Large Blue and Large Copper Butterflies

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Large Blue butterflies © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Professor Paul Brakefield, Director of the Museum of Zoology, writes:

The Insect Room of the Museum smells wonderful – at least to any entomologist – and its beautiful mahogany cabinets team with important specimens.I am especially taken with two drawers about which our Curator of Insects, Dr William Foster, had told me. Opening one reveals numerous flashing bright blue butterflies – they are all small but each one is larger than the blue butterflies still flying in Britain today. They are all important specimens of the Large Blue Butterfly which sadly became extinct here in the last century in spite of efforts to save it. I opened this drawer recently to show a special visitor, Jeremy Thomas – an exciting moment! It was especially apt since Jeremy is the key conservationist who, having made fascinating discoveries about the intricate life cycle of the Large Blue and its interplay with ants, dedicated tremendous effort to returning this species to some of its old haunts in England. Jeremy set up an ultimately highly successful re-introduction program that was launched using live butterflies collected in Sweden. Our old specimens of the original British population can now be compared with these new large blues on our islands to reveal more about how evolution works. A neighbouring drawer also produced a wonderful series of Large Copper Butterflies, flashing a fiery copper red in the light. This species is alas also now extinct in the UK, and is similarly larger and more spectacular than the Small Copper Butterfly that remains quite common here. The Large Copper is very much of local interest having flown in many Fenland habitats. I have seen them myself flying in good numbers within the city limits of Kracow in Poland but never of course in Britain. The drawer of our local specimens brings home to us the sadness of any loss of species from our islands but perhaps a species as beautiful as the Large Copper has a special impact. However, the story of the Large Blue demonstrates how dedicated knowledge and conservation can provide the springboard for a successful return. Our Museum collections can also play an important role here, both with respect to research and to raising awareness.

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Large Copper butterflies © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013


Giant Golden Mole, Chrysospalax trevelyani

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Nick Crumpton, a PhD student at the museum, writes of one of his favourite animals, the Giant Golden Mole:

Let’s imagine you’re walking through the grasslands of South Africa and have decided to find some shade under the trees of a nearby forest. Although you might assume that the most interesting animals could be slithering through the trees above you or silently evading you behind the tree trunks, it’s the ground beneath your feet that I want you to concentrate on. Perhaps, after a while, you’re luck and see the leaf litter tremble a little. Then, suddenly, a shiny, furry, eyeless face pops up. Say hello to Chrysospalax trevelyani, the Giant Golden Mole.

But why is a mole so interesting? Well, because it’s not really a mole at all. Although scientists thought for years that golden moles were closely related to talpids (the group that includes true moles like those you find in the UK), shrews and hedgehogs, recent genetic and anatomical analyses have shown without a shadow of a doubt that Chrysospalax trevelyani and the 20 other species of golden mole share a more recent common ancestor with aardvarks, manatees, sengis and elephants than with any other type of mammal.

This is a striking case of convergent evolution where two types of animals that aren’t closely related have found themselves evolving similar adaptations. When we see how alike the lifestyles of golden moles and talpids are, this makes sense. If an animal lives underground, natural selection favours certain ‘traits’: a streamlined shape to ease moving through sand or soil; very large hands to push sediment out of the way; and strong arms with which to propel itself. We also see a decrease in the size of their eyes as vision is less important underground.

When you get down to the precise anatomical differences between talpids and golden moles, you do start to see differences. For instance, the golden moles’ eyes are completely covered by skin and fur whereas some true moles still open their relatively ‘normal’ – albeit very small – eyes. They also have different digging techniques.

Both have evolved aspects of their bodies that the other would love. For instance, talpids are the only mammals on Earth to have their noses covered in special touch-sensitive pads called Eimer’s organs, which enable them to feel the world around them better than we can with our fingertips. But some golden moles have incredibly large ear bones making them far more sensitive to vibrations as they move through the earth listening out for prey. Very recent research has also shown that golden moles have evolved a coat of hairs that lest sand and soil run straight off them, making them silky smooth so they can tunnel through the ground incredibly easily. A rather accidental byproduct of this special coat means that it also makes the mammals iridescent. But, as they’re completely blind, they can’t appreciate how attractive it makes them look.

Although little is known about golden moles in comparison to their Northern hemisphere counterparts, we do know that their habitats are fragmenting, catrs and dogs are adept at catching them and that 12 species of golden moles across Africa are now classified from ‘vulnerable’ ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So the next time you come to the museum, point out the Giant Golden Mole and explain to your friends how it evolved from the same ancestor as elephants did. Perhaps if people know more about these shiny, super-hearing, insect-munching tunnelers they might live a little more securely in their subterranean homes.

Hawaiian Honeycreepers and O’os

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Dr Michael Brooke, Curator of Birds in the Museum of Zoology writes:

As Curator of Birds, I have the privilege of being able to pull open drawers of bird skins in the Bird Room. Yes, the birds may be a little fusty and smell of moth balls, yes, they may have evidently fallen off their perches – but how evocative! None more so than the drawers of Hawaiian birds, mostly collected around 140 years ago. Many of these are tiny red or yellow honeycreepers, jewels of the forest whose wild populations have drastically dwindled in the intervening years as avian malaria, arriving in the archipelago in the early part of the twentieth century, devastated the native birds of lowland Hawaii. In nearby drawers are examples of the now extinct species of o’o. Once upon a time, individual o’os were caught by native Hawaiians, plucked of the bright yellow feathers of the underwing, and released to fly another day. Then the o’os and honeycreepers were sufficiently abundant that they could supply an estimated 450,000 feathers for the ceremonial cloak of King Kamehameha. Today the o’os are gone but not forgotten. A recent DNA study, using specimens from the Museum, established that, while in appearance the birds seem close to the honeyeaters of Australia, they are actually allied to various North American birds.

