During the December meeting, the Youth Board were kindly given a tour of the Entomology Store by the Curator of Arthropods, Dmitri Logunov, the first time that many of the members of the youth board had met Dmitri.
The Entomology collection includes dried and fluid (ethanol and formalin) preserved specimens of insects, as well as other arthropods such as spiders (Dmitri’s specialism is Siberian Jumping Spiders, eek!), crustaceans, scorpions and other, lesser known arthropods. Manchester’s collection is the third largest collection in the UK, with only the Natural History Museum, London and the Oxford Natural History Museum having larger collections, making Manchester’s the largest in the North of England, comprising nearly 3 million specimens. The collection is also very comprehensive, and has may specimens from the 19th century, including the famous Manchester Moth. The age and size of the collection means that the Entomology collection is of international significance, and scholars, especially arthropod taxonomists from all over the country and the world use the collection as part of their scientific research.
Such a large collection needs a good way of cataloging the specimens, so Dmitri explained the system of labelling the specimens that is used today, in order for later researchers to have as much information as possible on the specimens, as today’s collectors don’t know what information might be useful for researchers in the future, especially as insect populations change due to changes in climate.
Each specimen placed into the collection today must be given a data label based on this template, it must list the locality at which the specimen was found and the habitat that the specimen was found on or around, which allows future researchers to see whether there have been changes in the habitat and distribution of species over time. The date collected, who collected the specimen and the species it has been identified as, as well as who identified it and when (as this may or may not be correct!) is also noted. Having such a comprehensively cataloged collection, with detailed data labels, allows researchers to more easily use specimens from Manchester Museum in their work.
Dmitri showed us several cases of beetles, including a case of these jewel beetles, the hard eltyra (wing cases) of which have been used as dectorative materials in many cultures, including mounted into jewelry sold today in the UK, which even the most entomophobic of us admired!
Dmitri also told us about some of the people who had helped to build the collection, starting from the Victorian period.
These include Albert Stewart Meek, who was financed by Walter Rothschild to carry out expeditions to New Guniea in the 1900s to collect bird and butterfly specimens, including the largest butterfly in the world, Alexandra Birdwing Butterflies, which at first were shot at to collect (which is not the way butterflies are collected today!) before he was able to collect larvae and breed them in captivity.
We were also very interested at how different male and female animals of the same species look, which is known as sexual dimorphism. In butterflies and moths, the females tend to be larger, especially with larger bodies as they lay eggs, and plainer and have filamentous antennae. Males tend to be smaller and brighter, to attract females, and have feathered antennae. For quite a few of the butterflies and moths, we thought that a case of one species had many different species in it, because of the differences in form between males and females. Interestingly, we were shown a case of butterflies with two hermaphrodite specimens in it, which have one male half and one female half of their bodies.
We were also shown the most famous specimen in the Entomology collection, which is kept in the stores due to its fragility, but members of the public can ask to see it. This is the Manchester Moth, a species of moth of which there is only three known specimens in the world, the specimen at Manchester, one at the Natural History Museum, London and one at an Australian Museum. All specimens of the Manchester Moth were collected by the amateur entomologist Robert Cribb from Kersal Moor in Salford in 1829. He collected 50 specimens of this moth, but as his collection was stored in his rented accommodation, much of it was burnt by his landlady when he was unable to pay rent.
Dmitri thought that it was likely that the Manchester Moth was not actually native to the UK and then became extinct in 1829, rather a number of specimens were brought into the country on imported timber from North America, and an colony was briefly established near an urban centre, where it was more likely to collected than in a forest in North American. I asked Dmitri whether this meant that the Manchester Moth could still exist in the wild, deep in a forest in North America, and he thinks that this might be the case, as closely related species of moth continue to be discovered.
These (expensive) Victorian cases with two glass panels allow both the front and back of the wings of these butterflies to be seen, as many butterflies have dark coloured outside of the wings when resting with their wings together, to avoid predators, but the brighter coloured side is displayed when their wings are extended in flight.
The insects in this case are all either extinct or critically endangered, including the Giant Earwig from the island of St Helena, which used to be inhabited by many other comparatively large endemic animals, many of which were driven to extinction due to competition with invasive species brought onto the island by humans.
We all learnt a lot about the importance to studying insects, and how museum collections are vital to gain an understanding of insect populations in the recent past, as well as appreciating the beauty of many of the world’s insects.