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A fishy (work) experience

Posted by Blaps May 31, 2013

Hello Beetlers,


The end of  another busy week and the comings and goings of the Coleoptera section. This week we hear from Jordan Rainey, who was lucky enough to spend a week with us on work experience from school. Here's Jordan enjoying a tour of the collections:



These Dynastine beetles have such large horns that they have to live in a deepened drawer!


This week I have been lucky enough to do my work experience placement at the Natural History Museum, in the Coleoptera (beetle) section! I have been performing a variety of tasks overseen by one of the coleoptera curators, including preparatory work (mounting beetles on pins or on cards) and attaching accession labels to specimens so they can be put into the main collection or sent out to a specialist of that family/genus. I have also been sorting beetles into continents, and the recently collected material from Borneo, in alcohol, into families.


Pinning beetles into position ready for labelling and identifying



I was the very lucky person that got to sort the carrion trap material that Beulah talked about in a previous blog update. It smelt awful, of the rotting fish guts that were used as bait to attract to beetles! I was sorting the scarabs, non-scarabs and the Hydrophilidae into separate pots of alcohol. The Hydrophilids went into molecular strength alcohol so that the DNA could be preserved.


Jordan puts on a brave face - those beetles may look clean but they sure are smelly!


I was also sorting the Passalidae (Bess beetles) into countries and then continents. Most of them were unidentified and the localities were all mixed up, so I had to look at each individual locality label on every specimen and determine where it was collected. Some of the Passalids dated back to the 1800’s and a few may have been from Alfred Russell Wallace’s collection! I ended up with nine drawers full of hundreds of beetles all sorted to continents.


The hundreds of unidentified Passalids...


I would like to say a big thank you to the entire Coleoptera section, especially Max Barclay, Michael Geiser and Beulah Garner for making this an amazing and unforgettable week!

Thanks Jordan!



Some interesting results came from this exercise, in particular the repatriation of some specimens with their original data. When curating a collection with 250 years of history behind it, it is no surprise that some detective work must be employed on occasion. Take the specimen below, one of the Passalids that Jordan has been sorting. He came across it and noticed that there was very little data and no discernible 'BM' number (the number that all specimens must have once they are accessioned into the Museum collection). What he found was the small brown disk and nothing else. From this we assumed that '39' may well be the year the specimen entered the Museum and 432 be the accession number (the consecutive number assigned to an individual specimen or any number of specimens in a discreet collection in any given year).


Before the advent of computers of course all records were hand written, and our accession registers go back to the beginnings of the Museum around 1881! They are big leather-bound heavy tomes with entries written by quill and ink and are a portal into the history of the Museum!  One thing leads to another and we were soon delving into the history of a certain Mr. J.G. Children which can be read below. We can see this beetle was collected a good few years before there was even a Museum in which to deposit it!


Jordan beetleweb.jpg

Though George Children was what one might say, unlucky in love, he certainly enjoyed an illustrous career in the natural sciences; here is his obituary from The Coleopterist


CHILDREN, John George (18 May (July?) 1777 - 1 January 1852)


The only son of George Children, a banker and wealthy landed property owner.Educated at Tonbridge Grammar School, Eton and Queen's College, Cambridge. He intended to join the church, but after marrying at the age of 21, Anna Holroyd who died shortly after, he abandoned this career, and travelled to Portugal and then to Canada and the United States of America. He returned to become a Captain in the West Kent Militia, but gave this up in 1805 as a result of ill health.Having studied mechanics, mineralogy and electricity at Cambridge, he then took up scientific pursuits becoming FRS in 1807. In 1808-09 he married for a second time but lost his wife a few months later. It was at about this time that he made a second visit to Spain.


In 1816, two year's before his father's death, the family lost all their properties as a result of the failure of the Tonbridge Bank. Through the kindness of Lord Camden he received an appointment as Assistant Librarian at the British Museum, first in the Department of Antiquities and subsequently in 1823, as a result of the intervention of Sir Humphry Davy, in Natural History. When the Zoological Department was created in 1837 he was appointed the first Keeper, a post which he held until 1839-40, when, as a result of failing health and the death of his third wife, he was obliged to retire.


Although not primarily an entomologist, Children did collect insects and was one of the founder members and first President of the Entomlogical Society. The meeting at which it was decided to found the Society took place in his house, and Children contributed the Introduction to the Society's first volume of Transactions (see Neave & Griffin (1933), for an account of Children and his involvement with the Society).


Children's collection of insects certainly included beetles and appears to have been large. His obituary in the Proc.LSL, 1852, p.137, described the collection as 'one of the most extensive in England' and noted that he had purchased the collection of Count Bilberg. He certainly gave specimens to the Entomological Society and, in 1839, to the British Museum. When the collection was sold by Stevens between 30 March and 4 April 1840 it amounted to 950 lots, many of which were bought by the British Museum. (These are listed in the NHM Entomology Department's Register. Entomology, 2 , 12 October 1839-2 April 1840 which records many thousands of specimens including 4,490 Coleoptera. Catalogues of this sale, and of his library at Sothebys between 6 and 8 March 1840, are preserved in the NHM. The insects have been amalgamated into the general collections. There are also specimens collected by Children in the Bracy Clarke collection at the NHM found by Dr Easton in an antique shop.


