Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality.

The collection comprises 9000 drawers of pinned specimens, 2,500,000 specimens (or so) in jars, approximately 200,000 slides, and a further molecular collection (both DNA and tissues), frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at -80oC. Some are housed in the most up to date cases that are appropriate for insect collections whilst others have been kept, preserved in time, exactly as they were when presented to the Museum. This is the case for some of the earliest preserved insect collections at the Museum.

The Natural History Museum was born thanks to the generosity and far sightedness of Sir Hans Sloane. He was an old-school collector and back in the 1800’s he amassed a collection of such importance that folks came from far and wide to visit and study it, including none other than Carl Linnaeus – the father of Binomial nomenclature. Sloane was not a collector of insects or other objects himself but rather a purchaser and receptor of other people’s collections. One of those acquired was from James Petiver, a shop keeper who owned an Apothecary store in London. As well as having herbs and spices necessary for his work, he also collected plants, shells and insects and had a vast network of friends and connections who passed them onto him too.

The boxes of books and the instructions of care.             © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only does the age of this collection merit attention, the majority were collected in the late 1700s, but also the method of storage. For these insects, butterflies, beetles, flies etc, were presented as flattened specimens in books. After ‘drowning’ the insects in ‘spirits’ he would press them between the leaves and here they remained for over 300 years. Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did.

Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only do we have the books but we also have little boxes, and within these there are many insects and arachnids. More importantly for me there are many flies.

We also have little boxes. Lots of little boxes.                   © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This collection has many questions associated with it, including where are the actual specimens from? A common problem and one that has obviously been there from the beginning of collecting. It is interesting to think though that even material that we have held in the NHM for hundreds of years still needs to be investigated.

But to me just looking at specimens of flies that are three hundred years old is quite something. Not all have them have survived – many specimens are ghosts of what they were.

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Amongst all of this, there are amazing specimens – some rather famous flies. Shown below are, we think, Eristalis arbustorum – a common hover fly found across Europe. These specimens here are some of the oldest preserved flies on the planet. There is an older collection but the flies are not as well preserved. These little boxes have been inspiring taxonomists for hundreds of years.

Hover flies. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Those hover flies are good but the real gem lies still within the pages of Petiver’s book and it is a rather odd looking hornet robber fly.

The hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This has always been one of my favourite flies and this specimen is arguably the oldest specimen of this species in the world. It would be many years before this specimen even got a name!  And it is amazing to consider that for a specimen over 300 years old that, albeit being a bit squashed and misshaped, that it is still utterly recognisable and has retained its colour. Guess I should get around to entering that data to the British Robber fly scheme….

Written by Dr Erica McAlister, Collections Manager- Flies, Fleas, Arachnida, Myripoda, at the Natural History Museum, London.

NatSCA Digital Digest

ChameleonYour weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

Events

8th – 15th June: The Dodo Roadshow. To mark the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s nomination in this year’s Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year, the Oxford Dodo is touring the country, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, in just one week, visiting museums and galleries along the way!

17th – 18th June: Refloating the Ark: Connecting the public and scientists with natural history museums at Manchester Museum. Conference looking at how natural history collections can be used to engage effectively with the public and the scientific research community.

25 June: Collection Standards Infrastructure Project – Environmental Standards at NHM, London. Talk on standards for collections, display and storage and their implications.

 

News

A new species of theropod dinosaur from Wales has been discovered by experts from The University of Manchester, University of Portsmouth, and the National Museum Wales.

A rare meteorite stolen from an Australian museum may have been stolen to order. Scary stuff!

A study using museum collections has found that the world’s biodiversity might not be as diverse as we thought…

The World Museum in Liverpool has added a new Octopus called Polvo to its aquarium!

 

Around the Web

A dinosaur reading list for every dino enthusiast in your life!

David Gelsthorpe of Manchester Museum on how the Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits tells the story of Ice Age animals.

NHM curator Erica McAlister has been re-curating flies. Big flies.

 

Got a submission for the blog or Digital Digest? Email us at blog@natsca.org

NatSCA Digital Digest

ChameleonYour weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

 

Conferences

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.

 

Workshops

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

Illustration of a Brontosaurus skeleton by Charles Othniel Marsh

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.

 

Got a submission for the blog or Digital Digest? Email us at blog@natsca.org

Science and Museums with Erica McAlister

It’s been a little quiet around here so today you’re getting two posts to make up for it. This afternoon we’re going to have a guest post by Plymouth Museum’s very own Jan Freedman but first let’s talk about bugs:

Erica McAlister visits the Grant Museum

Erica McAlister visits the Grant Museum

London’s Natural History Museum houses an impressive natural history collection. It has millions of specimens ranging from amoebae to blue whales. For Dr. Erica McAlister, an entomology specialist at the museum, the most important part of the collection are flies. Many of us relate to flies as a nuisance that needs to be swatted away from our sandwiches but, to Erica, they represent an amazing resource of information. Last month Erica agreed to come and talk to the good people of PubSci about her research.

There are two primary frontiers of insect research: new areas of investigation; and cleaning up the mess Walker left behind. We’re going to talk more about the new areas but I’m sure Erica would be happy to tell you about Walker’s legacy if you’re not already familiar with it.

New areas include a recent trip to the Ethiopian church forests. This is an interesting phenomenon – deforestation for farming has decimated the Ethiopian forests but, due to their reverence for the church buildings, the forests have been left unscathed in a radius around them. This may be the last hope for many of Ethiopa’s native species. Flies are a major contributor to pollination – three of the six top UK pollinators are flies. What Erica wanted to know was whether the speciation at the edges differed from the core. She went out there and, despite some regional obstacles such as children stealing pan traps, managed to recover a huge amount of data – which has since been published.

Another major area of investigation has been identifying fly larvae: we may have over 100 000 described species of fly but we only know 4% of their larvae. The importance of this cannot be stressed strongly enough: if you cannot tell apart a disease carrier from a pollinator you may be shooting yourself in the foot however you tackle them. Furthermore their presence at the developmental stages of a crime scene could drastically alter your prediction of how long ago the crime took place if you do not get the species right.

Flies are used as an arctic bio-indicator of climate change because certain species of chironomids (non-biting midges) are ctenothermic and can only exist in very specific temperature ranges. There now exists a ‘chironomid thermometer’ due to this phenomenon.

Suitcase ecology is another area of crime scene investigation. It was once believed that the age of a body couldn’t be as accurately determined if the body was stowed away in a suitcase because flies cannot get into and out of it. Further study has revealed a pattern of egg-laying on the zip, through which the larvae may pass when they hatch. This now gives us a better picture of the circumstances of the murder than ever before.

There are lots of fly behaviours that touch upon our daily lives in ways we don’t even appreciate and understanding these is essential to our continued way of life. For example the very fact that we have chocolate is wholly due to fly pollination. Without them, we wouldn’t have it. Furthermore we can use flies as a source of chemical research – fly venoms used for biological control, for example. We need them to tell us whether the climate is changing and to help us catch murderers but, more importantly, we need people like Erica who can make sense of their behaviour and present it in a way that makes us forget our instinctive “ugh, flies” reaction. There aren’t many people who would be prepared to trawl through cow pats and fetid carcasses in the name of science but somebody has to. When someone steps forward and shows enthusiasm for this we should wholeheartedly encourage it.


PubSci is a pet project of NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi. If you’re in London tomorrow evening I highly recommend you come along. We will be talking about the history of natural history collecting and trade with Elle Larsson, University of London postgrad. I am sure it will be terrific.