The collection conundrum: How useful are Museum collections?

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Hope the whale suspended over Hintze hall

Visiting a museum for the first time can be a magical experience. Wandering through the vast halls, awing at the exhibits and looking at all the various artefacts within the museum walls can inspire wonder and intrigue into pretty much anyone.For me, the Natural History Museum is one of the greatest museums I have ever visited; with its breath-taking architecture, plethora of exhibitions and host of scientific specimens within the main halls and the Darwin centre cocoon. However, just walking around and taking in all of this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the treasures held within.

The NHM (like most museums) isn’t just a place to visit, but also a cornucopia of scientific research and constant study which the museum wants to share with as many people as possible. They do this by hosting talks in the Darwin centre, ‘Lates’ evenings – where you can go to talk with curators and participate in backstage tours of the collection areas – and even through sleepovers at the museum. On some occasions, however, the museum will have stalls erected during visiting hours to engage the public about the collections.

I have been fortunate enough to help talk to the public about the Entomological collections held within the museum, the most prevalent questions being – “How many insects do you have?”, “Where do you keep them all?” and even, “How do you keep that many insects alive?”. Most people respond to the answers by enthusing about how amazing it is that so much has been collected and how the museum can manage to keep it in such good condition. However, there are equally many people condemning this fact; believing that it is cruel to have pinned so many specimens instead of simply recording their whereabouts. This got me thinking; why is there an aversion – in some people – to Museum collections? Do we really need hundreds of a single species pinned in boxes? And do they all just sit there gathering dust?

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A collection box from the NHM containing moths collected in South Africa

In short, the answer is as follows; these questions arise from a lack of understanding on museum collections and the data they hold which can be used for scientific study, particularly that of entomology. The collection data held within museums is invaluable and help progress our understanding of a variety of topics surrounding the specimens. Entomology benefits heavily from the use of museum data in studies, many published papers use the date, life stage (adult, pupa, larva) and site in which a specimen was collected in order to discuss how Lepidoptera may have been affected by climate change. One paper even looks at how the phenology (life cycle) of British butterflies has changed since the 19th century. It talks of how the rates of phenological change in butterflies (as a response to changes in host plant flowering periods) is slowing down and should these changes continue, it could cause greater problems for many species.

Furthermore, some papers even use genetic data extracted from museum specimens in order to help determine how some species of insect have evolved, and look at the changes in biodiversity within a given habitat. One such paper used tissue samples from both dry and ethanol preserved specimens of sack-bearer moth (Mimallonidae) to construct a phylogeny for the moth family. The results of that study will greatly contribute to further studies concerning the biogeography, evolution and host plant relations of Mimallonids.

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The caterpillar of a Mimallonid moth which will later go on to build a “sack” of silk (from which it’s common name is derived).

Recently, the Natural History Museum has embarked on a large scale digitisation of their collections, starting with the Lepidoptera in a project called iCollections. The digitisation of the collections held within the museum are available to the public through the NHM data portal. This provides a wealth of data on the digitised specimens (including year, location, species, holotypes, paratypes etc.) which lends itself to further use of their data in many studies concerning conservation, biogeography, taxonomy and genetics. The large sample sizes of the collections and range of locality and year of collection add to this possibility of further study, helping to increase our overall understanding of the many insect species held within museums.

Overall, Museums are fantastic places filled with the potential of further study, and those like the NHM have an unending potential to help develop our understanding of insects through time. On the 6th February the Harper Entomology students will be visiting the NHM where we hope to learn even more about the wondrous Entomological collections held within their walls.

 

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An Update (Part 1)

It has been a hot minute since we posted the last article which introduced us, so a little update about what us budding entomologists have been getting up to on the course so far and my thoughts on it seemed rather apt. I present to you part one of the overview/highlights of what we’ve done so far:

Module 1: Biology & Taxonomy of Insects

Following the introductory Research & Information Skills module, this was the first entomology module with two weeks of entomological goodness for the cohort to get stuck into, and boy, we weren’t left disappointed. The module started with a session on Orthoptera and a general run through of insect anatomy led by Dr. Andy Cherrill. This was followed by practical session which involved a delightful dissection of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria).

