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It's almost a year since I started blogging for the Museum, and as I considered what I should profile for my 12th Specimen of the Month, I inevitably began to reflect on all the amazing specimens I've already written about, those on my list to write about in the future (which, for various reasons, can't be featured today), as well as all the specimens I've yet to even discover exist here.


One of the most incredible things about the Museum is just how many specimens we care for. To describe it by coining a phrase from Charles Darwin (although he was talking about the evolutionary Cambrian explosion, but anyway...), the Museum's collection is full of 'endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful'.


So today I thought I would celebrate all the specimens in our collection. All 80 million of them!


As you can obviously gather, not all 80 million are on public display. In fact, only about 0.04% of our total collection is on show in the public galleries. The rest is housed behind the scenes, in specially-built, and often specially-temperature-controlled, storage facilities.


Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:


More than 34 million insects in 140,000 drawers, of which 8.7 million are butterflies and moths.


Some of the modern and historic storage cupboards containing the drawers that house our insect collections.



The collection was boosted in 2010 with the donation of 45,000 weevils of 4,500 different species from Oldřich Vořisek, a private collector in the Czech Republic. Half were new to the Museum, and it included almost 750 type specimens. Pictures © Libby Livermore.


More than 27 million animals, ranging from the smallest fishes and frogs to enormous elephants and blue whale skeletons.


Before Dippy took pride of place, elephants were a dominant feature of Hintze Hall (or Central Hall as it was back then). In this picture from 1924, three elephants can be seen on the main floor, while a further two elephant heads are mounted above the Darwin statue on the stairs.



Mounted heads used to be much more prominent around the Museum in years gone by, as illustrated by this photograph of the balcony of Hintze Hall from 1932 (left). [Note, also, the terrifying location of the glass display cases at the top of the stairs!]

Today, most of our mounted animal heads are kept in storage (right).


More than 7 million fossils, with the oldest dating back more than 3.5 billion years.


One of my favourite fossils is this petrified tree trunk: the wood of a conifer from the Triassic era (250-200 million years ago) has been replaced with the mineral agate.



Another fossil I'm quite fond of, which also has a mineralogical connection, is this ammonite (Parkinsonia dorsetensis), from the mid-Jurassic era (174-166 million years ago): its chambers have been filled by calcite crystals.


More than 6 million plants, algae, ferns, mosses and lichens, 10% of which come from the British Isles.


Our oldest plant specimen is a mounted American hop hornbeam (Carpinus virginiana), which dates to 1740 and was collected just about a mile from here at the Chelsea Physic Garden.



Watch herbarium technician Felipe Dominguez-Santana demonstrate how plant specimens are mounted in this video from 2009. It was filmed around the time that all our herbarium specimens were moved into the then-newly-built Darwin Centre.


More than 500,000 rocks, gems and minerals, of which 5,000 are meteorites.


Here I am reflected in some pyrite in the Minerals gallery.



For some reason this malachite specimen causes innumerable giggles. We don't know why.


And, more than 1.5 million books and artworks in the Museums Library and Archives.


As a book junkie, the Museum's Library collection (of which there are six sub-collections: zoology, Earth sciences, botany, entomology, general, and ornithology at Tring) is a thing of beauty in itself, to me. This is a view from the balcony over the Earth sciences collection, which is in the old Geological Museum building (now the Red Zone), built between 1929 and 1933.



Just a small selection of some of the 540+ copies of Origin of Species held by the Museum's library. We have the largest collection of Charles Darwin's works in the world.


Finally, not officially counted in the 80+ million, but...


The web team's collection of dinosaur toys, totalling 15.


Hi all, it has been a busy few months for myself and others working with the fossil fish collections. You may have seen some updates on the @NHM_FossilFish twitter account that I have been away on fieldwork and at a couple of conferences, hopefully I will blog about these soon.


One big event the whole Museum is involved in is happening this Friday, it's Science Uncovered! This is a Europe-wide event and is something nearly all the staff in the Museum are involved in. It is a free event with staff and volunteers talking about their research, favourite specimens and hot science topics. There is even a bar where you can come and talk to us over a drink.


Team Fish will be out in force on the evening.



Flyer and my 'I'm a scientist' badge. Look out for people wearing these during the evening.


Dr Zerina Johanson and her team will be presenting new research on the evolution of the shark dentition, how this was built from individual teeth to form a highly functional feeding unit. Shark dentitions are very diverse, representing a wide range of feeding strategies.


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CT scan of the jaw of the shark Squalus acanthias.


We will focus particularly on the sawshark dentition, with 'teeth' along an extended rostrum at the front of the head. These function during feeding (for example, slashing through schools of fish), but are they true teeth? Zerina will be in the Origins and Evolution Zone.


Have you heard of oceans called 'Tethys' and 'Panthalassa'? 


