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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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
Your blog author, Mike Waller
Thanks Mike! Don't forget you can find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project at www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers, including how and when to apply for next years traineeship positions.
Posted on behalf of Ranee Prakash, Curator of Flowering Plants in the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences.
We are happy to share our recent journey to the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu, southern India in March - April 2015.
Our team from the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences includes: >
The aim of the visit was to consult the herbaria of Botanical Survey of India (BSI) at Coimbatore, and Pune and also to visit Blatter Herbarium, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. We looked at the Solanaceae collections.
Apart from visiting BSI’s regional offices, we also visited Madras Christian College (MCC), Presidency College, National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), The Eco Park and the Theosophical Society in Chennai.
Xavier also made a brief visit to the French Institute in Pondicherry. The aim of this visit was to investigate the botanical collections of the herbarium of the French Institute, as well as to liaise with the French and Indian researchers working on the Indian flora. They are known to be particularly well curated and informative for the region of Mumbai and Pondicherry, from where Solanum trilobatum L. is native.
The Botanical Survey of India (BSI)
The BSI was established in 1890, with the main aim of surveying the plant resources and identifying plant species of economic value within the countr. With headquarters in Kolkata, it has ten regional offices in various states of India. It comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.
We visited regional offices in Coimbatore and Pune. Coimbatore office has important collections of R.Wight (b. 6 July 1796 – d. 26 May 1872) and other collectors of the Honorable East India Company (EIC).
We databased around 400 specimens from both the regional offices. This data will be repatriated back to India. During the visit, Xavier identified Solanum species and recurated the species. For example Solanum xanthocarpum Schrad. & H. Wendl. is now Solanum virginianum L.
A detailed list of synonyms, correct taxonomy and pictures of Solanceae species is available on the Solanaceae Source website.
Madras Christian College (MCC)
Madras Christian College has a beautiful campus spread over 360 acres area with a rich flora and fauna (see Fig. 1). Originally founded by Rev. John Anderson, a Missionary from the Church of Scotland, on April 3, 1837, the college recently celebrated its 178th anniversary. Anderson is known for introducing English medium education in Southern India. MCC is an autonomous college and is renowned for academic excellence and for social commitment.
Fig 1. Madras Christian College, Chennai.
We met the faculty staff members: Dr M. Baluswami (Head-Department of Botany), Dr D Narasimhan (Associate Professor), Leslie Lawrence (Assistant Professor) and Sheeba Irwin (Research Assistant). We also had a brief chat with undergraduates and post graduate students and listened to their views on career aspirations.
Established in 1840, Presidency College is one of the oldest Arts College in Chennai, India. Located opposite the Marina beach in Karmalai area in Chennai, the building has very beautiful architecture (see Fig. 2). The college has various streams viz. Arts, Science, Commerce and has facilities for research leading to Ph.D. degree.
Fig 2. Presidency College, Chennai Ravichandar84.
We looked at P.F. Fyson’s (1877–1947) botanical collections stored in the College’s herbarium (see Fig.3). Fyson was a noted botanist and educator who worked in Southern India. During the period of 1920-1925, he served as Inspector of Schools for Vishakapatnam and Ganjam districts (Andhra Pradesh). He later returned to the Presidency College and served as Principal from 1925-1932.
Fig 3. PF Fyson.
Fyson is famous for many books and illustrated volumes that he wrote from 1912-1932.In 1912, he wrote a textbook of Botany for college students.
He is renowned for the first illustrated volumes of the South Indian Hills, 'The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney Hill-tops' which was published in 1915. This book has 286 illustrated pages and 483 species. This book was followed with a book on plant species from the lower elevations and notes on the Shevaory Hills in 1921. In 1932, he published 'The Flora of the South Indian Hill Stations', which covered 877 species. Besides these, he also wrote a book on Madras flowers - illustrated 100 plates, a monograph on the genus Eriocaulon and a Flora of the South Indian Hills.
In his honour, the Presidency College, Chennai has instituted 'The Fyson Prize' for work in the area of Natural Sciences.
