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Today was the first day of the festival on the beach at Lyme Regis, Otherwise known as primary school day! Through the day, hundreds of school children from twenty local primary schools filltered through the tent, enjoying all of the fabulous activities and sights! A popular activity was the shark sieving, with children searching through sediment from Abbey Wood to find and identify shark teeth and shells - which they got to keep at the end!

 

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The equipment for shark sieving and the sediment

 

The British Geological Survey were showing off their 3D scanning equipment and printer. This was rather amazing! I was also very impressed with the British Antarctic Survey's specimens, particularly one ammonite  that had incredible sutures.

 

Museum staff had a very busy day with all of their activities, with Mike Rumsey and Helena Toman especially busy with their gold panning. Jerry Hooker and Noel Morris dealt with many fossil identifications.

 

I was sucessful in identifying the meteorite in a task designed by Caroline Smith and Deb Cassey - it is often difficult to identify a true meteorite! The DNA activity got many children very excited, with lots going past our fossil stand waving their tubes and enthusiastically telling us that they had DNA.

 

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A girl hunting for 'gold' at the gold panning station.

 

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'Barry' our Baryonyx skull watching over us as we work.

 

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Many of the Museum stations and associated staff inside the tent (but not all of us!)

 

Emma and I were also intervied for Palaeocast, a podcast about palaeontology. Emma talked to them about fish and I discussed ammonites.

 

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Emma and me being interviewed for Palaeocast

 

Tomorrow the tent will be open to the public so we are expecting a busy couple of days ahead. If you are nearby do pop in and say hello!

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So it is that time of year again when we head out on fieldwork - looking for flies up and down the country, in bogs, and woodlands, and wet meadows trying to seek out the often elusive individuals. For the last couple of years, the Natural History Museum has been working in collaboration with the Health Protection Authority on a specific project collecting mosquitoes and we are finding all sorts of interesting things. New records for species distributions have been determined and thanks to some molecular anaylses we are figuring out some difficult taxonomic questions.

 

So off we head, boots on, silly fieldwork appartus strapped to our backs (or rather just back as only one was used). However, as well as the working with mosquito adults for both morphological and molecular analyses, we are also going out to look for the larvae.

 

Mosquito larvae are cute, and active, and fast…We use a very hi-tech piece of equipment to catch the little blitters (a plastic pan on a long pole…..) and then dip away in favourable habitats

 

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Above is Shelley supporting the oh so fashionable Backpack aspirator whilst I am modelly the latest in dipping technology...

 

We were back in Hurcott Wood (it was a little warmer since the last time I was there recording for the BBC) after a very successful trip there last year. Alex Vaux, from HPA joined us (i.e. Shelley Cook, Ralph Harbach and I) and we pottered (or in some cases pootered albeit on a large scale with the back pack aspirator) round trying to catch the early adults or the larvae.

 

We couldn’t find any adults but we did get some larvae and some big ones at that! These were ferried back to London in little plastic packs alongside some spare pond water.  Once back in the museum we set up the little ones in a basement lab through very secure doors which makes the place feel more like a maximum security prison than research labs

 

They are set up initially in bowls but as they develop they get their individual rearing tubes - nothing but the best for them. We do this as we need to collect their larval and pupal skins as they develop. For mosquito taxonomy we use the 4th Instar stage of the larva, the pupal skin and the adult.

 

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The 'rearing lab'

 

The mosquitoes are separated into two subfamilies, the Anophelines and the Culicines. The Anophelines lie flat under the surface to the water and generally feed from there whilst the Culicines have a long funnel through which they obtain air and dangle down into the water column (see below). For them we place the food on the bottom. The special diet upon which they feed is fish food – but you have to get the fine stuff otherwise it is too large for their mouths

 

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Look at the little cuties dangling down...

 

There are four of us in the museum checking up on them, we even have a doodle calendar to make sure that they don’t get forgotten due to our hectic lives . Gradually we are rearing them through although it has not been plain sailing, nope; there has been heartache as well as joy.

 

A lot of the larger individuals, which we think were Culiseta (they were big – almost 6mm!!!!) died straight away – not a good start. Then some of the larvae died when they were transferred to their individual tubes – again not good. Some of them died whilst they were emerging from their pupal case – that was probably the saddest – all that struggle and then trapped, not good.

