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Identification

20 Posts
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Sapphire Buddha

Posted by Tipula - Museum ID team Jul 24, 2013

We have had an interesting specimen to identify, bought in India some 40 years ago, beautifully carved into a small Buddha head. The specimen was extremely hard  and must have been carved by someone very skilled because it is only about 3 cm high.

 

We identified the stone as corundum, the scientific name for rubies and sapphires. Gem quality corundum is diagnosed as ‘ruby’ if it is red. All gem quality corundums which are not red are called sapphires even the pink ones like this Buddha!

 

 

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In the last few days you may have been lucky enough to see a shooting star as one of the year's biggest meteor showers was displayed in the skies over Britain. But does a meteor ever become a meteorite? And how do you know if you have found one? Well in this blog I will tell you a little more about meteors and meteorites,  what to do if you think you have found one, and how to find out more at Meteorites Day 2012, a special event at the Museum on 2 September.

 

Over the weekend from the 11 to 15 August the UK was treated to the height of a meteor shower recognised as one of the best and most reliable meteor showers in the northern hemisphere. The Perseid meteor shower happens every year between late July and mid August and at its peak can produce tens of meteors an hour.

 

Originating from the debris stream left by the comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the sun, the Perseids are so called because they often appear to come from the constellation Perseus - but as the number of meteors increases they can be seen all across the night sky.

 

You may think that this event would lead to an increase in meteorite discoveries that are reported to the Identification Service here at the Museum, but meteors are formed from very small particles of matter ejected from the comet, that burn up completely in the atmosphere. This means that if you see a meteor you are unlikely to find a resultant meteorite.

 

2012-0402 Iron Meteorite Tanzania (UNK)1.jpgA meteorite discovery from Tanzania

 

But what if you do think you have found a meteorite - what can you do about it? Well before you jump to conclusions there are a few simple tests you can do on your possible meteorite.

 

STEP ONE: Test to see if your discovery is magnetic

 

All meteorites have some degree of magnetism; even the stony meteorites have flecks of iron and nickel mixture throughout the rock that distinguishes them from terrestrial rocks. You should be able to detect the magnetism with an ordinary fridge magnet, so if your object is not magnetic at all - then it is most likely not a meteorite.

 

P1070568.JPGTest your object with a fridge magnet

 

STEP TWO: Check the density of your discovery

 

Meteorites, especially iron meteorites, tend to be far more dense than some of the more commonly mistaken terrestrial rocks, so if your specimen is light in your hand when you pick it up, then again it is unlikely to be a meteorite.

 

P1070574.JPGYour object should be heavy for it's size

 

STEP THREE: Look at the surface of your discovery

 

Meteorites are characterised by something called a fusion crust - when the meteorite comes through the atmosphere the intense heat of entry causes the surface of the meteorite to melt. So if you can see cracks and bubbles or even other bits of rock or mineral stuck to the outside of your discovery, then once again, it is unlikely to be a meteorite.

 

P1070575.JPGThe surface of your object should be smooth with no bubbles (right)

 

So what do you do if you have done these three tests and all three suggest that you have found a meteorite? Then bring it in to the Museum! On Sunday the 2nd of September the Museum are holding a 'Meteorites Amnesty' with members of our Earth Sciences department on hand and some genuine meteorites you can touch and compare against your own discoveries.

 

There will also be talks and activities throughout the day all about meteorites. However, if you miss this event, don't worry. Just send us a photo at the Identification Service email (ias2@nhm.ac.uk) or bring your specimen in on another day and we will let you know if you have a meteorite or a meteor-wrong!

 

Find out more about the Meteorites Day special event at the Museum

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Can’t make it in to visit us on a weekday?  We also open the first weekend of each month from April to October, and for a few other special events.  We are usually in the Museum on these weekends, but sometimes we get out and about to other wildlife events in the UK.  The weekends we are in the Museum you can drop in with identification enquiries or book to use the reference collections.  When we are out and about we’ll still look at your identification enquiries wherever we are, but there will be no access to the reference collections.

