalopods.


Me and my collegues - Dr Martin Munt, Dr Lorna Steel, Dr Christine Stullu-Derrien, Dr Ria Mitchell and Zuzanna Wawrzyniak - had a stall showing the diversity of fossil cephalopods through time and the plant and arthropod fauna of the Rhynie Chert. Lots of people came to talk to us, asking questions about the specimens and bringing their own fossils for us to identify.

 

On Monday Christine came back to the Museum as she's very busy at the moment but the rest of us stayed on the Isle of Wight to do some fieldwork. We wrapped up warm with lots of layers and waterproofs and braved the weather on Yaverland beach near Sandown. I found some dinosaur ribs and a fish vertebra.


When we went up to Dinosaur Isle that is close by for lunch, we realised our waterproofs had failed and we were all utterly soaked so instead of going back out into the dire weather we were invited to visit the Isle of Wight off-site store to have a look at their collections.

 

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Our group on Yaverland beach getting rather wet and windswept.

 

Alex Peaker and Martin New of Dinosaur Isle showed us lots of wonderful fossil plants, dinosaurs and invertebrates while Lorna took the opportuinty to have a look at their fossil crocodiles.

 

On Tuesday the weather was much better and we took a trip to a Pleistocene mammal locality on the east of the island called Saltmead Beach, which is near Newton. Luckily the military firing test zone was not in action that day as we had to cross it in order to get to the beach. After a long walk across a water-logged field and down the beach we finally made it to the site. Lots of bone fragments were found, most likely from bison. These will be passed along to our fossil mammal curator.

 

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Left: Lorna and Zuza looking for Pleistocene bones.

Right: The beach at Saltmead near Newtown.

 

 

After lunch we visited an Eocene site known as the insect limestone. Here there were pieces of the limestone strewn on the beach which you can then break open with a hammer. If you are lucky you may find insects such as ants and beetles or even fossil plant remains. In our case, Zuzanna was the lucky one as she found a lovely beetle that our arthropod curator was very excited to recieve for the collection.

 

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Left: Ria breaking up the limestone. Centre: Looking carefully for tiny insects.

Right: The insect limestone.

 

When we got back to the house Zuzanna started the process of removing the salt from the bison bones we had found. She did this by soaking them in tap water overnight to draw the salt out. In the process, however, a small shore crab emerged from one of the bones! We put it in a tupperware tub (with no lid) with some seaweed from the bone and sea water from the sample bag. In the morning on the way back to the ferry we released him in a suitable pebbly location with seaweed.

 

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Left: The crab we rescued
Right: I'm about to release him!

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It’s Science Uncovered time again beetlers! We can’t wait to show off our beetles to the thousands of you who will be visiting the Natural History Museum on the night. We'll be revealing specimens from our scientific collections hitherto never seen by the public before! Well, maybe on Monday at the TEDx event at the Royal Albert Hall we did reveal a few treasures, including specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, as seen below.

 

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Lucia talking to the audience of TEDx ALbertopolis on Monday 23rd September.

 

lydtedweb.jpgLydia and Beulah spanning 250 years of Museum collections at TEDx Albertopolis.

 

Last year we met with about 8,500 of YOU – so that’s 8,500 more people that now love beetles, right? So, as converts, you may be coming back to see and learn some more about this most speciose and diverse of organisms or you may be a Science Uncovered virgin and no doubt will be heading straight to the beetles (found in the DCII Cocoon Atrium at the Forests Station).


This year the Coleoptera team will be displaying a variety of specimens, from the weird and wonderful to the beetles we simply cannot live without! Here’s what the team will be up to...


Max Barclay, Collections Manager and TEDx speaker
For Science Uncovered I will be talking about the diversity of beetles in the tropical forests of the world. I have spent almost a year of my life in field camps in various countries and continents, and have generally come back with thousands of specimens, including new species, for the collections of the Natural History Museum. I will explain how we preserve and mount specimens, and how collections we make today differ from those made by previous generations.

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Crocker Range, Borneo - it's really hard work in the field...but, co-ordinating one's chair with one's butterfly net adds a certian sophistication.

 

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The Museum encourages its staff to be respectful of and fully integrate with local cultures whilst on fieldwork. Here is Max demonstrating seemless cultural awareness by wearing a Llama print sweater in Peru.

