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5 Posts tagged with the taxonomy tag
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In his book titled ‘What is Life?', British-born scientist JBS Haldane wrote:

‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other’.

 

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An example of the beetle collections at the Museum.


Haldane was referring to the numerous nature of the coleopteran, or beetles as they are more commonly known. This order consists of more species than any other group. In fact, beetles make up around 40% of the total insects described. The Museum itself boasts an amazing collection of over 10 million species, meticulously stored in 22 thousand draws. This collection is constantly evolving and expanding.

 

Zambia

 

Nature Live took the opportunity to learn more about the entomologists' latest adventure – a trip to Zambia. Entomologist Lydia Smith spoke to the Nature Live team about their findings.


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The  landscape in Zambia.

 

Lydia spent 6 weeks travelling around Zambia collecting samples. Zambia has very varied terrain which provides plenty of scope for a diverse community of beetles and other organisms. The Museum's team worked closely with local guides to navigate the hostile environments. Lydia explained that their help was invaluable, she described them as ‘extremely helpful and excitable people’.

 

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Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.

 

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The team vehicle surrounded by dense vegetation.


Being in Zambia, the team was constantly surrounded an incredible array of wildlife, some of which interfered with their sampling. Hyenas and civet cats were both suspected of disturbing the insect traps.

 

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An elephant caught on film by a camera trap.

 

Camera traps caught glimpses of a variety of species, from elephants to elephant shrews. One day Lydia recalls picking up a beetle and receiving quite a shock – the beetle's backend exploded in her hand!  She had encountered a beetle she had only previously read about, the elusive ‘Bombardier beetle’. As a defence mechanism, this particular type of ground beetle ejects a chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen,  accompanied by a loud popping sound.


Field techniques

 

During the expedition, a number of techniques were used in order to obtain samples. Light traps were used at dusk to attract insects onto a large sheet or tent like structure where they could then be collected. This type of trap can be extremely effective at gaining samples of nocturnal species.

 

The team often used pitfall traps, which consist of a plastic cup that is submerged in the soil and partially filled with a preservative. An attractant is then suspended above the traps to draw insects towards the area. Dung or carrion is typically used. The dung is collected from local ungulates – or, in more remote areas, the dung is supplied by the researchers themselves!

 

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Dung and carrion are used to lure insects into these pitfall traps.

 

Mid-flight traps consist of a piece of Perspex suspended in the air and below the Perspex, a number of colourful trays that contain a small amount of water.

Perspex trap.jpgMid-flight traps in action

 

Another method involves beating branches and collecting the falling samples on a modified umbrella to capture tree-dwelling species. A pooter is then used to collect the samples from the umbrella.


Lydia explained the critical nature of the permits that allowed the team to bring samples back into the country. Samples, usually suspended in alcohol for preservation, are drained ready for transportation. They are then flown back. Upon hearing this, a younger member of the Nature Live audience curiously enquired…


‘Do the beetles sit next to you on the flight?’


Sadly invertebrates are not permitted in the cabin and are relegated to the hold. Once back at the Museum, the samples are refreshed with a new batch of alcohol and then the sorting process begins.


Back at the Museum


After a six week trip the team will spend up to six months processing all of their findings. While Lydia’s team is only particularly interested in beetles, they process the entire selection and divide the other insects into orders. These insects are then sent to their respective experts for further classification.

 

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A tiger beetle from the subfamily Cicindelinae, collected by Lydia Smith and the rest of the team.

 

From this particular expedition, the team have identified a number of new species, including wasps and rove beetles. The total number of new species is difficult to define as a rigorous procedure is followed, involving a number of different specialists before a final decision is made. Often insects are named after the region in which they are found, which helps to highlight the importance of the region and increase the likeliness that this area will be protected in the future.


Beetlemania was yet another superb insight into work at the Museum and in the field. If you are interested in beetles and would like to chat to an expert, there will be a number of the collections displayed at the Museum's upcoming event Science Uncovered on the 26 September.

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Last week, Nature Live caught up with Museum scientist Dan Carpenter who has just returned from the wilds of Borneo!  I was lucky enough to join him for the last two weeks of his trip in the state of Sabah (in the North East of Borneo) and was blown away by the size and beauty of the rainforests there.

 

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The trees in Borneo are massive and often have buttress roots.

