Skip navigation
You are here: Home > NaturePlus > Blogs > Tags

Blog Posts

Blog Posts

Items per page
1 2 Previous Next
0

In his book titled ‘What is Life?', British-born scientist JBS Haldane wrote:

‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other’.

 

Beetle collection.jpg

An example of the beetle collections at the Museum.


Haldane was referring to the numerous nature of the coleopteran, or beetles as they are more commonly known. This order consists of more species than any other group. In fact, beetles make up around 40% of the total insects described. The Museum itself boasts an amazing collection of over 10 million species, meticulously stored in 22 thousand draws. This collection is constantly evolving and expanding.

 

Zambia

 

Nature Live took the opportunity to learn more about the entomologists' latest adventure – a trip to Zambia. Entomologist Lydia Smith spoke to the Nature Live team about their findings.


Zambia.jpg

The  landscape in Zambia.

 

Lydia spent 6 weeks travelling around Zambia collecting samples. Zambia has very varied terrain which provides plenty of scope for a diverse community of beetles and other organisms. The Museum's team worked closely with local guides to navigate the hostile environments. Lydia explained that their help was invaluable, she described them as ‘extremely helpful and excitable people’.

 

Lydia and team.jpg

Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.

 

Panorama.jpg

The team vehicle surrounded by dense vegetation.


Being in Zambia, the team was constantly surrounded an incredible array of wildlife, some of which interfered with their sampling. Hyenas and civet cats were both suspected of disturbing the insect traps.

 

Elephant at night.jpg

An elephant caught on film by a camera trap.

 

Camera traps caught glimpses of a variety of species, from elephants to elephant shrews. One day Lydia recalls picking up a beetle and receiving quite a shock – the beetle's backend exploded in her hand!  She had encountered a beetle she had only previously read about, the elusive ‘Bombardier beetle’. As a defence mechanism, this particular type of ground beetle ejects a chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen,  accompanied by a loud popping sound.


Field techniques

 

During the expedition, a number of techniques were used in order to obtain samples. Light traps were used at dusk to attract insects onto a large sheet or tent like structure where they could then be collected. This type of trap can be extremely effective at gaining samples of nocturnal species.

 

The team often used pitfall traps, which consist of a plastic cup that is submerged in the soil and partially filled with a preservative. An attractant is then suspended above the traps to draw insects towards the area. Dung or carrion is typically used. The dung is collected from local ungulates – or, in more remote areas, the dung is supplied by the researchers themselves!

 

image-700.jpg

Dung and carrion are used to lure insects into these pitfall traps.

 

Mid-flight traps consist of a piece of Perspex suspended in the air and below the Perspex, a number of colourful trays that contain a small amount of water.

Perspex trap.jpgMid-flight traps in action

 

Another method involves beating branches and collecting the falling samples on a modified umbrella to capture tree-dwelling species. A pooter is then used to collect the samples from the umbrella.


Lydia explained the critical nature of the permits that allowed the team to bring samples back into the country. Samples, usually suspended in alcohol for preservation, are drained ready for transportation. They are then flown back. Upon hearing this, a younger member of the Nature Live audience curiously enquired…


‘Do the beetles sit next to you on the flight?’


Sadly invertebrates are not permitted in the cabin and are relegated to the hold. Once back at the Museum, the samples are refreshed with a new batch of alcohol and then the sorting process begins.


Back at the Museum


After a six week trip the team will spend up to six months processing all of their findings. While Lydia’s team is only particularly interested in beetles, they process the entire selection and divide the other insects into orders. These insects are then sent to their respective experts for further classification.

 

Ciccindellidae Zambia Beetle.jpg

A tiger beetle from the subfamily Cicindelinae, collected by Lydia Smith and the rest of the team.

 

From this particular expedition, the team have identified a number of new species, including wasps and rove beetles. The total number of new species is difficult to define as a rigorous procedure is followed, involving a number of different specialists before a final decision is made. Often insects are named after the region in which they are found, which helps to highlight the importance of the region and increase the likeliness that this area will be protected in the future.


Beetlemania was yet another superb insight into work at the Museum and in the field. If you are interested in beetles and would like to chat to an expert, there will be a number of the collections displayed at the Museum's upcoming event Science Uncovered on the 26 September.

