“In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvellous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found.”
– A.R. Wallace
2023 marks a number of important anniversaries in the UK: it has been 75 years since the founding of the NHS and the arrival of the Empire Windrush in London, and 100 years since the first outside broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company. Importantly for the Museum, it is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the trailblazing biologist, geographer, explorer, and naturalist.
Wallace was one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the nineteenth century and is most well-known for independently developing the theory of natural selection simultaneously with Charles Darwin. The publication of Wallace’s paper “On the Tendency of Varieties of Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” in 1858 prompted Darwin to quickly publish On the Origin of Species the following year. He was a pioneer in the field of zoogeography and was considered the leading expert of his time on the geographical distribution of animal species. He was also one of the first scientists to write a serious exploration of the possibility of life on other planets.
Wallace undertook extensive fieldwork in the Amazon River basin and the Malay Archipelago. He spent four years in the Amazon from 1848-52 but unfortunately lost much of his collection when the ship he returned to Britain on caught fire.Afterwards, he spent eight years in the Malay Archipelago (1854-62), building up a collection of 125,660 specimens including 109,700 insects, many of which are currently housed at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. In fact, we now hold one of the largest collections of Wallace specimens in the country.
In addition to entomological specimens, OUMNH holds a large and varied archival collection relating to Wallace. The archive includes original insect illustrations sent to Wallace by contemporary entomologists, photographs, and even obituaries. By far the largest portion of the collection is 295 letters of correspondence, of which 285 were penned by Wallace himself. The bulk of Wallace’s letters were written to fellow scientists, includingthe chemist and naturalist Raphael Meldola and the evolutionary biologist Edward Bagnall Poulton.
Several of the letters in the collection can be connected to the Wallace entomological collections held at OUMNH, providing us with invaluable insights into the history of these specimens. For example, you can read this 1896 letter from Wallace to Poulton in which Wallace discusses the changing of hands of his entomological collections, from Samuel Stevens to Edmond Higgins following Stevens’ retirement in 1867. The Museum subsequently acquired some of Wallace’s entomological specimens through Edmond Higgins, including the two beautiful examples shown above.
These letters are a potential treasure trove of information about Wallace and his collections, and we hope they will be of great interest to researchers in the field, as well as to the public. Interested? Learn more about Alfred Russel Wallace or explore his archive online.
Article by Matthew Barton, Digital Archivist at OUMNH
By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer
A few days ago, I was working from home when a delivery driver arrived with a strange parcel – a cardboard box stamped with the letters FRAGILE that seemed to be producing a peculiar, scratching sound. Tentatively, I opened the cardboard box and pulled out a plastic punnet filled with newspaper, old egg cartons, and… wait! Was that an antenna?
The parcel turned out to be a box of locusts, ordered by my housemate who uses them to feed her pet reptiles. I set the punnet down beside me and tried to continue with my morning’s work. But over the next few hours, the locusts grew increasingly restless, bouncing against the walls of their punnet like hot, microwaved popcorn. The sight and sound of the insects began to return memories of the infamous locust swarms of 2020 — one in a series of near-apocalyptic events that befell us that fateful year. Worryingly, climate change is set to make locust swarms increasingly common, with Sardinia currently facing its worst locust swarm in thirty years.1
Left: A poster for The Beginning of the End (1957) about a fictional invasion of giant, mutant locusts in Illinois. Right: A real-life locust swarm near Satrokala, Madagascar (2014).
Throughout history, locusts have been widely understood as symbols of maleficence and misfortune. One of the oldest written references to locusts is, of course, the Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt, in which locusts were sent as a punishment from God. Since then, these infamous insects have been featured in art, books, music, and films as harbingers of destruction. Americans of the mid-twentieth century were somewhat obsessed with giant locusts and grasshoppers which were featured everywhere from cartoons to postcards. 1957 saw the release of the movie The Beginning of the End – a schlocky Hollywood sci-fi tale about a swarm of giant, mutant locusts invading Illinois. The film’s principal Entomologist describes locusts as “deadly killer[s]”, both “intelligent and strong”. Real-life locusts are, indeed, very strong for their size, with back legs that can catapult them up to a metre from standing. This means that it would be feasible for the human-sized locusts in The Beginning of the End to jump as far as forty metres — a terrifying thought!2
While The Beginning of the End is ridiculous both in premise and execution, I can’t deny that I find the concept of giant locusts pretty nightmarish. Earlier in the week, I sent an email to the Life Collections team to enquire about the possibility of looking through our pinned locusts and snapping a few photos of the biggest and grisliest specimens. As I walked upstairs to entomology, I braced myself for an encounter with some fearsome insects. But what I found were a few drawers of modest-sized locusts that looked about as benign as garden grasshoppers. Many of them were even stuffed with wool; more like teddy bears than agents of Armageddon.
