LONDON: The curator of the Natural History Museum has stumbled upon an unparalleled treasure - a unique collection of insects gathered by Dr David Livingstone, one of Britain's legendary explorers of Africa, which has remained hidden for over 150 years.
It is the only known collection of beetle specimens belonging to the explorer which he brought back from Africa. The 20 specimens date back to Dr Livingstone's expedition along Africa's Zambezi River, which ran from 1858 to 1864.
Experts were unaware that the renowned British explorer had collected beetles until now. The specimens were unearthed by curators cataloguing and photographing the Museum's collection for its online database. They came across an unusual box and when they opened it they discovered that Dr Livingstone's name and the name of the Zambezi expedition were written on the specimens' labels.
Max Barclay, the museum's beetle curator, found the box among thousands of others containing uncategorised material as he sought to catalogue parts of the collection online. Inside was a label that said "Zambezi coll. by Dr. Livingstone". The insects were donated to the Museum by a private collector, Edward Young Western, in 1924. He is thought to have bought them directly from a member of the Zambezi expedition. In the days before digital records, they got lost among the Museum's 10 million beetle specimens and sat unnoticed for 90 years.
Museum beetle curator Max Barclay, who made the discovery, said it was a complete surprise and one of great historical and scientific importance. "We have 22,000 drawers of beetles and every drawer is like a treasure chest waiting to be opened. You can never imagine what you will find inside," he said. "Historically, it is very exciting that these specimens have been preserved. No biographers mention Dr Livingstone collecting beetles - it is an aspect of the well-known explorer that was previously unknown".
There are 12 different beetle species in the box including the giant predatory ground beetle, Termophilum alternatum, the variegated golden longhorn beetle, Tragocephala variegata, and the flightless spiny longhorn beetle, Phantasis avernica.
Barclay said that the specimens are already shedding light on the effects of environmental change in the Zambezi region.
Museum entomologist Hitoshi Takano recently led a number of expeditions retracing Dr Livingstone's footsteps across Africa's interior. During his travels he came across many of the same beetle species that Dr Livingstone spotted 150 years before. Barclay said "The fact that most of the same species can still be found in Zambezi today means that the environments in the area might have changed less than we expected. Or, against all odds, many species from Dr Livingstone's day still remain despite 150 years of habitat destruction and deforestation".
But one species of beetle collected from Zambezi by Dr Livingstone was not found in the region during Takano's expeditions. This could be evidence of the effect of environmental changes, said Barclay: "It is possible that this species has declined or been lost from the region. Insects are often like the canary in the mine - their decline warns us about environmental changes that we may not have easily noticed". Barclay said that before digital records were introduced knowledge was often lost between generations, but Dr Livingstone's beetles will be valuable sources of information for scientists for years to come.
"We can learn so much from them. Old specimens are a little bit like a fossil record of the environment at a past time. We are discovering things that our great-grandparents' generation may have known, but the information was never passed down. Nowadays we record this information on databases and online, so it will be preserved for future generations".
Dr Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and one of the first European explorers of Africa, died in Zambia in 1873, aged 60.