Where’s Wallace? There’s Wallace!

Wallace 3

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 MartinAthena 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.”

 - Kite swallowtails
Kite swallowtails

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

What’s on the van? – Sunset moth

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This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Katherine Child, of the Museum’s Hope Entomological Collections.

This striking image shows the underside of a large tropical moth belonging to the family Uraniidae. Its scientific name is Alcidia boops, but it’s also known as a sunset moth due to its striking, shimmery colours. Unlike most moths, this species is active during the day. As the light shifts on the insect’s wings you can see the iridescent scales which act as a warning to predators. These bright colours advertise the fact that the creature is toxic and would not be a tasty mouthful.

Underside and topside of the sunset moth. Photographed by Katherine.

– Underside and topside of the sunset moth. Photographed by Katherine.

Not only is the specimen pictured very beautiful, it is also extremely important. It’s one of almost 4000 butterflies and moths which form the museum’s Lepidoptera Type collection.  A type specimen is the designated individual from which an entire species is first described. This specimen will be referred back to by researchers, and other specimens are checked against it, time and time again. Happily for me, over the last few years it’s been my job to photograph this entire collection; this is one of my favourite specimens from it, and one of the moths which has stood out the most as I’ve worked my way through them all.

Many of the types in our collection are very old and inevitably some are a little the worse for wear. This particular female was collected from the Indonesian island, of Aru in 1857 by the famous naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, and despite the fact that it’s over 150 years old it’s in extremely good condition – still a really impressive sight.

What's on the van?

What’s lurking in the attic?

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Last week saw the announcement of a new carnivore on the block, the rather adorable olinguito. This little South American mammal is the first carnivore to have been discovered for 35 years and demonstrates the importance of museum collections… in case we needed any convincing!

Olinguito

As you may have read, the olinguito was discovered by Dr Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution after he saw some mysterious specimens preserved in the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago. After lots of careful study of the skins and skulls, Dr Helgen realised that these animals had gone unidentified for centuries. Since then he has successfully seen and photographed the cute creature in its Andean habitat. But, as highlighted by the Observer newspaper, if the museum’s collections had not been carefully maintained, we may never have known of the existence of this raccoon relative in the first place.

The UK’s natural history collections are currently facing a serious threat. With specialist curators becoming almost as rare as the olinguito itself, specimens across the country are at risk of rapid decay and damage. To discuss current difficulties and create some solutions, we’re holding a one day seminar here at the Museum of Natural History on 20th November. ‘Crap in the Attic?’, as it has been amusingly named, is intended to help professionals to maintain, use and explore their collections in a sustainable way.

If your institution has a natural history collection, and you’re based within a couple of hours’ travel from Oxford, why not join us? You never know, it might help you to uncover the next new species hidden in your attic!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

The Art and Science of Taxidermy

Derek Frampton

On Sunday 18 August we had the pleasure of welcoming professional freelance taxidermist Derek Frampton to the Museum of the History of Science, where our joint exhibition, Natural Histories, is being shown. As part of the exhibition’s public programme Derek delivered a very popular illustrated Table Talk on the Art and Science of Taxidermy.

An attentive audience
An attentive audience

Derek has pretty much been a taxidermist his whole life, having started by collecting, dissecting and drawing animals as a boy. Since then he has done a lot of work for museums, including us and the Natural History Museum in London, where he helped prepare Guy, the Museum’s famous gorilla.

“I really liked drawing and painting animals and would collect things I found. Then I realised I could open them up and became fascinated by the way they worked inside – the mechanics of the muscles and skeleton,” Derek told visitors to the event.

Finishing touches
Finishing touches

“But after a while the specimens started to get smelly and I’d get into trouble with my mum. So I’d have to throw them away and find some new ones. Eventually somebody said to me that the technique for preserving the animals was called taxidermy. I bought a book on it and I have been doing it ever since.”

For the Table Talk, Derek brought along the skin of a female partridge which had been killed in a road traffic accident.

During the hour he went through the process of turning the prepared skin into a finished piece of taxidermy. Using a photograph of a live partridge as a reference, Derek padded the bird with tow, a natural fibre, and inserted florists’ rods to give it a natural shape and posture.

Derek Frampton and the partidge
Partridge and Derek Frampton

At the end of the process the bird was tied and pinned to allow the skin to fully dry and contract, after which the cotton bindings will be removed.

The presentation was a fascinating insight into the half-art, half-science of taxidermy and the perfect complement to the Collect, Preserve, Study display in the Natural Histories exhibition.

The Art and Sciene of Taxidermy

Our new-look blog

Westwood paussidae

The Hope Entomological Collections blog has landed! All of the content of the blog has now been transferred over to the WordPress platform- we just have some final tweaks to make. The toughest decision is going to be over the image that we use for the background. So many insects, not enough time.

We’ll be trialling a number of different pictures over the next week or so, so remember to check back regularly and let us know which one you like best by leaving a comment on this post.

Today’ss background picture (also above) is of a historic collection drawer from the J.O. Westwood Paussidae collection. Westwood was the first curator of the Hope Entomological Collections.

The old version of the blog will be left on-line. If you are looking for it, it can be found here

What’s on the van? – Granite

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This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr Dave Waters, Curator of Mineralogical Collections and Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections.

The rock that goes home for holidays
Every year, a group of Oxford undergraduates travel to north-west Scotland to unravel the fascinating geological history of the area by studying the local rocks and how they relate to each other. They stop at various places to explore the geology, including the ‘multicoloured  rock stop’, an exposure of rocks in a road-cut north of Loch Laxford. This is where our sample of granite was collected in 1998.

It is very old, part of a suite of ancient Precambrian rocks known as the ’Lewisian complex’, named after the Hebridean island of Lewis. It formed about 1.7 billion years ago when magma – hot molten rock – was intruded into an even older metamorphic rock called a gneiss. The magma cooled down, forming crystals of different minerals: pink potassium feldspar, white sodium feldspar, transparent grey quartz, and black grains of biotite mica and magnetite.

The students learn to identify the minerals by studying thin sections of the rock, just 0.03mm thick, under a petrological microscope. This allows them to examine the distinctive optical properties of each mineral under polarised light. The Oxford Earth Sciences Image Store shows you what they can see.

Each year, this piece of granite travels ‘home ‘ with the students on their fieldtrip, and helps to teach them about the different kinds of rock they will see in the field. It is part of the large collections of rocks, fossils and minerals in the University’s Earth Sciences Department and the Museum of Natural History that are available for students to study.

What's on the van?