In Wallace’s footsteps

Malaysia map2

This week, Darren Mann, the Museum’s Head of Life Collections, is at the International Conference on Alfred Russel Wallace in Sarawak, Malaysia. He’s speaking about the Oxford’s Wallace collections, alongside other Wallace experts and enthusiasts from across the globe.

Sarawak Natural History Museum

Sarawak Natural History Museum

The conference takes place at the impressive-sounding Riverside Majestic Hotel in Kuching City, Sarawak. Wallace’s ‘Sarawak Law’ is the name of one of his first publications on evolution, so the location is important. Wallace did some of his most important work in what was then known as the Malay Archipelago, so for a naturalist like Darren, it provides an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of one of his heroes.

dung drawer

Dung beetles

Darren has sent a couple of brief reports from Malaysia, along with some photos from his trip so far. He spent a satisfying afternoon in the Sarawak Natural History Museum, courtesy of Dr. Charles Leh Moi Ung and assistant curator Mdm Wong. Darren loves dung beetles, so he helped to re-identify some of their dung beetle collection. He said “They had more Paraphytes (cool genus of dung beetle) than I’ve ever have seen before. They’re the same species Wallace collected in Sarawak all those years ago.”

Rainy season in Sarawak

Rainy season in Sarawak

Wallace will certainly have encountered some difficult weather conditions on his adventures in the Malaysian jungles, so it seems appropriate that Darren has arrived in the middle of the rainy season. In his words “It’s raining a lot!”.

We’re all sending Darren a lot of good luck across the world as he represents the Museum in his talk tomorrow.

And so ends Wallace Week. We’ve looked back in time to remember and celebrate one of the greatest naturalists of the 19th Century and we’ll end on how his legacy will continue to inspire the scientists of the 21st… 22nd… 23rd…?

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Am feeling quite jolly!

"Many thanks for kind congratulations – am feeling quite jolly!"

“Many thanks for kind congratulations – am feeling quite jolly!”

This lovely example of Alfred Russel Wallace’s beautiful handwriting and cheerful nature was written to chemist and Wallace’s good friend Raphael Meldola. He wrote it on his 90th (and sadly last) birthday. It is particular favourite of Annette Lord, who has scanned and transcribed the Museum’s collection of 300+ Wallace documents.

Fungus weevils (Anthribidae) collected by Wallace

Fungus weevils (Anthribidae) collected by Wallace

Today marks 100 years since Wallace’s death and provides a good opportunity to reflect on his achievements. We’ve set up a display in the Museum to mark the occasion and show some of the most impressive Wallace specimens in our collection. Wallace travelled to remote, dangerous parts of the world in search of new and fascinating species. He was a meticulous and careful collector; you can’t help but marvel at how the incredibly long antennae of these beetles survived the journey back to Britain!

Wallace is now credited by many as co-author of the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it is very exciting to hear that today Sir David Attenborough is due to unveil a statue to the great man at the Natural History Museum in London.

Ulysses Butterflies (Papilio Ulysses)

Ulysses Butterflies (Papilio Ulysses) collected by Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace is not a household name like his collaborator Charles Darwin, but naturalists and Wallace fans all over the world will appreciate this gesture and the new interest in his work that this will promote.

If you would like to know more about Alfred Russel Wallace, you may like to see this new slideshow that the BBC have released today. It tells the story of his life and works and is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, one of Wallace’s greatest supporters.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer


Wallace in his own words

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with a Wallace letter

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with a Wallace letter

Here in the Museum of Natural History’s archives, we proudly house over 300 of Alfred Russel Wallace’s documents. Letters, notes and postcards written by the great naturalist himself. Here you can see Sir David Attenborough holding one of his favourites.

Over the past two years, all of the Wallace paper items in our collection have been scanned, transcribed and uploaded to Wallace Letters Online, a worldwide documentation project that’s part of the Wallace 100 celebrations. But the most remarkable thing is that all this work was done by one woman!

Annette Lord

Annette Lord

Annette Lord has been a volunteer at the Museum for 3 years and has helped with many family friendly activities, but one day she popped up to the Entomology Department to ask about Wallace’s letters. Her curiosity was piqued and she soon set to work on the enormous task of making them accessible to Wallace fans across the world.

The bulk of the letters are from Wallace to Edward Bagnall Poulton, the Hope Professor of Zoology, based at the Museum. Wallace sent Poulton specimens that he collected on his travels and they were good friends, sharing advice and anecdotes. Annette told me about one of the most memorable letters, which revealed Wallace gave Paulton some tips on setting up a display on mimicry in the Museum. In return, Wallace asked for tips on the best microscope to buy for his young daughter Violet… sadly, before he could decide on the final choice, Violet decided she didn’t want a microscope after all!

Wallace signatureAnnette said that she has found the project incredibly satisfying; “It’s given me a real insight into what he was like – I’ve seen his human side and his excellent sense of humour”. She also praised his lovely handwriting, which she’s found relatively easy to read for the transcripts. As part of the project, Annette has given talks in Bournemouth and here in Oxford, where I’m sure her enthusiasm and knowledge help to spread the love of Wallace.

I also spoke to Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections, who was singing her praises; “Annette’s enthusiasm for the project is un-shakable. Every time you think she must have had enough of reading Wallace’s letters, she’s still right in there in the thick of it. She really has become one of the Museum’s greatest Wallace experts! The material that Annette has recorded gives us an invaluable glimpse into the close relationships between the early natural scientists.”