 

Please note these dates and events are subject to change, so do check with us to avoid disappointment.

 

The weekends we are open this year are –

 

Saturday 31st March and Sunday 1st April

If you are in the Museum on Sunday 1st April why not come along to the Spring Wildlife day in the Wildlife Garden?

 

Friday 4th – Sunday 6th May

PLEASE NOTE we will be off site this weekend at the fabulous Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, so there will be no Identification Service in the Museum

 

Sunday 27th May – Big Nature Day

We will be hosting a nature fair, putting members of the public in touch with amateur naturalists, societies and recording schemes from across the country.  Regardless of whether you are interested in ferns, frogs, spiders or stinkhorns there will be a society or recording scheme to match!

 

Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th June

If you are in the Museum this weekend you can also come along to the Bat Festival run by the NHM and the Bat Conservation Trust

 

Saturday 30th June and Sunday 1st July

This is Insect Weekend in the Natural History Museum.  We will be celebrating the end of National Insect Week with some special talks and activities

 

Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th August

Sunday 5th August is also Seashore Day in the Centre for UK Biodiversity, so get beachcombing and bring us your finds.

 

Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd September

Sunday 2nd September is also Meteorite Day in the Centre for UK Biodiversity.  We challenge you to bring us your meteorites!

 

Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th October

PLEASE NOTE we will be off site at the AES Annual Exhibition at Kempton Park Racecourse on Saturday 6th October so there will be no identification service in the Museum.

If you are in the Museum on Sunday 7th October Why not come along to our Hedgerow Harvest event in the Wildlife Garden?

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Here in the identification service we don’t need a diary or calendar to know what time of year it is, in fact we don’t even have to look out of the window!  We can tell the time of year by trends in the enquiries we get by email, phone, through the post or on our forum. 

 

Many species of insect have a lifecycle that lasts for a year, with the larvae or nymphs around in one season, and the adults around in another.  Last year we blogged about the amazing bee fly and how it is a sure sign that spring is on the way, but it’s not the only enquiry with a strong seasonal distribution.

 

I searched our database and the forum for enquiries right back through the mists of time to 1992 to collect data on 3 of our common seasonal species – bee flies (Bombylius sp.), the excellently named cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) and house spiders (Tegenaria sp.). 

 

seasonal enquiries.JPG

 

 

Bee flies

These amazing little critters are around in April and May making the most of the spring flowers.  The two species we see most often are the common bee fly (Bombylius major, see picture) and the dotted bee fly (Bombylius discolour).  They have a fascinating life cycle and you can find out more about them here -


 

 

 

Bombylius major 2.JPG

 

Cockchafers

No, we didn’t make that name up, the common English name for Melolontha melolontha is indeed the cockchafer.  Although they are beetles they are also commonly called May bugs, and you can see why from the graph above.  These large beetles emerge as adults in May or June after living in the soil as larvae for 3-5 years. They are strong though inelegant fliers and are attracted to light, meaning they often fly through open windows and gatecrash evening barbeques!  But don’t worry; they are not harmful to humans.  Find out more here  -

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/insects-spiders/common-bugs/cockchafer/index.html

 

2011-0759 Melolontha melolontha DSC_0121.jpg

 

House spiders

There are several species of common house spider in the UK which are difficult to tell apart.  However, they all belong to the genus Tegenaria.  They are around all year, but are most commonly encountered between August and October when the fully grown males set out to find love.  This is when they are most likely to run out from under your sofa or turn up in the bath – just in time for Halloween!  You can find out more here -

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2010/october/house-spiders-prefer-the-shed-shock85297.html

 

2007-1030 Tegenaria sp. 4 for web.JPG

 

On a more serious note this little project shows how the identification service records are a mine of fascinating and potentially useful information.  This data also shows that both bee flies and cockchafers emerged significantly earlier in 2011 than 2010, so it would be interesting to see how they fare in 2012 – keep your enquiries and observations coming in to our forum!

