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Science News

December 2010
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The NHM has a strong record in scientific research on parasitic worms, particularly evolution and identification, with wide international collaboration.  Parasitic worms can cause serious health effects in humans and other organisms, so scientific understanding is essential for effective control.

 

The research groups produce many scientific papers every year, but two produced in 2008 have just been recognised as being especially influential in the subject, having been mentioned ("cited") most frequently as being of importance by other scientists in their publications.

 

Dr Peter Olson (Zoology) recently received recognition for the “Top Cited Article 2008-2010” from Parasitology International for an invited review paper on Hox genes and parasitic flatworms. (Hox genes control part of the sequence of development of animals from egg to adult) The paper reviews the history of work on Hox genes in the phylum Platyhelminthes, introduces new data from the model tapeworm Hymenolepis, and sets the stage for how the study of developmental genes can inform a series of outstanding questions in the evolution of the parasitic forms.

 

Olson PD. 2008. Hox genes and the parasitic flatworms: New opportunities, challenges and lessons from the free-living. Parasitology International 57, 8-17.

 

Dr Rod Bray (Scientific Associate Zoology) is similarly an author on the Top Cited Article 2008-2010, this time in the International Journal for Parasitology. The paper presents the accumulated evidence for a major change in the classifiation of the orders of the Class Cestoda (tapeworms).

 

The old order Pseudophyllidea, which included tetrapod parasites, such as the common human tapeworm Diphyllobothrium latum, and fish parasites, such as the freshwater pest species Bothriocephalus acheilognathi, is separated into two orders. The fish parasites are included in the order Bothriocephalidae and the tetrapod parasites now make up the order Diphyllobothriidea. These groups have long been thought to be distinct - but closely related - and probably monophyletic (arising from one common evolutionary ancestor). 

 

However, classifications based on molecular data (DNA) from several sources indicate that these groups are polyphyletic (arising from several different evolutionary origins, and therefore not a natural group in evolutionary terms). The conclusion from the molecular results has been backed up by both new and previously reported morphological and biological information. Latest evidence suggests that the Diphyllobothriidea is closest to the unsegmented ‘primitive’ tapeworms, but the Bothriocephalidea is sister to the ‘higher’ tapeworm orders.


Kuchta, R., Scholz, T., Brabec, J. and Bray, R.A. (2008). Suppression of the tapeworm order Pseudophyllidea (Platyhelminthes: Eucestoda) and the proposal of two new orders, Bothriocephalidea and Diphyllobothriidea. International Journal for Parasitology, 38, 49-55. doi:10.1016/j.ijpara.2007.08.005.

 

 

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A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science explores the way in which new species of plants are described from specimens that may already have been in herbarium collections for many years, and underlines the importance of collections for discovering diversity..

 

NHM scientist Dr Mark Carine and scientific associate Dr Norman Robson undertook the research with colleagues from the Earthwatch Institute; University of Oxford; Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; and the Missouri Botanical Garden, looking at the time between the acquistion of the specimens and publication of the plant's description in the Kew Bulletin.

 

A small number of specimens are recognised as being new species when they are first collected.  However, the scientists found that many others are identified as a result of comparisons and revisions of major groups of plants that take place more gradually within the large collections, sometimes taking several years.  In this process, many specimens from different herbaria will be compared: the comparison and analysis gives rise to new understanding of diversity and the identification and description of new species.

 

This work emphasises the importance of collections, such as those of the NHM and its partners, in improving understanding of plant diversity. These collections exchange many specimens each year, and make thousands of loans to enable scientists to work on plant diversity around the world.  They are increasingly developing digital resources that should give wider and more rapid access to images of plant specimens, supporting this area of science.

 

 

Bebber, DP, Carine, MA, Wood, JRI, Wortley, AH, Harris, DJ, Prance, GT, Davids, G, Paige, J, Pennington, TD, Robson, NKB and Scotland, RW (2010) Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery.  PNAS.  December 6, 2010

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Bumblebee conservation

Posted by John Jackson Dec 22, 2010

Dr Paul Williams from the Museum's Department of Entomology has taken on the role of chair of the Bumblebee specialist group of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), an initiative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The SSC is a science-based network of volunteer experts from almost every country of the world, working to provide information and advice on biodiversity conservation, the value of species and their role in ecosystem health,  function and services, and their support for human livelihoods.

 

Paul is a world expert on bumblebee taxonomy and identification, producing scientific research papers and public resources.  He is also a Trustee of the UK Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

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Bryozoans are colonial invertebrates, commonly found attached to hard surfaces from the shallow subtidal zone to the deep sea. Bryozoan colonies increase in size by the budding of the numerous individuals (zooids) that make up the colony.

 

A collaborative team, including Professor Beth Okamura, Dr Tanya Knowles and Dr Paul Taylor from the NHM, explored how the size of zooids in fossil bryozoans varied as temperature changed.  This enabled them to use bryozoans to deduce the annual ranges of temperature during the Early Pliocene (around 4 million to 5.5 million years ago) in the Weddell Sea off the coast of  Antarctica.

 

Their results show that during this period the climate was warmer than that of the present day, suggesting an ice-free environment in that part of Antarctica.

 

The research shows the value of fossil bryozoans from shallow seas as a tool for reconstructing seasonal variation in climate in near-polar latitudes in past periods of the Earth's history.  This helps to understand how climates have changed naturally in the past - knowledge that in turn enables present-day changes in climate to be understood and predicted.

 

Clark, N., Williams, M., Okamura, B., Smellie, J., Nelson, A., Knowles, T., Taylor, P., Leng, M., Zalasiewicz, J. & Hayward, A. 2010. Early Pliocene Weddell Sea seasonality determined from bryozoans. Stratigraphy 7: 199-206.

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Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum (NHM), and Dr Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have just signed an agreement on the NHM joining the CBD's Consortium of Scientific Partners on Biodiversity.

 

The CBD is the focus in the UN system for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, first agreed in 1992.  It has made a major difference to the way in which biodiversity is monitored, conserved and used in many parts of the world since then. 192 countries are parties to the CBD, and they held their tenth conference in Nagoya, Japan at the end of 2010.

 

This meeting reviewed progress in reaching the 2010 targets for conserving biodiversity, but it is clear that there is no slowing of the rate of biodiversity loss on a global scale.  Biodiversity is not only valuable in its own right, but provides essential services in terms of food, environment, medicine and other human needs, so substantial long-term loss is of major concern.

 

There is an increasing sense of urgency to address threats to biodiversity and the Nagoya meeting secured agreement on a new strategy looking foward to 2020, and on a number of other issues.   One of these was a new protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources, which will be important in influencing the development and collaborative use of museum collections such as the NHM.

 

The Consortium is a group of major biodiversity institutions that are committed to collaborate with the CBD.  Its purpose is to mobilise "the expertise and experience of these institutions in order to  implement education and training activities to support developing  countries that are building scientific, technical and policy skills in  the area of biodiversity"

 

Current members are

 

  • The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
  • The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle de France
  • The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
  • The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation
  • The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
  • The National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
  • The Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources
  • The Higashiyama Botanical Gardens, City of Nagoya
  • Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh
  • The National Institute of Biological Resources
  • The Missouri Botanical Gardens
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee
  • The Natural History Museum of the United Kingdom
  • The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity