Darwin, dragons and damsels | Identification Trainers for the Future

In 2009, I visited the Museum’s Darwin Centre for the first time. It had been a culmination of a pilgrimage to see as many exhibitions as possible that celebrated Charles Darwin’s bicentenary of his birth that year. Little did I realise that 6 years later, as a trainee on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, I’d be lucky enough to work in the Darwin Centre itself, re-curating some of the Museum’s 80 million specimens that form the world’s most important natural history collection.

Photograph of the Cocoon structure from below looking upwards
The Cocoon in the Darwin Centre, which opened in September 2009.

I watched with bated breath on the 14 September 2009 as Sir David Attenborough and Prince William opened the state of the art facility. It allows over 350 scientists and researchers to study zoology, botany and entomology collections to address some of the key challenges of the 21st century such as food security, biodiversity loss and disease. As Sir David Attenborough so eloquently put it:

Never has it been so important to understand the  diversity of life on earth and how it is changing, if we are to tackle many of the issues that humans face today … The Darwin Centre will inspire the next generation of naturalists and scientists through its combination of scientific expertise, specimens, public dialogue, film and interactive media. It will enable all of us to explore the wonders of our world and investigate its secrets.

It was therefore a bit surreal when my curation placement actually took me to the 7th floor of the Darwin Centre in the Entomology Research and Curation Lab, where I have been asked to re-curate the Odonata of the UK. This order is split into Zygoptera (Damselflies) and Anisoptera (Dragonflies).

I have always held a passion for dragonflies and their survivability as a lineage is remarkable. Fossils of dragonflies have been found as far back as 300 million years ago. Dragonflies first took to the air in the amazing equatorial forests of the Carboniferous period, long before dinosaurs walked the Earth. Giant forests of club mosses, horsetails and ferns dominated the land, whilst giant millipedes, scorpions, spiders and amphibians roamed the wet lowland swamps.

Fragmented fossils of dragonflies of one group known as the Meganeuridae have wingspans of over 60cm (nearly two feet). One theory accounting for their amazing size was that due to high levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, insects grew larger to avoid oxygen poisoning and so had much larger bodies than insects of today.

There are currently 45 resident species of dragonflies in the UK and historically dragonflies were some of the first entomological specimens to be collected, and therefore they feature in the early 17th century collections of James Petiver and Sir Hans Sloane.

Photo showing Anthony's fingers holding the pin through a specimen of the dragonfly
Moving an emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator)

My project requires me to re-curate the existing collections of late 19th and early 20th century British collections by taking each individual specimen from its old cork-lined drawer and placing them into new plastazote unit trays.

Photo showing the drawer at an oblique angle
A drawerful of specimens of the common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum)
Photo showing Anthony moving a specimen into an new drawer
Moving specimens of the common blue damselfly from their old cork-lined drawer into new plastazote unit trays

The challenges abound with this. The specimens themselves, such as the more slender damselflies, are incredibly delicate and need to be handled with precision (there’s even a species called dainty damselfly). Often pins are very old and suffer from verdigris: this occurs when old pins are exposed to the fats and lipids found in an insect’s body (as well as the gasses found within an insect drawer) and the copper within reacts to cause a green-coloured ‘filamentous explosion’ of the alloy. This can ultimately destroy the body of an insect.

Photo showing close up of dragonflies in a cork drawer
Another old drawer in need of re-curation, this time of the Brachytron species of dragonflies

During the movement, another element is to add a barcode label to every single specimen to produce a specimen level database and to image each drawer. With 75 drawers of 50-60 specimens, that is a lot of specimens to be getting through. It is hoped that the digitisation and subsequent databasing will improve the overall accessibility of the collection for researchers.

Anthony Roach, Identification Trainers for the Future