Cicada serenade

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

by Leonidas-Romanos Davranoglou, DPhil student, Animal Flight Group, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

Anyone walking on a summer day in hot places such as the Mediterranean or the tropics will have heard cicadas singing. Cicadas actually are among the loudest of all animals, singing at up to 120 dB – as loud as a passing freight train. In fact, you can damage your ear if a particularly loud species starts singing next to your head.

Some countries even have health and safety policies which prevent people from working outdoors when cicadas are singing. If a single cicada can sing that loud, you can imagine what a forest filled with them sounds like!

Tropical cicadas from the Museums' collections
Tropical cicadas from the Museums’ collections

Only male cicadas sing, primarily to attract females, much like a Romeo singing to his Juliet. Females are mute, but they respond to males of their liking by flicking their wings, generating a loud click. Entomologists often mimic the female response by snapping their fingers under a tree containing cicadas. In this way, they can collect males eager to mate, which would otherwise be too high in the tree to reach.

An unpleasant parasitic fungus capitalises on this arrangement: The fungus basically consumes the innards of the male cicadas, causing their private parts to fall off – in effect castrating them. A castrated male may stop singing and as a result, other males try to mate with it, and in this way the fungus is transmitted from male to male.

But how do these famous (or notorious, if you find them annoying) cicadas produce these incredible sounds? This has remained a mystery since the time of the ancient Greeks, who admired these animals. But the matter was settled through a collaboration between Oxford University and Australian scientists. The physical process is not too complex and you can get a good idea how it works by using an empty plastic bottle.

Cicadas have a unique membrane on the sides of their abdomen called the tymbal membrane, which is strong but flexible. Internally, two huge muscles attach to this membrane. When the muscles contract, they pull and buckle the membrane inwards to produce a strong popping sound. You can imitate this by squeezing an empty plastic bottle in and out. Speed up this process by a few hundred buckles per second and you get a cicada’s song.

PowerPoint Presentation
Dorsal view of the abdomen of the cicada Cicadetta flaveola, showing the two membranes on the sides of the abdomen (tymbal membrane).
Lateral view of a dissected cicada, Tibicen plebejus. The huge muscle attaches to the tymbal memembrane, and pulls it inwards to generate a loud click. Note that after the large muscle, the abdomen is largely hollow.
Lateral view of a dissected cicada, Lyristes plebejus. The huge muscle attaches to the tymbal memembrane, and pulls it inwards to generate a loud click. After the large muscle, the abdomen is largely hollow.

Producing sound however, is not enough. Just like we have to talk with a particular loudness so people can hear us, cicadas must find ways of amplifying their sound, so females can hear them from very far away. The way cicadas achieve this is via something called Helmholtz resonance. You can create this phenomenon by blowing air across the top of the empty bottle you just used to create the pop.

Blowing across a bottle produces sound due to the behaviour of air when it is confined in a container with an open hole. The abdomen of cicadas forms a Helmholtz resonator as well: it is completely hollow, and two openings on the underside, called tympana, act as the top of a bottle and radiate sound in the same way.

Ventral view of a dissected cicada, Tibicen plebejus. The large aperture is the tympanum, which acts as the amplifier for the cicadas' song. The hole of an empty bottle behaves in the same way when you blow air over it.
Ventral (underside) view of a dissected cicada, Lyristes plebejus. The large opening is the tympanum, which acts as the amplifier for the cicada’s song. The hole of an empty bottle behaves in the same way when you blow air over it.

The singing habits and unique anatomy of the cicadas are perhaps best summarized in a quote by 19th-century entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, who, poetically as always, said:

Assuredly one must be passionately devoted to music thus to clear one’s internal organs in order to make room for a musical box!

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Invasive crayfish

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

By Sancia van der Meij, Research Fellow

The White-Clawed Crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes) is often assumed to be native in the UK, but was in fact brought across by monks in the Middle Ages from northern France

In the 1970s this was joined by a further seven invasive crayfish species from other parts of the world, but mainly from North America. Some of these species have a very restricted distribution in the UK, such as Procambarus acutus which is only known from a single pond in Windsor.

The most widespread of these is the Signal Crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus, which was introduced to Europe in the 1960s and reached the UK by 1975. It is now widespread in waterways around England, Wales and parts of Scotland. There are records of Signal Crayfish from all over Oxfordshire, in the River Thames, River Cherwell, canals and ponds, and they are fished for by many people as sport or food.

