Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

One of the most important ways of expressing the scientific value of natural history collections is the production of collection-based papers. This blog explores our commitment to making the arthropod collection of the Manchester Museum available for research and overviews the papers published between August 2018 and July 2019. In all cases, the Manchester Museum is used as a permanent depository of the studied type and voucher specimens.

In total, 28 scientific papers based on specimens or data from the Museum’s Entomology Collection were published by researchers from nine countries (France, Belgium, Russian, Brazil, Poland, China, Iran, South Africa and the UK). The researchers were from research institutes, museums and universities, including, Institute of Systematic and Ecology of Animals (Russia), Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia (Brazil), Entomological Society (China), Insect Centre (Russia), Muséum des Sciences Naturelles et de Préhistoire de Chartres (France), University of Wroclaw (Poland), University of Tehran (Iran), The University of Manchester (UK) and the associated staff of Manchester Museum.

The University of Manchester staff and volunteers (Professor Laurence Cook, Michael Dockery, Claire Miles, Diana Arzuza, and Dr Dmitri Logunov) published seven articles, describing collectors and important and unusual collections, for example:

  • The entomological legacy of Robert Wylie Lloyd (1868–1958), who made a major donation to the Entomology Department; the extent of his donation (British and European beetles and butterflies) and his motivation as a naturalist are discussed (Cook L. 2019).
  • An overview of the John and Francis Murphy Spider Collection, the largest one ever acquired by the Museum and its description as a valuable resource for arachnologists (Arzuza Buelvas D. 2019).
  • A complete summary of the Sphingidae (hawkmoths) collection held in the Manchester Museum’s Lepidoptera collections, incuding a full species list (British and worldwide) and information of collectors and collections (Miles, 2019).
  • The Lepidoptera collection of William Raymond Wooff (1929–2006), the content of this unusual collection (butterfly/moth wings mounted on index cards), with reliable data about distribution and habitat, is explored in this paper (Dockery M. & Logunov D.V. 2018).
  • Examples of industrial melanism and its rapid adaptive response to a changing environment in Britain in 19th century using specimens of the Peppered Moth (Cook L. 2018).
  • An obituary of Dr Eric Duffey, British arachnologist, ecologist and conservationist; details of his professional life and contribution to the Manchester Museum’s Entomology collection are given (Logunov D.V. 2019).
Example of an index card with mounted wings from the Lepidoptera collection of William Raymond Wooff.
Drawer with Blue butterflies, Polyommatus bellargus (Rottemburg) and P. coridon (Poda), in R.W. Lloyd’s Lepidoptera collection.

Topics covered by the publications include taxonomy, systematics and phylogeny (18 papers), including descriptions of new species and genera, and new faunistic records. Three papers were focused on surveys and one is an identification guide. Taxa in such publications included species of Araneae (spiders), Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (butterflies), Phasmatodea (stick insects), Mantodea (mantis) and Trichoptera (caddis flies), see Figure 1.

Figure 1. The taxa covered by papers published between August 2018 and July 2019 using the Entomology Collection of the Manchester Museum. ‘Other’ includes non taxonomic, museological publications, such as those describing collectors and/or collections and their history.

The order Araneae (spiders) is the group with the most papers published (13 in total), this is mainly due to the taxonomic expertise and scientific connections of the current Curator of Arthropods, Manchester Museum. Dr Dmitri Logunov has described two new spider species, including a jumping spider from Hong Kong that mimics lichen moth caterpillars and is named after the famous US childrens’ author, Eric Carle, who published the book ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ (Logunov D.V. & Obenauer S. 2019). This new species was discovered during a City Nature Challenge event in a park on the outskirts of Hong Kong. See here for more information.

General appearance of live male of Uroballus carlei n. sp. (holotype ♂) photograph from the original paper.

Coleoptera represented the second taxa with most papers published (7 in total). The papers included descriptions of new species from the Himalayas, new records and identification keys from the Brazilian Amazon Region, a monograph of the Afrotropical Cassidinae with description of seven new species, and taxonomy reviews and new species from southern Asia.