Founded in 1875 in New York, the International Headquarters moved to Adyar, Chennai in 1882. The main aim of this body is universal brotherhood and the members are united to learn the purpose of existence through, self-responsibility, study, reflection and loving service.
Located between the Adyar River and the coast, the society is spread in 100-hectare grounds and provide a green, peaceful, vehicle-free retreat from the city. One can wander through the native and introduced flora, including a 400 year old banyan tree. Some of the plants that we saw in the garden and will not forget include the Sandbox tree, also known as Dynamite tree (see Fig. 4).
Fig 4. Hura crepitans, commonly known as sandbox tree.
Botanically, this plant is known as Hura crepitans belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family and the Cannon Ball tree - botanically known as Couroupita guianensis belonging to Lecthidaceae family (see Fig. 5a, b).
Fig 5a. Fruits of Couroupita guianensis, commonly known as cannon ball tree.
Fig 5b. Flower of Couroupita guianensis commonly known as cannon ball tree.
The French Institute at Pondicherry
Inaugurated after the cessation of French Territories to India in 1955 (i.e. the 5 cities of Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanaon, Mahé and Chandannagar), the French Institute of Pondicherry is very active in the study of South Indian civilisation and culture. Since the 60s, it has also developed an important ecology department, specialised in collecting information on the evolution of the environment in South India. From this time, the researchers of the Institute have constituted a herbarium which counts today more than 24,000 specimens.
Xavier visited the herbarium, annotated and databased all the Solanacae specimens present in the collections (more than a 100). This trip to Pondicherry has been also an ideal occasion to exchange contacts with the French and Indian researchers working there on various aspect of the Indian flora (mostly forest ecology), and Xavier has presented his research project during a conference. During a short tour at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden with Soupramanien Aravajy, the most knowledgeable botanist of the IFP, we were happy to find, hidden in the bushes, the small (and terribly spiny!) Solanum trilobatum L. (see Fig. 10).
After three days of work in this quiet and beautiful “Petite France”, it was difficult to come back to busy Chennai…
Besides visiting the Institutes, we also visited some historic temples in Chennai, Coimbatore, Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) and Madurai belonging to the Chola and Pallava dynasty (around 3rd to 6th century C.E.). We were amazed with the absolute beauty of architectural designs. It was sweltering hot in India with temperatures around 38-40 degrees centigrade but the food was delicious with so many varieties of Kathrik kai (brinjal) (see Figs. 6a & 6b), Valai palam (banana) and the lovely chutneys made from Takali (tomatoes) and puli (tamarind). We had rice Arisi (rice) for lunch and dinner, lots of keerai (leafy vegetables) and tanni (water) to keep us hydrated!
Fig. 6a. Solanum torvum( sundaikkai) sold in the market.
Fig 6b. Brinjal varieties sold in the market.
As our journey came to an end, we would like to reflect on the memorable wander to the Nilgiris, the picturesque memories for years to linger including the highest Peak Point 'Doddabetta' in the Nilgiri Mountains at 2367 metres (8650 feet). This is where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet (see Fig. 7). The endless vibrant greenery of the tea estates (see Fig. 8) (wonder what it must be like when there were undisturbed forests) and the beautiful architectural buildings of the various temples and palaces.
Fig. 7. Doddabetta Peak (highest point 2637m, where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet).
Fig. 8. Tea plantation in the Nilgiris.
We would like to convey our warm Nandri (Thank you- in Tamil) and gratitude to all the staff at various Institutes. A special Nandri to Dr D.Narasimhan at MCC, Dr V Sampath Kumar, Dr G V S Murthy, Dr Beniamim, G. Gyanansekaharan and Kannamani at BSI for all the hospitality and help (see Fig. 9).
Fig. 9. Staff at BSI Coimbatore office.
Great way to collaborate and open the boundaries! Come on India.
Fig. 10. Solanum trilobatum L., growing along the path, Pondicherry Botanical Garden.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
This week we get an update on the Orchid Observers project, from Project Officer Kath Castillo.
It’s been a busy time for Orchid Observers! The project got off to a great start when the website went live on the Zooniverse platform on 23 April; the very first of the season’s field records was uploaded on day one!
