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Identification

11 Posts authored by: Blaps
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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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Each week, month or even day there is always an enquiry favourite

 

This month's most popular enquiry has to be the Ermine moth, we have had sooo many calls and photos about this very naughty caterpillar. As ever, insects get in to the media when they cause a nuisance, and this one is quite dramatic. As an entomologist, I am not too phased by this extroardinary behaviour, but, to the unitiated, it might well appear like somehting out of  a horror film, to arrive at your car to find this:

 

http://www.metro.co.uk/news/672650-attack-of-the-slimy-caterpillar-web

 

Or wake up one morning and find this in your back garden:

 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-460276/Caterpillars-cocoons-turn-garden-scene-horror-film.html

 

Or, like this farmer from Suffolk, never seen anything like it in 40 years of farming:

2010 yponomeuta in suffolk.JPG

 

The Ermine moths belong to a family called the Yponomeutidae of which there are approximately 75 species in the UK. They are a very difficult group to tell apart as some can be morphologically very similar. However, for the more common species, as with many insects, they give us a clue to what they are by where we find them.

 

The photo above shows Yponomeuta sp 'tents' on Hawthorn; The Orchard Ermine, Yponomeuta padella larvae (caterpillar) takes hawthorn as one of its food plants, so we could make an assumption without actually seeing the specimen in this case. In identification - detective work is all-important!

 

The question that everyone is asking (again, insects get us talking) is why? Why are they appearing now, in areas they have never been seen before, and in such vast numbers? Well, I guess this is open to conjecture.

 

The ermines are quite common, they can be found on the wing from July-August - but what has lead to this 'population explosion'? Well, it could be lack of parasitization by Ichneumonids, in conjunction with exceptionally favourable enviromnmental conditions; in nature the balance can tip, but it rights itself in the end.

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It's that timeof year when scientists and naturalists feel compelled to get out in to the great outdoors and tell the world just how many species we live with in our near environment.

 

As well as 'biodiversity' - the new buzz word (no pun intended, but unavoidable - sorry!) is BIOBLITZ.

 

But what does it mean?

 

24 hours of non-stop searching, researching and recording of the natural organisms in one given environment. It's an excellent way to get a snap-shot of what is happening in our natural and urban environments at any given time and actually, just how diverse and amazing the many species we encounter in that short time can be.

 

Last year the OPAL team did a BIOBLITZ at Wembury in Devon and an amazing 800+ species were recorded in 24 hours.

http://www.opalexplorenature.org/?q=node/317

 

Just a couple of weeks ago, museum scientists, including a few from the IAS did a BIOBLITZ in Juliette Jowett's London garden, finding an amazing 200+ species - just in a normal suburban garden; so....

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/18/secret-life-suburban-garden

 

What are we going to find at Alexandra Palace - 196 acres of urban park and wildspace

http://www.opalexplorenature.org/?q=node/662http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/18/secret-life-suburban-garden

 

Join us tomorrow from 10am to find and record as many species as possible - it's so exciting!

Today the OPAL team have been setting up with field equipment: nets, pooters, buckets, recording sheets, suntan lotion - in fact, anything you could possibly need for a good day out of natural history hunting! It is also the BBC's Spring Watch Wild Day Out

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8587000/8587410.stm

 

Will we beat Wembury and fnd more than 800 species - lets try!

 

See you tomorrow folks...

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Phew, what a week it has been, what with the media launch and then International Year of Biodiversity Day on Saturday 22nd May, it feels like we haven’t left the museum in a week!

 

As part of our launch the Museum commissioned a MORI survey into just how much British citizens know about our native species.

Well, the results were not surprising. Here is what the headlines sa.:


Less than a quarter (24%) of UK adults are able to correctly identify the common UK sycamore tree, according to a survey on behalf of the Natural History Museum, which launches the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity today.

 

So we have some work to do in getting people interested in natural history – this is good – this is what we are here for! We all have a responsibility as part of society to respect and conserve our natural environments and all living creatures that this supports.

 

This is just what SH did in preparation for IYB day on Saturday. Armed with nothing more than a sweep net, a jam jar, and some insect repellent our intrepid entomologist headed off to the New Forest to see what he could find. He arrived on Saturday with all manner of beasts to show and tell as we opened our doors to celebrate International Year of biodiversity.

 

Anyone that came to IYB day would have met the irascible pair of very friendly Cockchafers (Melonontha melonontha) (who were determined to fly away) along with their cousins, the beautiful metallic green rose chafers (Cetonia aurata), one of the Clerid beetles, (Pyrochroa coccinea) which is bright red (the clue is in the name!), and a rogue spider, safely held in a sealed plastic cup, the woodlouse spider, (Dysdera crocata), which as the name suggests, eats woodlice, but is also partial to humans!

 

cockchafer025.jpg

We had hundreds of people through the doors and there was lots to talk about, see and do. We were there, the Identification and Advisory service - of course - though we only received one butterfly for identification but did manage to tell anyone who stood still for long enough all about insects, spiders, bugs, whatever.

 

museum 002.jpgmuseum 019.jpg

 

Our earth sciences experts were on hand to show off some of our British fossil collections, along with some extant relatives, and did some explaining about how we know what the soft body parts of say, the ammonite was like - we got some complicated questions!

 

Our resident botanist proudly showed off a British herbarium specimen of the Ghost orchid  - see its heroic story here.


 

The OPAL team were also there and got lots of attention as they had very studiously been out pond dipping at the crack of dawn in our nature garden. We have a very healthy pond apparently, with good environmental indicators such as caddis fly larvae (who disguise themselves in a 'case' they make from bits of pond debris), tadpoles, leeches (eurgh!) flat worms, mayfly larvae, and it goes on...