The order Trichoptera (caddis flies) featured in phylogenetic research and in a revision of a ‘chimeric’ European genus. The order Phasmatodea (stick insects) featured in a description of three new stick insect species from Vietnam, and Mantodea (praying mantises) in the description of a new genus and two new species of praying mantis from the Vietnam.

All the publications were peer-reviewed. The most popular journals for these publications were Arthopoda Selecta (specialised in morphology, taxonomy, life histories, zoogeography, phylogeny and evolution of arthropods); Zootaxa (journal for animal taxonomists) and the British entomological journal ‘Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine’ published four times a year.

Recurated British Lepidoptera Collection. Bee and Hummingbird Hawkmoths (Hemaris and Macroglossum species).

A complete list of publications:

  1. Arzuza Buelvas D. 2019. The Murphy spider collection at the Manchester Museum: a valuable research resource for arachnologists. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6: 48–59.
  2. Azarkina G.N. & L.A. Trilikauskas. 2019. Halocosa gen.n., a new genus of Lycosidae (Araneae) from the Palaearctic, with a redescription of H. cereipes (L. Koch, 1878). Zootaxa, 4629(4): 555-570. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4629.4.4
  3. Azarkina G.N. & Zamani A. 2019. The Aelurillina Simon, 1901 (Aranei: Salticidae) of Iran: a check-list and three new species of Aelurillus Simon, 1884 and Proszynskiana Logunov, 1996. Arthropoda Selecta, 28(1): 83–97.
  4. Bevilaqua M. & da Fonseca C.R.V. 2018. Passalidae (Coleoptera: Scarabaeoidea) from the west-most Brazilian Amazon Region: checklist, new records, and identification key. Neotrop. Entomolol. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13744-018-0656-x
  5. Borowiec L. & Świętojańska J. 2018. A monograph of the Afrotropical Cassidinae (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae). Part 5. Revision of the genus Aethiopocassis Spaeth. Zootaxa, 4488(1): 001–099. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4488.1.1
  6. Cook L. 2018. Records of industrial melanism in British moths. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2018, XX: 1–5.
  7. Cook L. 2019. Beetles, butterflies and bibliophilia: the entomological legacy of Robert Wylie Lloyd. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine,155: 3–14.
  8. Dockery M. & Logunov D.V. 2018. The Lepidoptera Collection of William Raymond Wooff (1929–2006) in the Manchester Museum. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine,154: 271–295.
  9. Ho W.C.G., 2018. Three new species of genus Pylamenes Stal (Phasmatodea: Heteropteridae: Dataminae) from Vietnam. Zoological Systematics, 43(3): 276-282.
  10. Kazantsev S.V. 2018. New and little known species of Lycostomus Motschulsky, 1861 (Coleoptera: Lycidae) from southern Asia. Russian Entomological Journal, 27(4): 371-380.
  11. Keith D. 2019. Sur Phaeochrous pseudintermedius Kuijten, 1978 (Coleoptera Scarabaeoidea Hybosoridae). L’Entomologiste, 75(2): 101-102.
  12. Lecigne S., Cornic J.-F., Oger P. & van Keer J. 2019. Celerrimus n. gen. (Araneae, Philodromidae) et description de Celerrimus duffeyi n. sp., une espèce très singuliere d’Europe occidentale. Revue arachnologique, serie 2, no 6: 32-51.
