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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Darwin's Beetle, Lost and Found

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin had kind of a thing for beetles, and would go to great lengths to collect and study them. In 1846, he wrote to a friend about one of the entomological adventures he had looking for ground beetles: 

Under a piece of bark I found two Carabi & caught one in each hand, when lo and behold I saw a sacred Panagæus crux major; I could not bear to give up either of my Carabi, & to lose Panagæus was out of the question, so that in despair I gently seized one of the carabi between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust & pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat & I lost both Carabi & Panagæus! 

During his famous voyage on the Beagle in the 1830s, Darwin collected fossils and living animals for his research wherever he could, including plenty of beetles. Among them was a type of rove beetle—a member of Staphylinidae, the largest beetle family—that was unknown to science.  

Unfortunately, before Darwin—who apparently could not bear to lose a beetle—or any other biologist could formally describe the new beetle and name it, the specimen was misplaced somewhere in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. 

Skip ahead almost 200 years, to the present day. Stylianos Chatzimanolis, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee, has been working over the last few years to update the family tree of a sub-group of rove beetles. He’s spent many hours in his lab examining specimens borrowed from all over the world and working on manuscripts (while listening to David Sedaris audiobooks). One day, he noticed that one of the beetles had notched antennae, a trait that’s not common among rove beetles. Intrigued, he looked into it a little more and discovered that the strange beetle was on loan from the Natural History Museum, and was the lost beetle collected by Darwin in Argentina.

The beetle was recorded as specimen number 708 by Darwin in his notes, and then stored at the museum among unsorted Staphylinidae specimens, presumably because no one knew what it was or where it belonged. Eventually one of the curators noticed it while sorting these materials and, taking a best guess, moved it to storage with the genus Trigonopselaphus, to which it bore a resemblance. This happened to be the same genus that Chatzimanolis was researching, and when the museum sent over its Trigonopselaphus collections, specimen 708 made a second trip over the Atlantic, this time to be rediscovered instead of lost. 

After examining the beetle more closely, Chatzimanolis decided that it wasn’t a member of Trigonopselaphus, but a new genus. He dubbed the group Darwinilus in honor of Darwin, and named specimen 708’s species D. sedarisi as a nod to the writer who entertained him while he worked. He published his description of the beetle on Darwin’s 205th birthday, February 12, 2014. 

Despite searching in many major museum collections, Chatzimanolis has only been able to find one other specimen of Darwinilus sedarisi, which dates from 1935 or before. Chatzimanolis thinks the lack of specimens may be because the beetles spend most of their time hiding and feeding in the trash piles of ant colonies. Most of the area around the spots where the two beetles were found, though, has since been deforested and turned into farmland, so it's also possible the beetles disappeared for lack of a place to live. “One of course hopes that a newly described species is not already extinct,” says Chatzimanolis.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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