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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!

 

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Triceratops skull (reconstruction).

 

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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.

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Myself and Zoe ready for the day ahead!

 

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Driving to Goulmima.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.


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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!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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All set and ready to go down the mine.

 

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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...

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

 

 

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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 http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/seminars-events/index.html

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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...

 

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Jon and Tom attempting to seine

 

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My first fish, a sandeel

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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...

 

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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!

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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.


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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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!

 

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One of the many stalls cooking fresh fish and seafood. 

 

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

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“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).      

 

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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.

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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.

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Now that Tom has returned safely from his botanical trip to Costa Rica, I'll be heading off to the Bahamas with scientists from the Museum and the University of Southampton. Our destination is the remote island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas and most of our time will be spent on a boat.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

We’ll be using a Remotely-Operated Vehicle (ROV), called REX, to survey the fauna that live in this little explored part of the Caribbean. The really exciting bit is that in some cases this will be the first time that scientists have dropped a camera into these waters.

 

Aside from the observatory work, the team are also looking for a particular worm that likes to live on whale bones. Osedax worms have been found in every ocean in which scientists have looked for them, including the Antarctic, but will they also be found in the tropical waters of the Caribbean?

 

As part of the Museum’s Nature Live programme, I’m lucky enough be joining the trip and I’ll be sending back daily reports in the form of blog posts, pictures and videos. Get in touch with the field trip by using the comments section at the end of each blog.

 

For a chance to experience the trip come to the Museum's Attenborough Studio at 14:30 on 8, 9 and 10 March to see us in a live-video-link to the Bahamas.

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Ivvet Modinou

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So how do you get a fossil named after you? The easiest way is to make friends with a Palaeontologist who is good at discovering things and is looking for names to call their new finds. A slightly harder way is to find a new fossil species and give it to a Palaeontologist who names it after you.  (In case you were wondering, it is against the rules to call new discoveries after yourself ). Just before ChristmasI had a visit from my old friend Stuart Sutherland from Canada who named a fossil after me back in 1994. I have four fossils named after me and have named some after others too. Here are the stories behind each of them.

 

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On graduation day in 1993; Professor David Siveter, Andrew Swift, Stuart Sutherland and a young looking Giles Miller.

 

Stuart and I were studying for our PhDs at the University of Leicester in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We both had similar field areas in the Welsh Borderland around Ludlow and often scheduled fieldwork for the same time, occasionally helping each other to collect study samples. One summer evening I was helping Stuart to collect samples deep in the Mortimer Forest outside Ludlow. Foolishly I managed to hammer my thumb drawing blood and we had to return to our accomodation early.

 

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Angochitina milleri Sutherland, 1994. This chitinozoan is less than half a millimetre in length.

 

I didn’t realise but Stuart made a note of the sample number and once he dissolved it back in the lab, he found a new species of chitinozoan that he named Angochitina milleri Sutherland, 1994 in my honor. Chitinozoans are tiny organic jug shaped organisms. To this day is it still unclear what they are but they are very useful age diagnostic constituents of marine rocks in the middle Palaeozoic era (very roughly 360-480 Million years ago). Some think that they are some sort of egg case as they sometimes appear linked in chains.

 

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The ostracod Progonocythere milleri Wakefield, 1994 from the Jurassic of Scotland. It is just less than a millimetre long.

 

While Stuart and I were living in Leicester we shared a house with our good friend Matthew Wakefield who was studying ostracods from the Jurassic of the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. He had discovered several new species that he kindly named after his housemates. New species number 2 is therefore Progonocythere milleri Wakefield, 1994. You will notice that after each milleri is the name of the author and the date of publication. I am honoured to have both of these two species named after me and published in Monographs of the Palaeontological Society, a very prestigious journal that has also published Darwin’s work. The holotype of P. milleri also resides in the collections currently in my care.

 

The third milleri is more tenuous as the author, Jonathan Adrain (now University of Iowa) discovered lots of new species of trilobite from the Canadian Arctic while he was working at the Museum. He discovered so many that he decided to use the phone list of the Department of Palaeontology at the time to name his various new species. Hence Gerastos milleri Adrain, 1997. In fact there were not enough names on the list to completely cover all his new discoveries so he decided to name some of them after his favourite pop group, The Beatles. His publications therefore include a macartneyi a harrisoni and a petebesti!

 

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Kannathalepis milleri Marss & Gagnier, 2001, scales from an ancient fish from the Canadian Arctic.


At the time I asked Jonathan if he could provide some spare rock from his trilobite studies so that I could attempt to extract microfossils. Some of these samples contained some fish scales that I passed on to my good friend Dr Tiiu Märss of Tallinn Technical University, Estonia with whom I was working at the time. One of these samples contained some fragments of a new fish hence the fourth new species named after me Kanathalepis milleri Märss and Gagnier, 2001.

 

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Pictures taken on fieldwork with Tiiu in 1995; with Peter Tarrant at Man Brook and taking a sample from under a tree half way up Caer Caradoc, Shropshire.


Tiiu also passed me some samples from the Canadian Arctic from which I discovered some new species of ostracod that I named Beyrichia marssae Miller, Siveter and Williams, 2010 and Platybolbina adraini Miller, Siveter and Williams, 2010 in honour of Tiiu and Jonathan. However, you will notice from the date after these names that it took me a much longer time to publish my new species!

