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Last week I was lucky enough to escape my office in London for a day out at the Museum in Tring. Just 35 minutes after boarding a train at Euston, I arrived at Tring station and was picked up for the 2-mile drive to Walter Rothschild's former home.

 

Of course Tring wasn't just Walter's home: it was home to his extensive private collection of natural history specimens, as well as a menagerie of live animals including cassowaries, kangaroos, tortoises and zebras. Many of those animals - after they had died their natural deaths - went on to become specimens in the Museum, which his family bequeathed to the nation following Walter's death in 1937.

 

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Kangaroos in Tring Park in the early 1900s (left), and now on display in the Museum (right).

 

Today, the Museum retains its unique Victorian character, and many of the 4,000 specimens in the galleries are still arranged in the very particular way Walter had dictated during his life. It really is a museum of a museum.

 

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A gallery photographed in 1910 (top), and many of the same specimens displayed in much the same way more than 100 years later (bottom).

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During my day out at Tring I was treated to a guided behind the scenes tour of the specimen storage and preparation areas. From the spirit collection (which numbers around 17,000 jars; the oldest specimen being a Hawaiian honeycreeper collected by Captain Cook in 1772), to the room where flesh eating beetles clean up bird carcasses in readiness for storage in the skeleton collection (as can be seen on our YouTube channel here). I even got to take a peek into Walter's personal library, where the ironwork on the upper floor is modelled after the Eiffel Tower.

 

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Part of the spirit collection (top), and flesh eating beetles at work (bottom).

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The scientists and curators I met proudly informed me that Tring boasts the largest ornithological library in the world, and holds the second largest collections in the world of bird skins (750,000 pieces, which represents 95% of all known species) and bird eggs (around 300,000 clutches, which represents 52% of all known species). Oh, and its collection of 4,000 bird nests is housed in the longest run of roller rack in Europe (15m).

 

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Prepared bird skins in the drying rack. The skins are wrapped around cotton wool and a popsicle stick.

 

Out from behind the scenes and into the public galleries, Tring is a marvel. Walter's original floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted hardwood and iron cabinets are almost bursting with an overwhelming array of mounted specimens. And it is this sense of history, variety and eccentricity that make Tring such a special and wonderful place.

 

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We have around 80 million items in the Museum collection.  This makes us one of the world's greatest natural history collections and there is a huge amount of expertise, organisation, investment and thinking goes into caring for this resource and making it available to scientists and to many other users, including the general public in the UK and worldwide.

 

A basic characteristic of any item in the collection is that we know what it is, where it comes from and when it was collected.  Without this information, its value for science is much reduced.  However, because collecting has been in progress since the 17th Century, most of the information that accompanies the specimens is written on paper: on labels or in books, record cards and registers.  A scientist wanting to know whether we have particular items or to find out more information would need to talk to NHM curators or visit us to look at the information resources first-hand.

 

But in the last ten years in particular, we have been developing electronic databases of the collections.  It's a major task with a lot of experimentation with the best techniques and tools - how do we transfer tens of millions of information points from paper to databases to enable online searches and research resources?  We've got basic information for around 400,000 specimens on our main database at the moment but we need to move faster, and we are trying out different approaches.

 


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a plot of 400,000 specimen records that have been databased, showing origins

 

A new initiative is to involve members of the public in copying information from the registers online - crowdsourcing.  We are doing this at the moment for our bird collections and would like as many people as possible to join us in this effort - we'll then be able to move more quickly to online information on which bird specimens we have, with information on their place of origin and dates.  Sometimes this information can be used to do research on where bird species once occured but where they have now disappeared because of habitat loss or other factors.

 

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a snapshot of one of the register pages

 

Have a look at the online ornithology registers on the Notes from Nature site and have a try - you can attempt one-off transcriptions, or register and create an account that allows you to track your contribution to this effort.

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Robert Prys-Jones (Zoology) is co-author on a new paper on Indian Ocean Parrot biogeography and evolution being published in Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution. It is the latest in a line of research papers deriving from Robert’s on-going Indian Ocean island research programme, and comprises a comprehensive overview of extant and extinct parrot evolution on western Indian Ocean islands. 