 

I will also talk about the Cetoniine flower chafers collected and described by Alfred Russell Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, and how we recognise Wallace’s material from other contemporary specimens, as well as the similarities and differences between techniques used and the chafers collected in Borneo by Wallace in the 1860s, Bryant in the 1910s, and expeditions of ourselves and our colleagues in the 2000s.

 

Lydia Smith and Lucia Chmurova, Specimen Mounters and trainee acrobats
As part of the forest section at Science Uncovered this year we are going to have a table centred on the diversity of life that you may see and hear in tropical forests. Scientists at the Natural History Museum are regularly venturing out to remote locations around the world in search of new specimens for its ever expanding collection.

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L&L acrobatic team on an undergraduate trip to Borneo with Plymouth University.


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Maliau Basin, Borneo: Lucia injects some colour into an otherwise pedestrian flight interception trap

 

We will be displaying some of the traps used to catch insects (and most importantly beetles!) along with showing some specimens recently collected. We will also have a sound game where you can try your luck at guessing what noises go with what forest creatures. Good luck and we look forward to seeing you!

 

Hitoshi Takano, Scientific Associate and Museum Cricketer

Honey badgers, warthogs and Toto - yes, it can only be Africa! This year at Science Uncovered, I will be talking about the wondrous beetles of the African forests and showcasing some of the specimens collected on my recent fieldtrips as well as historic specimens collected on some of the greatest African expeditions led by explorers such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.

 

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Museum cricket team, The Archetypes (yes, really!). Hitoshi walking off, centre field, triumphant! Far right, Tom Simpson, Cricket Captain and one of the excellent team organising Science Uncovered for us this year.

 

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Mount Hanang, Tanzania: Jungle fever is a common problem amongst NHM staff. Prolonged amounts of time in isolated forest environments can lead to peculiar behaviour and an inability to socialise...but don't worry, he'll be fine on the night...

 

There are more dung beetle species in Africa than anywhere else in the world - find out why, how I collect them and come and look at some of the new species that have been discovered in the past few years!!

 

Beulah Garner, Curator and part-time Anneka Rice body double

Not only do I curate adult beetles, I also look after the grubs! Yes, that's right, for the first time ever we will be revealing some of the secrets of the beetle larvae collection. I can't promise it will be pretty but it will be interesting! I'll be talkng about beetle life cycles and the importance of beetles in forest ecosystems. One of the reasons why beetles are amongst the most successful organisms on the planet is because of their ability to inhabit more than one habitat in the course of their life cycles.

 

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Crocker Range, Borneo: fieldwork is often carried out on very tight budgets, food was scarce; ate deep fried Cicada to stay alive...

 

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Nourages Research Station, French Guiana: museum scientists are often deposited in inacessible habitats by request from the Queen; not all breaks for freedom are successful.

 

On display will be some horrors of the collection and the opportunity to perhaps discuss and sample what it will be like to live in a future where beetle larvae have become a staple food source (or entomophagy if you want to be precise about it)...go on, I dare you!

 

Chris Lyal, Coleoptera Researcher specialising in Weevils (Curculionidae) and champion games master

With the world in the throes of a biodiversity crisis, and the sixth extinction going on, Nations have agreed a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. The first target is to increase understanding of biodiversity and steps we can take to conserve it and use it sustainably. That puts the responsibility for increasing this understanding fairly and squarely on people like us. Now, some scientists give lectures, illustrated with complex and rigorously-constructed graphs and diagrams. Others set out physical evidence on tables, expounding with great authority on the details of the natural world. Us – we’re going to play games.

 

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Ecosystem collapse! (partially collapsed).

 

Thrill to Ecosystem Collapse! and try to predict when the complex structure will fall apart as one after another species is consigned to oblivion. Guess why the brazil nut tree is dependent on the bucket orchid! Try your luck at the Survival? game and see if you make it to species survival or go extinct. Match the threatened species in Domino Effect! Snakes and ladders as you’ve not played it before! For the more intellectual, there’s a trophic level card game (assuming we can understand the rules in time). All of this coupled with the chance to discuss some of the major issues facing the natural world (and us humans) with Museum staff and each other.

 

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Here Chris tells us a joke:

'Why did the entomologists choose the rice weevil over the acorn weevil?'

'It was the lesser of two weevils'

IMG_7063.jpgJoana Cristovao, Chris's student and assistant games mistress!

