For the past two days I have started, and finished recurating the British Acroceridae Collection. Wow, you must be thinking, that young Erica is fast! Recurating an entire family in two days; updating the nomenclature, bar coding and databasing the specimens, and then rehousing into modern museum standard unit trays. Well, a slight confession is that there are only three species found in the UK.
Deadly predators. Venomous machines. Stealth assassins. Yes, it’s the robber flies, or assassin flies if you’re from across the pond. These beautiful, lethal creatures are, to my mind, some of the most amazing species on the planet, with not only some amazing adaptations to their predatory lifestyle but also exhibiting a great morphological variety – including some of the most hirsute insects on the planet.
Today’s blog is in honour of the great microscopist Robert Hooke. Born on 18 July 1685 (which is actually the 28 July today due to the shift to the Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752), Robert Hooke – although not as famous as some of his counterparts such as Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton – was to have a huge impact on the scientific community. He was a curious individual, always observing, noting, and drawing what he saw. This drive and curiosity resulted in this ‘caulkhead’ (native of the Isle of Wight, UK) producing in 1665 at the tender age of 30 years, one of my favorite books – ‘Micrographia or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon’.
Not the snappiest of subtitles, I concur, but contained within the pages of this book are some of the earliest but arguably still scientifically important drawings/diagrams of life as seen under a microscope.
Before the Museum exhibition about Colour and Vision closes on 6 November, I thought I should write a piece about some of nature’s most amazing eyes (their patterns and shapes). I’m talking of course about those belonging to flies – the most enigmatic of all species on the planet – and specifically all the species referred to as stalk-eyed flies.
My first experience of stalk-eyed flies came while I was carrying out fieldwork in Costa Rica over 10 years ago and it can probably go down as one of my favourite fieldwork moments. So what happened?
I’m currently in Dominica, collecting insects with Operation Wallacea but this isn’t the first time I’ve been to this beautiful country. Here’s a blog post I prepared earlier about my field trip last year…
I have just finished 4 weeks of fieldwork collecting insects in Dominica. I can’t really complain about that except that the fieldwork did not follow my usual routine. Generally when employed at Museum your fieldwork is either part of a general collecting trip hoping to find as much as possible (work with Dipterists Forum); part of a research-focused group (me collecting flies from Potatoes in Peru); or part of a consultancy project (Mosquitoes in Tajikistan). However this trip was different, I wasn’t marauding around the countryside with collector’s glee, this time I had to teach as well as collect.
It’s not the first time I have taught students. I lectured for a while before joining the museum and was involved in a tropical ecology field course in Costa Rica for several years. However that was university students and they were mostly master’s students who already were interested in Entomology. I had never taught or been involved with younger people – teenagers as I believe they are called. That had previously sounded like a mild form of torture! Could they concentrate? Would they even be interested?
Once more I am writing in defense of some very attractive but much-maligned creatures that, due to the maternal habits of the females, are universally disliked. People scream, run, swat them with wild abandonment to stop these ladies from providing essential resources to enable them to produce their next generation – it’s not very nice of us to let them get food for their offspring!
Yes, Tabanidae, or horseflies to give one of their common names, are some of the most painful biters of all flies but, like their also very much-maligned cousins, the mosquitoes, the males are vegetarian and can also be very important pollinators (e.g. Philoliche species found in South Africa – see the reference in one of my older blogs).
Within the Diptera section we are asked a lot about individual species of flies and so we thought we would put pen to paper (or key to board) and give some species descriptions of the more popular requests.
I’ve just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It’s not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it’s still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Museum collection. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.
So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family… but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.
And for such large creatures we know very little about them.
OK, I have decided to create #WorldRobberFlyDay. All the time now, we hear that this large mammal or that large mammal has a ‘day’, and that got me thinking. Buglife have an Invertebrate of the Month, but even they are not very often the lesser-known insects, including the flies.
And I wanted global. Let the world celebrate! Why is it always the large stuff or the pretty (and, in my opinion, slightly less important) species? So I thought about it and decided it was about time that we championed more aggressively the rights of the small and endangered flies. These creatures are some of the most charismatic animals on the planet. The robberflies, or Asilidae, are truly worth celebrating for their looks, for their behaviour, for their good deeds to us, and because many of them are threatened.
The UK boasts 28 species of Asilidae (OK, so that’s not a lot in terms of flies, but hold on – we have only 30 native terrestrial mammals, of which 17 are bats and 2 are native marine mammals). Globally there are more than 7,500 species, and as such, it is one of the largest families of insects today. In fact Torsten Dikow, a world expert on this group, has them as the third most speciose group of diptera. This is a group, therefore, that has a large impact on the environment in which they live.