0

Fascinating giants that roamed four continents from circa 700,000 to 4,000 years ago: woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) have been the subject of countless conversations here at the Museum in recent months. So Nature Live thought they would go with the flow by tackling the question of just 'Why did the mammoths go extinct?' Prof Adrian Lister, an expert in vertebrate palaeobiology, led this Nature Live and presented the two main arguments.

 

Climate problems?

 

The first argument Adrian presented was the climate change theory: that mammoths used to rely on grasses as their primary food source, and were exclusively vegetarians. These grasses produced a meadow-like landscape, which was a hugely rich and high quality food source for the mammoths.

At the end of the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago, a warming climate caused forest habitat to spread north and gradallly replace grasslands that the mammoths relied on for food.

 

During the last ice age, these grass meadows expanded across the northern hemisphere, expanding the mammoths' geographic range. These grass meadows were above the tree line, as the grasses could successfully survive in lower temperatures than trees. Here fascinating video footage lit up the Attenborough Studio's big screens, showing the growth and change of distribution of these meadow grasslands across the last ice age.

 

Mammoth heard 1.jpg

Woolly mammoths roamed the earth between ca. 700,000 to 4,000 years ago, before they were driven to extinction.

 

Adrian then described the range of specialist adaptations that woolly mammoths used to survive in this extreme habitat. The most obvious of these was the thick hair which insulated them from the harshly cold weather conditions. It turns out that mammoths actually had two types of hair: a very fine hair close to the skin trapping and warming the air for insulation, and a coarser hair on the outside to help shield them from cold wind and rain. In addition to these adaptations, woolly mammoths also had a thick layer of fat underneath their skin to further insulate them.

 

To the audience's amazement at this point a true sample of woolly mammoth hair was put underneath the visualiser in the Studio. The hair was thousands of years old yet fully intact, but this was only the start. Adrian then stepped forward to pick up a whole mammoth lower jaw, illustrating how it would swing back and forth when chewing.

 

Holding this in his hands in front of the live audience visually demonstrated just how large the teeth of a mammoth were, and the large size of the surface area required for chewing tough plant material like grass. Adrian made it clear that studying mammoth teeth gives researchers a much clearer idea of what they ate. With this increased understanding of what mammoths ate, researchers can better pinpoint factors that could have eventually led to their extinction.

 

Mammoth teeth one.jpg

A woolly mammoth lower jaw like the one presented during the Nature Live by Adrian Lister, demonstrating their huge teeth used for grinding plant matter.

 

Frozen mammoths have even been discovered with food content still inside their stomachs or intestines, their 'last supper', as it were. Studying these remains of partially digested plant matter taken from inside a preserved woolly mammoth has proven that they certainly did eat grass as a food source.

 

Knowing for sure that mammoths ate grass supports the climate change theory of habitat change, as the grass plains began to contract at the end of the last ice age around 14,000 years ago. This was because the earth's climate was warming, and forest habitat was spreading north so gradually displacing the grasslands that mammoths relied on for their food.

 

Adrian explained how, by using radiocarbon dating, we can age mammoth remains very accurately, and this has now been used to age and plot every mammoth fossil ever found. This in turn means that scientists like him can identify and mark the change in woolly mammoth distribution over time. This crucial extinction timeline can then be matched against the known changes in reduced grass cover and the increased spread of forest growth up into the woolly mammoth's natural range.

 

When scientists compare the changing distribution of woolly mammoths to the changing distribution of their grasslands, they match. This suggests that the spread of the forest upwards into the higher latitudes would have pushed the woolly mammoths north. So it was this change in vegetation from grassland to forest that was a major contributing factor, ultimately leading to the mammoth's extinction.

 

Lone mammoth.jpg

As the woolly mammoths' range contracted they became extinct. Studying them now could help prevent future mammal extinctions.

 

At this point Adrian then put forward a second theory, saying that "nothing in science is ever that simple." This second theory is that early humans could themselves have been responsible for driving the woolly mammoths to extinction. 

 

Hunted to extinction?

 

Evidence for the 'people theory' is that the period of time that woolly mammoth numbers were declining also coincided with a rapid increase in the numbers of people. There have been skeleton remains of mammoths found which show damage from a flint tool splintered off in the bone. In the studio, images of this were brought up on the screen, clearly showing a human-crafted spearhead lodged within a mammoth bone. This is evidence that early humans did at least occasionally hunt mammoths as large game, either as a source of food, or for materials to build shelter.

