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You could say that this month's post is written in the spirit of January detoxes and body cleanses and all that healthy, New Year resolution-y stuff. It is also, I should mention in advance, not a post for the faint-hearted, so if you are of a nervous or squeamish disposition, you should probably look away now.


You could say that this month's specimen is the most intimate and personal one I've ever written about. It is, I believe, unique in our collection as being the only specimen donated by a member of staff having been sourced from his own body.


I'll let the protagonist - former Museum Science Educator and current Discovery and Learning Officer at ZSL London Zoo, Theo Blossom, take up the tale:

It was May 2012, 7.30 in the morning. My alarm had gone off in my university campus dorm room, where I was studying for my Masters in Conservation Science. I got up out of bed, and I started to walk across my room. Two steps across the floor, I felt something… something between my legs, something dangling... So I put my hand down my underwear, and I felt something coming out of my… well, my bum! At this point I began to feel a little alarmed.


I started to pull at it tentatively. Whatever it was kept coming and coming and coming. It was a bit traumatic, but  finally, "it" came out. All nine inches of it! I held it up in front of my face, in disbelief - and then - it gave its last wiggle of life! That was when I began to freak out.


What Theo had just bravely removed from his own behind was (it would later be confirmed) a roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides. He named it Judas and put it in a flatmate's (n.b. 'special thanks to Izzy') Tupperware container.



An example of the human roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides, (however, not 'Judas'). This species can grow up to ~40 cm (16 inches).


A visit to the campus doctor confirmed the aforementioned species type and also allayed some of Theo's fears about this strange creature that had been living in his body.

(The campus doctor) was a very well-spoken old boy who was probably, quite frankly, bored of handing out condoms. So when I slapped down Izzy's Tupperware box in front of him he became quite animated. Thumbing through a rather tatty book of potions he said: "Mebendazole, that will kill them. That is, if you want to kill them? It seems a shame. This little fella has probably been providing you a service - I presume you're fit and healthy with no allergies?"


It's all about the idea of "ecosystem services", Theo in turn explained to me. That is, the benefit that human species gain from resources and processes supplied by ecosystems. In this case, exposure to parasites (roundworm) keeps our immune system active and therefore better able to cope with other foreign bodies, from everyday pollen to more harmful bacteria.

I've since worked out that this little dude was inside me for two years. I didn't know. He caused me no problems. Coincidently or not, I have no allergies. The reality is our bodies are riddled with living organisms which are there all the time but do us no harm whatsoever. In fact, they benefit us in many ways.


After learning all this, I began to feel a bit bad. This little guy has been part of a marvellous little ecosystem that was boosting my immune system, and I'd just ended the party.


But Judas - who is actually female, not male - lives on, in body, and, technically, in spirit, in the Museum's specimen collection. After speaking to a Museum expert in parasitic worms to find out more about Ascaris lumbricoides, Theo was encouraged to donate his find (or should that be harvest?) to live on in perpetuity behind the scenes of the Darwin Centre, among our more than half a million other parasitic worm specimens.




Theo revisiting his roundworm, affectionately known as Judas, in the Museum's Darwin Centre this week.

It's a dream come true for anyone into natural history to have their name recorded in the scientific scriptures of the Natural History Museum, alongside the likes of Charles Darwin. I just didn't think it would be quite like this!


My great, great grandchildren, can, if they wish, in years from now, walk into the Museum and request to see Judas in all her glory. My great grandchild will ask my granddaughter: "Mummy, can we go and see great Granddad's worm?" And from beyond the grave, that will be a proud moment for me.




'To see "Ex Homo sapiens (Theo Blossom)" written on a specimen jar at the Natural History Museum is pretty awesome!' Theo said, adding: 'She looked a bit smaller than I remember, though.'


Earlier in 2013 the EU has banned the use of neonicotinoids. These are a group of pesticides that are used to control insect pests on crops but concern has arisen on their effects on non-target insects, particularly bees and other pollinators that are of key economic and environmental importance.


