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Science News

February 2011
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The coastline of the English county  of Dorset is spectacular and beautiful. It exposes a long sequence of Jurassic age sedimentary rocks, which are world renowned for their wealth of fossils, ranging from huge marine reptiles such as Ichthyosaurs through to ammonites and minute invertebrates.

 

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Stair Hole, Dorset

 

Beginning with the pioneering work of early collectors like Mary Anning, the area has been a cradle of palaeontology, attracting collectors of widely varying levels of knowledge and interest, ranging from beginners through experienced, dedicated amateurs and professionals.

 

The Jurassic  Coast is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Museum is an active partner in public and scientific programmes along the coast. 

 

The Palaeontological Association has recently published a guide to the fossils from the lower Lias of this area, edited by Alan Lord and Paul Davis. Eleven of the twenty chapters plus appendix were authored or co-authored by current and former members of the Palaeontology Department and our Scientific Associates. These include, Sandra Chapman, Diana Clements, Joe Collins, Paul Davis, Tim Ewin, Peter Forey, Nicole Fraser, David Lewis, Alison Longbottom, Angela Milner, Martin Munt, Ellis Owen, Phil Palmer, Andy Ross, Jon Todd, Stig Walsh, and John Whittaker. This new field guide is an invaluable resource for amateur, student and professional.

 

Lord, A. R. and P. G. Davis (eds). 2010. Fossils from the Lower Lias of the Dorset Coast. Palaeontological Association Field Guides to Fossils No. 13. Palaeontological Association, London. 436pp.
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Just over one hundred years ago in Feburary 1911, Captain R.F. Scott RN received news from Roald Amundsen that he was intending to make a bid for the South Pole in competition with Scott’s. Scott’s expedition had a range of important scientific goals: the race for the Pole for which he is best known was only one of the objectives. The science involved resulted in a number of Antarctic collections, some of which are in the Museum today.

 

These collections have been used to show a dramatic doubling in the growth of bryozoans in Antarctic seas in the last twenty years. Bryozoans are tiny colonial animals that encrust rocks, algae and other objects beneath the sea, filtering food from the water.  It is another use of older collections that could never have been anticipated at the time of collection, but shows the value and importance of these collections to modern science and current concerns.

 

Dr Piotr Kuklinski, a Scientific Associate of the Museum who works for the Polish  Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanography, has collaborated with other scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and US institutions to examine collections to tell how growth has changed over time and to suggest reasons why this might be happening.

 

They looked at a whole series of Antarctic collections in the Museum from 1909 to the 1930s, and other collections in the US and New Zealand up to the present day.  The species Cellarinella nutti from the Ross Sea was used – it shows annual growth lines as the colony expands and so yearly growth can be measured. The growth measurements showed no particular change in rates of growth from 1890 to 1970, but there was a rapid increase in growth from the 1990s to the present day.

 

Why is this happening?  Growth seems to be increasing because of increased availability of food – tiny single-celled plants known as phytoplankton. This increase would result from higher concentrations of phytoplankton or a longer growing season. Climate change?  Probably not - the scientists point out that there is little evidence of changes to sea ice or water temperatures in the Ross Sea.

 

However, they do suggest that this may be linked to depletion of stratospheric ozone – the ozone holes that occur in the Antarctic summer.  This could be causing stronger west winds that result in currents bringing in more nutrients to the area, in turn resulting in higher growth of plankton and higher growth of bryozoans.  Our understanding of the detail of these questions helps refine our understanding of the Earth’s carbon cycle, which is closely linked to our climate system.

 

The authors conclude ‘Amundsen claimed that Scott's “..British expedition was designed entirely for scientific research. The Pole was only a side-issue…”. Being first to reach the pole was foremost in fundraising and probably in Scott's thinking but coming second in the ensuing ‘race’ and dying there completely overshadowed the many scientific achievements of the expedition. However, the baselines that they established and crucial subsequent curation may prove key to interpretation of trends with significance way beyond the polar regions.’

 

David K.A. Barnes, Piotr Kuklinski, Jennifer A. Jackson, Geoff W. Keel, Simon A. Morley, Judith E. Winston (2011) Scott's collections help reveal accelerating marine life growth in Antarctica.  Current Biology - 22 February 2011 (Vol. 21, Issue 4, pp. R147-R148) doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.01.033

 

 

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Why collect? Do we need more? Why keep such large collections?  What is the relevance to modern science? Having a collection of around 70 million objects that has been growing since 1753 means that we get asked these questions from time to time.

