Crunchy on the outside

By Susie Glover, HOPE Learning Officer

We have an ambitious project underway at the Museum, to preserve a unique and scientifically important collection of over one million British insects. It’s called HOPE for the Future, after the Hope Entomological Collections, and we are keen to shout about how these specimens can help us understand biodiversity, habitats and ecologies.

The learning team behind the project are today launching a new blog for young people interested in entomology. Intriguingly, it’s called Crunchy on the Outside, but please don’t confuse this with the similar, but fundamentally different, mid-’90s advertising campaign for the Dime bar.

A high magnification image of an insect, face-on, showing large proboscis and brown body.
One of many weird and wonderful specimens from our collection, the Acorn Weevil (Curculio glandium).
Here is a peek at some of the tools of the trade, used to move and mend specimens like this moth.

Crunchy will be crammed full of interesting insect info, fun things to make and do, a peek behind the scenes at the Museum, and news from people, past and present, who work in the field of entomology. The odd bad joke may also worm its way in (What do butterflies sleep on? Cater-pillows).

The blog will also be a platform for young people to have their say, about the topics covered on Crunchy itself, as well as on the activity of the Museum. It will give them first dibs on access to related events too. You can check it out, follow, and share at crunchyontheoutside.com.

HOPE for the Future is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Wax models of magnified mites mounted on a black board

Of parasites, dinosaurs, and other model animals

Elaine Charwat has been on a journey into the attic storerooms behind the scenes of the Museum to discover 19th-century wax models of parasites. A strange occupation you might think, but it’s all part of her doctoral research programme with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to learn about the use of models and replicas in science, past and present. In the podcast above Elaine meets Mark Carnall, Zoology Collections Manager at the OUMNH, who talks about the differences between models and the thousands of specimens he looks after, and Dr Péter Molnár, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto, who offers important insights into current research using mathematical models.

Different types of models and replicas are everywhere in the Museum, and they tell us much about the organisms they represent or reconstruct, but even more about processes in research and science. Made to communicate and produce data, these larger-than-life objects are as fascinating as their subjects…

Top image: Wax models of Sarcoptes scabiei (itch mite) produced by Rudolf Weisker, Leipzig (Germany), probably late 1870s or early 1880s. These models are listed as having been on public display at the Museum in 1911, labelled: “Sarcoptes scabiei: enlarged wax models, male & female + mouth parts”.

On the trail of the evolution of mammals

Woman sitting on top of a large, layered rock formation

Elsa Panciroli recently joined the Museum research team as an Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow. Elsa is a Scottish palaeontologist, whose studies focus on the early evolutionary origins of mammals, working extensively on fossils from the Isle of Skye. Here she tells us how her work will combine studies of mammal evolution with stunning new fossil finds from Scotland.

We are mammals. This means we share a common ancestor with creatures as different as hippos, opossums and platypuses. All of us are united in one taxonomic group by a suite of characteristics in our bodies, but principally, that we feed our young on milk. Every mammal from a baboon to a blue whale produces milk for their offspring, and this makes us unique among animals alive on Earth today.

Wareolestes rex is a Middle Jurassic mammal, illustrated here by Elsa Panciroli

But not all mammals bring their young up in the same way; raising a kitten is nothing like raising a kangaroo or a platypus. Kittens are born stumbling around with their eyes closed, while platypus babies are laid in eggs – yes eggs – and when they hatch they look like little scampi. Both are underdeveloped at birth or hatching, but that’s nothing compared to kangaroos. They leave the womb only millimetres in length, and wriggle their way like living jellybeans toward a teat in the marsupial pouch, where they latch on. Only after two months of milk-drinking are they able to hop for themselves and leave the pouch.

The different ways that mammals are born and grow is a huge area of scientific research. But there are still some major questions to answer about the evolution of these growth patterns. When did the ancestors of mammals stop laying eggs? Were they born defenceless, or able to fend for themselves? How quickly did they grow up and how long did they live?

The Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis) is a terrestrial mammal native to Africa and the Middle East

Over the next three years at the Museum, I’ll be looking for evidence in the fossil record to help us try and answer some of these questions. I’ll study living mammals to understand how they are born and grow, combining this information with data from some of the amazing fossils being found on the Isle of Skye. With collaborators in South Africa I’ll try and work out how the ancestors of mammals developed, and what this means for the bigger picture of the origin of mammals as a group.

Alongside my main research I hope to share lots of stories about our fossil past through the museum’s fantastic public engagement programme. I’m also very active on social media, and I write about science for online and in print publications. So if you see me on your next visit to the building, or find me online, feel free to ask about my research! I look forward to seeing you, and sharing more about the elusive and exciting origins of mammals – and ourselves.

Follow Elsa on Twitter at twitter.com/gssciencelady.