Tomorrow, to mark the centenary of Wallace’s death, I’ll reveal Annette’s favourite letter of all!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Why Wallace?

David Attenborough in the Museum with Wallace's Giant Bee

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with Wallace’s Giant Bee

Sir David Attenborough is arguably the world’s most famous living naturalist and broadcaster. Here he sits in the Museum of Natural History, holding our priceless Wallace’s Giant Bee specimen. So why did a man as important (and busy!) as Attenborough take the time to pose for our photo? It’s because Attenborough, like thousands of other natural history enthusiasts, knows that Alfred Russel Wallace is one of the greatest naturalists, geographers and explorers of all time. So what’s so great about him? Why are we dedicating Wallace Week to celebrating his work?

Chris Jarvis, Education Officer, explain why he thinks Wallace is so special…

Chris at Sedgwick

Chris Jarvis at the Sedgwick Museum

Last week I gave a talk on Alfred Russel Wallace at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. I was asked ‘Why does Wallace deserve the statue next to Darwin’s, which he’s likely to get in London’s Natural History Museum?’ My answer was that ‘He deserves a statue as an inspiration on the importance of following your own interests, despite the barriers that may stand in your way’.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace was a largely self-made man. Born into a large family (he was the 8th of 9 children) that was always on the edge of financial disaster, Wallace was inspired by his love of the natural world around him and encouraged to explore it. Later he wrote that he could recall virtually every detail of the environment of the river Usk that was his playground but could hardly remember anything of his family, even faces, from that time! His love of the great outdoors led him to teach himself botany and entomology and how to collect, identify and preserve insects. Today, at a time when many children are being diagnosed as suffering from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ Wallace is a particularly pertinent example of the benefits of exploring the natural world.

At school, Wallace described himself as a ‘dull, ignorant and uneducated person’. Lessons were basic and dry and he left school finally in 1837 aged 14. Ironically for the father of Biogeography it was Geography that he found the driest of subjects, after Latin grammar!

Young Wallace

Young Wallace

Despite this, Wallace was a voracious reader and seems to have sought out his own curriculum. His family, although poor in other ways, always had interesting books around the house and Alfred was introduced to libraries, museums and working men’s institutes from an early age. His favourite books as a child included ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Mungo Park’s ‘Travels in West Africa’ and clearly fuelled the lust for adventure that led to his collecting trips in the tropics.

Wallace’s understanding of the importance of self-education and modest beginnings led him to be a firm supporter of the aphorism that ‘knowledge is power’ and he was involved in advising on setting up public libraries, museums and other free institutions that encouraged education throughout his life. His legacy, as important as all his discoveries and theories are, is surely as an inspiration to all of us to get out into nature, to read about what you find there and then share that knowledge with others, it may lead you to some amazing places and discoveries as it did Wallace!

What’s on the van? – Wallace’s giant bee


This Thursday, 7th November, marks 100 years since the death of the famous Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was an intrepid explorer and prolific collector and is hugely important in our understanding of the natural world. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin and we are fortunate to have several hundred of his specimens and letters in our collections here at the Museum of Natural History. 

To celebrate the life of such an important scientific figure, we’re dedicating this week on the blog to all things Wallace. We’ll be sharing some hidden gems, little known facts about the great man and stories of Museum staff walking in the footsteps of Wallace.
So here begins Wallace Week, with a description of one of his fantastic specimens…


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Sally-Ann Spence of Minibeast Mayhem and the Bug Club.

A single female bee stands out dramatically from all the bees in Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s bee collection and not for one reason, but three.

Firstly and quite simply is her impressive size; with a 63mm (2.5”) wingspan she completely dwarfs all her companions. Secondly she has the most enormous and impressive mouthparts. Jaws longer than her actual head held agape in the same fashion as a stag beetle’s mandibles. The third reason and perhaps the most special, is not associated directly with her body, but the little unobtrusive label impaled with her on the pin. Alfred Russel Wallace was inordinately fond of using tiny round paper discs to store information on when mounting his specimens and this bee is in fact Wallace’s Giant Bee, Chalicodoma [Megachile] pluto the world’s biggest bee. First discovered by Wallace in Indonesia in 1858 and then thought to be extinct until 1981, when it was rediscovered by the American entomologist Adam C. Messer.

It really is the most interesting and unusual bee. The females are not only larger than the males in general size but also have the markedly more impressive mouthparts. They appear to use these jaws to collect resin from trees by rolling it up into neat balls for transport in flight. Then they mix it with wood and dried fibres to make a waterproof nesting material. The next amazing thing is where they actually build their communal nests. Not underground or in cavities, but inside the already existing nests of tree-dwelling termites. Surprisingly, very little is known about the world’s biggest bee. It may be nesting within the termite colony to ensure a microclimate for its own young. It may be gaining protection from predators and parasites by being there. Perhaps it is a combination of these reasons. It is possible that when Wallace collected this specimen in 1858 he was completely unaware of its nesting behaviour, so it then remained hidden for so long within its termite cloak. Even the local people were unaware of its very existence, although local folklore was based upon it.

This lone female bee and her famous collector are a constant reminder to us all today why research is so vital and of the huge importance of museum collections.

What's on the van?