Dr Martha Richter will be explaining how fossil fishes and cephalopods can provide clues about the palaeogeography and salinity of ancient oceans as well as the past connections between continents. She will illustrate this with exceptionally well-preserved fossils from two continents, Africa (Morocco) and South America (Brazil), which range in age from the Early and Late Cretaceous c. 100-90 million years ago.


martha pic.jpg

Excavating fossils in the Crato Formation, Brazil.


Martha will be at Station 8: Oceans between 8:30pm and 10pm, in Marine Reptile Way.


Sharks, how big?

How do we know how big the biggest shark was when it is usually only their teeth that fossilise? Learn how to estimate the size of a shark from just their teeth and handle real specimens from Megalodon, one of the biggest sharks that ever lived, which could have swallowed a human whole. I will also be in the Origins and Evolution Zone.


Me & meg.jpg

Myself holding one of the Megalodon teeth.


Please do stop by and say hello to one or all of us. It promises to be a great night I hope to see you there! If you can't make it you can always follow events using the hashtag #SU2014.


Ellie Adamson,   Department of Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 11 June 11:00


Earth Sciences (Mineralogy) Seminar Room, Basement, WEB 05



Freshwater habitats in tropical Asia are home to many interesting endemic freshwater fishes. Their diversification history is frequently explained in terms of eustacy and past river geomorphology.


This talk will discuss vicariant patterns in fishes across freshwater habitats from India to Wallace’s line, based on the distribution of their genetic diversity. In particular, I’ll focus on the biogeography of snakeheads and gouramis.


More information on attending seminars at


As some of you might be aware myself and colleagues are organising an upcoming symposium to celebrate 150 years since the birth of one of the great palaeontologists - Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. Smith Woodward might not be as well known as others but he did a lot for palaeontology, particularly fossil fish.



Sir Arthur Smith Woodward


Smith Woodward was born in Macclesfield on 23rd May1864. He started his long career at the NHM (then the British Museum - Natural History) when he was 18 years old in 1882 in the Geology Department. At this point the NHM had only been opened to the public for 16 months, so there was lots to do.

When he started at the Museum he quickly became involved in fossil exhibitions. Around the same time two large collections of newly acquired fossil fish specimens (containing thousands of specimens) previously belonging to two prolific collectors arrived at the Museum - Sir Philip Grey Egerton and William Willoughby Cole, (the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen). Smith Woodward realised how important these collections were and there were likely to be lots of new species and interesting specimens.

During his time Smith Woodward named over 300 different species of fossil fish and perhaps what he is best known for amongst fossil fish workers is a four part Catalogue of the Fossil Fishes in the British Museum (Natural History) published between 1989 and 1901. This was and remains a very important reference for fossil fish workers. I often refer to the Catalogue on a weekly basis for information about specimens. He also published on fishes from Wealden, Purbeck and the Chalk. Much of his work helped to form the foundations of current research on numerous fish groups.


Catalogue picture1.jpg

The Catalogue of Fossil Fishes, written by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward


Smith Woodward became Keeper of Geology in 1901 and spent his entire career here at the Museum, retiring in 1924 when he was knighted! He died in 1944. Over his lifetime he received many awards and medals including being made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1901 and the Lyell and Wollaston Medals of the Geological Society (there are actually too many to name here).


During the symposium we will have several talks about who he was as a person, his contribution to science and how his work has inspired generations of palaeontologists. There will also be poster contributions and a rare chance to see some of his type material described in the Catalogue and other key publications along with some of his many medals, which are kindly on loan to us from the British Museum.


The meeting will take place on Wednesday 21st May in The Flett Events Theatre of the Natural History Museum. Places are still available if you are interested and it is free to attend. However, you must register via the website.

Watch out for further posts about Smith Woodward and how the symposium went. We will also be working to produce a Procedings with a wide cross-section of papers next year. On the day I will be encouraging delegates to tweet and I will be doing the same from the Fossil Fish account and using the hashtag #ASW150.


Woodward logo.jpg

Our snazzy logo for the symposium


It has been a while since I last posted about our Moroccan adventure last year, (please excuse me) I've been rather busy in the collections and hosting students and researchers. I will bring you up to speed with some of that in later blogs!


Back to Morocco! We had been in Morocco for several days now and were loving every minute of it. Myself and Zoe will both be blogging about our trip to Goulmima as we both had strong interests in the area and the fauna. See Zoe's blog for her view of the day!


The day started off by looking around a fossil and mineral shop/museum which was attached to the hotel where we were staying. They had lots of great things and some great casts, if only I had enough room at home to have a Triceratops skull in my living room!


Tri SKull.jpg

Triceratops skull (reconstruction).



Some fish from Morocco available to buy in the fossil shop.


