Snakeflies: Monsters in the Shadows of the Dinosaurs


Header Image: A reconstruction of a delta-estuarine environment in northern Spain during the Cretaceous, habitat of the studied amber snakeflies, by William Potter Herrera.


Post by William Potter Herrera, Undergraduate Student at Portsmouth University


About 105 million years ago, in what is now Cantabria, Spain, rich cycad and conifer forests flourished across a landscape of estuaries and weaving deltas, bordering the then subtropical North Atlantic. While marine crocodiles prowled the waterways and theropod dinosaurs stalked the fern clearings, another ferocious, albeit smaller, predator ruled. Snakeflies, or raphidiopterans, are still around today but their diversity and range is a fraction of what it was during the Mesozoic, the period when the dinosaurs reigned.

Left: Map of the world 105 million years ago, with ancient Cantabria highlighted. Author: William Potter Herrera, based on work from “The Planetary Habitability Laboratory” at UPR Arecibo. Right: An extant snakefly from OUMNH’s pinned collections.

Snakeflies get their name from their long ‘necks’ and ovipositors — the latter being a long, thin tube that females use to deposit eggs into the safety of crevices. Snakeflies are voracious predators, using their compact jaws to devour anything smaller than them. Their unusual necks allow them to pursue prey into tight spaces. No Cretaceous bug would have been safe from these monsters that existed in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Working in the shadow of the Museum’s very own dinosaur during a bursary project last summer, I got a very real experience of paleontological research. Insects might not be the first thing you think of when considering fossils, but the sheer diversity and beauty of preservation these organisms exhibit in the fossil record made them a delight to work on. Nowhere is this more true than in the remarkable amber of northern Spain. Under the supervision of Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, I examined, described and mapped out four specimens of amber which contained insects, our focus being on snakeflies. Through careful comparison with previous work, we discovered a new species of Necroraphidia, meaning “snakefly of the dead”. This genus was previously known from a specimen preserving no more than its characteristic wings, but the new specimen is nearly completely preserved, frozen in amber as if time itself stopped.

Left: William Potter Herrera examines a snakefly preserved in amber. Right: Necroraphidia arcuata, a snakefly species from El Soplao amber (Cantabria, Spain). The arrow points to a fragment of burnt plant matter (extracted from Pérez-de la Fuente et al., 2012. Zookeys 204).

The story of how the snakeflies ended up in the amber is as fascinating as the creatures themselves. Amber begins its life as tree resin — a highly sticky, viscous fluid extruded by conifers in response to trauma. Insects and other small arthropods are frequently trapped in it, either being caught by it as it flows downwards, or simply flying into it. Because larger insects are more likely to free themselves there is a bias in the fossil record towards smaller organisms. In northern Spain, however, the amber is remarkably rich in insects and also tiny fragments of burnt plant matter, indications that the insects might have become entombed during, or in the aftermath of, raging wildfires that drove them into a disoriented frenzy.

It was studying these charred fragments that inspired my dissertation on fossil charcoal — and that was one of just many benefits I gained from this bursary. It cannot be overstated how brilliant the opportunity to dedicate six weeks to study in a Museum was; exploring behind the scenes and talking to world experts in every field. The confidence gained from being entrusted to conduct this research so independently at such an early stage of my career will serve me going forward. The work was not easy but the support I received was brilliant. Even now, months later, as we work together to finalise our manuscript, I am inspired by the dedication and belief that Ricardo and the whole staff at the OUMNH have shown in me.


Lungfish, lithographs and libel


By Mark Carnall, Collections Manager


In addition to the many thousands of biological specimens that can be found at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, we also possess a variety of objects that originate from historical versions of the Museum’s displays. These include models, casts, and illustrations of various kinds, used to represent organisms that were otherwise difficult to preserve and display.

That any of these exhibition materials survive at all is down to pure happenstance and luck. At the time when they were removed from display, these artefacts would have just been seen as outdated ‘display furniture’ and all but destined to have been thrown away. One surviving piece of ex-display material, which catches my eye almost daily as it sits in my office, is a rather large pair of illustrations showing a South American and a West African lungfish mounted on a black backing board.

Mounted illustrations of West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens (top) and South American lungfish, Lepidosiren paradox (bottom). The board they are mounted on measures 93cm across.

By pure coincidence, I recently came across lithograph reproductions of these illustrations in an 1895 publication by E. Ray Lankester. Had these fish not have been my office-mates, I might not have paid the lithographs in the paper much attention, nor recognised their significance. 