Left: Anacridium aegyptium or Egyptian Locust from the Collections at OUMNH. Right: Underside of a locust specimen showing cotton wool stuffing.
According to Collections Assistant Rob Douglas, stuffing large insect specimens with cotton wool used to be a common entomological practice. Insects with fatty insides, like locusts, must be gutted to ensure good preservation. Following the removal of the insects’ insides, cotton was often used to return their abdomens to their usual size and shape. Locusts’ ample fat stores contribute as much to their physical prowess as their powerful hind legs; sustaining them through migrations of up to 310 miles a day.3 Such migrations occur when locusts are exposed to a dry spell followed by wet weather, allowing for the sudden regrowth of vegetation. These conditions will cause locusts to switch their solitary lifestyles for gregariousness, coming together to chomp their way through crops and vegetation at a density of 80-160 million insects per square mile. A large migrating swarm of locusts has been estimated to need as many calories in a day as 1.5 million human males, explaining why even ordinary-sized locusts are capable of causing agricultural annihilation.4
If it weren’t for government and international interventions, the 2020 locust swarms in East Africa could have caused up to $8.5 billion in economic damages by the year-end.5 But locusts can do much worse. One of the most notorious locust swarms on record was that of the Rocky Mountain locust in the USA between 1874 and 1877. According to some accounts, the swarm caused damages to agriculture equivalent to $116 billion in today’s money, leaving behind piles of locust carcases up to six feet high.6
When it comes to protecting crops from locusts, prevention is better than cure. Likely locust outbreaks can be pre-empted by studying weather patterns and using satellite imagery to keep an eye on vegetation growth.7 Once a (potential) locust swarm has been identified, traditional methods of locust management involve the use of pesticides to wipe out the insects as soon as possible. Back in the 1950s, this meant dowsing locusts with DDT. But as the drawbacks of synthetic pesticides become increasingly apparent, chemical interventions are being replaced with the application of naturally occurring ‘pesticides’ like the fungus Metarhizium acridum.
Our understanding of locusts has come a long way since the release of The Beginning of the End. One of my favourite news stories of the past month was the announcement by a laboratory at Michigan State University that locusts have been successfully used to ‘sniff out’ mouth cancer.8 It turns out that locusts no longer just spell danger for humanity — they can smell danger for humanity too! These cancer-detecting locusts are, in my opinion, far more ‘sci-fi’ than the giant bugs imagined by scriptwriters of the 1950s, reminding us that, when it comes to science, the truth is often stranger than fiction. Reports like these demonstrate that scientific research has the power to transform our relationship with the pests that have tormented us for thousands of years.
I am PhD student at Harper Adams University with MSc in Conservation Biology, currently doing a professional internship at the Museum of Natural History in the Public Engagement office. My PhD uses genomic data to study speciation in figs and fig wasps.
For most of our history, humans have been observational creatures. Studying the natural world has been an essential tool for survival, a form of entertainment, and has provided the backbone for various legends and myths. Yet modern humans are rapidly losing practice when it comes to environmental observation. As more and more of us relocate to busy urban environments, we find ourselves with little to no time to spend outdoors. Knowledge of the natural world is rapidly becoming the purview of professionals — but it doesn’t have to be this way…
Community science is a term that describes scientific research activities conducted by amateurs, often involving observation or simple computational tasks. Many citizen science projects target schools or families, but everyone is a welcome participant. The purpose of such projects, which run all around the world, is to encourage non-professionals to get involved in science in a fun, voluntary manner, while also collecting data that are valuable for scientific research.
One of the most common forms of community science is biodiversity monitoring. Biodiversity monitoring projects invite people with various levels of expertise to record observations of different species in their local area, and upload evidence like photographs and sound recordings to a user-friendly database. In doing so, they also provide important monitoring data to scientists, like information about the date and location of wildlife sightings.
There are a variety of mobile apps and online platforms for reporting observations, with some specialising in particular groups of organisms like plants or birds. From the raw data that is uploaded to these platforms, species can be identified through a range of different methods:
Automatic identification from uploaded evidence – often using techniques like image/sound analysis or machine learning
Community feedback – multiple users can view uploaded evidence and make suggestions about which species have been recorded
Direct use of users’ own suggestions – for users who are more experienced with species identification
But are these data actually used by scientists? Although individual contributions to community science projects may seem to be of minor importance, when considered collectively they act as extremely valuable records. Having distribution data for species can help us understand their habitat preferences, and also enable us to monitor invasive organisms. Moreover, long-term data can inform us about species’ responses to changes in their environments, whether that is habitat alteration or climate change. Science is driven by the accumulation of data, and citizen science projects can provide just that.
