Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Dry Storeroom No. 1

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Dry Storeroom No. 1

The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

by Richard Fortey

Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey X
Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2008, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Rigby

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Entomology: Did You Know?

Entomology is the scientific study of insects. Defining characteristics of insects are: three main body parts (head, thorax and abdomen), an exoskeleton and no more than 6 legs in their adult form.

"The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane remarked, when questioned by a cleric about the putative properties of God, that one sure characteristic of the Almighty would be "an inordinate fondness for beetles". Of the 1.3 million known species, about two-thirds are insects and one-fifth are beetles.

"There are an estimated twenty-eight million insect specimens in the Natural History Museum, including about a quarter of a million type specimens." (A type specimen being the definitive example of a species against which other specimens are compared).

A popular beetle amongst biologists is the Dermestid beetle, which is used to clean skeletons. They are especially useful on very small specimens with delicate bones (the larvae are capable of digesting keratin, the protein in animal hair and feathers). So popular are they among scientists that the container they are housed in has its own name, a dermestarium. They are less popular in households, where they are known as carpet or larder beetles.

There have been a number of attempts to use one animal as a biological control over another. One of the more successful in the insect world has been the use of the parasitic wasp Encarsia perplexa to eradicate the Aleurocanthus woglumi species of white fly, which damages orange and grapefruit crops. The wasp "flourishes and grows inside its hosts larva, consuming it alive from within". The 1999 introduction of the wasp, native to Guatamala, into Hawaii has apparently been successful in controlling the white fly.

One of the tools available for determining the length of time a dead body has been exposed to nature is to examine the moult stages of the larvae, or seeing whether there are empty pupal cases around the corpse.

The butterfly genus Nabokovia is named for Vladimir Nabokov, famous writer and lepidopterist whose specialty was the blue butterflies.


Interesting Links

The Natural History Museum, once part of the British Museum, features information on Taxonomy & Systematics, as well as an extensive Nature Online section.

Article by Karen Rigby

This article was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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