After we had left the museum we were on the road again. Everyday we were travelling to different localities and seeing something new. It was great to see so much of the Moroccan landscape, it was amazing. The geology and landscapes which we were driving through changed everyday.

Me &Zoe Goul.jpg

Myself and Zoe ready for the day ahead!



Driving to Goulmima.



Just one of the many pictures I have of the Moroccan landscape.


Zoe was definitely the most excited about the trip to Goulmima as you get lovely ammonites from there. I was also interested in going there as amongst the ammonites you get fish in calcareous nodules and I knew we had nothing from that area in the collections so I was intrigued to find out more about the site and what we could find.

We stopped at a few sites on our drive but we didn't find any vertebrate material. Our team found some invertebrate material, bits of shells and ammonites, so after a while we moved onto another site.


Me Asfla1.jpg

Me at the Asfla 1 site. It was a steep climb to the top of the hill behind me!


The next site, Asfla 2, proved to be more fruitful. We discovered partial pieces of ammonite and Plesiosaur bones, but still no fish. Althought they were only scrappy bits of Plesiosaur we still collected them as they will be useful in the handling collections and in the Angela Marmont Centre (where you can bring fossils to have them identified) in the Museum.


Mark Asfla2.jpg

Mark at Asfla 2 site, trying to sniff out some Plesiosaurs!


Our last stop was a village settlement where most of the residents make a living out of fossil hunting, particularly from Goulmima. The rocks here are Cretaceous in age - about 90 million years old. Here were were taken by our local guide and shown some amazing specimens. What particularly caught the eye of TEAM FISH were the famous fish in nodules to be found in Goulmima!


These fish are called Goulmimichthys and are part of the class of fish commonly known as ray-finned fish (you can still find ray-finned fish swimming in the seas today e.g. cod). These fish are elongate and had numerous small spiny teeth. Some of the specimens we saw even had some soft tissue preservation, which is amazing. It is very rare you get soft tissue (muscles, skin etc.) fossilised, as it is usually eaten by predators or rots away very quickly after the animal dies.


Goulmimichthys looks very similar to fish (Rhacolepis in particular) that are found in the Santana Formation in Brazil. There has not been a huge amount of research done on Goulmimichthys and because we do not have any fish material from that area in Morocco in the collection we decided to purchase all of the specimens that` you can see in the picture below. The other flatter fish you can see are Ichthyodectes, which had a large mouth with pointed teeth. It was a fast swimming predator at this time.

I am actually going to start doing a research project on these fish which I am quite excited about. We are going to have the specimens CT scanned. This is a powerful machine which allows us to look inside the nodules (similar to an x-ray) instead of cutting the nodules (and the fossil) in half. I have not done this before so I am looking forward to learning new skills. Hopefully by doing this we can better understand how Goulmimichthys relates to other fish like Rhacolepis  from Brazil.


morocco-resize-feb14.jpgTEAM FISH: David Ward, Martha Richter, Zerina Johanson and myself.


Fossil fish mostly in nodules collected from Goulmima. This picture does not do them justice, they are more beautiful when you see them for real!


We did very well visiting the local collectors and seeing what they had. We gained many new specimens for the Museum's collections and made some good contacts with the local collectors.


From here we headed to our next hotel and packaged up our specimens to be shipped back to the UK.


My next blog about Morocco will be a guest one from our ore curator who was with us talking about pretty pink minerals!


Over the weekend as you may have noticed if you follow my Twitter feeds (@NHM_Brachiopoda and @NHM_Cephalopoda) I have been on the Isle of Wight. We arrived on a very wet afternoon on Friday 8 November.


The main reason for our trip was to participate in the Dinosaur Isle Museum's "Blast from the Past" event which gathers local collectors, universities and museums together to talk to the public about palaeontology, fossil collecting and metal detecting.


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Me with our display of cephalopods.

Me and my collegues - Dr Martin Munt, Dr Lorna Steel, Dr Christine Stullu-Derrien, Dr Ria Mitchell and Zuzanna Wawrzyniak - had a stall showing the diversity of fossil cephalopods through time and the plant and arthropod fauna of the Rhynie Chert. Lots of people came to talk to us, asking questions about the specimens and bringing their own fossils for us to identify.


On Monday Christine came back to the Museum as she's very busy at the moment but the rest of us stayed on the Isle of Wight to do some fieldwork. We wrapped up warm with lots of layers and waterproofs and braved the weather on Yaverland beach near Sandown. I found some dinosaur ribs and a fish vertebra.

When we went up to Dinosaur Isle that is close by for lunch, we realised our waterproofs had failed and we were all utterly soaked so instead of going back out into the dire weather we were invited to visit the Isle of Wight off-site store to have a look at their collections.


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Our group on Yaverland beach getting rather wet and windswept.


