Natural history collections, as those of the Manchester Museum, act as ‘biological libraries’ and are unique locations for information. Many museum specimens have been collected over many decades and represent time series that document changing ecological circumstances and the consequences of such changes.
A new research project entitled as ‘Prehistoric deforestation of upland Britain – a critical test of existing models’ is aimed at revealing of the causes and evidence for deforestation in upland areas in Britain from approximately 8000-5000BP. This is an AHRC funded collaborative project led by Dr. Jeff Blackford and Dr. Pete Ryan of the School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester, and by Dr. Jim Innes of the University of Durham.
The aim of the project is to test the rival theories for the cause of Mesolithic deforestation in the uplands (West Bilsdale Moor, Yorkshire). The prevailing theory is one of humanly induced clearance through burning, however other possible explanations include climatic change, burning by natural wildfires, degradation by wild animals and fungal diseases.
One of the key evidence will be an analysis of beetle sub-fossil material extracted from the Bilsdale site. Beetles are known to be extremely useful in reconstructing palaeoenvironmental changes and the structure of woodland environments. They can also indicate the presence of grazing undulates where dung beetles are found and in some cases indicators of wildfire can be identified. However, any data based on beetles (and other organisms) can be reliably used, only provided that the specimens have been correctly identified to species.
Such identification of sub-fossil beetles is not an easy task, as a researcher is to deal with broken specimens or their fragments. A most reliable way of identification is a comparison of beetle fragments with properly identified museum specimens. This mighty task is currently being undertaken by John Carson (on photo), a MSc student in the Department of Geography, University of Manchester. John uses the fine entomology collections of British beetles of the Manchester Museum (over 400,000 specimens) in order to identify the fragments of beetles collected from the Bilsdale site.
I wish to thank John Carson for providing me with background information about the research project which he is involved in.