EntoModena

by Darren Mann

entomodena, insect fair,
Specimens and equipment for sale at EntoModena

Last week I spent a few days in sunny Italy, visiting my good friends Stefano and Roberta Ziani and timed to coincide with the Italian entomological show ‘EntoModena‘. I had a wonderful few days of dung beetle chitchat and homemade, mouth-watering Italian gnocchi.

vegan, gnocchi, delicious
My vegan gnocchi as made by Roberta Ziani- it was that good it needed a picture all to itself.

Stefano is a dung beetle researcher, specialising in the fauna of the Middle-East. He has published over 40 papers, mostly on faunistics and taxonomy and systematics, and has described a number of new species to sciences from the genus Onthophagus, including some that are associated with nests of small mammals. During my visit I had the chance to study Stefano’s superb collection of Palaearctic dung beetles, which is better than our Museum’s, and with this collection finally managed to get a grasp of the identification of some difficult species.

EntoModena is similar to the Juvisy and Prague shows, a sort of trade fair with a difference- you can buy live and dead insects, as well as books and various items of equipment. Most people go to meet up with old friends and make new ones.

entomodena
Pasta picnic at EntoModena 2013

I met for the first time Giovanni Dellacasa, the world’s leading expert on the small dung beetles in the group Aphodiinae, although we have corresponded over many years and even published a paper together (Dellacasa, G., Dellacasa M. & Mann, D.J., 2010. The morphology of the labrum (epipharynx, ikrioma and aboral surface) of adult Aphodiini (Coleoptera: Scarabeaidae: Aphodiinae), and its implications for systematics. Insecta Mundi 0132: 1-21). I also chatted with Giuseppe Carpaneto and other dung beetle researchers, bought a few bits of equipment and admired the selection of insects for sale.

Coleoptera, scarabaeidae, dung beetles, researchers, entomodena
From left to right: Giovanni Dellacasa. Stefano Ziani, Giuseppe Carpaneto and me, Darren Mann.

My only chance to sit down during the day was by meeting up with Magdelana and Marek from Majkowski Woodworking Company who had a table (and chairs) of their wares; this is the company who supply our wonderful collection drawers, postal boxes and wooden cabinets.

drawers, entomological cabinets, unit trays, entomological and musuem equipment
Magdelana and Marek from Majkowski Woodworking Company.

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Taxonomy 101: 2 common questions

Taxonomy as subject, or rather how and why we name things the way that we do, is one of those tricky things that we get asked about all the time.
It’s a tricky thing because really there is so much that we could talk about we often don’t know where to start. Of course, asking us is a bit like asking a 5 year old polar bear enthusiast to tell you why they like polar bears- soon you will know everything there is to know about polar bears and probably a bit more on top. It’s the same with us and insect related questions, we just can’t help but get over-excited and try to tell you absolutely everything there is to know. Considering that there are over million described insect species and hundreds of years of history to taxonomy, collections, museums and science it’s not surprising that staff can still be talking days after you ask your original question.

So here, in jaunty cartoon format are the pithy answers to the two most commonly asked taxonomy related questions:

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial
taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

Latin is a universal language. It doesn’t matter which country you are from or what language(s) you speak, using a latin name for a species allows you to be precise about the species you are talking about, so if a researcher in Spain communicates about a species with a researcher in Malaysia they know that they are both talking about exactly the same thing.

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

Sometimes, species end up with multiple common names. There is no code or list of rules for giving a species a common name (which there is when it comes to latin names) and so some species end up with lots of different names. Ladybirds are variously known as: lady bugs, lady beetles, god’s cow, ladyclock, lady cow and lady fly among others.

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

Various taxonomical systems have been employed in the past. The binomial system (2 names) as refined and perfect by Carl Linneaus is the one that is now used by taxonomists. A trinomial name system (3 names for a species) was in existence for a while but it was found to be too cumbersome, as were a few other systems that we will touch on in future posts.
The other advantage to using a binomial system is that it lets you reuse specific names for multiple species across different genera. The rules do not allow for generic names to be used more than once so you can never completely duplicate a name. For example all the following species have a specific name of punctata but belong to different genera, hence you can differentiate between them: Platythyrea punctata (an ant), Phyllorhiza punctata (a jellyfish), Drepane punctata (a sicklefish) and Tangara punctata (a bird).

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

Taxonomical systems are all based on the above format. Levels within a system vary depending on the subject, for example, a zoological structure dealing with mammals has a higher level structure, plant structures are complicated by hybridisation and insect based trees have an extraordinarily high number of branches due to the sheer volume of species involved.