Alex Peaker and Martin New of Dinosaur Isle showed us lots of wonderful fossil plants, dinosaurs and invertebrates while Lorna took the opportuinty to have a look at their fossil crocodiles.


On Tuesday the weather was much better and we took a trip to a Pleistocene mammal locality on the east of the island called Saltmead Beach, which is near Newton. Luckily the military firing test zone was not in action that day as we had to cross it in order to get to the beach. After a long walk across a water-logged field and down the beach we finally made it to the site. Lots of bone fragments were found, most likely from bison. These will be passed along to our fossil mammal curator.



Left: Lorna and Zuza looking for Pleistocene bones.

Right: The beach at Saltmead near Newtown.



After lunch we visited an Eocene site known as the insect limestone. Here there were pieces of the limestone strewn on the beach which you can then break open with a hammer. If you are lucky you may find insects such as ants and beetles or even fossil plant remains. In our case, Zuzanna was the lucky one as she found a lovely beetle that our arthropod curator was very excited to recieve for the collection.


Insect limestone.jpg

Left: Ria breaking up the limestone. Centre: Looking carefully for tiny insects.

Right: The insect limestone.


When we got back to the house Zuzanna started the process of removing the salt from the bison bones we had found. She did this by soaking them in tap water overnight to draw the salt out. In the process, however, a small shore crab emerged from one of the bones! We put it in a tupperware tub (with no lid) with some seaweed from the bone and sea water from the sample bag. In the morning on the way back to the ferry we released him in a suitable pebbly location with seaweed.



Left: The crab we rescued
Right: I'm about to release him!


As I mentioned on my Twitter account @NHM_FossilFish, myself and several colleagues from the Museum and another institutions recently went on a collections-enhancing trip to Morocco. It was absolutely amazing! Over several blog posts myself and Zoe Hughes will take you through our adventures, so make sure you check out her Brachiopod and Cephalopod collections blog!


Over the last few years lots of fossils and minerals from Morocco have flooded the market. We are even seeing an increase in people bringing them to events for us to identify. Currently our collections from Morocco are limited, so during the trip we wanted to:

  • expand the Museum's collections
  • see famous sites like the Kem Kem (famous for dinosaurs) and Goulmimia (famous for ammonites and fish)
  • collect some of our own samples


Over the last year the Museum's former Palaeontology and Mineralogy Departments merged to form the new Department of Earth Sciences, and because both minerals and fossils from Morocco are of interest to the wider scientific community we mounted our first earth sciences fieldtrip


The palaeontologists of the group were myself, Martin Munt, Martha Richter, Zerina Johanson, Zoe Hughes, Mark Graham our fossil preparator, research associate David Ward and regular Fossil Fish visitor Charlie Underwood from Birkbeck, University of London. The mineralogists were Mike Rumsey, Helena Tolman and analytical chemist Emma Humphreys-Williams.


Morocco groupCrop.jpg

Back row: Mark Graham, Zerina Johanson, Martin Munt, Charlie Underwood, David Ward, Martha Richter, Mike Rumsey, Helena Toman and Emma Humphreys-Williams. Front row: Myself (Emma Bernard), Moha (our guide) and Zoe Hughes.


On Wednesday 18 September our group arrived at Heathrow Airport for our flight out to Casablanca, Morocco. We arrived late at night and were met by our drivers and our guide Moha. We went straight to the hotel and settled in for the evening ready for our first day in the field.


On Thursday 19 we were all up ready for a trip to a farm near the town of Oued Zem. This area is known for the phosphate mining industry, a by-product of which is fossil material, specifically Cretaceous reptiles such as mosasurs and thousands upon thousands of shark teeth!


It was a warm day, about 30 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. We went to a farm where Charlie and David had previously collected samples and have a good relationship with the owners. Here we wanted to sample different beds to see what sharks and other marine animals were present in each layer.


We collected large samples and them put them through several fine sieves and then picked out what fossils we could find. This mainly consisted of shark and ray teeth and small fish bones. We collected over 20 bags of this sediment to bring back to the Museum so we can have a closer look.



Charlie Underwood digging in the rock face and sieving for shark teeth.



Emma and Zoe enjoying the sun and picking the sediment for shark teeth.


For lunch we went to another local farm where I think we all agreed, we had one of the best tagines any of us have every had. It was delicious. The farm also had a fossil shop and it was great to look around at what they had on offer.




Just some of the fossil specimens on offer in a Moroccan farm shop.


In the afternoon we were back at the farm with all the shark teeth and we were in for a real treat. Part of their land included an old phosphate mine which they now use for excavating fossils, and inside there was a near complete shark belonging to the genus Otodus of Yspresian age (Early Eocene in age, about 50 million years old). Shark skeletal material is cartilaginous and therefore rarely fossilised, but this specimen has several articulated vertebrae and lots of teeth preserved.



