Longhorn beetle project

Figure 1: What possible delights await me with the R. N. Baxter collection of Longicorns (Longhorn) beetles?

Figure 1: What possible delights await me with the R. N. Baxter collection of Longicorns (Longhorn) beetles?

For the past week and a bit I’ve been working in Entomology with my own project on Longhorn beetles (Family: Cerambycidae).  This is a great project for me to work on as it allows me to go through every stage of the process in dealing with incorporating new insect material into the collection.

Figure 2: These delights!

Figure 2: These delights!

Longhorn beetles are an interesting family of beetles; which are themselves an interesting order of insects.  There are more beetles on planet earth than any other animal.  They make up to 30% of all described animals and there are around 500 recognised families and subfamilies.  Many people are familiar with seeing ladybirds and ground beetles crawling around, but then might be surprised when they fly away!  Beetles have a folded underwing protected by their hard forewings to assist them when they need to make a quick getaway!

Figure 3: If this was a Longhorn beetle wasp mimic of the Voice (BBC's X-Factor alternative); I'd want number 17 on my team!

Figure 3: If this was a longhorn beetle wasp mimic version of the Voice (BBC’s X-Factor alternative); I’d want number 17 on my team!

Longhorn beetles are cosmopolitan (meaning they’re found worldwide) and are often characterised by their long antennae (though confusingly some have short antennae!)  Some of the longhorn beetles that I am working with are wasp mimics; I would definitely do a double take if one of these came flying past!  (Though I would not try and bash it with a rolled up newspaper; my tactic, of leaving a wasp or bee be, has thus far proved the best course of action for me.)  The beetles mimic wasps to try and avoid being eaten.  Anyway, enough Hymenoptera, longhorn beetles, including the titan beetle which some people consider the largest insect of all (body length up to 16cm; sadly not pinned by me), are bloody marvellous!

Figure 3: Cerambycidae; the 'Hob-Nobs' of the insect world!

Figure 4: Cerambycidae; the ‘Hob-Nobs’ of the insect world!

The first step in the process is to pin the beetles.  This requires the ‘relaxation’ of the specimens so that they are less likely to break upon the pin being thrust through their carapace (top right of the forewing if you must know).  I relaxed the beetles by dipping them for thirty seconds to a minute in freshly boiled water.  I felt bad for using so much energy in this process but needs must I suppose!

Figure 4: Pinning insects requires serious concentration and a steady hand.

Figure 5: Pinning insects requires serious concentration and a steady hand.

Once pinned on the plastazote the beetles could be carefully manipulated using forceps and a paintbrush so that the limbs were in the right position.  It’s important that the beetles don’t take up so much room in the case so the antennae were manipulated to run down the body, occasionally using pins to hold them in place.  Unfortunately, sometimes parts of the insect, particularly antennae and legs can come off at any stage in the process.  These can be glued using PVA onto a small piece of card and pinned with the specimen, though they are not usually important identifying characters so it isn’t an issue if they aren’t.  You can also glue important parts back on to the insect, but this is only done with large insects or if the thorax and abdomen have broken apart.

Figure 6: Manipulating this beetle's antennae is a tricky process.

Figure 6: Manipulating this beetle’s antennae is a tricky process.

The insects were pinned with a variety of pin thicknesses depending on their size (some of the small beetles were even pinned using small micro-pins on small strips of plastazote to avoid the possible damage of using thicker pins; these are called stage mounts).  The pins are continental stainless steel pins to avoid the effects of verdigris that I’ve touched upon in a previous blog post.  The copper in brass pins can react with the fats in an insect’s abdomen and cause the insect to fall apart.

Figure 7: Micropins and a magnifying glass (plus an even steadier hand) are required for the really small beetles.

Figure 7: Micropins and a magnifying glass (plus an even steadier hand) are required for the really small beetles.

Of highest importance is that all the information (e.g. date collected, species, provenance etc.) that came with the beetles was pinned next to them and they were assigned a joint number.  This is so that the information can be incorporated onto KE-EMu at a later date, and put onto the new labels.  My next task is to input the information from the beetle’s package onto their new labels.  This is achieved through a convenient label-producing software Dmitri owns.  Once this is done I can accession the beetles and input them onto KE-EMu before putting them into a case with the new labels.  Simples! (Incidentally meerkats are quite partial to a beetle or two!)

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Very timely piece about the issues facing natural history curators in 2013.

