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Curator of Diptera's blog

2 Posts tagged with the entomology_blog tag


So this piece has come about because of my participation in Twitter's recent #MuseumWeek. This was a global series of twitter questions, answers, selfies, confessions, etc. about the work, specimens, collections and staff that reside in museums. As a consequence of I have been nominated to join in the '11 Museum Blogger Questions' by Emma-Louise Nicholls who wrote a fine blog piece herself, answering the same questions and then passed the challenge on to me to talk about my life in the Natural History Museum.


Right, I will get on and respond:


1) Who are you and what do you blog about?


I am one of the collection Managers at the Natural History Museum - I manage the team who are involved with the Diptera, Arachnida, Myriapoda and Siphonaptera collections and personally am responsible for part of the collection (the Larger Brachycera - big, chunky flies). We estimate that there are between 3 to 4 million specimens in the collection here but that is a conservative guess as there are many jars of unsorted material (volunteers anyone?).


So I blog about my professional life in and out of the Museum; the collections that I look after, the field trips I go on and all the other parts that make up an incredibly varied job! I sit at this desk below when i am not in the Darwin Centre Cocoon, or the lab responding to emails asking for flies that I will send off around the world.




2) Which post on your blog did you have the most fun writing?


OK, so this is a hard one. It’s great writing about my field trips (e.g. Ethiopia or Tajikistan) as it helps me remember all of the fantastic things that I have seen and come across, as well as documenting some of the more interesting finds. However, in truth, writing the blogs about the specimens is what I really like. The one on Nemestrinidae was great because not only do I get to show off the specimens that usually remain hidden in closed cabinets but also I get to learn something along the way.


longirostris (1).jpg

One very beautiful fly


I spend ages checking the nomenclature, reading the publications associated with the material, imaging the specimens and so really get to know set parts of the collection. It’s a win/win situation. Although anytime I get to write about maggots is a bonus.


3) If you could nominate anyone to write a blog on the subject of your choice, who would you ask and what would it be on?


Dead or alive? Hmm, I think it would have to be Harold Oldroyd – a dipterist who worked in the Department many years ago. He worked on many groups of diptera and had an incrediable knowledge of both flies and the collections at the Museum.


Amongst his many achievements he wrote a book on the Natural History of Flies which is one of the most beautifully written books I have read - his language is charming and whimsical! - and it is the dipterists bible so I often refer to it.



The dipterist's bible


It would be great to read him waxing-lyrical about all the additions and changes that have occurred in the last 50 years since this book was published. I think his take on the different ways in which we can use technology to help describe new species from highly specialised microscopes to molecular techniques would be most insightful.


4) Why do you work in a museum?


Because it is the best place to work - simple. Where else would you get such an interesting, varied job! One minute I explaining the mating habits of flies to 200 people, the next I am holding on to the side of Peruvian mountains, and then I am recurating a collection containing specimens that were donated by Darwin. I am sampled flies from poo all over the world - there are not many people who get to put that on their CV!


5) If you could spend a year in a ‘job swap’ with someone at another museum, who would it be?


Hmmm. OK would I go for specimens or the curator. Oh, this is hard. Right if you forced me to chose just one - it would be with Torsten Dikow at the Smithsonian. I really like the group of flies called Asilidae (Robberflies - see below) and he is one of the leading experts in the field.


Ommatius discalis (3).jpg


He also manages the fly collection there and thanks to his interests in the Asilidae, the collection is mighty fine.


6) If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?


Easy - I want to go and see the Entomology collection at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii. It is an enormous collection with some excellent dipterists looking after it (and a real expert on Bombyliidae - the beeflies), and it contains so many endemic species only found in Hawaii. The collection also has the added bonus of holding the bombyliid collections from other institutes including the Smithsonian. In fact maybe I should change my earlier answer and spend the year there instead. It does have the added advantage of being in Hawaii...


7) What’s the one thing in your average week at work that you look forward to doing the most?


Looking at flies. I do this job primarily for the love of the insects that I work on. Identifying specimens and knowing that this information will be used to help us understand pollination events, climate change, vector distributions, etc. is just a bonus to looking down the microscope at some of the most gorgeous specimens.





8) Please share a museum selfie.


OK, here's me and Daz....


me and daz.JPG


9) If you could sell something in your museum shop (that you don’t already), what would it be?


Either sweep nets, microscopes or Steve Marshall's book on flies. I have all of these and would be loathe to part with any. Maybe skittles [the sweet] would be good as well, for when I get mid-day cravings.


10) What is it about the people you have chosen to nominate next, that made you think they were a good choice?


I am going to nominate my colleague Alessandro Guisti. He works on the more showbiz insects (butterflies and moths) but I dont hold that against him. There is always so much going on that sometimes the only way you can keep up with colleagues is to read about what they are doing via their blogs. He writes very well and you can really feel his passion for his subject matter.


The second is Richard Jones who, although he dosent work for a museum, did once spend some time working for one and I think would have an interesting slant on blogs


11) If you turned into a devious miscreant over night, which specimen in your museum would you steal and why?


Either one of the diamonds or one of the meteorites. I’m not daft though - not the biggest but one I can sell and then buy a tropical island and then carry on collecting flies. I wouldn’t take an insect as that wouldn’t be right…


OK nominated bloggers, it's your turn and here’s what you have to do:


Answer the 11 questions I have listed for you below (you can adapt them slightly to fit your blog if you wish).