All set and ready to go down the mine.



Me with the shark skeleton, the round white circles are the vertebrae.


The mine was a lot cooler inside than outside which made for a nice change when we were still adjusting to the temperature difference. After we stumbled back outside we were greeted with some lovely saffron tea (a first for me) and we packed all our specimens and sediment into the van and headed off for the hotel discussing what we had found that day.


From here on, myself and Zoe Hughes will be taking each day in the field in turn, so make sure to check back to find out what else we did...


Miniatures, morphology and molecules: problems with the phylogenetic position of Paedocypris



miniture fish.jpg



Ralf Britz

Vertebrates Division, Dept. Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 26 June 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


The highly miniaturized fish species of the cyprinid genus Paedocypris are among the smallest of all vertebrates. Their skeleton shows a puzzling mixture ofhighly reductive and morphologically novel characters. Numerous structures present in most bony fishes are absent in Paedocypris due to an organism wide case of progenesis or developmental truncation. I highlight the problems associated with working morphologically with such a truncated organism and offer some solutions. I also look in detail at the evidence from recent molecular systematic analyses some of which are in sharp contrast to the results based on morphology. I touch upon the general issue of morphology versus molecules and discuss it in the context of the phylogenetic position of Paedocypris.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


After all that build up in my first post, the Scillionian boat trip wasn't that good and it wasn't that bad. So no sharks, whales, sunfish, etc but also no vomiting and I ended up spending most of the journey asleep.



The Scillonian after our arrival at St Mary's, Isles of Scilly


[I'm going to have to go off at a tangent slightly now and say that I've just this second been recognised by a small blonde lad as I sit here in the pub typing this. I will explain why in a bit.]


Anyway, we disembarked and trudged up and over a hill to the most western part of St Mary's which is called the Garrison or Woolpack. I've stayed in a few interesting places in my time but our current lodgings are the first that look like they could withstand a direct hit from a scud missile, being in an old military bunker. However, they are comfortable enough and we soon feel at home, although I can't help but feel sorry for the poor swallows who foolishly decided to raise their family in the corridor leading to the showers and toilets.


[I've just been recognised again, this 'fame' will start to go to my head if it carries on.]


Once we'd settled ourselves in, Mark Spencer, experienced botanist and exhibition leader took us for a walk around the island in the sunshine and points out all the parts of it that we can graze upon. Particularly nice are plants called three cornered leeks which have a spring onion/garlic taste.



The lighthouse at Peninnis Head.


The next day we rise early as one of my first obligations is to help with three talks for children (who seem to still remember me, hence the recognitions tonight as I write this) at the local Five Islands School. These go really well and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs, steals the show with his squid dissection.


I don't have any props myself (apart from a baby pollock which is deemed unsuitable for hacking up in front of six-year olds, having proper red blood as opposed to the squid's green variety) so we find a few pictures of deep-sea anglerfish and sharks and I tell the children about those, and then attempt to identify various fishes that they tell me they've seen. I'm also getting a bit worried about the success - or potential lack of it - of my fish collecting at this point so I ask them to bring anything they can find up to our lodgings and give it to me.


My worries increase later as we spend a couple of hours fishing beside a sewer pipe with no results. Meanwhile everyone else is gathering buckets full of material - molluscs, plants - and diligently sitting around scribbling in notebooks and writing labels. Determined to get something - anything - of the fish variety, Jon, Tom Simpson and I head down to the beach at Hugh Town with our seine net, and after a lot of mucking about we finally catch our first, a baby sandeel. I hope things improve tomorrow...



Jon and Tom attempting to seine



My first fish, a sandeel


The specimens are packed and tomorrow the first Museum staff will make our way down to Lyme Regis for the fossil festival (3-5 May). We have a nice selection of ammonites, brachiopods, fish, sharks, and a replica dinosaur skull of a Baryonyx and its claw to show people different types of fossils which can be found on the Jurassic Coast. We do seem to have a lot of things to take...



Emma Bernard (left) and Zoe Hughes (right).


This first group is Martin Munt, Zuzanna Wawrzyniak, Zoe Hughes and me, Emma Bernard. We will be heading out to do some fieldwork on Wednesday (Hopefully we’ll find lots of ammonites!), though we haven’t yet quite decided where we will head to, it might be weather dependant, so hope for sunshine.


Thursday will take us to a school event in Dorchester where we will be talking about the wonders of cephalopod taxonomy. Over the weekend it is the festival and the Museum will be represented by many staff and lots of fun activities including sieving for sharks teeth, learning all about the wonders of the Rhynie Chert (which is 407 million years old) and gold panning. There is also an opportunity for people to bring along any fossils of their own for identification.


The festival is important as Lyme Regis is at the heart of the Jurassic Coast and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


For more information about Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, visit their website.


