By Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections
A birthday, on 12 February, and an ‘inordinate fondness for beetles’ are possibly the only things Charles Darwin and I have in common. In his autobiographical notes (1887) Darwin says that at the age of ten he made the decision to collect, but not kill insects; at the same age I was given, by my junior school teacher, four Madagascan hissing cockroaches (the large male I called Burt). So Darwin and I began a lifelong fascination with natural history at a similarly early age, though with very different results.
Much is written about Darwin and his scientific accomplishments, but did you know he was also an avid beetle collector? The quote below is testament to his enduring enthrallment with beetles.
“I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of the trumpet when I read about capturing of rare beetles… It really almost makes me long to begin collecting again”
Darwin was also a close correspondent of Reverend F.W. Hope, the founder of the entomological collections at the Museum, and the two often set out on insect-collecting expeditions together. These trips regularly resulted in the capture of rare or unusual species, and an occasional publication.
In 1831, Darwin embarked on his famous voyage around the world as naturalist on the HMS Beagle. He returned to England, in 1836, with around 4,000 insects, some of which were donated to his good friend Hope. Hope scientifically described a few of Darwin’s new species of beetles and named them in Darwin’s honour. Examples include the ground beetle Carabus darwinii and the stag beetle Dorcus darwinii.
During the Beagle voyage Darwin became the first collector of Tasmanian beetles. Onthophagus australis, collected by Darwin in Hobart Town in Tasmania in 1836, is shown in the photo at the top of this post. Whilst in Hobart Town he was also surprised to find
“Four species of Onthophagus, two of Aphodius, and one of a third genus, very abundant under the dung of cows; yet these latter animals [cows] had then been introduced only thirty-three years. Previously to that time, the Kangaroo and other small animals were the only quadrupeds; and their dung is of a very different quality to that of their successors introduced by man.”
This observation, possibly made on his birthday (and what a great way to spend the day) points to research questions that are ongoing today: the effects of habitat change from forest to pasture, and the impact that introduced farm animals have on native dung beetle populations.
In his 1871 publication, The Descent of Man, Darwin returned to dung beetles, writing about their sexual dimorphism, or differences in appearance between males and females, and arguing that there must be a contest between males and females which drives rapid evolutionary divergence amongst populations. There is now considerable scientific evidence to support these views on sexual selection, some based on dung beetle research.
So we come full circle. I work in the building where, in 1860, there was the first public meeting on Darwin’s then newly-published book, The Origin of the Species, an event now often referred to as the Huxley–Wilberforce debate, or Great Debate. My hobby and research interest focus on dung beetles and their ecology, including the effects of habitat change and loss of dung beetle diversity. And within sight of my office are those dung beetles Darwin wrote of from Hobart Town…
I am fortunate to be part of the curatorial team that looks after Hope’s collection, including those specimens given to Hope by Darwin. We have put a few of these on public display for the first time as part of our ‘Presenting…’ series of temporary exhibitions and to celebrate Darwin’s (and my) birthday I will give an informal short talk in the Museum on Thursday 12 February at 2.30pm, focusing on Darwin material from the collections.