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Over the last week we've all enjoyed having Nicholas and Olivia with us on work experience in the Angela Marmont Centre, and as one result of their work I've now got loads of great specimen photographs for future blogs, so watch this space! If you fancy doing work experience or maybe volunteeing at the museum, you can find out all about it on our website: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/jobs-volunteering-internships/index.html So thank you to Olivia and Nicholas for your work and now it's over to you:

 

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We have been lucky enough to work behind the scenes in the Angela Marmont Centre with the UK Biodiversity Team as part of our work experience. Working in the centre has been wonderful for both of us, not only in the fascinating people that we have met but also in the wide range of activities and tasks we have been able to participate in.

 

On arrival we were shown round the collections and were astonished by the sheer volume of specimens in the archives. We were also thrown into several meetings which were lucky to be able to attend and learnt a lot about how the museum functions, along with scientists time keeping abilities… they tend to get caught up in intellectual discussions.

 

Throughout the rest of the week we had many other opportunities to get involved. In the laboratories we extracted plant DNA and analysed along with a tour of the lab, only witnessing a fraction of their hugely impressive facilities and machines. We undertook several outdoor activities including surveys in the wildlife garden for the OPAL Project and enjoyed being a part of the Nature Live show.

 

We were given a hard task of pinning insects and bugs. The specimens were quite old and brittle so our attempts seemed futile as bits of leg and antenna flew across the room. The reason for attempting this was so that the insects looked more alive when it came to setting them in resin for demonstration purposes.

 

Throughout our week numerous artefacts and creepy crawlies were sent or brought in for identification. We were able to witness and taken part, from beginning to end on the process. For us the most interesting was a fossil brought in by a small boy. To the untrained eye it looked remarkably like stacked starfish, however within seconds the expert Luanne identified it as a stem of a sea lily which lived around 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period.

 

Perhaps how we spent most of our time was taking photographs of some of the bug and fossil specimens brought in and making sure they had a number for the ease of the system here in the AMC. Of course whilst doing this we saw and photographed some amazing things. There were fascinating and beautiful fossils and minerals, among which was a mammoth tooth trawled in by a fisherman in the North Sea, a necklace made of teeth and tusks and some stone tools found in the Niger.

 

This is part of the intriguing reply to the person who brought in the stone tools below;

Photos for sorting - Olivia and Nicholas 242.jpg

I’ve had a look at the stone tools that you left in the museum. They are all ground and polished stone axeheads apart from one which is roughly fractured stone [...] I believe that ground stone tools first became important in the Neolithic period, which began around 12 000 years ago. [...] However, this does not mean that these specimens are prehistoric in age at all, as ground stone tools are still quite commonly made around the world, both as tourist objects and as working tools for some groups.’

 

Finally on our last day, in our final hours, we were privileged enough to be shown some of the amazing historical collection, dating as far back as the sixteen hundreds. Sloane was amongst them and we were able to witness his great plant collections, which contain drawings and the first specimens brought back from Jamaica, China and, at the time many other remote unexplored countries of the world. It was very unique experienced and we feel privileged to be among the few who have gained an insight into the histories of natural science and art.

 

Overall it has been a marvellous week filled with variety and no hour was the same, we only wish it was possible to stay longer.

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You only have to browse through the Fossils and rocks forum to see how many of the suspected fossils put on there turn out to be something completely different! Fossil eggs, bones, turtles, ferns, footprints, you name it, natural rock and mineral processes can mimic it. We call these natural rock and mineral specimens that resemble or are mistaken for fossils "pseudofossils". This post doesn't seek to go through the most common look-a-likes, but if you google "pseudofossil" you will find many excellent guides out there.

 

This post is just some of my personal favourites from the last year. Fun and amazingly co-incidental pseudofossils are one of my favourite parts of my job in Earth Sciences identification.

 

2010-2444 mineral thought to be fossil bird head 003.jpg

"Fossil bird head"

 

It's got everything - neck, beak, even an eye. But this shape is created by the growth of a mineral upon the rock surface.