Big Nature Day at the Museum: Joana with a... what's this? This is no beetle!

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One last thought, things can get a bit out of hand late at night in the Museum, it's not just the scientists that like to come out and play once a year, it's the dinosaurs too...

 

We look forward to meeting you all on the night!

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At the field station on St. Mary’s I find Martin Honey, an entomologist who works on lepidoptera. He shows me his moth trap, which is a circular vessel filled with empty egg cartons with a glass lid and a large light bulb in the middle (in other words, it looks a bit like a big rice cooker with a light bulb sticking out of the top!).

moth-trap-600.jpgMartin's moth trap in a shady area at the field station. Awaiting winged nighttime visitors.

 

Martin tells me that when he switches on the bulb - which is mainly ultraviolet light - at night, the moths are attracted and once inside, they can rest on the egg cartons until he collects them in the morning. Martin keeps the trap in shady places so that the moths don’t get too hot in the sunlight. He shows me a few specimens that are inside and says he has just freed quite a lot so if I come back tomorrow he will keep some for me to draw.

 

Martin shows me a specimen that he has put to sleep with a special liquid. The moth’s wings are closed, and I ask how the wings are kept open as we see in the museum collections. This proves to be a good question...

 

In the field work room we find Martin's microscope and a few dozen moth specimens. He tells me that the wings are set by hand, and proceeds to show me how this is done. He carefully takes a moth specimen with forceps and places it under the microscope alongside some pins, which are so small they are almost invisible!

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Moth specimens and pins at the microscope, ready for setting.

 

Martin looks down the microscope, controls the instrumental pins with forceps and begins to slowly open the wings… he arranges the legs at 45 degrees and makes sure the antennae are forward, then slowing impresses the pins into the foam to hold the posture that he has now created for the moth specimen. He makes it look effortless and I am inspired, it is really quite an artful practice.

 

Martin tells me he learned to set moth wings by hand at the Museum, and I am intrigued to hear more:

GA: Are all entomologists at the NHM expected to do this in their job description?

MH: Some people just cannot do this, it requires too much dexterity.

GA: So some scientists can do it, but are people employed just to do the setting, and in the past, has the NHM employed setting staff?

MH: Yes - there used to be a special room called the setting room in the NHM, and specially trained people just did that work. Now there are specialist setters in Prague, they are not scientists but mostly amateur entomologists. I may send the larger specimens there depending on their number and I might do some setting work when I retire, and challenge the Prague group!

live-specimens-550.jpgMartin gives me four live moth specimens found on St.Mary's. I will draw them and let them go afterwards.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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I finished most of what I wanted to do (this trip!) in the Duke herbarium – so my kind hosts thought it might be nice to go see the rare and endangered (in the wild) Venus-flytrap in the swamp. I jumped at the chance – these extraordinary plants are common in cultivation, but the chance to see them in their native habitat was so exciting!

 

We were headed to the Green Swamp – near the coast of North Carolina – in the middle of the very narrow range of these wonderful plants. They only occur in the swamps of North and South Carolina in a radius of about 90 miles! We met an ex-graduate student of Kathleen’s and now professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington, Eric Shuettpelz and his student Alex Davila, who know this area well.

 

Carnivore country


The vegetation in these coastal areas is quite special – the soil is bright white sand and the forest are composed of various species of pines, interspersed with grassy open areas and shrubby thickets, called pocosins. The pine species are different in the pocosins and forests – it is an interesting mosaic.

 

The mosaic is maintained by burning – these areas are burned regularly through lightening fires and the Nature Conservancy, who look after these pieces of pristine habitat, regularly conduct controlled burns, usually in winter, to keep the shrubs from taking over. The main pine species of the open areas is the long-leaf pine – Pinus palustris.

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Controlled burns are not so hot as to completely decimate the forest, but clear out the understory and let light in – this area was probably burned a couple of years ago.

 

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The young plants of long-leaf pine persist in a grass-like state for years, until a fire comes along and opens the canopy so they can grow tall.

 

We emerged from our first pocosin – thick with holly, magnolias and lots of rhododendron and blueberry relatives – and looked down on the wet ground amongst the grasses, and there they were – the carnivores! Venus flytraps and sundews, growing together on the wet ground. Not quite the size of those of the film Little Shop of Horrors, but pretty exciting all the same. If you weren’t looking carefully, you would walk right by or even on top of them.

