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Palaeontographical Society Annual Address


Flett Lecture Theatre, Natural History Museum at 4.15 pm, Tuesday, April 12th

Professor W. James Kennedy
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford


NHM contact: Dr Andrew Smith


William Buckland (1784-1856) is mainly remembered today for his larger-than-life personality, his pet bear and hyaena, his humour, dining habits (including, it is said, eating the heart of one of the Kings of France) and his ultimate madness. Yet he was the first President of the Geological Society, and the first geologist (the term palaeontology and thence palaeontologist dates only from1838) to receive the Copley Medal, the highest award of the Royal Society (1821) To his contemporaries, he was the English Cuvier.


NaturalHistoryMuseum_002776_IA Buckland.jpg

Buckland¹s contributions to science are many.  His observations and experiments at Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire mark the beginnings of cave science and palaeoecology. Paviland Cave in Pembrokeshire, visited in 1823 yielded a human skeleton, the so-called 'Red Lady¹. The bones are actually those of a young man, a mammoth hunter perhaps, who we now know to be the earliest anatomically modern human from Britain. Triassic footprints were interpreted through experiments with the family tortoise and rolled out pastry. The beozar stones found by Mary Anning and others on the coast at Lyme Regis were demonstrated to be fossil faeces, confirmed by experiments with cement and skate guts. Megatherium, the 'Great Lizard of Stonesfield¹, was described by Buckland, providing the first scientific account of what Richard Owen was to call dinosaurs. He made logical interpretations of the function of the chambered shell of ammonites, and through his work came the early attempts to reconstruct ancient communities, illustrated by his friend Henry De la Beche in Duria Antiquior (1830): Ancient Dorset.

Buckland¹s collections (gnawed bones, fish guts and all), his correspondence, teaching diagrams and notes all survive, and provide all the images needed to bring alive this remarkable man, and his contributions to our then fledgling science.


The UK was for substantial periods in the past largely covered by glaciers that advanced and receded over the landscape as climate changed.  At various times when the ice had retreated - the inter-glacials - animals and plants moved back, colonising and flourishing in the new landscape.  What is now the coast of Norfolk was part of an ecosystem in the valley of a slow-flowing river, home to mammoths, rhino and bison, bears, wild dogs, hyenas, lions, deer, horses and waterfowl.  They lived across a low landscape with mixed woodland of oak, alder and birch.


Adrian Lister (Palaeontology) and former NHM researcher Tony Stuart have co-edited a special issue of the science journal Quaternary International that  brings together 18 papers on the geology, dating, floras and faunas of  the stratotype deposit of the Cromerian Interglacial of the Pleistocene (ca 700,000 years  BP).  These studies were presented at an earlier conference at the Castle Museum in Norwich.

This  major piece of work represents the culmination of 20 years of research,  beginning with the discovery and excavation in West Runton (Norfolk) of  a mammoth skeleton (Mammuthus trogontherii) in 1990.  This mammoth would have weighed around 9 tonnes, considerably larger than most modern African elephants, and died at over 40 years of age.



Mammuthus trogontherii


The  volume includes contributions from past and present members of the  department, including Simon Parfitt, Mark Lewis, Marzia Breda, Nigel  Larkin, and John Stewart. The West Runton mammoth skeleton is the most  complete of the species, and it represents an important stage in the  evolution of the woolly mammoth. Its discovery stimulated a  comprehensive study of every aspect of the site, resulting in a new and  vivid picture of the environment of the time.

Lister,  A.M. & Stuart, A.J. (eds) 2010. The West Runton Freshwater Bed and  the West Runton Mammoth. Quaternary International 228, 1-248.


The Mid-Atlantic ridge is the zone running north to south along the bed of the Atlantic Ocean where two major tectonic plates are gradually moving apart, causing volcanic and other geological activity.  As the plates separate slowly, the rock fractures and sea water becomes heated by contact with hot and molten rock below the surface.  This hot water dissolves minerals and contains highly concentrated levels of a range of chemical substances. 

