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The John Curtis British Insects Collection

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To this day, the Curtis Collection remains a 'scientifically working' collection with scientists from around the world visiting to examine the specimens or requesting loans be sent to them. The scientific value of the collection falls into two main categories.

curtis collection mm007991
One of the remarkable aspects of the John Curtis British Insect Collection is the way the layout of specimens provides us with his unpublished thoughts. If a specimen was reversed, Curtis suspected mis-identification. Reversal of the name label indicated his belief that a species had been described in an incorrect genus. A pin placed beside a specimen denoted his view that the specimen was a variety of the species name. The red (holotype) and blue (paratype) labels are what modern day taxonomists use to denote specimens used originally to describe a new species. These labels have been added by researchers working on the Curtis Collection.
Source: Museum Victoria Entomology Collection.
Photographer: Rodney Start

1. When a new species is described, the author of the description selects a particular specimen or group of specimens. These specimens are called types and can be assigned only by the author before publication of the description. As such, type specimens constitute the foundation of all taxonomic and biodiversity endeavours which rely on correct identifications. Although a written description exists for each valid species known to science, nothing is better than viewing the specimen itself to understand exactly what was meant by the description. There are in excess of 1,000 type specimens in the Curtis Collection, most described by Curtis but some described by other well-known taxonomists of that time (e.g. Alexander Henry Haliday and Francis Walker).

The micro-hymenoptera (wasps) collection is probably the most used section of the collection and it is now 'littered' with blue and red labels (the coloured labels indicate the type status of a specimen). Many of these tiny wasps are now being used or evaluated as biological control agents in Britain, Europe or America, and correct identification is the first step in any such project.

2. Since the Curtis Collection has not been broken up and amalgamated into other collections, it provides an invaluable biological snapshot or time capsule of the British endemic and exotic fauna from 1800 to 1860. Many of the specimens are the first known or only records of British species and accidental introductions of foreign species into Britain; scientists can borrow them to confirm current identifications, compare species distributions from the first half of the nineteenth century to present day, and determine how many species extinctions have occurred either locally or world-wide.

There are many stories behind those flame wood doors, too. One retold here combines misadventure, a wonderful tale and a still unsolved scientific conundrum. It involves a small yellow and brown moth named and described by Curtis as Pancalia woodiella. Only three specimens of this species exist today; one is in the Natural History Museum, London, one is in the Manchester Museum and the type is lodged in the Curtis Collection at Museum Victoria.

These three moths and approximately fifty to sixty other specimens were collected in June 1829 by Robert Cribb, an enthusiastic moth and butterfly collector, on a rotten alder tree in Kersal Moor. He did not recognise the species and neither did any of his fellow collectors in the Manchester area, so he gave a specimen to a friend, R. Wood, who then passed it on to John Curtis. Cribb, who had collected about fifty specimens of the moth, also gave two specimens to Samuel Carter, another of his collector friends.

Curtis described the moth as a new species, naming it in honour of Wood (whom he thought had collected the specimen, hence the name woodiella) and placed the type specimen in his collection. Cribb, however, was furious that his name was not attached to the new species of moth he had discovered. Then, when local collectors, unable to find any further specimens, accused him of presenting a foreign moth as a local species, he became so disenchanted that he decided to give up collecting. Carter offered Cribb ten shillings for the remaining specimens and Cribb took half the money immediately. The other five shillings was to be paid on receipt of the specimens. When, after several weeks, no specimens arrived Carter offered an additional ten shillings. Cribb then informed Carter that he had left a box containing the specimens at a beer-house as a deposit on money he owed to that establishment. By the time Cribb and Carter returned to the beer-house, the landlady had already burnt the box as Cribb had not paid his debts by the agreed date.

So, to this day, only three specimens of the species Schiffermulleria woodiella (the species woodiella has now been recombined from its original genus Pancalia into Schiffermulleria) are known to exist. The historic spot where Cribb collected has been revisited many times without success, nor has the species ever been seen or collected elsewhere in Britain or in Europe. In 1995, a Canadian entomologist borrowed the type specimen of Schiffermulleria woodiella from the Curtis Collection to compare it with European moth fauna, but his research confirmed that the species does not occur outside Britain and is now most likely extinct.

Dr Ken Walker, Senior Curator of Entomology, has been with the Museum since 1981. His primary research has concentrated on the systematics of native halictid bees and their pollination associations. More recently, he has been developing internet links into the Museum's collection databases - a project called Bioinformatics.

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