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Curator of Lepidoptera

4 Posts tagged with the borneo tag
2

Not only Leps!

Posted by Alessandro Giusti Sep 3, 2013

In previous posts I described how I have been lucky enough to travel to Borneo on fieldwork for the Museum. I explained how moths are collected using light traps, and we also got to meet some of the moths I found during this trip.

 

The four light traps at our camp were obviously very popular with many different species of moths, but when you put up a light trap in areas which are biologically rich - and this is particularly true in tropical regions - a whole range of other insects show up too.

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Enthralled by the many exotic species of moths attracted to one of our light traps.

 

Many species of beetles, attracted by the bright ultraviolet light of our traps, kept the coleopterists on the trip, Beulah, Max and Howard, busy collecting their favourite invertebrates.

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Collecting our favourite species at the light traps.

 

Some interesting and rare species were sampled in this way, including the magnificent Chalcosoma, a dynastine beetle.

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The striking dynastine beetle Chalcosoma moellenkampi (female on the left and male on the right) was one of the many interesting and rare insects visiting the light trap.

 

Other frequent visitors to the light traps were mantises and crickets which, true to their predatory habit, invariably found a tasty prey to feed upon. Hefty cicadas and large bees and wasps were also numerous; their blatant cries and unpredictable flight paths were a source of constant distraction for us, as we tried to concentrate on less vociferous and placid species. Many flies, stink-bugs, frog- and leaf-hoppers, parasitic wasps and flying ants and termites were also regular visitors at our light traps.

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A great variety of other species of insects are commonly attracted by light traps.

 

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…and even a terrestrial crab!

 

At times, it seemed that the arthropod fauna of the entire neighbourhood was paying a visit to our light traps and every night we were pleasantly surprised to find a new species of moth or beetle appearing at the trap for the first time. The number of insects visiting the traps only decreased during a few nights at the end of the trip; this is because the moon was full and clearly visible from early evening to late night. However we were still up late, trying to collect the few interesting species which, untouched by the resplendent show in the sky, were still paying a visit to our comparatively dingy traps.

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There is no way a light trap can compete with such a large and incredibly luminous celestial body!

 

During the mornings, while my colleagues were checking the Flight Interception and Malaise traps we put up in the forest, or collecting beetles using other methods, I was busy pinning the moths collected the night before. 

 

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Setting micro- and macromoths in the field.

 

This has definitely been an amazing field working experience and judging by the number of specimens we have brought back a very successful one too. We’ve collected in the region of 13,000 specimens, which, after having gone through the freezing process, will soon be ready to be sorted and identified, mounted and labelled, electronically recorded and finally incorporated in our ever growing collections.

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In my last post, I described how and why I was in Borneo. Time now to feature some of the moths I collected...

 

First, let me illuminate you on light trapping as this is one of the most favoured ways of collecting moths, and indeed the method we have used to collect the majority of the ca. 2700 specimens of Lepidoptera we brought back from this trip. 

 

Moths seem to be more attracted by UV light than by normal tungsten bulbs and there are different devices used to lure them. A functional and unsophisticated device is a white sheet hanging on a vertical support with a UV light bulb suspended in front of it. One just stands next to it and enjoys the flying critters attracted by the light from the dark surroundings.

 

Pic 12.jpgOne of the 4 moth traps at the camp. We would spend hours every night, checking each of them in turn

 

A popular (and more expensive) method is to use designed light traps, such as the Robinson, Skinner and Heath traps. They still have UV bulbs but they are contained traps. There is a box under the light bulb where the moths fall after being attracted and confused by the light, egg cartons are placed inside the trap to create hiding places for the moths.

 

The advantage of using these types of light traps is that there is no need to stand around them because the moths that have fallen inside often remain in the trap, and are found the morning after, resting under the egg cartons.

 

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The Robinson Moth Trap in the Wildlife Garden of the Museum. My colleague, curator Martin Honey, has been monitoring moths in the Garden since 1995 and so far 600 species have been recorded in this modest but vital green space in Central London

 

Designed light traps are generally used in temperate areas. On the other hand, in the tropics the white sheet is the favoured method because, in these regions, there are many more species of moths that are often more numerous and larger than the ones found in temperate localities. Therefore, it is much better to use a larger surface to collect them.

 

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Collecting moths at one of our light traps in Borneo

 

It is still uncertain why many species of moths - and indeed the majority of species of insects - are attracted to artificial light sources, but I won’t delve in conjecturing here as a simple search in the web will give you plenty of hypotheses, none of which has been so far validated. However, below is a series of photos of some of the moths that were visiting our moth traps… absolutely gorgeous stuff (for me at least!)

