Max Barclay curates insects at London's Museum of Natural History. He discovered the only known beetles collected by the famed 19th century explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, in a dusty old box.
Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina interviewed Max Barclay in the collections room at the Museum of Natural History in London. What Barclay said is below.
We’re here in The Natural History Museum in the beetles section.
Now this is a collection made by a lawyer called E. Y. Western who died in 1924, and he died leaving a collection—a private collection—of some 10[,000] or 12,000 beetles.
Over the ensuing 70 or 80 years most of that material has been worked up. But there are a few boxes left that nobody got around to. These boxes were considered to be of limited importance because they contained fairly common species with relatively poor information associated with them.
But I was just browsing through this collection not very long ago, and I came across some specimens—I’ve taken them out now—that were collected by Dr. David Livingstone on the second Zambezi expedition in the 1860s. Those are the only beetle specimens that we know of that were collected by Livingstone on that expedition.
It seems that they were sold by auction sometime in the 1860s–1870s, when Livingstone was still in Africa, by somebody else who was on the expedition. They were bought by this private individual, so nobody knew that they were there.
They were looked over by the scientists at the time, and they were judged to be common species, and nobody looked in detail at the labels that were written underneath to see that they were collected by this famous explorer.
Now, in the main collection here we have, as I said, about 260 or 270,000 species represented of beetles. That’s about 60 percent of the known beetles in the world. I’ve got an example of a drawer from the main collection. I’m gonna take the glass off that.
This has been re-curated so that each species is in its own separate, little tray. Now with 22,000 drawers, it takes about two and a half hours to re-curate one drawer, so you can work out how much time is actually required to bring the standard up.
The great natural history collections themselves, they’re one of the last great frontiers of exploration. These exist not only as an archive of biodiversity, but they’re an archive of historical and cultural information as well.
Producer: Eliene Augenbraun
Interviewer/Videographer: Mariette DiChristina
Special thanks to:
- The Museum of Natural History, London