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2

With the forthcoming opening of our Sensational Butterflies exhibition in April, and the digitisation of our collections progressing gradually and efficiently, I thought it would be welcoming and encouraging to post a 3D art video on butterflies.

 

The video, titled “Gone?”, was made by Graham Macfarlane and Elitsa Dimitrova of Elyarch, a small but well-established and creative digital company, based in London.

 

I met Graham and Elitsa during the last Science Uncovered evening at the Museum in September, when they approached the Lepidoptera forest station to admire our displays and to chat about flight in Lepidoptera. They were particularly curious to know how butterflies and moths hold their legs during flight.

 

Lepidoptera Station SU 2015.jpg

The Lepidoptera display during last year's Science Uncovered.

 

Flying Moths.jpg

How do lepidopterans hold their legs while flying?

Top Hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) © Alessandro Giusti;

bottom Swallotail (Papilio machaon)© Lukas Jonaitis


“Difficult question!” I replied with a pondering smile. As a matter of fact I don’t think I had given the topic much consideration before then.

 

A few days later, after talking with some colleagues and having done a little research on the subject, I sent Graham and Elitsa an email saying that probably, in insects, the position of the legs during flight differs slightly according to groups.

 

Presumably, as in other insects, lepidopterans' legs hang more or less down under the body, and very likely their position changes according to the particular moment of flight, ie migration versus flying while feeding or moving short distances, or during courtships etc, and I suggested to look at images and slow motion videos of flying insects on the internet. 

 

A few weeks later they sent me the art video with thanks for the information I supplied, so I thought I'd share the video with you in case you haven’t seen it yet.

 

 

 

 

I really enjoyed the video; it's well-designed and captivating, even if the legs of the flying butterflies are probably not portrayed 100% correctly.

 

But let’s give the artists the benefit of poetic licence, and it shouldn’t matter after all, as long as the work entertains and stirs something in the viewer. Which I think “Gone?” does. 

 

Gone 1080p_00295.jpg

I like how the butterflies are taking off from an immobile position, as if they are all dormant inside a collection box, and a kind of imperceptible and secretive command suddenly wakes them up.

 

This makes me think of our collections, and how the digitisation projects currently taking place in our Museum are a sort of revival of our specimens and of all the useful data associated with them. A virtual awakening which makes our specimens more accessible.

 

But what I like most about the video is that it carries a nice message of hope, and it’s not just about butterflies, but also about any other organism we share our planet with: it’s an invitation for us all to reflect on the beauty, complexity and fragility of the natural world, and the responsibility each of us has to preserve it. A philosophy that is ingrained in the values of the Natural History Museum, as we have always aspired to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

 

Gone 1080p_00626.jpg

The vivid beams of light shining on the gliding butterflies and the shimmer created by the dislodged tiny scales of their wings give a wonderful sense of hope and awakening.

2

As free events go one cannot expect more happenings than the annual Europe-wide celebration that is European Researchers' Night, and the Museum is just one of the 100s of institutions that once again will open its doors for an evening bonanza of science at Science Uncovered.

 

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Science Uncovered, our annual celebration of science as part of European Researchers' Night, is fun, free and gets better every year.

 

 

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4 Successful Years: as part of the European Commission Horizon 2020 programme, our Museum has successfully hosted 4 Science Uncovered evenings, one each September, with a total of more than 30,000 visitors attending so far!

 

Every year has been more popular than the previous, and with around 300 scientists taking part, our visitors have enjoyed activities as diverse as interactive science stations, debates, behind-the-scenes tours and science bars.

 

Science Uncovered 2013_27092013_0327.jpg

This year's Science Uncovered is on Friday 26 September and we are confident it will be another great success. You'll be welcome to join in from 15.00 and our aim is to enthusiastically entertain you until 22.30.

 

The event will be programmed according to the 3 main strategic themes of the Museum: Sustainability, Biodiversity and Origins & Evolution and there will be activities related to these themes in the Darwin Centre, Life and Earth public galleries respectively.

 

Because I was away at the time, I wasn't able to take part in last year's Science Uncovered but I will be there this year with some of my colleague curators, in one of the forest stations, so do drop by and say hello.


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This is an opportunity not to be missed as we'll be taking with us some of our favourite specimens, usually jealously protected in our extensive state-of-the-art collections.

 

We would love to show and tell you about some of the work we do in our Museum and we'll endeavour to answer many of your questions. We'll be setting up some games to test your knowledge and stimulate your curiosity; of course there will be prizes too, but only if you are smart enough.

 

I really hope you'll be one of the thousands people who visit during the evening, joining in to celebrate biodiversity, knowledge and the importance of all inquisitive minds.

 

See you then.