 

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They nearly made it....

 

But luckily some made it (although we then killed them). But they did get to live for 24 hours first as we had to wait for their genitalia to rotate……

 

And here are some of the successful adults, with their legs in the air like they just don't care!!!

 

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So for these we have larval skins, pupal skins and the pinned adults. This is important as there are many species groups in mosquito taxonomy so by studying all the different stages as well as sequencing their DNA we can hopefully begin to unravel some of these mysteries. And it is one of the few times that I get to feel maternal….

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What do you study at the Museum?

I study polychaetes (marine segmented worms), from the deep sea and from whale-falls and hydrothermal vents. Polychaetes are related to earth worms but usually a lot prettier and more colourful. I am describing new species that we discover in the deep sea samples, and I sequence their DNA to see how they are related to each other.

 

The DNA sequences can also be used to study how these worms move around in the sea. It can be useful to know if they can go anywhere else if their current habitat becomes inhospitable or if they're stuck in one place and doomed when bad things happen.

 

What are you most excited about finding/seeing on the trip?

If we get those whale bones up from the sea floor, I am sure that there are undescribed worm species on them. I am very curious to see what they look like, and also to bring them back to the lab and sequence their DNA to see where they belong among the other worms from similar habitats.

 

Where have you been previously on field work?

In my undergraduate studies I spent one year on Svalbard studying Arctic Biology, and we went on several field trips both on sea and on land. And then I've been to New Zealand, Chile and on an expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and on several expeditions at sea back home in Sweden.

 

What is your favourite thing about going on field work?

My favourite thing is getting the samples! It's a lot like looking for treasure; whenever the sampling gear comes aboard we're all very excited to see what is brought up with it. Even a heap of mud can cause quite a shuffle when everybody wants to see what's in it and pick out the things they work on.

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I am writing this blog while chomping on a delicious, freshly-fried pork scratching! Amazing.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

Today we did a live-video-link to the Museum's Attenborough Studio (our last two will be at 12.30 and 14.30 on Saturday 18 Feb) from the middle of a river near our hut – Rio Terbi. Perched on top of a rock we spoke to an audience in London about our trip and answered their questions about our time here.

 

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One young member of the audience asked about the weight of an acorn we held to camera – we actually don't have any scales so we can't tell for certain, but we estimate it as being about 4 to 5 times bigger than your average UK acorn. Sorry we can't be more accurate!

 

The river is the lifeblood of the forest and our hut - we get our water supply directly from it and use it to cook, wash and drink.

 

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Today we waked for about an hour to a site downstream and by the river.

 

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Holger showed me how he collects aquatic lichens...

 

 

And Alex, Daniel and Neil set up beside the river and went about collecting a huge amount of different plants.

 

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I have been promoted from simply being a weight to hold down specimens to pressing plants and collecting samples for DNA. I also came in useful for a particularly high orchid. We have poles that we normally use to cut specimens that are out of arms reach but we thought this was quicker and more fun. It's nice to know that I am helping out!

 

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Species of the day goes to Jo and it is a carnivorous liverwort! It's in the genus Colura and lives on leaves.

 

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It’s lobes form water sacs, which could be an adaptation to retain moisture, and people have found tiny microscopic creatures called nematodes in these water sacs. It has been suggested that the liverwort dissolves theses tiny creatures and eats them! As Jo says, when you live on only a leaf, every little helps. She also says that up close they look like tiny teapots which made Holger laugh – 'so British', he exclaimed!

 

I can't get close enough to see if I agree with the teapot analogy - have a search for Colura and tell me what you think!

 

Until tomorrow

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Food update! We have been brought a butchered pig to add to the holy duo of rice and beans – this is a gruesome picture of the skin but the meat was delicious! I have also spied some sausages amongst the supplies and wait eagerly for their appearance at the dinner table!

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(Click the images to see them full size)

 

The main aim of our trip is to document the biodiversity of the area and collect different species of plants. We take five copies of each species – one goes to INBIO, one to the Missouri Botanical Garden, one each to the National Herbarium of Panama and the National Museum of Costa Rica and one to the Natural History Museum.