  13. Logunov D.V. 2019. Obituary: Eric Arthur Gerald Duffey 1922-2019. Arachnology, 18(1): 47–52.
  14. Logunov D.V. 2019. Taxonomic notes on theHarmochirina Simon, 1903 from South and South-East Asia (Aranei: Salticidae). Arthropoda Selecta, 28(1): 99–112.
  15. Logunov D.V. & Obenauer S. 2019. A new species of Uroballus Simon, 1902 (Araneae: Salticidae) from Hong Kong, a jumping spider that appears to mimic lichen moth caterpillars. Israel Journal of Entomology, 49(1): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2632730
  16. Logunov D.V. & Schäfer M. 2019. A new species of Pseudomogrus Simon, 1937 (Araneae: Salticidae) from the Canary Islands. Arachnology, 18(2): 121–126.
  17. Miles, C. 2019. Sphingidae (Lepidoptera) in the collections of Manchester Museum. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine 155: 77–106.
  18. Nekhaeva A.A., Marusik, Yu.M., Buckle D. 2019. A survey of the Siberio-Nearctic genus Masikia Millidge, 1984 (Aranei: Linyphiidae: Erigoninae). Arthropoda Selecta, 28(1): 157–168.
  19. Olah J., Andersen T., Beshkov S., Ciubuc C., Coppa G., Ibrahimi H., Kovacs T., Olah J. (JR.) & Szczesny B. 2018. Unified phylogenetic species concept: taking subspecies and race out of science: postmodern theory applied to the Potamophylax cingulatus group (Trichoptera, Limnephilidae). Opusc. Zool. Budapest, 49(1): 33–70.
  20. Oláh J., Andersen T., Beshkov S., Coppa G., Ruiz Garcia A. & Johanson K.A. 2019. Revision of European Wormaldia species (Trichoptera, Philopotamidae): Chimeric taxa of integrative organization. Opusc. Zool. Budapest, 50(1): 31–85.
  21. Rücker W.H. 2018. Latridiidae und Merophysiidae der Wets-Paläarktis. Neuwied, W.H. Rücker Selbstverlag, 676 pp.
  22. Tshernyshev S. & Kopetz A. 2018. Myrmecospectra Motchulsky, 1858 – the correct name for Myrmecophasma Bourgeois, 1885 (Insecta: Coleoptera: Cleroidea: Malachiidae), with a review of species and a description of a new species from the Himalayas. In: Hartman M., Barclay M.V.L. & Weipert J. (eds), Biodiversität und Naturausstattung im Himalaya VI., Verein der Freunde und Förderer des Naturkundemuseum Erfurt, Erfurt, pp. 443‒453.
  23. Vermeersch X.H.C., Stiewe M.B.D. & Shcherbakov E.O. 2019. A new genus of praying mantis, Chlorocalis n. gen., with two new species from the Greater Mekong region (Mantodea: Mantidae), Annales de la Société entomologique de France (N.S.), DOI: 10.1080/00379271.2018.1562380
  24. Zamani A. & Marusik Yu.M. 2018. A new species of the hersiliid spiders (Aranei: Hersiliidae) from Iran. Euroasian Entomological Journal, 17(4): 273–275.
  25. Zamani A. & Marusik Yu.M. 2018. New species and records of Filistatidae (Arachnida: Aranei) from Iran. Arthropoda Selecta, 27(2): 121–128.
  26. Zamani A., Marusik Yu.M. & Malek-Hosseini M.J. 2018. A new species of Tegenaria Latreille, 1804 (Araneae: Agelenidae) from western Iran. Zootaxa, 4444(1): 95–97.
  27. Zamani A., Seiedy M., Saboori A. & Marusik Yu.M. 2018. The spider genus Pterotricha in Iran, with the description of a new genus (Araneae, Gnaphosidae). ZooKeys, 777: 17–41.
  28. Zonstein S. 2018. A revision of the spider genus Anemesia (Araneae, Cyrtaucheniidae). European Journal of Taxonomy 485: 1–100. https://doi.org/10.5852/ejt.2018.485