 

museum 016.jpgmuseum 020.jpg

 

Go to the OPAL website to join and take part (you get a free pencil!)

 

One person that realy stood out (nice shirt!) was the UK naturalist Chris Packham who came in for a chat, which was nice!

 

museum 028.jpg

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What the papers say...

Posted by Blaps May 21, 2010

Well, we have launched! We are now officially open and wait with anticipation as to what more is going to come thorugh our doors, drop through our letter box or be waiting in our inbox for identification - go on - surprise us!

Actually we a breathing a sigh of relief - we have been really busy this past few months getting ready for the launch, as we are a completely new department: (some) new staff, new ideas, new collections space and most importantly new resources to help us get you interested in natural history (if you weren't already!).

 

Our collections developers, Eleanor and Hannah, have been working in conjunction with our curatorial departments to bring together representative species from the UK collections of Zoology, Palaentology, Entomology and Botany (for Mineralogy - watch this space!) to be housed in the Angela Marmont Centre. These collections are really important to us as we can use them to compare your specimens with, both for identifcation and to help us describe your specimens better.

 

Often people drop in to the centre with something they have found whilst out and about, they might have even tripped over it - only yesterday we had a call from somone who had found a sea urchin fossil on the side of the road, which apparently had fallen out of a nearby wall - fascinating! It also happens to be that this person is a collector of marine fossils and has been unable to identify this one, so hopefully, by using our collections we should be able to make that identifcation.

 

Here are a few links to what the media have to say about us:

 

Culture 24 reports on all things cultural in museums and has some great things to say about the centre after coming to visit us onTuesday:

http://www.culture24.org.uk/science+%2526+nature/art78970

 

Our very own Stuart Hine did a stint with the Guardian's Environment Blog:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/may/18/natural-history-thrive-online

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This week, the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity officially opens its doors to the nature loving world – if you are reading this then that should include you!


So who are we, what are we about, and what can we do for you?


The Identification and Advisory Service (IAS) is a team of five museum experts and natural historians all with a subject specialism - we cover palaeontology (that’s the fossils and rocks), mineralogy (minerals) , Entomology (the insects), botany (the plants), Zoology (that’s everything else!) - but the most important thing is, we all have a passion for natural history, we love it, we can’t get enough of it, in fact every day something amazing comes through our doors, found by you! This week alone we have identified a dormouse nest, an oil beetle, the jaw bone of a lizard found in an owl pellet, and a slime mould - nice!


The museum has for many years run an identification service – where else would you turn if you suddenly found a strange bug in your bedroom, dug up a dinosaur bone, found a plant you had never seen before, saw the most amazing creature on holiday, with no idea of how to identify it – well, you would come to the Museum wouldn’t you?


For the first time, the Museum’s UK collections and supporting expertise can be accessed in one place and in a number of ways:

You can email amc-enquiries@nhm.ac.uk

You can call 020 7942 5045

You can drop in

Or you can join our online forums http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/community/identification

 

The centre for UK biodiversity acts as a gateway to the UK collections, and the experts that care for them. We are available to speak first hand to you about your natural history interests. We can identify your finds, or if we are unable to identify your specimen we know a scientist who can! Also, we can help you find out more about your special natural history interests, such as assisting you in using our reference collections and library.


Already we have had some amazing experiences and seen some very special things. We never know what might come through our doors, although sometimes we can predict it! For instance, there are some likely culprits that turn up every year, how about the Harlequin ladybird, hibernating in our homes in large numbers, causing you to call in with questions from do ladybirds bite (yes they do!) to what effect are they having on our native ladybirds?

Harlequin_variation1339_MartinHoney_large.jpg

 

Or, the hornets, those seem to terrorise so many of us, but are in fact far more placid than the common wasp!

Vespa crabro queen.jpg

Vespa crabro queen

Then there are the summer holidays, where you are out and about, maybe along the UK’s beautiful coastline, or even abroad, it’s amazing what gets washed up from the sea! For example, this was dredged up on the south coast:

aurochs 09-881 for blog resized.JPG

Jaw bone of Aurochs, primitive cattle, Holocene c. 12,000 yrs old

Even if you have an interest in natural history, but you are unsure where to start, give us a call or drop us an email and we can give you some pointers, for example, there are hundreds of UK natural history societies, forums and recording groups, all happy to share their expertise and welcome you to their group.


The IAS’s new online natural history forum is an excellent place to start if you have found something that interests you or are curious about.

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/community/identification?fromGateway=true


Here are a few examples:

We get many of these when people are digging around in their gardens:

AMC-10-49 Bos tuarus tooth #2.jpg

Upper molar of domestic cattle, found in back garden

 

Or these, which form from lumps of mudstone and limestone that have dried out forming shrinkage cracks:  

 

IMG_turtle stone for blog.jpg

Septarian nodule or ‘turtle stone’ found in Wales.

This was submitted for identification as a fossilized turtle, and you can see why!


Finally, why are we here? This might sound like an existential question but it’s an important one. Now more than ever, there is a necessity to research, record and conserve the natural organisms with which we (humans) co-habit. We have all heard about biodiversity loss and species decline, as well as the success stories of species recovery. All of this must be underpinned by a robust knowledge of our natural environment and the organisms that live within it. The diversity of life is a wonderful thing, worth conserving, and respecting, and we can’t do that unless, at a basic level, we know what things are, what they do, where to find them.


That’s where you come in to the picture.


The future’s bright – the future’s natural history.