In a move unprecedented in Specimen of the Week history, I have chosen to blogify the same specimen as I selected in my last Specimen of the Week. The reason is that in many ways it is not the same specimen as it was six weeks ago: it has undergone a profound transformation. We used to call this specimen “the googly-eyed owl”, due to its comedy wonky eyes, but it is googly-eyed no longer. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
Beetles are one of the most successful groups of organisms on the planet. In the UK there are over 4000 species, compared to fewer than 600 wild bird species and around 90 mammal species. Beetles are critical to the health of many habitats, through their roles as feeders on plants and fungi, recyclers of animal and plant debris, and as predators.
When I first began volunteering with natural science collections at Plymouth City Museum, I occasionally assisted local entomologist Peter Smithers of Plymouth University, who regularly ran ‘Bug Hunts’ with schools around the Devon and Cornwall area. It was here that I came across some of my first beetles. In 2010, whilst walking along the South West Coast Path near the chalk cliffs at Beer, I found a black beetle with a vinyl-like sheen. It was beautiful, but unlike anything I had seen before. I later discovered that it was from a distinctive group called Oil Beetles (Meloidae), which possess one of the most extraordinary life cycles of any UK insect: they are nest parasites of solitary mining bees such as Andrena, Anthopora, and Lasioglossum.
After a female Oil Beetle lays her eggs in a nest hole, the larvae (known as triangulins) wait on a plant until they can attach themselves to a passing bee, using hooks on their feet. The larvae then eat the stored pollen and nectar in the bee’s nest. The strategy means minimal effort from the adult female in raising her young, and the larvae have all the food they need.
At the time of my discovery, Buglife was leading the way in trying to understand the state of Oil Beetle populations in the UK, which had suffered severe declines over the past 100 years. With four species believed to be extinct already, there was an urgent need to understand the distribution of the remaining Black, Violet, Rugged and Short-necked Oil Beetles. Buglife launched an Oil Beetle Recording Scheme to map their distribution and engage people of all ages through citizen science.
The survey results have enabled Buglife to learn more about the habitat preferences and hosts of the remaining species, and gain a better understanding of the health of the UK landscape, as Oil Beetles are restricted to wildflower-rich habitats, unimproved coastal grasslands, and woodland edges. Two species of Oil Beetle that were believed to be extinct in the UK have been re-discovered. The Short-necked Oil Beetle was found in South Devon in 2006, before a much larger second population was found on the Isle of Coll in Scotland in 2010. The rare Mediterranean Oil Beetle was found on the same Devon site in 2012, having been last recorded in Kent in 1906.
The efforts of Buglife, local recorders and naturalists have produced valid records to create time series of biodiversity data. Museum collections can also provide useful time series data for conservation efforts, based on specimen label data in terms of location and distribution in a given year. Where a species has been recorded in a particular place and time, we can perhaps find relic populations or sites for reintroduction.
It was my interest in Buglife’s Oil Beetle recording scheme that led me to recently join the Natural History Museum’s Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) as an Identification Trainee. The AMC provides world-class facilities in the museum’s Darwin Centre for citizen scientists, as well as expert and amateur naturalists, to enable them to identify UK species using the AMC’s extensive reference collections. Working here is brilliant, and I hope to be trained to identify the key UK biodiversity groups, gain more practical experience of surveying UK wildlife, assist the AMC team in developing citizen science projects based around museum collections, and continue to develop collections management experience through curatorial projects.
Skills for the Future Trainee & Science Educator
Taxidermy, the art and science of preserving an animal by placing the skin around an artificial body, has always been an important part of natural history collections. During the Victorian era, explorers would bring large and exotic animals back from their long voyages: the mounted skins would be displayed, enthralling the Victorian public, who had never seen creatures such as gorillas and giraffes before. While we thankfully no longer hunt and kill animals for display in museums, taxidermy is still as important as ever for teaching about the natural world – probably more so now as more and more species are threatened with extinction. While there has been a resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy, it is still the case that the number of experts capable of producing and preserving taxidermy is dwindling (in the UK, at least). With this in mind NatSCA, in association with Lancashire Conservation Studios, ran a day of talks and hands-on sessions, entitled ‘Understanding Museum Taxidermy: Construction, Care and Commissioning’, on the 1st April.
The day was led by Lucie Graham, Natural History Conservator at Lancashire Museums. Lucie began by demonstrating how taxidermy can be prepared using a wide variety of different methods, with internal moulds being formed from wood wool, balsam carvings, plaster and more. Taxidermy is an art, and each artist has their own methods. Lucie then went on to discuss how taxidermy can fall into disrepair if not properly cared for or prepared in the first place. We were able to get a close look an assortment of suffering taxidermy from Lancashire Museums, and discuss how we might treat each one to allow it to be better used and conserved. We had an adorable fox cub on our table, which had suffered from some fading, surface dirt and some loose digits on one paw. A bit of a clean and some adhesive to fix the paws, and this little cub could be looking much better!
Next we went through to the conservation lab for some cleaning demonstrations, where many of us were amazed to find out that simple cosmetic sponges get thick dirt off taxidermy effortlessly! We were also shown how to preen and straighten the feathers of a taxidermy bird, using steam to ease the process.
Finally were talks from a couple of the country’s leading taxidermists. James Dickinson discussed how museums can go about commissioning taxidermy. The Guild of Taxidermists can offer lists of accredited practitioners, ensuring that museums are able to make informed decisions and seek the services of the best person for the job. Jack Fishwick, judge at international taxidermy competitions, showed us a sample of his vast collection of bird photographs, which he uses for inspiration and feel for a bird’s shape and movement in life – vital for producing realistic taxidermy. The day finished with passionate discussion about the shrinking pool of skilled taxidermists – Jack and James warn that we may have no dedicated taxidermists left within the next two decades, which could be a disaster for museums wishing to expand and preserve their collections.