High-tech insect origami

By Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Research Fellow

Earwigs are fascinating creatures. Belonging to the order Dermaptera, these insects can be easily recognised by their rear pincers, which are used for hunting, defence, or mating. But perhaps the most striking feature of earwigs is usually hidden – most can fly with wings that are folded to become 15 times smaller than their original surface area, and tucked away under small leathery forewings.

With protected wings and fully mobile abdomens, these insects can wriggle into the soil and other narrow spaces while maintaining the ability to fly. This is a combination very few insects achieve.

I have been working on research led by Dr Kazuya Saito from Kyushu University in Japan, which presents a geometrical method to design earwig wing-inspired fans. These fans could be used in many practical applications, from daily use articles such as fans or umbrellas, to mechanical engineering or aerospace structures such as drone wings, antennae reflectors or energy-absorbing panels!

Dr Saito came to Oxford last year for a six-month research stay at Prof Zhong You’s lab, in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. He introduced me to biomimetics, an ever-growing field aiming to replicate nature for a wide range of applications.

Biological structures have been optimised by the pressures of natural selection over tens of millions of years, so there is much to learn from them. Dr Saito had previously worked on the wing folding of beetles, but now he wanted to tackle the insect group that folds its wings most compactly – the earwigs.

He was developing a design method and an associated software to re-create and customise the wing folding of the earwig hind wing, in order to use it in highly compact structures which can be efficiently transported and deployed. Earwigs were required!

Here at the Museum we provided access to our insect collections, including earwig specimens from different species having their hind wings pinned unfolded. These were useful to inform the geometrical method that Saito had been devising.

Dr Saito was also interested in learning about the evolution of earwigs and finding out when in deep time their characteristic crease pattern established. Some fossils of Jurassic earwigs show hints of possessing the same wing structure and folding pattern of their relatives today.

However, distant earwig relatives that lived about 280 million years ago during the Permian, the protelytropterans, possessed a different – yet related – wing shape and folding pattern. That provided the chance to test the potential and reliability of Saito’s geometrical method, as all earwigs have very similar wings due to their specialised function.

The geometrical method turned out to be successful at reconstructing the wing folding pattern of protelytropterans as well, revealing that both this extinct group and today’s earwigs have been constrained during evolution by the same geometrical rules that underpin the new geometrical design method devised by Dr Saito. In other words, the fossils were able to inform state-of-the-art applications: palaeontology is not only the science of the past, but can also be a science of the future!

We were also able to hypothesise intermediate extinct forms – somewhere between protelytropterans and living earwigs – assuming that earwigs evolved from a form closely resembling the protelytropterans.

As a collaboration between engineers and palaeobiologists, this research is a great example of the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach in science and technology. It also demonstrates how even a minute portion of the wealth of data held in natural history collections can be used for cutting-edge research, and why it is so important to keep preserving it for future generations.

Soon these earwig-inspired deployable structures might be inside your backpacks or used in satellites orbiting around the Earth. Nature continues to be our greatest source of inspiration.

Original paper:  Saito et al. (2020). Earwig fan designing: biomimetic and evolutionary biology applications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Stop, look, listen

By Sarah Lloyd, Head of Education, and William Sharpley, Youth Forum member

Connecting with the natural world around us is important for many reasons. It’s proven to help our mental health, it’s enjoyable and fascinating, and it gives us an insight into the rhythms and changes of the life that surrounds us. And during the pandemic lockdown this has taken on more significance than ever.

Over the past few months we have been keeping in touch with the Museum’s youth groups as part of our HOPE for the Future project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project is themed around the Museum’s British insect collection and our discussions with the youth groups have triggered a particular interest in the diversity of insects in our outdoor spaces.

Common Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). These beetles are often found basking in the sun on leaves and flowers in woodland margins. Image: William Sharpley.

A great way to become more observant about the world around you is through photography. During a recent lockdown walk, Youth Forum member William Sharpley took out his camera and captured the beautiful images of insects you can see in this post. Looking at insects more closely made William curious about what he could find in his garden, where he noticed a colony of bees active around a compost bin.

The compost bin is in an old coal bunker. It gets very hot in the sunny weather. I have watched the bees going in and going out of here.

The compost bin in an old coal bunker provides a good habitat for a colony of Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum). Image: William Sharpley.

Noticing what animals are present, and learning to identify them, helps to build a picture of how the natural world may be changing.

Bees are a good case study. The image below is of a Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). Tree Bumblebees were first recorded in the UK in 2001, and since 2007 they have thrived in our increasing urban environments, with numbers and range rising dramatically. They are now a common sight in gardens, establishing colonies in enclosed spaces above ground. William’s old coal bunker compost heap is the perfect spot.

Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) like this one have increase in numbers and range dramatically in the UK over the past couple of decades. Image: William Sharpley.

By noticing new species around us we are reminded that populations of living things change over time. Some species, like the Tree Bumblebee, have become more common, while others, such as the Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus), are now much rarer than they once were.

