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112 Posts authored by: John Jackson
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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” (www.iucnredlist.org) - 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

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Paul Barrett is the 2011 recipient of the Bicentenary Medal of the Linnean Society, an organisation that promotes all branches of natural history, including botany and zoology.

 

Paul does research on dinosaurs but is also heavily involved in working with public audiences through exhibitions, media and other routes.

 

Barrett.jpg

 

The medal is awarded annually in recognition of work done by a biologist under the age of 40 years, and it was first awarded in 1978 on the 200th anniversary of the death of Carl Linnaeus. The award was presented at the Linnean Society anniversary meeting in Burlington House, London, in May.

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How do new species form?  One key process is by genetic divergence following geographical isolation – allopatric speciation.  This can happen when different populations of a single species are separated, cease to have contact over time and no longer interbreed.  This separation, divergence and formation of new species will often be attributed to changes in genetic makeup as a result of adaptation to different environments or ecosystems, or simply to accumulated genetic changes - genetic drift.

When it's difficult for individuals from the population to cross geographical barriers, it's possible to explain how isolation of populations occurs, and therefore why speciation has happened. An example would be the different but related species found on islands separated from the mainland, where a few individuals managed to cross the water barrier and form a new population that eventually became a distinct new species.  Charles Darwin collected specimens of mockingbirds on the Galapagos, for example, that are related to mainland species but which have diverged from the parent population to become a separate species, living in a new and different environment.

In the sea, however, many animals have pelagic larvae – free-floating planktonic forms - that can be carried for many hundreds of kilometres in currents, even though the adults have limited mobility on the sea bed.  This pelagic mobility means that closely related species from different places are potentially connected over distances of 1,000 km or more, so it is unclear how allopatric speciation is achieved – the populations appear to be capable of connection in geographical terms.

Zoology PhD student Martine Claremont, together with her Museum supervisors Drs Suzanne Williams and David Reid, and university supervisor Professor Tim Barraclough, sampled populations of the intertidal muricid gastropod genus Stramonita (a marine snail) throughout the Atlantic Ocean and used statistical analysis of DNA sequences to identify the number of distinct species, their distributions and relationships.

 

For species in which the larvae spend only a short time in the plankton, it is possible for populations to be clearly isolated geographically by currents, island chains or other factors such as the immense flow of fresh water flowing from the mouth of the Amazon. However, Stramonita spends 2-3 months as a planktonic larval form, theoretically permitting genetic contact across the entire ocean basin, which might lead to expectations that a single population would be found around the Atlantic. 

 

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Stramonita brasiliensis, the new species described in the work (E, Plymouth, Tobago, BMNH acc. no. 2341; F, holotype, Sao Paulo, Brazil, BMNH 20100324)


However, Martine and her supervisors found five distinct species in the Atlantic (one of which is described as new).  They suggest that this speciation might be attributed in part to past changes or interruptions in ocean currents, preventing free circulation and isolating populations for sufficient time to enable speciation.  Other factors that seem to be of importance are the ancient separation of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and the development of ecological specialization.

 

Claremont, M., Williams, S.T., Barraclough, T.G., Reid, D.G. (2011) The geographic scale of speciation in a marine snail with high dispersal potential. Journal of Biogeography, 38: 1016–1032.

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The NHM has just completed an Ancient DNA Lab Project (aDNA), to convert a lab in the Palaeontology Department into a state of the art dedicated aDNA laboratory.  This will enable specimens will be sampled, prepared, and DNA extracted, before analysis in the Museum’s specialist sequencing facility.

 

DNA is nowadays easily analysed from tissue taken from organisms while alive, taking steps to preserve the tissue for analysis – such as freezing in liquid nitrogen.  However, once an organism has died, its tissues and the DNA that they contain decay and break down in most cases. 

 

Research in recent years makes analysis of ancient material possible, extracting DNA from teeth or bones in most cases and using advanced techniques to piece together information on the fragments. A specialist laboratory is essential to avoid contamination by modern DNA. The Museum's existing molecular laboratories for modern DNA provide facilities for a wide range of research projects but are not able to support research on the distant past.

 

One example of current interest in the Museum is the work of Professor Adrian Lister and colleagues, working on the DNA of woolly mammoth populations to examine patterns of distribution and extinction in past environments.

 

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The new lab is an important addition to the Museum’s science infrastructure and as a necessary compliment to the current molecular facilities. This lab is intended to attract both internal and external researchers to make use of the NHM collections and address priorities identified by major funding bodies. It will also allow the training of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in ancient DNA methods and protocols.