 

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Marapana flavicosta a moth of the Erebidae family with very long labial palps. This moth has been recorded only in Borneo in montane forests between 1200 and 1900 m. We have the type* of this species here in our Museum! 
* When a new organism is described and named, the specimen (or specimens) on which the author based the description becomes the 'type' (or types) for the species. Our beetler Beulah has a fun post about this here

 

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This pretty little moth that reminds me of a clown is very likely Cyana costifimbria, or a species very close to it. It also belongs to the Erebidae.

 

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Acherontia lachesis, the oriental death's-head hawkmoth. An awe-inspiring moth and a skilled honey stealer! The adults (and even the pupae!) of the three known species of hawkmoths squeak when disturbed. Hear one here.

 

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Barsine roseororatus - another erebid moth - frequently found in the forested and disturbed habitat of Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. The type of this species is also here in the Museum!

 

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Callidrepana argenteola, a moth in the Family Drepanidae (the hook-tip moths). The caterpillar of this species resembles a bird dropping but unfortunately I could not find one to photograph. Again, we have the type specimen of this species in our collections.

 

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Kunugia basinigra belongs to the family Lasiocampidae, commonly known as eggars, snout or lappet moths and this little fellow has certainly a snout to be proud of.

 

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The Tropica Swallow Tail moth (Lyssa zampa), an uraniid moth distributed from North East Himalaya to South China and Thailand, also Philippine, Sulawesi, Borneo and the Malayan Peninsula. This species is relatively common particularly in montane forest, where it’s been recorded as high as 2600m on Mount Kinabalu. The caterpillar of this species feeds on plants of the Genus Endospermum in the family Euphorbiaceae. The type specimen of this species was also deposited in our Museum.


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Tarsolepis sommeri, a moth in the family Notodontidae (the prominents and kittens), is relatively well distributed in various lowland forest areas of the Oriental region. The moth looks rather prickly with those amazing tufts of reddish scales and spiky hairs at the base of the abdomen… I feel itchy just looking at them! In some species of the Notodontidae family the females are known to cover their batch of eggs with scales and hairs from the abdominal tuft, to give them protection. This moth has been observed feeding from mammalian lachrymal secretion in Peninsular Malaysia.

 

I’m going to leave you with a collage I created with some drawings (not mine) of moths and an outstanding palindrome (a phrase that reads the same way in both directions) I found on the web. The palindrome is in Latin and translates: “We wander in the night, and are consumed by fire”, which I thought fitted particularly well with the subject of this post.

 

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“We wander in the night, and are consumed by fire”

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading, and marvelled (as we did!) at the various amazing moths we encountered in Borneo.

 

I shall feature some more photos of nice invertebrates in my next post. 

Thanks for reading and see you then.

4

My recent field work

Posted by Alessandro Giusti Jun 20, 2013

So let me tell you about my last bit of work experience - if you've already been enjoying Beulah Garner's Beetle blog, you'll know that recently she and her fellow coleopterists went on a trip to Borneo. For the sake of completeness, I should point out that the Borneo team for the trip also had a lepidopterist on board. And that was me! Hence, in the company of three beetle zealots that go by the name of Beulah the blaps, Max the Macrodonta and Howard the Temerarious, I thought I’d be up for a challenging field work experience.

 

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Alessandro, Max, Howard, and Beulah socializing and relaxing in Kota Kinabalu, before the hard work begins.

 

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Despite being a moth curator, I can’t resist showing a picture portraying myself with a beautiful newly emerged Troides amphrysus, a papilionid butterfly.


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And here I am again, this time face to face with a handsome hawkmoth (Daphnis hypothous).

 

Once in the field the four of us did a great deal of sniffing, inspecting and probing, trying to ascertain each others’ intentions; and after our exigencies and flaws had been determined we recognized where each of us stood and accepted our echelons.

 

And so began our fieldwork experience which, apart from the rare squabbles caused by blunt episodes of trespassing in our private boundaries, turned out to be a rather successful one. After all we were there with a common aim that could have only been achieved with a team effort and we certainly had the enthusiasm to go with it.

 

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Our first supper at the camp. Little did we know that from that day onwards, rice was to be the fundamental ingredient of all our meals, breakfast included…not to mention the questionable rice wine.

 

The aim of this trip was to collect insects from an area near the western edge of the Crocker Range, in the Sabah region of Borneo, an area not well represented in our Museum collections; all in order to expand our knowledge of the world’s biodiversity.

 

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Our base was at ca. 1,200 metres above sea level and we had amazing views of the surrounding valleys and mountains.