A feature summary in Nature of research and policy developments relating to the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees and other pollinators gives a good overview.  The European Environment Agency issued the second report on the precautionary principle and impacts from various substances - Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation.  This follows the earlier review of the history of the precautionary principle Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, produced in 2001.


Public policy debate and research have been mounting for some time, with concerns both from beekeepers and from various interests in wild pollinators.  The UK NGO Friends of the Earth, for example, commissioned the report The Decline of England's Bees from the University of Reading.

In the UK the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in April 2013 published the report of its inquiry on Pollinators and Pesticides, with a particular focus on neonicotinoids, which have been causing concern because of reported impacts on both honeybees and wild pollinators.  Selected recommendations to the UK government were:

  • national monitoring of wild insect pollinator species
  • risk assesssment results should be placed in the public domain and should be extended to sentinel pollinator species
  • review of the precautionary principle in approval of pesticides for use
  • a UK action plan for sustainable use of pesticides
  • a moratorium on use of imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam on bee-attractive corps by 1 January 2014, and immediate withdrawal of amateur garden use.
  • developing valuation of ecosystem services urgently to address pollinators

The Welsh government has published an Action Plan for Pollinators and draft implementation plan,  with actions focused on: policy, governance and sound evidence base;  provision of diverse and flower-rich habitats; healthy pollinator  populations; and better public awareness.  A pollinator task force is  planned.


The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published a short review of policy and evidence on Bees and other pollinators.  This is a first step in developing a national pollinator strategy for England in 2014 - expert workshops are planned for September and October 2013.


It has been a while since my last post, but here's some news I'd like to announce:


Darwin Initiative project 20-021 - Forest Futures: Livelihoods and sustainable forest management in Bolivian Amazon


Who we are

We are a team of scientists, development workers and businesses in Bolivia and the UK lead by The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and comprising the Bolivian NGO, Herencia, the Noel Kempf Mercado Natural History Museum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia and the Edinburgh based company Freeworld Trading, together with a number of subsidiary partners who include brazil nut harvesters, rural communities and regional universities.


Where we are working

We are working in the Pando Department of the Bolivian Amazon an area of tropical rain forest that is rich in biodiversity and an important source of brazil nuts:


DI project location.jpg

Project area and communities currently engaged in our project (click images to see the full size version)


Why we are working there?

Poverty drives the unsustainable use of forested landscapes as it is difficult and impractical for people to sacrifice their immediate and basic needs for the long-term benefits of sustainable agriculture. 69% of the forest-dependent population of the Pando are unable to satisfy these basic needs and 34% of them live in extreme poverty.


This combined with immigration to Amazonia, driven by economic, political and environmental factors, has placed increasing pressure on the tropical forests there. The Pando forests are important as they support a large forest-dependent population, are a significant source of biodiversity and ecosystem services and constitute important buffers for the eastern Andean catchments from predicted impacts of climate-change.


Losing these forest will not only lead to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, it will also reduce Bolivia’s ability to meet its Millennium Development Goals and increase vulnerability to climate change among the rural poor. This work is funded by the Darwin Initiative (Award 20-021).


slash and burn.jpg

Slash and burn agriculture in the Bolivia Amazon. Image: Bente Klitgaard, 2010

What we plan to do

By September 2016 we plan to mitigate the threats to the tropical forest of the Pando by supporting the development of sustainable practices that reduce forest conversion, coupled with increasing the awareness of how forests reduce poverty and provide ecosystem services amongst the population and government of the Pando.


inga foundation curla.jpg

Ingaagroforest: we are planning to establish similar agricultural systems on abandoned or exhausted pasture in Bolivia. Image from Honduras, courtesy of the Inga foundation.


Specifically, we aim to establish Inga tree-based agriculture on degraded cattle pasture, diversify the number of non-timber forest products that can be sustainably extracted from the Pando’s forests and exported, and raise awareness amongst local rural and urban communities and government as to the economic value of their forests and the role that they do and can play in reducing poverty and providing ecosystem services.