 

Collecting is a meditative process and it is wonderful to be in the field as a team, finding out what the environment holds. Amongst the flowering plant team (Daniel, Alex and Neil) the duties of collecting are split: today, Daniel searched out the different species in the area and collected them, Neil and Alex set up a small processing area - one photographing and taking DNA samples of each species and the other pressing the five copies of each species between sheets of newspaper.

 

I had a go at pressing but my main duty was the honourable task of pressing down on the pile of specimens, a job that you may think could be done by a rock or gravity but Neil described my contribution as very useful, so here I am hard at work:

 

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These specimens are bagged up and brought back to the hut at the end of the day where they are placed in sealed bags full of 70% alcohol, which stops them rotting. These specimens will be carried down the mountain and dried on heaters before being sent to the various institutes to be mounted and added to their collections (a collection of pressed plants is called a herbarium).

 

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Neil explained the process to me in the field:

 

 

The DNA is stored in silica gel which keeps the samples dry by absorbing the moisture in the atmosphere. I have lots of the stuff (which I keep in tied-up tights) to try and keep all my equipment - kindly lent to me by the museum - free from moisture.

 

I made what could be the 'driest' video of all time about how you dehydrate the silica once it has done it’s job and is saturated with liquid - dry-fried next to the omnipresent beans, so worth watching for that scene if nothing else. My silica is dark blue when saturated with moisture and orange when dehydrated:

 

 

Species of the day – Vaccinium bocatorense (collected by the flowering plants team) is very closely related to the blueberry and grows between 1.5 to 2 metres tall. It’s endemic to the national park so is not found anywhere else in the world and it’s a beauty!

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Tomorrow we set off to spend a couple of nights camping at a location a few hours walk form our hut - I will try and blog from there but if things go quiet due to lack of internet access, I’ll be back on Wednesday.

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Tapeworm genomics in Science News

Posted by John Jackson Dec 22, 2011

Genome data represent the largest and most diverse set of heritable characters for comparative evolutionary studies. In collaboration with the The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, we have recently characterised and assembled the complete genome of Hymenolepis microstoma, a classical tapeworm model with over 50 years of literature supporting it.

 

Together with colleagues from the University of Würzburg, Germany, Peter Olson and Magdalena Zarowiecki have recently published the first insights into the gene content and general characteristics of tapeworm genomes based on data from Hymenolepis and the medically important genera Echinococcus and Taenia. Findings show that tapeworms have small genomes at ~150 Mb, compared to ~350 Mb in flukes and over 700 Mb in free-living planarians.

 

Their genomes are compact, containing few repetitive or mobile elements, and appear to contain a majority of common gene families, albeit they may be missing ~10% of 'core' or universal metazoan genes found in free-living animals and typically show a reduction in the number of genes per family. A number of necessary biosynthesis components are missing, such as genes required to synthesise cholesterol, and hence these essential molecules must be taken directly from the host. Data are now publicly available via the Web and promise to accelerate the pace of research in the field by eliminating the need for time consuming and costly genetic manipulations at the bench.


PD Olson, M Zarowiecki, F Kiss and K Brehm (2011). Invited review: Cestode genomics--progress and prospects for understanding basic and applied aspects of flatworm biology. Parasite Immunology [doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3024.2011.01319.x]

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It's Father's Day this Sunday, and so time to salute the male of the species who go the extra mile in parenthood and childcare.

 

Top of the list must be the Pregnant male seahorse, Hippocampus angustus. This new-age man goes further than any other to get involved with parenting. The female seahorse impregnates the male, pumping him full of her eggs, which he fertilises and nurtures, giving birth to 100s of fully formed tiny babies. His reward is guaranteed paternity.

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Homemakers and hunters: Adelie penguins (left) and Swedish wolves (right) set great examples as dedicated dads.

Other dedicated dads are the Adelie penguins, Pygoscelis adeliae, (above left) who are house-proud homemakers. The males arrive at breeding grounds early and build nests from stones, often stealing from each other. When females arrive, the males invite them in and present them with pebbles to demonstrate their position on the propery ladder.

 

There was even a pair of male penguins at New York Central Zoo that hatched an egg and raised the chick together.