 

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Psittacula eupatria

 

Parrot diversity around the Indian Ocean is high, with many possible geological, ecological and geographical explanations.This paper examines DNA data from modern and extinct parrots and suggests that the Indian Ocean islands acted as stepping stones in  the radiation of the Old-World parrots, and that past sea-level changes may help to explain distributions and  differences in speciation. A molecular phylogeny shows complex colonisation of Africa, Asia  and the Indian Ocean islands from Australasia via multiple routes, and  of island populations ‘seeding’ continents.


A second paper develops a comprehensive phylogeny of the finches, a large and familiar bird family within which many genus-level relationships have previously been unclear, and is the first product of a co-operation with Dr Per Ericson, Director of Science at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and is further co-authored by Dr Pamela Rasmussen (Michigan State University Museum), a Scientific Associate of the NHM. The similarity of plumage of finches, and of feeding habits, has in the past given misleading impressions of related groups.  DNA from nuclei and mitochondria give a much clearer and more reliable picture in this paper.

 

  • Kundu, S., Jones, C.G., Prys-Jones, R.P. & Groombridge, J.J. The evolution of the Indian Ocean parrots (Psittaciformes): extinction, adaptive radiation and eustacy. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution, Volume 62, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 296-305. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2011.09.025
  • Zuccon, D., Prys-Jones, R.P., Rasmussen, P.C. & Ericson, P.G.P. The phylogenetic relationships and generic limits of finches (Fringillidae). Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution, in press, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2011.10.002
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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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Our lovely Wildlife Garden has opened for spring and welcomes visitors on Sunday 11 April to its Yellow Book Day event.

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Yellow Book Day is part of the National Gardens' Scheme to open gardens for charity.

 

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At the daytime event, explore a bird hide installation by pastoral feltmaker Anne Belgrave, where you can try and spot some of her felt bird sculptures dotted around the garden. (With the help of some bird ID charts to hand.) One of her pretty creations is shown here on the left.

 

Become a bird detective and see if you can identify real species in the garden too. Recently a jay, heron and a pair of nesting blue-tits have joined our familiar moorhens, blackbirds and robins.

 

As well as identifying birds, enjoy spotting some incredible pond life through a microscope and find out about the garden's frogs, toads and newts.

 

Walk through the meadows and enjoy the spring plants and flowers as you browse stalls selling wild flowers, homemade tea and cakes. It's a perfect spring day out and a breath of fresh air if you've been inside the Museum's galleries for too long! Have a look at our Wildlife Garden highlights slideshow for more of a glimpse.

 

There is a bird talk in the afternoon in the Attenborough Studio about the felt bird installation by the artist Anne Belgrave, and Katrina van Grouw from the Birds Section at our Tring Museum will talk about British birds and how to identify and encourage them at home.

 

Our species of the day celebrates the jay. Unearth lots of fascinating facts about this shy yet striking, acorn-eating bird you'll find near oak trees.

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Easter eggs in Nature Live

Posted by Aoife Apr 6, 2010

From the tiny Hummingbird egg, to the awesome Ostrich egg, for Easter Nature Live went a little egg-crazy.

 

I have to apologise in advance, its going to be impossible to get through this without making some terrible egg-related puns. So I might as well start with one.

 

Our egg-cellent egg curator Douglas Russell joined us from the bird group, based out at the NHM in Tring, Hertfordshire, for our eggy celebrations. Douglas looks after some really rather special collections, going back hundreds of years, and his egg-spert knowledge was put to good use as he egg-splained why he thinks eggs are 'The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe'.

 

Its all to do with just how perfectly they have evolved to look after the tiny, developing chick - and to show us, he cracked open a massive Ostrich egg - its much easier to see the features scaled up! From tiny pores that allow the exchange of gas through the shell, to a self-righting system inside so that the embryonic chick is always closest to the warmth from its brooding parents, all a tiny bird could need to start its life off is contained within the calcium carbonate shell. The same features are present right down to the tiniest bird eggs around - the Hummingbird egg, about the size of your little finger nail!

 

Although Ostriches produce the biggest egg of any bird alive today, there used to be one to beat it - the Elephant Bird, now sadly extinct, used to produce an egg even bigger!

 

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And if you want to see for yourself, you can see a range of amazing eggs if you visit the Bird Gallery, in the Green Zone at the Museum.