Related Links

The UK goverment's Natural Capital Committee has produced the State of Natural Capital Report 2013 - taking an economic view of natural resources and ecosystem services. The Committee states:


"The evidence that exists indicates we are failing to conserve our natural capital assets and invest in them adequately. In many cases we are increasingly demanding more from them while at the same time eroding their capacity to deliver. The risk is that rather than underpinning future growth and prosperity, degraded natural capital assets will act as a break [sic] on progress and development. Furthermore, by failing to invest adequately in maintenance and enhancement, we risk missing opportunities that better management and stewardship of natural capital can offer."


And goes on to make recommendations on better measurement of natural capital; incorporation into national accounting; improved policy tools for decision-making and other topics.  It also asserts that effective valuation and conservation of assets is good for economic growth.


The UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published the report of its inquiry on Pollinators and Pesticides, with a particular focus on neonicotinoids, which have been causing concern because of reported impacts on both honeybees and wild pollinators.  Concerns have included whether the pesticides have caused the collapse of honeybee colonies and reductions in the number of wild pollinators: butterflies, solitary bees, bumblebees, and some species of flies. The scientific evidence and regulatory responses from government in the UK and Europe are developing.


Selected recommendations to the UK government are:

  • national monitoring of wild insect pollinator species
  • risk assesssment results should be placed in the public domain and should be extended to sentinel pollinator species
  • review of the precautionary principle in approval of pesticides for use
  • a UK action plan for sustainable use of pesticides
  • a moratorium on use of imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam on bee-attractive corps by 1 January 2014, and immediate withdrawal of amateur garden use.
  • developing valuation of ecosystem services urgently to address pollinators

Paul Smith is leader of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) which aims to save the world’s most endangered plant species from extinction.


PaulSmith5.jpgTo halt, and even reverse, biodiversity loss what we need is a combination of appropriate policy and good management practice. These two approaches should always go hand in hand. Even if appropriate policy is set, if natural resource managers don’t have the tools to implement that policy, nothing improves. Conversely, technological or management interventions to stem biodiversity loss will not work unless they are supported by policy that creates funding and incentives.


In my opinion, the most important challenges that biodiversity and natural resource  managers face are related to both international and national development policy. The emphasis on poverty alleviation or wealth generation, for example, as measured by GDP or US dollar income, does not adequately address the problem of unsustainable management (and resulting loss) of biodiversity, which in itself leads to real, material poverty. This is dealt with comprehensively in the recent TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) studies, and has been highlighted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

A second, related problem is faddism in international development policy. The shift away from supporting and encouraging technological collaboration and exchange in natural resources management has undone a lot of good work – for example the decision by donors to cease supporting African tree seed centres at a time when the Food and Agriculture Organisation tells us that 28 trees are cut down for every tree planted in Africa. Good natural resource management takes decades to achieve in any given place, and needs to be maintained.

In the case of national development policy, education and health are rightly priorities, but environment comes too far down the list. Natural capital (land, soils, the diversity of plants, animals and life) is hugely undervalued, and key development areas such as agricultural research and forestry are massively under-resourced. As a result, where natural resource or land use policy is in place, it is often poorly implemented. Government scientists are poorly paid, the best brains move out, the remaining scientists don’t have the training, tools or resources they need, they are consequently not involved in development decision making, and central government increasingly regards its own researchers as irrelevant. This is a vicious circle.

The technological knowledge and tools needed to manage natural resources in a sustainable way are usually available somewhere. However, scientists in developing countries don’t have access to those technologies. This goes way beyond just information. Like the rest of us, they need mentoring, training and long term collaboration. They also need access to wide global networks not simply one on one partnerships in order to reap the benefits.

It is a mystery to me why it is that technical collaborations in Africa have to follow short term funding cycles. In Europe we have pan-European technical collaborations that span decades or even careers and yet a long term European-African collaboration is taken to be an indicator of a programme that is unsustainable – why do we need to have an exit strategy after 3 or 5 years? No wonder it is hard to make an impact!