0

National Be Nice to Nettles week took place 14 - 25 May 2014, and the Museum will be running its own be nice to Nettles Weekend on 31 May and 1 June 2014. It's a free event, open to everyone and there will be a range of displays, activities and talks in the Wildlife Garden and inside the Museum. You can read more about the Wildlife Garden activities on Caroline's blog.

 

Misunderstood stingers

 

It's easy to label the nettle as an unfriendly plant, after all its stinging property and tough habitus don't help much in giving it the elegance, gentleness and fragility we wish to see in beautiful plants with delicate flowers.

 

The ability to sting is due to the fine hair-like structures covering every part of the plant. These hollow hairs and their swollen base contain a cocktail of chemicals, such as histamine, formic acid, acetylcholine and others. The hairs are very brittle and break easily, and once broken the sharp fragment that remains will readily enter the skin dishing out the irritant mixture, this causes the familiar and unpleasant rash.

 

Trichomes on stem of U. dioica.jpg

The hairs on the stinging nettle are a great defence against many herbivores and can cause a severe rash if brushed.

 

The genus Urtica to which the nettle belongs comprises around 80 species distributed in tropical and temperate regions throughout the world. Only 2 species are found in the UK, the perennial stinging or common Nettle (Urtica dioica) and the more local, annual small nettle (Urtica urens).

 

There are a few differences between them. U. dioca has almost invariably separate plants bearing either male or female flowers, while U. urens has both male and female flowers on the same plant. The latter is also smaller and its leaves are less pointed and more deeply toothed. But they do have a thing in common: the propensity for stinging!

 

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Common nettle on top and small nettle at the bottom. Note how the leaves of the common nettle are more pointed and less deeply toothed compared to the ones of the small nettle.

 

However, there's more to nettle than its bristliness and if we consider carefully we would discover that the nettle is in fact an unadorned but interesting plant with many useful properties, and which plays a very important role in nature.

 

Nutrition and knickers

 

In fact in the UK over 100 species of insects have been recorded feeding on nettle (see the list here). This of course means that the community of organisms depending on - or somehow benefitting from - nettle patches is indeed very large; just think of all the birds, amphibians, predaceous insects, arachnids and others creatures which readily take advantage of this tasty myriad.

 

Microlophium carnosum Common_Nettle_Aphid (influential points website).jpg

Aphids love nettle, particulary new shoots. The picture shows a common nettle aphid (Microlophium carnosum) on nettle.
© influentialpoints.com

 

Ant, Ladybird feeding on Nettle.jpg

Many insects and other organisms benefit from nettle. In this picture on the left Common Red ants (Myrmica rubra) tending a colony of aphids on nettle. On the right adult and larva of 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) feeding on aphids on nettle.

© influentialpoints.com

 

Nettle also provides an excellent fibre which can be easily woven, spun and twisted to make clothes, sacking, fishing nets and even knickers - although I'm not sure about a pair of nettle knickers as it sounds too much like wearing one of those religious cilices for repentance and atonement.

 

Nettle yarn.jpgSeveral species of nettle are used to produce fibre for making textile and clothing.

 

The leaves and other parts of the nettle plant are rich in compounds which have remarkable nutritional and medicinal value, and for centuries nettle has been used as a versatile culinary ingredient and as an alternative to conventional medicines.

 

nettlesoup_standard%20460x345.jpg

An earthy nettle soup.

 

Nettle also has a variety of uses in gardening:

 

  • It can be used to prepare a fertilizer rich in nitrogen and iron.
  • It can be chopped and mixed in a compost heap to help speed up the decomposition process.
  • Nettle in the garden can be planted to lure aphids (these sucking green insects love nettle) therefore reducing the risk of other garden plants being attacked, moreover the aphid will also attract beneficial insects and birds which readily feed on them.

 

Nettle-loving

 

So it is not surprising that nature lovers and conservationists organise public events and fairs to celebrate the nettle's qualities and educate people in the importance of this plant.

 

And the Museum will be again joining in the celebrations with a weekend dedicated to this formidable plant. Nettle Weekend is taking place on 31 May and 1 June at the Museum. It's a free event, open to everyone and there will be a range of displays, activities and talks in the Wildlife Garden and inside the Museum.

 

So come and visit us. I'll be there too, in the Wildlife Garden near the pond, with a display about insects and nettle, with emphasis on moths and butterflies of course.

 

Nettle_Day_WLG.jpg

The display about insects and nettle in the Museum's Wildlife Garden.

 

Here's some information about Lepidoptera and nettle:

 

According to the Database of Insects and their Food Plants, in the UK there are 56 species of Lepidoptera whose caterpillars have been recorded feeding on nettle. Most of these species are polyphagous, this means that the caterpillars feed on a variety of host plants, which are often - but not always - related.

 

However, for the following species of butterflies and moths nettle seems to be the favourite food-plant.