 

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Further in the distance the impressive 4,095 metre high Mount Kinabalu seemed to keep a constant vigil on our camp.

 

Different sampling methods are used to collect different groups of insects, and during this trip we employed a good range of them. We set up 7 malaise traps and 7 flight interceptor traps (FIT) in selected sites of the forest around the camp, to collect flying insects such as beetles, flies and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps).

 

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Putting up flight interceptor and malaise traps, and digging for victory (or was it for dung traps?).

 

We gathered leaf litter, dead wood and other organic material, such as figs, Asplenium ferns and bracket fungi, and sampled them separately in Winkler bags or by hand; we filled buckets with rotting fish, fermented fruits and dung (I won't tell you whose it was) to attract beetles and other unfussy insects. We regularly went for long walks in nearby areas to collect insects by sweeping with nets.

 

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On one of our long walks collecting insects by netting. We were often also sampling for insects in different types of organic material.

 

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Some days the field work was so exhausting that even the experienced and indefatigable amongst us had to take a nap.

 

And as if that wasn’t enough, every day after having being mesmerized by yet another magnificent and unique sunset, we would turn on our light traps (4 of them to be precise) and spend hours checking each of them in turn, collecting whatever we thought was worth recording.

 

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Every evening the sky and landscape around the camp would become the backdrop to breathtaking and exclusive sunsets.

 

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Can photographing sunsets every evening, have disturbing consequences on people’s size? 

 

Sorry if I haven’t talked much about lepidopterans in this post, but I thought it was important to give a little introduction before getting down to business. So if you enjoyed reading this make sure you don’t miss my next entry where I will actually feature some lepidopterans and talk about catching moths in Borneo.

 

But ... just to wet your appetite...

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Large - and beautiful - Atlas moths were regular visitors at our moth traps. This is Archaeoattacus staudingeri, a relative of the more common Attacus atlas, found in Borneo and other areas of the Sundaland region.

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Hello, I am Alessandro Giusti, one the curators in the Life Sciences department of the Museum where I work alongside 4 other curators in the Lepidoptera section, which includes moths and butterflies.

 

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Setting micro-moths during a recent field work trip.

 

The Lepidoptera section comprises around 9 million specimens housed in about 80 thousand wooden drawers. As a curator I look after part of this large and comprehensive collection. The groups of moths I’m responsible for include the hawk-moths (Family Sphingidae) and the slug moths (Family Limacodidae). Curators are the guardians of the collections and some of my main tasks include re-housing and labelling specimens, recording them into databases and answering enquiries made to our section about particular species of moths.

 

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Rothschild type drawers like the one in the picture are used for housing the hawk-moth (Sphingidae) collection in the Museum. The species in this drawer is a Neotropical eyed hawk-moth called Smerinthus jamaicensis.

 

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One of the 80 thousand drawers containing the extensive Lepidoptera collection of the Museum. The specimens in this drawer are various species of slug moths of the genus Parasa.

 

Curators also look after visitors who come to our Museum from other institutions to study certain groups of organism. Sometimes we supervise students who are here on work experience and volunteers who offer invaluable help. We often contribute to educational activities involving public and schools; occasionally we go out on fieldwork to collect new material, and to conferences where we can learn new skills and share our knowledge and work procedures.

 

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Collecting moths at a light trap in Sabah, Borneo.

 

So, I thought it was about time that the Lepidoptera section set forth into the informal world of blogging, and here it is my first post. I know you’ve been waiting for it eagerly...haven’t you? After all, ours is one of the largest sections in the Terrestrial Invertebrate Division of the Life Sciences Department in the Museum, occupying 4 of the 7 floors of the cocoon which houses the entomology and botany collections in the new Darwin Centre building.

 

"Only because many Lepidoptera specimens are rather large!", I hear some of my non-lepidoptera colleague entomologists murmur. Well that may be true, but with around 9 million specimens the lepidoptera collection is nevertheless one of the largest of the Museum’s invertebrate collections, which hold approximately 28 million specimens altogether.

 

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North view of the Cocoon, inside the new Darwin Building of the Museum. The Cocoon houses millions of specimens of the entomology and botany collections and it also has an impressive public space where Museum visitors can enjoy science in action.

 

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The collection areas at the centre of the Cocoon accommodate more than 5 thousands metal cabinets. These cabinets, which have tight closing doors, contain thousands of drawers with our specimens and help us preserve our important collections for posterity.

 

In my next few posts I will talk about my last field work experience, which was in Borneo, so I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction and that you'll join me for the next post. See you soon and thanks for reading!