 

Then there's the super-heroes like the Midwife toad, Ayltes obstetricans, who keeps his kids tied to his apron strings by wrapping the eggs round his legs until he can take them safely to the water, when the tadpoles are ready to hatch. Or the Swedish wolf, Canis lupus (pictured above right from Sexual Nature exhibition) whose tireless hunting skills are crucial in the rearing of his wolf pups. The pups are born blind and deaf and utterly dependent on dad and mum.

 

For more insights into the world of parenting in the animal kingdom, visit the Sexual Nature exhibition showing now at the Museum.

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Been wondering why there are seahorses adorning the entrance to our Sexual Nature exhibition? Maybe it's because the males are so unique,

In the meantime, Happy Father's Day, human dads!


Find out about the Sexual Nature exhibition on our websiteor

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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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In Lake Hoare the mats are vertically stratified. Each year one layer is formed and they can be used as indicators of growth and environmental conditions just like tree rings. Similar to microbial mats in other lakes the layers have different pigmentations for light capturing and protection.

 

                                                                                Cyanobacterial mats in Lake Hoare

 

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After the divers had brought up mat samples from a depth of ca 10 m, we went back to the lab and identified the diversity using light microscopy. The microbial mats contained different cyanobacteria including the genera Oscillatoria, Phormidium, Leptolyngbya and Nostoc.

 

After returning to the Natural History Museum, we will carry out DNA-based methods to characterise their evolutionary relationship to other Antarctica cyanobacteria.

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Today, we unveiled our innovative new interactive film to the public. And if you haven't heard of augmented reality before, you will now.

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A Coelophysis dinosaur roams the Attenborough Studio in Who do you think you really are?

Who do you think you really are? tells the story of our evolutionary past and uses advanced technology to blend CGI graphics and a live video stream, to literally bring prehistoric creatures to life in the film's studio. It is narrated by Sir David Attenborough and projected on 3 large screens in the Attenborough Studio.

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From your seat in the studio, and using the attached unique handset (shown right), you'll interact with the film and witness creatures and objects from the film appear and move right in front of you.

 

A Coelophysis dinosaur (above) and Homo erectus will strut around you and an intricate tree of life stretch upwards majestically. It's the first time that augmented reality has been used in a public, learning space like this.

 

'We wanted to use a whole arsenal of media and technologies,' says Alisa Barry, our Interactive Department's director and executive producer of the film. 'We have peppered the studio with infra-red. This allows the camera in the handheld computers to track movements and position the animation correctly.'

 

In addition to the wow factor of the film, you'll learn a lot about exactly how we are related to prehistoric creatures and even bananas.

 

The film is showing daily in the Attenborough Studio and is free.

 

Find out about the interactive film, Who do you think you really are?

 

Read the news story about the interactive film

 

After you've been to the film, you can visit our NaturePlus community and sign in to explore more augmented reality on your home webcam and continue the film's evolutionary journey further.

 

Visit NaturePlus

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Richard Sabin from our Mammal Department uses microscopes to identify whether products siezed by HM Revenue & Customs have been made from protected species such as elephant and rhino.  But scientists elsewhere use DNA to identify species - such as in this film which shows how shark fins can be tested and the species of shark identified.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHCzdQHre1U

 

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It's busy out there, very busy! It does not help that it is raining. But it is also very busy in here! At the moment I have two work experience students working in one of the cocoon ends sorting some British material and hopefully extracting localities data to be used for UK recording schemes. Two of our regular visitors have just turned up and they are straight away into recurating their group that they are working on (Agromyzidae). And I am about to spend the afternoon identifying British mosquitoes. We have to quickly identify the mosquitoes that we sampled last year that have been in the deep freeze ever since. This will involve us identifying them on blocks of dry ice or freezer blocks to ensure that there is no degradation of any virus DNA that the mosquitoes may have. I believe that we are going to have cold fingers

 

There was a meeting here last week for European Mycetophilidae several  workers. It is always nice to meet the people whom you have been corresponding with for a while and read their papers. Its a good opportunity to swap material and receive back material. One of them has donated some fungus gnats from Japan and I have spent the whole morning so far trying to enter all of the new data onto our database. I have only entered four of the 13!! oh well. The database is a vast and complex interactive entity (it is living!!) which is full of oddities that were migrated across when we finally combined all of the many different museum databases. This means though that we are cleaning constantly and so even the small entries may take time due to all of the different modules (i.e. the taxonomy, the collection event, the site where collected) that need to be edited. When you look at the online database you will find many mistakes- we are trying to clean but we have millions of entries .