Natural Science Curatorial Trainee
Conference season is well and truly upon us! Here are some dates for your diaries:
The National Forum for Biological Recording and the British Ecological Society are holding a joint conference at Sheffield University on 23rd – 25th April.
The conference of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections will be held at the Florida Museum of Natural History this year, on the 17th – 23rd May. The theme is ‘Making Natural History Collections Accessible through New and Innovative Approaches and Partnerships’.
Refloating the Ark: Connecting the public and scientists with natural history collections. A two‐day meeting at Manchester University on 17th – 18th June, exploring how natural history museums can contribute towards environmental sustainability by engaging effectively with the public and the scientific research community.
The Linnaean Society is holding a workshop on Digitising Natural History and Medical Manuscripts on 27th – 28th April.
The 2nd International Conservation Symposium-Workshop of Natural History Collections will be held in Barcelona on 6th – 9th May. The Symposium-Workshop will emphasize concepts relating to the protection and conservation of natural history collections.
Risk Management in Collections Care is a one-day seminar at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow on 21st May, discussing how heritage organisations can use risk management to set priorities and efficiently allocate limited resources to reduce risks to collections.
As always, keep an eye on the events page of our website for more upcoming conferences and courses!
In the Media
This week’s big news: Brontosaurus is back! A new specimen-level cladistic analysis of diplodocids found strong support for Brontosaurus as a valid genus distinct from Apatosaurus. The internet rejoiced.
Entomologists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County found 30 new species of fly in urban gardens.
Skeletal collections can tell us about the history of welfare standards in captive animals (warning: the paper is behind a paywall, but the abstract is free).
Brian Switek revisits his old fossil friend Teleoceras.
Three new species of wood lizard have been discovered in Ecuador and Peru by museum researchers.
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Tasmanian Devil specimens in UK museums, with no data whatsoever, have been used in cutting edge research on devil facial tumour disease as part of the effort to save these incredible animals.
Data – when and where a specimen was collected – is vital to the usefulness of natural science collections. It is crucial for so many aspects of research that these collections are commonly used for: climate change work; biodiversity research; distribution mapping etc.
Specimens without data are usually much more problematic. At Leeds we have thousands of objects that don’t have any record of where they came from or when they were collected. The information has either been lost or never noted down in the first place. Even our scrappiest, most moth-eaten bits of taxidermy are elevated above the rest of the collection if they have associated data.
I was therefore delighted when Jeremy Austin at the University of Adelaide asked whether we had any Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii material collected in the last 200 years. Crucially, he didn’t need an exact date or location – just a two century timespan. We’d been collecting since 1821.
Leeds, a large, rich, Victorian industrial city, spent most of the 19th century collecting scientific material from around the world. We had a ‘purveyor of Australian wildlife’ and acquired, amongst other things, two Devil mounts and a skeleton. The specimens were duly sampled and sent to Australia.
The study, also using specimens from Oxford, looked at genetic diversity in a group of molecules in cell membrane proteins called the ‘major histocompatibility complex’. Low diversity in this complex has been linked to the emergence and spread of devil facial tumour disease. The team needed samples of historical and ancient Devil DNA to see how diverse the populations were before European settlement and after. The article, published in Biology Letters, can be read here.
This is a great example of how natural science specimens, whatever their ‘data status’, can contribute to scientific research at the forefront of species conservation.
The following is a review made by Roberto Portela Miguez, Mammal Group Curator at the NHM London:
About a week ago I attended a course and talk at the Natural History Museum of London, entitled “Control of Pesticide Regulations 1986 (as amended 1997) EU Biocides Regulations 528/2012”.
I know that, even if your two passions in life are pesticides and obscure legal documents, it is highly unlikely that you would rush to sign up for it.
After attending the event I can assure you that I still do not wish to look into both topics more than I need to. I do however strongly recommend all collections management staff to attend any future opportunity to listen to Bob Child’s talk or training event on this topic.
Robert Child was formerly Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Wales, and is now a Conservation Consultant, Advisor on Insect Pests to the National Trust and Director of Historyonics.
His company, Historyonics, sells insect pest products and carries out treatments on historic buildings and collections – so he has plenty of first-hand anecdotes to illustrate the various points he makes during his talks.
His experience on these matters is vast, but possibly more important: he is a brilliant communicator that can easily turn what is a dry and dull topic into two hours of effective and entertaining training.
The course Bob runs is required training for anybody using pesticides as part of their work ( this includes volunteers ) and is based on the requirements of the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986 (as amended), the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 (as amended) and the new Biocides Regulation 528/2012. It is further based on the HSE’s publication ‘Recommendations for Training Users of Non-agricultural Pesticides’.
The course lasts for about two hours and covers both theoretical aspects on a Powerpoint and practical demonstrations of:
- principles of pest control and nature of pesticides
- storage and transport of pesticides
- use of pesticides (on site assessments)
- labels and data sheets
- safety in preparation, clean up and disposal.
- emergency procedures
- record keeping
Once you have gone through the training, you will be qualified to apply pesticides in your collections and, without doubt, be extremely grateful that Bob has done all the reading of the relevant EU legislation on your behalf.
I know most of us do our best to prevent infestations but, just in case, better to be prepared and qualified than …you know.
Keep checking our NatSCA website and blog for news on future workshops and training events and if you want to contact Bob to run the course at your institution, you can email him to firstname.lastname@example.org .