I close the drawer and almost weep at what we have lost.

West African Otter-Shrew, Potamogale velox

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Because I have been in the Museum for more than 40 years, many of the specimens, both those on display and those behind the scenes in the stores,  have close associations with particular people. Some of those people were staff and students, some were visitors. Most of the associations are pleasant ones, only a few are notable for opposite reasons. So it is very difficult to choose just one specimen, but I have chosen the now slightly faded specimen of the West African otter-shrew, Potamogale velox, in one of the cases in the Demonstration Area in the Lower Gallery. That specimen was brought to us, freshly dead, in the Ituri Forest in Zaire early one misty December morning in 1974. I managed to get a blood sample from it, and getting that sample was one of the main reasons that the then Director of the Museum, Ken Joysey, and I were in Zaire. Yes, of course, we would have preferred a living animal, but a local hunter caught it quite by chance, and was told we had an interest. Ken died in 2012, and the otter-shrew recalls for me some of the more hilarious moments on what was otherwise a rather hair-raising expedition. Ken suggested that our arriving in the middle of the Congo and looking for an otter-shrew without speaking the local language was a bit like some one from the Congo landing at Heathrow and looking for an otter, without speaking English. But we did get the sample.

Pea Clams, genus Pisidium

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Drawer of Pea Clams © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Individual Pea Clam © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Hilary Ketchum, Newton Trust Fund Project Assistant at the Museum, writes:

From 2011 to 2012 I worked at the Museum on a short term contract as a catalogue data assistant. My job was to catalogue the museum’s collection of bivalve molluscs, making an online database that could be accessed by researchers worldwide.

To finish the project in one year we worked out that I would need to catalogue one drawer of shells per day, and for eight months I met this target without much difficulty. I really enjoyed my work. I got to handle some of the museum’s most beautiful and important specimens, and found out some fascinating stories about the people who had collected them.

Then one day I came across a drawer containing hundreds of glass tubes. Inside each were tens of minute browny-green shells. This was in stark contrast to the colourful sea-shells I had been cataloguing before. The shells in the tubes belonged to a kind of freshwater bivalve of the genus Pisidium (also known as pea clams). They had been collected by a former curator at the museum who was interested in their distribution in rivers and streams. He had published numerous papers on the subject and had collected them for many years. This single drawer of specimens took me not one day, but a whole month to catalogue.

Fortunately after that, again it was plain-sailing, and I finished cataloguing all 10,000 bivalve specimens as well as another 2000 other molluscs, including the cephalopods and chitons. The catalogue is now available through the museum’s website, and visitors to the museum can see a new display all about bivalves in the Upper Gallery.

Passalid Beetles

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Dr William Foster, Curator of Insects here at the museum, writes:

The Passalids, or Bess Beetles, are one of my favourite insects. They live deep inside rotting logs in tropical rainforests, and the main reason I like them is because they are so smooth, chunky and handsome. They live in small family groups, and only rarely emerge into the daylight. They are quite hard to find, but it is a huge thrill to open up a log and suddenly find a family of about 20 large clean red and black beetles, together with their young larvae, bumbling around in the damp wood and sawdust. They are highly social animals. The larvae and adults sing to each other, and some people claim that they have the widest song repertoire of any animal. The adults sing by rubbing their abdomen against their wing cases. The larvae have only 4 walking legs; the two hind legs are modified as small paws that are scraped against the thorax to produce a range of sounds.  The Bess Beetles are probably the most social of all the beetles. They always live in family groups, and probably help to feed each other. The larvae are not able to make their pupal cases on their own, and they rely on help from other adults in the colony to pack sawdust around themselves to make a solid case: without this protective case the pupae will die.

We studied several colonies in mountain forests near Chiang Mai in Thailand. We were trying to see whether the colonies had a single reproducing female and male, with all the other adults being sterile “workers” as in termites, but this seems not to be the case. All the adults stay with the family until fully grown, but they all appear to be able to reproduce and none of them were sterile.

The photograph shows part of a draw of Passalids from the Insect Room of the University of Zoology. The different species all look very similar, with sold tank-like bodies and complex comb-like antennae. They do differ in size and this is quite a good way of trying to tell the different species apart. I think that one day we will find a species that lives in really large family groups and is fully social, like termites and ants, with a single reproducing queen and king.

Narwhal, Monodon monoceros


Dr Chloe Cyrus-Kent, a past PhD student of the museum, writes:

I love the museum’s male narwhal skeleton! All the cetacean skeletons are fabulous, but the narwhal is fun in being a ‘mutant’ with two tusks instead of the usual one. Confusing to start with and then when you realise that it’s yet another example of genetic instructions going a bit loopy, rather inspiring. Astonishing that the narwhal seems to be fine with a whole extra tusk to live with!