The Simms Indo-Australian Collection

I’m currently working on documenting and updating the nomenclature of this collection of butterflies, which was donated to The Manchester Museum in 1960 by the brothers Harold M and F.H. Simms along with a smaller European collection of Lepidoptera.

Along with the collection itself, which consists of thousands of butterfly specimens, archival material such as notebooks and lists were also donated. A notebook contains a lovingly handwritten list of species collected from the region.

The collection still needs a professional taxonomist to look at it, but I’ve been using references including LepIndex on the Natural History Museum website to check the nomenclature is accurate. There are also many misidentifications and unpublished names on labels in the collection.

Indian Crow Butterflies:

Butterflies from the family Satyridae:

One of the most interesting species in the collection is the Dead Leaf butterly (Kallima inachus). The butterfly sports colourful blue wings with an intense band of orange running through them and black wingtips. However, when its wings are closed it resembles a dried leaf complete with vein markings. During the dry and wet season, the species has different colouration, with the colours being much more subdued in the dry season.

Dry season form of Kallima inachus:

Documentation of the collection involved creating and modifying taxonomic records on KE Emu, the Museum’s collections database. Butterfly taxonomy is almost constantly undergoing revision, so many of the species names had been moved into different genera.

I’ll be posting more about the families in this collection as the project progresses.

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Ecuador in the Herbarium

I kind of grin at the title I’ve chosen for this post, as it certainly didn’t feel like Ecuador in there today! It was pretty cold!

The reason Ecuador is the theme of this post has less to do with temperature and more to do with the fact that The Manchester Museum herbarium is currently working with photographer and artist Johan Oldekop. I was asked to find some Ecuadorian ferns and illustrations of the specimens in the Leo Grindon cultivated Fern collection.

Sadly, we currently have no ferns from Ecuador!

We do, however have other plant material collected from that area in the General Flowering Plants and Carpological collections. so I got out a few specimens and put them aside.

Myroxylum is a medicinal plant that is best known for Balsam of Tolu- a resin from the plant that is often used as an ingrediant in cough syrup.

Unfortunately some of the herbarium sheets were very dusty and needed a gentle clean with smoke sponge! Before:


Epiphytes are important plants in the rainforest. They have evolved to grow on larger trees in order to gain more access to light in the competitive canopy. Here is a sheet of Pitcairnia pungens, an epiphytic plant native to Ecuador:

I’m still hunting for Ecuadorian specimens in the Herbarium, and will update on my progress.

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I’m back working in the Entomology and Botany departments here at the Manchester Museum. One of my first projects upon returning was to separate and identify Neotropical specimens of Lepidoptera by family and eventually, genus and species.

There is a wonderful set of books called Butterflies of the World by Bernard D’Abrera. Each book lists butterflies from various regions around the world and by family. The photographs within are also lifesized pictures of the Lepidoptera.

I looked through old storeboxes for undetermined specimens of Lepidoptera. I was able to tell if some (like the Ithomiidae) were from the Neotropics immediately. For others, I had to see if they had any geographical information on the labels and compare specimens with those in the books.

Some of the specimens were very old and battered, like this Morpho. There were many loose wings and bodies that had become brittle and broken.

I was able to repair some, such as this clearwing. Before:


Most of the specimens belonged to the families Ithomiidae and Heliconiidae, but there were a few Papilionidae and Nymphalidae that needed identifying, as well as one Morpho.

The newly determined specimens will soon be incorporated into the collection.

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Feather Conservation Course

On Wednesday and Thursday I attended a feather conservation workshop delivered by conservator Allyson Rae. The course was held at the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Study Centre. Note that while there is a picture of a bundle of cassowary feathers in this post, we did not work on it- it was merely passed around for viewing along with a bag of Yellow-Shafted-Flicker feathers. No CITES listed species were worked with for the purposes of this workshop.

There were about 12 participants on the course from various backgrounds spanning across natural history and ethnography. Some I was happy to see I had met before. After getting to know each other, we settled down to learn about the properties of feathers, their chemical composition, colour variation in species, function, structure and the importance of bird’s preen oils to the health of a feather.
We then moved on to what can damage feathers. Light damage is quite common, and we were shown some examples in the galleries. Also common is damage from pests and deterioration from keeping the specimen at the wrong levels of humidity.

Light damage. This owl is not supposed to be white!:

Allyson Rae explaining the difference between a contour feather and a filoplume:

We were asked to observe the structure of different feathers under a microscope.

Most birds have various groups of feathers covering their body in patterns of contour feathers, with filoplumes underneath. The expections to this rule are the penguins and ratites. Ratite feathers are very hair-like, as can be seen below with the bundle of cassowary feathers:

On the second day, we were all given a pack containing various feathers conservation tools such as smoke sponge, cotton, Industrial Methylated Spirit, Mowilith 50, webril strips and a chemical sponge.

