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Jul 1, 2015 A Very Busy Time! | Identification Trainers for the Future

Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have been extremely busy since our last blog post, here's Mike Waller with an update on what they have been getting up to!


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The trainees puzzle over their latest capture (L-R: Sally, Anthony, Mike and Katy)


Our timetables, until now a collage of various colours, have become a very busy reality over the last two months. We got our teeth into another batch of long-anticipated ID workshops - Flowering Plants, Beetles, Flies and Earthworms. I think I speak for everyone when I say the skills and knowledge we've been passed by some of the leading scientific experts in the Museum have been rich, extensive and unique. Developing techniques to hoard as much of this golden information as possible have become paramount.


I've already gathered a thick stack of mixed ID keys, notes, powerpoint handouts and even the odd specimen - usually midway through the processing to go into my personal collection. Sally has taken her learning consolidation to a new level and is producing an incredible assemblage of annotated line drawings and intricate watercolours in her note book. She'll be blogging about that separately, but we're all a little jealous!


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An extract from Sallys notebook


The first of these workshops was a one-day instalment of flowering plants out in the wilds of East London with Mark Spencer. We met promptly for 9.00 at Mile End tube station before heading out in the company of other trainees from a similar scheme called Wild Talent being run by the London Wildlife Trust (also funded by the HLF's Skills for the Future programme), and people who narrowly missed out on getting the traineeship during the first round. Indeed, several places have been made available on all workshops for the other 20 trainee applicants as an opportunity to maximise the skills-base across the board. It was great to see them again!


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Mark Spencer highlighting some of the finer points of plant identification


After a scorching day keying out Fabacae and crucifers, dodging cyclists and discussing the horror of path-side 'tidying', we finished in Mark's local pub for a well-earned pint. As always, Mark's casual ability to blend good science, humour and memorable anecdotes always makes for a superb time. We all very much look forward to our next sessions with him in July.


Next up was our very first invertebrate workshop, and what better to start with than beetles - the group within which both Katy and Anthony find their true passion. This workshop was a solid four-day stretch that began with Roger Booth taking us through the depths of beetle anatomy followed by some family keying. Max Barclay provided a two-part lecture on world beetle families that, for me, gave a fascinating insight into the truly spectacular speciation and morphological diversity of the group acoss the planet.


As our confidence grew, we began to use specific familiy keys to make accurate species identifications of some of the more challenging groups such as Elateridae or the 'click' beetles. Michael Geiser and Roger offered invaluable help during this process as their oceans of knowledge were repeatedly called upon.


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A small selection of beetles for identification


Just as we thought we were getting to understand insects, BOOM, in swept the seemingly impenetrable order of flies - a group with unfathomable diversity! Luckily we were in very good hands as we were led through the array of sub-orders by Erica McAlister, Duncan Sivell, Zoe Adams, Daniel Whitemore and the AMC's very own Chris Raper.


In similar style to the beetles, we used familiy keys to start with then slowly graduated to species identifications where possible. This workshop however came with a difference and on the second day, we all met at Wimbledon Common for a day out collecting.


With nets, pooters and pots at the ready, we were unleased on the varied mix of heathland, pastures and oak woodlands to capture what we could. The weather couldn't have been better and gave us a golden opportunity to use collecting techniques in the field. Once back in the Museum we were then able to pin and mount our specimens for our personal collections.


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Left: Out on Wimbledon Common with the Diptera team. Right: Chloe back in the lab working on her diptera slide preparation


Our most recent workshop went subterranean with Emma Sherlock as we dug up seemingly half of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trusts London Wetland Centre in the pursuit of earthworms. Using our trusty spades, and encouraged with the possibility of encountering a rare species, we sampled different habitats around the reserve to gain a good range of species which we then took back to the lab for identification the following day. Emma's unbridled passion for earthworms is infections and we all developed a new-found interest to take forward.



If that wasn't enough, we all packed our walking boots and set out for our placements with the Field Studies Council where we were based at various FSC Centres scattered up and down the country.