In places this water is forced from hydrothermal vents on the bed of the sea, forming plumes of superheated hot water that rise into the ocean, sometimes carrying thick black particulates.  As the water cools slightly at the vent, various dissolved chemicals are deposited to make large mineral structures such as chimneys and other forms. Exploration of this environment has been increasing over the past forty years with the development of advanced equipment and remotely-operated vehicles: small submarines that carry sophisticated scientific probes and cameras.

The bottom of the ocean is not generally fertile in comparison to coastal seas, but hydrothermal vents are home to dense populations of animals, supported by bacteria that flourish in the chemical-rich waters. The high sulphur and mineral content of the water would make it toxic to most organisms, but some species have evolved to tolerate the temperature and chemical environment.  The animals either consume the bacteria (or one another) directly, or have, in the case of bivalve mussels, symbiotic bacteria in their gill tissue that enables them to use sulphur compounds to produce energy.  These environments are small islands of fertility on the ocean floor, of great evolutionary and ecological interest.

Dr Adrian Glover (Zoology) is part of a team of co-authors in an international team from Portugal, France and the UK who have recently described assemblages of animals from the 11m-high Eiffel Tower structure in the Lucky Strike hydrothermal vent field 1700 metres deep on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, just to the south of the Azores. Pictures of the Eiffel Tower can be seen on the IFREMER site.

They sampled temperature and sulphide were measured in the water at two different assemblages: one dominated by shrimps and the other by mussels. Temperature, rather than sulphide concentration, appeared to be the major environmental factor affecting the distributions of the resident hydrothermal vent species. The highest temperature variability and the highest maximum recorded temperatures were found in the assemblages visibly inhabited by alvinocaridid shrimp and dense mussel beds of large Bathymodiolus azoricus, whereas the less variable and more stable habitats were inhabited by smaller-sized mussels with increasing bare surface in between.


D Cuvelier et al. (2011) Hydrothermal faunal assemblages and habitat characterisation at the Eiffel Tower edifice (Lucky Strike, Mid-Atlantic Ridge). Marine Ecology (2011) doi:10.1111/j.1439-0485.2010.00431.x.


We know that animals come in a whole range of different shapes and sizes – there is an immense variety in form, ranging from the smallest of flatworms to the blue whale.  One area of real interest to scientists is understanding how form changes with size and why.  Are there limits to size that are imposed by the basic materials that make up an animal’s body, or the arrangement of body parts that have been inherited?


Take modern mammals, for example: the Blue Whale at 180 tonnes shows that mammals can grow to a very large size in a marine environment with modifications to the basic mammalian body plan.  But on land, elephants are the largest living mammals with a maximum mass of over 10 tonnes – around half the probable mass of Paraceratherium which lived approximately 20-40 million years ago.  The largest land animal is likely to have been the dinoasaur Argentinosaurus with a mass of up to 60 tonnes, living 95 million years ago.
Some body parts can be in the same proportion in small and large animals (isometric), but other characteristics will be in different proportion in large and small animals (allometric) – so the diameter of leg bones is thicker in proportion to body size in larger animals than in smaller animals.


A Museum collection provides an ideal resource to compare different body structures and biomechanics, and to try to explain how and why body plans change with size and environment: tens of thousands of individual organisms are available for study, with expert support from curators.


How does internal bone structure change with size?  Dr Sandra Shefelbine of Imperial College London with colleagues from IC and the Royal Veterinary College studied bones from ninety species of mammal and bird ranging in size from shrews to elephants, using the Natural History Museum’s collections with other material from the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London.
Their study, funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, looked at the structure of the spongy bone near joints that helps sustain impact and weight when the animal jumps or walks. They showed that the density of spongy bone near joints was very uniform between species but that the internal struts (trabeculae) that give the bone its spongy appearance got thicker and further apart as species got larger.