2011-0695 P1040137.JPG

"Fossil shark"

 

This shark shape, silhouetted in white against the dark background, would have me swimming for my life if I saw the silhouette peaking out of the sea. But it is just a chance area of cleaner white Chalk against a backdrop of Chalk discoloured by dirt and moss.

2010-2360 Fossi fish.jpg

"Fossil fish"

 

I can see what they mean, it looks like a guppy with a long flowing tail and fin. But this is a type of the rock flint known as banded flint. Banded flints form a series of roughly parallel lines such as this, which can create all sorts of misleading shapes. The cause is still not fully understood but the movement of water and silica through the flint is thought to be involved.

 

The rock flint can mimic any kind of fossil you can think of - bones, eggs, whole heads and bodies, you name it. Look out for a blog all about the wonders of flint coming soon!

 

2011-0058 dinosaur head pseudofossil 001.jpg"Fossil dinosaur head"

 

If this were a dinosaur, I can even see what kind it would be - one of the duck-billed hadrosaurs I reckon. Sadly, this is just the shape of the lump of rock, that had probably been exaggerated by weathering.

 

 

While writing this I've realised that these pseudofossils do have something in common after all. They all demonstrates one of the key things to appreciate when looking for fossils: don't look for the overall shape of an animal. This is because the soft parts of animals like muscle and skin only fossilise very rarely and in unusual conditions. You can assume you won't come across soft part preservation without knowing what to look for and where to look. To find fossils, look for the hard parts such as bones and shells, and bear in mind these are most often broken, mixed up and/or isolated.

 

Although we can say what these aren't, the hardest question to answer is, so why did the rock or mineral form or weather into exactly that shape? There are millions of rocks out there and so even if such coincidental resemblences are rare, there will still be plenty of pseudofossils. And of course those are the rocks that are going to catch your eye and get picked up.

 

So what should you look for? This page on our website has some good information and links for fossil hunting advice. And of course we will be happy to see whatever you find, whether rock, mineral or uncannily-vegetable-shaped-rock on the rock and Fossil forum here.

 

Happy fossil - and pseudofossil - hunting!

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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

 

07-445 Bee Fly - Bombylius major 1.jpgBombylius major

 

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!

 

08-1027 Bombylius major 2.BMP

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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How to identify an elephant tooth


A beginner's guide to how we identify a surprisingly common enquiry: mammoth and elephant teeth.

 

elephant tooth web.jpg

 

Left: This tooth was a family heirloom brought in for ID this week. Many elephant and mammoth teeth that are brought in for ID are heirlooms that have been knocking about the house for a couple of generations. This is an Asian elephant tooth. It is a molar, so it's a grinding tooth.

 

Below: Grinding surface of Asian elephant tooth (left) and African elephant tooth (right) in the NHM Mammal gallery. The African elephant tooth has a more diamond shaped pattern to the grinding surface

100_2597.JPG

 

And the elephants themselves in the Mammal gallery - African (top) and Asian (below). Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and their teeth are smaller on average too.

100_2595.JPG100_2596.JPG

Below. On the left, a mammoth tooth. On the right, a modern Asian elephant tooth.

100_2598.JPG

fossils 010.jpg

 

Left: Mammoth tooth. This was dredged up by a fisherman from the North sea and brought to us for ID. Mammoth teeth have a similar grinding to the Asian elephant, and look different to the grinding surface of the African elephant. And mammoths are indeed more closely related to Asian elephants than African elephants!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mammoth and elephant teeth can be very fragile and tend to crack downwards as you can see here. This can leave isolated plates instead of the whole tooth.

 

Now you can identify elephant and mammoth teeth!

 

Visit out Twitter page at http://twitter.com/NHM_id to see the finds we get in every day

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We get interesting, funny and beautiful fossils brought in for ID all the time. But now and again, we see something really special - better preserved or more complete than those in the museum's huge collections, or even completely new to science.