 

In essence, the reason is that science relies upon physical evidence: we want to see for ourselves. Scientists are trained to be sceptical: to question ideas; to measure and re-examine data; to look at what is known through new eyes; and to pursue what is not yet known. This is fundamentally what natural history is about. The “natural” in natural history is not a direct reference to our modern ideas of nature, although it includes living things and the geological.  Instead it refers to what is real, physical, observable, measurable. The “history” means investigation, or account—so natural history is about investigating real things.

 

That’s why we collect—this and other massive collections represent natural diversity—a resource that has been developed by thousands of people all over the world for three hundred years. So we are developing an intellectual and scientific capital, a bank of evidence and ideas that connect to what has been found out through science in the past and that can be re-examined and questioned.

 

Crucially, although they were developed usually to investigate the diversity of species, the collections can also be used to ask new questions about issues of new concern.  There is huge current interest in natural diversity and how organisms enable ecosystems to function, but what about issues such as climate change? A group of scientists in the Museum have been looking again at the collections to assess their value in understanding how the biosphere—the totality of living things—responds to climate change. 

 

They have just produced a paper in BioScience (Johnson et al. 2011) that outlines the value of collections and points to new directions for scientific collaboration and collections development to answer climate change questions and predict future trends in the impacts on living things.

 

In particular, there is interest in our collection in terms of:

 

  • Investigating how geographical distribution changed in the past as climate changed, using location and dates of collection;
  • Understanding how extinction of species and populations has happened in the past as climate changed—so mammoths were reduced to small populations that clung on in some locations for long periods even after climate had reduced their range of distribution;
  • Looking at how flowering times have changed over time—plants are collected as they flower in many cases and the dates of flowering with respect to temperature can be tracked;
  • Examining changes in diet as climate changes—different diets leave traces in bone and other tissue. Changes in food sources may reduce survival.
  • Understanding changes in genetic diversity from DNA as populations respond to environmental change

 

There are many other possibilities and the challenge for the Museum is to enable its own and collaborating scientists to work effectively with the collection in new ways to answer these questions. We also need to think about what is collected now, and how it is stored; and think about how information on collections is best stored on databases to allow research to take place. This is an opportunity for a wide network of museums that will also need to work with other scientific collections to provide the evidence to understand the future.

 

Kenneth G. Johnson, Stephen J. Brooks, Phillip B. Fenberg, Adrian G. Glover, Karen E. James, Adrian M. Lister, Ellinor Michel, Mark Spencer, Jonathan A. Todd, Eugenia Valsami-Jones, Jeremy R. Young, John R. Stewart Climate Change and Biosphere Response: Unlocking the Collections Vault (pp. 147-153) DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.2.10 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/bio.2011.61.2.10

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Museum Palaeontology scientists Silvia Bello and Chris Stringer—with Simon Parfitt from University College London—have produced a fascinating paper (Bello et al., 2011) on the post-mortem treatment of human bodies in the UK in the Magdalenian period, around 14,700 years ago.

Ancient human cannibalism and use of skulls as cups—it is an inherently fascinating view of the distant past and the unfamiliarity of cultural practice, and of the Museum science that makes this view possible.

 

The remains from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, were thoroughly cleaned of flesh soon after death, leaving characteristic scratches and marks, and the crowns of the skulls were skilfully isolated by cutting around the skull, breaking the bone along a horizontal line and tidying the broken edge to give a more even effect.

 

Given comparisons with the preparation of animal remains in the same site, it seems likely that the flesh was removed to be eaten—bone marrow was also extracted from human bones by breaking them in the same way as animal bones. But why the treatment of the skull in this way?

 

These practices are also known from other European sites of the same period, and human skulls have been prepared as vessels in a number of cultures to quite recent times—in some cultures it is not uncommon to prepare and use human tissue for particular purposes associated with funerals or other rituals.  In the case of Gough’s Cave, we can observe the behaviour but when it comes to explaining the reasons we can only speculate.

 

Removal of tissue in this way and preparation of the skull required complex use of tools and probably needed considerable practice.  Scientific examination of the remains of five people, ranging from an older adult to a three-year old child, required the use of advanced imaging equipment to define how the cuts were made, and radiocarbon dating.

 

Scientific research on human evolution is an essential part of the Museum’s work: our common human origins, relatives and ancestors; human variation; and the impacts of disease and life events are some of the major foci of interest.  A collection of almost 20,000 remains are cared for in the Museum from all parts of the world, with around 10,000 from the UK, and provides an essential resource for research.

 

The work overall casts light on the complexity of the human story and our origins, and the connections between modern and ancient groups of people—both genetic and cultural.  Humans have been a highly mobile species, adapting to many different environments and developing a wide range of cultural practices over time.