The Signal Crayfish is so named because of the blue-white patches on the underside of its claws, next to the finger joint. It is the easiest invasive species to identify given its large size, smooth carapace and signal spots.

The Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), from North America, is an invasive species in the UK
The Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), from North America, is an invasive species in the UK

There are a number of information sites to help with identification such as the UK Crayfish Hub run by Buglife. The Non-Native species website runs a recording scheme for sightings of all invasive species too. Don’t worry though, the huge Tasmanian Giant Crayfish (Astacopsis gouldi) shown in the video clip has not made it to our waterways!

Whilst increased levels of water pollution and habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss have played their part in the decline of many crayfish populations, several species are also significantly impacted by the introduction and spread of a disease known as ‘crayfish plague’, a fungal disease is carried by some  North American species.

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Spiky spiders

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

by Steven Williams, research student at Oxford Brookes University

I have been interested in Thorn Spiders since I was 12 years old. People are often afraid of spiders but the ones I study are not harmful to humans and I think they’re quite beautiful when you get up close and see them under a microscope.

They get the name ‘Thorn Spiders’ from the spines that protrude from their abdomen. These are assumed to be a defence mechanism but this has not been confirmed. The female Thorn Spiders are the ones with the larger spines – some reaching several centimetres in length; the males do not possess such striking features.

Steven Williams uses the Museum’s collections as part of his PhD research

My research revolves around how the different species of Thorn Spiders are related to each other and my aim is to create a kind of ‘family tree’ for the various species. I am also looking into the evolution of the spines and their habitats and distribution. They are commonly found across the Pan-Tropical region, with a few in the Americas and some in Australia. They are not found in Britain though unfortunately!

The handwriting on the specimen's label confirms that it was collected by Charles Darwin
The handwriting on the specimen’s label confirms that it was collected by Charles Darwin

Here are my three favourite specimens of these spiders from the Museum’s collection. The Australian Jewel Spider/Christmas Spider  (Austracantha minax), below, was collected by Charles Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle when he stopped in Sydney, Australia.

I found this specimen when I was looking through the Museum’s dried spider collection; staff were not aware of its existence, and it is now stored with all the other Darwin specimens. We can confirm that it was collected by Darwin because the handwriting on the label is the same as in Darwin’s letters of correspondence.

An Australian Jewel Spider (Austracantha minax), collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle

The metallic Thorn Spider (Gasteracantha scintillans), below, has a beautiful deep green metallic abdomen. It reminds me of a Ground Beetle’s wing cases and the rich metallic colour is something you wouldn’t normally see in spiders. They are only found in the Solomon Islands and this is a species I am working on currently for another area of my research, separate from my PhD.

Metallic Thorn Spider (Gasteracantha scintillans)
Gasteracantha scintillans has an unusual metallic green abdomen

And this last one, Gasteracantha thorelli, I think is one of the coolest species of thorn spiders. I just love the large spines on this spider! The way the final pair of spines curve round reminds me of a bull’s horns.

Gasteracantha thorelli has some impressive 'horns'
Gasteracantha thorelli has some impressive spines that look like a bull’s ‘horns’

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The fossils of Stonesfield

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

By Eliza Howlett, Earth Collections manager

There was a time, more than 160 million years ago, when most of Oxfordshire was covered by a warm, clear, shallow sea. Offshore, the waters were agitated by waves and storms, but closer to land these forces were buffered by a submerged sandbank, and calm lagoons developed.

The area that is now Stonesfield was part of this lagoonal environment, and the fossils that have been found there provide a wonderful window into the living world of this Middle Jurassic sea.

So how would these sea creatures compare with British marine life today? Some things would have been very familiar. On the sea bed you would have found a huge variety of bivalves, or clams, along with lobsters, crabs and sea urchins; the waters above would have been full of fish, including several different types of shark.

This fossilised limpet shell has its original colouration preserved

But there would have been other things too: squid-like belemnites, and nautiloids and ammonites with coiled shells, and tentacles like an octopus. Instead of dolphins and porpoises there would have been sea crocodiles and sea turtles, and in the skies above, flying reptiles known as pterosaurs rather than the usual sea birds.

And there’s more. Stonesfield fossils also include plants and animals washed in from nearby land: the leaves and seeds of conifers and cycads, beetle wing cases, reptile eggs, and the remains of both dinosaurs and mammals.