 

Here are some of the best from the last six months, and because their owners kindly agreed donate them to the Natural History Museum, they can be preserved, studied and maybe even named and published.

 

New insect family?

Insect wing enquiry low res.jpg

This insect was flying around the heads of the dinosaurs in the lower Jurassic period. It then got a bit tatty floating far out to sea before finally sinking, and against all the odds being fossilised in marine sediments. 190 million years later it was found by the donor on Charmouth beach in Dorset and you can still see the spots of colour on the wing. It was sent to us for ID and kicked off a debate between fossil insect experts around the world.

 

Opinions are divided about whether it belonged to a bush cricket or a lacewing. Bush crickets and lace wings aren’t closely related and don’t look very similar, but with fossils like this all you have to work with is the pattern of veins on the wings. This may be not just a new species, but a completely new family of fossil insect.

 

Ancient horse bone

Picture 052 with bone highlight.JPG

 

When this fossil haul from the Isle of Wight was brought in, we had no idea that the most interesting fossil would turn out to be the small bone that the red arrow is pointing to. Two avid teenage collectors brought us tons of fossils from the Isle of Wight, mostly bones of Eocene and Oligocene vertebrates around 55 to 25 million years old, including turtles, crocodiles, fish and mammal bones.

 

This one bone turned out to be another mystery – experts looked through the mammal, bird and reptile collections before realising it is the left radius (front lower limb bone) of a tiny 35 million year old dog-sized fossil horse called Plagiolophus minor. This bone from this species is a first in our collection and it will probably be figured and published.

 

Rare Cretaceous starfish

 

This starfish was brought in to us at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (http://www.fossilfestival.com/ again the Lyme Regis connection!). We saw a lot of cool stuff that weekend, including some stunning ammonites and ichthyosaur skull fragments. This particular enquiry didn’t look like much (hence no picture!), just a star shape the size of a 5 pence on a huge sandy coloured slab that had been sitting outside in its owner's garden for many years!

 

But fossil starfish are rare, espcially if they’re complete. Cretaceous starfish are especially rare, particularly from the Upper Greensand Formation (around 115 to 110 million years old) like this one. An expert also identified this as the rare species Comptonia sp. Future research may include dissolving the fossil with acid and pouring silica into the hole left behind to create an artificial cast. When removed, the silicon rubber cast will show the detail on the underside of the specimen that has been lost through weathering on the surface.

 

Exceptionally preserved ammonites

P1000810.JPG

 

The donor of these ammonites got in touch when he realised that they were better preserved than any pictures of specimens of Pavlovia pallasoides from the Kimmeridge Clay (Upper Jurassic, 155-150 million years ago) he could find. We have few complete examples of this species in the collections and this is better preserved. It will help to build up our comprehensive ammonite collection and is a potential source for future research.

 

Well preserved fossil lobster

DSCF6282.JPG

Another find from Charmouth! After hundreds of years of people looking for fossils around Lyme Regis since the time of Mary Anning (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/mary-anning/), it’s still one of the best places in the UK to find new and exciting stuff. This one was brought in to the Charmouth Heritage Centre: http://www.charmouth.org/chcc/ by a family who just happened to split this soft rock on the beach while fossil hunting and there it was!

 

It was brought to us for expert ID and belongs to the species Coleia brodei. We have other specimens in the collection but this one is beautifully and unusually preserved in strange way. The preservation in a soft shale means left alone this species will crack and disintegrate, but now the specialist Palaeontology Conservation unit will be able to consolidate and preserve it for future research.

 

Thanks to everyone who offered these and other donations! If you’ve got a fossil knocking about the house somewhere, bring it along for ID or post a pic – we’d love to see it, whatever it turns out to be!

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Hello again,

Well it’s now almost the end of my second, and last, week of internship here at the Natural History Museum and I’ll definitely be sad to see it go! There is always so much to do here in the identification service, with a constant stream of enquiries covering all areas. This week I was able to hold a fossilised oyster and dinosaur bone both up to 200 million years old!