 

Butterflies:

  • Comma                        (Polygonia c-album)
  • Peacock                      (Inachis io)
  • Red Admiral                 (Vanessa atalanta)
  • Small Tortoiseshell       (Aglais urticae)

 

Moths:

  • Snout                           (Hypena proboscidalis)
  • Paignton Snout             (Hypena obesalis) A rare immigrant moth. Only 4 British records
  • Spectacle                     (Abrostola tripartita)
  • Dark Spectacle             (A. triplasia)
  • Burnished Brass           (Diachrysia chrysitis)
  • Dewick's Plusia            (Macdunnoughia confusa) An immigrant moth. Around 50 British records
  • Mother of Pearl             (Pleuroptya ruralis)
  • Nettle Tap                     (Anthophila fabriciana)
  • Small Magpie                (Anania hortulata)

 

Painted Lady Caterpillar and Adult Peacock.jpgThe caterpillar of the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), on the left, feeds mainly on thistles, but occasionally uses common nettle, mallow and other herbaceous plants as food. On the right a female peacock (Inachis io) is laying eggs on nettle, the primary larval foodplant for this species.

© Vince Massimo

 

Arctia caja Adult & Hypena proboscidalis larva.jpgThe garden tiger (Arctia caja), on top, is a polyphagous species whose larva feeds on various herbaceous plants, including nettle. While the snout (Hypena proboscidalis) caterpillar feeds preferably on nettle.

© Shane Farrel & © Jeroen Voogd respectively

 

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you at the weekend!

2

In the last few posts of my blog I have been talking about the Museum’s holdings of hawkmoths, which amount to 289,000 specimens, and how the Lepidoptera section is dealing with the re-housing, care and accession of this important group.

 

This will be my last post related to this subject and in concluding I want to talk about a private collection of hawkmoths, specifically the Cadiou Collection, which has enriched and transformed the Museum lepidoptera holdings.

 

This large and valuable collection was purchased by the Natural History Museum in August 2008, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of the public.

 

Picture1edited.jpgThe Cadiou Collection with its 230,000 specimens was acquired for the nation and for science in August 2008.

 

 

PIc 2 J.M. Cadiou.jpg

Dr Jean-Marie Cadiou was a non-professional lepidopterist with an interest in hawkmoths.


 

Cadiou began amassing his collection while working for IBM in California in the late 1960s, and continued during his subsequent employment with NATO and the EU Directorates General. At the time of his unexpected and untimely death in May 2007, he had authored or co-authored 32 scientific papers and one book, described 65 species and subspecies of hawkmoths and managed to create an extensive collection of thousands of specimens.

 

Picture3.jpgFour hawkmoths described by Cadiou. From top left clockwise: Eupanacra busiris ssp. myosotis (Sulawesi), Orecta venedictoffae (Ecuador), Xylophanes haxairei (French Guiana, Colombia, Ecuador, north Brazil) and Rhodoprasina corrigenda (Thailand).

 

The Cadiou collection contained an estimated total of almost 230,000 pinned and papered specimens and when this collection was put on sale after Cadiou’s death the Museum couldn’t miss the chance to acquire it.

 

The reasons behind this interest were multiple:

  • The majority of the Cadiou material was post-1970 with precise locality data.
  • The collection contained at least one genus and 99 species and subspecies not represented in the Museum.
  • It was also rich in species of which the Museum had only five specimens or fewer (at least 200).

 

In comparison the Sphingidae collections of the Museum at that time comprised 60,000 pinned specimens, many of which were over 100 years old.

 

Pic4 Cadiou's mixed boxes.jpgTwo colleagues of mine went to Belgium to pick up the collection in Cadiou’s house. The plentiful and various types of boxes containing the specimens had to be packed into large cardboard boxes for ease of transport.

 

Copy of Picture5.jpg430 cardboard boxes containing the collection were loaded into a hired large track for transport.

 

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Meanwhile back in the UK a large freezer was hired to quarantine the material before transferring it into the collection areas.

 

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After 21 days in the freezer at -40°C, the boxes were finally moved in the collection area.

 

At that time the Lepidoptera collection was housed in one of the Museum's storage places in Wandsworth, while the new building that would have housed the entomology and part of the botany collections, namely the Darwin Centre, was being built in South Kensington.

 

Once in the collection, we started the process of transferring the pinned specimens from various kind of boxes and drawers of the Cadiou collection into refurbished Rothschild drawers. Many curators and a volunteer were involved in the transferring of the material, and eventually, just before the Lepidoptera collection was ready to join the other entomology collections in the newly built Darwin Centre, in South Kensington, all pinned specimens from the Cadiou collections were transferred into Rothschild drawers and ready to be moved in their new home.

 

John Owen.jpg

Our long-term volunteer John Owen transferring some hawkmoths from Cadiou’s boxes into Rothschild drawers.

 

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At the end we had filled around 750 Rothschild drawers with pinned Sphingidae (top) and an extra 70 different types of drawers with non-sphingid Lepidoptera (bottom), all these from the Cadiou material.