 

spear head.jpg

Flint spear heads have been found splintered-off within mammoth fossils proving that they were occasionally hunted by early humans.

 

As this Nature Live approached its end, Adrian explained that both of these theories could in fact have worked together at the same time to conspire against the woolly mammoth, thus driving it to extinction. The change in the climate driving forests to spread north would have forced the woolly mammoth into very restricted habitat patches, making them a heavily endangered species; this, combined with hunting by humans could have dealt the final blow to the woolly mammoths, sending them to the icy grave of extinction.

 

The event did end on a more positive note when Adrian explained that the woolly mammoths' death was not in vain. Studying and understanding the reasons why large mammals like mammoths went extinct could help scientists like Adrian prevent the extinction of other large mammals in future. And research on mammoths is now being used to help try and protect African elephants (Loxodonta africana) from following their footsteps.

 

Watch Adrian summarise the theories behind the extinction in the Museum's film from the Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibition, which closes on 7 September:

 

0

Intelligent, colour-changing, deep-water creatures that possess a beak as well as thousands of 'mini claws' and suckers on each tentacle... Not to mention different species going by the names of Giant and Colossal Squids... Cephalopods certainly made for interesting viewing in a specimen-packed Nature Live here in the Attenborough studio. Dr Jon Ablett showed us around these fascinating creatures one tentacle at a time in this aptly named 'Tentacle Tales' Nature Live.

 

As the audience strolled into the studio there were some dazzled-looking faces before the event had even started, due to the sheer array of pickled creatures and cephalopod limbs on display. However, when the lights dimmed all attention turned to Jon as he kicked off the event by describing the colour changing capabilities of cephalopods.

 

He explained that the biology behind cephalopod colour changing is far more advanced than that of the chameleon, the reptile often thought of as the master of colour change (e.g. we often say 'they demonstrated a chameleon-like ability to adapt to their surroundings'). Chameleons use differing levels of hormones in their blood stream to trigger their colour change. However, using the blood stream to achieve this means that the speed of the change is limited by the rate of blood flow around the body.

 

octopus skin change.jpg

The blue ringed octopus which uses its nervous system to trigger skin colour changes.

 

Cephalopods, on the other hand, trigger their colour changes via their nervous system, which is a far more rapid method of transmitting signals across the body. At this point a video showed exactly how music with a heavy baseline can trigger a cephalopod skin sample to change colour to the beat, as the nerve endings are stimulated.

 

Following on from this, Jon drew the audience's attention to what it was in the large jars in front of them. In these jars were the remains of squid arms and tentacles. When these specimens were removed it was clear exactly what the difference between a cephalopod arm and tentacle actually is. Cephalopod arms have suckers down their entire length, while the tentacles only have suckers at their tip.

 

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_049523_IA.jpg

Sharp ring-lined suckers found on the arms (n.b. not tentacles) of some cephalopods.

 

The range of different types of suckers that cephalopods possess was highlighted through these specimens. It was clear that some cephalopods have arms covered with many round suckers that are also lined with sharp teeth like projections. Others, such as the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) have even more vicious looking ones, each wielding a single large claw projection rising out from their centre that can also rotated.

 

Having these impressive adaptations allows the cephalopods to not only grab onto but also hold onto their prey when subduing them. For these reasons, coupled with the strength of cephalopod limbs, it is clear why many researchers choose to wear chainmail, akin to that worn my mediaeval knights, for protection when diving with these animals, just in case things do take a nasty turn.

 

claw centre tentacle.jpg

Suckers with claw projections that colossal squid use to not only grab onto but also to hold onto their prey when subduing them.

© British Antarctic Survey

 

As this Nature Live drew to a close one of the Museum's true gems of the deep sea stored in the tank room was brought up on the big screen. Archie the giant squid (Architeuthis dux), who was accidentally caught in a fishing net off the coast of the Falkland Islands, is a fully intact specimen over 8 metres in length from tip to tentacle. Archie really put into perspective just how giant, a giant squid really can be.

 

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_049530_IA.jpg

Archie the giant squid, who can be seen up close and personal during one of the Museum's free Spirit Collection Tours.

0

Parasites: the name sends a shiver down the spine of many and makes the hairs rise on the back of my own neck, which is exactly why parasites made for a fascinating subject for a Nature Live here at the Museum. Ranging from human-flesh-eating ones, to those that live happily inside the stomach of a live rhino, Zoë Adams one of the Museum's passionate entomologists presented just how she became so 'attached' to studying parasites.