Great yellow bumble bee (Bombus distinguendus). Image by Nick Owens.

Once we know what is around us we can turn our attention to patterns of behaviour. William went on to use his science skills to plan an investigation.

I will be trying to find out if bees are more active during the morning or in the afternoon. I will count the bees going in and out of the nest at different times during the day.

The Youth Forum conducted a similar study earlier in the spring, observing when female Hairy-footed Flower Bees and Honeybees were active and feeding on garden plants. They found that the Hairy-footed Flower Bees foraged mostly in the morning, and the Honeybees in the afternoon.

Feeding behaviour in bees is an interesting thing to study because it may be affected by some pesticides called neonicotinoids. Honeybees exposed to low levels of these pesticides spend less time feeding, and over a long period their reduced food intake causes a hive of bees to decline and become more susceptible to other pressures, such as disease, habitat destruction, or extreme weather.

Rather than relying on a handful of chemicals like neonicotinoids, farmers are now encouraged to use a range of methods to control pests. These include using natural predators – known as biological control – and organic methods.

From these relatively simple observations of the natural world we can gain important information about changing environments. And by sharing what we notice, and encouraging others to do the same, we are better able to understand environmental changes and we’ll feel more connected to nature as a bonus. So head out and start looking!

The Museum’s Youth Forum was established to connect with and learn from local young people. The group meet every month to take part in a programme of activities designed for and by the group.

Top image: Common mayfly (Ephemera Danica) by William Sharpley.

Eggs in the tower

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

We have our first eggs! After an earlier than usual return from the warmth of Africa, followed by a cold snap of north easterly winds, our swifts have begun to lay their first clutches of eggs in the tower.

Ten eggs were counted on 14 May, some in pairs and some lying singly on nests. Birds in other nests appear to be incubating as well, sitting in pairs and screaming out at any newcomers investigating possible nesting sites.

More swifts are arriving daily and screaming parties are urgently exploring for potential nesting locations. They buzz the tower’s nesting holes at speed and bang on the entrances with their wings like naughty teenagers playing a vociferous game of ‘knock and run’!

Typically, no bird has yet elected to nest in either of the boxes fitted with webcams. But as the weather warms and more swifts take up residence every day, we’re sure you’ll be able to follow all the drama of the Swifts in the tower very soon.

The swifts circle the Museum tower looking for suitable nesting sites

The delicate art of laying
Swifts tend to lay their eggs in the mornings, usually between 8am and 11am. The small, fragile eggs are white to reflect light, an adaptation shared by most cavity-nesting birds that makes the eggs more visible to adults in the dark of the nest.

The first eggs this year appear to be quite early in the season compared with the observations by David Lack in the 1940s and 50s. At that time, when the study of the Museum’s colony began, the first eggs were recorded on average between 17 and 22 May, but sometimes none was laid until the first week of June.

Egg production and laying in swifts are very closely tied to the weather, and production seems to be triggered by the availability of food. Swifts feed exclusively on small airborne insects, which are more abundant in the warm thermals and light winds we experience on good summer days.

It takes a swift five days to produce and then lay an egg. Five days before our first eggs were laid it was sunny and warm, just before the strong, cold north easterly winds swept down over the weekend and lowered the temperature. The warmer early start to the summer seems to have triggered this early laying; whether this is a trend that is increasing as the climate changes is something we should able to answer with long-term datasets provided by studies like this.

Dealing with the weather
Whatever climate change has in store for us it is becoming clear that we won’t experience repeated hot summers. The unpredictability of the British summer reigns supreme.

Swifts have evolved several wonderful adaptations to deal with the vagaries of our weather. Their eggs can be left without an adult to keep them warm for several days. There are records of eggs being left unattended for almost a week and still developing normally. Although adults usually take it in turns to feed and brood the eggs, sometimes during the day the eggs are left unattended by both birds which are then able to forage far afield for food.

Unlike many songbirds which produce one egg a day until their clutch is completed, swifts are able to space out their laying. In a clutch of two or three eggs, the second or third may be laid two or three days after the first, depending on weather conditions. The birds will also limit the size of clutches, with clutches of three eggs the average in warm weather and two eggs the average in cold weather. This helps the adults to supply all of their young with enough food.

Finally, swifts may also eject eggs and lay a second clutch. Some studies have linked this behaviour to cold weather but this has not always been the case at the Museum colony and is a further line of investigation in the ongoing studies of these most secretive of birds.

From laying to hatching usually takes about 19 days, depending on the weather. So we should be seeing our first chicks at the very beginning of June, hopefully streaming live on the Swiftcam

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Screaming parties prospecting for nest sites are a good way for you to see if you have nesting swifts nearby. Any records really help with our understanding of the current population in the UK. You can help conservation and recording for the Oxford Swift City project, or use the RSPB’s Swift Mapper for the rest of the UK.