In addition to the benefits to the scientific field, community science projects can also be of huge value to their participants. Firstly, engaging in such activities can help us re-establish our relationship with the wildlife in our immediate environment — we might finally learn to identify common species in our local area, or discover new species that we never realised were so close by. It is surprising how many species we can even find in our own gardens! Moreover, community science events, like biodiversity-monitoring “BioBlitzes”, encourage people from different backgrounds to work together, strengthening local communities and encouraging environmental protection.
Oxford University is currently running the community science project “Oxford Plan Bee“, focusing on solitary bees. The project is creating a network of bee hotels: small boxes with branches and wooden cavities where harmless, solitary bees can rest. The hotels are spread throughout the city, and locals are invited to observe the bee hotels, take photos, and send in their findings.
Overall, community science is as much about being an active participant in the community as it is about doing science. These projects are a celebration of both collective contributions and individual growth. More than anything, they are a chance to pause and notice the little things that keep our planet running.
Want to get involved? Here is a selection of my favourite citizen science projects…
HOW TO SOLVE A BIOLOGICAL MYSTERY USING MUSEUM COLLECTIONS AND DNA TECHNOLOGY
By Rebecca Whitla, PhD student at Oxford Brookes University
The Black-veined white butterfly (Aporia crataegi) was a large, charismatic butterfly with distinctive black venation on its wings. Once commonly found in the UK, the species unfortunately went extinct here in around 1925, with the last British specimens collected from Herne Bay in Kent. It isn’t fully understood why the species disappeared from the UK, but climate change, predation, parasites, and disease have all been suggested to have caused its disappearance — perhaps with several of these factors contributing to its decline. Central to solving the mystery of the disappearance of the Black-veined white will be the collections of butterflies that are stored in museums like OUMNH.
Butterflies tend to be well-represented in museum collections, and the Black-veined white is no exception. While the species has now been extinct in the UK for around 100 years, Lepidoptera enthusiasts from previous centuries often captured wild Black-veined white specimens for their personal collections. The abundance of Black-veined white butterflies in museum collections, like the collections at OUMNH, serve as a valuable repository for scientific research — including my own!
Between June and December 2021, I undertook a research project using OUMNH’s Black-veined white butterflies. My task was to extract enough DNA from the butterflies to use for ‘whole genome sequencing’ — in other words, I was attempting to extract DNA from butterfly specimens to decode their complete DNA sequence. Getting DNA sequences from the historical specimens that are kept in Museums is no easy task, as DNA degrades over time. Nonetheless, animal specimens from natural history museums havesuccessfully been used for whole genome sequencing and genetic analysis in the past, including species as diverse as longhorn beetles and least Weasels.
In order to work out how to extract DNA from the specimens, I had to try a variety of methods. This included experimenting to find out whether butterfly legs or abdomen fragments yielded more DNA, and whether non-destructive methods of DNA extraction were as effective as destructive methods. An example of a non-destructive method of DNA extraction would be a process like soaking a sample overnight and using the leftover liquid for DNA extraction, whereas a destructive method might involve mashing a whole leg or abdomen segment to use as a DNA source.
Overall, I found that destructively sampling the legs of the butterflies gave the most reliable results, and also had the added benefit of not destroying the wings or abdomen of the specimens. Keeping the wings and abdomens of the butterflies intact will likely prove useful for conducting morphological studies in future.
Now that I have a reliable DNA extraction method, the next step in my research will be to analyse more Black-veined white specimens from a span of different time periods leading up to the species’ disappearance. I will then compare samples collected from each time period to calculate the genetic diversity of the species at each point in time, leading up to its disappearance. If I find a steady decline in the species’ genetic diversity over time, this may indicate a gradual extinction of the species. This is because we expect that, as numbers of a species decrease, inbreeding will become common, resulting in less diversity in the species’ DNA. However, if the populations of Black-veined white butterflies went extinct very suddenly, the decline in genetic diversity will probably be less pronounced. Learning more about the fate of the Black-veined White could not only help us unlock the historical mystery of the species’ decline in Britain, but will also help us understand more about the species’ decline in other parts of the world.
British Insect Collections: HOPE for the Future is an ambitious project to protect and share the Museum of Natural History’s unique and irreplaceable British insect collection. Containing over one million specimens – including dozens of iconic species now considered extinct in the UK – it offers us an extraordinary window into the natural world and the ways it has changed over the last 200 years. The HOPE for the Future project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to National Lottery players.
By EvieGranat, Project Officer Trainee with the Freshwater Habitats Trust and Museum volunteer
The Museum is lucky enough to house several specimens presented by Jane Willis Kirkaldy (1867/9 – 1932). They serve as a reminder of a passionate and dedicated tutor, and of a key figure behind the development of women’s education at Oxford University.
Jane Willis Kirkaldy was born somewhere between 1867 and 1869, and spent her youth in London with her parents and five siblings. After completing her secondary education at Wimbledon High School, Kirkaldy gained entry to Somerville College (Oxford) on an exhibition scholarship in 1887. She finished her degree in 1891, becoming one of the first women to achieve a First Class Hons in Natural Sciences (Zoology). However, since the University didn’t award women degrees in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until 1920 that Kirkaldy received her MA.
