“Mr. Cooper, meet ALICE.” – Part 2 | Digital Collections Programme

Guest Blog by Phaedra Kokkini

This is the second part of the story behind about the ALICE pilot project. While the first part focused on piloting our ‘Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction’ or ALICE, this part will focus on the collection and collector. Quite unexpectedly, while preparing our chosen collection for imaging I got to know a person through his collection of pinned insects.

As I was scanning the contents of the collection boxes, I couldn’t help but admire the collector’s work. Martin Cooper must have loved wasps, as they make up the majority of his collection. However, he also collected insects of other orders such as flies and beetles. The specimens were in excellent condition, placed with great care and stored in custom-made boxes. They were grouped taxonomically, determined to species or at least genus level. The collection of pinned insects was accompanied by a collection of nests, as well as Cooper’s fieldwork notebooks. This suggested that the collector may have been a more experienced professional entomologist, rather than the amateur collector.

Alice blog 2 Field notes
Some of M. Cooper’s notes from the field. Pressed plant specimens, extensive descriptions, drawings of nests and insect body parts, and notebooks filled with locations and dates of his collecting trips.


Cooper’s collection revealed that he must have travelled on field trips to South America, to countries like Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru, to collect specimens and study them. A lot of his specimens seemed to be set aside by him as potentially new species. Moreover, some species were named ‘cooperi’ indicating that they had been named after him.

Alice 2 Coleoptera box - Lower res
One of the Coleoptera (beetles) boxes from the Cooper collection.

An inventory of the acquisition indicated that about 300 species would be a new addition to the Museum’s collections. I wanted to know a bit more about the man behind this collection, but unfortunately very little has been recorded. So I set out to find someone that knew him personally.

Principal curator for entomology Gavin Broad was Cooper’s main contact at the museum and has shared what he knew about him. Martin Cooper had been a talented young entomologist, studying at Imperial College in the 1970s. He started a PhD with the renowned entomologist O.W. Richards on the systematics of social wasps, but for some reason he never finished it. Nevertheless, he didn’t give up his passion. He went on to numerous trips to South and Central America, being in the forest for months at a time. In between trips he worked in non-specialist jobs to fund his fieldwork expeditions.

Cooper had an amazing eye for wasps, even in the dark undergrowth. He had one of the best collections of the Neotropical wasp genus Pararhaphidoglossa, potter wasps that are very difficult to collect in the forest.

Potter wasps (subfamily Eumeninae) are a cosmopolitan wasp group of the family Vespidae. Most species are black or brown, and commonly marked with contrasting patterns of yellow, white, orange, or red. Potter wasps are predatory and most of them are solitary mass provisioners. Their nests can be very diverse but the most widely used building material is mud made of a mixture of soil and regurgitated water, hence the name “potter wasp”. The nest may have one or several individual brood cells. When a cell is completed, the adult wasp typically collects beetle larvae, spiders, or caterpillars and after paralyzing them, it places them in the cell to serve as food for a single wasp larva.  

Alice 2 Pararhaphidoglossa subtruncatula
Image of the lateral view of a specimen Pararhaphidoglossa subtruncatula.

Curator David Notton helped me find the extent of Cooper’s contributions to science. It appears he described more than 80 species, mainly of the family Vespidae including subfamilies Polistinae (social wasps) and Eumeninae (potter wasps). Furthermore, many new species were named by other entomologists after him. This suggests not only that Cooper was a skilled entomologist but that he was very well respected amongst his peers.

Alice 2 Lateral view of Trigonopsis cooperi - Lower res
Image of the lateral view of a Trigonopsis cooperi specimen, one of the species that were named after M. Cooper.

“His papers would all come to me to review and I could never find anything wrong with them other than occasional small typos.” Gavin Broad says about Cooper’s typewriter-written manuscripts. He was definitely a man of high standards.

Martin Cooper was not paid for his contribution to science – so is referred to as an amateur, but like many ‘amateur’ collectors he enriched our collections professionally. He collected more than 25,000 insect specimens, described many new species and authored multiple papers. Cooper’s work has vastly improved our knowledge of the wasps of South America.

The opportunity to start a pilot project to test a new workflow using our ALICE came about because the Museum acquired an exceptional collection. However, not only will we have results of a new method of pinned insect digitisation from this project,  but we will have an thorough knowledge of Martin Cooper’s collection. By releasing this data online, this provides a new resource that will enable future projects to continue Cooper’s work on Hymenoptera taxonomy. After this pilot, there will hopefully be more opportunities to digitise collections with ALICE and more secrets to reveal in the collection. I am looking forward to that!

To stay up to date with the latest Digital Collections projects please follow us on Twitter and instagram. To read part 1 of Mr. Cooper, meet ALICE visit our previous blog post.  To access preprint of Angled Label Capture and Extraction for high throughput insect specimen digitisation visit:https://www.doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/s2p73