Lepidoptera Project

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Molly and Gina work at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on a 2 year project to re-curate the Lepidoptera collections. This involves the databasing of the entire World Moth collection in the Hope Entomology Department.

As part of our day to day routine we document drawers of moths to species level. This means we record the genus and species, the author, and how many specimens we have of each species per drawer. Another important part of our role as curatorial assistants is to repair the wings and bodies of any damaged specimens. This also involves the replacement of any old pins that are causing verdigris, which can pull a specimen apart, although we keep any pins of historic importance.

We also look for “lost” type specimens in the collection. These are types that may have been overlooked or are not immediately obvious to the casual observer. Learning to recognize handwriting is a useful skill to have when looking for types. We then check the appropriate literature to verify its type status and move the specimen to the type collections. So far we have found over 50 putative type specimens.

Type specimens aren’t the only interesting thing we find while recurating collections. Specimens collected by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Henry Walter Bates have been found in the moth collections, as well as drawings of caterpillars by Frederic Moore, 5 species of extinct moths and most recently, a butterfly from Tonga that was collected on the H.M.S. Challenger expedition in 1874.
We also are responsible for handling enquiries about the Lepidoptera collections. This includes artists, researchers, students, and interns and can be in person or via email. We have also facilitated a 6 week internship to work on the Sudanese butterfly material.

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Gina: At the moment I’m currently working on the family Noctuidae, which is the largest Lepidoptera family. To give you an idea of how large, I’m nearly done with this family but have documented over 30,000 specimens. My favourite aspect of this job is detective work. The handwriting on old labels attached to specimens can tell you a lot about the history of a specimen and the collector. It takes a while to learn someone’s particular style of handwriting, but once you do, it can open a world of information for you. For example, we have a lot of type specimens described by Francis Walker. By recognizing his handwriting, we know that a label marked with his hand may possibly be an overlooked type specimen. Label shape and colour can also tell you who might have handled or determined the specimen in the past. John Obadiah Westwood, the first Hope Professor of Entomology, often put blue, diamond shaped labels on specimens in his collection.

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Molly: Throughout the project both of us have been presented with different challenges as we are working on different families and they often require specific treatment. You can’t treat Cossidae the same as Pyralidae. Due to the size difference, although the basic requirements are the same, Cossids tend to be more robust.

I am currently working on Pyralidae and I’ve heard numerous anti-moth comments: “Didn’t realise you were such a fan of the 70’s”, “Oh look, more beige moths!” There are many more comments, including the popular reference to a drawer of Lepidoptera as “flying stamps.” Phooey. Moths and butterflies draw people in, they are family friendly and are often the first port of call for amateur naturalists. The Lepidoptera Project has over 700 followers on twitter. That works out at just over 100 new followers a month. Moths might be beige, but they sure are popular.
You can follow us Twitter: @hopeulikemoths

Highlights of Day Two – SPNHC2014

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The conference had a packed schedule. From the very beginning there were times when I had to choose between two talks I really wanted to see and would have to sit in on one physically while stalking twitter comments from the other. During Tuesday’s Conference committee meeting, someone raised the idea of live streaming the talks via Adobe Connect or similar for future events. The Emergent Professionals group had already done that in the previous session with some success. The main concern seemed to be that paying delegates would be put out by non-attending people getting more of the perks of those attending. I can’t speak for everybody but, as a paying delegate, I would have appreciated the ability to attend more than one talk at once.

Sometimes I picked the wrong talk. I won’t highlight which ones but I would like to give some feedback for those talking at these events in the future. All of these are based on actual events but nobody was alone in making these mistakes. Also I would like to go on record as saying that I am not a great public orator and am saying this purely from an audience perspective. Getting up there and doing it in the first place is awesome.

Advice for Future Speakers

  • If the speaker before you was really good, don’t let that intimidate you. Your material is different in content, therefore it has new and exciting value.
  • The sun is going to explode in a few billion years. If you embarrass yourself it’s not the end of the world.
  • You’re there to engage people but don’t falter if your presentation is right before the tea break and your audience seem more engaged by that.
  • A constant monotone for 20-30 minutes is a killer even if the subject matter is chocolate dinosaur sex (the three most exciting research areas for the average person according to a survey).
  • Don’t be thrown by sleeping audience members. There’s a lot of double-ended candle burning at these things and it’s really hot + airless in those rooms.
  • Make sure the audience can see your lips. We had audibly-impaired delegates who miss out if they can’t lip-read. Check for mouth-level obstacles, such as laptops and microphone stands.

Highlights

Gregory J. Watkins-Colwell’s talk on time lapse photography was very interesting. Time lapse is a great way to demonstrate a lot of information in a much-reduced time frame. He showed us students skeletonising a grey wolf over an eight hour period. He was able to point out in under two minutes all the mistakes the students had made in that time: leaving gloves off; talking to each other for at least three hours; and so on. He then discussed logistical problems while filming dermestid beetles – they really don’t like the light. The applications of time lapse extend well beyond the classroom and, as it occurred to me later in the week, could be used as a means of educating decision makers about collections care. Example: at one particular museum, who shall remain nameless unless they ask not to be, the geology stores have a heat and humidity problem. There is no air conditioning and the curators have told the relevant people, whose reply has been along the lines of: “they’re rocks, they’ll be fine”. Of course that’s not the case but how to convey that to them? Time lapse photography could be key – train your camera on one of the specimens and take a snapshot once daily. Hopefully a decision would be made sooner but, at 20 frames / second, you could replay 3.3 years worth of consequences per minute.

Nicola Crompton and Bethany Palumbo from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History have just finished the monumental task of cleaning their whales. This was made possible by PRISM grant funding. It’s little wonder they were looking a little worse for wear: these five cetaceans are at least 154 years old! A century and a half of UV light exposure and fluctuating temperature had taken their toll and the whales were leaking natural oils (careful what you stand under, folks). As they removed the corrosive dust, dirt, and secretions they documented the entire process here.

Anna Monfils from Central Michigan University presented the findings of her research into the use of natural history collections for undergraduate training and its effect on their overall education. I won’t say too much about this just yet as these results are as yet unpublished but let’s just say it’s looking really good.

Annette Townsend shared with us her experiences of making teaching specimen replicas of some of the Neolithic tools from Salisbury. Pictured in this post is her mace head in its various incarnations. She started by 3D scanning the original but the printed copy (above) didn’t feel right, so she used this as the basis for making a mould and then recreated it using Jesmonite (below). Comparing it to the original it’s very impressive.

Nigel Monaghan gave us the low-down on the Irish fossil hunting frenzy that resulted in scanning numerous caves across the Republic for their biodiversity. He was very engaging and exactly what we needed at such a late stage in the day. If you ever get a chance to visit his Megaloceros specimens, they’re truly impressive.
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Pub Quiz

“Work hard and play hard” seems to be the motto of the museum sector and they did not disappoint at the pub quiz: we planned a lynching in case of no food; we groped whale teeth; conducted some fairly serious team espionage and generally had way more fun than one perhaps should. Thanks to all the organisers and participants – it was great!

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