The jaw of the first named dinosaur, Megalosaurus bucklandii, found in Stonesfield, Oxfordshire
The lower jaw of the first named dinosaur, Megalosaurus bucklandii, found in Stonesfield, Oxfordshire in the early 19th century

One particularly spectacular find was the lower jaw of the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus, nine metres long in life and weighing about a tonne. Megalosaurus became the first creature to be named a ‘dinosaur’, in 1824. Less obvious, but equally significant, are the tiny jaws of some of the shrew-like mammals that would have lived alongside the dinosaurs: Phascolotherium, Amphitherium, Amphilestes and Stereognathus – the first Jurassic mammals known to science.

Along with the preservation of delicate items such as dragonfly wings and the leg of a cricket, and the original colour patterns on some sea snails, limpets and barnacles, the fossil material from Stonesfield is really quite special.

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A family of Clown Beetles

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

By Amoret Spooner, Life Collections

Within the order of insects Coleoptera – the beetles – is a family called Histeridae, also known as the Clown Beetles. This family is found worldwide and so far around 3,900 species have been discovered. Of these, 52 species are found in the UK and it’s these that I’m currently working on.

Histeridae aren’t the most appealing beetles to look at. They’re not very big, or round, and they don’t come in pretty colours. Basically they lack the wow factor… until you look at bit closer!  Hister quadrimaculatus is probably the biggest and most colourful of the British species; it is black with four red dots (it’s all in the name).
Hister quadrimaculatus. Image: Didier Descouens

Histeridae live in a variety of habitats, but are most commonly found in dung and carrion. Surprisingly though, they are not eating the dung or the dead animal; they are there for the fly larvae. Flies are attracted to decomposition, and the Clown Beetles take advantage of this. The adult female Histerid lays her eggs within these environments and three days later the larvae emerge to feast on the fly eggs and pupa.

Some of the more obscure species, such as the rare Haeterius ferrugineus live in ants nests, particularly those of the Slave-maker Ant (Formica sanguinea) and the Black Ant (Formica fusca). These types of Histerids vary in colour and modifications compared to the dung- and carrion-dwelling Histerids because they have evolved to live successfully with ants.

Hololepta plana is little more than 1mm thick, perfectly adapted for living under bark

Another species that differs from the norm is Hololepta plana; as an adult it is completely flat, adapted to live under bark and feed on the larvae of other invertebrates.

The Histeridae are a wonderfully diverse family, and we’ve got some pretty amazing examples of them in the UK. They may not be beautiful to everyone, but they are fascinating creatures that play a vital role within our environment and we’ve got a lot more to learn about them.

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A plesiosaur named Eve

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

by Juliet Hay, Earth Collections preparator and conservator

I feel myself very lucky to have a job that involves working with the fossil remains of long-extinct animals. One of the things my colleagues and I are currently working on is a plesiosaur – a marine reptile that lived in the sea millions of years ago.

This particular specimen was found in a clay pit near Peterborough by members of the Oxford Clay Working Group in 2014, and is a near-complete example of its kind. The palaeontologists who found the specimen named it Eve, although we don’t know if it was male or female, and perhaps never will.

The discovery of large fossil vertebrates like this is rare, so we are fortunate to have had the specimen donated to the Museum by the quarry owners Forterra.

Juliet at work on the plesiosaur skull
Juliet at work on the plesiosaur skull

The plesiosaur is 165 million years old and, when alive, was around 5.5 metres long. It had a long neck, a barrel-shaped body, four flippers and a short tail. The find is particularly exciting as the skull was also discovered. It is encased in a clay matrix, which is relatively easy to remove, but the work has to be carried out under magnifying lenses and microscopes.

As the skull is quite small relative to the size of the body, the features are very delicate and it is a painstaking process to remove the sediment without damaging the fossil bone or losing any tiny fragments. Fortunately, pictures of the skull have been produced using CT scanning technology, and the images are proving invaluable as an aid to assist in its preparation. It’s a bit like having a jigsaw puzzle with the picture on the lid to refer to!

A belemnite hooklet at 12x magnification, found with the plesiosaur remains and possibly part of Eve’s last meal

The clay covering the skull is being sieved and examined and tiny hook-shaped fossils have been found. These came from the arms of squid-like creatures called belemnites, which may have formed a large part of the plesiosaur’s diet.

It is too early to say for sure, but Eve could represent a species new to science, as some features, such as the shape of the flipper bones and some of the surfaces of the bone in the skull, are quite unusual. Further research needs to be done before the findings can be published in scientific journals – watch this space.

And if you’re visiting the Museum before 25 July, you can see some of the fossilised remains of Eve for yourself, in our Presenting… display case.

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