Taking inspiration from the field and from women artists | Identification Trainers for the Future

In the latest update from our Identification Trainers for the Future project, Sally Hyslop continues the story of the work our five trainees have performed thus far.

Trainee life in the Museum is often focused through a microscope and so, after many months of study, it was brilliant to refresh our zeal for the natural world this month with a field trip to the Dorset coast. We spent three days exploring dramatic cliffs and coastal heathlands: by day, putting our developing botany skills into practise, and by night, spotting bats and catching moths.

The trainees in the field in Dorset

The trainees in the field in Dorset

The Museum’s Fred Rumsey and Mark Spencer led us through heath and bog on a hunt for the elusive bog orchid, Hammarbya paludosa. By the end of the day we found 109 spikes of these miniscule and delicate, rare, green flowers. On top of this, we encountered blankets of dainty white beaked sedge, flowering bog asphodel and all three UK species of sticky, carnivorous sundews along with their two hybrids.

Steph West, our project manager, explained how to identify the 18 UK bat species through flight pattern and echolocation, and demonstrated how to survey buildings for roosts. Smaller species, such as the pipistrelle species, can squeeze through gaps as small a 1cm2 to get to their roosts and we hunted for hidden enclaves within the walls of the Old Malthouse, our home for the trip.

The bog orchid

The bog orchid

Using five huge moth traps, we caught over 50 different species of macro-moth during one evening of our field trip with the help of Geoff Martin and Alessandro Giusti from the Lepidoptera team. Moth traps consist of an intense UV light to attract the moths, combined with slippery sides which lead to a container for collection.

A moth trap

A moth trap

Our finds the next morning included the UK’s largest, the privet hawkmoth; a buff tip, which is almost indistinguishable from a twig; and our favourite find, the rosy footman, with wings that appear to be scribbled with pencil! After sorting through our catch we picked a few specimens to take back to the Museum and, since returning, the Lepidoptera team has taught us how to mount and identify these specimens. This has proved quite a task considering that the distinctive wing patterns of the Lepidoptera are composed of fragile scales which readily flake away.

Studying entomology in greater detail has been an excellent side to the traineeship, revealing the insects’ sheer diversity, fascinating life stages and remarkable behaviours. Recently, Steve Brooks and Ben Price expertly guided us through the identification of several freshwater invertebrate orders, where we encountered bizarre larval morphologies and instincts.

We encountered caddis fly larvae, creatures that construct intricately woven cases around themselves for protection. We’ve marvelled at the Odonta, the dragon- and damselfies, which on emergence from the water shed exuviae, perfect casts of their larval skins. The cases and casts of some of these larvae are often so distinctive that species can be identified from them alone.

A workshop held in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity on the identification of freshwater invertebrates

A workshop held in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity on the identification of freshwater invertebrates

As Mike eluded to in our last blog, as the traineeship has progressed, I have documented everything we have learnt in my notebook, now a collage of notes, line drawings and specimens. It was something I decided to do during my first week here at the Museum when I stumbled upon one of the many sketchbooks of Olivia Tonge while it was on display at the time in the Women Artists exhibition in the Images of Nature gallery.

Olivia was a keen painter who travelled to India to document the natural world and the sketchbooks are filled with her detailed drawings and notes on her finds. The notebooks were even featured as a special blog by the Museum back in 2013.

The books are now stored in the Museum library, and it was incredible to have a look at my inspiration again recently. I got to turn the pages, study each detailed watercolour and read the whimsical annotations! Inspired by the historical fascination for biological recording showcased in the Museum, my notebook has become a great memory store for the knowledge passed over during the traineeship.

Sally’s notebook

Sally’s notebook

Olivia Tonge's notebook

Olivia Tonge’s notebook

Thank you Sally! Identification Trainers for the Future is run in partnership with the Field Studies Council and National Biodiversity Network Trust and funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future Programme. You can find out more about the project, including how & when to apply for future traineeship positions on our webpage at www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers