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Archive for April, 2011

Phasmids commonly known as stick insects are fascinating insects which are related to leaf insects; grasshoppers; locusts and crickets. Phasma translates from the Latin as ‘phantom, spectre, apparition or ghost’ and this gives a clue as to why they are so named. Most stick insects use camouflage as a protection against predation and have evolved elaborate morphological features to achieve this. A relatively few Phasmids, mostly occurring in South America, are brightly coloured and subsequently are protected by nasty-tasting chemicals. All Phasmids, leaf insects and their grasshopper relatives are herbivorous. They are sometimes confused with mantids which are related to termites and cockroaches and are ferocious predators and in fact one of the many predators from which phasmids need to escape! To confuse relationships further there are mantids which look like stick insects (Mantophasma zephyra) and grasshoppers which also look like stick insects (horse-headed grasshoppers- Proscopia latirostris).

After retirement from the University of Manchester as a Research Associate Dr Yvonne Golding began working as a volunteer in entomology. Previously she had worked on behavioural mimicry in insects notably on hoverflies and how they mimic wasps and bees. Phasmids were initially a hobby interest; Yvonne was a keen member of the Phasmid Study Group and bred many species in culture.

The Manchester Museum already had a small collection of Phasmids most of which were collected 50 or more years ago. Many of these specimens have old names and so need to be re-examined in the light of new classification. One interesting group of specimens was collected during a C.R.A expedition to the Solomon Islands in 1965. Of these we have some strange and unusual specimens one of which a female Phasmotaenia solomense (red arrow in Figure 1) was newly described in 2009 and another Phasmotaenia species with a strange swelling on the thorax as yet undescribed (green arrow in Figure 1).  A third very unstick-like and beautiful stick insect is Nisyrus spinulosus (Figure 2).

Fig. 1. The female of Phasmotaenia solomense (red arrow) and an undescribed yet Phasmotaenia species from the Solomon Islands; the Manchester Museum.

The collection was soon expanded when many phasmids were discovered among the papered specimens of an Indian collection of P.S. Nathan. These were bought ‘back to life’ by placing them in humid chambers and carefully manipulating legs and antennae to try and resemble some former life-like posture. Many of these specimens turned out to be Carausius species related to the common Indian stick which is often kept in schools.  The Carausius genus is very poorly studied which is not helped by the fact the different species really do all look very similar. If anyone has ever kept them in captivity they will know that it is very easy to become over run with them as they can reproduce by parthenogenesis, i.e. they do not need males to produce numerous offspring! Male Carausius specimens are in fact quite rare.

Fig. 2. The beautiful stick insect - Nisyrus spinulosus; the Manchester Museum.

 One interesting and new species from this collection Necroscia acutipennis was described by Dr. Phil Bragg with the help of Yvonne who provided measurements. This species is attractive and has wings. Most stick insects were likely to have originally had wings but then, through processes of evolution when they developed morphological camouflage and during periods of diversification, they were lost. Later some species ‘re-evolved’ wings, e,g., Acrophylla species (Figure 3). Being able to fly is a good way to escape from a predator. Generally male phasmids are the better flyers and this helps to find females for mating. Other winged species have even take a lesson from their grasshopper cousins and learnt to jump presumably to escape from predators.

Fig. 3. An Acrophylla species; the Manchester Museum.

The Phasmid collection was further expanded when Dr Mike Hill donated a number of specimens collected during a wide-ranging biodiversity survey carried out in protected areas of northernVietnamby Flora and Fauna International in 1998/9. The aim of the surveys was to assess the value of sites in protecting biodiversity. These specimens were received in a large sweetie jar of alcohol where they had remained for 10 years! The collection contains over a hundred of specimens which Yvonne mounted and prepared for identification.North Vietnamis one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world. Many new species of plants, animals and insects are found there on a regular basis.

 The phasmid fauna of this area is understudied so identification of species is difficult requiring the help of phasmid experts; unfortunately these are also a rare breed! Of the many interesting specimens found in this collection is a male relative of the longest stick insect in the world – Chan’s Megastick (Phobaeticus chani) from Borneo – a new species which has been on display in the Natural History Museum in London. The Chan’s stick is a female measuring 56.7cm with body length of 35.7cm not including legs. In the phasmid world females are generally quite a bit longer than males so a male P.chani will most likely measure around 10cm less in body length. Our male Phobaeticus species (see Figure 4), which is yet to be identified to species, at around 20cm in body length may be a contender for the 2nd longest male insect in the world!

Fig. 4. Yvonne Golding holding the male of Phobaeticus species; the Manchester Museum.

Most recently in 2009/10 we have received some phasmids from expeditions of the Russian-Vietnamese Tropical Centre donated to the MM by Dr Alexei V. Abramov from the Zoological Institute in St.-Petersburg, who has undertaken a dozen of field trips to various regions of Vietnam. Amongst the specimens collected by Dr Abramov may be a contender for our smallest phasmid; a fully grown female with very short antennae measuring only 25mm. This Paragongylopus species is as yet undescribed (Figure 5).