Davis & Brewer (1986) note that a collection of worldwide insects is in the Hancock Museum donated in 1830 by 'George Children' which is presumably this Children.


Letters to Thomas Hope, 1834, 1837, are in the HDO (Smith (1986) p.71)


Jonathan Cooter tells me that Sandra Children, who married the last survivor of J.G. Children's line, has exhibited at Hereford Museum.


FLS from 1807. Secretary of the RSL 1820-27 and 1830-37.


Gilbert (1977) p.67, lists further references in E. Miller, That Noble Cabinet, 1973, pp. 227-231, and in A.E. Gunther, A Century of Zoology at the British Museum 1815-1915, 1975, pp.56-62. (MD 3/02)


Lydia Oliva, a photographic historian from Barcelona, informs me that Children's only daughter, Anna Atkins, (on whom she has been working) published a book of photographs in 1843 (i.e. before Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature) and that she was introduced to photography by her father. Children went to live with his daughter in Halstead Place, London, after he retired. (MD 10/03)


Somethin’ fishy about Borneo

Posted by Blaps May 10, 2013

Dear Beetlers,

This prolonged absence may have something to do with your good authors finding themselves abandoned somewhere in the Crocker Range in darkest Borneo with the sole purpose of collecting beetles! As you will come to learn over the next few blogs there are many methods, both creative and gruesome, for collecting in the field.

It takes a huge amount of planning and resources to transplant four game entomologists from their cosy little nest at the Natural History Museum to one of the remotest and under-explored parts of the world, namely Sabah (formerly British North Borneo). So, with limited time and a mission to collect as much of the area’s biodiversity as possible over the period of just one month, we really had to think about what methods we would employ to maximise our collecting.


So why not use rotting fish? I know, it’s obvious!


It all began within the sanitised environs of one of the many air-conditioned shopping malls to be found in Kota Kinabalu, the region’s capital.


First choose your ‘bait’.



Here is Max Barclay and retired Head of Collections, Howard Mendel, carefully selecting just the right type of frozen fish to attract our little beauties.


Before heading in to the field, we had a days’ shopping to procure everything we needed for three weeks in camp. This included luxury items such as wet wipes and instant coffee, as well as the above bait, and the essential fieldwork tool, the panga, (yes, dark thoughts did set in after about week one…)



Max possesses - or becomes possessed by - the 'blade of Borneo'


As the fish was frozen, this allowed us to transport it into the field and it be relatively ‘fresh’ for making into bait. Max ‘like a fish to water’ took to the role of fishmonger. It was almost as if he were born to it, so expertly did he fillet!



Actually filleted fish and not the remains of one's colleagues...


We use fish as bait as it rots down quite ‘nicely’ (for want of a better word!), and it really, really stinks - apparently with an attractive smell to many beetles. Given the temperatures on average were around 31°C, and humidity was high, this facilitated the rotting process and it was interesting (really, it was!) to see the changes in beetle fauna over the advances in decay.


Here is our delightful bait: from fresh to semi-decomposing in about four days!


Ours was not a precise science; and it is very difficult to work in a controlled way in the field when there are so many variables to affect the outcome of our trapping methods. So basically we chopped up the fish, put various parts into sections of cut up opaque tights (see how we recycle!) and hung them over a bucket that, in turn, was hung over a tree branch or some such so as to not be taken by carnivores (though one would have to be desperate to take this rotting fish!). The beetles should be attracted to the bait and fly to land, falling in to the bucket from which they cannot escape! We set four traps and checked them every few days as the rotting process was so accelerated.



Here is the somewhat alarming final stage of decay which resembled porridge with blueberries, or some such – breakfast, anybody?! Beetles were retrieved using a pair of forceps and precise dexterity!


As you can imagine (but I understand if you dont want to!) this was a very messy and smelly business. Managing to empty the traps without covering oneself with mushy-maggot-infested-rotting-fish-guts was a challenge, and there were a few near misses. Despite my most careful emptying, the smell would linger for a few days afterwards, just in time to empty them once again!

As for the results, well this is quite exciting. We think we collected between 30-50 different species of beetle. The main families were the Hybrosoridae (vertebrate and invertebrate carrion feeders as we would expect!), Scarabaeidae and Staphylinidae, and two specifically exciting species (well to us at least!) were Phaeochroops gigas Arrow, 1907 (Hybrosoridae), and Synapsis cambeforti Krikken, 1987 (Scarabaeidae) described from Brunei and endemic to Borneo; this species is considered really quite rare and only collected from a few localities (though this might be why we consider it rare!). The beetles are now here at the Museum and will be distributed to experts for identification. We expect to have results for some groups within six months!

I shall leave you with some images of us actually enjoying fish, which was not rotting.


beu and al squidDSCN3145.JPG

Well okay, not actually fish but in close proximity to: Beulah and Alessandro share a well earned deep fried squid, it was a beautiful moment!


Again, not actually fish, but the world's largest prawn, swiftly consumed by the Fishmonger of Borneo (I'm not mentioning the T-shirt, it speaks for itself...!)



Member since: Sep 15, 2009

I'm Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department. The Museum's collection of beetles is housed in 22,000 drawers, holding approximately 9,000,000 specimens. This little collection keeps us quite busy!

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