Palaeosam's Blog

Yesterday evening I had a very interesting chat with The Horniman Museum’s Paolo Viscardi about collections under threat of damage or destruction. I expected the primary contributor to be human civil unrest but, as it turns out, our Natural History collections have far more to fear from a budget cut than from an angry mob with pitchforks. Paolo said that I would be surprised how often people end up rummaging through skips to retrieve type specimens in the aftermath of a closure. I was horrified that it has happened even once!

There are two things a collection needs to be safe: space and a person to care for it. If the owner of the property they are housed in decides to evict the collection, the collection faces homelessness. Without temperature-regulated storage, there is a high risk of a pest infestation and there are few things as edible as a Natural…

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British Arachnological Society Spider id workshop

Figure 1: The attendees enjoying getting stuck in to some identification!

Figure 1: The attendees enjoying getting stuck in to some identification!

On Saturday I attended the British Arachnological Society (BAS) Spider id workshop at our very own Manchester Museum.  The event was hosted by BAS Membership Treasurer, Philip Baldwin and curator of Arthropods here at Manchester, Dmitri Logunov.

The first part of the session involved Phil giving a presentation about arachnids in the UK.  We have four classes of arachnids in the UK; spiders, harevstmen, pseudoscorpions, and ticks and mites (plus one naturalised true scorpion).  We were concentrating today on Spiders (order Araneae), and Phil went through many of the major families of spiders we get in the UK in readiness for looking at them ourselves a little later.  We also looked at the basic characteristics of spider anatomy.  I didn’t realise that spider’s have legs with segments given similar names to our own.  They have a femur, patella, tibia, metatarsus, and tarsus.  Their legs are also numbered from I (top) to IV (bottom); so if I said look at tarsus IV it would be easy to know where to look.

It is also useful to be able to identify a spider’s family using its eyes and other characters.  We can also sex a spider by looking at its palps or pedipalps (large= a male) and presence of an epigynum on the ventral surface (female).  The epigynum holds the sperm, which is transferred from males using their palps, and is also the location where eggs are deposited.

Figure 2: A picture of concentration!

Figure 2: A picture of concentration!

The rest of the session comprised investigating and identifying to family level 15 spider specimens that Dmitri had lifted out.  We looked at them under microscopes and identified them using a key (particularly the Roberts’ Spider field guide) and were allowed ample opportunities to investigate and ask questions about different families’ key identifying characteristics.  There was even a Harvestman thrown in just to show the difference the orders Araneae (Spiders) and Opiliones (Harvestmen).

As with a lot of taxonomic classifications, it is important to use the latin name as the vernacular name means different species in different countries.  For example, garden spider, refers to many different species across Europe and North America.

I also learned that there is still a great degree of mystery surrounding how jumping spiders move so quickly.  Something to do with their hydraulics I believe; as opposed to the spring of a flea which uses potential energy.

I would like to thank Phil and Dmitri for providing such a great introduction to spider identification for me and I hope to be able to keep learning more about this fascinating class of animals.

 

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Conservation work on…

Figure 1: Here it is with two claws missing...

Figure 1: Here it is with two claws missing…

Yesterday and today I’ve been working on ‘brushing up’ one of the objects that is going
to be displayed on the new ‘Nature’s Library’ gallery.  Can you guess what it is?

Figure 2: Here it is with claws reattched (using PVA glue)

Figure 2: Here it is with claws reattched (using PVA glue)

Figure 3: I gave it's fur a good brush!

Figure 3: I gave it’s fur a good brush!

Figure 4: And it's feet too! (using IMS and cotton swabs on skewers)

Figure 4: And it’s feet too! (using IMS and cotton swabs on skewers)

Any guesses?  What if I told you that in Afrikaans (clue) it’s name means ‘earth-pig’ (though it’s not a pig)?

Figure 5: Under wraps- the animal was wrapped for being frozen following removal from the old mammals gallery (due to pest management reasons).

Figure 5: Under wraps- the animal was wrapped for being frozen following removal from the old mammals gallery (due to pest management reasons).

Well if you haven’t guessed already here it is in full glory…

Figure 6: It's an aardvark! (the peg on the ear is to hold in place a tear which I'd glued back together).

Figure 6: It’s an aardvark! (the peg on the ear is to hold in place a tear which I’d glued back together).

Aardvarks are burrowing, nocturnal animals that ranges right across sub-Saharan Africa.  It feeds almost exclusively on ants and termites and is a living fossil.  It has an ancient lineage (before modern eutherian (placental) mammal groups emerged) and is the only extant member of its order,  Tubulidentata.

And for those of a certain age the cartoon character Arthur is an aardvark; as is Cyril Sneer from the Raccoons!

I think it’s a fascinating animal, and a great addition to Manchester’s new ‘Nature’s Library’ gallery (coming soon!)