Fig. 5. A fully grown female of unknown Paragongylopus species; the Manchester Museum.

 A faunistic list of out Vietnamese phasmids is currently being compiled by Yvonne.

Selected references:

1. Whiting, M.F., Bradler, S. & Taylor, M. (2003). Loss and recovery of wings in stick insects. Nature 421, 264-267.

2. Burrows, M & Morris,O. (2002). Jumping in a winged stick insect. The Journal of Experimental Biology 205, 2399–2412.

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Many visitors of the Manchester Museum’s Entomology department get their inspiration from the diversity of shapes, colours or patterns of the thousands of insects deposited here. Yet, even old store-boxes are not totally neglected and used time to time by some creative artists. For instance, Jade Ashton, a 3D Design student, visited the Entomology department in February 2011 and obtained two old and unwanted store-boxes of the stock retained here which then have been used for the creating of an amazing little display entitled as ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’ (see photos).

The display 'Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’ created by Jade Ashton.

During the research of Mary Greg and her collection, a line from one of her letters particularly caught Jade’s interest; addressed to Mr. Batho, Mary’s letter expressed her concern over the possible damage to a collection of dresses: “I want to get them sent off but not to lie in boxes in some lumber room where the moths may destroy them” (1924).

A close-up view of the old store-box which has been given a new lease of life.

Jade’s intention for this project was to create a visual story: to bring alive the imagery within that quote, and to make a connection with the children’s novel, The Secret Garden – the story of Mary Lennox, another “contrary Mary”. Jade particularly wished to reflect the storage and display methods used within the Manchester Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum. Moreover, almost all materials used have been collected by herself; unwanted and unloved items destined to be thrown away have now been given a new lease of life, and add a sense of antiquity and nostalgia to the final display.

I am very grateful to Jade for the permission to use her statement and images of the display ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’ in our blog (Dmitri).

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Ongoing re-housing and re-curating of the Manchester Museum’s entomological collections constitute a significant part of the work undertaken by the Curator and his colleagues. Two years ago, a good start was done by Graham Proudlove (the Honorary Curatorial Associate; email: g.proudlove@manchester.ac.uk) with re-curating of the departmental collections of Myriapoda (centipedes and millipedes).

As Honorary Curator of Myriapoda in the Manchester Museum  Graham Proudlove is responsible for all of the specimens of multi-legged animal – that’s the millipedes (Diplopoda), centipedes (Chilopoda), Pauropoda and Symphyla (the last two without common names). The Museum holds three very important collections of myriapods and he is working his way slowly through re-curation and cataloguing of each of them one by one.

Dr Graham Proudlove sorting out K. W. Verhoeff's myriapods

The first collection is that of J. Gordon Blower, the British authority on millipedes from 1950 to 1995. When he retired from the University of Manchester in 1984 he donated his whole collection of millipedes, and his library, to the Department of Entomology in the Museum. Graham Proudlove has now completed the re-curation of this collection which consists of 4560 bottles in 181 boxes. Currently an Excel database is being produced for this collection which will allow us to analyse what is present in more detail. During the re-curation process we extracted specimens of nearly every British species into the J. Gordon Blower reference collection of British Diplopoda.

Shelves with the re-curated Myriapoda collection of G. Blower, the Manchester Museum.

The Museum also holds two other important collections of myriapods. One is a part of the collection of the very prolific German worker K. W. Verhoeff who was intensely active from about 1880 to 1945. Most of what remains of his massive collection (he studied myriapods from around the world) is in various German museums but in 1908 the Manchester Museum bought a collection from him for the sum of £18 (anywhere between £2000 and £7000 now depending on the conversion used). Graham Proudlove is now in the process of re-curating this collection. One difficult aspect of this task is in determining the modern names of the animals in the collection. The official Latin name of animals can change (for reasons given in the International Code on Zoological Nomenclature that governs how animals are named) and it is important to use the correct name. The re-curation process will probably take over a year to complete.

Two jars of the Verhoeff collection of Myripoda, the Manchester Museum.

The third collection, which so far has not been examined in detail, is that of two remarkable scientists who were active from about 1915 to 1939. Their collection probably arrived in the Museum by way of Gordon Blower who was given it sometime, we think, in the 1950s. Born as Hilda K. Brade and S. Graham Birks they met at the University of Manchester, were married in 1916, and took the married surname of Brade-Birks. Between 1916 and 1939 they produced 36 papers on myriapods, which they titled “Notes on Myriapoda” 1-36. They were the most important workers on this group throughout that time and described four species as new to science as well as doing a great deal of important literature work which stabilised the names of these animals. Without their ground-breaking work Gordon Blower would have had a much more difficult time when he took up work on the millipedes in 1950. Their collection is large, we estimate 50 large bottles each with dozens of tubed within them. It is likely that work will not start on the re-curation and cataloguing of this collection for some years.

Details of each of these collections, and other myriapodological resources in the Manchester Museum, will be published in the Bulletin of the British Myriapod and Isopod Group (BMIG) later in 2011.

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