Upon completing her undergraduate studies, Kirkaldy worked for a short period as a private tutor in Castle Howard before returning to Oxford in 1894. Whilst researching at the University, she produced two papers for the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, including an article entitled “On the Head Kidney of Myxine”. This study of the renal systems of hagfish was written with the aid of experimental work carried out by renowned zoologist Walter Weldon at his UCL laboratory. She also studied lancelets under the Oxford Linacre Professor of Zoology, publishing “A Revision of the Genera and Species of Branchiostomdae” in 1895.
Kirkaldy’s achievements are especially noteworthy given how few women studied Natural Sciences at Oxford during the nineteenth century. In addition to her contributions to the scientific field, she also helped advance women’s education at Oxford University. In 1894, The Association of the Education of Women named Kirkaldy a tutor to female students in the School of Natural Sciences. The following year she ceased all research to concentrate fully on teaching, co-authoring ‘Text Book of Zoology’ with Miss E.C. Pollard in 1896, and Introduction to the Study of Biology with I. M. Drummond in 1907. She eventually became a tutor or lecturer at all of Oxford’s Women’s Societies, and a Director of Studies at all five of the women’s colleges. Amongst the many female scientists that came under her care was the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.
Left: Page from one of our donations books listing Jane Willis Kirkaldy as the donor of a series of Middle Devonian fossils (from the Eifel) to the Museum in October 1901. Right: Chromite from East Africa, also donated to the Museum by Kirkaldy.
Beyond the Department of Natural Sciences, Kirkaldy was an important figure at Oxford — she served as a member of the Council of St. Hugh’s College for 14 years, and was made an honorary fellow of Somerville College in 1929. At the Museum of Natural History, she presented beetles from New Guinea (1890), Devonian Fossils from the Eiffel (1901), and Chromite from near Beira, Mozambique (1924).
Kirkaldy retired from the University in 1930 due to ill health, before passing away in a London care home in 1932. Oxford University subsequently dedicated the junior and senior ‘Jane Willis Kirkakdy Prizes’ in her memory, which still exist to this day.
If you’ve ever visited the Skeleton Parade in the Main Court of the Museum, you may have noticed that nestled between the Malayan tapir and the rhinoceros is the skeleton of a reindeer, or caribou if you are from North America.
Today, reindeer are found throughout the Arctic and Subarctic in places like Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Lapland (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). However, their range was not always so limited. During the Late Pleistocene – around 126,000 to 11,700 years ago – it would not have been unusual to see herds of reindeer roaming freely across most of Britain and western Europe. In fact, reindeer sub-fossils in the form of bones, teeth, and antlers have been found at a number of Oxfordshire sites including the excavations at Cassington and Sutton Courtenay, which are kept behind the scenes in the Museum’s extensive Paleontological Collections.
Studying these Ice Age reindeer can teach us as much about the future as they can about the past. Pleistocene reindeer were likely similar to their modern counterparts, which undertake large, bi-annual migrations between summer and winter grazing pastures. Looking at the movements of Ice Age populations of reindeer can therefore help us to understand how modern reindeer may respond to climactic and environmental changes in the future. This is possible because reindeer only come together in large herds at certain times of the year. During these seasonal aggregations, the herd is characterised by different combinations of ages and sexes. Therefore, by looking at the age and sex of the remains of reindeer present at a site, we can tell the time of year that they were left there — in particular, we can infer the sex of reindeer from their bones, their age from their teeth, and their age and sex from their antlers.
Unfortunately, it is extremely rare to find anything so complete as the reindeer in the skeleton parade. Instead, you are much more likely to find remains like the antler below, which was excavated from Sutton Courtenay. Despite being only a fragment, it is exactly this kind of sub-fossil that can help us to understand more about the movements of reindeer during the Late Pleistocene.
Reindeer grow and shed a new pair of antlers every year, and this happens at different times of the year for males and females. If you can identify whether an antler is male or female, shed or unshed, you can also tell the season of death. The Sutton Courtenay antler featured above would have belonged to a male reindeer. At its base, we can see it is still clearly attached to some skull bone, and so is unshed. Because males only have their fully grown antlers between September and November, this particular reindeer must have been in the area around Sutton Courtenay during the autumn. It is by using similar deductions that we can also tell that Rudolph and his antlered friends would have actually all been females — by the 24th December, males have already shed their antlers, but females will keep them until the spring!
After studying thousands of these kinds of remains from all over Britain, we can start to build a picture of where reindeer were at different times of the year. It’s amazing to think that we can learn so much from simple skeletons. So, the next time you visit the skeleton parade, take a moment to think about the secrets they may be hiding.