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Weaving through mazes of ancient-looking cabinets, the ever-present scent of mothballs permeating the air, one can only begin to comprehend the breadth and magnitude of the Museum of Manchester’s entomological collection of 2.5 million specimens. Much of it was donated or bequeathed from individual collections, and as such, allows a fascinating representation of the history of entomology around the world. By studying these collections, we can not only gain insight into the insects themselves, we can reveal peculiarities about the contexts in which they were collected. In today’s blog post, I would like to introduce you to a drawer of particular interest, originating from the collection of Mr. Joseph Sidebotham.


Josef Sidebotham, the frontispiece from Grindon’s (1886) memoir

Joseph Sidebotham (1824 – 1885) was a Mancunian businessman with a broad range of interests including, but certainly not limited to, natural history (Cook, 2015). A member of numerous scientific societies and highly esteemed in his community, his collection of Lepidoptera was donated to the Museum by his heirs in 1919, and included 1,900 species of mostly British origin. At first glance, they appear relatively consistent with other individual collections of the time. The butterflies are set with their wings depressed, nearly touching the bottom of the drawers, a style of mounting which was common until the 1860s. Despite being very aesthetically pleasing, only a few are labelled with dates or locations, as many personal collectors did not regard this information as vital.


The style of butterfly mounting in the Sidebotham collection; the Manchester Museum.

Upon closer inspection, elements of mystery begin to reveal themselves. The left-most column displays Orange-tip Butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines), which are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning that males and females look different. Male Orange-tip butterflies have (you guessed it) orange-tipped wings, while the females have more inconspicuous colouration. So, what are those two specimens in the middle, each with a single orange-tipped wing?


Drawer of butterflies from the Sidebotham collection; the Manchester Museum.


Two gynangromorph specimens of the Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines) from the collection of the Manchester Museum.

Those individuals are known as gynandromorphs, meaning they show both male and female characteristics (gyn – female, andro – male, morph – form). Resulting from errors during early development, they are uncommon in nature, but gynandromorphy has been documented in a wide range of insects (see Narita et al., 2010 for further details), spiders (e.g., Kaston, 1961) crustaceans (e.g., brine shrimps; see Campos-Ramos et al., 2006) (and even birds (Agate et al.,2003). It is most easily distinguished in sexually dimorphic species; however the pattern of male and female tissue can differ between individuals. Bilateral gynandromorphs, such as the Orange-tips above, have a left-right split of male and female characteristics. Individuals of the same species with a more random distribution of tissues, known as mosaic gynandromorphism, can also be found.

The matching pair of Orange-tips were likely a point of pride within Sidebotham’s collection, as their opposing colouration provides a striking example of gynandromorphism, and such specimens were often favoured by insect collectors due to their rarity and unusual appearance. Besides, these specimens seem to represent one of the oldest records of gynandromorphism in Lepidoptera (Narita et al., 2010). Now, they provide the Museum with not only an educational tool, but an intriguing little piece of history.


Jamie Burnett, the author of this post, with a drawer of butterflies from J. Sidebotham’s collection.

If you’d like to know more about Joseph Sidebotham, see online here and here.

If you’d like to know more about gynandromorphism in general, see online here and here.

If you’d like to know more about gynandromorphism in arthropods see online here.


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Manchester’s urban green spaces and parks provide homes to a vast array of wildlife, and The Friends of Fletcher Moss Park and Gardens are inviting everyone to lend a hand at their BioBlitz event on Saturday 18 May – an exciting race against the clock to discover, identify and record as many species of bird, insect, mammal and plant life as possible.

The BioBlitz will have a particular focus on the insects that fly, buzz, wriggle and crawl in the habitats around the park and within the nearby Mersey Valley, and there will be experts on hand from a number of organisations including Manchester Museum and the RSPB to help identify what is found. The data recorded will be shared with Greater Manchester Local Records Centre and the National Biodiversity Network and will be used to measure the impact of future conservation work, undertaken in partnership with Manchester City Council, at the site. 

At the start of the event there will be a rare opportunity to observe nocturnal insect species up close, and throughout the day there will be guided walks suitable for all ages that will showcase the range of species that can be found at Fletcher Moss Park. More information about the times of the walks can be found by visiting rspb.org.uk/events and searching for events in Greater Manchester.

Families can drop in to take part in fun activities, including pond dipping, minibeast hunting and worm charming – these activities count towards the RSPB’s Wild Challenge, a digital rewards scheme to encourage families to get closer to nature all year round by completing fun activities that will help wildlife in their own back garden and the great outdoors. For more information about the Wild Challenge, visit rspb.org.uk/wildchallenge

Venue: Fletcher Moss Park and Gardens. Use the Millgate Lane entrance, M20 2SW. Activities will be signposted upon entering the park.

