The Museum’s Hope Entomological Collection is pushing five million specimens. We have room after room, with row after row of cabinets packed full of insects from all over the world. Our collection includes the oldest pinned insect in the world, beetles collected by Darwin and Dr Livingstone’s tsetse fly. It’s packed full of treasures. But even now, some of its gems remain hidden.
So, this week’s rediscovery of several hundred priceless specimens is pretty incredible. But what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that they were found by one person… who is 17 years old!
Athena Martin goes to Wood Green School in Witney and is spending four precious weeks of her summer holiday in the Entomology collection. She is taking part in the Nuffield Research Placement programme, which supports young people studying science to gain practical experience in the workplace. Athena applied to the Museum because she would like to study zoology at university and wanted to see what that might involve.
Her enormous task was to search 3,340 drawers like the one she’s holding here on the hunt for specimens collected by the famous Victorian natural historian, Alfred Russel Wallace.
This year marks the centenary of Wallace’s death and is a chance to celebrate his incredible achievements in collecting and research. The Museum has decided to seize this opportunity to catalogue and rediscover the large number of specimens collected by the Wallace. Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections, explained: “We knew we had 1000s of Wallace’s specimens in there, but we needed clarity. Our accession register goes back more than 160 years, but is listed by species, not collector.”
So, Athena began searching through the Lepidoptera (moth and butterflies) cases, reading tiny little labels, hoping to read the magic word…Wallace. Some days were completely fruitless, but she soon built up a lengthy list of the precious specimens. In total, in just three weeks, Athena has rediscovered more than 300 of Wallace’s finds. Her favourites are these beautiful kite swallowtail butterflies, but perhaps the most significant is a Dismorphia butterfly found in the Amazon. Almost all of Wallace’s Amazon specimens were lost on his journey home, when his boat is thought to have caught fire. Nobody at the Museum knew we owned this valuable specimen.
On top of the many Wallace beetles that were rediscovered last year, the Museum is now building up a very clear picture of just how many precious Alfred Russel Wallace specimens it has and, thanks to Athena’s diligent work, we now know exactly where to find them!
If you are interested in more stories from our Entomology collection, follow their brilliant blog, Hope you like insects.
Rachel Parle, Education Officer