E. Ray Lankester was a noted Zoologist who studied at Oxford University and was the holder of the Linacre Chair. He was also heavily involved in adding to the collections and displays here at OUMNH. His 1895 paper – a smash hit I’m sure we all remember – was titled On the Lepidosiren of Paraguay, and on the external characters of Lepidosiren and Protopterus, and sought to add more reliable evidence on the appearances of lungfishes. 

Lungfishes were of particular interest to scientists at the end of the nineteenth century. Though seemingly related, the different species of lungfish caused no small amount of head-scratching, given that they were found in freshwater ecosystems as far apart as Australia, Africa, and South America. As their name suggests, they are fish but also air-breathing, and the fact that they possess lungs also marked them for scientific interest at the time.

Comparison of Bayzand’s original drawing of Protopterus annectens (top) and screen-capture of the published figure (bottom). You’ll no doubt agree with Lankester that the changes to the scales are egregious and vexing. 

Interestingly (well, interesting to me!) is that Lankester adds an extensive note in the paper about the illustration of the specimens, explaining that he is unhappy with how Bayzand’s original drawings have been modified in the process of transforming them into lithographs for publication. According to Lankester, these modifications introduced inaccuracies. In particular, he complained that the lithographer had made it look like the lungfishes were covered in scales, and stresses that “[a]s a matter of fact, no scales at all[,] or parts of scales[,] are visible on the surface” of the lungfish. Instead, he makes clear that in real life (or, in this case, in preserved life) the scales of the fish are overlaid with soft tissue. Comparing the figure in the paper with the illustrations in my office confirms that the lithographer had, indeed, inaccurately reproduced the original drawings.

The happy coincidence of me finding Lankester’s paper led me to several important revelations. Firstly, we now know that Bayzand’s original drawings of the lungfish can still be found here at OUMNH. Secondly, we can surmise that, at some point in the past, these drawings were displayed in the Museum’s galleries. We can also corroborate that the original illustrations are different to the published versions, meaning that, if we are to believe Lancaster, they are also more accurate than those in the publication. Finally, we now know that two of the Museum’s specimens were cited with extra biographical information in Lankester’s paper.

Sadly, these exciting findings mean that my office mates will probably have to be relocated and take up residence in the Museum’s archives alongside their subject matter…

Earworms and Hummingbirds

Music and film from the Museum Library


As a part of her Master’s in Wildlife Filmmaking, Alicia Hayden recently visited OUMNH to produce the short film “A Song for Maria”. Featuring the music of Will Pearce, “A Song for Maria” takes its inspiration from the eighteenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian.

In 1699, aged 52, Maria Sibylla Merian made a trip to Suriname with her daughter to document the metamorphosis of insects, where she spent 2 years illustrating unique species and behaviours. Many of these illustrations are featured in Merian’s incredible publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), or Insects of Suriname.

Over three hundred years later, Will and Alicia visited the OUMNH library to view our copies of Insects of Suriname. Here, the pair discuss film-making, songwriting and the impact of Maria’s legacy.


Alicia: Hi Will! You’re a physics student and amateur entomologist at Oxford University. Why were you so keen to visit OUMNH’s copies of Insects of Suriname and what did you think of Maria’s gorgeous illustrations?

Will: I first found out about Maria from a postcard, which was part of a series on influential female scientists. When I got to see OUMNH’s copies of Maria’s work, they did not disappoint. Maria reared all of the insects that she illustrated, allowing her to observe their life cycles in incredible detail.

Alicia shooting for “A Song for Maria” in the Library at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

What about you, Alicia? Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to make a film inspired by Insects of Suriname for your Master’s film project?

Alicia: In addition to studying film-making, I also do a lot of art and poetry, and I was really keen to try and incorporate my love for wildlife-art and creativity into my Master’s film project. After chatting with you about your music, I thought it would be so exciting to merge our mutual love for art and insects into the film!

Like you, I first found out about Maria through a set of women in science postcards, and since then she’s been a big inspiration in my own work, so it was also really special to see her art in person!

I know that you have recently been working on a series of songs about beetles, Will. Why do you choose to sing about nature, and how did Insects of Suriname influence your latest song, “Watercolour Caterpillar”?