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Amazonian Big Saturday and Clumber Park

Figure 1: Boring someone with geeky information about praying mantises whilst a jaguar attacks me from behind!

Figure 1: Boring someone with geeky information about praying mantises whilst a jaguar attacks me from behind!

I had fun this weekend for two reasons.  Firstly, the Amazonian Rainforest ‘Big Saturday’ was a great success.  There were lots of visitors on the day and it was great to hear people’s responses along the lines of, “Wow, I didn’t realise praying mantises did that!” as I regaled them with one or two of the facts I’d learned about this charismatic insect family.

The South American band ‘El Condor’ were fantastic, as was Gina’s talk (which I unfortunately missed) and the many other handling tables and talks which kept the visitors engaged for the whole day.  It was great to be next to an enthusiastic Dmitri with his table of Amazonian arthropods; barely scratching the surface of what the collection, and indeed Amazonia, is comprised of.  I also met Matt who told me about the ‘From grey to green’ project encouraging people to record wildlife in Manchester.

Figure 2: And now a giant tiger beetle is trying to attack me.  Help!

Figure 2: And now a giant tiger beetle is trying to attack me. Help!

Sunday, was a day when I perhaps should have contributed an hour to the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch.  But the good weather proved too much of a draw (especially given its recent offerings) to look out for nonexistent birds in the garden (as the pristine bird feeder testifies to).  So instead we headed out to Clumber Park in north Nottinghamshire.

Clumber is a great place to go for a walk or a cycle, but the thing I was most impressed with was the recently opened Discovery Centre.  Although primarily targeted at children, I found the displays of Clumber’s wildlife very interesting.  The discussion of the heath at Clumber really brought home to me (and hopefully other visitors) the importance of this rapidly declining habitat.  I also enjoyed the tank of freshwater animals, which I’m sure will ‘get busier’ in spring time!

Sadly, the house at Clumber was demolished in 1938 as it had fallen into rack and ruin, but the grounds, neo-gothic church and walled kitchen garden (unfortunately closed during the winter) make for a great day out.

 

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Big Saturday- Amazonian Rainforest

Figure 1: My praying mantises are ready to go for tomorrow!

Figure 1: My praying mantises are ready to go for tomorrow!

If you think of the Amazon as solely being somewhere to buy the latest One Direction CD then we have an event just for you!  Tomorrow (26 January) is a ‘Big Saturday’ here at Manchester Museum on the theme of the Amazonian Rainforest.  These means there will be lots of events and activities for visitors to enjoy including my predecessor Gina giving a talk about Tropical seeds and head of collections Henry McGhie leading a session on local bird populations (and no awful music- honest).

The theme of the ‘Big Saturday’ is inspired by the ‘All other things being equal’ temporary exhibition  which comprises museum specimens and photographs by Johan Oldekop detailing the changes , including deforestation, which are happening to the Ecuadorian Amazon region.

As part of the event, myself and Dmitri Logunov (Curator of Arthropods) will be hosting a handling table of Amazonian species.  Dmitri will have a variety of Amazonian insects and arachnids on his table whereas I have decided to be a bit more niche and go for some praying mantises and an Umbrellabird.

I spent quite a while using KE-Emu in order to select the South American species of Praying mantis for my display, as we have mantises from all over the world in the collection.  I then stuck them in an empty drawer with plastazote at the bottom and created labels for the display.  The species of praying mantis I have selected are very diverse.  Some look like dead leaves and some are very thin so they might be mistaken for a twig.  The Mantodea order of insects are famous for their prayer like folded forelimbs and for their voracious ambush predation.  They will catch and eat anything they can; big ones even going for frogs, rats and small birds!  Sexual cannibalism does occur, but happens more frequently in captivity.  They are hemimetabolic which means when they hatch they look like small versions of their future selves (unlike human babies); some even mimic ants to avoid detection!  I find them a fascinating order of insects.

Figure 2: This Amazonian Umbrellabird is ready too!

Figure 2: This Amazonian Umbrellabird is ready too!

The Umbrellabird is used to describe three separate species (all under the genus Cephalopterus), but the one we are interested in is the Amazonian Umbrellabird (Cephalopterus ornatus).  I guess they are called Umbrellabirds because of the Elvis tribute quiff they sport.  They also have a long wattle and females and males look very similar.  The male Amazonian Umbrellabird is the largest passerine (or perching bird) in South America, and they exist on fruits and berries usually, but will also eat insects if hungry.

