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Borneo Biodiversity

Posted by C Lowry Jun 29, 2011

Borneo Biodiversity






A one-day Symposium celebrating current and past biodiversity research in Brunei, Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak, and the completion of Jeremy Holloway’s “Moths of Borneo” monograph series

Venue: Flett Theatre, Natural History Museum, London, U.K.
Date: Wednesday July 6 2011
Time: 09.30 – 17.30
RSVP to Esther Murphy:

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and well-known as a centre of extreme biodiversity. This year Dr Jeremy Holloway completes his 18-volume monographic series "Moths of Borneo", and his achievement is being honoured with a symposium held at the Museum.

As well as honouring the completion of Jeremy’s monumental work, the meeting is an opportunity to explore how we can develop collaborative biodiversity research in "hotspots" such as Borneo, in particular by building upon existing local partnerships, at both scientist and government level.

For further details including programme see


Darwin's Corals

Posted by John Jackson Jun 27, 2011

Brian Rosen (Zoology) and Jill Darrell (Palaeontology) have just published a paper on Darwin’s coral specimen collections and specimen lists. Darwin examined coral reefs in detail during the voyage of HMS Beagle, describing the different types of reef and using this information to write one of his early scientific works The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs


They were invited to present a talk on this subject at a conference on Darwin’s work at the Universita G. d’Annunzio, Chieti-Pescara, in November 2009. The paper deals with the only known Darwin geological collection in the Museum that comprises 29 coral reef specimens (held in Zoology), almost all from Cocos (Keeling) atoll in the Indian Ocean and accompanied by a little known and hitherto enigmatic Coral Reef Specimen List (holograph held in the NHM Library). Darwin mentions his visit to Keeling and interest in corals in a letter to his sister, sent from Mauritius.




Darwin distinguished three primary types of reef: atolls, barrier reefs and fringing reefs, and used his own observations and those from FitzRoy's surveys to explain what he thought were the reasons for the existence of atolls - including Keeling, which he examined in detail.  Darwin noticed that reef-building corals did not grow below a certain depth of water, but that atolls isolated from other rocky islands were reasonably common.  He rejected the idea that gradual sediment buildup had provided foundations, and said that the idea of so many isolated sea-mounts of the right depth in the middle ocean for coral growth could be rejected.  He argued that rocky islands had sunk gradually below the surface, leaving their original coral reefs to keep the same level as the surface of the sea.  Darwin thought that earthquakes might be connected with the sinking islands - he did not know then what we know about plate tectonics, but had developed a keen interest in geological uplift and subsidence in South America on an earlier part of the voyage.


Brian and Jill offer for the first time a plausible explanation of the true origin and purpose of this list and set of specimens.  The specimens are unusual, if not unique, in being a small exhibit prepared by Darwin himself, at or before the time he donated them. The most likely occasion for which Darwin prepared his exhibit was that of his first presentation of his famous subsidence theory of coral reefs to the Geological Society of London on May 31st 1837.


Rosen B. R & Darrell, J. 2011. A generalized historical trajectory for Charles Darwin’s specimen collections, with a case study of his coral reef specimen list in the Natural History Museum, London. In:  Stoppa, Francesco & Veraldi, Roberto, Eds., Darwin tra scienza, storia e società. 150° anniversario della publicazione di Origine delle Specie [= Darwin in science, history and society. 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species.]  Edizioni Universitairie Romane, Roma, pp.133-198.


David Gower and Mark Wilkinson, NHM Zoology

It is well known that global diversity is generally under threat from factors such as habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, hunting, invasive species and disease. It takes very large collaborative efforts in order to be able to quantify an accurate overview of the latest situation, but this is needed because donors, policy makers and managers want to know to what extent conservation efforts can make a positive impact.

As part of just such an effort we contributed to an article published in the journal Science (Hoffman, M. et al. (2010) Science 330: 1503-1509).The article reported that although an increasing number of the World’s vertebrate species are threatened by extinction, the deterioration would have been at least one-fifth again as much in the absence of conservation efforts.

The Science study analysed up-to-date conservation assessments for nearly 26,000 of the World’s approximately 63,000 named species of vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). The assessments are in the form of formal categorizations on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “Red List” ( - the widely accepted 'standard’ for determining species’ risk of extinction.

zoology Annual report 2010-2011 final.jpg

Balebreviceps hillmani, a threatened amphibian from the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. [photo by DJ Gower]

Analyses of the Red List data revealed that 20% of vertebrates are classified as Threatened, with this percentage increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction every year (there are eight categories in all). However, of the 1,000 or so species that had undergone a change in their categorization in recent years, about 7% underwent an improvement in status, and almost all of these are part of conservation projects. Thus, in the absence of conservation effort, many more vertebrates would have slipped closer to extinction. Most of these improving vertebrate species are birds and mammals – those groups most often targeted by conservation projects. Only four species of amphibians have improved in status, and more than 40% of this group is threatened; so much remains to be done.

Vertebrates are generally very visible, often charismatic (and vital) components of ecosystems, and they commonly comprise conservation ‘flagship’ species, frequently with high cultural value. However, vertebrates comprise only 3% or so of known organismal species. The conservation status of many non-vertebrates has yet to be determined based on Red List criteria.

The Science paper was authored by a whopping 174 scientists. Like many of these researchers, we played a primary coordinating role that facilitated completion of the dataset. In particular, we finalized Red List assessments for all species of caecilian amphibians (in a workshop held at the NHM), and for some burrowing snakes. Museum science is essential for understanding species’ conservation status because its core business is the taxonomic and ecological work that underpins all other studies of life.

The Science paper was announced in a press release to coincide with the release of the latest Red List update at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Nagoya, Japan, October 2010. The paper ends with the following statements: “The 2010 biodiversity target may not have been met, but conservation efforts have not been a failure. The challenge is to remedy the current shortfall in conservation action to halt the attrition of global biodiversity.”

David Gower and Mark Wilkinson are Researchers in the Herpetology Research Group, NHM Department of Zoology


Dr. Mark Sutton, Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering, Imperial College


Thursday 9th June, Neil Chalmers Seminar Room, DC2, 16:00

The Herefordshire (Wenlock, Silurian, ~425Ma) Konservat-Lagerstätte in England yields remarkable, three-dimensional, non-biomineralized fossils in carbonate concretions hosted in a volcaniclastic deposit. The deposit, apparently taphonomically unique, and has yielded several thousand specimens of assorted invertebrates including echinoderms, brachiopods, molluscs, and especially arthropods, all preserving soft-tissues in high-fidelity detail.

Specimens cannot be extracted physically or imaged using conventional micro-CT techniques; instead they are reconstructed as virtual fossils using a physical-optical tomography technique based on high-resolution serial grinding. Reconstruction work has been performed using custom software (SPIERS), now freely available to the palaeontological community, and models can be distributed with a new standardised interchange format for virtual specimens (VAXML).

Palaeobiological analysis of the Lagerstätte has now been in progress for over ten years, and too many taxa have been described for a full summary here. Recent finds detailed in this talk include the basal crustacean Tanazios, the marrellomorph Xylokorys, several ostracods, the cryptic brachiopod-like fossil Drakozoon, and several (as yet unnamed) basal arthropods, including an elongate form which may lie immediately outside the arthropod crown-group.