Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Birds in a box, beetles on pins

For those involved directly in taxonomy and species identification, the function of biological collections is well known e.g. to provide reference specimens, and more recently to create a potential source of genetic material for molecular research. For others, it may seem a somewhat outdated, even macabre, activity, but this is not the case as long as ethical guidelines are followed - such as a 'code of conduct for collecting' (there may also be legislation covering collecting that varies from country to country, so do beware and check for protected species and permit requirements). During my recent visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (which I've heard referred to rather dismissively as 'the dead animal building'), I came across two excellent examples of why biological collections are of key importance in life science research. The first is an area you may have noticed me writing about quite a lot - small beetles; the second is quite different but more widely familiar, at least in broad terms.

A tray of scarabaeid beetles from the Hope Entomological Collections at the OUMNH
Trays of insects on cards and/or pins is one popular perception of a biological collection, along with stuffed animals, skeletons and 'pickled things in jars'. Although this is no some extent rue (visually at least), their purpose is not always well understood. For example, one reason for my recent visit to the OUMNH was to consult the Hope Entomological Collections. With over 5 million specimens this is the second most important such collection in the UK after that at the Natural History Museum in London. My reason for wanting to consult the collection was to help finish my key to identifying British Chrysomelidae, in particular the last few tricky species of Longitarsus flea beetles - L. curtus, L. fowleri and L. membranaceus. These are superficially very similar and I wanted to check some characteristics so that I could decide how to separate them in my book. They are also tricky because (a) I don't have my own beetle collection (I have nowhere to store one), (b) there is a very good collection maintained by the Hampshire Museums Service in Winchester; however although it is only 10km away, it tends to only be open when I am at work (an increasing problem in the UK as local government funding cuts reduce staffing and thus opening hours), and (c) these three species are not available as clear online photographs, even at the excellent European Chrysomelidae website. So, I went to Oxford to have a look at theirs - in particular fine details of the heads.

Longitarsus membranaceus
Longitarsus curtus
Longitarsus fowleri
I won't go into great morphological detail here, but the result is that I can now tell these three species apart from details of their heads - and so will anyone else be able to once my key is published - but in summary, L. membranaceus has a distinctive broad bar running down the front of its head, the sides of the bar being more or less parallel where it runs between the upper halves of the eyes, and it has a narrow process extending down between the antennal bases. In L. curtus, there is a broad wedge rather than a bar and this meets the upper edges of the eyes. In L. fowleri, the bar broadens towards the top of the head but is still separate from the eyes. So, with specimens and a microscope, a fairly straightforward way to separate some very similar species without needing to dissect them - and one that does not appear in existing keys, but could not have been determined without access to a collection. Plus, as I remembered to take my camera, there are now some useful photos that will appear when these species are Googled! Now, moving on to the second example, I enter the realm of an iconic vertebrate, the dodo (Raphus cucullatus).

The Oxford dodo display
This was not something I specifically went to visit, though it is an important exhibit, not just because the dodo is a popular metaphor for extinction, but because of the the information that can be gained by having the specimen in a biological collection. It is well known that the dodo was first discovered by Europeans on Mauritius in 1598 and that it was extinct by 1680 (though probably due more to pressure from other introduced animals rather than hunting by humans - apparently it wasn't very tasty!). However, despite being so iconic, little was known about its biology and ecology until recently. The best-known contemporary images are 17th and 18th century paintings but their portrayals of fat dodos are now known to be inaccurate, with research since the 1990s indicating a much slimmer bird even if precise estimates differ and work is ongoing (Kitchener, 1993a, b; Angst et al., 2011). The importance of the OUMNH's dodo specimen lies in the fact that it is the only specimen in the world with soft tissue preserved (skin on the head) from which DNA could be extracted. When this was analysed, the dodo, and its close relative the solitaire Pezophaps solitaria from the (relatively) nearby Rodrigues island, were found to be most closely related to the pigeons within the family Columbidae (Shapiro et al., 2002). This is a key result as the dodo had previously been taxonomically linked not just to pigeons, but also parrots, shorebirds and raptors - partly due to the lack of evidence/specimens and partly because of the considerable amount of adaptation and specialisation that occurred in its island location that rendered it superficially unlike any other bird, apart from the similarly poorly understood solitaire. The research indicates that the dodo and solitaire separated from south-east Asian relatives around 40 mya while able to fly, and dispersed to the Mascarene Islands. The dodo and solitaire then separated around 26 mya; Mauritous and Rodrigues are much younger (only around 8 and 1.5 my old respectively) which implies that the birds used the now-sunken Mascarene island chain as stepping stones, with the isolation of Rodrigues implying that the solitaire was able to fly as recently as 1.5 mya.

So, although genetics is only one area of research, and like any other needs to be applied and interpreted appropriately, this is an example where a modern technique and a traditional biological collection were both required for research purposes and combined to produce important results - the dodo is much more than a stuffed bird in a case, and genetics needs real-world applications beyond 'bar-coding' of species. It also highlights the point that when a specimen is collected, its use may be unknown as this specimens dates from long before the concept of the gene had been thought of. For an overview of some other applications of this technology, Nicholls (2005) covers some important points, and for much more detail about the 'Oxford dodo', have a look at this excellent OUMNH factsheet which I mercilessly plundered for background information.


Angst, D., Buffetaut, E. & Abourachid, A. (2011). The end of the fat dodo? A new mass estimate for Raphus cucullatus. Naturwissenschaften 98(3): 233-236.
Kitchener, A.C. (1993a). On the external appearance of the Dodo Raphus cucullatus (L.). Archives of Natural History 20(2): 279-301.
Kitchener, A.C. (1993b). Justice at last for the Dodo. New Scientist. (28.8.93)
Nicholls, H. (2005). Ancient DNA Comes of Age. Public Library of Science Biology 3(2): e56
Shapiro, B., Sibthorpe, D., Rambaut,A., Austin, J., Wragg, G.M., Bininda-Emonds, O.R.P., Lee, P.L.M. & Cooper, A. (2002). Flight of the Dodo. Science 295: 1683.

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