 

A few natural history museums (such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Copenhagen  Natural History  Museum) already undertake aDNA work as part of the research programmes of scientific staff, post-doctoral research assistants, and students. However, none has a dedicated, in-house, locally managed laboratory facility that serves as an institution-wide focus for aDNA research.

 

The laboratory will establish the NHM as having probably the most advanced such facility of any major natural history museum. The mere fact that aDNA sampling and extraction procedures can be carried out at the NHM will be sufficient to make it, and its collections, an international focus of aDNA research.

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The UK parliament's House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology has released its report on strategically important minerals with a number of recommendations to  government.  The Natural History Museum, among others, made a written submission of evidence.

 

Strategically important metals include elements such as Niobium, Tantalum, Tungsten and others that are found usually in quite resticted geographical areas in relatively small amounts.  Some of them are commonly called rare earth elements.  They are important in industry and technology: their physical and chemical properties are important in the development of advanced electronic components for computing and communications, for example.

 

This means that they are economically important for the development of industry and governments and as demand rises, or supply falls or is restricted, the price of components rises.  Research in ore formation, distribution, extraction and refinement from Museum scientists such as Richard Herrington can help to open up new sources of supply and make use of existing resources more efficient.

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Dr Tom Richards and postdoctoral fellow Dr Meredith Jones, previously of the University of Exeter but now in the Department of Zoology, with Dr David Bass (Zoology) have uncovered a 'missing link' in the fungal tree of life after analysing samples taken from the university's pond. Their study, published in Nature, explains the discovery of a hitherto unknown type of fungi which has fundamentally expanded the scientific understanding of this group of organisms.


"This study has been very surprising -- not least because the original sample came from the nearby pond. Fungi have been well studied for 150 years and it was thought we had a good understanding of the major evolutionary groups, but these findings have changed that radically. Current understanding of fungal diversity turns out to be only half the story -- we've discovered this diverse and deep evolutionary branch in fungi that has remained hidden all this time."

 

The researchers have temporarily named the new group cryptomycota -- which is Greek for 'hidden fungi'. Cryptomycota change the understanding of the whole fungi group because they lack something which was previously considered essential for the classification - a tough cell wall which is important for how fungi feed and grow, breaking down dead animal and plant biomass. Despite lacking the tough cell wall, they seem still to be very successful in the environment because of their extensive diversity and cosmopolitan distribution.

 

"While the first sample used in our investigation was taken from the university pond, Cryptomycota are present in samples taken from all over the world. The huge genetic diversity and prevalence of this group leads us to believe they probably play an important role in a range of environmental processes. It is possible there are many different forms of this organism with a range of characteristics we don't even know about yet. There is a lot more research to be done to find establish how they feed, reproduce, grow, and their importance in natural ecosystems."

 

This study is the result of new efforts to try to understand the diversity of life on Earth by taking DNA sampling out into the field. Until recent years, researchers investigating microbial diversity have sampled by growing microbes in lab cultures, but now it seems that the vast majority of life forms are never captured using these methods -- meaning most of the evolutionary complexity of life remains unsampled. This work was primarily supported by an NERC grant to Tom Richards and is a result of an international collaboration between his group and Dr Ramon Massana's group at the Institut de Ciències del Mar, Barcelona.


MDM Jones, I Forn, C Gadelha, MJ Egan, D Bass, R Massana, TM Richards (2011). Discovery of novel intermediate forms redefines the fungal tree of life. Nature doi:10.1038/nature09984

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The NHM Mineralogy department covers a wide range of research topics, from fundamental mineral chemistry, to nanoparticles and nanotoxicity, to meteorite research, to ore expoloration and economic geology.

 

Research on mineral ores has always involved close collaboration with the mining industry and the NHM set up a centre to ensure more effective liaison with industry some years ago: CERCAMS, the Centre for Russian and Central EurAsian Mineral Studies.  This centre is supported by subscriptions from industry partners.

 

Reimar Seltmann, with CERCAMS associated researchers and members of the Working Group on Tin & Tungsten Deposits of the International Association on the Genesis of Ore Deposits (WGTT IAGOD), contributed to the compilation of the digital database on global tin and tungsten deposits, with the support of the Geological Survey of Canada.