I hope that through my engagement with the visitors tomorrow, I am able to transfer my enthusiasm for the Amazon’s nature through the small part I will be displaying.  After all, 10% of the worlds species are found in the Amazonian rainforest so if I can’t get enthused about it then there’s no hope!  I’ll let you know how it goes!

 

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Nature’s Library

Figure 1: Part of a possible display for the new Nature's Library gallery?

Figure 1: Part of a possible display for the new Nature’s Library gallery?

So with the object selection for the main gallery cases complete, it’s now time to focus on the smaller well cases that surround the gallery.  These cases are around 140cm long by 60 deep and are each split into two themes.

This week I’ve been lifting out objects that could be used to demonstrate the theme of ‘cotton’, which will run alongside a theme of ‘silk’ curated by curator of Arthropods Dmitri Logunov.  As you might expect for a museum based in Manchester, there’s no shortage of cotton from across the world to chose from in the herbarium!  I tried to select the best looking examples, and also some interesting objects including a postcard and display featuring the cotton plant itself.

It is important not to have too many objects in the cases as, due to the lighting, they can cast shadows on each other.  I may have just the right number of objects here, but if there is room for one more I might include a framed piece of locally grown cotton fabric!

Figure 2: The well cases are just out of sight next to the sperm whale!

Figure 2: The well cases are just out of sight next to the sperm whale!

 

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Plant mounting

Figure 1: Here's one I prepared earlier!

Figure 1: Here’s one I prepared earlier!

Another task I’ve been undertaking in the herbarium this week is mounting plant specimens.

The museum has a lot of plant specimens that need mounting or re-mounting; some collected a long time ago and some recently collected.  If you’d like to learn more about how the museum continues collecting; based upon more of a thematic cross-discipline exercise rather than just ‘filling in gaps’, then check out our new collecting project on the theme of trees.

Figure 2: Lots of the specimens have been held between interesting articles including French homework and advice about how to avoid becoming ill with cholera (you should close your windows apparently!)

Figure 2: Lots of the specimens have been held between interesting articles including French homework and advice about how to avoid becoming ill with cholera (you should close your windows apparently!)

However, the majority of the plant specimens currently waiting to be mounted were collected long ago.  For example, lots of the alpine plants that I’ve been mounting this week were collected in 1836; about the time Charles Darwin was returning home on the Beagle!  They need mounting for a number of different reasons; they may have been initially mounted and the old herbarium sheet has become unsuitable; or they may never have been mounted in the first place.  Some of the specimens have been kept in old papers from the day (an interesting read!); some in between unwanted diary sheets or book pages; and one was even kept in between a piece of marked French homework (a lot better than mine ever was!)

Figure 3: With this job you can learn French and get your plant and label ready for mounting!

Figure 3: With this job you can learn French and get your plant and label ready for mounting!

At Manchester, we have decided that the best way of mounting these specimens is by using straps.  These are small strips of gummed-linen.  Done well, this is a competent form of attachment that can allow for expansion and will hopefully keep the plant secure for a long time.  It is also easily reversed if needed.  This is in contrast to the method of gluing the specimens themselves using PVA, as described in my previous blog post.

Figure 4: You should begin by laying out your specimens how you would like them to appear on the sheet.

Figure 4: You should begin by laying out your specimens how you would like them to appear on the sheet.  These plants are two different species so we don’t know which label applies to which specimen.

The herbarium specimens I was working on aren’t going to be used for display purposes so it doesn’t have to look perfect.  Securely mounting the specimen on good quality acid-free paper is the most important thing; that is why I may have used a few too many straps or straps that were too thick in places.  It is important to mount plants to one side of the sheet or the other if you can; to avoid the sheets bowing in the middle once they have been laid away.  I find it best to start applying the straps at the bottom of the specimen first.

Figure 5: The completed sheet.  Notice how the plants are to one side of the sheet and the labels are underneath each other as we don't know which applies to which species.

Figure 5: The completed sheet. Notice how the plants are to one side of the sheet and the labels are underneath each other as we don’t know which applies to which species.

The herbarium sheet label (and extracted information) is glued using PVA to the bottom right corner of the sheet and the university stamp is applied so that we know where the material belongs if it is subsequently loaned out.

A packet or capsule can be made for loose plant material or sections that are too small to mount.

Figure 6: Sometimes it is easier to re-mount a plant onto a new sheet whilst still attached to its original sheet.

Figure 6: Sometimes it is easier to re-mount a plant onto a new sheet whilst still attached to its original sheet.

Figure 7: The new sheet is ready!

Figure 7: The new sheet is ready!

 

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Biscuit beetles and Happy New Year!

Figure 1: Artist's impression of Asteraceae/ biscuit beetle interaction.