 

We are now left with 120 boxes containing papered material, some of which has already been sent to Prague for mounting.

 

The actual amalgamation of all the Sphingidae in one large collection started in May 2010 and is still in progress. In this project I work alongside Ian Kitching, one of the researchers in our section and a world expert on Sphingidae. The aim of the project is to re-house the specimens from the main, supplementary, accession and the recently purchased Cadiou collections, into one collection inside refurbished Rothschild drawers.

 

Picture001.jpg

Some of the re-housed drawers of Sphingidae. From top left, clockwise: Langia zenzeroides ssp. formosana, Platysphinx stigmatica, Smerinthus ocellata ssp. atlanticus, Falcatula falcatus.

 

I am transferring the specimens using a relatively new way of arrangement which consists of rows of specimens facing each other. This method is particularly easy to carry out thanks to the falcate shapes of the dry pinned sphingids and has helped in increasing the number of specimens that fit in each drawer, therefore reducing the total number of drawers and ultimately the space necessary for their housing.

 

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By February 2014 I created 877 Rothschild drawers of hawkmoths from merging main, supplementary, accession and Cadiou collections. A total of approximately 45,000 specimens have been transferred so far. These include 105 genera out of a total of 207. The re-housed taxa have all been labelled and had their location, with other important details, recorded in our electronic database.

 

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Allow me to make a plea, before concluding. Of the 207 genera of Sphingidae so far known 206 are represented in our collections. The only one currently missing is the genus Baniwa which has only one species described in it, Baniwa yavitensis, from Venezuela. We really would like to have one!

 

However, this is not an invitation to collect it from the wild as this species is very rare and almost certainly protected. We certainly don’t endorse indiscriminate and illegal collecting, and specimens entering our collections need to be accompanied by a regular collecting permit. So, if there are some collections out there with surplus specimens of Baniwa, keen on giving one away (I can hear someone laughing mockingly), please get in touch. We shall provide it with a comfortable, and most of all protected, accommodation.

 

That’s it! I shall now officially relieve you from any further information about sphingids…well, only for a while though, because as you may have noticed, I have a soft spot for hawkmoths and can’t resist conversing regularly about them.

 

Thanks very much for following this blog trend on hawkmoths; I shall keep you posted with more news on lepidopterans and the Museum’s collections.

 

One last thing, don’t forget to visit our Sensational Butterfly exhibit, which opens on 3 April 2014. There are also some moths in the house and who knows, you might be lucky enough to be brushed past by a skilful and hurried flyer…did someone just mention a hawkmoth.

 

C. hylas edited.jpgI photographed this beautiful Cephonodes hylas resting and feeding on the flowers of the a Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in a previous Butterfly Exhibit here at the Museum. Perhaps we'll be able to enjoy some nice hawkmoths this year too.

2

The re-housing of the Museum’s hawkmoths collection, one of my curatorial responsibilities, has been the subject of the last couple of posts. I talked about the transferring of specimens from outdated or transitory drawers into new, more permanent drawers, and of the amalgamation of the old Museum’s collections with newly acquired material, with particular reference to the collection of hawkmoths (Sphingidae).

 

I have also introduced some of the species from the Museum’s extended sphingid collection, consisting of around 289,000 specimens and, in this post, I would like to briefly tell of the history of the Museum's collection of hawkmoths. However, before I start delving into the past, I’d like to finish with the introduction of some of the species of hawkmoths I began in the previous post… so here are some other fascinating sphingids.

 

Cephonodes_hylas last edited.jpg

Some hawkmoths have a short and stout body, transparent wings, a distinct pattern and behaviour that make them look like bees or wasps.

 

This is Cephonodes hylas, a daily flying moth, widely distributed in Asia where it is often found in urban parks and gardens attracted by Gardenia, one of the caterpillar's food plants. When the adult moth emerges from the pupa, the wings are entirely covered with greyish scales. These come off in a little cloud after the first flight.

 

Hemaris fuciformis last edited.jpg

Another hymenoptera look alike is Hemaris fuciformis.

 

This little and pretty hawkmoth, with its plump body covered by yellowish and reddish hairs, and its transparent wings, looks very much like a bumble bee, and it flies rapidly like one too! This specie is widespread all over Europe eastward across northern Turkey, northern Afghanistan, southern Siberia, northern Amurskaya to Primorskiy Kray and Sakhalin Island. It has also been recorded from Tajikistan and northwest India.

 

Sataspes infernalis last edited.jpg

Sataspes infernalis is another daily flying hawkmoth that very convincingly mimics a carpenter bee.

 

Its wings are devoid of scales and are darker, more opaque and somehow iridescent compared to the previous two hawkmoths. This species is distributed in India, West China, Burma and Borneo.

