Archive for the ‘Palaeontology’ Category

Over a half of the visitors of the Manchester Museum’s Entomology department are researchers. Many of them undertake interesting inter-disciplinary studies. For instance, Ms Kim Vickers, a Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield, works on the research project called “The shielings of Reykholt in Snorri Sturluson’s time“, looking at the environmental impact of medieval seasonal settlements in Iceland. This project is run from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Here is her brief report on how the museum beetle collections can help in revealing of the medieval climatic conditions.


Insect remains, including the Coleoptera (beetles), may be preserved in ancient deposits by charring, desiccation, mineral replacement, or in contexts that have remained consistently waterlogged. Since the 1960’s the insects found in archaeological deposits have been used as a tool in the investigation of past environmental and climatic conditions and to tell us about the activities and living conditions in the past on archaeological sites. 

 Many insect species require specific habitats and climatic ranges. The morphology and ecology of beetle species and communities appear to have remained constant since the early Quaternary so we can be confident that the habitat requirements of beetle species deposited in the past are directly comparable with those of the same species observed today. Using this information past local conditions can be investigated through the assessment of species and communities found in sub-fossil beetle assemblages.

 For example, if we find the saw toothed grain beetle (Oryzaephilus surinamensis) in archaeological deposits we can be confident that this is evidence that grain was present on the site. Furthermore, because this species has a strict temperature range in which it can breed, in parts of the world with cool climates, such as in Iceland, if this beetle is found it is usually interpreted as being evidence of imported grain rather than a locally cultivated crop.

Kim Vickers examining beetles from the Manchester Museum entomology collection.

 Identifying disarticulated sub-fossil beetle sclerites can be quite difficult, so it is important to use a reference collection of complete modern specimens, together with published keys when identifying insects from archaeological sites. The Manchester Museum has kindly allowed me to use their extensive Coleoptera collection in order to identify specimens from my sites. The work I have conducted there includes identifying beetles from around a British Bronze Age settlement (c. 2000BC), and from Norse sites inIceland(c. AD 1200). These have allowed me to draw conclusions about the function of sites and the activities taking place there as well as information about the surrounding ancient environments.

 Further reading:

Atkinson, T. C., Briffa, K. R. and Coope, G. R. 1987. Seasonal temperatures in Britainduring the past 22,000 years reconstructed using beetle remains. Nature, 325, 587-592.

 Buckland, P. C. 1990. Granaries stores and insects. The archaeology of insect synanthropy. In: Fournier, D. and Sigaut, F. (eds.) La Préparation Alimentaire des Céréales, Rapports Présentés à la Table Ronde, Ravello au Centre Universitaire pour les Biens Culturels, Avril 1988. PACT, Rixensart, Belgium, 69-81.

 Coope, G. R. 1986. Coleoptera analysis. In: Berglund, B. E. (ed.) Handbook of Holocene Palaeoecology and Palaeohydrology. J.Wiley and Sons,Chichester, 703-713.

 Kenward, H. K. 1978. The Analysis of Archaeological Insect Assemblages: a New Approach. Archaeology of York, 19/1. Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust.

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David is a Visiting Scientist in the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester. His research focuses on spiders and on fossils (including insects) preserved in amber, and also on the invertebrate fauna of tropical West Africa (The Gambia). Regular visits to the Entomology department facilitate the identification of the myriad of creatures he encounters as both fossils and in the living fauna.

David with a sample of copal

The collections of both specimens and literature in the Entomology Department form an invaluable resource available nowhere else in the university. Comparison of his research specimens against this vast wealth of data, permit him to identify most specimens he is interested in, or to determine that they belong to new species, in which case he embarks on their scientific description. For specimens in amber he is currently using the latest imaging techniques, including computed tomography in the Department of Material Sciences.

An image of Amber spider obtained by using the latest imaging techniques, including computed tomography

In addition to his scientific publications, this research has led to the production of several books, including: Spiders in Dominican amber, Field Guide to Wildlife of The Gambia, Field Guide to Butterflies of The Gambia, Common Spiders and Other Arachnids of The Gambia, with several more in preparation (see online for further details).

A collection of scarab beetles of the Manchestert Museum, used by David for writing up on of his books devoted to the bugs of The Gambia

New fossil species in amber discovered recently include two spiders (one in Baltic and one in Dominican amber), one lacebug (Hemiptera) in Dominican amber and one lacewing (Neuroptera) in Baltic amber (see online for further details).

For more information about David Penney’s research visit the Preziosi Lab pages and the amber lab at Siri Scientific Services.

I wish to thank Dr David Penney for providing me with the background of his research programme.

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