Figure 1: I like this picture so much I’ve included it again! (Artist’s impression of Asteraceae/ biscuit beetle interaction)

So 2013 is now firmly under way and I’d like to wish all my readers a prosperous and happy new year.

But whilst we may have been celebrating the incoming year and reflecting on new challenges ahead, life for the herbarium sheets in Manchester’s collection goes on as normal.  Unfortunately, this includes the persistent threat posed by biscuit beetles (Stegobium paniceum).

I’ve explored the potential damage and prevention measures (freezing) that can be used to control infestations in a previous blog post.

Some of the herbarium sheets that were in the freezer over Christmas and the New Year are now defrosted and ready to be reincorporated into the collection.  However, first there is the small matter of a bit of tidying up which needs to take place due to the damage inflicted by these pesky beetles.

Figure 2: This fern has suffered a lot of damage at the jaws of biscuit beetles!

Figure 2: This plant has suffered a lot of damage at the jaws of biscuit beetles!

The frass (waste left behind), fronds, and larger sections separated from the herbarium sheet need to be collected.  This is acheived by tapping the sheet gently on top of another blank sheet to collect up the material, although sometimes sections may be caught and require removel by hand or tweezers.

Figure 3: the plant material should be collected on a sheet of paper...

Figure 3: The plant material should be collected on a sheet of paper…

Figure 4: ...and is then emptied out into a package or capsule made from folding a section of acid-free paper.

Figure 4: …and is then emptied out into a packet or capsule made from folding a section of acid-free paper.

The packet or capsule containing the plant material is attached to the herbarium sheet in an appropriate spot using PVA adhesive.

Figure 5: The completed herbarium sheet with capsule of material.

Figure 5: The completed herbarium sheet with capsule of material.

On the herbarium sheet itself it may be useful to circle areas of damage so that the next person who views the specimen knows that this is from an old, treated infestation.

You may also decide to write on the packet itself so that people are aware of where the material has come from.

Figure 6: Letting future curators know the reason behind the material in the packet.

Figure 6: Letting future curators know the reason behind the material in the packet.

Hopefully 2013 will be a pest-free year for the herbarium specimens; or at least a year of good pest control!

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Working in Conservation

Time has been ticking on in regards to working on the new ‘Nature’s Library’ gallery and conservation are now well and truly in the midst of getting specimens prepped and ready to go on display.  Most of the cases have been finalised now, so the final objects are currently being collated, measured (see previous blog post) and stored together in one of the basement stores.

This week, in addition to helping Kate (Natural Sciences curatorial assistant) with the measurement of objects, I thought I’d try and lend conservation a hand.  The specimen Jenny (Discombe- Objects Conservator) had selected was quite a seasonal offering and I couldn’t wait to ‘tuck in’ to practising some conservation on this wonderful bird.

Figure 1: Cleaning the dust and dirt from the bird's feathers.

Figure 1: Cleaning the dust and dirt from the bird’s feathers.

Yes the bird in question is a turkey; and the first thing I had to do was brush it and vacuum up the little bits of dirt and detritus that had accumulated on it over the years.

Figure 2: Rearranging the feathers to make it look its best!

Figure 2: Rearranging the feathers to make it look its best!

The next thing I had to do was rearrange the feathers using a pair of tweezers.  Downy feathers were hidden underneath those with a better structure.  This is important as we want the turkey to look its lustrous best for the visitors.  I really got an appreciation doing this of just what a beautiful bird the turkey is and was glad that I wouldn’t be tucking into one for Christmas!

Figure 3: Swabbing the bird's feet gets rid of more dirt.

Figure 3: Swabbing the bird’s feet gets rid of more dirt.

I then swabbed the bird’s feet and beak using a similar technique described in my
previous conservation blog post of cotton wool wrapped around a skewer and
dabbed with IMS (Industrial methylated spirit) and water.

Figure 4: Applying the finishing touches to the turkey's neck.

Figure 4: Applying the finishing touches to the turkey’s neck.

Unfortunately, there was a crack on the bird’s neck which Jenny filled in for me.  Once this was dry, I could then paint over this and any other parts of the neck and head where the colour had been removed.  It was quite challenging to mix up the right colour; and I often had to ask Jenny if this looked right to her as I’m mildly colour-blind!

It was great to be able to leave the turkey in a lot better state from when I started work on it.  I’m convinced it will now be the star attraction in the new Nature’s Library gallery; and will have people queuing from miles around just to catch a glimpse of it.

As this may be my last blog post before Christmas, all that’s left to say is to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I look forward to regaling you with more tales of a curatorial nature in 2013!

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