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

Further levels are available to a taxonomist than those above. There are both super- and sub- levels for each category (super-family or sub-order for example) as well as extra levels such as tribe which is inserted between family and genus. In fact, there are multiple variations around a theme and all of these structures are flexible. A classification scheme is merely something that is imposed on nature by humans as a way of grouping similar species together. Each levels creates a group of a greater or lesser size. Those at the top of tree (kingdom, phylum) create the biggest groups with each group becoming smaller as you move down the list until you reach species level which classifies to a single unit: one species.

taxonomy, classification, systematics, cartoon, latin, binomial

The information in this post has been boiled down to the basics. We will cover things individually and in more depth in later posts, when we can take a look at separate issues and discover more about how taxonomists set about sorting out and identifying species, describing new insects and establishing type specimens.
For now though, we hope that you have enjoyed meeting Bert the ladybird. If you have any more questions for us then please post them in the comments box below or e-mail us using entomology@oum.ox.ac.uk.

The Etymology of Entomology

Honorary Associate Dr George McGavin and Assistant Curator Darren Mann of the HEC will both be putting in an appearance on the BBC Radio 4 program ‘The Etymology of Entomology‘ which is being broadcast this Saturday, the 9th of March at 10:30 (BBC Radio 4 FM: 92.5–96.1).

“Zoologist Dr. George McGavin delves into the strange and often bizarre names given to the planet’s insects.

There are an estimated 10 million living insect species, with new specimens being discovered almost daily. Entomologists are turning to ever more imaginative names, referencing everything from literary figures, celebrities and politicians to playground puns.

George takes us into the complex and intriguing world of the taxonomist. From the 18th century father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus to the present day, he explains why naming the things that surround us is the foundation of all science.
There are flies named Pieza kake and S. beyonceae (after the singer); beetles with political connections – A. hitleri, A. bushi, A. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi; and some entomologists have even named discoveries after romantic conquests. Unsurprisingly, names can prove controversial but, once set, are difficult to change.”

We hope that this will be a fun introduction for anyone who has questions about how and why we name species in the way that we do. We will be writing blog posts in the future that tackle the subjects of taxonomy and classification in both the broader sense and the minutiae so for the moment, let us leave you with a selection of our favourite fun names of insects and animals:

 

EDIT: An article about the radio show has now appeared on the BBC News website in the Science and Environment section.
 
 

    The Elephant in the Room

    The Museums Association (MA) recently held their annual Conference and Exhibition at the EICC. Reported to be the largest gathering of museums and heritage professionals in Europe, it showcases  suppliers, hosts workshops and various meetings. Darren Mann of the HEC was there as a speaker to present a talk entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ which tackles some of the difficult questions that are currently being raised about the future of natural history collections in the UK.

    Elephant hawkmoth, Lepidoptera, Sphingidae, Deilephila elpenor
    Elephant hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor

    What questions are those? Well, here is the background in a nutshell :

    “Natural history collections are under threat but are vital for taxonomic research, environmental monitoring and education.
    The number of specialist curators is declining, so should collections be redistributed to centres of excellence or are there other solutions for orphaned collections?”

    The main question that is raised by this is- How do we prevent the loss of these collections? and it is one that is very much on the minds of all natural history curators at the moment as we hear of more collections being ‘moth-balled’ (put away into storage) and the loss of curators through redundancies or down-sizing, leaving many collections without people to care for them, interpret them or make them available for research.

    The biggest threat of course, comes to the collections themselves which may become damaged or lost altogether through poor storage and lack of care. For example, any item with fur, feather or chitin (e.g. taxidermy mounts or insect specimens) are open to attack from a host of pests including the one most reviled by curators, Anthrenus, which whilst being a rather pretty little beetle, views an insect collection as an assemblage of tasty snacks.

    Anthrenus verbasci, Coleoptera, Dermestidae, beetle, insect
    The Varigated Carpet Beetle, Anthrenus verbasci (Linnaeus, 1767).
    Anthrenus, Coleoptera, Dermestidae, beetle, insect, damage
    An example of the damage that Anthrenus can cause to an insect collection. This level of damage can occur within 2-4 years of a collection being ‘moth-balled’ if it is not in secure pest-proof storage or being regularly checked by a trained curator.

    In a round up of the problems associated with deciding the future of these collections, Darren Mann pointed out that despite their huge popularity with the general public there has been a movement in the museums sector away from natural history and towards the arts and social sciences. To put some perspective on this, the Ashmolean Museum recently spent £7.83 million on Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus. For the same amount of money the entire UK entomological collections* of over 10 million specimens could have been re-housed and systematically arranged in modern pest proof storage.
    The Museums Association will be holding a ‘Vox Pop’ later this week to try and gain some insight into this situation. See the Museums Journal on-line for more information.
    See here for a wider view on museum closures across the sector.
    *Outside of National and University Museums.