Finally, biodiversity science in the public sector needs to find its way. Over the past two decades, government agricultural and forestry research institutions all over the world have had their funding cut drastically, and many have had to close. Universities can’t fill this void because they have different research drivers (e.g. publications and short term funding cycles). NGOs can’t do long term research because they don’t have the funding or expertise. And the private sector doesn’t always work for the public good – it also works for profit and shareholders.

Things that would make a difference

1.    Recognition by governments and the development sector that human wellbeing or wealth cannot simply be measured in US dollar.
2.    Recognition by governments that good management of natural capital, including biodiversity, underpins human health, wealth and wellbeing.
3.    Support from donors and national governments for policies that promote ecosystem health, and mitigate the risk of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
4.    Support from donors and national governments for capacity building, information exchange and scientific collaboration in the public sector (for appropriate timescales).
5.    A new vision that sets out the role of government scientists in delivering services for the public good.


Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest of all beetle groups, the weevils.  As well as his research work he is the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme Officer for the CBD Secretariat.  He has visited many different countries both for research and while working with people on biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.


Over the past 20 years there has been a lot of interest in ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of animals, plants and microorganisms on Earth, their genetic makeup and the ecosystems in which they live.  There have been peaks and troughs – a peak with the massive excitement globally at the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, when the world’s leaders seemed to pick up the biodiversity flag, and troughs with continued threats to ecosystems from rainforests to seabed, and no clear turning point to a more secure future.


So what happened to the tide of optimism generated in Rio?  We got a ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ out of it, but what has it done, and what will it achieve at its next major meeting in Nagoya?  At one level, the Convention (‘CBD’) has achieved a vast amount.  With 192 signatory countries, plus the European Union, it is the largest Environmental Convention.  It has 42 legally-binding provisions, and its major biennial meetings (the Conference of the Parties – ‘COP’) have taken nearly 250 detailed 'Decisions' about how the CBD should be implemented and what should be prioritised.  These have led to a great deal of work across the world, and money directed to biodiversity issues.  On the other hand, hardly anybody seems to have heard about it or, if they have, they have only a hazy idea of what it does.


The CBD is a policy process, a forum where global agreement can be reached and policies adopted.  However, these policies (the COP ‘Decisions’) are for national implementation, and are not legally binding.  Under the CBD “States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies …”.  Biodiversity does not belong to all humanity as it did before Rio, but belongs to the countries in which it exists.  The CBD cannot fund implementation, and does not have staff to take part in ‘hands-on’ biodiversity work.  Thus projects tend not to be clearly labelled ‘CBD’ and it is difficult to see what CBD policies are achieving.  The policies themselves are written in complex language, and are far from ‘user-friendly’ to most of us.


CBD policies are not just about conservation, but are in support of the three equally-important objectives: Conservation, Sustainable Use, and Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity.  In terms of general understanding, ‘conservation’ is pretty easy, and many people stop there.  ‘Sustainable use’ is rather more complex, especially when we are not very clear about what that use is.  In fact ‘use’ encompasses everything from aesthetic enjoyment to spiritual support to food and water provision to pollination and a whole range of other ‘environmental goods and services’ – the life support system of good old ‘Planet Earth’.  In that framework ‘sustainable’ might mean anything from ‘exactly as it is now / was at some time in the past’ to ‘enough to allow us to survive’.  In fact, since the issue is rarely discussed in a comprehensive way, the decisions on what action to take to ensure sustainability are rarely addressed and even more rarely put into practice.  I’ll come back to benefits from genetic resources in another post, because the nub of the matter is discussion, understanding and action.


In Nagoya the CBD COP will meet for the tenth time.  As with previous COPs, hundreds of government servants and others will spend the first week hammering out the details of new Decisions. In the second week environment ministers will join the stew to deal with any national political issues that can’t be addressed by the other attendees and then agree the final texts.  One of the major outcomes will be a new Strategic Plan for the CBD, including targets for 2020.  Whether those targets can be met depends entirely on how willing people across the world are to prioritise them against other policies, and to tell Government how much time, money and effort should be directed towards meeting them.  This has been an issue all along; Government may agree to CBD policies but can only implement them – bring the necessary benefits to biodiversity (and us!) – if voters want this to happen.  If we do not fully understand what these policies are, or even know they exist, there is little chance that Government can take the next important steps.