Contact: For more information, email Mersey.Valley@rspb.org.uk

 For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Jenny Hackland, Mersey Valley Project Officer on 07540 121 309 or email jenny.hackland@rspb.org.uk


Annabel Rushton, RSPB Regional Communications Manager, on 01524 581026 or 07793 902 590 or email annabel.rushton@rspb.org.uk

Follow us on Twitter: @RSPBManchester

Like us on Facebook: RSPB North West England

 Editor’s notes

1.     Manchester City Council and the RSPB are developing an exciting new vision to connect people with nature in the Mersey Valley. The two organisations are working closely with local people and groups, such as the Friends of Fletcher Moss and Parsonage Gardens, Didsbury, to explore ways of encouraging people to do something positive for wildlife, reconnect with nature and help look after the Mersey Valley by getting actively involved.

2.     The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

 3.     The RSPB’s Wild Challenge is free, it’s open to everyone and there are things to do at any time of the year. Get closer to nature all year round by completing fun activities that will help wildlife close to home and further afield, and collect rewards too! Visit rspb.org.uk/wildchallenge

 4.     The Friends of Fletcher Moss meet on a regular basis and organise practical volunteering session in partnership with Manchester City Council to improve the park. The group welcomes new members, if you would like to get involved or to find out more, contact Alan Hill at awhill@globalnet.co.uk

5.     If you’d like to change how you hear from us, it’s easy to do. Just call us on 01524 581026 (Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm), email annabel.rushton@rspb.org.uk or write to Communications Manager, RSPB, 7.3.1 Cameron House, White Cross Estate, South Road, Lancaster, LA14XF.

 The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity in England and Wales 207076, in Scotland SC037654.

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Fig. 1. Megan Baker working on the British Ichneumonidae collection. © The Manchester Museum.

The Manchester Museum has very large collections of British insects, numbering some 750,000 specimens. Of them, the British Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants, and the like) collection numbers some 45,000 specimens representing 3,200 species (see Logunov, 2012). Unfortunately, the collection is in need of a thorough revision regarding its nomenclature and records in the Museum’s database, as some of the species names it contains are up to 60 years old, being thus out of date.

Megan Baker, a MSc student from the University of Manchester (Fig. 1), started to work on this project. One of her main roles includes updating the outdated nomenclature with modern names based on a much more recent British Hymenoptera checklist, published in 2014. Megan is also responsible for transferring the collection to newly acquired modern drawers and cabinets, relabelling and expanding the collection as she goes, leaving space to allow for new acquisitions (Fig. 2). Alongside this, she is also updating the database records with the newly added information, including any changes to the nomenclature, location, or data/ID labels. During her time at the museum, Megan has also been responsible for processing a newly obtained collection of some 900 identified specimens from Richard D.C. Jones (19432018) and documenting it in the Museum’s database. Later, this collection will be amalgamated with the main British Hymenoptera collection.


Fig. 2. Example of the drawer with the British Ichneumonidae wasps that has just been re-curated. © The Manchester Museum.

This is what Megan said about her work in the Manchester Museum: “Through my work at the Museum I have gained an increased knowledge of the taxonomy and identification of Britain’s Hymenoptera, as well as an increased familiarity with many taxa. These tasks have also provided vital experience of working with entomological collections, as well as an insight into how such large and important collections are stored and cared for.

The Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department has lots of opportunities for volunteering for anyone who could be interested; enquires are to be addressed to the Curator of Arthropods, Dr Dmitri Logunov.

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Fig. 1: Specimens of the Lanternfly Fulgora laternaria from Mexico in the collection of the Manchester Museum. © The Manchester Museum.

Surely, there are no other living things that rival insects in their vast variety in shape and form. One of the most spectacular group of insects is Lanternflies or Lantern Bugs (family Fulgoridae, order Hemiptera) distributed in the tropics of both the Old and New Worlds (see here for images). The Lanternfly collection at the Manchester Museum is not particularly large, consisting of 150 specimens that belong to 34 identified species (see Allnatt, 2013, for further details).

The following story has been prepared by Kasia Majewski, the Curatorial Assistant within the Manchester Museum Vivarium, whose background is a mix of herpetological (reptile and amphibian) and Entomological work. One of Kasia’s entomological idols, and an inspiration for her passion in ecology, is Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly, make associations between different insect species and host plants, and capture these interactions in stunning colour through her coloured plates. Mrs Merian was not only arguably the first female entomologist, but one of the first naturalists who was also a professionally trained artist, coupling her carefully written observations of species with her mesmerizing illustrations.

