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Beetle blog

2 Posts tagged with the taxonomy tag
1

The Etymology of Entomology!

Posted by Blaps Mar 8, 2013

As our beetle blog heads towards 50,000 views, it is fast becoming one of the most important interfaces between the Coleoptera Section and the world at large, but it is not the only public outreach that we do here on the section. As well as very regular Nature Live Events and Night Safaris at the Museum, we make occasional forays into radio and television, and one such example was on the 30th January when presenter Dr. George McGavin and BBC producer Andrea Rangecroft came to the Collections to record an interview on the 'Etymology of Entomology'

 

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Max Barclay and George McGavin having a friendly chat about taxonomy, probably!

 

Even since the biblical instruction to Adam in the Garden of Eden to give 'a name to every creature' (leading to the oft-repeated quip that taxonomy, rather than anything else, is the 'oldest profession'), or perhaps more seriously since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae in 1758 which marks the start of formal Zoological Nomenclature, people have trying to name and classify the breathtaking biodiversity they see around them. There is considerable debate as to what is actually the largest group of organisms, with nematodes, some microbes, Hymenoptera (bees, ants and especially wasps) and Diptera (flies) all competing with beetles for the hypothetical species-richness crown, but of one thing we are certain: None of these groups has been so exhaustively and comprehensively named as the Coleoptera. Over 400,000 described species of beetles (about 20% of known biodiversity) shows an average rate, still undiminished, of 1000-2000 scientific names proposed each year since 1758 for beetles alone. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a BBC team interested in the 'Etymology or Entomology' should have wanted to pay a visit to the beetle section..

 

Dr. George McGavin, the presenter of the show is an entomologist and zoologist and was once a student based at the Natural History Museum, so he is no stranger to the whiff of naphthalene and the ranks of cabinets and drawers that house one of the biggest slices of Earth's biodiversity to exist in one place anywhere in the world. His background of course meant that he knew many of us, and also pretty much what he wanted to see. In the radio show, he interviews a number of entomologists, (including me), and nomenclators in the UK and the US, such as the staff of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (the august body based at the Natural History Museum, that regulates the naming of animals). To hear a sneak preview click on Radio 4!

 

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The ranks of cabinets of the Coleoptera section holding over half of the World's known species

 

To provide a bit of background, Linnaeus's system, that is still used today, requires that each species has a unique scientific name, based (loosely) on Latin or Greek, and consisting of two parts, the genus name and the species name. These names are 'universal', i.e. used by scientists throughout the world and allow us to know exactly what species we are talking about; I have had many conversations with entomologists with whom I have no common language, that consist of pointing at specimens and saying scientific names, and it seems to work. Most of these names are serious, often descriptive, referring to colour (e.g. ruber, niger, albus, viridis), shape (spinosus, elongatus, angulatus), habitat (marinus, sylvaticus, montanus, campestris), size (maximus, minimus, pusillus, giganteus, nanus). Others refer to places of origin (germanicus, africanus, yorkensis, londonensis) or to people who the describer wanted to honour or commemorate. In the last case, the name is formed by adding a latin genitive '-i' or '-ii' for a man, '-ae' for a woman, or '-orum' for more than one person, to the end of the name in question (e.g. Eulipoa wallacei, Wallace's Megapode; Ischnura fountaineae, Margaret Fountaine's damselfly; Apion hookerorum, a weevil named after the Hooker brothers). Often the person honoured will be the collector, but sometimes it will be a figure from outside the world of science, a writer or entertainer or whatever, and in some cases a politician.

 

One of the beetles that George asked to see is one of the most controversial to be named after a famous person, a blind cave beetle forever cursed by its describer Oscar Scheibel with the name Anophthalmus hitleri. Scheibel presumably collected and named that species in 1936, because it was published in 1937, and it shows that one should never name anything after politicians, or at least wait until they are good and dead, since you never know what they are going to do.

 

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Scheibel's unfortunately named beetle!

 

Other politically named beetles include Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller's slime mould beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium rumsfeldi and Agathidium cheneyi, named after US republican leaders. It is a popular misconception that in such cases the beetles are named as an insult, because beetles are considered somehow unpleasant (especially when they live in or feed on slime-moulds), but this is nonsense- we love our beetles too much! No professional coleopterist considers beetles to be unpleasant, and the names above are certainly honorific (in fact at least one of the scientists also named species after his wife). 

 

On the subject of naming of insects after partners or prospective ones, George Willis Kirkaldy (1873-1910)  deserves a mention. British born and based in Hawaii working for the sugar plantations, he studied the true bugs (Heteroptera) and discovered that the Greek suffix -chisme sounds, when spoken aloud, sufficiently like 'kiss me' that he prefixed a lot of genus names with words that sounded like the names of young ladies (or at least, the kinds of names that young ladies had in the early 20th century) - Dolichisme, Elachisme, Florichisme, Peggichisme, and Polychisme. Apparently Kirkaldy was criticised for frivolity at the Zoological Society of London, and one can imagine that a young man using the scientific nomenclature to crow about his romantic conquests might have raised a few eyebrows among the bewhiskered Edwardian patrons of that learned institution. A close contemporary of Kirkaldy, Horace Donisthorpe (1870-1951), whose collection is also at the NHM, apparently employed a similar strategy: many of his species and subspecies are named after young women of the day, some examples being primroseae, irenae, florenceae. The striking thing about these names is that none of them have stood the test of time- all have been shown by subsequent workers not to be distinct. One is drawn to the conclusion that Donisthorpe looked at something that the young ladies in question had collected, told them it was new, and went as far as formally naming it after them, but that his motives in doing so were perhaps not entirely scientific...