 

The next day we covered the order Thysanoptera (thrips) with Dr Tom Pope (@ipm_tom), followed by a zoom through the superorder Dictyoptera (comprising of the orders Mantodea (mantids) and Blattodea (cockroaches and termites)) with Dr. Rob Graham. With everyone on the course being from varied backgrounds and holding different levels of experience within different things, the session on insect pinning and curation was extremely useful for everyone. The cohort spent the afternoon pinning, micropinning and carding insects in a thrilling practical session led by PhD student Francisca Sconce (@FranciscaSconce).

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Pinned 3rd instar desert locust nymph and carabid (specimens pinned and photographed by Linzi (@Apis_linzi)).

After a whizz through a lecture on sampling methods by Prof. Simon Leather (@EntoProf) we covered a range of methods, ranging from beating to sweep netting and from pitfall traps to malaise traps. The afternoon was spent in the great outdoors sweep netting and getting to use the Vortistm, a vacuum used to suck up and sample insects (and relatives).

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Fellow entomologist Brinna (@BrinnaBarlow) trying her hand at sampling some insects using the Vortis suction sampler.

The first week of this module ended with a bang, with the first guest speaker from the Natural History Museum: hymenopterist Dr. Andy Polaszek (@AndyPolaszek)! In a blitz through the hyper diverse Hymenoptera, we covered several groups, focusing on their identification as well as some tidbits on their biology. We put what we learnt during the morning lecture to test in an intense identification practical.

 

 

 

Week two of the module started with an aphid-packed day on Hemiptera. The next day was Lepidoptera-filled. We had a practical session which involved taking morphometric measurments in waxmoths (Galleria mellonella) and dissecting out the females ovarioles to count the number of eggs.

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A female wax moth (Galleria mellonella) dissected with ovarioles spread out, as part of the Lepidoptera class practical.

Speaker number two from NHM was THE fly girl herself, Dr. Erica McAllister (@flygirlNHM)! She vividly captured our interest and introduced us to the weird and wonderful world of flies. Leading on nicely from the zoom through Diptera, we had a session on Forensic Entomology, full of murder (not literally of course…that’d be bad) and maggots with one of the UK’s leading forensic entomologist’s Dr. Amoret Whitaker. The module ended with shimmer and shine a.k.a beetles, with coleopterist Dr. Max Barclay (@Coleopterist)!

 

This module was certainly a personal favourite of mine (so far), we covered SOOO MUCH in a relatively short space of time. With informative lectures from the university lecturers, plenty of hands on practicals, combined with several external speakers who are experts within their respective fields; I feel as though we thoroughly covered the major insect orders in a very engaging manner! A truly fantastic start to the course!

Make sure to check out the next post “An Update (Part 2)” on Saturday!

 

By Aqib Ali  (Twitter:@EntoAqib , Email: Aqib1996@hotmail.co.uk , Linkedin: Aqib Ali)

MSc Entomology Twitter: @EntoMasters

Taxonomy bytes back: are insect avatars the solution to tackle the classification bottleneck?

We have been naming and describing the natural world around us for millennia, but how does this age-old science relate to the 21st century? Computers have revolutionised the modern world and smart phones have lead to global connectivity. Ideas shared, data accessed and unity of knowledge achieved at the tap of the finger. With growing interest in biodiversity and conservation many technological advances are assisting within these fields. Despite racing against the deteriorating environment, new species are being discovered at a record rate. It seems therefore, that it has never been more important to put the right name to the right species and to do so quickly.

We are currently facing a classification bottleneck. This is an issue of time, money and accessibility, constraining upon sheer number of new specimens being collected. That is not to mention the number of synonyms and misidentified species that need some serious TLC. As ever, time is money and experts are scarce, so this really is a problem of exponential proportion.

 

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Author with her own collection submitted for our Entomology MSc Diversity and Evolution of Insects module

The latest revolution sits in the hands of digitalisation, of avatars and of so called 3D cybertypes. The new age of taxonomy is well and truly upon us. Focal stacking software amalgamates a series of two dimensional images to create an otherwise impossible focal range, whilst visual-hull algorithms carve into three dimensional space, stitching these stacks into tangibility. A 3D replica, an avatar, is thrust into digital existence, with full natural colour and incredible intricacy. High resolution microtomography (microCT) can then be used as a non-invasive means to map internal morphology. The result: a high resolution colour, interactive 3D interface, with the ability to explore within, differentiating between systems.