Will: During lockdown, the things which kept me going were music and the pond that I built with my dad. For the first time, I started paying attention to nature, and it quickly became as big a part of my life as music. After that it just made sense to combine the two interests! I am constantly looking for inspiration, and almost always find it in either the natural world or others’ art. The life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian seemed like the perfect topic to make a song about.

What were your first impressions when you saw Maria’s books, Alicia? You work in watercolour yourself — did any piece in particular catch your eye?

Alicia: I already knew about Maria’s work, and the intricacies of her drawings, before we saw them. But her illustrations are just phenomenal! She was an exceptional scientific illustrator. The drawing which stays with me the most is of the tarantula eating the hummingbird. The detail of the hairs and feathers is just exquisite, and I’m really pleased you can see some of this in the film.

When we were filming “A Song for Maria” together at the Museum, you decided that you not only wanted to write about the invertebrates Maria drew but also her life. How did this impact the final song?

Will: Well, originally the song was going to be about beetles (I’m a bit obsessed with them), but Maria documented a range of incredible species during her time in Suriname. So it seemed only right to diversify. The wafer-thin Surinamese Toad and handsome Hawk-moths were hard to deny! Her life was a real mixed bag, but her determination and her love for the natural world shine through.

Alicia: I had so much fun filming with you in the Museum’s Library, and I could see how much you loved looking at Maria’s work! I was wondering if you had a favourite illustration?

Will: There was one page in particular which I kept flipping back to — in fact you’ve already mentioned it! It shows leaf-cutter ants bridging between twigs using their own bodies, as well as a tarantula tackling a hummingbird! Many of Maria’s illustrations were called into question when the book was published, as they described behaviours not seen before by Europeans and they seemed all too fantastical to be real!

Hopefully, we were able to capture some of the magic of the illustrations in our film. What do you want people who watch the film to take away about Maria?

Alicia: Like you, I really want more people to know about Maria Sibylla Merian and the fantastic contributions she made to entomology. I hope that by watching “A Song for Maria”, people will realise the importance of Maria and her work, and she starts getting as much recognition as her male counterparts of the same era.


A Song for Maria” is available to watch on Alicia’s YouTube channel. You can find out more via Alicia’s website, Alicia’s instagram, and Alicia’s facebook.

Will’s song about Maria “Watercolour Caterpillar” is available to listen to on YouTube. You can find out more via Will’s website and Will’s instagram.

Priceless and Primordial

Cataloguing the Brasier Collection


In 2021, the Museum was grateful to host PhD students Sarah Skeels and Euan Furness on research internships. Together, Sarah and Euan made a significant contribution to the cataloguing of the Brasier Collection — a remarkable assembly of fossils and rocks donated to the Museum by the late Professor Martin Brasier. Here, Sarah and Euan recount their experiences inventorying this priceless collection of early lifeforms.


Sarah Skeels is a DPhil Student in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

My short internship at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History came at a transitional point in my research career, starting a few days after submitting my PhD thesis. By training, I am a Zoologist, and my PhD thesis is on the electrosensing abilities of weakly electric fish. However, I have had an interest in Palaeontology for a long time, having studied Geology as part of my undergraduate degree. As such, the internship provided me with a unique opportunity to reflect on a subject I had studied many years before, whilst also developing new academic research skills.

The goal of my internship was to improve the inventory of the microfossils held in The Brasier Collection and to photograph some of these specimens, all in the hopes of increasing the utility of the collection to students, researchers, and hobbyists alike.

Obtusoconus, a fossilised mollusc from Iran, is less than 0.5mm in width. The specimen has been gold-coated in preparation for scanning electron microscopy. Brasier Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
A collection of Siphogonuchites, small shelly fossil organisms, found in Mongolia. Brasier Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The Brasier Collection is rich in microfossils — small fossils that can only properly be inspected with either a light or electron microscope. Those stored in the Collection represent the fragmentary remains of a diverse array of animal groups that lived in the Cambrian, an important period in the Earth’s history when animal life diversified hugely, giving rise to many of the modern phyla that we know and love. The microfossils I examined came from a number of localities across the globe, including Maidiping in China and Valiabad in Iran. The specimens are exquisite in detail, which makes it difficult to believe that they are hundreds of millions of years old.

These fossils are of huge importance, helping us to understand the emergence of early animal life, and its evolution into all of the wonderful forms that exist today. The fossils are also useful because they can serve as markers of the age of different rock forms. By helping to improve the way these specimens are catalogued, I like to think that I am contributing to the preservation of Professor Brasier’s legacy. The whole experience was incredibly rewarding, and I can’t wait to see what new discoveries are made by those who study this unique set of fossils.