 

 

Tungsten mineral NaturalHistoryMuseum_002374_IA.jpg

 

Tungsten in mineral form

 

The tin-tungsten database has been incorporated into the Geoscience Data Repository (GDR) of the Earth Sciences Sector, Geological Survey of Canada and is now accessible as an online publication (http://gdr.nrcan.gc.ca/minres/data_e.php). 

 

Sinclair, W.D., Gonevchuk, G.A., Korostelev, P.G., Semenyak, B.I., Rodionov, S., SELTMANN R., and Stemprok, M., 2011, World Distribution of Tin and Tungsten Deposits; Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 5482, scale 1:35 000 000.

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Scientists working on the diversity of life are familiar with new estimates of the number of species – we believe that there are around 1.7 million species that have been described over the past three centuries, the vast majority represented in collections such as that of the NHM.  Estimates of the total number of species that actually exist vary hugely, ranging from 10 million to up to 100 million - but the majority certainly seem to be unknown and undescribed. Contrast this with the view in the mid-Eighteenth Century, when Linnaeus thought in terms of the thousands of species that might exist, and was able to describe what he thought was a substantial proportion of life on Earth.

 

We know some groups reasonably well: for example the discovery of new bird species is at a low frequency and mammals similarly so, despite there being a large number of scientists who specialise in these groups.  The situation with invertebrates is rather different – we think that there are millions of undescribed species and the limiting factor is the number of scientists available to find and describe them.

 

But this traditional model is based on knowing that a group exists and (more or less) what a species is in that group– such as beetles, or flowering plants, or nematodes.  When it comes to very small organisms – whether bacteria or other groups, we are much less certain of the overall extent and groupings of natural diversity.

 

Our view has been limited in the past by the need to see the organism or to be able to culture it in a laboratory..  Our understanding now can change rapidly as a result in advances in the use of molecular biological techniques that enable us to look for distinctive DNA or RNA in the environment and compare this with what is already known.

 

A new discovery, led by NHM scientist Tom Richards with David Bass (both in Zoology), and collaborators from Exeter, Cambridge, Barcelona and Harvard, has opened up a new horizon in how we think about fungal diversity (Jones et al., 2011). It could represent the discovery of a new fungal phylum - a major group in taxonomic terms.

 

Fungi are extremely diverse – with traditional estimates of 1.5 million species.  They are more closely related - as a sister group - to animals than to plants and have traditionally been thought to have characteristic cell walls made of chitin or cellulose.  It is thought that plants, animals and fungi all originated from single-celled organisms that used flagellae to propel themselves through water (James et al., 2006).

 

Tom, David and their colleagues took information on known RNA diversity in fungi and compared this with new material from sea and freshwater samples from Devon in the UK.  They found a wide diversity of new RNA profiles for previously unknown organisms that were clearly within the fungi but which were distinctly different from what was already known: the new profles were most similar to a couple of unusual species in the genus RozellaRozella is considered a primitive fungus because it lacks the normally characteristic cell wall (as do the newly discovered fungi) and has represented a tiny and uncharacteristic group in past understanding of fungal diversity.  The lack of a cell wall seems to make these fungi difficult to culture in the laboratory - and so difficult to find.

 

They also found evidence that these new and hidden fungi – which they called Cryptomycota – have three life cycle stages: one a resistant dormant cyst; a second mobile zoospores with flagellae; and a third attached to the cell of another organism (such as diatoms, which are single-celled plants).

 

What does this mean?  These fungi could play a significant part in ecosystems, interacting with other organisms and influencing how those ecosystems work and how other organisms live.  We don’t at this stage know how widespread they are, how diverse they are, or their ecology, but given their diversity it seems possible that they are widespread and their ecology diverse.

 

It also shows that our traditional methods of exploring diversity can miss major groups – if we have not been able to see organisms easily, and they cannot be cultured in the lab, we do not know that they exist, so our estimates of possible diversity could be significantly in error. What else is there to be found?

 

 

James, T. et al. (2006) Reconstructing the early evolution of Fungi using a six-gene phylogeny. Nature 443, 818-822 (19 October 2006) doi:10.1038/nature05110

 

Jones, D.M. et al. (2011) Discovery of novel intermediate forms redefines the fungal tree of life. Nature, Published online 11 May 2011 doi:10.1038/nature09984

 

http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110511/full/news.2011.285.html

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The Museum's collections have a core purpose of reflecting the diversity of the natural world - animals, plants, fossils, minerals and other materials.  The collection is structured and used in the main to reflect this goal, so insects will be grouped in terms of beetles, flies, moths, bugs and others, for example.

 

The collection is continually reorganised and developed as understanding of natural diversity changes - so the evolutionary relationships of groups will be changed, for example, when new DNA data are gathered.  This results in additions to collections, databases and specimens and a reorganisation of knowledget that goes with the collection.

 

However, the collection also reflects the historical development of human ideas - understanding of evolution, geographical understanding of distribution, histories of exploration and contact between societies, developments in how collections are assembled, collaboration between scientists.  As such the Museum holds specimens and documents from major initiatives in exploration and scientific enterprise from the past 300 or so years and is of great interest beyond the core of natural scientists in biology and earth sciences.

 

In addition to the formal knowledge recorded with the collection, institutions such as the Museum have huge informal resources of knowledge and experience that are held by staff and developed throught their careers.  It's not often apparent to the scientists themselves what will be of interest to the world at large, but this value is being increasingly recognised.

 

The Museum has set up a new Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (CAHR) to foster the use of our collections (books, manuscripts, field notebooks, maps, specimen data labels, etc) by academic researchers in the humanities and arts. Its development has been based on an AHRC ( the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research project to Kingston University/NHM called ‘New Perspectives’ which revealed the rich resource of humanities research material in our collections.

 

The centre has raised new external funds for collaborative research with UK and foreign universities, including some staffing costs from Kingston University. An advisory board of external and internal experts have had their first formal meeting and the Centre will be formally launched on 11 July 2011.  The Centre manager is Mrs Julie Harvey (Library and Information Systems) j.harvey@nhm.ac.uk.


One of the first major meetings fostered by the CAHR is Science Voices being held at the Royal Society 12-13 May 2011. This meeting will include a keynote address on an AHRC-funded project to record the oral history of the NHM by Prof Brian Cathcart (Kingston University).  The project, Museum Lives, has involved interviewing and recording the experience and insight of scientists and will provide a resource for research by oral historians in the future.

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Just a quick link through to a NERC blog on the use of Araucaria trees in investigating plant responses to higher carbon dioxide levels. The visiting researchers used NHM botany collections and those of a number of other institutions, in addition to growing and experimenting on living plants.

 

Araucaria includes the familar garden Monkey Puzzle tree and are part of a group of plants that reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods between 200 and 65 million years ago.  It is known that in conditions of higher or lower carbon dioxide, plants will have different numbers of gas-exchange pores (stomata) on their leaves.  The interest of Araucaria lies in whether the number of stomata in fossils can be used to understand more about past patterns of carbon dioxide variation and hence climate change linked to atmospheric changes.

 

araucaria NaturalHistoryMuseum_015374_IA.jpg

Fossil Araucaria cones from the Jurassic

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Palaeontology  Seminar - Cranial morphology of fossil  hybodont sharks: new information from CT scan studies

Thursday - TODAY - 7th April, Neil Chalmers Seminar Room, DC2,  16:00

Dr.  Jennifer Lane, Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie,  Munich

 

The  growing field of palaeontological CT scanning has only recently begun to be  applied to fossil chondrichthyan fishes (i.e., sharks, rays, and chimaeroids).  In recent years, CT scan-based studies have provided new information on  chondrichthyan cranial morphology, particularly regarding internal features such  as the interior surface of the braincase and the inner ear.

 

Many of these  features have turned out to be significant in shedding new light on patterns of  chondrichthyan evolution. Hybodonts, the sister group of modern sharks, are of  particular interest in what they can reveal about the evolutionary history of  their living relatives.

 

The inner ear of modern sharks (neoselachians) is highly  adapted toward low-frequency semi-directional sound detection (LFSDP). New  investigations of two fossil hybodonts (Tribodus limae and Egertonodus basanus) using  high-resolution CT scanning confirms that the structure of the inner ear in  these sharks was also adapted for LFSDP. However, this adaptation is absent in  earlier chondrichthyans (e.g., symmoriiforms, ctenacanths, Pucapampella), suggesting that it arose  only after the divergence of the hybodont/neoselachian lineage from these  earlier groups. Other features of evolutionary interest include.the loss of the  cranial fissures and elaboration of the vagal and glossopharyngeal nerve canals;  development of a medial capsular wall; and changes in patterns of cranial  arterial circulation.