Many of her scientific observations are still recognized and valid today, however one story regarding a particular species has always captured people imagination. Fulgoridae, or Lanternflies, are tropical, often colourful flying insects with long protrusions coming from their heads, giving their bodies a uniquely triangular appearance when sitting at rest with their wings closed. In this position, they could be considered lantern shaped, but it is not from this form that they received their name. Across the world where Lanternflies are found, so too are ancient stories of their little bodies lighting up at night from their bright shining protruding “noses”. Maria Sibella Merian was one of the first Europeans to describe this behaviour during her time in Suriname. She wrote that she was presented with a box of live lanternflies, which produced “a fiery light so bright that she could read by it” from their unusually elongated heads (Fig. 2). Given Merian’s penchant for attention to detail, this account is intriguing.



Fig. 2: A watercolour of a Punica granatum with the life stages of a Cicada (Fidicina mannifera) and a Lanternfly (Fulgora laternaria) from Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (plate 49); online here.

More intriguingly, however, while these stories of light emitting flying lanterns have persisted through generations of native tribes in areas where lanternflies are found, from South America to Southeast Asia,  modern entomologists have never recorded any species of Fulgoridae producing any kind of bioluminescence (or here), and the function of that whimsical elongated “nose” remains a captivating mystery…

You can find more about the Manchester Museum’s Fulgoridae collection in the following paper: Allnatt G. 2013. Recuration of the Fulgoridae collection at the Manchester Museum. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 1: 4-7.

Illustrated records of particular fulgorid species in our collection can be searched online here.

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A parental pair of burying beetles (Nicrophorus vespilloides) taking care of their larvae; beetles and larvae are sitting on the meat ball prepared by the beetles. © V.A. Timokhanov.

Of the 32 orders of insects 18 contain members that are carrion-feeders. Most of them are beetles and flies. Because carrion is a limited but valuable food resource, and quite unpredictable in distribution, insects, vertebrates and microorganisms compete for it. A clear characteristic of carrion-feeders is the ability to find and secure a suitable carcass quickly and to make efficient use of it.

In the northern hemisphere, the dead bodies of small mammals and birds are used primarily by burying beetles (Nicrophorus species, family Silphidae), which compete effectively with carrion-eating mammals. For instance, at the Biological Station of Michigan University (USA), scientists laid 780 fresh bodies of dead house mice on the ground in a hardwood forest. Within 24 hours 95% of the bodies had been discovered! Of them, 94% had been found by burying beetles and only 6% by scavenging mammals.

Male and female burying beetles form parental pairs concealing and maintaining carrion while also taking care of and raising their offspring (see Figure). A pair of adults buries a carcass of a dead animal, clean it from fur/feathers, destroys eggs/larvae of flesh-eating flies, and prepares a meat ball from it. The ball is protected from rotting by anal secretions from the beetles that kill bacteria. After mating, the female lays 4 to 30 eggs in the soil near the carrion. The young larvae that hatch from these eggs are fed by the parents that ingest flesh from the carrion and regurgitate partially-digested food directly to their mouthparts. The beetles interact with their larvae much as a mother bird interacts with her nestlings: when a parent approaches larvae, they rear up and make ‘begging movements with their legs’ asking for food. As the larvae grow in size, they beg less often and start feeding on their own. After one to two weeks, the larvae pupate in the soil, and a few weeks later new adult beetles emerge. The mother stays with her offspring until they are ready to pupate, while the male leaves a few days earlier.

The story is partly based on the book by G. Waldbauer (2003) ‘What good are bugs?’, Harvard Univ. Press, 366 pp.


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Fig. 1. View of an insect collection area in the Manchester Museum.

Natural history collections include specimens from the subject areas of zoology, botany, entomology, palaeontology and mineralogy (Fig. 1), as well as any documentation associated with them (e.g., card indexes of related museum collections, field notebooks, correspondence files, diaries, etc). Such collections exist not only in museums and herbaria, but also in botanical gardens, arboretums, zoos and aquaria. However, live animal or plant collections are outside the scope of this short essay. It is worth mentioning though that more than 70 known British zoos and aquaria house some 64,000 vertebrate species.