During May, I made my way north to Malham Tarn, whilst Chloe took heading north to the extreme with a week at Kindrogan and Milport on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. Meanwhile, Anthony settled at Flatford Mill in Suffolk. Sally followed the South Wales coast to Dale Fort and Katy battled her way through the winding roads of North Wales to Rhyd-y-Creau in the mists of Snowdonia.


The focus of each of our placements was 2-fold: to observe the identification courses each centre was running and to assist with the outdoor teaching for which the FSC is renowned. I got to observe a beginners course called 'Spring Wildflowers of the Dales' which, as you'd expect, concentrated on the botanical.


It was led by local botanist Judith Allinson who taught a mixture of plant structure and lineage with a good dose of field visits to observe some of the specialist plants of the stunning limestone pastures, pavements and hay meadows. Having not been to the Dales proper before, I was continually stunned by this landscape of dramatic limestone cliffs and thick green meadows chequered by moss-drenched dry stone walls where the only sounds were the melancholy warbles of distant curlews. Highlights for me were the rafts of early purple orchids, adder's-tongue ferns and a hungry peregrine attempting to snatch Lapwing chicks on the tarn shore


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Malham Tarn FSC Centre


The second part of my stay saw a sudden shift from pupil to teacher as various school groups, ranging from 8-14 year olds, visited for day trips and longer stays. This meant hanging out with the tireless field teachers who work extremely long hours to meet the educational needs of over-excited children!


It was a real privilege to see the field teacher's skills in action, but equally how challenging their roles can be. Trying to deliver a range of syllabus-based content that is relevant and exciting to different age groups, whilst trying to avoid the hazards of controlling a large group of children in an unpredicatable environment is very hard indeed. These observations were echoed by the other trainees who also gained immesurably from their experiences.


To round off our teaching and learning, Sally, Anthony and I also got stuck into some more people engagement at Big Nature Day here at the Museum. This is a coming together of over 50 different specialist wildlife organisations from across the UK. These included the more familiar groups such as the BSBI and iSpot, but it also provided an opportunity for some of the lesser-known societies such as the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Pteridological Society to get their name out there.


Like Lyme Regis, this was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the work of the Angela Marmont Centre while also browsing and networking with some fascinating wildlife groups. As trainees, we ran our own table providing microscopes to observe lichens and several drawers filled with UK insects and bee mimics. I also spent some of my time at the Orchid Observers stand where I helped answer questions about the project alongside Kath Castillo, Fred Rumsey and Mark Spencer.


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Mike, Sally and Anthony at Big Nature Day


All in all, an inspiring day, and an inspiring, and hectic couple of months! As the traineeship progresses, we're all looking forward to our next few workshops, which include Freshwater Invertebrates, Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera, as well as our short field trip down to the Isle of Purbeck before we all set sail in September for our three month curation placements at various departments around the Museum. Make sure you stay tuned for the next instalment of the Identification Trainees saga!


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Your blog author, Mike Waller


Thanks Mike! Don't forget you can find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project at, including how and when to apply for next years traineeship positions.

Jun 24, 2015 Neglected Tropical Diseases on display at the Museum

On 25 June the Museum will open its doors to a special event in celebration of the international and global commitment between countries, industry, charities and academia to work together against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). This commitment was first agreed upon in London in 2012 and has since been termed the London Declaration On NTDs.


By joining forces to fight NTDs the world would achieve a huge reduction in health inequality paving the way to sustainable improvements in health and development especially amongst the worlds poor. The 25 June sees the launch of the third progress report, 'Country Leadership and Collaboration on Neglected Tropical Diseases'. A pragmatic overview of what has been done, what has worked, what hasn't and what key areas still need to be achieved.


The Museum is thrilled to be participating in this event, having a long-standing history in parasitic and neglected tropical disease research. As both a museum and an institute of research our mission is to answer questions of broad significance to science and society using our unique expertise and collections and to share and communicate our findings to inspire and inform the public. We are excited to be hosting a day of free public events on Neglected Tropical Diseases.


What are NTDs?

Neglected Tropical Diseases are termed in this way because they infect hundreds of thousands to millions of people, predominantly the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities, and yet receive comparatively little funding for basic, clinical or drug-development research and even less attention from governments, people and the media of affluent countries. Until now!


