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A Grasshopper Leaps Out From the Pages of History

By: Michael Hugill, Category: Science, Date: 22 Aug 2012

When Technical Officer Jacquie Resci asked Research Associate Jean Weiner to relocate the foreign grasshoppers inside the Museum's Entomology Collection, she didn't expect him to find an unusual specimen with a very unusual history. Jacquie explains...

A Grasshopper Leaps Out From the Pages of History #1

 © Australian Museum

The 'Mafeking grasshopper' and label.

What did Jean find?

A grasshopper specimen with a particularly curious label. Labels can have varying degrees of information on them and this one, together with some background checking, told us us a fascinating story. The specimen made its way here from South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902). It was collected at the siege of Mafeking.

The label states that the garrison were forced to eat these insects in curry as an article of diet - probably not the tastiest of meals. Many villagers died of starvation during the siege and there are some historical records on the web telling us that they also ate locusts after a plague.

How did it come to be in the Museum's hands?

The label tells us that the specimen was presented to the Australian Museum by Sergeant Walter Barnes of the NSW Mounted Infantry. There is a Private Walter Barnes listed on the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre website. He was part of the 1st NSW Mounted Rifles. We think it's likely that this is the Walter Barnes who presented the insect to the Museum on the 4th of August 1900.

Interestingly enough, the specimen looks like it may have been flattened between the pages of a book to get it safely back to Australia.

What species of grasshopper is it?

The insect is a partial specimen of the milkweed grasshopper Phymateus morbillosus. The grasshopper is brightly coloured in life and this aposematic colouring is usually an indication that the insect is likely to taste quite nasty or be toxic. This grasshopper froths out liquid from opening near hind legs when threatened.

What more can you tell us about the label?

The number on the top right hand of the label is a registration number and is the unique number given to the specimen by collection staff. It was all entered by hand. These historically important documents were used constantly and are suffering the effects of time. Our Digivol people have now photographed every page of our old registers so we can access them from our desks. The picture below is the page from the register that records the donation of the Mafeking specimen and its date. The registers are now safely stored in Archives where they can be restored and stored indefinitely.

The 'Mafeking grasshopper' in the register.

What was the background to finding this specimen in the collection? Could there be more specimens with fascinating stories like this?

The entomology collection is arranged taxonomically. This arrangement allows us to locate particular species in their various groups. When there is a request for identifications or a request for a group being researched, the specimens can be located by their classification. I asked Jean to take the foreign grasshoppers out of one of the old heritage cabinets in the 'foreign' room and put them in with the rest of the grasshoppers.

The 'foreign' insect room was a bit of an oddity as it housed many different orders of insects. If you are not familiar with every drawer in that part of the collection, it is easy to overlook some historical and potentially important specimens. The changing focus of collection management and having more physical space means we are now able to slowly move the foreign insect orders into their various taxonomic positions within the rest of the collection. So, yes, there is the potential to find more unusual specimens like this.

Finally, what can you tell us about the work you and Jean do?

I'm one of two Technical Officers in the Entomology section. My job requires me to be something of a jack of all trades, master of none. I'm involved in the curation of parts of the insect groups stored in the Vernon Wing and I work as a general facilitator for Entomology. Recently I did logistics for the terrestrial part of the Timor-Leste Expedition as well as participating in the field work. I joined the Museum in 2007 after working as the Collection Manager for the CSIRO National Insect Collection in Canberra.

Jean is actually an expert on butterflies and is a research associate of the Museum. He curates our well developed foreign butterfly collection. His skills in setting and identifying butterflies are amazing. He has considerable general entomological experience in many South East Asian habitats. He is also fluent in several languages. One of those languages is Indonesian and he also participated in the terrestrial part of the Australian Museum Timor–Leste expedition.