Our first attempt at the treatment of a feather was to be cleaning with a solvent. I chose a particularly filthy feather as I wanted to be sure of the results. I placed the feather on a bed of absorbant tissue and used cotton wool to apply the IMS over it.

Feather before treatment:

Feather during treatment, with the IMS drawing the dirt out

Feather after treatment:

We were asked to experiment with a variety of dry techniques. There was a cloth called “Dust Bunny” in our pack and I was surprised to see that it was just as effective as the IMS with regards to removing dirt. I also tried the smoke sponge (not terribly effective) and rubber powder (also not terribly effective.) I found the IMS and Dust Bunny to be my favorite cleaning tools, though of course different jobs call for different methods and solutions.

We then moved on to “wet treatments.” We immersed both a filoplume and a contour feather in a tray of water and added a few drops of IMS. Eventually the filoplume looked alarming. It had lost its fluffiness and looked like a strip of drowned…something. However, these type of feathers are remarkably stable. After blowing cool air across it with a hair dryer and reshaping it with my fingers- it looked just as a fluffy (and cleaner!) than before I had soaked it.

Our final challenge was to repair a broken feather. My feather was broken in three places. It looked hopeless.
However, after Allyson showed us her technique for repairing damaged feathers, I quickly set to work using it. First, the feather was soaked in water, which made it return to a smoother shape. I then took a spare feather and sliced through the shaft, carefully removing the hollow white cells within. I then used the Mowilith 50 (a fast drying adhesive) to attach the new shaft to the broken one, using it as a splint to join the 3 breaks together.

The result:

I’m very happy with the results of the treatment on my feathers, and can’t wait to use them at work!

Posted in Conservation, ornithology, specimen preparation, Taxidermy, Zoology | 1 Comment

Snapshots from the past

Yesterday my volunteer Veronica and I put away some interesting objects called magic lantern slides. Lantern slides were a popular tool used in the early days at Manchester Museum for lectures and presentations. Most of the slides were of photographs of parasitology, in particular the protist Plasmodium responsible for Malaria, but there are also anatomical drawings, photos of insects and marine dwelling creatures. The slides are housed in small cabinets with custom built drawers, as you can see in the picture below. Many of the slides were not properly housed or had not been put away after being digitised for an online gallery. They are made of glass and are therefore very fragile. It was our job to make sure the slides were safely housed.

We had great fun looking through all the amazing images from the past, including photos of extinct animals such as the Quagga. Many of the photographs were stained with colour, such as this one. The label read “what was found in the box!”:

Wish I knew the story behind that caption!

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Bird preparation videos

I’ve been meaning to post a step by step guide on how to skin birds with photos, but the truth is it’s extremely difficult to plan this, especially when I’m working on a bird and have to stop every few minutes to take photos and notes. So, I was happy to see The Smithsonian have a series of videos up on youtube on how to prepare a bird skin (in this case, a roadrunner.) Also contains information on moulting.

The difference is I leave the skull intact and don’t cut the beak away from the head.

Once again, best not to click if you are squeamish.

Posted in ornithology, specimen preparation, Zoology | 2 Comments

Day Four: NHM Tring

Osteology was the order of the day on Thursday. I worked with Joanne Cooper and volunteer Mandy Holloway.

Jo first showed me the dermesterium, where colonies of flesh-eating beetles are kept. They strip down a specimen to its skeleton. The beetles were working hard on quite a large specimen when I was there.

They were also being filmed. Every 30 seconds a camera made a whirring click and photographed the beetles. Jo explained to me that this was for a 3D film that will soon be appearing on the NHM website.

Fresh out of the dermestarium were some macaw and wader skeletons that needed registering and incorporating into the collection. This was to be my task for the day.

First, the information with the specimen is recorded in the registration book and the specimen given a registration number. Then the number is written on each of the bones with non-fading ink.

Some of the bones were tiny, so required a steady hand!

The macaw bones were from captive birds. One of them was seized by Salisbury police! Sadly, lots of people still try to smuggle these beautiful birds illegally into the UK

Other information recorded about the specimens was whether or not tissue samples had been taken from them for DNA analysis and sometimes history about the specimen, including pet names people had given a familiar animal.

The finished specimens were then incorporated into the collection, ready for researchers to use.

As well as the Osetological collections, Jo is also in charge of curating the spirit collection. Apparently, spirit collections are the least used resource at Tring. Despite the rich DNA and anatomical content, most researchers prefer to use the skins. This surprised me as I thought they would be just as popular.

They are occasionally dissected by scientists, but as Jo said “we wouldn’t let a student dissect a kakapo.”

And so ends my blogging about my wonderful time at the NHM, Tring. All the bird staff were lovely and I’m so grateful they took the time to teach me amazing skills. Thank you! I hope to return soon!

Posted in curation, ornithology, osetology | Leave a comment