 

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Beyrichia marssae and Platybolbina adraini.


As you can see from the stories above, the naming of species new to science sometimes provides historical information about the lives of scientists, their collections and collaborations. Working at the Museum and being involved in science has meant that I have met a lot of people from all around the world, some of whom have decided to honour me by naming new species after me for various reasons.

 

Sometimes names become superceded when later research shows that they were not really new. Someone may have already described them or they could be a smaller part of something already described. As far as I know all the milleris are still as valid as the friendships gained through working in science. It was lovely to speak to my Estonian colleague Tiiu while working on this post. I see Matt Wakefield regularly at scientific meetings about ostracods. It has also been great to see my old friend Stuart again.

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Vertebrates - mammals, birds, fish and amphibians - have broadly the same body plan with two pairs of limbs.  However, over time, some species and groups have lost one or both pairs of limbs.  Many others have reduced limbs.  Whales, snakes, caeclian amphibians and a range of fish are some of the examples.

 

Modern scientific research has a strong interest both in the patterns of development and in how and why these change as a result of genetic evolution - it does appear that different genes can be involved in limb reduction and loss in different groups. 

 

Drs Ralf Britz and Lukas Rüber (NHM Zoology) and colleagues from University College London and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown reported the first case of pectoral fin loss in the Mastacembelidae (Teleostei: Synbranchiformes) with the discovery of a new species of spiny eel from Lake Tanganyika in the Journal of Zoology.

 

A previous evolutionary phylogeny of mastacembelids using comparisons of genetic differences between different species,  coauthored by Dr Rüber , had placed the new species Mastacembelus apectoralis sp. nov. within the Lake Tanganyikan species flock, having diverged from its sister species M. micropectus around 4.5 million years ago. M. micropectus also shows a reduction in the size of its pectoral fin and endoskeletal girdle, and has largely cartilaginous pectoral radials and a reduced number of pectoral-fin rays. This is in contrast to the bony skeletons of most fish species in this group

 

The loss of pectoral fins and reduction of associated girdle elements in M. apectoralis represent another independent occurrence of this evolutionary phenomenon within teleosts. The discovery of this species highlights the exceptional diversity of the biodiversity hotspot, Lake Tanganyika, the understanding of which is of critical importance with the pressures of pollution, overfishing and climate change threatening the speciose and evolutionarily significant diversity of this ancient lake.


Brown, K. J., Britz, R., Bills R., Rüber, L. & Day J. J. (2011). Pectoral fin loss in the Mastacembelidae: a new species from Lake Tanganyika. Journal of Zoology April 2011 doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00804.x

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You only have to browse through the Fossils and rocks forum to see how many of the suspected fossils put on there turn out to be something completely different! Fossil eggs, bones, turtles, ferns, footprints, you name it, natural rock and mineral processes can mimic it. We call these natural rock and mineral specimens that resemble or are mistaken for fossils "pseudofossils". This post doesn't seek to go through the most common look-a-likes, but if you google "pseudofossil" you will find many excellent guides out there.

 

This post is just some of my personal favourites from the last year. Fun and amazingly co-incidental pseudofossils are one of my favourite parts of my job in Earth Sciences identification.

 

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"Fossil bird head"

 

It's got everything - neck, beak, even an eye. But this shape is created by the growth of a mineral upon the rock surface.

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"Fossil shark"

 

This shark shape, silhouetted in white against the dark background, would have me swimming for my life if I saw the silhouette peaking out of the sea. But it is just a chance area of cleaner white Chalk against a backdrop of Chalk discoloured by dirt and moss.

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"Fossil fish"

 

I can see what they mean, it looks like a guppy with a long flowing tail and fin. But this is a type of the rock flint known as banded flint. Banded flints form a series of roughly parallel lines such as this, which can create all sorts of misleading shapes. The cause is still not fully understood but the movement of water and silica through the flint is thought to be involved.

 

The rock flint can mimic any kind of fossil you can think of - bones, eggs, whole heads and bodies, you name it. Look out for a blog all about the wonders of flint coming soon!

 

2011-0058 dinosaur head pseudofossil 001.jpg"Fossil dinosaur head"

 

If this were a dinosaur, I can even see what kind it would be - one of the duck-billed hadrosaurs I reckon. Sadly, this is just the shape of the lump of rock, that had probably been exaggerated by weathering.

 

 

While writing this I've realised that these pseudofossils do have something in common after all. They all demonstrates one of the key things to appreciate when looking for fossils: don't look for the overall shape of an animal. This is because the soft parts of animals like muscle and skin only fossilise very rarely and in unusual conditions. You can assume you won't come across soft part preservation without knowing what to look for and where to look. To find fossils, look for the hard parts such as bones and shells, and bear in mind these are most often broken, mixed up and/or isolated.

 

Although we can say what these aren't, the hardest question to answer is, so why did the rock or mineral form or weather into exactly that shape? There are millions of rocks out there and so even if such coincidental resemblences are rare, there will still be plenty of pseudofossils. And of course those are the rocks that are going to catch your eye and get picked up.

 

So what should you look for? This page on our website has some good information and links for fossil hunting advice. And of course we will be happy to see whatever you find, whether rock, mineral or uncannily-vegetable-shaped-rock on the rock and Fossil forum here.

 

Happy fossil - and pseudofossil - hunting!