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.
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.
Over the past few months our researchers have been working with University of Plymouth illustration student Abigail Harris, who has delved into the weird and wonderful world of some of the earliest animals. Here, Abigail tells us about the process that led to the creation of her Cambrian artwork, inspired by our First Animals exhibition.
I first visited the Museum in April this year when I was given the opportunity to collaborate with scientists as part of a module in my BA in at the University of Plymouth. Things kicked off with a short talk about the Ediacaran and Cambrian geological periods, when Earth’s first animal life started to appear.
I quickly narrowed my interest down to fossils from the Cambrian period which are more complex life forms, more similar to life today. A collection of small fossils from the Chengjiang fossil site in Yunnan province, China was the inspiration for some initial observational drawings.
After returning to Plymouth University, I began to develop these initial sketches and observations, continuing to research the Chengjiang material and learning more about the characteristics of some of the creatures preserved as fossils.
I wanted to create an under-the-sea ecology reconstruction showing a diversity of life forms, focusing on Onychodictyon, Cotyledion, Cricocosmia, Luolishania, and Paradiagoniella.
A five-step process was used for each reconstruction. Initially, I would sketch the fossil as I saw it, then I would research the characteristics and features of that animal, making a list of things to include in my drawing. A second drawing would then include all of these characteristics, not just what was initially visible in the fossil.
These rough sketches were then sent to the scientists for feedback, helping me to redraw and paint the illustrations with watercolour, before scanning and digitally editing each painting. Lastly, I created a background and added my illustrations.
Although the reconstructions were not completely finished by the time of my project deadline, I returned to the Museum in July and was given a tour of the First Animals exhibition by Deputy Head of Research Imran Rahman, as well as the opportunity to discuss how to improve my artworks for accuracy.
Another round of sketching and painting led to the final piece, shown at the start of this article, complete with an added digital background of the seafloor, and darkened to reflect the murky world of a Cambrian ocean, 50 metres below the surface.
Extinct or not extinct; that is a question raised by a report into the status of the beetles of Great Britain, published last year by Natural England. It may sound easy to determine whether a species is extinct or not, but tiny insects can be very hard to spot, despite the best efforts of many people.
The results of the report were alarming: using the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria, just over half of our dung beetles are in decline, five have gone regionally extinct, and a further four were classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) in Great Britain.
Prompted by this assessment, targeted surveys were made at known historic sites for some of our rarest and possibly extinct species. Over the past two years we have already made some exceptional discoveries, including new sites and new county records for several rare dung beetles.
My favourite finds from recent field exploits are the discovery of two new populations in Gloucestershire for the Critically Endangered Aphodius quadrimaculatus, and the rediscovery of Heptaulacus testudinarius in the New Forest, Hampshire after 35 years with no records. But sadly we have failed to find four of our target species at their last known sites.
Finally, after ten years of repeated site visits, we did finally find one of our rarest species, the Ainsdale dung beetle Amoecius brevis. This small beetle, just 3.5-4.5 mm long, was first found in Britain in 1859. It’s restricted to the Ainsdale and Birkdale sand dunes of Lancashire, where there were several records from the early 20th century, one record in 1962, and four records from the 1990s.
The last known record was of a single specimen caught in 1996. The lack of recordings for the past 20 years, despite a large number of surveys, led us to proclaim it Critically Endangered and ‘Possibly Extinct’ in the Natural England report.
Unlike many of our other dung beetles, which prefer fresh dung, Amoecius brevis breeds in older dung of large herbivores, such as cattle and horses, and rather unusually, in the UK it is also found breeding in rabbit latrines.
So it was in pursuit of rabbit latrines that we spent five days walking up and down sand dunes, covering an area of about 5km2. We then used a fine mesh sieve and tray to search through the dung and sand beneath. When our first beetle appeared it took a few minutes for the euphoria to fade, and then to our delight a further three were found in the next handful of sand and rabbit dung, along with a few more a little way down the coast.
In one sense, proclaiming a small, inconspicuous and evidently hard to find beetle as ‘Possibly Extinct’ is premature, but without that designation who would bother to go and look? Would wildlife conservationists give it any attention?
Since the Natural England Status Review was published, surveys have been commissioned for four rare dung beetles; in the case of the Ainsdale dung beetle at least, this has proven very successful.
I hope that the rediscovery of this very rare beetle will highlight the importance of invertebrate conservation as a whole. In the meantime, our data will feed in to conservation management plans for the Ainsdale site, safegaurding this little beetle’s future.
To celebrate National Insect Week 2016 we thought we would introduce you to the custodians of the Hope Entomology Collection here at the Museum. Our insect collection is made up of a whopping 6 million specimens, so our resident entomologists definitely have their work cut out. However, they have taken a little time out to tell us all about their specialisms and why their favourite insects are the best.
Darren Mann – Head of Life Collections
Dung beetles have been my passion since my late teens. I started with British species and then gradually broadened my interests to encompass the world fauna. But why dung beetles?
Well, they are beautiful insects, exhibiting an array of shapes and colours; they have been around since the dinosaurs, and have interesting biologies and behaviours, from nest-building and parental care, to stargazing. As a group, dung beetles are also very important in the ecosystem, removing dung and recycling nutrients.
Not only that, but dung removal and relocation offers additional ‘ecosystem services’ of fly control, livestock parasite suppression, plant growth enhancement, improved soil structure, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, seed dispersal, and pollination. Inevitably, they are a source of food for other animals too.
Dung beetles are found in all regions of the world, and consist of three main groups: the dor or earth-boring beetles (Family Geotrupidae) of around 600 species; the ‘lesser’ dung beetles (Family Scarabaeidae, subfamily Aphodiinae) of around 3,500 species; and the ‘true’ dung beetles (Family Scarabaeidae, Subfamily Scarabaeinae) of around 6,000 species.
With just over 10,000 species in total you’d think we have found all the dung beetles out there, but not so: it’s estimated that 40 per cent of species new to science are still to be discovered. In the UK we have just 60 species and over half of these are in decline due to agricultural intensification, pollution, use of veterinary drugs, and changes in livestock farming practises. The Dung Beetle Mapping UK Project (DUMP) aims to highlight the importance of this group and promote research and conservation in this area.
Despite their name, not all dung beetles eat dung, with some species preferring fallen fruit, fungi, or even dead animals. The South American roller (Deltochilumvalgum) is an avid predator of millipedes and another South American species (Zonocoprisgibbicollis) feeds on snail mucus!
So with their high diversity, fascinating ecology, and great economic benefit, perhaps the question really should be ‘why not study dung beetles?’.