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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Watkin Tench's insects

For the most part, early scientists and collectors in Australia took little notice of "insects" (a term which in those days generally included spiders as well. To the collectors, spectacular birds and mammals were best, followed by reptiles and amphibians. It seems as though fish were regarded just as something to eat if they were edible, while the invertebrates and the inedible fish were of no interest at all.

Chrysolopus spectabilis, Long Track, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park,
spring 2011, suiting on a gate at the trail head.
There were exceptions, of course.  John Lewin came out to Australia to paint nature as he saw it, but he was funded by a London entomologist, on the understanding that he (Lewin) would deliver lots of insects to his benefactor.

And, of course, one of the few animals collected by Sir Joseph Banks at Botany Bay in 1770 was Chrysolopus spectabilis, the "Botany Bay diamond weevil".  It's a fairly memorable beast that comes in different colours in different parts of the country.

Ordinary settlers like Watkin Tench found the invertebrates hard to ignore. Tench may not have been a naturalist, but he seems to be the earliest to write down what he saw of them.

Summer here, as in all other countries, brings with it a long list of insects. In the neighborhood of rivers and morasses, mosquitoes and sandflies are never wanting at any season, but at Sydney they are seldom numerous or troublesome. The most nauseous and destructive of all the insects is a fly which blows not eggs but large living maggots, and if the body of the fly be opened it is found full of them. Of ants there are several sorts, one of which bites very severely. The white ant is sometimes seen.
Spiders are large and numerous. Their webs are not only the strongest, but the finest, and most silky I ever felt. I have often thought their labour might be turned to advantage. It has, I believe, been proved that spiders, were it not for their quarrelsome disposition which irritates them to attack and destroy each other, might be employed more profitably than silk-worms.
The hardiness of some of the insects deserves to be mentioned. A beetle was immersed in proof spirits for four hours, and when taken out crawled away almost immediately. It was a second time immersed, and continued in a glass of rum for a day and a night, at the expiration of which period it still showed symptoms of life. Perhaps, however, what I from ignorance deem wonderful is common.
—Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, ch. XVII.

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