Author Archives: Erica McAlister

About Erica McAlister

Hi, I'm Erica, I'm the Collections Manager for the Diptera Collection at the Museum. I'll be blogging about flies, fieldwork and all the fiddly stuff in between.

The birth of a curious mind – Robert Hooke | Curator of Diptera

Today’s blog is in honour of the great microscopist Robert Hooke. Born on 18 July 1685 (which is actually the 28 July today due to the shift to the Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752), Robert Hooke – although not as famous as some of his counterparts such as Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton – was to have a huge impact on the scientific community. He was a curious individual, always observing, noting, and drawing what he saw. This drive and curiosity resulted in this ‘caulkhead’ (native of the Isle of Wight, UK) producing in 1665 at the tender age of 30 years, one of my favorite books – ‘Micrographia or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon’.

Photo showing the cover of Erica's copy of Micrographia

My very own copy of the great book Micrographia

Not the snappiest of subtitles, I concur, but contained within the pages of this book are some of the earliest but arguably still scientifically important drawings/diagrams of life as seen under a microscope.

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Fleas: their fans, feeding habits and the disease | Digital Collections Programme

Fleas are some of the oddest insects and sit in a strange position when it comes to how the public feel about them. Fleas are hated for their feeding activities and disease transmission whilst their aesthetics have long been admired thanks to mostly the works of Robert Hooke and his diagrams in Micrographia.

Photo showing an unfolded page insert with an illustration of a flea, in an edition of Micrographia

The illustration of a flea in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

 

Hooke writes ‘the strength and beauty of this small creature, had it no other relation at all to man, would deserve a description’. Wonderfully phrased, this sentence sums up the feelings I have when looking at these small creatures.

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The flies that use their eyes to fight for love… well, sex at least | Curator of Diptera

Before the Museum exhibition about Colour and Vision closes on 6 November, I thought I should write a piece about some of nature’s most amazing eyes (their patterns and shapes). I’m talking of course about those belonging to flies – the most enigmatic of all species on the planet – and specifically all the species referred to as stalk-eyed flies.

stalk-eyed-fly

Male stalk-eyed fly of the species Teleopsis dalmanni. The span from eye-to-eye is nearly as wide as the fly’s body is long © Rob Knell, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

My first experience of stalk-eyed flies came while I was carrying out fieldwork in Costa Rica over 10 years ago and it can probably go down as one of my favourite fieldwork moments. So what happened?

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Invertebrate hunting in Dominica | Curator of Diptera

I’m currently in Dominica, collecting insects with Operation Wallacea but this isn’t the first time I’ve been to this beautiful country. Here’s a blog post I prepared earlier about my field trip last year…

I have just finished 4 weeks of fieldwork collecting insects in Dominica. I can’t really complain about that except that the fieldwork did not follow my usual routine. Generally when employed at Museum your fieldwork is either part of a general collecting trip hoping to find as much as possible (work with Dipterists Forum); part of a research-focused group (me collecting flies from Potatoes in Peru); or part of a consultancy project (Mosquitoes in Tajikistan). However this trip was different, I wasn’t marauding around the countryside with collector’s glee, this time I had to teach as well as collect.

Photo showing a view of a shallow, rocky river with deep forest on either side

Collecting in Dominica definitely has its advantages…

It’s not the first time I have taught students. I lectured for a while before joining the museum and was involved in a tropical ecology field course in Costa Rica for several years. However that was university students and they were mostly master’s students who already were interested in Entomology. I had never taught or been involved with younger people – teenagers as I believe they are called. That had previously sounded like a mild form of torture! Could they concentrate? Would they even be interested?

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Tabanidae – horseflies | Curator of Diptera

Once more I am writing in defense of some very attractive but much-maligned creatures that, due to the maternal habits of the females, are universally disliked. People scream, run, swat them with wild abandonment to stop these ladies from providing essential resources to enable them to produce their next generation – it’s not very nice of us to let them get food for their offspring!

Macrophotograph of the head of the fly showing the dramatic colouration of its eyes

The Tabanidae have it… the dramatic banding of the eyes of Haematopota pluvialis

Yes, Tabanidae, or horseflies to give one of their common names, are some of the most painful biters of all flies but, like their also very much-maligned cousins, the mosquitoes, the males are vegetarian and can also be very important pollinators (e.g. Philoliche species found in South Africa – see the reference in one of my older blogs).

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#WorldRobberFlyDay 2016 | Curator of Diptera

2015 saw me launch the inaugural day of celebration of all things robber fly so, on this 2nd #WorldRobberFlyDay, here’s a quick spin through the best of last year’s event:

 

 

And take a trip to Twitter to see what’s happening this year.

What’s in a fly? Musca domestica – the greatest traveller of them all | Curator of Diptera

Within the Diptera section we are asked a lot about individual species of flies and so we thought we would put pen to paper (or key to board) and give some species descriptions of the more popular requests.

My co-author for this post, Nigel Wyatt, is the curator of all things bristly (including his own, he adds!) such as some of the most well known of all Diptera – the houseflies. Often seen as the greatest nuisance to humans and animals, this tenacious species has travelled with us all over the planet and enjoys all the creature comforts that we provide for it! Continue reading