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Science News

155 Posts authored by: John Jackson
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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.

IMG_2202.jpg

 

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

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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  j.taylor@nhm.ac.uk

 

 

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’
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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

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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-mitella4_57395_1.jpg

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

 

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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.


 

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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.

 

stair hole small.JPG

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".

 

B000973X.jpg

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.

 

parasitic-worm_30542_1.jpg

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.

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