Local school pupil unearths priceless butterfly specimens

Sep 12, 2013
Local school pupil unearths priceless butterfly specimens
Athena Martin rediscovered hundreds of butterfly specimens.

A 17-year-old student who spent just four weeks at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has rediscovered hundreds of priceless specimens collected by Victorian natural historian Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913).

Athena Martin joined the 's Hope Entomological Collections during her summer holidays through the Nuffield Research Placements programme, an initiative which supports young people who are by giving them practical work experience.

At the museum, Athena was tasked with searching 3,340 drawers of butterflies looking for specimens collected by Wallace, the famous naturalist who independently conceived a by natural selection at the same time as Charles Darwin. Her project was part of the museum's programme of activities surrounding the 2013 centenary of Wallace's death in November 1913.

Athena, a pupil at Wood Green School in Witney, Oxfordshire, applied for a placement at the museum because she is interested in studying zoology at university and wanted to learn more about what that might involve. In total, she has rediscovered more than 300 of Wallace's finds by painstakingly reading the undersides of the tiny, handwritten labels that are pinned beside each insect in the drawers.

Local school pupil unearths priceless butterfly specimens

Athena said: 'I spent two weeks and three days looking for the specimens. It felt really good to have found all of them as it took quite a long time and gave a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. I would now like to pursue a career in zoology, specifically looking at the behavioural side.'

Among the Wallace material identified by Athena was an especially exciting find: a butterfly called Dismorphia (pictured right) that was collected by Wallace in the Amazon. It is significant because most of Wallace's other Amazon specimens were lost at sea when his boat caught fire during his return journey in 1852.

Although the museum's curators knew that a substantial amount of Wallace material was held in the butterfly collections, the accession register only lists donations and purchases from the last 150 years in 'lots', with little further detail. It was unknown exactly how many of Wallace's butterflies, and of which particular species, were present in the collection. No one at the museum had noticed the presence of Wallace's Amazon Dismorphia butterfly since it was identified in 1895, until it was discovered and its importance recognised by Athena this summer.

Athena was supervised at the Museum by Dr James Hogan of the Hope Entomological Collections, who says that Nuffield Research Placements are a great way for young people to experience working in science and to help guide them in their career decisions.

Dr Hogan said: 'Athena has really produced some work of lasting benefit to the museum and it shows what can be achieved with hard work and, importantly, attention to detail.

'The rediscovered Amazonian specimen in particular is a significant find in terms of the history of science and natural history collecting in the 19th century.'

Prior to her placement at the museum, Athena had heard of Wallace but knew little of his achievements and work.

She said: 'I was a bit confused when I first found the Amazon specimen because I thought there might have been a labelling error due to the unusual location in comparison to the other I was finding. It wasn't until I showed the specimen to James that I found out that it was from the Amazon.'

Explore further: New book rewrites how evolution was discovered

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New book rewrites how evolution was discovered

Jun 25, 2013

A major new book by historian Dr John van Wyhe from the National University of Singapore has radically rewritten the story of how evolution was discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

Darwin egg from Beagle voyage found by museum volunteer

Apr 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- An egg collected by Charles Darwin while on HMS Beagle - and thought to be the last such specimen known to exist - has been rediscovered by an octogenarian volunteer at Cambridge University's Zoology Museum.

The Darwin-Wallace mystery solved

Mar 08, 2012

Thanks to a generous gift, National University of Singapore study traced historical shipping records and vindicated Darwin from accusations of deceit.

Bringing natural history collections out of the dark

Jul 24, 2012

In a special issue of ZooKeys, initiated by the Natural History Museum London, Vince Smith and Vladimir Blagoderov bring together 18 papers by 81 authors to look at progress and prospects for mass digitisin ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.

Low tolerance for pain? The reason may be in your genes

Researchers may have identified key genes linked to why some people have a higher tolerance for pain than others, according to a study released today that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 66th Annual ...

How to keep your fitness goals on track

(HealthDay)—The New Year's resolutions many made to get fit have stalled by now. And one expert thinks that's because many people set their goals too high.