 

Compsulyx last edited.jpg

Eye-spots are a common feature on the wings of Lepidoptera and hawkmoths are no exception. This stunning hawkmoth is Compsulyx cochereaui, an endemic species of New Caledonia.

 

Smerinthus ocellata last edited.jpg

Eye-spots are also found on the hind-wings of the species of hawkmoths belonging to the genus Smerinthus.

 

This genus includes 11 species and one of them is the eyed hawkmoth (Smerinthus ocellata). In the resting position the fore-wings cover the hind-wings with the eye spots, when the moth feels threatened, the fore-wings are suddenly pushed upward revealing the hind-wings decorated with intense blue and black 'eyes' on a pinkish and brown background.

 

The flashing of these false eye-spots may help in startling a potential predator giving the moth a chance to quickly fly away. The eyed hawkmoth is distributed across all of Europe (including the UK), through to Russia as far east as the Ob valley and to eastern Kazakhstan and the Altai. It has also been recorded in north and western China.

 

Pseudandriasa mutata last edited.jpg

Pseudandriasa mutata is a rather atypical sphingid

 

It doesn’t look particularly streamlined nor are its wings elongated like those of a typical hawkmoth. In fact when in 1855, Francis Walker - while studying specimens and describing new species from our Museum - came across a specimen of this hawkmoth, he recognized it as a new species but named it Lymantria mutata, thinking it belonged to the family of moths called Lymantriidae (Tussock moths).

 

Hayesiana triopus last edited.jpg

Hayesiana triopus is a lovely daily flying sphingid with translucent wings and a discontinuous pinkish-red belt and orange spots on a black abdomen.

 

The underside of the body, particularly of the thorax, abdomen and hind wings is reddish orange. This moth is a fast flyer but its rapid movements seem rather clumsy and, apparently, it's not particularly precise when aiming the proboscis into a flower. It is distributed in Nepal, northeastern India, southern China, and Thailand.

 

Callionima inuus last edited.jpg

Callionima inuus is certainly a very elegant hawkmoth thanks to the decorations on its forewings.

 

The scale pattern forms motifs which resembles a cover of cobwebs blended with small, dark and light brown wavy markings; there is also a patch of silver scales in the shape of a plump and twisted “Y”. The pattern is beautiful, but most of all indispensable, for perfectly disguising this moth in the environment where it lives. This species is well distributed in the entire Neotropical region, from Mexico to Argentina.

 

Phylloxiphia oberthueri last edited.jpg

Another master of disguise is Phylloxiphia oberthueri.

 

When in the resting position, hanging from a plant, this hawkmoth looks very convincingly like a bunch of dry leaves. This species is distributed through West Africa.

 

Hypaedalea insignis.jpg

Doesn’t Hypaedalea insignis look like the vehicle of a superhero character?

 

An innovative hawkmoth bat-car! But again, this pattern has not evolved to impress we humans; the amazing discontinuous and wavy lines and blotches, coloured with different tints of brown and grey, are all essential for making this hawkmoth hard to spot against the vegetation. This moth is distributed in West Africa.

 

And now, the history bit...

 

The Museum's collections are based on Sir Hans Sloane’s collection which was purchased by the British Museum in 1753. Amongst them were his entomological holdings, with around 5,500 specimens including Lepidoptera, and thus were the earliest Sphingidae housed in the Museum.

 

Sloane Coll. last edited.jpg

A drawer with specimens of Lepidoptera from the original collection of Sir Hans Sloane. The hawkmoths in this drawer (Smerinthus ocellata in the top left, Agrius convolvuli and Sphinx ligustri bottom left and right respectively) were collected more than 350 years ago and are amongst the oldest Lepidoptera specimens in our collections.

 

Afterwards, the earliest and most significant benefactors who presented Lepidoptera - and particularly Sphingidae - to the Museum were, Horsfield, the Honorable East India Company, and Museum appointees like Edward Doubleday.

 

Later 19th Century benefactors of major significance were Bates, Wallace, Stainton, Zeller, Bainbrigge-Fletcher, Hewitson, Leech and Godman and Salvin. And in the 20th Century the sphingids holdings of the Museum were to be enriched with the collections of Lord Walsingham, Swinhoe, Moore, Joicey, Levick, Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, Cockayne and Kettlewell, Inoue and others.

 

List of donors.jpg

Some of the most significant donors of Lepidoptera (and particularly of Sphingidae) to the Museum.

 

The date of acquisition, the number of specimens and some of the history behind each of these valuable collections of moths and butterflies is often well documented, but it is much more difficult to know the exact number of specimens of any particular family that came with any of them. However, we know that the majority of the hawkmoths - around 45,000 specimens - came to the Museum in 1939 when Lord Rothschild bequested approximately 2.5 million specimens of Lepidoptera.