 

The work of Chris and Silvia in the collaborative Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project shows a pattern of successive groups of humans moving in and out of Britain over the past million years as climate and environment changed.  The people at Gough’s cave, at less than 15,000 years, are relatively recent in this context.

 

We might argue that part of the fascination and popular interest of this science is the connection with ourselves, pursuing the instruction to “know thyself” by Socrates.  Given the apparent consumption of humans by these people, one might also suggest an early and rather too literal enthusiasm captured in the aphorism of Brillat-Savarin “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”: tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are.

There is active scientific debate on human evolution and variation, human behaviour and the meaning of behaviour. The physical and behavioural similarities and contrasts between people in different places and times are compelling and often examined.

 

Part of the interest of this particular work is that the remains provide evidence on both physical form and behaviour, and this is where there is debate on whether the term “modern” is relevant or useful in understanding.  We think about physical modernity in terms of similarity to living people, but what of behaviour?

 

Although in simple terms these people would be described physically as modern humans—there is very little physical difference from living people—given the strangeness of the practices in Gough’s Cave to our culture, it might have been assumed in the past that these people were somehow different from modern-day humans in terms of their essential nature: possibly, in crude terms, more primitive in some way.

 

A paper just published by John Shea (2011) is a useful focus for the scientific debate, arguing that to think of certain behavioural characters as representing “modern” humans is problematic because it is based too much on evidence from European archaeology. He argues that we should not see the evolution of human behaviour in progressive terms, but instead as a process giving rise to a much more variable set of characteristics that cannot as such be used to define modern humans.

 

This paper is a focus of active debate in science, and the pattern of thinking, research and discussion in this area of science is constantly changing: was there a sudden evolutionary leap that made us what we are? Was there a cultural or linguistic revolution of some sort? Did our ancestors start to think in different ways at a particular time, and why? How can genetics inform our understanding? What does new archaeology suggest? What makes us what we are, and are we in essence the same as those people in Gough’s Cave?

 

Bello SM, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026


Shea, JJ (2011) Homo sapiens Is as Homo sapiens Was Current Anthropology Vol. 52, No. 1 (February 2011), pp. 1-35. DOI: 10.1086/658067

 

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St Valentine's day is better known for sentiment, but in addition to the death of the eponymous saint, Captain James Cook died in Hawai'i in on the morning of 14 January 1779 during the voyage of the Resolution.  The Museum has strong connections with Cook and his collaborators, with a tremendous legacy of collections, drawings, art and other records.

 

In particular, Sir Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and Sidney Parkinson all travelled with Cook on his earlier voyage on the EndeavourPlant collections from this voyage and others originating from Banks are held in the Museum's Botany department collections. Illustrations from the Library are described on the Endeavour botanical illustrations pages.  More of the Museum's resources are available on ArtStor, but this is currently only available via some academic institutions. Further images can be found on the NHM picture library by searching for "Endeavour" or "Resolution".

 

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Barringtonia calyptrata

 

Cook is particularly well known for his supreme skill in navigation and naval mapping. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography "In his three voyages to the Pacific, Cook disproved the existence of a  great southern continent, completed the outlines of Australia and New  Zealand, charted the Society Islands, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia,  and the Hawaiian Islands, and depicted accurately for the first time the  north-west coast of America, leaving no major discoveries for his  successors. In addition the scientific discoveries in the fields of  natural history and ethnology were considerable and the drawings made by  the artists were of great significance."

 

In other words, he transformed the 18th Century European view of the Pacific.  He was also recognised for his acheivements in practical health care, developing new ways of preventing the disease scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin C.


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The main Museum news stream features an article on the diversity of potatoes, referring to a paper produced by Dr Sandra Knapp and collaborators in Russia and the USA.  They refer to the 626 different names (both species and varieties of species) used to refer to cultivated potatoes that are in fact members of only four species.

 

It's tempting to see this diversity of names as a mistake, or untidiness in taxonomy.  The reality is more complex: the idea of what a species is and how it should be identified and named has changed over time.  In addition, cultivated strains are frequently bred to develop particular characteristics that may have appeared to scientists in the past to represent different species. The fact that we are now able to bring together information on physical morphology with DNA data means that ideas of species can be tested in a number of different ways and reasons for superficial differences associated with cultivated strains explained.