Zoe and I will be posting updates all week here on our blog. Stay tuned!


Ralf Britz and his Smithsonian colleague David Johnson have published a paper in the Journal of Morphology on the development of the sucking disc of remoras. Remoras are a group of marine fish that usually attach themselves to sharks or other large fish such as manta rays with their sucking disc.  This lifestyle appears not to harm the shark, nor does it bring any benefit: depending on the species of remora, they eat fragments of the larger fish's food that fall from its mouth;  faeces; or the larger fish's parasites.


Echeneis NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_009079_Comp.jpgEcheneis naucrates - watercolour painting by Sydney Parkinson made during Captain Cook's first voyage 1768-1771


Ralf's work on the sucker involved examination and comparison of fins of different species of fish to identify the homology of its components - homology is the term used to describe organs in two species that have the same evolutionary origin, despite sometimes different appearance and function (so the human arm and a bat's wing are homologous).  The remora's sucker is not found in other fish - is it a totally new organ, or is it a highly modified version of an organ found in other fish?


By studying the development of larval remoras ranging from 9.3 to 26.7 mm in length, they demonstrated that the skeleton of the sucking disc forms by enormous expansion of the dorsal fin supports and the bases of the associated fin spines. The evolution of a sucking disc from a regular spinous dorsal fin seems like a major step in evolution but is actually a gradual process involving small incremental changes of structures during development.

Britz, R. & G. D. Johnson. 2012. Ontogeny and homology of the skeletal elements that form the sucking disc of remoras (Teleostei, Echeneoidei, Echeneidae). Journal of Morphology, 273 (12) 1353-1366 , DOI: 10.1002/jmor.20063

Ralf has also published a paper with a Brazilian colleague, Mônica Toledo-Piza, analysing the egg surface structure of the poorly known and highly venomous freshwater toadfish Thalassophryne amazonica with the NHM's scanning electron microscopes (SEM). Eggs of this fish show a highly unusual and complex system of ridges and intermittent grooves that originate at the equator of the egg and run toward the animal egg pole and end in a spiraling pattern at the micropyle (the only opening for sperm to enter). This striking modification may help to increase the chances of eggs being fertilized.

Britz, R. & M. Toledo-Piza. 2012. Egg surface structure of the freshwater toadfish Thalassophryne amazonica (Teleostei: Batrachoididae) with information on its distribution and natural habitat. Neotropical Ichthyology, 10: 593-599.


Ralf Britz and collaborators from the Conservation Research Group from St Albert's College, Kochi, Kerala have published a series of papers describing three new fish species from South India.


Pristolepis rubripinnis, Dario urops and Pangio ammophila were discovered during the January 2012 NHM-funded visit of Dr Ralf Britz to Kochi, to work with Dr Rajeev Raghavan. Historical specimens of the fish collection in the Natural History Museum collected by Sir Francis Day in the 1860s and 70s played an important role in the resolution of taxonomic and nomenclatural issues before the species could be described.


This series of papers highlights our incomplete knowledge of one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in Asia, the Western Ghats, a mountain range along the west coast of Peninsular India. Both Pristolepis rubripinnis and Dario urops are of particular interest in that closely related species are found in north-eastern India - it is not clear how this distribution arose because there are no river connections between the two areas that would have allowed ancestral populations to separate, migrate and diverge into different species. 

Britz, R., Kumar, K. & Baby, F. (2012). Pristolepis rubripinnis, a new species of fish from southern India (Teleostei: Percomorpha: Pristolepididae). Zootaxa, 3345: 59-68.

Britz, R., Ali, A. & Philip, S. (2012). Dario urops, a new species of badid fish from the Western Ghats, southern India (Teleostei: Percomorpha: Badidae). Zootaxa, 3348: 63-68.

Britz, R., Ali, A. & R. Raghavan. (2012). Pangio ammophila, a new species of eel-loach from Karnataka, southern India (Teleostei: Cypriniformes: Cobitidae). Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters, 23: 45-50.


Yesterday, our collaborators at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) warned Dan that some of his specimens were leaking.  Not good news!


All of the lichen and invertebrate specimens (collected over the past 6 weeks of sampling in the forests of Borneo) are now at UMS, waiting to be sorted and packed and eventually loaned to the Natural History Museum (NHM) for further study and identification.




But the invertebrate specimens cannot be transported or stored safely while they are leaking alcohol (which acts to preserve the specimens) so it was all hands on deck this morning at UMS.



The container the specimens had been stored in was swimming in alcohol.


On arriving at the university we discovered it was one container in particular that was causing the trouble.  Inside were specimens that had been collected by other NHM scientists in Danum Valley, but instead of being stored in tubes they had been sealed in plastic bags…that were meant to be leak-proof.  But the bags had failed and now there was alcohol swilling around the container producing a particularly bad smell!  Left in this condition the specimens would soon rot.