 

The event started by defining a parasite as a species that lives off or within another organism (the host), but at that organism's expense. With the audience then giving estimates on how many different types of parasites there are in the world, the answer was that up to one third of all life on earth could be technically classed as a parasite.

 

This then led onto the question, 'is there likely to be a living parasite present right here, right now inside the Attenborough Studio?' A question to which multiple audience members turned to each other with rather concerned looks on their faces. In truth it was revealed that there would almost certainly be a parasite present in the studio, because many of our own eye lashes and eyebrow hairs are home to the humble but harmless follicle mite (Demodex folliculorum). The follicle mite feeds off the sebum that our skin secretes in order to stay supple, and at least one in every three people is predicted to be a host to them.

 

Follicle mite.jpg

The follicle mite (Demodex folliculorum) that lives in the eyebrows of many people

 

The talk then proceeded with some rather nasty looking images displayed on screen, showing a botfly larva parasitising a human host. However, what Zoë went on to highlight was that this particular human host was none other than her own boss, who had become home to one of these blood hungry larval creatures while on a field trip in Bolivia! One of the images showed how a botfly larva obtains oxygen by using a small breathing tube which pokes out of the surface of the skin. The botfly larva eventually had to be surgically removed.

 

Botfly breathing tube.jpg

Botfly larva, showing the breathing tube that it uses while buried under the skin of its host

 

With this newfound knowledge, and an audience suddenly more likely to think twice before booking there next holiday to exotic climes, the Nature Live moved onto other, more familiar, wild mammals that suffer from parasites... a personal favourite parasite of Zoë's being the rhinoceros stomach botfly (Gyrostigma rhinocerontis).

 

Zoë expertly explained how these parasites have a very interesting lifecycle which relies on the rhinoceros being a creature of habit, choosing to respond to the call of nature and deposit their dung in the same places each time throughout their natural range. This particular botfly larva chooses to house itself within the stomach of rhinos as it is warm and safely away from natural predators. Once the rhino has 'done its business' the larva pupates in the faeces now outside of the rhino, where it can emerge and wait for another rhino host to do the same.

 

After another rhino has visited and deposited another stomach botfly larva in the same pile of dung, the botflies are able to emerge from pupation and mate, creating a new generation which can then repeat the lifecycle. This unique life cycle of the rhinoceros botfly is only made possible by the rhino using these same areas for defecation, just like humans repeatedly use the same locations for their own business (i.e. public toilets).

 

rhino bot fly two.jpg

An adult rhinoceros stomach botfly (Gyrostigma rhinocerontis), whose larvae happily reside within the stomach of a living rhino as part of its lifecycle

 

By the end of the Nature Live, the audience was certainly left feeling slightly baffled by the sheer numbers and range of different life strategies that parasites have evolved to occupy their niche in the natural world. Though, one hopes, they also left with a new found respect for the amazing and effective strategies that parasites use to live their lives.

0

Last year our 100-year-old microfossil Christmas cards were featured in The Independent newspaper and on the Science Focus website. On 30 December I am presenting a Nature Live on the microfossil Christmas cards at 12.30 and 14.30 so if you are in the area, please do pop in and say hello.

 

If you don't live near London then follow us on @NHM_Micropalaeo as we are tweeting an image of one of our beautiful Christmas microfossil slides each day of December until Christmas.

 

This year, the Museum has decided to follow a microfossil theme with its own e-Christmas card featuring the Blaschka radiolarian that is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery. To read more see my post about putting radiolarians on display.

 

NHM_Christmas_card_2013.jpg

The Museum 2013 e-Christmas card

 

P1030173_blog.jpg

The Blaschka radiolarian model of Hexacontium asteracanthion currently featured in the Treasures Gallery, otherwise affectionately known as 'the red one', is magnified about 500 times. A CT-scan image of this has also appeared on the cover of the NHM Science Review 2011-2012.

 

Finally I would like to thank all my readers for their support over the past year and wish you all a very merry Christmas and happy new year!

0

My work diary of last week, in which members of the public put a valuable part of the collection at risk with their smart phones, tiny floating snails cause a flurry of visitors and microfossils are mentioned on the Test Match Special cricket commentary(!) in a varied week for the curator of micropalaeontology.

