Curator finds 150-year-old David Livingstone African beetles in box at Natural History Museum

By Ben Miller | 19 September 2014

A box of beetles collected by Dr David Livingstone 150 years ago have been discovered during a routine museum collection check

A close-up photo of a black and orange beetle
Giant Predatory Ground Beetle, Termophilum alternatum© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
In a dream behind-the-scenes discovery, Max Barclay, a beetle curator at the Natural History Museum, chanced upon an “unusual” box filled with 20 pinned beetles, each inscribed with the name Dr Livingstone.

Found during a routine check of the incredible London collection, the specimens turned out to be the donations of Edward Young Western, a lawyer and amateur entomologist who is thought to have bought the beetles from a member of David Livingstone’s infamous expedition along the Zambezi River 150 years ago, when he discovered Lake Malawi.

A photo of a small beetle on a metal pole
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
“I have worked here for more than 10 years and it was a complete surprise and incredibly exciting to find these well-preserved beetles, brought back from Africa 150 years ago almost to the day,” says Barclay.

“These specimens are still valuable to science. Museum researchers use historical specimens to study the effect of changing environments on plants and animals around the world.”

Dr Livingstone – described as a “Victorian hero” by the museum – led the expedition between 1858 and 1864. The specimens are the only surviving examples known to have been collected by him in Zambezi, and will go on show to the public in their original box during the annual Science Uncovered evening of exploration at the museum next week.

Hitoshi Takano, an entomologist at the museum, has retraced Dr Livingstone’s path into Africa.

“The most exciting thing for me is knowing that beetles I collect will be preserved in the collections of the Natural History Museum next to those collected by the great explorers of the past like Dr Livingstone,” he enthuses.

“My specimens will remain to be studied by scientists not yet born, maybe to answer questions we have not yet asked.”

Science fans will also be able to take part in hundreds of activities and meet leading researchers on the night.

“The Natural History Museum holds one of the largest, oldest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, consulted every year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world,” says Barclay.

“The beetle collection alone includes almost 10 million specimens, assembled over centuries. To study them all will take a lifetime.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A close up photo of a black and orange beetle with an annotation note next to it
Variegated Golden Longhorn Beetle, Tragocephala variegata© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
A photo of a man holding up a small black beetle specimen
Dr Max Barclay takes a closer look© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
A photo of a man holding open a box full of small black beetle specimens
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
A photo of black beetles
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
A close-up photo of a hand holding a small black beetle
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
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