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