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6 Posts tagged with the collection tag
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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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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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Charles Darwin, during his voyage on HMS Beagle, collected a single juvenile tortoise from James (San  Salvador or Santiago) Island in the Galápagos Archipelago.

 

This animal was returned to England with three other small tortoises and examined by J.E. Gray, who became Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum (the natural history departments at the BM eventually became what is now the Natural History Museum).

 

The subsequent fate of Darwin’s pet tortoise has been the source of much speculation. Some have claimed that it was transported to Australia (where it lived to an age of more than 175 years); others that it remained in England but disappeared without trace.

 

However, a new paper by Colin McCarthy (Zoology) and Aaron Bauer describes how Darwin’s pet was in fact registered in the British  Museum collection in 1837 and that the specimen still exists:albeit with its registration details hidden on the inner face of the lower shell (plastron).

 

The obscurity of the labelling probably caused these data to be overlooked for more than 170 years. The chelonian (tortoises and turtle) catalogues of Gray, Günther and Boulenger, published between 1844 and 1889, all failed to recognise this specimen as Darwin’s tortoise, mentioning it only as a stuffed juvenile of unknown provenance.

 

Despite this, Günther placed the specimen in his newly defined species Testudo ephippium, which was subsequently regarded as endemic to Abingdon (Pinta) Island in the Galapagos. The confirmation of the specimen’s James Island origin means, however, that Darwin’s pet tortoise is, most appropriately,  a member of the species Chelonoidis darwini.

Bauer, A.M. & McCarthy, C.J. 2010. Darwin’s pet Galápagos tortoise, Chelonoidis darwini, rediscovered.  Chelonian Conservation and Biology 9: 270-276.

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Understanding the diversity of life is central to the mission of the Natural History Museum. Science sees diversity in many ways: populations, species, ecosystems, individuals or genes and the Museum's collections of more than 70 million items are used by scientists for research on many aspects of diversity.  The collections have developed over the past 250 years with a very strong emphasis on the idea of the species, but reflect diversity within species as well - the differences between populations from different areas, for example.

 

What separates one species from another is not always an easy question: it is a key question for the science of taxonomy and has important practical implications.  The established biological species concept defines two species as two groups of organisms that cannot interbreed to produce fertile young when in the same location.  When different species are present in the same location, this can be observed in theory.  However, when two groups of similar organisms are geographically separate, are they different populations, different subspecies, or different species? This will be the case for many thousands of species and has led to heated debate among scientists who have taken different views.

 

Beyond science, this is of importance because the species is often used in practical policy-making and economic activity.  There needs to be accurate definition for biodiversity conservation, pest control in agriculture, human health and other activities.

 

A group of collaborating scientists from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and from BirdLife International have used the Museum's bird collections to try to define a reliable standard for species. They aimed to define how much genetic, morphological and behavioural distance there was between known species and subspecies, and within species.

 

The scientists looked at pairs of 58 closely-related species and subspecies, including European swallows and linnets, North American blackbirds and tyrant flycatchers and African Illadopsis. They examined more than 2,000 specimens from the NHM bird collections and more than 140 from Louisana State University for morphological data and plumage, and looked also at song, ecological and behavioural differences. The intention was to use this suite of characters to define a reliable and objective difference between species.

 

Tobias et. al (2010) published their results in the journal Ibis, concluding that this is a reliable way of confirming species separations and propose that this could be used increasingly to improve the reliability of understanding of bird diversity. An article in Nature (Brooks and Helgen, 2010), commenting on the paper, suggested that there could be very interesting possibilities in applying similar techniques to other groups of organisms and with DNA data.

 

Thousands of visiting scientists routinely use the Museum's collections as a research resource: the collection represents a body of evidence to address new questions and test established knowledge of natural diversity, and continues to develop as research interests expand.

 


TOBIAS, J. A., SEDDON, N., SPOTTISWOODE, C. N., PILGRIM, J. D.,  FISHPOOL, L. D. C. and COLLAR, N. J. (2010), Quantitative criteria for  species delimitation. Ibis, 152: 724–746.  doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2010.01051.x

 

Brooks, T. M. and K. M. Helgen (2010). "Biodiversity: A standard for species." Nature 467(7315): 540-541.

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The Museum's collections are used for research by more than 8,000 visiting scientists each year, and many thousands of specimens are sent on loan to other institutions for research purposes.

 

Scientists from the University of East Anglia, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Universities of Sussex and Kent have used the NHM botany collections and those of other institutions to look at how the flowering time of orchids varies with spring temperatures.  They looked at recent field records of flowering date and temperature (1975-2006) for the UK Early Spider Orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, and compared these with historical temperature records and dated flowering specimens in collections (1848-1958).

 

Their research, published in the Journal of Ecology, showed that the orchids responded to temperature in the same way in the two periods.  This means that collection specimens could be of significant value in looking at the responses of plants to past climate patterns for periods when there were no records kept of flowering dates.

 

This work indicates the potential value of collections for investigating ecological responses to climate and as research resources for new scientific interests.

 

 

Karen M. Robbirt, Anthony J. Davy, Michael J. Hutchings and David L. Roberts (2011) Validation of biological collections as a source of phenological data for use in climate change studies: a case study with the orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Journal of Ecology, 99, 235–241 doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2010.01727.x

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A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science explores the way in which new species of plants are described from specimens that may already have been in herbarium collections for many years, and underlines the importance of collections for discovering diversity..

 

NHM scientist Dr Mark Carine and scientific associate Dr Norman Robson undertook the research with colleagues from the Earthwatch Institute; University of Oxford; Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; and the Missouri Botanical Garden, looking at the time between the acquistion of the specimens and publication of the plant's description in the Kew Bulletin.

 

A small number of specimens are recognised as being new species when they are first collected.  However, the scientists found that many others are identified as a result of comparisons and revisions of major groups of plants that take place more gradually within the large collections, sometimes taking several years.  In this process, many specimens from different herbaria will be compared: the comparison and analysis gives rise to new understanding of diversity and the identification and description of new species.

 

This work emphasises the importance of collections, such as those of the NHM and its partners, in improving understanding of plant diversity. These collections exchange many specimens each year, and make thousands of loans to enable scientists to work on plant diversity around the world.  They are increasingly developing digital resources that should give wider and more rapid access to images of plant specimens, supporting this area of science.

 

 

Bebber, DP, Carine, MA, Wood, JRI, Wortley, AH, Harris, DJ, Prance, GT, Davids, G, Paige, J, Pennington, TD, Robson, NKB and Scotland, RW (2010) Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery.  PNAS.  December 6, 2010