The painstaking task of carefully emptying the bags and putting the contents into tubes.


So, one by one, the bags were opened and the contents removed and resealed in plastic, screw-top tubes.  A valuable lesson in the importance of reliable storing methods, without which weeks of collecting and hard work can be for nothing.  On the upside, it did give us the opportunity to see some different and interesting specimens including various ‘horned’ beetles, large cicadas and a crab!  The latter presumably having been collected close to a fresh water river.



An unexpected discovery amongst the collected specimens.


But it wasn’t just Dan, Kerry and Keiron (with the added help of Tony) who were kept busy with attending to specimens today.  Elsewhere in the university, Pat and Holger had discovered one of the main difficulties with storing specimens in the tropics – humidity.   The specimens of lichens had been left in closed, plastic bags, and consequently moisture had collected and was causing the lichens to become damp.  A dangerous situation that can lead to the growth of mould and the loss of entire collections of samples.  Needless to say, everyone was kept busy for most of the day.



Packing specimens for transportation involves lots of cardboard boxes and bubble-wrap!


Finally, once re-sealed and re-labelled, the invertebrate specimens were carefully packed by a removal company, ready for transportation to the UK.  Not the most common of courier requests!



Dan was particularly pleased when the last box was sealed!


Having rinsed the smell of alcohol and dung beetles off of our hands, we decided to spend what was left of the day exploring the city.  Kota Kinabalu is clearly a busy and bustling city and well set-up for tourists, with a multitude of restaurants to choose from and markets selling memorabilia and gifts. And it doesn’t all stop when the sun goes down…in fact it gets better!  By the waterfront is a massive, open-air night market, selling vast quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables and a wide array of fish.   At some stalls, you can choose the fish you want and they will cook it for you, there and then.  We had to give it a try!



One of the many stalls cooking fresh fish and seafood. 



I think Kerry managed to trump my tasty but tiny prawn!


“I am afraid the ship’s on fire.” These fateful words were uttered by the Captain of the Brig Helen on 6th August 1852, which was sailing from South America to London, as a fire broke out in the ship’s hold. The dramatic events of the fire and subsequent rescue of the ship’s crew and passengers are recorded in a letter from the great Victorian naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), who had spent the previous four years travelling through the Amazon, to his friend Richard Spruce (1817-1893). wallace.jpg





(Right) Page one of the eight page letter to Spruce

© Natural History Museum


The letter was written from the Brig Jordeson on 19th September 1852, the vessel that saved the stricken survivors after they had endured ten harrowing days and nights in a small row boat, 200 miles from the nearest land, with water seeping into the boat from numerous holes. Wallace describes how he was “scorched by the sun, [his] hands nose and ears being completely skinned, and [was] drenched every day by the seas and spray”. They finally anchored ship at Deal, Kent, on 1st October with Wallace rejoicing to Spruce “Oh! Glorious day! Here we are on shore at Deal where the ship is at anchor. Such a dinner! Oh! Beef steaks and damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.” The joy at being back on dry land in England is clear to see, made even more poignant by the terrible storms they had to endure in the English Channel the night before they anchored; storms, in which “many vessels were lost”.  



Alfred Russel Wallace was born in Usk, Monmouthshire on 8th January 1823, the eighth of nine children. Leaving school at 14 due to his family’s financial constraints, he trained as a land-surveyor, working with his brother William until 1843, when, owing to a down-turn in work, he lost his job. This turn of fate led him to meet budding young amateur naturalist Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) in Leicester, Bate’s hometown, after Wallace accepted a job at the Collegiate School there. Wallace moved to Neath, Wales in 1845, but kept in regular contact with Bates, and it was this friendship that first stirred in Wallace an interest in entomology.


A seed was sown in Wallace’s mind after reading William Henry Edward’s book A Voyage up the River Amazon, and early in 1848 he began making plans with Bates for their own voyage to South America. This idea came to fruition as the two young, eager friends set sail from Liverpool on 26th April 1848 bound for Pará (Belém).      




For Wallace the aim of their Amazon trip was two-fold. Firstly, they were to go and collect specimens of birds, insects and other animals not only for their private collections, but also to sell to collectors and museums across Europe. Secondly, Wallace went with the aim of attempting to discover the mechanism of evolution. Having read the controversial Vestiges of Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers in 1845, he became convinced of the reality of evolution, which was then known by the term of transmutation. Indeed, in a letter to Bates in 1847, he asserted that he sought to “take one family, to study thoroughly- principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species”.    


(Left) Alfred Russel Wallace, 1848. © Natural History Museum

Wallace and Bates parted company whilst there to focus on different areas, with Wallace travelling around the Amazon basin and Rio Negro. It was here he made beautifully intricate drawings of fish species he found on the Rio Negro, and also used his land surveying skills to create a wonderfully detailed map of the Rio Negro; so detailed and accurate that it became the standard map of the river for many years.


