Joana Pequito Cristóvão
PhD in Ecology and Conservation of Biodiversity, Federal University of Mato Grosso, Brazil (Feb. 2021)
MSc in Taxonomy and Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum, London, UK & Imperial College London, UK (2013)
BSc in Zoology, University of Glasgow (2011)
Taxonomy, Systematics, Comparative morphology, Entomological collections.
A lot of my journey has been due to luck, opportunity and very good people and mentors. I have always been fascinated by the natural world and collecting. My school holidays were spent in forested rural areas of Portugal. My grandmother would give me jars and the only rule was that I would have to return when the very faint yellow street lights turned on. Plenty of time to explore and collect random things. None of my parents (nor my family) work in natural sciences but I was very lucky that they allowed and even encouraged my interests in the area. Perhaps in a more destructive manner than I would like to confess as one of my favourite pastimes at the time was to pick up winged ants to set up passerine traps with my dad. I decided I wanted to be an ornithologist quite early. While my friends were thinking what modules to choose for middle- and high school, I already knew I wanted to study biology.
I left my home country of Portugal in 2007 to pursue my undergraduate studies in Zoology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. During my first year I met Bernard Zonfrillo (Bernie), who would become my bird ringing trainer for the remainder of my studies there. It was on a fieldtrip to one of the islands of Loch Lomond that I found this beetle (Anoplotrupes stercorosus) covered in what I thought were ticks. They turned out to be phoretic mites! Bernie introduced me to Geoffrey Hancock (Geoff), the then curator of Entomology at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Geoff identified the beetle I had brought, showed me the insect collection and proposed I did my final year project on Coleoptera, under his supervision. It was while there that I realised that I could spend the rest of my life discovering new things. The diversity of insects was quite overwhelming and learning new terminologies was incredibly challenging. It was a completely new world I was entering but I was hooked! I ended up volunteering there during breaks.
After finishing my undergraduate studies, I decided to do a MSc course on taxonomy and biodiversity in London. The best decision I have ever made. I was incredibly fortunate that Geoff knew the Head of Coleoptera at the Natural History Museum, Maxwell Barclay (Max). The image of meeting Max at the Darwin statue in what is now Hintze Hall, this incredibly ornate part of the museum, is something I am not going to forget. A few days later Max introduced me to Christopher Lyal (Chris) who would be the ideal person to supervise my MSc project. I got introduced to weevils, in particular Anchonini, which now have a permanent place in my heart. Anchonini are a diverse tribe of apterous Molytinae found in forests of the Neotropical region. Many are associated with leaf-litter in montane forests, showing some degree of endemism. The level of undescribed diversity is high, but so is the morphological plasticity of certain clades. Strangely enough, one species of “true” Anchonini was described from the small island of Annobón off the African Coast, raising interesting questions about their biogeographic history. My project included a detailed comparative morphological study of the male and female terminalia of this rather neglected tribe, looking at generic definitions and potential synapomorphies for the tribe and its constituent genera. Due to a lucky coincidence, recent surveys conducted by the NHM in West Africa brought to light the first members of Anchonini on the African continent as well as a radiation of species on the Gulf of Guinea islands! This led to my first taxonomic paper in the journal “Diversity”, co-authored by Chris Lyal. Chris was (and still is) an incredibly patient mentor. I was also very fortunate to be taught how to make scientific drawings using a camera lucida and a mapping pen by Richard Thompson.
I stayed at the NHM for a few more years, continuing the work on Anchonini with Chris while working part time as loans and quarantine officer and a curatorial assistant. I was in charge of packing and sending parcels of outgoing loans from the insects division, as well as registering and freezing the incoming returned loans. On various short-term contracts as curatorial assistant, I got the chance to gain experience in many aspects of museology, which included re-curating another group of weevils “in wide sense” (the Ipini) and the museum’s synoptic collection of Coleoptera families, still frequently used for teaching purposes. I met so many amazing people; from some the very best Coleoptera taxonomists visiting the collection to artists, administrators, volunteers… the list goes on. Making such a large collection truly available to the community may appear trivial, but really is a complex task involving a diverse set of skills and a huge amount of work.
In 2016, Max Barclay was invited as a speaker at the 31st Brazilian Congress of Zoology in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso. He came back with the news that his colleague Fernando Vaz-de-Mello had a PhD position open for someone with a strong background in comparative morphology, but required Portuguese language skills, so my name was brought up. Four months later I left for Mato Grosso, Brazil to study the male and female terminalia of every family, subfamily, tribe and subtribe of Scarabaeoidea, as part of a detailed morphological study adding important data to the often disputed phylogeny of this megadiverse superfamily. While there I met some brilliant people, many from other Latin American countries. Their knowledge and skill level were just incredible; overwhelming at times. It was a steep learning curve for me. I have passed my viva in January this year.
I wonder where the next opportunity will take me. I have a deep interest in biodiversity and morphology of beetles, Curculionidae, Scarabaeoidea, but also other taxa (though Curculionidae are clearly the best!). I still have a lot of unfinished work on Anchonini which I would like to continue, whenever there is the opportunity. Whatever happens, I am sure I will continue studying weevils; even if not in a professional capacity.