Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 2

Travelling to Socotra with the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition (1898/99).

This is part two of a blog written by John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. See Part One here.

The journey continues…

Homhil proved a “successful and delightful sojourn, adding largely to both the flora and fauna [collected]”. The camp, surrounded by the iconic Dragon’s Blood Trees (see them yourself here), had an ideal climate, 26°C during the day, 18°C at night.

Sketch of the cucumber tree of Socotra by J. R. Wellsted, another unusual endemic tree, made during an earlier expedition to Socotra. The sketch is part of the Royle collection at LIV herbarium, World Museum. © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

Ten days later, after difficulties agreeing the onward route, the party retraced their steps to the Hadibu Plain. Turning southwards they pitched tents at Elhe and spent two days preparing fresh camels. On the second day, Forbes forgot to put one of his gaiters on and suffered a severe sunburn on his leg (having my own prominent sunburn scar, this is another field experience I can empathise with). While back on the plain, Ogilvie-Grant collected the endemic – Socotra Grosbeak, Socotra Starling, and Socotra Warbler – amongst other animals.

Socotra Grosbeak – Rhynchostruthus socotranus Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881 [accession number: 31.12.1900.164a] (top); Socotra Starling – Onychognathus fratus (Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.160e] (middle); and Socotra Warbler – Incana incana (Slater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.175m] (bottom). © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

The party resumed their trek into the mountains, reaching an elevation with stunning sea views. They remained at Adho Dimellus (also spelt Adhoh di-Melhoh), the “roof of Sokotra”, until February 17th. Fieldwork often fuels friendships and an evening was spent entertaining an Austrian expedition party Forbes had met earlier in Aden.

Photograph of the camp at Adho Dimellus (H. O. Forbes from The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kuri). Public Domain.

Arriving back in Hadibu, the Brits prepared for the homeward voyage, leaving Socotra on February 21st after nearly 11 weeks on the island. A two-day interlude at Abd el Kuri allowed further collections to be made, including another specimen of the endemic (to the archipelago) Socotra Cormorant. This species was described as new to Western science by Ogilvie-Grant and Forbes, based on the adult male, of which there is one specimen at the Natural History Museum and one in Liverpool. Forbes, Ogilvie-Grant and Cutmore left Aden on a British India Steamer on February 28th. The extensive collections, including hundreds of birds and plants and thousands of arthropods and molluscs, were split between the Liverpool and British Museums, and specialists were invited to compile taxonomic checklists.

Socotra Cormorant – Phalacrocorax nigrogularis Ogilvie-Grant and Forbes, 1899 (H. Grönvold from The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kuri). Public Domain.

Connect2Socotra Campaign

The Socotra Archipelago has become known as the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” due to the high number of endemic and unusual species found there. It was added to the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2008. Today the islands are impacted by geopolitics, rapid development including urbanisation and tourism, and the effects of climate change, which are acute for small isolated islands. Last September, UNESCO and the Friends of Socotra launched the Connect2Socotra campaign to raise awareness of the rich and distinct natural and cultural heritage of Socotra, the threats they face, and need for their protection. As part of the campaign, material from the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition was displayed at World Museum highlighting its continued significance and relevance.

The Biodiversity of Socotra display in the Clore Natural History Centre at World Museum, part of the Connect2Socotra campaign. © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

DISCLAIMER: To the best of my knowledge, for the past 30 years, National Museums Liverpool and its staff have not conducted any fieldwork involving the sacrifice of vertebrate animals. The specimens in the vertebrate zoology collection are predominantly historic (such as those from the Socotra expedition) or salvaged specimens (see a brief discussion about new collecting here). My fieldwork has mostly focussed on invertebrate collecting (like Ogilvie-Grant I work in a bird collection but also have a passion for butterflies). My vertebrate focussed fieldwork has been limited to the collection of non-lethal, minimally-invasive samples (bat hair, turtle skin scrapes) and the development of techniques for indirect vertebrate surveys (invertebrate-derived DNA and environmental DNA).

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Anne Imre, Alice Leeds and Kelly Russ have been volunteering at World Museum for the past year, photographing specimens collected during the Socotra Expedition and cleaning specimen records. Donna Young provided feedback on this blog post and the sketch of the cucumber tree. Geraldine Reid and Tony Parker curated “The Biodiversity of Socotra” display at World Museum.

2 thoughts on “Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 2

  1. Another interesting and informative piece of writing. Those Victorians have something to teach us about relishing the natural world (even if they were sometimes a little free and easy with the firearms!).


  2. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – June | NatSCA

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