However, it’s now time for me to present what I’ve found from the database research I’ve been doing over the past two weeks, looking into the sort of public enquiries the Identifications and Advisory Service receive. Using data from 1992-2008, I have been able to build up a good picture of the sort of information everybody wants from us.

I took a look at which types of insects were usually involved in enquiries in order to ascertain whether butterflies were brought in for identification more than mites or ants, for example.

 

… however, the winners were the Coleoptera, the beetles, with almost a quarter of all enquiries! A trend which carries on …

image002.gif

 

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1d/Stegobium_paniceum_bl.jpg

… as the most popular individual insect is the lovely Drugstore beetle (aka the Bread beetle or the Biscuit beetle) - Stegobium Paniceum (above). Think of all those poor biscuits!

 

 

It was interesting to see how the Identification Service has been used, as most of the top ten enquired about insects were pests- Stegobium paniceum, Vespa crabro, Plodia interpunctella, Anthrenus verbasci, Attagenus pellio, Tineola bisselliella, Dermestes peruvianus, Urocerus gigas and Tenebrio molitor- an understandable concern for many.

 

Macroglossum stellatarum, the Hummingbird Hawk Moth is an exception and not a pest at all!

Macroglossum_stellatarum_1.JPG

Hopefully the team here at the Angela Marmont Centre will be able to use my research to update their supply of fact sheets, helping them to reply more quickly to these common enquiries!

 

Thanks Rebecca!

 

And just one last word from the IAS... it's been really useful having Rebecca work with us this last few weeks - so much data - so little time, but what we have got is some very useful information which can really help us to inform our responses to common enquires. It is a sorry indictment that the most common species are the ones that are percieved to cause a nuisance - but not to be beaten, part of our job here in the centre for UK biodiversity is to break down notions of insects as pests and to encourage people to find out more about the weird and wonderful world of insects - remember - insects are our friends too...!

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We've asked Rebecca, our excellent intern, to write about her experiences so far here in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. Rebecca is working on our database of insect enquiries which goes as far back as 2002! This data is as yet not analysed; though we are able to see trends on a seasonal basis, we haven't measured for sure such things as species distribution, increases and declines. So the work that Rebecca has been tasked with is really important in helping us to produce some quantificable results.

Over to Rebecca:

Hi, I’m Rebecca, and for the past week I‘ve been an intern with the Identification and Advisory service.

I’m here with the Young Graduates for Museums and Galleries program, which aims to get some of us students behind the scenes of a few of the London-based institutions. Many of us, including myself, are already looking towards careers in museums and galleries and this program gives us a unique chance to fully understand what we would be getting ourselves in for, hopefully persuading us to continue down this path, as well as providing us with vital experience when considering future job applications!

But that’s enough about that, I’ve been asked to tell you what we’ve been getting up to this week!

I don’t know how much you know about camel spiders (Solpugids) but, when I was shown some of the office collection just the other day, I came far too close to one for comfort- despite it being long deceased and the presence of the glass that separated us! Not one usually bothered by spiders, these terrifyingly huge, extremely hairy and double fanged creatures (though not technically spiders) gave me the creeps!

Here are two being picked up by some members of the American forces, though it isn’t clear whether they are mating or fighting.

camel_spider_large_726875_EEEK_The_Largest_Spider_ever-s800x600-12223.jpg

Not to worry you too much, while their bite is painful, they aren’t venomous and certainly not native to Britain. That said, I think I’d still prefer them to be in the museum display cases!

Moving a bit closer to home, there have been a lot of Lepidoptera queries coming in this week from those believing to have found some very exotic caterpillars. However, many of these are actually exciting looking species native to Britain (something I have learnt this week)! Below is the caterpillar of the poplar hawk-moth, Laothoe populi, which is a stunning bright green.

We may not be the sunniest of countries but at least we still have the dazzling wildlife!