There are more than 200 public and private museums in the UK with natural history collections, 50 of them hold significant foreign material. Recent estimates suggest that the number of natural history specimens in British museums exceeds 100 million. Worldwide, there are more than three billion! Many of the natural history collections in the UK, such as those of the Natural History Museum in London, the Natural History Museum of Oxford University or the Manchester Museum, are of global importance. However, the vast proportion of large museum collections (c. 95%) are kept in storage, behind the scenes, and their full diversity will never be displayed. But does this mean that the majority of collections are not used? Far from it, these collections are stored carefully because of their dual role as a resource for research and for education (see also here).

Collections as biological libraries

The fundamental value of natural history collections is related to our understanding of the Earth’s diversity. Taxonomic museum collections underpin the accumulation of biological knowledge, providing references to discovered natural units (species), and indeed represent an ecological database through the data associated with specimens. Therefore, natural history collections act as ‘biological libraries’, in which a separate specimen can be seen as a prototype of a letter and an individual collection as that of a paragraph or section in the ultimate ‘Book of Knowledge’.

Natural history collections represent an irreplaceable resource for taxonomic and biodiversity research. Such research aims to answer three fundamental questions: (1) what is the organism under study, (2) where is it found in nature, and (3) why is it found there. Without collections most taxonomic research cannot be conducted. Since the rigour of the scientific process is based on repeatability, the specimens used in research are preserved in museums to ensure that they are available for future reference and study.

As centralized repositories of reference material, the collections reduce the need for fieldwork in remote and/or poorly accessible regions, saving both time and money. Furthermore, museums liberate researchers from the time and expenses of maintaining all the specimens necessary for a functional reference collection. Given that unlike library books we cannot copy natural history specimens that were preserved, natural history collections are indeed unique locations for information. With more species becoming rare or extinct, such collections are often the only source of information for such species (Fig. 5), becoming frozen glimpses of a bygone past. For instance, it is known that during the last 600 years, 129 birds (or 1.3% of all known living bird species) have become extinct.


Fig. 2. Two of the type specimens of the Manchester Museum’s collection of tortoise beetles (Cassidinae). The Manchester Museum holds more than 22,000 type specimens, representing 8,000 species names.

The scientific value of a natural history collection is usually measured by the number of type specimens it contains (Fig. 2). A type specimen is a reference specimen selected by a scientist during the description of a new species. Type specimens serve as the primary and unique references for all known species names. They play a key role in stabilizing the use of species names. Museums also hold voucher specimens, which are examples of organisms collected during biodiversity surveys, taxonomic inventories and other research. These specimens are physical proof that species have been recorded from the studied site and identified accurately, and they are always available to be referred to or checked upon when/if necessary.


Fig. 3. The scientific value of a natural history specimen depends on the reliability of information written on its label; illustrated is a blister beetle.

Conservation and environmental studies

Conservation programmes, particularly those aimed at mapping priority areas for protection or conservation purposes, require a reliable knowledge of the distribution of species. Yet, for the vast majority of species known to science, most of the available information relating to them exists in the form of taxonomic collections. Sometimes such collections form the only source of data for particular species. Therefore, the most common way distribution information is collected is by examining labels of voucher specimen and databases in museums. These contain essential information about where (locality and habitat/host), when (an exact date) and by whom the specimens were collected (Fig. 3). Every natural history specimen with good data thus provides a physical snapshot of a species at a particular point in time and space. This highlights the need for correct and accurate labelling of museum specimens. A specimen without a label is usually worthless. The practice of utilizing the wide spectrum of information associated with specimens has been referred to as ‘museum ecology’.

Reference collections of voucher specimens and other taxonomic information on invasive species and pests can be used for their accurate identification and for understanding their current distribution and invasion history. In addition, they can be used for assessing the ecological impact of invaders and their potential public health threats. The famous example is the grey squirrel which was introduced to Britain from the USA in the 19th century, and as a result this species has caused native red squirrel populations to die out in most parts of England and Wales.