Dan and his team were using similar methods to those they've used previously in the New Forest, and were trying to find out more about the diversity of invertebrate species living in the rainforests of Borneo. 

 

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A large earthworm found in the rainforest

To carry out their work, Dan and the team used a variety of collecting methods, including pitfall traps and something called a SLAM trap - which looks a bit like a tent hanging up in the trees!

 

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A SLAM trap hanging up in the trees

 

In last week's Nature Live event, Dan explained how all these different collecting methods worked and what it was like to spend six weeks living in the rainforest. 

 

To find out more, catch up with Dan's blog or read my blog about the work being carried out by Dan and other Museum scientists in Borneo (including Holger and Pat, who study lichens) and see some great film footage of the wildlife we encountered.

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Today the studio was taken over by lichen. Yes, lichen.

 

The first question for me (embarrassingly) was 'what are they…or it?' Turns out, pretty cool.

 

Pat Wolseley who works in our Botany department explained that lichens are actually two types of organisms living together, a fungus and an alga. They have managed to carve out an existence by working together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus makes the body that protects the alga and the alga provides the food for the fungus. Who said nature is red in tooth and claw!

 

Fun fact of the day No. 2, lichens are hardcore. They have been found everywhere from the cold arctic and hot deserts to rocky beaches and inner-city gravestones. Not only are some very tough, others are very sensitive to air quality and this makes them perfect when it comes to monitioring air pollution.

 

In simple terms, if you see this fluffy greenish beard lichen on trees (Usnea florida) you can be sure the air is clean or getting cleaner. However, if you find trees and stones covered with the golden shield lichen (Xanthoria parietina) there is a lot of nitrogen about.

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Image caption: Usnea florida (above) and Xanthoria parietina (below)

 

Now you can tell the difference why don't you get involved in the OPAL air survey? Join the hundreds of people logging on and helping scientists answer questions about the quality of the air we breathe.

 

To help scientists collect data on the air quality in your local area visit http://www.opalexplorenature.org/

 

Happy surveying!

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Last Thursday museum scientist Paul Barrett (the man when it comes to dinosaurs) took part in a Nature Live event on Dinosaur Diversity.  We covered everything from the latest news about ginger dinosaurs to how we know what noise dinosaurs made.  We also talked about Oxford Street!!  More commonly associated with massive department stores and high street fashion, Oxford Street is currently home to some impressive animatronic dinosaurs!

 

As you can see from the photo below, Paul brought a few things from the museum collections with him.  Notice the large lower jaw on the left of the photo (next to Paul) - a cast from a T-rex specimen.  And, of course, there was the poo....dinosaur poo (hiding in the white box on top of the table and referred to as coprolites).  Believe it or not, it is possible to find fossilised dinosaur poo - it's pretty hard, and no longer smells (!), but it can still help scientists to understand more about these remarkable animals.

 

Brilliant stuff! 

 

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DSCN8315.JPGYesterday morning I have to admit I was a little worried when Max Barclay told me “Oh, and I won’t forget your beetle soup”. I had to wait for the event at 14.30 to be reassured that he wasn’t doing an all too literal recreation of life in the field for the Nature Live audience! Although he did mention that on occasion he has had to choose between starving and eating bugs for dinner; today beetle soup was actually the name of the amalgam of insects he collects in fieldtrips and brings back in bottles of alcohol.

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He brought along the bits and bobs from his collection kit, took us through some amazing landscapes, talked about the challenges of carrying the equipment through the forest (and how this is becoming easier because the forest is now much less vast and you can reach its 'heart' much faster). He also spoke about how he chooses where to go on an expedition and how to identify puma pee with butterflies!! (Handier than you might think!)

 

 

So, from the traps to the beetle soup: Max, live in the studio, sorted out one of his beetle soup bottles from Colombia and showed us all the identification and taxonomical work that takes place, which means that you can then find out if you have discovered new species.Picture10.jpg

 

All this, plus Max’s characteristic enthusiasm, questions and comments from the visitors, and lots of WoWs when some of the jungle beetles were revealed! After all this exploration, we hope to have inspired some of our visitors to not only be amazed by the beautiful beetles in our collections but realise their importance within the Earth’s ecosystems. Our collections are huge - 28 million of insects, 22,000 drawers of beetles – and aim to represent the entire world so they can be relevant in understanding life and defining strategies for the sustainability of our Planet!