 

Rotschild Sphingidae Last edited.jpg

Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild was a keen naturalist who went on to amass one of the greatest collections of animals ever assembled by an individual. In 1939 around 2.5 million specimens of butterflies and moths from the Rothschild collection, were entrusted to the Museum in thousands of drawers. Two of these drawers, containing hawkmoths, are shown in the picture.

 

The Sphingidae collection, like the majority of the other Lepidoptera families, has since 1904 been housed in the Museum in 4 separated blocks:

 

Main Coll. Dr1.jpg

The Main Collection.

This is the reference collection and contains drawers with type specimens and representative series of any particular family, often of the oldest material. In the picture, one of the main collection drawers with the hawkmoth Callionima inuus.

 

Supplementary dr1.JPG

The Supplementary Collection.

 

It contains other specimens, belonging to any particular family, of identified material which arrived later and for which there was not space in the main collection. In the picture, one of the supplementary drawers with the hawkmoth Agrius convolvuli.

 

Accession Dr1.jpg

The Accession Collection.

 

It contains unsorted and often unidentified material which was later added to the family. In the picture, one of the accession drawers with different species of hawkmoths from the original Rothschild Collection.

 

British Coll. Dr1.jpg

The British & Irish Collection.

 

It contains specimens of the 20 species of Sphingidae occurring in the British Isles. In the picture, one of the British and Irish Collection drawers with the hawkmoth Daphnis nerii.

 

Only relatively recently we began to amalgamate all specimens from the main, supplementary and accession collections into one collection for each family. Each of the 5 curators in the Lepidoptera section is responsible, amongst other things, of the re-housing of one or more families of moths and butterflies.

 

With a collection of almost 9 million specimens and around 135 families of Lepidoptera to take into account the work to do can seem endless; it will certainly take a long time and a lot of effort before this is accomplished, but slowly and surely we are improving the care, storage and accessibility of our collections.

 

In August 2008, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of the public, the Museum was able to acquire one of the largest private collections of Sphingidae, the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

And it’s about this prodigious private Collection, containig a staggering total of around 230,000 specimens, the majority of which are sphingids, that I will be telling you in my next post. Make sure to come back then.


Thanks for reading.

5

Meet the hawkmoths

Posted by Alessandro Giusti Dec 17, 2013

In my last post I described one of my curatorial tasks here at the Museum: the re-housing of our extensive collections of hawkmoths, made up of around 289,000 specimens.

Untitled-1.jpg

The re-housing of the Museum’s extensive collection of hawkmoths will keep me busy for the next few months (did I hear someone say years?)

 

In this post I would like you to meet the actual stars of this project, the hawkmoths themselves. Hawkmoths belong to the Lepidoptera family called Sphingidae, a relatively small family if compared with other families in the order Lepidoptera; so far there are 208 genera and 1,492 species described. Untitled-2.jpgHawkmoths are insects belonging to the family Sphingidae in the order Lepidoptera. 208 genera and 1492 species of hawkmoths have been described so far. Top row (L-R): Deilephila elpenor (Elephant hawkmoth), Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth), Elibia dolichus. Middle row (L-R): Cechenena sp., Hayesiana triopus, Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth). Bottom row (L-R): Mimas tiliae (Lime hawkmoth), Hyles sp., Hyles lineata (Striped hawkmoth), Akbesia davidi.

 

Species belonging to this family usually have falcate (curved and hooked) wings and their body is characteristically streamlined. The majority of species have a very swift and agile flight, and hover rapidly in front of flowers feeding on nectar with their tongue, which is often very long.

 

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The long tongue of many species of hawkmoths is mainly used to feed on nectar from flowers or occasionally, as in the case of this Argentinean Xylophanes schreiteri, on sweet breakfast leftovers! This photo was kindly provided by Tony Pittaway. Check Tony’s interesting websites, Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic and Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic, for more information and pictures of hawkmoths.

 

Hawkmoths caterpillars are large and have a curved horn on the rear end. When disturbed, they usually rear up with their anterior segments arched, in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian sphinx. These two larval features explain why these moths are also known with the common names of hornworms and sphinx-moths, while the common name hawkmoth refers to the rapid flight and falcate wing shape of the adult.

 

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Sphingid caterpillars have a horn of various shapes on the last abdominal segment. From top right clockwise: Cephonodes hylas, Dolbina inexacta, Eumorpha analis and Daphnis nerii (Oleander hawkmoth). All pictures by Tony Pittaway.

 

The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public; consequently these moths have become one of the most widely collected groups of insects.

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The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public.

 

Hawkmoths are generally well represented in every insect collection, large or small, and they are frequently reared from caterpillars, which has helped in providing a great deal of information on their biology and life history. Most species are also readily attracted to artificial light sources and this helps in surveying them when conducting biodiversity inventories of an area, which in turn has provided us with considerable insights into their distributional patterns and ranges.

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Many species of hawkmoths are attracted to artificial light sources.