 

We had another Dinosnores at the weekend and I think that it went well. It was very different this time as I was by myself and I had no one else to abuse on stage! I don't think that the first talk was as good but i loved the next two. The kids were really quite knowledgeable and this always helps. We had some live stick insects this times as well, the Anisomorpha, which exude and sometimes squirt a nasty toxin. They didn't do anything this time though... The male was attached to the adolescent female waiting for her to mature - a strategy that I am glad that most humans don't employ.....

 

And I am doing a Nature live tomorrow on my favourite insect (fly ) I have a soft spot for the robber flies but I keep getting sidetracked. I will get out some of the new material from French Guiana as i think that people will be amazed at how much variety there is in a sample.

 

Oh and I have a very large number of volunteers for my new material .

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I have titled this blog so as at the moment it really does feel like it! There are virtually no science staff (most are on holiday) but 5 million visitors!! The Museum is exceptionally busy at the moment and the fact that it has not stopped raining has compounded the problem!! The public are queuing around the ice rink!! Just getting through the public galleries is an ordeal!! I feel nicely tucked away in my bay just listening to the few other entomologists typing away . I have been reading papers on the use of museum specimens for DNA analyses and am now itching to get back into the lab and have another go at extracting. We are working on some UK mosquitoes at the moment that were collected from our various fieldtrips this year that have been stored in the freezer to prevent the DNA degrading.


I have spent the morning in the Specimen Preparation area in the Cocoon. I have been waiting to properly get my hands dirty with the material that came from French Guyana and so though that this would be the perfect opportunity. For some reason there are an awful lot of horse flies. Several of us have commented on this fact that when using malaise traps (tent like trap for catching small flying insects) there is always an abundance of them. The speaker system was not working though and I spent a long time scribbling down things for the public. These samples have an abundance of dung beetles, cockroaches, hymenoptera of all sorts, bark beetles and of course my babies! As well as all of the horse flies (and some long tongued ones!) and the robberflies there are also some very pretty soldier flies . I cant decide which is better - knowing that there is loads of new, undescribed species or being able to say what is in there already. It's all terribly exciting - I will calm down soon!

 

I was trying to write down little facts for the public as I sorted. I am not sure that they were happy about some of them. There are the Phorid flies of which some burrow down into coffins whilst others decapitate ants! Then there were the assassin bugs of which some are blood feeders on us! There are the dung beetles where i described my fieldwork of collecting them using various different types of dung....

 

...I will have to change the alcohol that the sample arrived in though as after two hours i was a little bit vacant to say the least!

 

This afternoon i am writing a case study for sampling insects in Costa Rica for a book to be published later on in the year. I have written a draft already but it needs to be more concise. I see an afternoon of red pen!

 

I am preparing myself for the sleepover as well. I have been revising my knowledge of all arthropods that can harm, maim, cause death etc. I will be such a hit at the New Years Eve party I am going to!

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Afternoon,

 

We had the most exciting fieldwork on Friday.  The first part of the day was spent on an Urban Farm. There were four girls (including me) and a French man carrying out this particular fieldwork and therefore lots of cooing over the animals. We were looking for mosquitoes and were armed with two backpack aspirators, a hand aspirator and a sweep net.

 

To be truthful, we were not expecting much as sampling can be very hit and miss (that will amaze people who are always being bitten!) but we were most surprised as we sucked up hundreds of specimens (now sitting in a minus 80 oC freezer awaiting DNA/RNA procedures). We also got nibbled by alpacas, screamed at by sheep and gobbled at by a ridiculous turkey – i just don’t understand those animals at all….

 

We then went onto Richmond Park to see if there were any resting adult populations that we could find there. We knew that this would be hard and we did not come across any. However we were also sampling for flies in general and so the afternoon was not altogether a right off (there were ice creams too :) ) It is lovely to get back into the field collecting.

 

The photos are from the farm and show some of the treacherous conditions that we have to sample in…