The red-veined darter that never was

I have been searching through my photograph of Dragonflies for last year to see if I have misidentified any common darters when they really should be something much rarer. I’m ever hopeful of coming across some rarity that I had missed in the field and assumed it had to be another common one. So far only the Lesser Emperor has emerged from a series of photos I took in Barnwell. Originally I had thought it was just an ordinary emperor (not that they can be considered ordinary as they swoop and dive across the water in pursuit of their prey) but in fact what I had been looking at was none other than a Lesser Emperor. The only other specimen of this wonderful species I had seen, was in the Zoology museum and had been caught in Mesopotamia at the turn of the 20th century by a colonial official taking time off from his duties. Mesopotamia is now known as Iraq so the species does live in some exotic places. My photos confused the experts for some time and it took somebody from the British Dragonfly societies rarities committee to confirm the identification.

Lesser Emperor or Anax parthenope

Since that fruitful beginning, I have been looking through my dragonfly photos (of which I have many thousands from this year alone) in the hope of converting a few more into interesting rarities. But so far nothing more has emerged.

I am also trying to investigate the historical specimens and museums are a fruitful source of information. Cambridge University Zoology Museum has an extensive collection of Dragonflies. I have managed to find 30 specimens that were collected in Cambridge. Some in the early part of the 19th century. It was fortunate that the museum has just catalogued all the dragonflies, so much of the work was done for me. This week I visited Oxford University Natural History Museum. It really is a wonderful place and full of skeletons and fossils and lots of lovely displays to capture the imagination. But behind the scenes they too have an excellent reference collection, which includes over 2000 British Dragonflies and Damselflies. I wrote to them and got an invitation to look at their collection. Unfortunately their Dragonflies were yet to be fully catalogued.

One of the curators provided me with a list of possible Cambridgeshire specimens that he knew about and then led me up to the dragonfly section. A room filled with metal cabinets containing countless drawers filled with insects, mostly from the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. As I looked down the there were a number of interesting darters listed, two of which have not been found in Cambridge recently. The Red-veined Darter was there as was the even rarer Vagrant Darter. So I was really excited by the prospect of finding historical specimens to make up for not finding them amongst my own photos.

I spent the afternoon taking out drawers and examining the rows of pinned bodies under a magnifying glass and trying to read the labels. But they were partly obscured by bodies, legs and wings, so I was given permission to take them out of the drawers and remove the labels from the pins. This was a terrifying prospect, since the ancient specimens are now very fragile indeed. The idea of knocking off a leg or even worse a wing or a head was simply too awful to contemplate. But I had to pluck up courage especially for the most important specimens.

The Red-veined Darter

The Red-veined Darter was in a drawer with the Vagrant Darters, so I gingerly lifted the airtight lid to remove the protective glass cover. Then taking the specimen out with entomological tweezers, I carefully slid each label down the pin, holding my breath as I worked.

Then there it was, the label giving all the known information about the specimen. ex coll Sir Arthur Pickard-Cambridge 5-1953. I took this to mean that it was from Sir Arthur Pickard’s collection and that it had been caught in Cambridge in May 1953. It was certainly a Red-veined Darter. But when I got home I looked up Sir Arthur Pickard. It turns out he had a famous ancestor who won a VC from a military action in New Zealand. Sir Arthur himself was a considerable academic in Oxford and had been Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University. But he died in 1952 and his name was not Sir Arthur Pickard, it was Sir Arthur Pickard-Cambridge. So I had to revise my assessment of the specimen. It might very well have been caught anywhere in the UK and it was probably given to the Museum after his death, the date of arrival in the museum being May 1953. It only goes to show the evidence may not always be what it seems!

Duncan Mackay