 

ANNA OVCHINNIKOVA, EKATERINA KRYLOVA, TATJANA GAVRILENKO, TAMARA SMEKALOVA, MIKHAIL ZHUK, SANDRA KNAPP and DAVID M. SPOONER Taxonomy of cultivated potatoes (Solanum section Petota: Solanaceae) Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society Volume 165, Issue 2, pages 107–155, February 2011DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8339.2010.01107.x

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Eva Fejer (1927-2011)

Posted by John Jackson Feb 3, 2011

Eva Fejer, X-ray crystallographer in the Museum Mineralogy Department until her retirement in 1987, sadly passed away on 11 January 2011.

 

Eva’s life was full of incident, trauma and adventure which forged her character: indomitable, yet at the same time kind and loving. Fortunately, she documented her account of her life and of working in the Museum in the current Museum Lives project. Many tributes to her and memories of her can be found on www.mindat.org

 

Eva was born at Budapest in 1927. Her father was a prominent lawyer and the family prosperous but war brought traumatic change. Her father was murdered by the Nazis and Eva was sent first as forced labour for Daimler-Benz and subsequently to Ravensbruck concentration camp. After the war she came to the UK with her mother as a refugee.

 

Eva was appointed as an experimental officer in the Mineralogy Department in 1949 and started work in the chemical laboratories under Max Hey. One of her first projects was to contribute on a solution to the Piltdown Man scandal. She later transferred to X-ray Crystallography where she worked with Williams, Bannister and Claringbull, rapidly becoming a specialist in X-ray powder diffraction and single crystal work.

 

Eva was the lead author in the description and naming of the mineral claringbullite; named after her friend and mentor Sir Frank Claringbull (Director 1968-1976). Other new minerals she helped to describe are atheneite, isomertieite, palladseite, keyite, henryite, sweetite, mattheddleite and ashoverite.

 

She translated several books, including Mineral Museums of Europe and The Studio Handbook of Minerals. She also co-authored a number of other popular books (An Instant Guide to Rocks and Minerals, A Collectors Guide to Minerals and Gemstones, Rocks and Minerals) and scientific papers. Her fluency in a number of languages meant she was always in great demand as a translator and she also organised the Museum's first-aiders.

 

In her retirement she maintained an active life: first working for the Joint Committee on Powder Diffraction Standards; then working as a volunteer driver for Charing Cross  Hospital for a number of years. She travelled widely, went on several cruises, invariably attended the birthday celebrations for her governess Ilse (now 104) in Budapest, went to school reunions in Budapest and also became a lecturer at summer schools for German schoolchildren at the Ravensbruck concentration camp where she and other Holocaust survivors recounted their terrible experiences in the hope that such atrocities are never repeated.

 

She was deeply loved by her friends and her cousins who are spread around the world. She regularly had lunch with friends in the Palaeontology Department, and always came in to the Museum for Mineralogy Department gatherings.

 

This article is taken from MinNews, the newsletter of the NHM Mineralogy Department

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Intestinal schistosomiasis, caused by Schistosoma mansoni, is endemic to Lake Victoria, with high prevalence of the disease in human lakeshore communities.  Schistosomiasis caused by S. mansoni and a number of other species affects over 200 million people worldwide and is classified by the World Health Organisation as a Neglected Tropical Disease, associated with poverty and limited access to public health services.

 

Schistosoma mansoni is a trematode worm, related to flukes, and is the focus of research by a number of NHM research scientists.  Understanding the life-cycle (part of which takes place in a snail vector, Biomphalaria) and evolution of the parasite is essential to enable effective disease control to be put in place.  Intestinal schistosomiasis causes a range of debilitating chronic health problems, including organ damage, which contribute to a low quality of life for those affected.

 

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A scanning electron microscope image of male and female Schistosoma mansoni

 

Although research has led to much better understanding of the life-cycle, nonhuman primates have until recently been overlooked as potential hosts of the disease, despite known susceptibility. NHM PhD student Claire Standley is lead author on a new study, with Russell Stothard and Richard Kane (Zoology) and other co-authors, that has looked at transfer of the parasite between chimps and humans.

 

They examined 39 semi-captive wild-born chimpanzees being cared for at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Lake Victoria, Uganda, together with 37 staff members for S. mansoni infection. Miracidia (a life stage of the parasite) recovered from faeces were analysed for DNA to investigate cross-over between humans and chimpanzees.The island was also surveyed for Biomphalaria intermediate host snails, which were examined for infection with S. mansoni.

 

Chimpanzees were unequivocally shown to be infected with intestinal schistosomiasis. Miracidia hatched from chimpanzee faeces revealed three S. mansoni DNA profiles (haplotypes) commonly found in humans living throughout Lake Victoria, including staff on Ngamba  Island, as well as two previously undescribed haplotypes. At one site, a snail was observed shedding schistosome cercariae (another life stage of the parasite that is released into water and that enters humans through the skin).