 

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Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipila) and sundews (Drosera leucantha) catch their prey in totally different ways – both with modified leaves.

 

Sundews have sticky glands all over the leaves that trap insects in their glue, then the stalks of the glands themselves bend to further engulf the prey.

 

Venus flytrap leaves are modified into a sort of snap-jaw trap – tiny hairs in the open surface trigger the folding of the leaf like a prison when an insect blunders in; the spiky leaf edges mean the trap is shut even before the leaf itself completely closes.

 

Insectivorous plants usually grow in nutrient-poor soils; it is thought that they obtain nitrogen much needed for growth from their insect prey. Charles Darwin was fascinated by insectivorous plants, and a good review of their biology and diversity was published in his celebration year in 2009.

 

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The shut trap in this individual just has a piece of stick, so I think insect catching must be relatively rare!

 

Further on, in the grass under the long-leaf pines – we saw yet another famous carnivorous plant – the yellow pitcher plant Sarrecenia lutea. The insect trapping leaves of these plants are long erect tubes in which water collects – the rim is slippery and an unaware insect can plunge to its death, to be decomposed and its nutrients absorbed by the plant. Not quite as active as the flytrap, but pretty effective nonetheless.

 

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The flowers of pitcher plants are large and showy and have a most peculiar umbrella-like style that looks like a flying saucer in the middle of the bloom.

 

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This fly looks like it will probably escape – so again, trapping is not a common occurrence, the pitchers are not full of insects.

 

At the Green Swamp we also saw two other carnivorous plants – the butterwort (Pinguicula) and the bladderwort (Utricularia), and a host of other fascinating plants special to these swampy, nutrient-poor habitats. Members of the blueberry and rhododendron family – Ericaceae – are very common and important members of the shrub layer in these communities.

 

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This blueberry relative – Lyonia lucida – has dry capsular fruits rather than the juicy berries we associate with its relatives.

 

We finished the day with another stop at Boiling Springs Lake – a more upland forest with pines and oaks.

 

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The turkey oak-pine forest is more open than that we saw at Green Swamp.

 

At Boiling Springs Lake we saw bladderworts in abundance – tiny yellow flowers about 2 mm across emerging from the white sand at stream edges. The leaves of these plants trap water shrimp (Daphnia) and other minute water creatures – they open and shut using changes in water pressure and their movement has been shown to be among the fastest movements in nature. Quite amazing for something so tiny and seemingly insignificant!

 

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The leaves of Utricularia are small globular 'bladders' – hence the common name – that trap microscopic organisms living in the water between soil particles in this waterlogged soil.

 

Leaving the forest, we were reminded of some friends not to take home with us! Ticks are common in these forests and we did find a few – big and little.

 

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Thanks to the Green Swamp expedition team! Eric Shuettpelz, Alex Davila, Fay-Wei Li, Tiff Shao (hiding!), Layne Huiet and Jose Eduardo Meireles (Dudu)

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This month’s letter comes from Ternate, when Wallace was 4 years into his 'Eastern journey ' exploring the Malay Archipelago. I selected this letter not just for its content, fascinating though it is, but for the story behind it and the fact that this innocent letter has caused quite a stir, albeit unintentionally.

 

Wallace travelled to the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) in March 1854, eighteen months after returning from his Amazon expedition. He spent eight years exploring the islands, travelling a total of 14,000 miles and undertaking 60-70 separate journeys. In this time he amassed a huge, diverse and important collection of insects, birds, mammals and reptiles – around 25,000 specimens in total, with well over a thousand of these new to science.

 

The scientific observations Wallace made on these islands contributed to some of his most important work. The two volume book The Malay Archipelago published in 1869 was written about his eight years there, and was so successful that it hasn’t been out of print since its publication.

 

The letter in question is one from Wallace to Frederick Bates, brother of Henry Walter who was Wallace’s Amazon companion. It was written from Ternate, on 2nd March 1858 and discusses insect collecting, insect coloration and other musings on the richness of the archipelago.

 

Frederick, like his brother Henry, collected insects and had written to Wallace previously about the sorts of things he had been collecting, in particular exotic insects. Wallace shared details in the letter about the sorts of species he had been collecting and where they had been found. He mentioned to Bates that his second Macassar collection should reach England soon and he believed it contained "the most remarkable lot of Carabidae ever collected in the tropics in so short a time". He gives a vivid account of what life as a collector in the tropics sometimes amounted to, spending "hours daily on my knees in wet sand & rotten leaves".