 

The following pictures, taken from specimens in the Museum collections, show the ample variation that exists in size, shape, features and wing patterns among the different species in this family of moths.

 

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The stunningly emerald green Euchloron maegera. This species is commonly distributed in all Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

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Oryba kadeni is another wonderfully green hawkmoth. It’s characterised by very large eyes and relatively short antennae. This species is found from Belize southward to Brazil.

 

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Some sphingids like dressing in pink, such as this lovely elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor). This species is relatively common and widely distributed. It occurs in all Europe (with the exception of northern Scandinavia, northern Scotland and parts of the Iberian Peninsula), eastward through temperate Russia to the Pacific coast, Korea & Japan. It is also found in China as far as the provinces of Sichuan and Guangdong. It is a common species in the UK.

 

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Leucophlebia lineata is another pretty hawkmoth sporting a series of pink, yellow and white stripes on the forewings. This species is found from Pakistan through India and Sri Lanka, to eastern and southern China, down to South East Asia.

 

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Neococytius cluentius is one of the largest hawkmoths with a wingspan that can reach 17cm, and a long tongue of up to 22cm. It occurs from Mexico to Argentina, and has also been recorded as a stray in north Illinois and south Michigan.

 

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The record for the longest tongue belongs to Xanthopan morganii subsp. praedicta, a relatively large hawkmoth found in Madagascar famous for its long proboscis used for probing on flowers to feed on nectar. Thanks to its long proboscis, which can reach 25cm, this moth is well adapted for feeding from the flowers of star orchids, in which the nectar is kept at the bottom of a very long spur. While doing so the hawkmoth secures the pollination of the orchid.

 

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On the other hand, the adult of the hawkmoths in the subfamily Smerinthini, such as this Laothoe populi (the poplar hawkmoth), have extremely reduced mouthparts and are unable to feed. This moth is well distributed across Europe, as far as southern Turkey and eastward through Russia, and as far east as Irkutsk. It’s probably the most common hawkmoth in the UK where the adults fly between May and July.

 

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Sphingonaepiopsis gorgoniades with its 2-3 cm wing span is the smallest hawkmoth. It occurs in some countries in South-East Europe, Turkey, Ukraine, Southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It has also been recorded in parts of the Middle East.

 

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The hawkmoth Euryglottis aper reminds me a bit of one of those soft toy puppets. It is a very hairy species as it flies at elevation of up to 2800m in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

 

The Museum collection contains representive specimens of 207 genera and around 1,300 species of hawkmoths; a global coverage of 85%. Of the 289,000 specimens of Sphingidae held in the Museum collections, 113,000 are dry pinned and a further 176,000 are unset and still in their original envelopes. The  Museum's collection is certainly the largest and most complete collection of sphingid in the world.

 

In the next post I will be featuring more pictures and information on other species of hawkmoths and I will also give a little bit of history about the original hawkmoths collection of the Natural History Museum. I hope you'll be back then.

 

Thanks for reading and I take this opportunity to wish all the readers a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

 

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A friendly convolvulus hawkmoth I met on a recent trip to Bulgaria. Isn't he cute?

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Re-housing hawkmoths

Posted by Alessandro Giusti Nov 5, 2013

Hello again!

 

Some of the enquirers during the recent #askacurator day event on Twitter were curious to know what curators do every day in their work. Well, I suppose it really depends on the type of collections in their care, and curators in a natural history museum might deal with different tasks compared to curators in an art collection for example.

 

Around 35% of mine and of my colleagues’ working time is dedicated to re-housing specimens, which is the transferring of pinned specimens from outdated or transitory drawers into new, more permanent drawers.

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Re-housing specimens of hawkmoths in the collection.

 

Many of the original drawers in our collections are not up to scratch with respect to the most recent guidelines of conservation and collections policy, therefore we are actively replacing them with refurbished or brand new drawers.

 

oct13.jpgTwo old types of drawers in our collection. We have already emptied & refurbished thousands of them, but there are still quite a few left to clear.

 

Once emptied, the majority of the old drawers are sent for refurbishment and then re-use in the collection; other old drawers, as well as many boxes that come in with acquisitioned material, are sold and the proceeds used to buy new drawers or furniture for the collection.

 

Many drawers in our collections still contain unsorted and often unidentified material; this is because new material has been regularly added to the Museum through fieldwork, donations and purchases since the very early days.

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Drawer with unsorted moths recently collected in Bolivia.

 

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Specimens are also often donated to our Museum and others are purchased.

 

We always identify specimens before transferring them into new drawers along with the identified material already in the main collection. Eventually, when newly re-housed drawers are created, they need new labels, and their location, with other important details, are recorded in our electronic database.

 

These are all necessary steps if we want to make sure our collections are useful and easily accessible. If you consider that our section is made up of more than 80,000 drawers, it is crucial for us and for our visitors to know precisely where a particular drawer is located. 