The Orchid Observers team, from left to right: Jade Lauren Cawthray, Jim O’Donnell (Zooniverse web developer) Lucy Robinson, Mark Spencer, John Tweddle, Kath Castillo, Chris Raper and Fred Rumsey
At the time of writing this blog we now have 567 registered users on the website who have enthusiastically completed 11,044 classifications, by verifying and transcribing data for our historical specimens and identifying species and flowering stages for around 700 photographic records already submitted by participants. The field records collected span the country, from Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, and from Pembrokeshire across to Norfolk. So far, for early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) approximately 9% of the records are from new/unknown sites (as measured by 2 km square/tetrad); this is valuable information, particularly for green-winged orchid which is considered at risk of extinction in the UK.
A herbarium sheet of green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio); one of around 10,000 historical specimens available online for data verification or transcription
Whilst we have not been able to fully compare the Orchid Observers phenology data with our museum records (as yet, the relevant, verified, 2015 UK weather data has not been released) we have already been able to see that the median date of this year’s flowering of two species (early-purple and green-winged) is at least 10 days earlier than the museum data (which mainly covers 1830 to 1970). These are early figures only, and the full data set will be analysed later this year.
We are immensely grateful for the time and good will of all our participants - without this effort we would not have been able to collect this data. And we’ve still got the rest of the summer to collect more data for all our 29 species in the survey!
The Orchid Observers team had a very busy in May, showcasing the project to the public at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, in Dorset and on Fascination of Plants Day and at Big Nature Day at the Natural History Museum.
Orchid Observers at Big Nature Day
Some of us in the team have also managed to get out to various sites to record and photograph orchids ourselves. Here’s a snapshot of our recent activities:
Visit to Stonebarrow Hill, Dorset, 1 May
After a busy day on the stand at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, Kath, Mike and Chris drove up to the National Trust’s reserve at Stonebarrow Hill to look for orchids and found two beautiful ancient hay meadows of flowering green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio), including the occasional white variety in a sea of purples.
Kath photographing green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) at Stonebarrow Hill, near Lyme
Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) at Stonebarrow Hill
BBC News report at Darland Banks, Kent, 19 May
Next up, Mark and Kath travelled down to Darland Banks, in Kent, to film a piece for BBC South East News, with reporter Charlie Rose. The south-facing chalk grassland slopes were abundant with the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora). You can see the film piece here.
Orchid Observers in the News: The man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) at Darland Banks
Visit to Box Hill in Surrey, 29 May
At the end of May, and despite a weather warning to expect heavy rain later in the day, a group of us left Victoria station in the morning sun and headed down to Box Hill to search for and photograph orchids. Box Hill forms part of the North Downs and is a well-known site to spot many of our wild orchids – there are around 17 species here. We were able to find and photograph 5 of our 29 target species: common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), common twayblade (Neottia ovata), bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) and fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera), by the time the skies darkened. Some species, such as the bird's-nest and fly, are hard to find at the best of times, and were particularly difficult to photograph in a thunderstorm!
Lucy, Jade and Mike collecting photographic records for common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
The beautiful bird's-nest orchid, (Neottia nidus-avis) in woodland
Drenched but happy: orchid observers Jade, Sally and Lucy at Box Hill
We’ve also been busy filming a piece which has just launched on the Museum’s citizen science Orchid Observers webpage. Kath organised with the Museum’s Broadcast Unit team to film a short piece to explain the research behind the project. So, mid-May saw Kath, together with Emma Davis and Hannah Wise, setting off early one morning with two carloads of film equipment, a group of Museum volunteers and Mark Spencer. The team went to Oxfordshire, to a couple of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust’s finest nature reserves. We are very grateful to BBOWT’s Giles Alder and Laura Parker for hosting us.
Find out about why the Orchid Observers research is so important by watching our film here.
Filming for Orchid Observers in Oxfordshire
Kath is a biologist and botanist working as the Orchid Observers project officer and along with the Zooniverse web team developed the Orchid Observers website. She now tries to get out into the field whenever she can to find and photograph wild orchids!
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.