 

We also discussed the Russian entomologist Nikolay Nikolaevich Plavilstshikov (1892-1962), who (perhaps unsurprisingly) was drawn to complicated names and gave the world the longest scientific name, Brachyta interrogationis interrogationis var. nigrohumeralisscutellohumeroconjuncta Plavilstshikov, 1936 - a rather attractive, 1cm-long yellow and black longhorn beetle that lives in peonies in northern Eurasia. Plavilstshikov is also remembered for bringing a gun into work and shooting at his line-manager, and getting away with it, but that is another story...

 

With 400,000 beetles one can only imagine how many stories, told and untold, surround the choosing of their names. We have attempted on 'Etymology of Entomology' to tell just a few of the best of those stories, and our colleagues from other institutes and other countries have told others. We do hope you'll tune in at 10.30 on Saturday 9th March, and we'll provide live links as we get them

 

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Max shows George some of the species talked about in the radio show

 

To find out a little more about the programme please read on...and tune in on Saturday 9th March at 10.30am

 

On Saturday 9th March at 10.30am on BBC Radio 4, popular culture meets science as zoologist Dr George McGavin delves into the strange, and often bizarre, names given to insects.

 

There are an estimated 8-10 million living insect species with new specimens being discovered almost daily. Entomologists are turning to ever more imaginative names, referencing everything from literary figures, celebrities and politicians to playground puns.

 

There are flies named Pieza kake (piece of cake) and Scaptia beyonceae after the singer; beetles with political connections - Anophthalmus hitleri, Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi; even entomologists who name discoveries after romantic conquests. Unsurprisingly, names can prove controversial but, once set, are difficult to change.

 

"Taxonomy is the foundation stone of science…without a stable system of classification, science would be nothing but a jumble of uncorrelated observations."

 

George takes us into the complex and intriguing world of the taxonomist. From the 18th century father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus, to the present day, he explains why naming the things that surround us is the foundation of all science.

 

George pieces together his story at Linnaeus’ original collection at The Linnaean Society, and at the capital’s Natural History Museum and London Zoo. He also reveals some insects named after him at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

2

Beetles; Czech!

Posted by Blaps Mar 13, 2011

Hello Beetlers,

 

It's been  a while, but things have been very busy in the Coleoptera section this month, and this is because we have all been occupied by getting ready for the big event that is the Prague Insect Fair! (Please see deliberate pun in title, courtesy of Max Barclay).

Yes, that's right, a whole weekend in March dedicated to insects; and if that's not enough, the good entomologists of Europe and beyond, do it all again in October!

This is a really important time for our department and it's been all hands on deck to prepare beetle specimens ready for transport to the Czech Republic.

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Here are a number of entomologists getting excited about insects...

 

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And here are some more entomologists - this time really excited...


Where to begin? Well, our over-arching aim in the Coleoptera section is to improve the quality of the collection, in terms of identifed specimens, specimens made available for research, and a far reaching geographical spread of species that supports not only the taxonomic research community but also the ecological and conservation community; essentially our specimens can help inform conservation practice throughout the world - and Prague provides the platform for this to occur.

 

So this month we have contacted all our colleagues throughout Europe to see if they will be attending the fair, and if there are any specimens from our collection they would like to see - this is our loans system, which facilitates world-wide research in to the specimens held in the NHM's collections. Our colleagues put in a request and we 'process' the loan - yes, it has kind of felt like a very long beetle production line this month. The specimens are exchanged in Prague, along with a few beers and some fascinating exchanges on all things Coleoptera no doubt!

 

 

The other job is to prepare all our specimens collected on fieldwork trips for transit, in order that they can be mounted, or identifed by some of the most proficient experts in Europe and the World.

It's not an easy job to carry thousands of insects abroad, so we recruit a number of 'carriers' to get our insect stash out of the country, along with a couple of responsible (?!) members of staff.

 

 

Here's some interesting statistics yielded from last October's Insect Fair (too soon for this year's results):


Loans for 34 people (56 boxes) were carried to Prague and we returned with 41 people's pre-existing loans in 62 boxes; this meant we met with and exchanged loans with 58 people from 14 countries!

 

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Here's Max signing off a loan for some expectant Coleopterists.

 

We returned with 92 boxes of newly mounted material (insects pinned or carded) which made up a whopping 18,428 specimens!

The total number of specimens identified for us by borrowers from our undetermined material was 2,170 and an additional 1,243 specimens were indentified from unprepared material by specialist mounters.
In total 3,413 NHM unidentified specimens were identified on this trip.
As good will it is the convention to exchange specimens between organisations as 'gifts' and so we received 16 specimens (mainly paratypes) and19 new Holotypes - how generous!.  We also received 226 new paratypes from previously unidentified NHM material.

 

 

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Here are a number of 'responsible' members of staff and highly respected scientists , with their 'carriers' from left to right:

Martin Brendell, Donald Quicke, Mike Morris, Howard Mendel, Fran Sconce and Max Barclay

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Entomology’s very own Spice Boys, rocking a ‘geek chic’ vibe, thanks to some cheeky accessories and some luxurious matching luggage (I wish I could take credit for such wit, but sadly I cannot. This is the work of the Entomology Department's inimitable PA Esther Murphy)

From left to right: David Oram, Max Barclay, Martin Brendell, Roger Booth, Mike Morris

 

The best is that the NHM benefitted by 208 new species names to the collection as a result of this trip!

 

Can't wait for October!

 

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Photo courtesy of Rafal Ruta
The Coleopterists have left the building!



Blaps

Blaps

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!

View Blaps's profile