 

Monday

 

First up is a trip across the Museum to the Nature Live Studio with some delicate specimens that will be the subject of my two public talks later in the day. We can't move large items across the Museum during opening hours and, with the galleries filled with summer visitors, this is more than sensible at present.

Nature_Live2013_3_blog.jpg

In the Nature Live Studio with host Tom Simpson - a CT-scan of a Blaschka glass radiolarian model on the screen.

 

All of the specimens in my care bar the one in the Treasures Gallery are housed behind the scenes, so regular visitors might not even know that we have microfossil collections. A previous head of palaeontology collections calculated that we have as few as 0.001 per cent of our fossil collections on display.

 

If you haven't been to one yet, the Nature Live events are a great way to bring these parts of our collections out for the public and allow us to talk about our science. The incredibly delicate and unique Blaschka Glass models of radiolarian microfossils are always a big hit, but we have to ask a smart phone-brandishing throng of children and their parents to move away from the specimens after the first show as a mother leans over the barrier and takes a picture on her phone from right above the specimen. We add two extra barriers for the second show!

 

Tuesday


I've had an enquiry from The Geological Magazine asking me to review a book that I have almost finished reading. I have to think carefully about saying yes or no. Receiving a free copy is the usual bonus for undertaking these tasks but, as I have a copy already, dedicating a lot of time to a review does not seem so appealing.

 

I decide that I shall send the extra copy to my student in Malaysia but I think I will wait until after she has finished writing up her MSc thesis. Her first chapter arrives today for comment as do some proofs for a book chapter on microfossil models that I have written. Much of the day is spent checking these and providing additional information requested by the editors of the book. It will be about the history of study of microfossils and will have an image of one of our microscope slides on the cover.

 

Wednesday

 

The galleries are packed with summer visitors but it is relatively quiet behind the scenes with many staff on annual leave, away on study trips, conferences or fieldwork.

 

This quieter period is a good time to catch up on some of the documentation backlog so today I finish documenting a new donation, continue to work on a large dataset relating to specimens from the Challenger Collection, and register 30 Former BP Microfossil Collection specimens that are due to go out on loan to the USA.

 

I spent my first 6 years at the Museum on a temporary contract curating the Former BP Microfossil Collection so it is always satisfying to see it being used by scientists. We have big plans for this collection in the future. However, I feel that I will need to do more than wait for a rare quiet day if I am to meet my part of the databasing targets set by the Museum. We plan to have details of 20 million of our specimens on our website within 5 years.

 

Thursday

 

An enquiry has come in this week about our heteropod collection. These are tiny planktonic gastropods, or literally floating snails. They are of great interest to scientists looking to quantify the effects of ocean acidification because they secrete their shells of calcium carbonate directly from the seawater that they lived in.

 

Measurement of carbon and oxygen isotopes from fossil examples can give details of the composition of ancient oceans and help to quantify changes over time. I mention the enquiry to staff in the Life Sciences Department and three visitors arrive to look at our collection within a day, including two from the British Antarctic Survey looking to develop projects on ocean acidification.

 

Friday


It is back to documentation again, a task I often save for days when the cricket is on. I am amazed when I hear dinoflagellates mentioned during the Test Match Special commentary. Dinoflagellates are protists that are a major consituent of modern and fossil plankton. We have thousands of glass slides of them here at the Museum within the micropalaeontology collections.

 

straussii_cookii_montage.jpgNew species of Australian Jurassic dinoflagellate Meiogonyaulax straussii (1-4) and Valvaeodinium cookii (16-20) published by Mantle and Riding (2012). Images courtesy of Dr Jim Riding, British Geological Survey.


A regular visitor to our collections who works at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham has described two new species of Jurassic microfossil from the NW Shelf of Australia and named them strausii and cookii after the former and current England cricket captains and Ashes-winning opening batsmen. It causes much merriment in the Museum microfossil team as another former England Captain, Michael Vaughan, remarks on the radio that they look rather like omelettes.

 

Cricket is the theme for today as I attend a lunchtime retirement party for a former cricketing colleague at the Science Museum next door. I leave a colleague to take a visitor to lunch but come back to find that he has gone home sick and the visitor is still here with a list of requests that account for the rest of the day...

0

Our last day in the field arrived sunny and, with it, our last live-link to a Nature Live event in the Attenborough Studio. Mark Spencer, curator of botany and team leader of this field trip told us about why the Isles of Scilly are special for wildlife and why he wanted to bring curators of other specialities here to collect and enhance the Museum's collections.