Euan Furness is a PhD student at Imperial College London

Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a range of objects on display to the public, but a lot of the curatorial work of the Museum goes on behind the scenes, conserving and managing objects that never come into public view. Collection specimens often don’t look like much, but they can be the most valuable objects to researchers within and outside the Museum. While there are a few visually striking pieces in the Brasier Collection, the humble appearance of most of the Brasier specimens belies their importance.

Left: A photo of Professor Brasier (bottom right) and friends, found in the Collection. Middle: Euan cataloguing in the Hooke basement. Right: An unusually well-preserved archaeocyathid (extinct sponge) from the Cambrian of Australia. Photo by Euan Furness.

The Brasier Collection came to the Museum in bits and pieces from the Oxford University Department of Earth Sciences, with the last of the specimens arriving in September 2021. The Museum therefore needed to determine exactly what they had received before they could decide how to make the best use of it. This meant searching through boxes and drawers behind the scenes and pulling together as much information as possible about the new objects: dates and locations of collection, identity, geological context, and the like. Only then could the more interesting specimens be integrated with the existing collections in the drawers of the Museum’s Palaeozoic Room.

Owing to Professor Brasier’s research interests, the addition of the Brasier Collection to the Museum’s catalogue more than doubled the volume of Precambrian material in its drawers. With that in mind, it was finally time for the Precambrian to be given a set of cabinets to call its own. This seems only fair, given that the Precambrian was not only a fascinating period in the Earth’s history but also the longest!

Having sorted through the new Brasier Collection at length, I think it’s not unreasonable to hope that the unique array of objects it adds to the Museum’s collections will facilitate a great deal of research in the future. For that, we must thank Martin for his generosity.

Crunchy on the outside

Our blog for and by young entomologists


Blog post by Rodger Caseby – HOPE for the Future Learning Officer


By the end of 2022, the Museum’s HOPE project will have rehoused and documented over one million British insects, restored our historic Westwood Room to create a new multi-purpose public space, and designed and delivered a wide-reaching learning and community programme.

The Crunchy on the outside blog is an exciting part of this community programme, aimed at 10–14 year-olds. For and by young entomologists, we’re not actually asking anyone to sink their teeth into a crispy exoskeleton! Instead, we are keen for young people to get involved in the HOPE project and the fascinating six-legged world of insects.

We publish posts each Monday at crunchyontheoutside.com in a cycle of four themes:

Natural World posts highlight amazing insects, like this recent piece on the red-tailed bumblebee, or this one on the red-legged shield bug written by young contributor Noah.

Red-legged shield bug
Six Legs of Summer School 2021

People posts featured entomologists and others with an interest in insects. These might be about members of the HOPE team at the Museum, like Collections Manager Amo Spooner, or those working elsewhere, such as Professor Karim Vahed, who studies bush crickets at the University of Derby.

Make & Do posts focus on creativity. They range from this cartooning tutorial from Chris Jarvis to things you can make at home, like this pitfall trap to catch ground-dwelling insects.

Museum posts take a look behind the scenes and also showcase what’s happening here at the museum, such as this post Events 4U in ’22 for the New Year, or our summer school in August.

The blog also features a gallery of insect photography and art created by young people which is continually expanding.

The Crunchy blog is very much by young people as well as for them. We are keen to receive items about insects, or connected to them, and have already published several articles. If you are a young person who is interested in contributing, you can get in touch via the Contact Us page on the blog or by emailing hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. We would also love submissions of insect pictures for inclusion in our gallery!

And if there is a young person in your life who is crazy about creepy crawlies, or interested in science and nature in general, why not get them to take a look at the Crunchy blog? It could be the start of a wonderful journey into natural history.

Sneak peak: Enjoy this excerpt from a Crunchy on the outside blog post by Ben about Raising Moths!

“One morning we found that a lot of the caterpillars were wandering around, banging their heads on the bottom of the tank. They were also turning a darker green which (after a bit of research) we found out meant they needed to bury and become a chrysalis. We put a deep layer of soil into the tank and within minutes they had disappeared. We tucked them up in the shed for winter and waited. After months of hibernation, they started emerging this spring with crumpled wings, looking very like dead leaves.”

Thanks to National Lottery players for their generous support of the HOPE project through the National Lottery Heritage Fund.