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Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The collector's art

In the middle 1800s, the homes of wealthy people were full of dead things. No home was complete without cases of pinned insects or stuffed birds, stuffed animals on stands, animal heads on the wall and animal skins on the floor as rugs. Most naturalists got their start collecting live things, killing them, identifying them and preserving them for sale to rich "collectors".

 Until binoculars were invented in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, the only way to study birds up close was to shoot them or trap them in nets.

When I was young, around 1959, most natural history guides would still have been mainly about how to collect, kill, prepare, look after and store collections of dead things. Fashions change, and we try to avoid that, these days.

There is still an occasional need to kill specimens. I know from experience that a huntsman spider will never stay still long enough to be photographed.

This shot was deliberately over-exposed. Can you see why?
In fact, if you poke around in libraries, you may find a 1986 book of mine which describes a chemical killing jar, but I no longer recommend those.

The best way to slow down an invertebrate is to put it in the refrigerator, and the best way to kill an invertebrate is to put it in the freezer. This is gentle and painless, but remember to put the spider in a jar first, or great-aunt Ermyntrude may get a nasty shock!

After an hour or so, the animal will have lost consciousness and died, but it will also be contorted and twisted out of shape.

A dead huntsman spider, pinned out to dry in a selected pose.

The same applies to most animals that you find already dead, as was the case with the spider in the shots shown here.

Another view.
In either case, this is when you need to put the animal in a high humidity relaxing jar for a few hours. This softens the animal up so you can arrange it in a more lifelike pose, using pins to hold it in place while it dries.

(The details of how to make a high himidity jar are on pages 192-193 of Australian Backyard Naturalist, and if you look at the sample pages from the book on Google Books, you can see page 193 for free.

Or just go to this link, because I later added it to this blog.

I use entomology pins because they are long and easy to use, but I don't push them through the animal. Instead, I use them to make a scaffolding that holds each part in place while it dries, pinning the spider onto a piece of foam sheeting.

After that, you are ready to take pictures like the top pair.

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