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A pair of perfectly-intact ‘mystery beetles’ in the collection discovered to be almost 4,000 years-old

Natural History Museum Senior Curator of Insects Max Barclay has discovered that a pair of perfectly preserved beetles, donated to its collection in the 1970s, are almost 4,000 years old – and a species never known to have existed in the UK.

This brand-new discovery features in the next episode of the Channel 5 series, Natural History Museum: World of Wonder, which airs on Thursday, 28th January at 8pm.

The Oak Capricorn Beetles (Cerambyx) were found in a piece of ancient oak wood that had been submerged in a peat bog. The farmer had been splitting the wood only to discover the three-inch-long beetles which have distinctive curved long, threadlike antennae. He suspected, because they were in such good condition, they may have been an invasive species. He donated them to the Natural History Museum for further research.

The pair remained a natural history mystery until now. Tiny samples of both the beetles and wood were sent off for radiocarbon dating which placed their age at 3,785 years old. So, rather than a species new to the UK, these beetles may once have been once endemic in the British Isles but have been extinct for thousands of years.

A clip of Senior Curator of INsets, MAx Barclay from the Channel 5 documentary, Natural History Museum: World of Wonder

“These beetles are older than the Tudors, older than the Roman occupation of Britain, even older than the Roman empire, these beetles were alive and chewing the inside of that piece of wood when the pharaohs were building the pyramids in Egypt. It is tremendously exciting,” says Max.

He believes Oak Capricorn Beetles which exist today in Southern and Central Europe may have died out in Britain due to climate change. “This is a beetle that is associated with warmer climates, and possibly it existed in Britain 4,000 years ago because the climate was warmer and as the climate cooled and the habitats destroyed, it became extinct. Now with global warming, there are indications that it could return to Britain in the future.

It is quite extraordinary to hold something in your hand that looks like it was collected yesterday but is actually several millennia old can provide new insight into the weather and forest conditions in the late Bronze age. This paid of beetles provide a window into the ancient past and the changes climate change holds for the future.”

This scientific breakthrough can be seen in the next episode of the primetime Channel 5 series which documents the work of some the Museum’s 300 scientists as well taking a behind-the-scenes look at preparation for its exhibitions. It explores almost every inch of the Museum from the spectacular public galleries, labs and scanning suites to the collection spaces housing tens of thousands of specimens, dissection rooms and the wildlife garden.


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Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654/ (0)779 969 0151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.