 

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Letter to Bates from Ternate, 2nd March 1858

 

The letter has an extremely rich entomological content, discussing species found in different localities and the research he has been conducting which will contribute to scholarly work upon his return. Musing on the richness of the archipelago, Wallace writes:

 

"I could spend 20 years here were life long enough, but feel I cannot stand it away from home & books & collections & comforts, more than four or five, & then I shall have work to do for the rest of my life. What would be the use of accumulating materials which one could not have time to work up?"

 

Luckily for us, he heeded his own words of wisdom, returning in 1862 to write and publish much on the region.

 

The link in the letter to the story behind it comes as he writes, "I have lately worked out a theory which accounts for them naturally". This sentence is a reference to the now famous essay he wrote whilst recovering from a fever in February 1858. The essay in question was on the theory of evolution by natural selection, which he sent together with an accompanying letter to Charles Darwin shortly after penning it, asking Darwin to forward it on to Sir Charles Lyell.

 

Darwin received the letter and essay on 18th June, writing to Lyell the same day asking what he should do with Wallace’s work. Knowing that Darwin had deivsed a similar theory Lyell and Joseph Hooker thought the fairest thing to do would be to read the two men’s work at a meeting of the Linnean Society. This was duly done on 1st July 1858, leading to the publication of "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection" – thus uniting the two great scientists as co-discoverers of this ground-breaking theory.

 

Whether or not it was fair for the essay to be read publically without Wallace’s knowledge is a whole other blog entirely – the controversy this blog is concerned with is the date on which Darwin received Wallace's essay, 18th June 1858, and the discovery of the letter to Frederick Bates in the later decades of the twentieth century which was received by Bates on 3rd June 1858.

 

OK, you might say, two completely different letters to two completely different people, written around the same time – why should that cause a stir? Well, there was only one steamer a month that carried mail on its journey to the UK and it had long been thought that Wallace had sent his letter and essay to Darwin on the March steamer.

 

The discovery of the Bates letter confuses matters because it quite clearly has 3 postage marks on it, indicating it began its journey aboard the steamer that left Ternate on 9th March 1858. There is a mark indicating its arrival in Singapore on 21st April 1858 and then London on 3rd June, and a final mark showing that it arrived at its destination, Leicester, the same day 3rd June.

 

Therefore if Wallace’s letter and essay to Darwin had been sent on the March steamer they would have reached Down House also on 3rd June or thereabouts (one would assume, especially as Down House is much closer to Southampton than Leicester). Therefore, conspiracy theorists have delighted in theorising that Darwin received the essay on 3rd June but said nothing about it to anyone until the 18th, which is when he wrote to Charles Lyell saying he had received it. This would have given him time to read over Wallace’s work and use it to amend his own.

 

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Page 4 of the letter to Bates, clearly showing the three postage marks of Singapore, London and Leicester

 

As unlikely as this seems, it has actually spurred four authors to write about it; McKinney (1972), Brackman (1980), Brooks (1984), and Davies (2008) and many more have questioned what really went on - did Darwin receive the letter two weeks before he said he did? Did he use Wallace’s essay to shape his own work?

 

Of course, this theorising wouldn’t even need to happen if we still had the letter Wallace sent to Darwin as it would no doubt have similar postage stamps to the Bates letter, charting the journey to its destination. However, we still don’t know where the letter is, or if it even survives, although the museum did launch an appeal in 2011 to try and trace this iconic piece of history.

 

Late in 2011, Dr. John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker sought to re-investigate this thorny issue in an article they published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society "A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’ Ternate essay by Darwin in 1858" (2012, 105, pp. 249-252). They put forth an argument that in fact, the letter to Darwin was sent on the April steamer, not March. This is supported by evidence that Wallace’s letter (which he sent the essay) was a reply to Darwin’s letter of 22nd December 1857 (this is actually one of the few things known about the missing letter).

 

Davies (2008) undertook some detective work which indicated Wallace would have received this December letter from Darwin in March 1858, on the same steamer that he would have sent the letter to Bates on. As the steamer would not have stayed long at Ternate, there would  therefore be no way Wallace could  have written a reply and send it off to England on the 9th March steamer. Wallace’s later recollections of sending this letter to Darwin don’t allude to the month he sent it either, just that it was sent to him via the "next post".