Dr Bob Bloomfield has coordinated the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity working with diverse partners from more than 400 partner organisations in the UK ( Bob has an academic background in biological science but has devoted his career to science communication and public engagement around science issues including, and especially Evolution and Biodiversity.



Bob_Bloomfield.jpgThe recent Mori Poll confirming that British people are concerned about the loss of species is no surprise. For many years we have worked to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty such as our network of national parks. As a nation of nature lovers we take great interest in our wildlife. While many of us do this from our armchairs, many others volunteer with NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and a host of other societies. Good progress has been made in protecting pockets of nature and specific species. Despite this over the past decade the United Kingdom, like the other 193 signatory countries to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has failed to meet the overall target of reversing biodiversity loss.


Biodiversity is the variety of living things, so biodiversity loss is happening at all levels – a decline in the genetic variety within species, individual species being pushed to the brink of extinction, and the decline in the variety of diverse habitats and ecosystems. What is happening now is without precedent, scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is maybe 1000 times the natural rate, and this erosion is due to human activities, primarily the consequence of the combined effects of human population growth and resource demands. These in turn fuel massive land-use changes with the expansion of agriculture and fishing, transport systems and urbanization, along with a host of industrial process with cause pollution through extraction, processing and waste disposal.


So here we get to the rub of the issue, while the efforts of Government environment departments, NGOs and volunteer organisations are having success, this is not dealing with the root cause of biodiversity loss which is the impact overall of human activity. Looking ahead to make a real difference humans need to look see things differently and do things differently.


The good news is that we are also becoming more aware of our dependence on biodiversity. Without green plants we would have no oxygen to breath. With no insects there would be no pollination of all the plants which provide our foods, fabrics, fuels and the host of other products for human use. Invertebrates, bacteria and fungi prevent us from being buried in our own waste and natural material would not be recycled which is essential for the maintenance of fertile soil. Without forests and moor land Insurance companies would pale at the risks of floods and drought, as these systems act like sponges to buffer the movement of rain to our rivers. Without genetic variety in nature we would have nowhere to turn to find the new strains of crops resistant to emerging pests and diseases, or for the natural pharmacopeia which is the basis for developing new medicines to protect people and our livestock. Even more significant today when we face the prospect of human induced climate change is the biological capability of forests, reef, ocean plankton, marches and bogs and other ecological systems to take in and lock away the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As humans allow biodiversity to degrade we threaten these Ecosystem Services, as they are called, and many more which I haven’t even mentioned.


Even more astounding is the emerging understanding of the economic cost of this loss. Conservative estimates of the economic costs of forest loss alone are between $2-4000000000000000000 ($2-4 trillion) each year (equivalent to about two global bank crises a year). Which brings me around to why it is so disturbing that so few people are aware of the meeting of the Convention On Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya in October, when targets for the future protection of biodiversity will be set.


The Rio Earth Summit in1992 highlighted three agendas to be addressed; climate change; sustainable economic development; and biodiversity loss. What is now abundantly clear is that these are not separate agendas; quite the contrary, if we cannot address biodiversity loss we cannot hope to succeed in either of the other two, human society has to see all three as intimately bound and needing to be addressed together. As a life-long naturalist and environmentalist this is self-evident, that our complex interacting living system earth is something which we cannot be apart from, and if we do not tend to its vital organs, its oceans, rivers and forests, we will suffer as it declines. The good news is that the new economic awareness of the importance of biodiversity might be understood in the world in international politics and so we may see positive outcomes from Nagoya.


However biodiversity action needs the understanding of people too. People who can provide the mandate to ensure politicians provide the policy framework that will make a difference. People in business who can champion the green economy of which biodiversity preservation is a central part; and ordinary people who have the vision to see a world where we make space for biodiversity is the only way to ensure the health wealth and wellbeing of future generations.