Wallace decided to leave the Amazon in 1852 after becoming quite poorly. He sadly lost his brother, Edward, in June 1851 to yellow fever, after Edward had joined Wallace and Bates early on the expedition. Wallace boarded the brig Helen on 12th July, sailing for 26 days before disaster struck.Wallace describes very candidly in his letter to Spruce the frantic moments after the discovery of the fire and the realisation that they would need to abandon ship. He managed to run back to his cabin and collect some items together in a small tin box. He tells Spruce he felt “foolish” in saving his watch and money. However, once aboard the life-boat his regrets at not having “saved some new shoes, cloth coat and trousers” are clear to see. Tragically, Wallace lost all of his natural history specimens, so painstakingly collected over the previous two years; the specimens he collected during the first two years having been successfully posted back to his agent, and he recounts this tragedy to Spruce in the letter:


(Below) One of the intricate fish drawings Wallace was able to save before abandoning the Brig Helen © Natural History Museum


NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_030319_Comp.JPG“My collections however were in the hold and were irrevocably lost. And now I begin to think, that almost all the reward of my four years of privation and danger were lost. What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses and what I had in the “Helen” I calculated would realise near £500 (around £30,000 in today’s money). But even all this might have gone with little regret had not far the richest part of my own private collection gone also. All my private collection of insects and birds since I left Pará was with me, and contained hundreds of new and beautiful species which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, as far regards American species, one of the finest in Europe”


A few gems from this trip, however, do survive, and are preserved by us here at the Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and The Linnean Society. When in his cabin, frantically trying to fit as much as he could in his tin box, Wallace scooped up the drawings he had made of the fishes of the Rio Negro and of Amazonian palms. The Library’s Special Collections now hold the four volumes of fish drawings, with the palm drawings held by the Linnean. The specimens of palms collected, which are now housed in Kew’s Herbarium were sent back during the first two years of the expedition.


At the end of his letter to Spruce, written from London on 8th October, Wallace muses about his next trip. He mentions the Andes or the Philippines as possible destinations for his next collecting expedition. However, Wallace, in 1854, headed out to explore the islands of the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), spending eight years there and finally realising his aim of uncovering the mechanism of evolution – a theory that came to him as he was recovering from fever in Ternate in early 1858. An essay followed; one that was sent to Charles Darwin, received in June 1858, and which was read on 1st July at the Linnean Society in London, alongside Darwin’s own paper on the subject, and which led to the “Darwin-Wallace Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection”. The rest they say, is history.


This letter caught my imagination as soon as I read it, as it highlights the real danger faced by those who travelled to far flung corners of the world in the hope of advancing our understanding of the natural world, in sometimes dangerous and harsh conditions. I also really feel for Wallace having lost the fruits of his hard fought labour. However, every story has a silver lining and Wallace’s Malay Archipelago trip certainly must have helped heal the wounds of the lost Amazon collections. The result of eight years hard work in south-east Asia was an unrivalled collection of 110,000 insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including well over a thousand species new to science. His book The Malay Archipelago, first published in 1869, is the most celebrated travel book of that region and has not been out of print since it was first published.


The letter to Spruce forms part of the Wallace Collection held in the NHM Library & Archives, and is included in the Wallace Correspondence Project, a three year project based in the Library & Archives, which aims to create a catalogue of all known surviving correspondence to and from Wallace and to make the catalogue available online. You can find out more about the project here Wallace Correspondence Project and look out for the catalogue of correspondence which will be launching this autumn on the Museum’s website.



What do you study at the Museum?

I study animals that live on dead whale skeletons and how this affects the formation of whale fossils. I am particularly interested in the Osedax bone-eating worms!


What are you most excited about seeing on the trip?

I am really excited about seeing what kind of animals live in the deep water of the Bahamas. I grew up nearby and have always wondered what was living beyond the shallow water that I could reach while diving.


Where have you been previously on field work?

I have been to California, Japan and Sweden on field work before to study what happens to dead whales in these areas.


What is your least favourite thing about going on field work?

I’m really lucky be to able to travel to so many places as part of my job and I love it. But my least favourite thing is the preparation involved. Going to another country and bringing back samples involves a LOT of paperwork and planning, especially if you’re dealing with specially protected animals like whales.


Is anything worrying you about the trip?

I’m a little worried about not finding all of the experiments we prepared last time we were in the Bahamas. We dropped one very near an underwater cliff so let’s hope it didn’t fall down into the abyss!


What advice would you give to someone going on field work for the first time?

Remember that other people have different cultural backgrounds with different norms that you should respect. This is easy to forget when travelling to English speaking countries.