The zoologist who looks after more than a million dead insects

There can’t be many people with a 20-year-old exotic newt living in the kitchen. Ed Turner grew up passionate about wildlife and his parents indulged his love of creepy-crawlies. Today he’s Curator of Insects at the Museum of Zoology, where he combines research with teaching.

Ed Turner opens a drawer of insects (Nick Saffell)

I must have been an awful child. I was fascinated by animals and, aged five or so, I began collecting insects and other creepy-crawlies from my parents’ garden. To begin with, I kept them outside in an array of buckets but then I began filling my bedroom with all kinds of creatures. My parents were wonderfully tolerant — but they did draw the line at snakes.

As Curator of Insects I’m responsible for 1.2 million specimens. They come from all over the world and include collections made by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Each year we add to the collection, either specimens donated by other entomologists or insects collected as part our own research.

I’m never bored — it suits me to be busy. As well as my role as curator, I teach both undergraduate and graduate students, and carry out my own research. My focus is on Sumatra where, with colleagues, I’m working with the palm oil industry to mitigate some of the effects of rainforest clearance. At the Museum of Zoology, we’re in the middle of a redevelopment programme to redesign all the displays. It’s due to reopen in 2018.

By the time I was ten my bedroom was brimming with wildlife. I had stick insects, tarantulas, lizards, frogs and even quails. We went on holidays to Dorset and I brought back lots of rock pool animals, including some tiny grey mullet, which I kept in a seawater tank for almost a decade. Looking after all these creatures was almost a full time job — but I did go to school too. I still have an exotic newt that I bought around that time. It lives in a big tank on the floor of our kitchen and it’s over 20 years old.

Gerald Durrell’s books were a big influence. As a child I could identify with his passion for wildlife and for first hand observation. Like him, I looked after injured animals: I once took an injured squirrel into school. The most useful of Durrell’s books for me was The Amateur Naturalist, co-authored with his wife Lee. It taught me to think about the animals and plants found in different habitats and gave excellent practical advice, including how to prepare your own museum skins.

Many people played a part in developing my interest in biology. My parents and family come top of the list, plus my biology teacher at school and the close friends I grew up with. As a teenager I joined the Amateur Entomological Society and went on their summer camps. They were organised by some really inspiring entomologists, who gave tirelessly of their time and really developed my understanding of insects.

I made a last-minute application to Cambridge. There were lots of brighter children in my year, so I wasn’t sure whether I would apply. I think I got in just as much on the strength of what I’d done outside school as my GCSE results. Once I got the offer of a place, I started to work much harder.

At Cambridge I met lots of gifted and inspiring researchers. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, particularly my PhD supervisor, William Foster. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that successful research is largely about the people you work with. We are very lucky to have an excellent group that makes doing research not only interesting but also fun.

I did my PhD on the Bird’s Nest Fern and the insects that live in it. These ferns are epiphytic — they grow on other plants but not as parasites– and are native to the tropics of Africa and Asia. They’re also popular house plants — you can even buy them in Tesco. To live in the rainforest canopy, they have large drainpipe-like leaves that funnel water and fallen leaves into their base. The mixture decomposes, providing the plants with their own compost. Birds nest ferns are full of insects and my PhD investigated this diversity as well as how it changed when forest was logged and cut down for agriculture.

I’m excited about our latest projects in Sumatra. We’re collaborating with oil palm producers to find ways of improving palm oil yield and, at the same time, making the natural environment more biodiverse. You can never bring back a rainforest once it’s gone — but there are things you can do to reduce the impact of agricultural expansion and make tropical agriculture more sustainable. It takes time and patience but there’s a lot of potential.

Cambridgeshire too is a remarkable environment. Close to Cambridge are some great places to see wildlife. At East Pit, a former chalk quarry in Cherry Hinton that’s managed by the BCN Wildlife Trust, you can see Glow Worms. Behind Madingley Hall, home to Cambridge’s Institute for Continuing Education, is a wildflower meadow with Bee Orchids and Adder’s Tongue Fern. At Fleam Dyke there’s a spectacular population of Chalkhill Blue Butterflies.

Teaching is a vital part of my job. Perhaps the most valuable thing you can do as a biologist is teach people about the natural world. I’ve been lucky enough to teach most age groups — from children to mature students. I’ve found that nearly everyone is interested in biology as long as it is presented in the right way.

In my room at the Zoology Department, I have lots of live insects. I use them for talks and outreach events. They’re great for getting school children interested in biology, and equally good for engaging more mature audiences.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.



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