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Science News

August 2011

This international conference will be held from the 6th-7th December, 2011, on the general theme of South Asian natural history collections with a special emphasis on the collections of the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854), a major figure in the history and development of botany in the nineteenth century.

 

As superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden (1817-1846), he undertook botanical expeditions, described new plant species, amassed a large herbarium, collected thousands of plant specimens and commissioned local artists to draw beautiful botanical watercolours. His work has thus been influential in South Asian Natural History research.

 

This conference will explore the challenges associated with exploiting such collections and the interesting opportunities they provide for interdisciplinary research. In particular, the conference will consider the experience of the recent “Wallich and Indian Natural History” project as an interesting exemplar (a collaboration with the British Library and The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew). An earlier blog post outlined some of the work of this project.

 

Major South Asian natural history collections from the 18th and 19th century are now dispersed across institutions in South Asia, Europe and beyond. Thus, the conference will be hosted by the Natural History Museum, London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in partnership with the British Library. This conference plays an integral part in the World Collections Programme funded project “Wallich and Indian Natural History”.

 

More information is available on the NHM Centre for Arts and Humanities website. A full programme and travel information will be available on that site by the 30th September, 2011. Abstract Submission Deadline: 30th August, 2011

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Recently, a group of Scientists from the NHM (Shelley Cook, Ralph Harbach, Lorna Culverwell, Erica McAlister, Entomology; and David Bass, Zoology) and a research student from the University of Oxford (Ed Glucksman) joined forces with Unité des Virus Emergents, Marseille, Université de la Méditerranée (Gregory Moureau and Laurence Bichaud) for a cross-disciplinary collecting trip.

 

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Ralph apparently playing Crazy Golf, but he and Erica are in fact collecting adults and immatures…..

 

 

The aims of the trip, conceived by Shelley, were threefold; firstly, the Collection of voucher specimens of mosquito species present in the region for morphological and molecular identification work, and for the Collections here at the Museum. Voucher specimens simply means specimens that are collected and kept in collections for reference – in contrast to simply identifying in the field or lab and not keeping them. In total, approximately 100 mosquitoes will be processed for voucher work, which includes both morphological and molecular characterisation, and many more flies will be added as well. The molecular analysis will be for specific DNA sequences that are now widely used in molecular identification – often called DNA barcodes.  These use mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I and II (COI and COII sequence).

 

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Preparing to use the aspirator - a device for sucking up insects

 

The second aim was the collection of bulk samples of adult and immature mosquitoes onto dry ice for screening for flaviviruses; 2010 saw the first two cases of dengue fever (caused by a flavivirus) in patients in metropolitan France (near Nice) with no history of travel and whom were most likely to have been infected by mosquitoes from a local population. In total, approximately 2000 samples were plated for later screening. Previous similar studies conducted by our group have shown a prevalence of novel flaviviruses of up to 10%. Any virus positives will be isolated, characterised and sequenced before publication in scientific journals..

 

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Shelley concentrating on numbering samples

 

 

And thirdly, together with David Bass from Zoology, the collection of a range of plant, water and insect specimens were put into liquid nitrogen followed by extraction of small RNA fractions. These will be tested via Illumina sequencing to test whether this method can detect signatures of viral infection and to compare viral biodiversity across a range of environmental samples - including in particular in association with mosquitoes and protists (single-celled organisms).

 

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David wading to collect samples - always that temptation to go a bit deeper than the length of the waders...

 

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Team photograph

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In February 2011, two botanists from the department, Dr Harald Schneider and Dr Cécile Gueidan, participated in a collecting trip in Northern Vietnam. The trip  aimed at enhancing NHM and Vietnamese collections in ferns, lichens and liverworts from this very species rich area of South-East Asia. It was organized by collaborating partners from the Vietnam National Museum of Nature in Hanoi by the botanists Mr Do Van Truong and Mrs Ngan Lu Thi. The team was also joined by Dr Hongmei Liu, who is a botanist from the Fairylake Botanical Garden in Shenzhen, China.