 

Dr. van Wyhe and Rookmaaker chart the journey of the letter and essay via the various stops it would have made in its way back to England, finally reaching Southampton on 16th June 1858 at nine o’clock in the evening, travelling to London early on the 17th and finally reaching Down House on the 18th June.

 

So, this seemingly innocuous letter to Bates ended up causing quite a stir and I’m sure Wallace would have been quite amused at all the fuss! Conspiracy theories will always abound and there will always be people who prefer Darwin to Wallace and vice versa, but really if you strip all that away, what you have are two remarkable men, independently co-discovering a theory that was forever to change the way we see the world.

 

You can explore Wallace and Darwin’s relationship through their letters here. Check back next month when I’ll be writing about something else that’s caught my eye.

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Yesterday, our collaborators at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) warned Dan that some of his specimens were leaking.  Not good news!

 

All of the lichen and invertebrate specimens (collected over the past 6 weeks of sampling in the forests of Borneo) are now at UMS, waiting to be sorted and packed and eventually loaned to the Natural History Museum (NHM) for further study and identification.

 

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But the invertebrate specimens cannot be transported or stored safely while they are leaking alcohol (which acts to preserve the specimens) so it was all hands on deck this morning at UMS.

 

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The container the specimens had been stored in was swimming in alcohol.

 

On arriving at the university we discovered it was one container in particular that was causing the trouble.  Inside were specimens that had been collected by other NHM scientists in Danum Valley, but instead of being stored in tubes they had been sealed in plastic bags…that were meant to be leak-proof.  But the bags had failed and now there was alcohol swilling around the container producing a particularly bad smell!  Left in this condition the specimens would soon rot.

 

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The painstaking task of carefully emptying the bags and putting the contents into tubes.

 

So, one by one, the bags were opened and the contents removed and resealed in plastic, screw-top tubes.  A valuable lesson in the importance of reliable storing methods, without which weeks of collecting and hard work can be for nothing.  On the upside, it did give us the opportunity to see some different and interesting specimens including various ‘horned’ beetles, large cicadas and a crab!  The latter presumably having been collected close to a fresh water river.

 

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An unexpected discovery amongst the collected specimens.

 

But it wasn’t just Dan, Kerry and Keiron (with the added help of Tony) who were kept busy with attending to specimens today.  Elsewhere in the university, Pat and Holger had discovered one of the main difficulties with storing specimens in the tropics – humidity.   The specimens of lichens had been left in closed, plastic bags, and consequently moisture had collected and was causing the lichens to become damp.  A dangerous situation that can lead to the growth of mould and the loss of entire collections of samples.  Needless to say, everyone was kept busy for most of the day.

 

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Packing specimens for transportation involves lots of cardboard boxes and bubble-wrap!

 

Finally, once re-sealed and re-labelled, the invertebrate specimens were carefully packed by a removal company, ready for transportation to the UK.  Not the most common of courier requests!

 

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Dan was particularly pleased when the last box was sealed!

 

Having rinsed the smell of alcohol and dung beetles off of our hands, we decided to spend what was left of the day exploring the city.  Kota Kinabalu is clearly a busy and bustling city and well set-up for tourists, with a multitude of restaurants to choose from and markets selling memorabilia and gifts. And it doesn’t all stop when the sun goes down…in fact it gets better!  By the waterfront is a massive, open-air night market, selling vast quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables and a wide array of fish.   At some stalls, you can choose the fish you want and they will cook it for you, there and then.  We had to give it a try!

 

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One of the many stalls cooking fresh fish and seafood. 

 

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I think Kerry managed to trump my tasty but tiny prawn!

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"He that enlarges his curiosity after the works of nature, demonstrably multiplies the inlets to happiness"

This is the opening phrase of the preface to the third, 1799, edition of The Naturalist's and traveller's companion; by John Coakley Lettsom. M.D; where he defines the ultimate purpose of his book. A concise manual that has been somehow forgotten, it was a great achievement at it's time.

The first edition was published in London in 1772 by George Pearch and it seems to have sold out quickly as a second edition, corrected and enlarged followed in 1774, this time published by E & C Dilly also in London.

This is probably the first ever concise, modern, systematic and scientific manual on the preservation of natural history specimens and collections; giving advice not only on different aspects of capturing, finding, preserving, transporting and analysing plants, insects, fossils, animals and minerals but also on antiquities, religious rites, food, meteorology and even "precise directions for taking off impressions of cast from medals and coins".

