Posted by: georginaferry | July 6, 2010

Inordinate fondness

Part of the museum's entomology display, illustrating the wonderful diversity of beetle species

There hasn’t been much to show for it yet, but over the past few months I have been meeting members of the Museum’s curatorial staff and talking to them about what they do. These conversations have given me a wonderful insight into what goes on behind the scenes, and a sense of the passion that drives people to collect and categorise specimens that illustrate the extraordinary diversity of the natural world.

To begin with beetles. Beetles evolved around 300 million years ago, and to date around 450,000 different species of beetle have been described. Entomologists estimate that at least as many are still unaccounted for. Beetles make up 40 per cent of known insect species, and around a quarter of all known life-forms. No wonder that the biologist JBS Haldane (1892-1964), when asked what the works of Creation told him about the mind of the Creator replied ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles’.

Sharing that inordinate fondness is Darren Mann, Assistant Curator of the entomological collections in the Museum. He has collected insects from boyhood, and devotes exactly the same enthusiasm to collecting and caring for specimens in the museum. The foundation of the entomology department is the Hope Entomological Collection, donated to Oxford University by the Revd Frederick William Hope in 1849, soon augmented by another donation from his younger friend and Oxford professor John Obadiah Westwood. You can read all about the history of the collections in a book that is downloadable from the Museum’s website.

With succeeding curators continuing to collect enthusiastically, the Museum now has a collection of arthropods second in the UK only to that of the Natural History Museum in London, with over 5 million specimens held in 27,500 drawers. The main responsibility of Darren and his colleagues is to make the collection safe and accessible to the scholars from all over the world who want to consult it.

‘We’ve got a massive backlog to sort out’, he says. The original trays do not meet modern standards: they are not pest-proof, and many specimens are inadequately labelled or not labelled at all. The primary day-to-day task of the department is to rehouse the specimens from 6000 drawers to modern standards, pinning and labelling each one with its own unique identifier.

Dung beetles from Malaysia, organised and stored to modern standards

Darren showed me a recent drawer he was working on, containing dung beetles from Costa Rica. (Dung beetles, or scarabs, are Darren’s speciality. There are 35,000 species known and more are reported every year.) There seemed to be 40 or 50 of each species so I asked a typical non-specialist’s question: why do you need so many? ‘You can see that within a species there are different sizes’, said Darren. ‘We try to keep multiple examples from the whole geographical range, and also of different sizes and colours. We also keep one male and one female from each transect line. It means that we have all the information necessary if someone comes to us with a specimen for identification, or if an expert is updating a classification we can go back and check that we have identified them correctly.’

The Costa Rican beetles came from an undergraduate project undertaken with advice from Darren, to assess how the positioning of traps affected which dung beetles were collected. Four students came back with 27,000 dung beetles from 35 species: Darren has identified them, mounted and labelled a representative collection that he has sent back to the natural history collection in Costa Rica, given some to the Natural History Museum and mounted up 40 or 50 of each species for the entomological collections in our own museum, half a dozen or so of which were new acquisitions.

Not all of his collecting trips are so exotic. Darren is national organiser for a scheme to record the dung beetles of the UK, and many of the specimens in the museum are of British species. Only a couple of months ago he found a specimen in Devon that was new to the area; on the same trip he and some colleagues went collecting among the leaf litter in the glasshouses of the Eden Project in Cornwall. ‘We spent about a quarter of our time talking to the public about what we were doing’, he says. Considering the size of their task in the collections, Darren and his colleagues devote a lot of time to education and outreach, and the entomology displays, begun by his predecessor George McGavin and completed by Darren and Zoe Simmons, are among the most accessible in the museum.

‘We’re quite a young department’, says Darren, ‘and all started out as hobby entomologists. We get a lot of pleasure out of insects, and I think the enthusiasm shows in the displays.’

It certainly does.

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