What this work helps to demonstrate is that some shared characteristics of different organisms can change more than others as body sizes increase.  So the larger animals have larger bones in absolute terms, but the bone does not get more dense to cope with higher body mass – the relative thickness of the trabeculae increases instead. So rather than having denser bone (which would require more resource to grow and require relatively more energy to move) to sustain greater weight, the structure of bone changes allometrically in larger species.


BBSRC have supported this work because of the fundamental interest of the science but also because understanding of the mechanics of bone structures can support other work to combat fractures and osteoporosis.  Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "Bones are remarkably versatile structures able to produce intricate mechanisms in the ear and to support the weight of an elephant. However, in elderly people bones can become fragile and prone to breakages which can lead to serious health problems and drastically reduce quality of life. This research has increased our understanding of how bones have evolved across the animal kingdom and may lead to new insights about how to keep them strong and healthy."


The NHM curators who helped the researchers access collections material were Louise Tomsett and Roberto Portela-Miguez


Michael Doube, Michal‚ M. Klosowski, Alexis M. Wiktorowicz-Conroy, John R. Hutchinson, and Sandra J. Shefelbine (2011) Trabecular bone scales allometrically in mammals and birds Proc. R. Soc. B  published online before print March 9, 2011, doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.0069


The discovery of hydrothermal vents in the late 1970s triggered an  enormous biological interest in chemoautotrophic organisms dependant on  previously unknown symbioses with sulphide and methane oxidising  bacteria. Molluscs, particularly bivalves, are the most diverse and  widespread group of chemosymbiotic animals ranging from the intertidal  to hadal depths. Thirteen international speakers will review the  biology, diversity, evolution,host-symbiont interactions and habitats of  these molluscs.


The Malacological Society of London and Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, are organising a meeting 7 - 8 April 2011 Chemosymbiotic molluscs and their environments: from intertidal to hydrothermal vents at The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD


1000-1800h, 7 April 2011, Flett Theatre
1000-1300h, 8 April 2011, Sir Neil Chalmers Seminar Room


No registration fee but for catering purposes PLEASE LET US KNOW IN ADVANCE if you will be attending.


Organisers and contact: John Taylor and Emily Glover



Speakers and titles


  • Sarah Samadi (Systématique, Adaptation et Evolution, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris) ‘Mytilids associated with sunken wood shed new light on the evolution of Bathymodiolinae’
  • Sebastien Duperron (Systématique, Adaptation et Evolution, Université Pierre & Marie Curie, Paris) ‘Connectivity and flexibility of mussel symbioses: how to cope with fragmented and variable habitats?’
  • Nicole Dubilier (Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology, Bremen) ‘The unrecognized diversity of bacterial symbionts in chemosymbiotic molluscs’
  • Clara Rodrigues (Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal) ‘Chemosymbiotic bivalves from mud volcanoes in the Gulf of Cadiz: an overview’
  • Graham Oliver (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) ‘Thyasiridae: the known and the unknown: setting priorities for future research’
  • Heiko Sahling (Geosciences, University of Bremen) ‘The geological and geochemical environment of vesicomyid clams’
  • Elena Krylova (Institute of Oceanology, Moscow) ‘Vesicomyidae (Bivalvia): current systematics and distribution’
  • Steffen Kiel (Geobiology, University of Göttingen) ‘The fossil history of chemosymbiotic bivalves’
  • John Taylor and Emily Glover (Zoology, NHM London) ‘Ancient chemosymbioses – contrasting diversification histories of Lucinidae and Solemyidae’
  • Olivier Gros (Université des Antilles et de la Guyane, Guadeloupe) ‘Codakia orbicularis gill-endosymbiont produces quorum-sensing signals of the AHLclass: putative impact on the bacterial population control in lucinids’
  • Caroline Verna (Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology, Bremen) ‘Lucinid symbiont diversity: influence of host selection, geography, habitat and depth’
  • Jenna Judge (Integrative Biology, University of California Berkeley) ‘Testing diversification processes in chemosymbiotic gastropods: a phylogenetic approach’
  • Adrian Glover (Zoology, NHM London) 'Chemosynthetic ecosystems of the Antarctic: a test of dispersal'
  • Paul Dando Marine Biological Association, Plymouth "Fjord thyasirid populations and sediment geochemistry"
  • Matthijs van der Geest (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) "Ecological importance of chemoautotrophic lucinid bivalves in the Banc d'Arguin (Mauritania) intertidal ecosystem"
  • Karina van der Heijden (Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology, Bremen) ‘Biogeography of Mid-Atlantic Ridge hydrothermal vent mussels and associated bacterial symbionts’
  • Graham Oliver & John Taylor 'First confirmation of bacterial symbiosis in Nucinellidae'
  • John Hartley (Hartley Anderson Ltd, Aberdeen) ’Chemosynthetic bivalve responses to oil contamination around North Sea wells and platforms’