The manual is also an incredibly practical, beautifully presented, well informed and advanced book that could be considered the founding publication for modern natural history preservation science. His advice on preserving natural history collections from pest attack anticipates by 200 years the groundbreaking Integrated Pest Management programs introduced in the last 20 years in Museums and Historic Houses: http://www.pestodyssey.org/

It is uncertain if the manual was used by the great explorers of the period but given how popular it was at the time, it would be expected that copies of the book were carried on the many voyages of exploration that took place after its publication. It seems certain that Charles Darwin owned and used a copy although the great man was never known for being a good caretaker of his natural history collections.
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John Coakley Lettsom was born in 1744 in Tortola, Virgin Islands. A Quaker concerned with anti-slavery, he manumitted the slaves from his two inherited plantations there; angering his plantation onwers neighbours then gaining their respect by setting up the first medical practice in the islands (with some of his former slaves trained as medical assistants) as he had become a doctor in Leiden, south Holland, in 1769.

Lettsom worked and travelled tirelessly all his life; famous for his commitment to his patients and the medical profession, he founded the Medical Society of London in 1775, the oldest in Britain and possibly in the world. In doing so, he showed great bravery and intelligence; parallel to his display of lateral thinking demonstrated in The Naturalist's and traveller's companion; by joining together the four branches of the medical profession in one society where they could share knowledge and experience: http://www.medsoclondon.org/index.html
Amazingly, he still had time to cultivate a famous garden in his London home, arranged according to the Linnaean system of classification: http://lettsomgardens.org.uk/history.html

The Library at the Natural History Museum also holds the original drawings made by his friend James Sowerby of the plants in Lettsom's garden, as well as a copy of his 1799 famous work "The natural history of the tea-tree".

Chris Ledgard's BBC4 Radio program: "What's eating your collections?" aired last September began quoting paragraphs from the Travellers's companion: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013q311/Whats_Eating_the_Museum/

Bibliography:
The Golden Age of Quaker Botanists by Ann Nichols, Cumbria, 2006.

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One of the first signs of spring for the Identification and Advisory service is a wave of intriguing descriptions of a mysterious garden visitor. Here are some from last year:

“A curious flying insect which was about 10mm long, hairy, beige/brown coloured, triangular in shape with a long snout which had the ability of flying backwards.”

“Approx 1 cm long, wing span twice body length, mix of light brown and black, teardrop shaped, hovers and darts at leaves and dead twigs, long spear-like proboscis approx half body length apparently non retractable”

“If I was to describe it compared to other animals it was a cross between a bee, a golden mole and a narwhal - but that sounds really silly.”

“Small (about 1/2 in long) humming insects. They were light brown with a furry appearance and had a spike at the rear and at the front. Their way of flying was to hover then move, very quickly, to a plant or another part of the garden. I could also hear the hum of their wings. They had to settle when feeding from the grape hyacinths, and I observed that their wings were like bee's wings (clear) and not like moths. Were these baby hawk moths?”

“I knew it was a hornet because it had a horn”

“It looks like a bat, but was the size of a wasp and had insect wings and legs. What is it?”

 

These are all descriptions of the same type of insect - bee flies.

 

There are 9 species of bee fly found in the UK, but the weird and wonderful creatures described above are from the genus Bombylius. The most common species is Bombylius major, and you can read more about its fascinating lifestyle here.

 

For serious bee fly enthusiasts the best book on the subject is British Soldierflies and Their Allies by Alan Stubbs and Martin Drake

 

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If your bee fly has a strong dark mark across the front half of its wings it is Bombylius major like the one above. If it has a spotty wing edge it is the rarer Bombylius discolor like the picture below. Both of these lovely images were sent in to us for identification by curious members of the public!

 

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Bombylius discolor

 

So keep your eyes peeled for bee flies this spring, and share your pictures on our bug forum like these fine people:

 

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Exploding the myth in Beetle blog

Posted by Blaps Mar 29, 2011

As entomologists it is not only taxonomy that we are concerned with; we collect and study beetles in order to give a name to a species, so that conservationists, ecologists, even policy makers, can make decisions that hopefully will benefit the environment and the little creatures that live within and depend upon it.