These advancements have caused some stir. With rapid characterisation of species morphology and subsequent preservation in the digital domain there is scope for broad spectrum application within entomology and beyond. These visual aids can be complemented with quick access to distribution data, DNA barcodes, research on behaviour or whatever published data required. Just as existing tools can be accessed remotely by the global community, these avatars too are accessed online and utilised in a similar way. Data banks can be pooled and comprehensive catalogues of data created, eternalised online, accessible 24/7, all at the click of a button. Recent advancements in producing data miners to sift through academic journals online have already be noted for their potential in the field of medicine. One such data miner, launched by the Seattle-based institute AI2, is already in use. Currently capable of trawling computer science literature, developers aim to scale up the programme, with extension to medical, biological and other scientific disciplines.   Imagine the applications; to request a specimen from the collections and for it arrive instantaneously, perpetuated in digital perfection, to your desktop. It would contain with it a plethora of data, pooling prior research, amalgamating it to one dashboard. This is not to say that a digitalised avatar would replace the crucial type specimen. These new digital techniques are a means to acquire more data, to be more exhaustive and to enable greater ease of access, leading to higher efficiency within our field.

Our natural history collections represent centuries of passion, of exploration and of pioneers within their fields. More than just prestige, collections carry with them invaluable data, added to by centuries of continuing research. Taxonomy is not an archaic tradition, refined to dusty old cabinets behind the closed doors of museums. Taxonomy is as current today as it has ever been. It is time for taxonomy to once again hold its own, to invoke collaboration and inter-disciplinary interaction. Ultimately, we are working for the same cause. Let’s move into the digital age and grant accessibility to all. If knowledge is power and communication is key its time we join forces to liberate our knowledge in this time of rapid environmental change.

By Alice Mockford

 

References

Akkari, N., Enghoff, H. and Metscher, B.D. (2015). A New Dimension in Documenting New Species: High-Detail Imaging for Myriapod Taxonomy and First 3D Cybertype of a New Millipede Species (Diplopoda, Julida, Julidae). Plos One [Online] 10:e0135243. Available at: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0135243.

Erwin, T., Stoev, P., Georgiev, T. and Penev, L. (2015). ZooKeys 500 : traditions and innovations hand-in-hand servicing our taxonomic community. 8:1–8.

Godfray, H.C.J. (2002). Challenges for taxonomy. Nature 417:17–19.

Marshall S.A., Evenhuis N.L.   (2015) New species without dead bodies: a case for photo-based descriptions, illustrated by a striking new species of Marleyimyia Hesse (Diptera, Bombyliidae) from South Africa. ZooKeys 525: 117-127 (05 Oct 2015) doi: 10.3897/zookeys.525.6143

Nguyen, C., Lovell, D., Adcock, M. and La Salle, J. (2014). Capturing natural-colour 3D models of insects for species discovery and diagnostics. PLoS ONE 9:1–11.

Nguyen, C., Lovell, D., Oberprieler, R., Jennings, D., Adcock, M., Gates-Stuart, E. and La Salle, J. (2013). Virtual 3D models of insects for accelerated quarantine control. Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision:161–167.

Qian, J., Lei, M., Dan, D., Yao, B., Zhou, X., Yang, Y., Yan, S., et al. (2015). Full-color structured illumination optical sectioning microscopy. Scientific Reports [Online] 5:14513. Available at: http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/srep14513.

La Salle, J., Wheeler, Q., Jackway, P., Winterton, S., Hobern, D. and Lovell, D. (2009). Accelerating taxonomic discovery through automated character extraction. Zootaxa 55:43–55.

Winterton, S.L., Guek, H.P. and Brooks, S.J. (2012). A charismatic new species of green lacewing discovered in Malaysia (Neuroptera, Chrysopidae): The confluence of citizen scientist, online image database and cybertaxonomy. ZooKeys 214:1–11.