 

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Re-housed drawers in their new location. Each curated drawer has internal labels stating the scientific name of the species inside, and also two external labels specifying the content. It also has a unique number; these details are all recorded in our electronic database so that specimens can be easily found in our extensive collection.

 

One of my current tasks is the re-housing of the entire Museum collection of hawkmoths (Sphingidae), which contains “only” around 114,000 specimens housed in about 2,130 drawers, and an extra 176,000 papered specimens, still in their original envelopes, waiting to be mounted.

 

Before August 2008 the Museum’s collection of Sphingidae contained ca. 60,000 pinned specimens, the vast majority of which were from the Rothschild Collection, dated pre-1930.

 

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An original Rothschild drawer with specimens of the Oleander Hawk-moth waiting to be re-housed into new drawers.

 

Then, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Rothschild family, the de Rothschild family, the John Spedan Lewis Foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust and members of our public, the Museum was able to acquire one of the largest private collections of Sphingidae, the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

The Cadiou collection, which contained 53,000 pinned specimens and 176,000 unset and still in the original envelopes, doubled the size of the Museum's original holdings and has provided modern material that was lacking in our collection.

 

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The Museum’s hawkmoth collection has been transformed by the arrival of the Jean-Marie Cadiou collection.

 

Follow me in the next few posts, where I will talk about both the original Museum and the recently purchased Cadiou sphingid collections. I will explain how the current curation of the important and comprehensive Museum’s collection of sphingid into modern unit trays and refurbished Rothschild drawers is taking place.

 

Thanks for reading.

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I have always enjoyed taking part in Science Uncovered with its vibrant, interesting, exciting and revealing ambience.

 

As part of the European Researchers' Night, the Natural History Museum is one of the hundred institutions in 33 countries all over Europe to open its door for a night of discovery, learning and inspiration. The Museum's Science Uncovered for 2013 is here today, Friday the 27 September from 16.00 until Midnight, and it’s free!

 

Now, having said that, unfortunately I won’t take part in this year's event! I know this is very sad news for all my fans, or rather for all the fans of Lepidoptera, because they would have been the stars of the show, not me obviously!

 

Science-Uncovered-2-science-station-copyright-NHM.jpgThe Lepidoptera Station at last year's Science Uncovered.

 

But don’t despair! There will be lots of bugs on show, from large and shiny beetles to attractive and colourful butterflies and moths. Some of my entomology colleagues will be manning Science Stations so you can get up close to their favourite specimens and find out what they're working on.

 

Display_Drawers-png.jpgSome of the entomology display drawers you might be finding at this year's Science Uncovered.

 

One of the stations not to be missed is the iCollections projectdigitising the museum’s British and Irish Lepidoptera.

 

Let me tell you few things about this project and what you’ll find if you visit the station. The iCollections project is one of many digitisation activities currently undertaken by the Museum. The aim of the project is to make part of the vast entomology collections at our Museum more accessible to the public and to researchers.

 

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The iCollections project – digitising the museum’s British and Irish Lepidoptera.

 

Each specimen of British and Irish butterflies and moths from the Museum collections is currently being photographed, and the data on the label of each specimen is also photographed and transcribed. This is great news for curatorial and scientific purposes. In fact, once the specimens have been photographed they are re-housed into new drawers that will provide better conditions for many years to come.

 

The data from the specimens will also be extremely useful to examine the pattern of distribution of the species of British and Irish Lepidoptera, and how factors such as climate change and human impact through urbanization and intensive agriculture are affecting it. The data would also be valuable to assess the scale of the historical collections of the Museum.

 

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Some of the digitisers at work.

 

Elisa.jpgOnce the specimens are digitised they are re-housed into new drawers.

 

The project started at the beginning of this year and so far the digitising team has managed to photograph more than 80,000 specimens and transcribe each of their labels.

Erebia drawer.jpgA drawer with specimens of Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops), one of the 60 or so British species of butterflies currently being digitised.

 

Apparently it is a reliable and very productive team, digitising one specimen every 2.9 minutes!

 

So, tonight, at Science Uncovered, do pay the the iCollections project Station a visit. Meet Elisa, Gerardo, Jo, Lindsey and Sara, the digitisers. They’ll be happy to tell you more about this project, answer your questions, and since the process of capturing the data from the labels is rather interesting and complex, they will have some of these labels for visitors to have a go at transcribing and deciphering them! And there’ll be prizes to be won, if you are smart enough that is!

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Meet the iCollections Project digitisers!

 

They will also have some drawers of their favourite species which have already been digitised. The digitising team will be located in the noisy Nature Games room (Marine Invertebrates Gallery), so listen out for our animal-themed buzzers!

 

Enjoy!

 

Science Uncovered takes place today, Friday 27 September at the Natural History Museum, London. Join us from 4pm to midnight.

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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.

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