Make sure you include the BEST BLOG image (see the top of this page) in your post, and link the blog back to me, or this blog post.


Think of who to nominate next, I’d recommend two or three though it is up to you, and either give them the same 11 questions or change them however you wish.


Your questions are;


1. Who are you and what do you blog about?


2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most?


3. What made you want to start a blog?


4. What is the best thing about working in a museum?


5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?


6. What is your earliest museum memory?


7. If you could be the director of any museum, which one would it be and why?


8. Share a museum selfie?


9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why?


10. What is the most popular post on your blog?


11. What’s the oddest question you have received in relation to a blog post?


Good luck!


So my blog this time is concerning some work that I undertook recently at the South Australian Museum. I was over in Oz on a holiday, playing with wombats and wallabies in Tasmania,  and I thought that I would utilise the time in checking on some Cerdistus specimens which was a group of robberflies (Asilidae) that my associate Bob Lavigne, a retired Dipterist in the States, and I were working on.


We have recently published a paper on a new species and are currently working on a key. Bob used to live in South Australia and spent many years collecting this group of Asilids. There are many new species that he has described or is in the process of describing and so we decided that it was time to develope a good key to this group. I say group, as we are not sure whether all the previoulsy described Cerdistus belong in this genus - it may be split as well.


Cerdistus SPC Mated pair IMG_9305-9316 Fig. 1.jpg

These are some Cerdistus that were caught in cop and so we are very sure that we have a male and a female of the same species....Lovely looking things. As with all robberflies they have the fantastic mystax or moustache, which are very long stiffened bristles to prevent the flailing prey from damaging the delicate mouthparts!!


Bob and I were based at the South Australian Museum - and as always I have great fun pocking around in other peoples collections (it is like pocking around other peoples houses! - although you may get arrested for that....) - Everyone has a slightly different style although good management practices are universal. The collection in the South Australian Museum is looked after by just one Man! I am amazed at his workload and what he has achieved! But again he is assisted by a superb team of volunteers! Mostly retired, this team have done wonders with many different parts of the collection.


My most surprising event upon arrival was that Bob had kindly arranged accommodation for me through his colleague, a scientific associate at the museum, Archie MacArthur. Now I did not think much of the name till I arrived and I was pounced upon by this man who remembers me coming into the collection 17 years ago to ask for help in identifying ants!! I struggle to remember last week let alone that long ago….and to make matters worse his 90th birthday was whilst I was there…I was utterly shamed!!! He even produced a piece of paper with my scribbled notes over it. (I undertook a placement whilst at the University of Adelaide – months running around the outback looking for ants….not to be sniffed at!!)


He is still publishing and one more book is just in print (e.g.


Here he is celebrating his birthday!



And here is one of 'the boys' - please pay no attention to the wine on the table they were just props....

archie and bob.jpg

But back to flies. Bob had been travelling to many of the major collections in the world to look at the type holdings for this group of flies. Whilst in the UK on a previous visit he had spent time in Oxford as well as in the NHM imaging the specimens. I have been working on a descriptions spreadsheet noting individual characters of NHM specimens and he has been working on them, as well as the Oxford material, material from Paris and of course, the main bulk of the material in the SA Museum.



If you leave Dipterists alone for any period of time they start obsessing over genitalia. Bob spent a lot of time finding original descriptions of Type species, making copies of the diagrams where there were any and then photographing the genitalia. (I have a large collection... )


Cerdistus SPCR-Cropped Fig 2.jpg

See how wonderfully shiny it is!


So the plan for the week was to go through the working key with the majority of the specimens in front of me. Now making a key is not easy and Bob had done an amazing job so far in getting as far as he had. Most of the key was written from his (and some of my) notes from specimens. However, It is still amazing how many times they do not fit or something has been recorded incorrectly or with a level of ambiguity as to make writing for a key difficult!! When I was going through the key there were stumbling blocks all over the place (resulting in a bit of a potty mouth)– and much

of that was due to me!! I am always a big believer in simple things – if you are going to describe something – why not have an image to clarify exactly what you mean.


However, this means lots of images as there are many characters on the fly that we use in speciating them – the colour of their moustache for instance (it is a key feature of the robberflies). I have pages and pages of notes for images that I have to now take as well as verifications that i have to do. I have had to bring back a box of flies to the UK to enable me to again compare with the specimens in the NHM.


Box of flies - always amusing to take as hand luggage on a plane - very confused customs people...airline staff...people sitting next to you...



As well as working on the morphology of the specimens we are about to sequence them. This will greatly help us decide if what we think is a new species is in fact a new species, or is it just a colour variant of another one. When you have very few of a ‘morpho’ type you need to gather as much evidence that it is a new species. Our collection in the NHM is dotted with singletons and it is not uncommon to describe on a single specimen although this does not aid us in understanding any variation within the species. Now as we think that there are many many new species to this group (and as already stated, we do not believe that it is even one genus) by enlisting both morphological and molecular analyses we are formulating the best picture.


So come back to us in about 6 months when we have gone through the analyses, described the new species, and properly developed the key. In the meantime, check out some of the UK species of Asilidae. I love this group as they are just the best predators!!


And just to show you how much we love our work - this was my Christmas card from Bob!!! Beautiful isn't it!

Cerdistus Belair  MS IMG_0416-0425 Chr.jpg

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

View Erica McAlister's profile