 

The scientists concluded that the potential for transfer of intestinal schistosomiasis between humans and animals on Ngamba  Island is greater than previously thought. In addition, chimpanzees were excreting schistosome eggs that were capable of hatching into viable miracidia.  This suggests that these nonhuman primates may be capable of maintaining a local reservoir of schistosomiasis independently of humans - which in turn means that control strategies focused only on treating the parasite in humans may not be successful: account needs to be taken of possible persistence of schistosomes in animal populations.

 

 

Claire J. Standley, Lawrence Mugisha, Jaco J. Verweij, Moses Adriko, Moses Arinaitwe, Candia Rowell, Aaron Atuhaire, Martha Betson, Emma Hobbs, Christoffer R. van Tulleken, Richard A. Kane, Lisette van Lieshout, Lilly Ajarova, Narcis B. Kabatereine, J. Russell Stothard. Confirmed Infection with Intestinal Schistosomiasis in Semi-Captive Wild-Born Chimpanzees on Ngamba  Island, Uganda.Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases. February 2011, 11(2): 169-176. doi:10.1089/vbz.2010.0156.

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What was the role of water on Mars in the past?  Much of what we know about Mars has been from observation from a distance. Although a few missions have landed scientific equipment on the surface, and some meteorites from Mars have landed on the Earth's surface, a huge amount of data have been gathered from orbiting missions and from other remote observation techniques. The geology of the surface can be studied by looking at infrared and other radiation: different minerals react differently to particular sorts of light and radiation.

 

Javier Cuadros, a clay specialist in the Museum's Mineralogy Department, has been successful in being awarded money from the EU to host a research fellow under the Marie Curie scheme to explore the origin of Iron/Magnesium-rich clay minerals on Mars.

 

Clays have been discovered on Mars in the past five years using near-infrared spectroscopy - this is of particular importance because the presence of clay shows for the first time unambiguous evidence for long-term water activity on Mars. Understanding the conditions of formation of these
Fe/Mg-rich clays is central to revealing Mars' climate history; and the possiblity of there having been conditions suitable for life in the past .

 

The study will focus on marine systems on Earth that produce abundant Mg- and Fe-rich clays (talc, saponite and nontronite). These clays are often intimately mixed by chemical and physical processes and seem similar to Martian clays. It seems possible that similar water conditions on Mars may have generated the Fe/Mg-clays. The Earth clays from several submarine hydrothermal fields will be studied using advanced microscopy, chemical, spectroscopic, structural and isotope analytical techniques to fully characterise their crystal-chemistry and to define the environment in which they formed (temperature, fluids, mineral assemblages).

 

These infrared and other data for Earth clay will be compared with the data from Mars and similarities and differences will give much better understanding of the past role of water on Mars.


 


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The Rappemonads, a new branch of the tree of life has been traced: Dr  Tom Richards (Zoology), in collaboration with scientists from Monterey  Bay Aquarium Research Institute USA, and Dalhousie University Canada,  has identified a previously unknown group of single-celled organisms related to red algae. These newly discovered marine and freshwater cells contain plastids (of which chloroplasts are an example) that photosynthesise, producing energy from sunlight.

It is  estimated that almost 2 million species of plants, animals, fungi and other life forms have been described and  identified in the past two hundred and fifty years.  Much of this science of diversity has been based on physical form - morphology - but in recent years DNA sequencing has made it possible to explore biodiversity in new ways and different environments.  It is thought that much of the biodiversity remaining to be discovered - possibly around 10 million species - lies in single-celled organisms and bacteria, which are too small to see with the naked eye and live in vast numbers in soils, water or sediments. Our understanding of what biodiversity is, and why it is important in ecosystems, continues to change as the technology develops.

Tom and his collaborators used DNA techniques to to investigate unidentified microbes from shorelines in the UK and US, from open sea water and from UK fresh waters.  Their DNA results were compared with information in large scientific databases and proved to be from a new group of organisms, the rappemonads, related to algae, phytoplankton and seaweeds, a unique form of photosynthetic life. It appears that rappemonads occur from time to time in large numbers in transient oceanic blooms, suggesting that it may play a significant role in the global carbon cycle and marine food webs.

Kim, E., Harrison, J., Sudek, S., Jones, M. D. M., Wilcox, H. M., Richards, T. A., Worden, A. Z., & Archibald, J. M. 2011. Newly identified and diverse plastid-bearing branch on the eukaryotic tree of life. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. Online Early.