In total the WHO has identified 17 diseases or groups of diseases that fall within this category.


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World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020


The 10 selected by the WHO for control and elimination by 2020 are:


  1. Onchocerciasis (aka river blindness): A blood worm infection transmitted by the bite of infected blackflies causing severe itching and eye lesions as the adult worm produces larvae and leading to visual impairment and permanent blindness.
  2. Dracunculiasis (aka Guinea-worm disease): A roundworm infection transmitted exclusively by drinking-water contaminated with parasite-infected water fleas. The infection leads to meter-long female worms emerging from painful blisters on feet and legs to deposit her young. This leads to fever, nausea and vomiting as well as debilitating secondary bacterial infections in the blisters.
  3. Lymphatic filariasis: A blood & lymph worm infection transmitted by mosquitoes causing abnormal enlargement of limbs and genitals (elephantiasis) from adult worms inhabiting and reproducing in the lymphatic system.
  4. Blinding trachoma: A chlamydial infection transmitted through direct contact with infectious eye or nasal discharge, or through indirect contact (e.g. via flies) with unsafe living conditions and hygiene practices, which if left untreated causes irreversible corneal opacities and blindness. Trachoma is the leading cause of blindness in the word.
  5. Schistosomiasis (aka bilharzia): A blood fluke infection transmitted when larval forms released by freshwater snails penetrate human skin during contact with infested water. The infection leads to anaemia, chronic fatigue and painful urination/defaecation during childhood, later developing into severe organ problems such as liver and spleen damages, bladder cancer, genital lesions and infertility.
  6. Visceral leishmaniasis (aka Kala azar): A protozoan blood parasite transmitted through the bites of infected female sandflies which attacks internal organs which can be fatal within 2 years. 
  7. Soil-transmitted helminths: A group on intestinal worm infections transmitted through soil contaminated by human faeces causing anaemia, vitamin A deficiency, stunted growth, malnutrition, intestinal obstruction and impaired development.
  8. Leprosy: A complex disease caused by infection mainly of the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and eyes.
  9. Chagas disease: A life-threatening illness caused by a blood protozoan parasite, transmitted to humans through contact with vector insects (triatomine bugs), ingestion of contaminated food, infected blood transfusions, congenital transmission, organ transplantation or laboratory accidents.
  10. Human African trypanosomiasis (aka sleeping sickness): A protozoan blood parasitic infection spread by the bites of tsetse flies that is almost 100% fatal without prompt diagnosis and treatment to prevent the parasites invading the central nervous system.


They were selected because the tools to achieve control are already available to us and, for some, elimination should be achievable.


Take the Guinea Worm:


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Guinea worm infection - from over 3.5 million people infected in the 80s to less than 130 cases in 2014. Set to be second human disease to be eradicated after smallpox (photo credits David Hamm&Peter Mayer)


In the 1980s over 3.5 million people were infected with Dracunculiasis (i.e. Guinea worm disease), with 21 countries being endemic for the disease. Now, thanks to the global health community efforts and extraordinary support from the Carter Center, only 126 cases were reported in 2014 and only 4 endemic countries remain: Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and South Sudan! If the WHO goal of global eradication of Guinea Worm by 2020 is met then Dracunculiasis is set to become the second human disease in history to be eradicated (the first, and only one, being smallpox). Not bad for an NTD! But there are still challenges!


At the Museum we have a long history of working on health related topics. Indeed our founding father Sir Hans Sloane was a physician who collected and identified plants from all over the world for the purpose of finding health benefits - in fact he developed chocolate milk as a health product.


Today we have a vast and biologically diverse collection of parasites and the insects/crustaceans/snails/arachnids that carry and transmit them. These are used by researchers both in the museum (such as myself and colleagues) but also internationally through collaborative work.


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Collaboration is key - Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) programme key players: the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, Public Health Laboratories Pemba, the World Health Organization, SCI, SCORE, Swiss TPH, NHM and others


We are immensely proud of our collections and the work we do in this field especially of the biological information we can contribute to health programmes in endemic countries. One of our most exciting contributions is to the Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) programme where we are working in collaboration with the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, various NGOs, the World Health Organization and the local communities to identify and implement the best tools and methods to achieve schistosomiasis elimination in Zanzibar. This would be the first time a sub-Saharan African country would achieve schistosomiasis elimination. Fingers-crossed we are up to the challenge! You can read more about this project in an earlier post on our Super-flies and parasites blog


On Thursday we are bringing out our Parasites and Vectors specimens to showcase them to the public galleries and answer any questions relating to these fascinating yet dangerous organisms. Our wonderful scientists and curators will be on hand to talk to people about our collections and research as will collaborating scientists from the London Centre of Neglected Tropical Disease Research who will talk to you about the diseases and the challenges faced to achieve the WHO 2020 goals. Please do pop by and say hello, come and look at our specimens and help us raise awareness of these devastating diseases and the fight to control and eliminate them.



We are working together with schools, communities, government and research institutes to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases. Schistosomiasis fieldwork photo with the team from the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania

Jun 8, 2015 Big is beautiful in the world of flies

Posted on behalf of Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum.

I've just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It's not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it's still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Natural History Museum collection. That doesn't sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.


So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family... but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.


And for such large creatures we know very little about them. This family is considered to be within the infraorder Stratiomyomorpha, but they have not always been positioned here. Originally they were classified within the Tabanidae – the horseflies – and do superficially resemble them (just on steroids) but there are other differences. They were then moved, along with the Xylophagidae, into Xylophagomorpha, but this infraorder is no longer used, with Pantophthalmidae now being subsumed into Stratiomyomorpha leaving Xylophagidae to roam free along the taxonomic highway (Fig.1).


Pantophthalmidae are thought of as being in a relatively stable position snuggled alongside the Stratiomyidae (soldierflies) and Xylomyidae (wood soldierflies). However, I believe some recent work by Keith Bayless of North Carolina State University has now placed the freewheeling Xylophagidae into Tabanomorpha. Everyone up to speed?



Figure 1. Tolweb organisation of Brachycera.


Now we have cleared up the higher taxonomy let's move onto distribution. They have only been found in the Neotropical region from Mexico down through Central America and down through Brazil and Paraguay and across to Venezuela and Columbia. And even though this is a vast area, they are infrequent in most collections.


The key work for this group was undertaken by Val in 1976. He states that these are rare in the collections, but in order to review all of the species and the types, you need to visit 23 different museums (this figure I presume has grown). That is a lot of effort for a handful of species but that would make a great road trip Although our collection goes back hundreds of years we have only 132 pinned specimens but we do have some important type material (Fig. 2). However we are still missing some of the species and one of the genera!



Figure 2. Species in the Museum and whether type material is housed here.

I've always liked this group of flies because they are just so big, and we have actually had some fresh material that comes from some French Guiana material donated to the Museum. It has been sitting there patiently for the last couple of years waiting to be identified and now seemed the ideal time. They had been found by our volunteers, who were surprised by these beasts, as they were so much larger than all the other specimens in the pots.


These flies, as already stated, are big. Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862) with its wings spread, can reach 8.5cm in width. Fig.3 gives you an idea of their robust and chunky bodies … we found seven specimens in the donation (of about 50 samples).



Figure 3. One of the glorious specimens - Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862).


The adults are sexually dimorphic with the males having holoptic heads (all eyeballs!)



Figure 4. The differences between the males and the female heads of Pantophthalmidae.


And they have beaks! Actually these are a very useful diagnostic feature…



Figure 5. Beaks of the Pantophthalmidae (from Val 1975).


The immature stages are not known from most of the species although we have a range of pinned, dry and spirit material of the larvae. And they too are big, like their mothers and fathers, but we have even fewer of them in the collection (Figure 6 & 7).



Figure 6. Pantophthalmid larvae in relation to adult (abdomen shown).



Figure 7. The Museum spirit collection of Pantophthalmidae.


Why do we only have one jar? One of the problems is that the larvae are wood borers and inhabit galleries that are carved horizontally into the tree – dead or living depending upon the species. We still really don’t know what they are feeding on but many people believe that it could be fermenting sap. Others believe that the diet is a mixture of wood (either dead or in the process of dying) and micro-organisms.