800px-Poplar_hawk-moth.jpg

Aside from these various experiences whilst shadowing the staff here at the Angela Marmont Centre, I have also been working on collating their database, for which I will be providing some statistics next week. Though it doesn’t sound quite as exciting, it is one of the behind the scenes jobs that needs to be done in order to provide a top quality output from the identification and advisory service - a view my program has been aiming for.

Next week I am hoping to be able to give the team an idea of the most common inquiries so we can put together some useful information sheets - helping to reply to queries more efficiently!

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It is Lepidoptera season! July through to August are the best months for spotting these insects on the wing and observing the multifarious and mysterious larval forms.

 

We have had two great stories this week...

 

Here at the Centre for UK Biodiversity we welcome anyone with an interest in natural history, to come and use our UK reference collections and library resources to identify their finds, solve a taxonomic puzzle, and satisfy their curiousity.

 

This happened this week with the Welsh Wave, Venusia cambrica Family Geometridae, found in London nr. Wimbledon. Wimbledon? Surely not! This species likes a hilly terrain and is found in the North of England and Wales, and Scotland and Ireland. Its English South West distribution doesn't include London (obviously!). By using our reference collections the lepidopterists amongst us agreed it was indeed the Welsh Wave!

 

We have posted it on our forums here.

 

Next up is  the Jersey Tiger, Euplagia quadripunctaria Family Arctiidae

Jersey Tiger Moth for web.jpg

This striking day flying moth gets its name from its once Channel Island and South East coast only distribution - oh, and that it has tiger stripes on its forewings - but you knew that!

This is  a successful species whose distribution is changing relatively quickly, now found in parts of Dorset, Devon and even the Isle of Wight - but London? How did it make the leap from South coast to London without filling in its geographical range as it went? It's possible this was an accidental introduction and now there is a thriving localised population; this week a confirmed sighting in SE3!

 

The best sighting though has to come from Jack, aged 90 no less, who wrote us this charming letter, and unless anyone can put me right, I reckon this is the Jersey Tiger!

 

1589-2010 Jersey tiger by Jack aged 90 019.jpg

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The Tale of the Wasp and the Weevil

 

Every insect has a fascinating tale to tell, and some have a sting in their tail...

 

Some are quite simple: from the pupa the insect emerges, they fly around a bit to find a mate, some might pause to lap up some nectar along the way, the males die off whilst the female lays her eggs and then too dies or maybe she will overwinter, emerging again the following spring. And there is a larval stage in there somewhere too.

 

This is a familiar metamorphic pattern followed with unerring regularity (aside from stochastical effects completely out of the insects, um, hands, so to speak!).

 

But to call an insect’s life-history simple is to do most of these fascinating creatures a disservice. There is one insect in particular which arrived on the wings of the postal service in to our inbox that is simply amazing! Well, I say insect, rather evidence of said insect!

 

And now for the challenge:

 

Any ideas?

No? At first, neither did we!

 

What arrived was a clear plastic measuring container with obvious insect debris inside collected by a lovely lady convinced that this was something to do with Colletes hederae (the Ivy bee). Her hypothesis was that this debris was the cocoon of the solitary bee (found in a cliff face), but what was the other ‘stuff’ found nearby? Looks like dead bodies, but Ivy bees are not predatory!

 

This somewhat macabre collection is the empty abdominal carcasses of weevils (minus heads and other appendages), in fact, the debris of a fierce predator.

 

The deflated cocoon type debris, is, …empty cocoons.

 

The predatory solitary Crabronid wasp (family Crabronidae) has left incriminating evidence behind!

And so the fascinating, macabre, and deadly tale of the wasp, Cerceris arenaria, reveals itself. See this link to BWARS to see C. arenaria in action

http://www.bwars.com/Cerceris_arenaria.htm

 

This species of Cerceris is one of the largest found in Britain (between 10-15mm). The wasp can be seen over dry sandy areas such as cliff faces from May onwards, where this evidence was found.

The cocoons or cells in the image are constructed inside a tunnel, up to 40cm.

