I’ve often read about museum curators finding hidden gems tucked away in parts of collections that no one has found before. My colleague Lindsey Loughtman, curatorial assistant of Botany at the Manchester Museum herbarium once found a previously undocumented Darwin specimen in the moss collection. Sometimes these things are found during day to day curatorial activities, at other times they appear during collections reviews.
In my case it was a combination of the two. As part of my curatorial traineeship, I undertook a small collections review of the Auchenorrhyncha collection in the Manchester Museum’s Entomology department. This was partly because I was writing an article on the collection, and needed to know as much as possible about it, and partly because the collection was in need of recuration.
At the end of my report, there were a few undetermined specimens which I discovered were mostly from the Hemipteran family Eurybrachidae. A few Fulgoridae were also present and subsequently identified using Thierry Poiron’s fabulous guides.
Here is new volunteer Jade, currently helping me identify Hemiptera:
When I got to an insect that superficially appeared to be another battered looking Fulgorid (at least from a casual glance at the wing venation), I took a closer look and noticed its body was not that of a Hemipteran insect at all! In fact, it looked strangely moth-like. It clearly wasn’t a moth either, as there were no scales on the wings. Curatorial Assistant Phil Rispin and I were perplexed, so we showed it to the Senior Curator of Arthropods, Dmitri Longunov.
Dmitri identified it as belonging to the Order Neuroptera. However, we still were not 100% sure what family the insect belonged to. After pulling out numerous drawers of specimens in the Neuroptera collection, we finally came across an insect that looked similar to the one found in the Hemiptera collection.
“This is a really rare insect!” Dmitri exclaimed. We only had one in our collection and it was a Holotype. (A Holotype is a designated specimen used to formally describe a species for the first time.)
Since we now had a lead on which family the insect might belong to, I began researching what I could find on the Rapismatidae.
It turns out they belong to the group of lacewings called “Moth Lacewings”, which are among the most primitive of insects. Moth lacewings are extremely rare. According to researcher P.C. Barnard, who wrote a paper on the Rapismatidae, he was only able to trace 21 specimens during his research, including the Manchester Museum’s Holotype. The Rapismatidae are found only in the highlands of the Indomalaya. Since it is now illegal to collect specimens in India, even for scientific research, this makes these insect specimens especially rare and valuable parts of the entomology collection!
The newly discovered specimen in the collection was collected by Hebert Stevens, an ornithologist, entomologist and tea planter who collected most of the Fulgoridae and Cicada specimens in the Hemiptera collection during the turn of the last century. His specimens are a rare record of organisms from a region where it is now forbidden to study and collect entomological specimens.
It is possible that the insect is a new species, but we are bringing in a specialist so that we can find out for sure. Even it isn’t, I feel lucky and privileged to have found such a rare specimen tucked away in the Hemiptera drawer.
References: Barnard, P.C. The Rapismatidae (Neuroptera) montane lacewings of the Oriental region. Systematic Entomology (1981) 6 , 121-136