 

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After arrival, the team visited the Vietnam National Museum of Nature in Hanoi and studied fern specimens kept in the museum’s collection. They also met Prof. Pham Van Luc, the director of the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, and Harald Schneider and Cécile Gueidan presented their research to the Museum staff and students. Most of the three weeks were spent in different protected areas in the North of Vietnam: the Pa Co-Hang Kia Nature Reserve in the extreme West of the Hoa Binh province, the Bac Me Nature Reserve in the South-Eastern part of the Ha Giang province, the Na Hang Nature Reserve in the North of the Tuyen Quang province and the Ba Be National Park in the North- West of the Bac Kan province. Most of the sites visited included tropical forests at different stages of land use, which ranged from almost entirely deforested areas to few relatively untouched patches of primary forest.

 

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Left to right: Hongmei Liu, Harald Schneider, Don Van Truong, Ngan Lu Thi and two guides from the Ba Be National Park

 

 

This collecting trip followed a first visit to Vietnam by Harald Schneider in 2010 and had allowed completing previous collections of ferns from this area. For lichens, only few studies had been carried out in this country and rock substrates had almost not been explored. The lichen specimens collected during this fieldtrip will therefore contribute to the knowledge of the poorly studied lichen flora of Vietnam. In total, we collected 283 specimens of ferns (including at least two new records for Vietnam), 26 specimens of leafy liverworts, and about 400 specimens of lichens.

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Archaeopteryx - a bird?

Posted by John Jackson Aug 1, 2011

Archaeopteryx must be one of the most familar images associated with the origins and evolution of birds.  Famously, it was first described one hundred years ago in 1861 from a single feather in 150-million year old Jurasssic limestone from Solnhofen in Bavaria. 

 

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The first skeletal fossil of Archaeopteryx was found in 1861 and purchased by the British Museum (part of which later became the Natural History Museum) for £700 in 1862.  This specimen was described by the then Superintendent of the Museum's Natural History Departments, Richard Owen, in 1863.  A further nine fossils have been found since then and are found in various museums. Although the first fossil found was of a feather, it is not now certain that the feather was from the same species as the body fossils. When first found, Archaeopteryx was uniquely important in showing the connection between birds and other reptiles - but since  then, evidence from many other fossils has supported the scientific view  of the origins of birds.


These fossils have traditionally been seen as those of a very early bird at the very base of the current avian branch of the Tree of Life.  The birds emerged by the evolution and diversification of a group of reptiles in the late Jurassic period - just over 161 million years ago. From a current scientific viewpoint, the basal group of reptiles - the Paraves - split to form two groups: the Avialae (becoming birds over time); and the Deinonychosauria. 


However, a new paper in the journal Nature by Xing Xu et al. has involved examination of a newly discovered fossil species from this group, Xiaotingia, from China.  This organism was very similar to Archaeopteryx and the question arose of whether Archaeopteryx should be placed in the Avialae or the Deinonychosauria: which branch? Systematic scientific investigation of several Archaeopteryx fossils, Xiaotingia, and other fossils, suggests initially that Achaeopteryx does not fall into the same group as the birds - the Avialae. This involved examination of the NHM Archaeopteryx, illustrating the importance of collections as a continuing reference resource for science.


The research suggests that Archaeopteryx is not an ancestral bird in the Avialae, but should instead be seen as a member of the Deinonychosauria, along with Xiaotingia.  This finding will cause considerable controversy in science as results are scrutinised and discussed and further evidence amassed.  Future fossil findings will add further data that may add detail and support for different positions, but reference to the original fossils will continue to be essential.  One point of interest will be that the characteristic feathers and skeleton of Archaeopteryx show that this character combination may not have been restricted to birds alone, but seems to have been found in a wider group of reptiles.

 

Witmer L M Palaeontology: An icon knocked from its perch Nature 475, 458–459 (28 July 2011) doi:10.1038/475458a Published online 27 July 2011


Xing Xu,Hailu You,Kai Du & Fenglu Han An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae Nature 475, 465–470 (28 July 2011) doi:10.1038/nature10288 Published online 27 July 2011