Where does the Moon come from?  The Moon has immense influence on the Earth – not least, the gravity that it exerts determines all sorts of biological rhythms and causes marine tides, which in turn influence currents, erosion processes and many other phenomena.


However, we don’t yet know exactly where the Moon comes from or how it was formed, and this is has been a topic of debate for well over 100 years.

There are three main hypotheses put forward:


  • the first is that the Moon is a body formed elsewhere and captured by the Earth’s gravity;

  • the second is that the Earth and Moon were part of a single larger body of molten material and that the Moon span off as a result of centrifugal      forces; and

  • third, the Giant Impact Hypothesis that suggests that a body the size of Mars collided with the Earth and the impact launched material off      to orbit the Earth – the origin of the Moon.

Lydia Hallis, Mahesh Anand and Sara Russell, based in the Museum’s Mineralogy Department, collaborated with colleagues from the Open University, the British Antarctic Survey and University of Hawai’I to investigate the formation and early evolution of the lunar mantle and crust. They analysed the oxygen isotopic composition, titanium content and modal mineralogy (relative proportions of different mineral components) of a suite of lunar basalts.


Chemical elements can have different forms – isotopes – which differ slightly in atomic mass (the best known being Carbon-12 and Carbon-14).  Most oxygen is in the form Oxygen-16, but some is in the forms of Oxygen-17 and Oxygen-18. Materials of different origin in the Solar System can have different ratios of these isotopes. Basalt is a common igneous rock, formed when lava emerges and cools at the surface of a planet.


The scientists’ samples included eight low-Titanium basalts from the Apollo 12 and 15 lunar mission collections, and 12 high-Titanium basalts from Apollo 11 and 17 collections. In addition, they measured the oxygen isotopic composition of an Apollo 15 KREEP (K - potassium, REE - Rare Earth Element, and P - phosphorus) basalt (sample 15386) and an Apollo 14 feldspathic mare basalt (sample 14053).


As with results of previous studies, the data reveal no detectable difference between the ratios of Oxygen isotopes in rocks of the Earth and Moon.

Large objects from elsewhere in the Solar System would be likely to have different Oxygen isotope ratios to that found in Earth rocks. Since the ratios on Earth and Moon are the same, the Giant Impact Hypothesis is open to substantial doubt: it seems more likely from this evidence that Earth and Moon were once part of the same body in the early Solar System and separated by means other than a collision – possibly by centrifugal forces.


Hallis, L.J., Anand, M., Greenwood, R.C., Miller, M.F., Franchi, I.A., Russell, S.S. (2010) The oxygen isotope composition, petrology and geochemistry of mare basalts: Evidence for large-scale compositional variation in the lunar mantle, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. 74, 6885-6899. doi:10.1016/j.gca.2010.09.023


Charles Darwin spent much of his later life at Downe in Kent: thinking, writing and experimenting in an emphatically rural landscape.  But he retained an interest in marine animals, a fascination that developed in his early years at university and during his extended voyage around the world on HMS Beagle.

Professor Phil Rainbow (Keeper of Zoology) has published a keynote presentation in the journal Marine Ecology on the influence of marine biology on Charles Darwin - and the influence of Darwin on marine biology.