However, we practice a different kind of insect conservation here in the Museum, a very specific specimen level conservation which ensures that the specimens we care for (and many of these are over 200 years old) remain readily available to science, to inform the very things mentioned above.

 

This week let’s look at verdigris. Not the kind of lovely blue-green patina found on Greek statues or the copper paint used to illuminate ancient manuscripts, rather the copper alloy of some entomological pins, which when exposed to the fats and lipids found in an insects’ body (as well as the gases found within an insect drawer), react to cause a ‘filamentous explosion’ of the alloy, and can ultimately destroy the body of an insect.

 

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Some Cerambycidae affected by verdigris - note the specimen in the centre whose wing is becoming disslocated from the body

 

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Here is what you don't want to happen - ever! Fifteen years of verdigris growth (specimens retained for demonstration purposes, courtesy of Malcolm Kerley)

 

 

So what is verdigris? The name verdigris originates from the Old French word verte-grez, an alteration of vert-de-Grèce (green of Greece), since it was used by Greek artists as a pigment for painting and other artistic crafting.

 

Here is the chemistry bit:

Verdigris is a green pigment which forms when copper, brass (copper and zinc) or bronze (copper and tin) is exposed to air, seawater or organic substances such as insect lipids over a period of time. Verdigris is primary a copper salt that is commonly found as carbonate, but it also can be found as a chloride (i.e. if sea water is present) and as an acetate (i.e. if acetic acid is present); and less commonly as a formate, hydroxide and sulphate. Secondary components of verdigris are various other metallic salts, organic and inorganic acids, gases and water. All the components are in an ever-changing and extremely sophisticated chemical equilibrium which depends on the environment.

 

 

Historically entomological pins were not made of the robust and non-corroding stainless steel we use today. They may have been made from various alloys, including copper, which at the time, would not have been recognised as potentially causing harm to the specimen. This is one of the major pitfalls of caring for an historical collection. With over 9,000,000 specimens, we could spend our lifetimes (and we do) conserving and curating!

We keep our collection in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, but verdigris can still occur, and decades ago, when we didn’t know as much about collections care, specimens may have been kept in an environment conducive to verdigris forming.

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Pins affected by verdigris (specimens removed - obviously!)

 

One of our curators, Malcolm Kerley, has indeed decades of experience of caring for historical collections. Here he is giving a demonstration on specimen repair to some MSc Students from Imperial College   

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With all our combined experience and knowledge we gave a demonstration at the last Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference at The Great North Museum in Newcastle to fellow curators and museum / academic professionals on how to repair specimens.

http://natsca.info/

 

My colleague Alessandro Giusti, who is a Lepidoptera curator and I showed the various ways specimens can be extricated from their damaged pins and re-pinned onto a shining new stainless steel pin which should survive for another 200 years!

 

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Alessandro demonstrated the amazing specimen exploding machine (or more sensibly put, ‘the de-pinning machine’) which essentially involves passing an electrical current through the pin, which heats up, in turn melting some of the dried fats from within the specimen. This is actually a safe method of removing Lepidoptera from pins, as other methods could damage the body, and more importantly the scales. (It has been known for the specimen to ‘explode’ when the current gets a bit too racy, but of course, that has never happened to us!)

 

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Here we have the 'Heath-Robinson' of all de-pinning machines.. the NHM, cutting edge science at its most dynamic...

 

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A typical example of how verdigris affects Lepidoptera

 

 

I demonstrated the dry and wet methods of removing beetles from corroded pins. The wet method involves soaking the specimen in heated distilled water for a few minutes (approx. 60-70°C) until it is softened enough to be slipped from the pin.

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A beetle suspended by a plastazote float in distilled water.

 

Re-pinning involves allowing the specimen to dry thoroughly and then using a thicker pin than the one previously removed to be placed in the same hole. The labels are placed on the pin in the same order and a further label is added to the specimen to record the conservation measure, as well as recording this on our database.

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Here we both are demonstrating to our enthralled audience(!) Notice complimentary butterfly blouse as modelled by me!

 

We often retain our historical pins  as believe it or not they can tell us a lot about a specimen / collection, for example, certain collectors only used a certain type of pin (Sir Joseph Bank’s Collection used immaculate (and probably very expensive) pins with hand spun heads which today still retain their original condition!

 

For more information our protocol on Verdigris specimen repair will soon be made available on the NatSCA website.