 

In facilitating identification of key features such as  positions of nerve and blood vessel pathways and foramina, CT scanning and  digital reconstruction techniques may also pave the way for future developmental  studies (such as reconstructing the positions and growth patterns of the  embryonic cranial cartilages).

 

Contact: Greg Edgecombe  g.edgecombe@nhm.ac.uk

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Friday April 8th
Flett Theatre

 

11:30 am - 12:30 pm


Larval morphology  of the forensically important Muscidae of Europe


Andrzej  Grzywacz
Nicolaus Copernicus University, ToruÅ„,  Poland


The Muscidae is a large  dipteran family of some 4500 species and with a cosmopolitan distribution. Many  species exhibit various degrees of synanthropy, and some are important from a  medical and veterinary point of view, like those attracted to decaying organic  matter (e.g. decomposing bodies). Housefly species on decomposed bodies, both as  larvae and adults were found in carrion experiments and death investigations.  Application of methods  of Forensic Entomology requires proper species  identification of collected material.


The morphology of immature stages in  carrion visiting houseflies is unequally studied. In some species immature  stages are not described and in the others only some stages are known. On the  second hand characters used in some keys do not allow to easy species  identification. It results in serious problems with identification of immature  houseflies in forensic cases.


During an ongoing project morphological data  concerning the immature stages of all European species of Muscidae of forensic  importance will be revised. Results will be used to prepare an identification  key for the larvae of forensically important species. For this purpose results  obtained during this visit in Natural History Museum will be essential, as also  for the future research projects concerned on larval morphology of Muscidae and  Fanniidae.

 


Contact: Vladimir Blagoderov - vlab@nhm.ac.uk

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Lichens combine both fungal and algal organisms in a symbiotic relationship.  They are hugely diverse - there are hundreds of UK species living in a wide range of environments with quite specific needs for particular living conditions.  Some species are particularly sensitive to air pollution and have been used as indicators of air quality and the recovery of impacted ecosystems.

 

Xanthoria NaturalHistoryMuseum_030476_IA.jpg

Xanthoria parietina

 

The Museum has particularly good collections of lichens and is involved in a number of collaborations in the UK to develop skills and public involvement in lichen monitoring.  Holger Thus is the lichen curator for the NHM, working with Pat Wolseley, one of the Museum's expert Scientific Associates.

 

The Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) hosted the first part of a two-part course “Introducing Lichens” run by the British Lichen Society and supported by OPAL, the Lottery Fund and the NHM. Seventeen participants filled the AMC to capacity and a survey-element in the Museum's Wildlife garden resulted in the surprise of a new record for the sensitive lichen species Parmotrema perlatum from the tiny patch of green space surrounding the museum. The second part of this course, which will also be hosted by the AMC, will focus on identification training and will be held on the April 2nd (it is also fully booked, with a waiting list of potential further participants).

 

Pat and Holger have also begin a joint project, with partners from La Sainte Union Catholic Secondary School and the London Borough of Camden, for pupils to assess air quality in the vicinity of their school using lichens as bio-indicators and comparing their results with those collected from measurements using the technology infrastructure of Camden Council.

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Dr Adrian Glover (Zoology) has just returned from an oceanographic research cruise to the Bransfield Strait and Scotia Sea, Antarctica, both to the south of South America, near the Antarctic Peninsula.  He was working aboard the RRS James Cook,  one of three UK research ships operating as part of the Natural Environment Research Council's activities.

 

Adrian was searching for new hydrothermal vent ecosystems with scientists from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton and British Antarctic Survey. The team also found the dead body of a whale on the sea bed.  This is a particular interest of Adrian's because such corpses are important sources of nutrition in the sea for specialist marine species such as Osedax mucofloris.

 

During the cruise, Adrian made three live voice links to Nature Live shows in the Attenborough Studio in the Museum's Darwin Centre, coupled with video clips and images that he had already sent over the ship's satellite system. The public and science staff in the audience were able to interact directly with scientists in the field in the Antarctic, and were some of the first people to see video of Antarctic hydrothermal vents at 2500m water depth in the Scotia Sea.

 

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Adelie penguins - a photograph taken during Captain Scott's expedition in 1911-12

 

The audiences were spellbound with the live descriptions of passing penguins and albatrosses as Adrian gave a vivid account of the ups and downs of life as a research marine biologist on a research cruise. Given the size of the waves in the Southern Ocean, the ups and downs can be pretty extreme - if you can imagine living on a small rollercoaster for a week or two, you might have some idea of what it is like!

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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.

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