From Mount Nimba to Silwood Park: summer placement in the Coleoptera section

Here’s a blog from Jordan, who is currently a Bachelor student at the University of Reading, who took a summer placement with us here in the beetle section of the Museum.

In 1946 French entomologist André Villiers was trekking through the primary forest of the Ivory Coast. It was late May, temperatures were soaring, and the wet season had just begun. Over the last few weeks he had climbed Mount Nimba and was about to begin his ascent of Mount Tonkoui. Over the next coming days Villiers would collect dozens of new species to science, which would be described by English physician and entomologist Malcolm Cameron over the following decade.

Flash forward 70 years to a summer placement student sitting in a corner of a museum 3000 miles away – that’s me, hi:)

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Jordan first came to the beetle section on a work placement aged 16 years old. Somehow we managed to convert him to the bright side and he’s been coming back ever since! This is a Goliath beetle by the way!

– and it’s those exact specimens that are forming the basis of my project, which uses top of the range technology and social media to make these specimens more accessible to entomologists that aren’t always able to travel to London. Museum scientists recently returned from an expedition to the Ivory Coast where they collected specimens at both these localities again; my project should aid scientists in comparing the species found 70 years ago to the ones found there today. This is especially necessary because both mountains are under threat from logging so it’s important to see if this has impacted the species that were once there.

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Beetles from a variety of families collected in the Ivory Coast undergoing specimen preparation for eventual identification and incorporation into the NHM collection

My main project over-arched my placement – imaging Staphylinidae (rove beetle) type specimens of historic material collected from the Ivory Coast to be uploaded on the Coleoptera section’s Flickr site.  A holotype is essentially the single specimen that defines the name we give to the species (the specimen that the taxonomist used to describe it); It’s a voucher for the species name that is kept in a museum and can be used for comparison if there’s any debate as what the species looks like.

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Some of the historic type specimens from the Ivory coast, bequeathed to the collection in 1955

To image the Tonkoui beetles, we first had to find them! Using a Staphylinidae catalogue published by Lee Herman in 2001 and a paper by Cameron from 1949, we found that a total of 15 species were described, and used the museum database search system to find the drawer numbers (which are often only rough approximations, so finding one beetle among millions is often quite difficult).

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Drawers, beetles, camera, action!

A piece of software called Helicon Focus is used which lets you set the highest and lowest points of the beetle and controls the interval height between each picture taken (in micrometres). After setting the correct shutter speed, ISO and aperture, the camera begins taking photos whilst the stacking system shifts the camera downwards to get around 80 photos that are focused on different parts of the beetle. Helicon then combines all the photos together to create a sharp, detailed single image.

However, the most important part of the image to be uploaded onto the Flickr site isn’t the beetle itself, but the data labels pinned beneath the specimen. Without the data attached, the specimen is scientifically worthless, so the data labels must also be taken off and photographed.

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Removal of data labels from the pinned specimen to make a plate image. All specimens receive a unique barcode so they can be easily retrieved from our data portal 

This was quite a difficult process which took a lot of time and care, as all the specimens I was working with were unique and of incredible scientific value. I imaged a total of 15 beetles, all of which are now available to see on the Natural History Museum Coleoptera Section Flickr site.

The Natural History Museum is one of the few places in which work like this can be carried out, as it contains the largest biodiversity catalogue in the world. Over 80 million specimens are stored there, most are kept out of public view behind the scenes and are cared for by scientists, curators and over 500 volunteers!

Beetles make up just over 10 million of these specimens and are kept in the 22,000 draws that make up the collection. 200,000 Coleoptera species are represented, almost half of the species so far described. Each specimen has a story attached to it, in the form of a data label and this provides us with a unique opportunity to look back in time through the eyes of beetle collectors such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Joseph Banks, Dr Livingstone and Villiers.

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Quite a large corner of the museum housing the 10 million beetles specimens. Jordan worked on just a few…

I was working alongside a team of curators, volunteers and other scientific visitors in the new Darwin Centre labs and in the collection itself which is housed in Origins, part of the original museum. Day to day I had a variety of responsibilities, such as insect mounting, data basing donated collections, sorting beetles from recent Africa expeditions to morpho-species and subfamily (these will be loaned to beetle experts across the globe and hopefully some will be described as new species!). I also got the chance to do a bit of fieldwork and help show off some snazzy beetles at a ‘Bugs!’ day at Silwood Park to hopefully inspire the next generation of entomologists!

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Several of us made the trip to Silwood Park for the ‘Bugs!’ day. We spent the afternoon educating the public about the work at the museum, getting kids excited about beetles, and helping with identifications on the bug walk and even tried our hand with a bit of pond dipping.

Whilst at Silwood, Niall – who was on a placement from Plymouth – and I managed to find Teredus cylindricus, an uncommon Bothriderid beetle (dry bark beetle) that’s barely known from any sites in the UK, off a dead fallen tree. (Admittedly Niall spotted it first, but I got it in the tube. Draw?). We found it on the very same tree that Max and Roger, who are both entomologists at the museum, found it on 20 years previously, where their mentors found it another 20 years previously, back when the tree was still standing before the great storm of 1987!

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Everyone loves beetles right?!

Over the course of my time at the museum, I made plenty of new friends, it was a brilliant experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a placement at the museum for any students who may be thinking about it in the future, as without a doubt it will help develop your skills and prepare you for a career in entomology.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Max for arranging this and welcoming me into the museum, and thanks to Michael, Beulah, Hitoshi, Roger, Katy and Keita and the rest of the team for all your continued support.