Natural history collections offer a unique perspective, providing data over a vast time span ranging from millions of years ago (in geological and palaeontological collections) to the present day. Specimens may have been collected over many decades and so record changing environmental conditions and their consequences. For instance, comparative genetic analysis of ancient museum specimens of brown bears with those from isolated populations today provides evidence of reduced levels of genetic diversity in the current populations, which negatively affects the survival potential of this species (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4. The brown bear became extinct from Britain by the 10th century, only museum specimens can help us to understand its history here.

In some circumstances museum specimens are the only record of species that are already extinct: e.g., Sloane’s Urania (Urania sloanus), one of the most spectacular day-flying moth species that was endemic to the island of Jamaica (Fig. 5). The moth was last reported in 1894 or 1895, but it possibly survived until at least 1908. Habitat loss, when Jamaica’s lowland rainforests were cleared and converted to agricultural land, may have caused its extinction. Most probably, this species disappeared due to the loss of one of its larval foodplants, as the Urania larvae fed exclusively on rainforest lianas belonging to the genus Omphalea.


Fig. 5. The Sloane’s Urania, an extinct species of which only three specimens are deposited in the Manchester Museum.

By examining museum specimens, it is also possible to analyze environmental impacts of climate change or a historical level of pesticide use. This is because historical collections provide baseline data against which modern observations can be compared in order to produce predictive models. For instance, an analysis of preserved bird specimens and their eggs (Fig. 6) can help to monitor the accumulation of toxins, such as mercury or DDT (a famous synthetic pesticide, the use of which is now banned), in the environment resulting from the impact of industrial processes. It has been shown that a marked decrease in eggshell thickness is coincident with the onset of the widespread use of DDT.


Fig. 6. The egg collection such as that of the Manchester Museum can help in the estimation of historical levels of toxic contamination in the environment.

Education and cultural value

Natural history museums are places where a visitor can have a unique experience of seeing authentic objects. Therefore, these museums play an important role in education through their exhibits and outreach programmes which use real specimens. Specimens are also used for illustrating natural history books, in which colourful plates are made on the basis of museum specimens (Fig. 7). Natural history specimens, especially beetles and butterflies, are regularly used by designers and artists who draw inspiration from their remarkable variety of forms, colours and patterns. Some natural history specimens or collections have their own historical and/or even high monetary value that makes them important items of the national heritage (Fig. 8). Overall, larger and more comprehensive natural history museum collections form better educational resources.


Fig. 7. The recent guide to the freshwater life of Britain contains at least 45 colourful plates of hundreds of insects illustrated from the Manchester Museum’s insect specimens.

Historic natural history collections are directly related to social history through their links to people and places. They are indeed a cultural phenomenon rather than dusty artefacts of professional science. The labels assigned to specimens and the documentation associated with them (e.g., information on the network of collectors, the distribution of collecting across the world, etc.) are commonly used in biographical and historical studies. Hence, natural history collections provide an outstanding and unique resource for a wide variety of client groups.


Fig. 8. Apollo butterflies are often restricted in distribution, many of them being threatened and red-listed.

Nowadays, opening cabinet doors and examining museum specimens kept there is not the only way of consulting natural history collections. All large natural history museums make their searchable collection databases and other collection-related information (i.e., images of type specimens) widely available on the Internet, so that collections can be searched and seen online. Such online access to networked data is especially important both for casual and professional users who, for various reason, may be unable to visit a particular museum. Nevertheless, whatever modern advanced technologies can offer us museum natural history specimens have been and always will be the only physical proof and irreplaceable primary documentation of life on Earth. This is what makes museum collections so valuable. Finally, nobody can extract DNA from an online image or test it for pesticide residues, but a physical specimen can provide a wealth of unexpected and inexhaustible information.

Further reading

Diamond J. & Evans E.M. 2007. Museums Teach Evolution – Evolution, 61-6: 1500-1506.

Krishalka, L. & Humphrey P.S. 2000. Can Natural History Museums Capture the Future? – BioScience, 50(7): 611-617. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2000)050%5B0611:CNHMCT%5D2.0.CO;2

Mandrioli M. 2008. Insect collections and DNA analyses: how to manage collections? – Museum Management and Curatorship, 23(2): 193-199; doi: 10.1080/09647770802012375


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