Zumbado writes in his work from 2006 that they seem to prefer mucilaginous trees such as kapok or sap-producing trees such as figs. He goes on to describe how noisy these little critters are – several hundred may be in one trunk and they can be heard munching away from several metres.


The larvae have very robust head capsules and massive mandibles – they are some of the largest larvae I have seen (of all insects). When I read accounts of how many can be seen in one tree, I am quite overcome with envy. We don’t have many in the collection – one jar as shown – but it is a mighty jar. I don’t think I am allowed to say what exactly was said by various colleagues when we brought out some of the specimens but, suffice to say, they were impressed.


This collection was in a sorry state in old drawers and on slats. These are problematic because the pins are so firmly wedged that when you try and remove the pin from the board you often damage the specimens. The specimens themselves were showing some early signs of damage with verdigris on some of the pins (Fig. 8) Verdigris is when the lipids in the insect react with the copper in the pins. Nowadays we use stainless steel pins, so this doesn't happen, but most of the specimens in the collection are mostly older even than me.



Figure 8. Verdigris on pins.

The first thing that I do when I recurate a collection is to find all of the recent as well as the historical literature in catalogues and monographs, and update the database. The Museum database for this family had not been edited for at least 20 years. But luckily, when going through the literature, I discovered that with this family, not a lot had happened in that time. But our records were still inaccurate, and for a family with very few species people kept changing their mind about the number of genera and where the different species sat. Sorting that out took the most time in terms of overall curation, as there were so many new combinations and I had to be certain of all the taxonomic rearrangements. You should have heard my sighing as I was typing in the data (I promise it was just sighing).


Remember that there were only 20 described species of which we had (past tense is important here and I’ll come back to that) only 15? Well, the number of taxonomic records we now have in the database of all the original combinations and numerous synonyms (the many, many synonyms) is about three times as many as the actual number of species (Fig. 9).



Figure 9. Taxonomic names for genera and species.


Once this was sorted out, I started on the production of the labels. I have to produce an initial first draft of the list of species names (Fig. 10) as I need to ascertain where and what all of the types were, as well as how many unit trays of each size are needed. I have many lists scattered around my desk so one more can’t hurt…



Figure 10. Lovely lists of the species of Pantophthalmidae in the Natural History Museum Collection.


N.B. See – hardly any valid species names without synonyms!


Next I needed to make my unit trays up. My lists have codes on them indicating what the type was and how many of which size trays – there is an awful lot of organising with curation and it definitely fulfils my OCD tendencies…We have three sizes of unit trays that we use for Diptera recuration but somehow I knew that I probably wouldn’t be needing any of the very small A trays (Figure 11).



Figure 11. Unit trays –C, B and A.


N.B ok that is quite a nerdy photograph!


The new sparkly labels (ok the sparkly bit is a lie) were placed into the unit trays and then I started transferring the material across. As the specimens were moved they were inspected for damage – any verdigris removed and any legs etc. placed into gelatine capsules. Three new main drawers later and the collection was now housed in museum-standard drawers, conservation-grade trays and labels, completely updated on the database and new material incorporated into it (Fig. 12).



Figure 12. The largest smallest recuration project.


So let’s go back to this new material consisting of just a few specimens. Not a lot you may think – but remember this collection is not very big. For large flies, they were slightly difficult to ID. In fact, as the samples had come out of the window traps (the specimens collect in alcohol) they were very greasy.


Chris Raper, a fellow Dipterist at the Museum and lover of these flies, suggested that I give them a bath in ethyl acetate. I was a little nervous about leaving these precise specimens overnight in this rather noxious fluid. But lo and behold! What wonders were to great me the next day! Wonderful, they were – just wonderful. And suddenly we were able to see features that were previously hidden, such as thoracic patterns and, rather more importantly, hairs on the eyeballs. This feature alone split the two different genera and so we realised that for the first time, our collection now has ONE Opetiops alienus (Fig. 13). I believe this is also the first time that it has been collected from French Guiana.





Figure 13. Opetiops alienus – check out not only the hairy eyeballs but also the beak!


So one database updated, one collection rehoused and once more new material has been added to the collection. Happiness reigns in the Land of the Curator.

Coleoptera slideshow