The female then goes out hunting for weevils. Weevils are dive-bombed, then paralyzed by venom injected into the exposed soft tissue of the beetle. The cells are then provisioned with the paralyzed weevils, sometimes as many as 12 per cell. The wasp larvae then feed at their leisure from the internal organs of the tragic weevils.
This is actually quite a common species but few would know its terrible secret!

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Spraints, Sunshine and Spiders

Posted by Blaps Jul 16, 2010

So whilst everyone else is on holiday (sun, sea, sand, ...) we are busy squirreling away answering your enquiries (in our basement with not much chance of seeing daylight - it is true the enquiries team are reverting to albinism).

 

Okay, so we have just the best (?) enquiry.

A student has brought in a sample of otter poo - or 'spraint' to be more precise.

We all know (don't we?) that investigating animal poo is a very useful way to research an animals' behaviour, and more pertinently, diet (after all Gillian McKeith made a fortune out of it!), so it is more common than you might think, but a smelly business.

 

It is not the poo per se that we are interested in, rather what is in the poo, and in this particular sample is evidence of reptile skin. How exciting. The student's request was could we identify the skin. Generally the otter has a varied piscatarian diet, taking the most readily available fish such as trout and eels. However they will eat anything, which means it is a highly adaptive species, and quite partial to the odd amphibian or reptile.

 

The trouble is, the skin arrived 'in situ' and so for H&S reasons we can't look at it, but once it is cleaned up and preserved in alcohol, we should be able to get a closer look. It's been floated that the skin is Terrapin (it would be a very good thing if the invasive Terrapin had a formidable predator to keep the population under control) - some wit in the office suggested we offer free can openers to local otters as part of this new initiative!


Otters, (with the lovely scientific name Lutra lutra) are regarded as 'near threatened' by the IUCN and are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

 

On to a less appealing subject: Spiders (depending on your point of view - mine is generally a scared one). We get soo many spider enquiries each week (in fact we should dedicate a whole blog entry to the variety of species and horror stories) We open all our postal mail in a quarantine area which helps to ensure the safety of the Museum's collections as well as the Museum's staff! But, still I haven't learnt. Today I opened a package addressed to me (no bells ringing about the conversation I had earlier in the week  about a foreign looking spider found in a warehouse), put my hand in the jiffy bag....

Actually it was fine, spider safely contained in an empty orange juice carton - but alive and very big and it did give me a fright (there was no one around to hear my screams! Other nasties this week: German cockroach found in a bathtub (brought in alive!), huge black scorpion from Dubai, fortunately dead and some flies that pupated inside the very lovely but very pesky Garden chafer (whilst alive!). Isn't nature great!?                                                  This Garden chafer (below) was the one that got away...

2010 garden chafer newly emerged_low.jpg

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National Insect Week 21-27th June

Posted by Blaps Jun 22, 2010

Okay, so I am one day late - perhaps entomologists are as unpredictable and imprecise as the insects they study?!

But...it's National Insect Week, and there is so much going on...

It's great to have a whole week dedicated to those amazing and diverse creatures that help to keep this planet alive (I know - that's putting it very simply!).

 

So what is going on at the Museum this week - well, for a start Species of the Day will feature a British insect each day, and today's our lovely colleague Erica features the menacing Asilus crabroniformis or more commonly, the hornet robber fly http://tinyurl.com/32eufum

 

 

Follow this link to find out more about National Insect Week http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/national-insect-week/index.html

 

We will be here:

 

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/events/programs/learning/meet_the_entomologists.html

 

along with the entomology department, basically showing off! It kind of puts me in mind of a village fete, but with insects, and without the cake!

 

The Identification and Advisory Service will have on display our weird and wonderful creatures that people have brought in for identification over the years and be on hand to identify anything you might find to show us - so come on down!

 

I see that National Insect Week has also got in on the Blog, it's great to see some old and new entomologist friends having their say - insects have a voice! Hoorah!

http://nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

 

http://blogs.nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

 

Here is one of the Phyllobius weevils hanging out with some ants!

2010 phyllobius with ants_low suffolk.jpg

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