Darwin made his first forays into the world of marine biology as a medical student in Edinburgh from 1825 to 1827. He came under the influence there of the Lamarckian Robert Grant, and developed an understanding of the simple organisation of the early developmental stages of marine invertebrates. Yet Darwin could not accept Lamarckian transmutation - a complex set of ideas on evolution that preceded the idea of natural selection.  (Lamarck was a French scientist who, among other ideas, argued that a characteristic [such as larger muscles as a result of frequent exercise] acquired during an organism's life would be passed on to descendants and resulted in evolutionary change: Darwin's later development of natural selection as an explanation for evolution discredited Lamarck's ideas.)


The voyage of the Beagle gave him intense exposure to a wide range of marine environments around the world and led to Darwin's perceptive theory on the origin of coral reefs, an origin still mainly accepted today. This theory was linked closely to the uniformitarianism (gradual geological change over millions of years) of the geologist Charles Lyell, depending on the slow, gradual growth of billions of coral polyps keeping pace at sea level with slow sinking of land to produce an atoll.


Darwin's interest in variation in animals and plants led him to examine many different organisms, both wild and domestic. However, he was aware that his unusual scientific background meant that he had not developed a his reputation on the basis of detailed scientific study in a particular area.  Therefore, from 1846 to 1854 Darwin focused on barnacle diversity and revolutionised understanding of barnacles, producing the monographs Living Cirripedia that are still relevant today.



Capitulum mitella


Darwin's barnacle studies gave him the credibility to pronounce on the origin of species; he found great variation in morphology, and a series of related species with remarkable reproductive adaptation, culminating in the presence of dwarf males. Barnacles laid out an evolutionary narrative before him, and contributed greatly to his qualification and confidence to write with authority on the origin of species by 1859.

PS Rainbow (2011) Charles Darwin and marine biology. Marine Ecology. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0485.2010.00421.x



Worm Sperm and Evolution

Posted by John Jackson Mar 4, 2011

Drs Tim Littlewood and Andrea Waeschenbach (Zoology) have collaborated with colleagues from Switzerland and Japan on a paper, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that attracted widespread media attention from the science and popular press. Headlines such as “‘Worm porn’ sheds light on evolution of sperm” (MSN Science) and “X-rated worm movies reveal sex secrets” (Nature News) reflect the more restrained coverage.


It is a continuing challenge in science to explain why sex evolved in different species in such a variety of forms - internal or external fertilisation; separate sexes or hermaphrodites; mate selection; number of offspring; number of mates; timing of reproduction; and many other questions.  Sperm in particular are intriguing - these are highly specialised cells with the function of exchanging genetic material, evolved to survive and function in quite different situations in different species.  The huge variety of different sorts of sperm cells reflects the variety of different reproductive strategies in various groups of organism.


This study looked at a number of related species of a small transparent flatworm - Macrostomum. The team used a robust molecular phylogeny (developed by TL and AW) using DNA to define evolutionary history of the worms.  They then looked at mating strategies, the morphology of the bodies and the types of sperm in different species.


They found that one group of worms had very complex sperm with spines and a pattern of hermaphrodite exchange of sperm cells.  However, a different strategy had evolved in one member of this group and in four worms in another group in which the sperm is injected by one worm into the body of another. In these injecting species, the form of the sperm has evolved to become simpler, losing certain characteristics such as spines: the form of sperm seems to be related to mating techniques. It seems possible that the hypodermic injection gives certain advantages in some species - this might be to avoid competition from the sperm of rivals, or to avoid female rejection of sperm, but more work will be needed to answer this question.


The team was led by Dr Lukas Scharer (University  of Basel, Switzerland) and included Dr Dita Vizoso (Basel) and Dr Wataru Yoshida (Hirosaki University,  Japan).


Schärer, L., Littlewood, D.T.J., Waeschenbach, A., Yoshida, W. & Vizoso, D.B. (2011). Mating behaviour and the evolution of sperm design. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 108:1490-1495.