 

Picture1.jpgAn example of the outstanding natural beauty of the Isles of Scilly

 

Of course, we also talked about very small flowers, the elm trees, and ate the three corned garlic live - all things that our readers might recognise by now. Scilly is also famous for farmed and wild flowers, Mark told us about both, and how the bulb farms are important not only to local people but also to other organisms. Wildlife thrives in these fields, and of course, our scientists have been collecting there, everything from insects to slugs.

 

picture 2.JPGLinking live to the Attenborough Studio at the Museum, with a audience of local people from St Mary's

 

As usual, we had an audience with us in Scilly, including a blub farmer. It was a pleasure to share our excitement at seeing the material collected already. They left us with a wave and a smile, looking forward to meeting the next scientists visiting the islands later on this year.

 

Ana Rita

0

On day 9 the sun was out, but it was complemented with rain showers and a strong wind, which meant the satellite link for Nature Live was indoors. Still, a great opportunity to show the table where we sort specimens in the evening, and to have a sneaky peak at what everyone has been finding.

 

picture-1.jpg

In the Attenborough Studio we had Pat Wolseley, hosted by Aoife Glass, and here in Scilly, my colleague Tom Simpson was joined by curator of Lichens, Holger Thues.

 

picture 2.JPG

Holger’s smile and enthusiasm really shows how well this field work trip is going in terms of lichen collection. It’s the job of a curator not only to take care of the existing collections and provide access to researchers from around the world that want to use it, but also to enrich it and make sure any gaps in the knowledge are fully filled.

 

picture 3.JPG

 

Locals have been coming to our base, the Woolpack, to watch the Nature Live events and to have a cup of tea with the scientists. It’s an opportunity to show what we have been collecting, why we are here and to engage them with the amazing diversity of their own islands, what it means for science and what it can mean for them.

 

Ana Rita

0

It has been a great day for snails and slugs collecting - it's pouring with rain! Jon Ablett, who did the previous Nature Live satellite link, is happy that the land snails will be out and about, making the most of the wet weather.

 

For our event on day 8, we were joined by James Maclaine, curator of fish at the Museum, who showed some of the specimens he has found. James brought a list of the fish we already had in the Museum collection prior to the trip and is trying to match the species he finds on this trip to the ones on the list. It is important to collect at different times in the same location, to spot any changes. He's also blogging about his work on the trip and his first post is here.

 

picture 1 (Custom).JPGJames Maclaine and Rosemary Parslow (who in the 70s collected the fish and echinoderms from the Isles of Scilly for the Museum's collections)

 

picture 2 (Custom).jpgIn the Museum's Attenborough Studio, Charlotte Coales and Wai-Yee Cooper show some of the dry and wet specimens from the fish collection, while James and I listen in the background

 

The visitors asked some great questions about the different habitats of fishes, how to catch them and the route James took to become a fish scientist.

 

picture 3 (Custom).JPGAs well as the audience in the studio at the Museum, this live-link also featured an audience here in the Woolpack, headquarters of this field trip

 

We have also been inviting people from the town to come and see what the Museum scientists have been doing here on the Isles of Scilly. Quite a few came to chat with James about the fish while receiving - and giving - good tips to each other about where to look for more species and how to catch them. It appears to be paying off for James as you will be able to read later today on the blog.

 

Ana-Rita

0

Today started dull and overcast - grey and gloomy - but we weren’t going to let the weather get us down because this morning we did our first, live video conference from the field with schools. Students from all over the country get to talk with our scientists and ask questions about what they are doing here in the Isles of Scilly.

 

New Image2.jpg

Tom chatting to Mark during a video conference with students at a primary school.

 

In the first VC, primary school students got to meet Mark Spencer, the botanist of the group and team leader, and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs. Mark did a small tour of the wild flowers we can find here, explaining that the Isles are located at a crossroads between Mediterranean plants and northern ones.

 

The relatively mild climate of the islands mean that plants that are usually more typical of Mediterranean countries find a home here, while for other species, the Isles mark their southern-most limit. It’s an overlapping landscape, which is a delight for us to experience, and a joy for the many species of insects and birds who pollinate these plants.

 

flowers2.jpg

Museum scientists taking in the beautiful scenery, while Holger Thues (far left) is distracted by a rock covered in lichen!

 

Jon Ablett showed some of his slugs and talked about innovative ways of preserving specimens for the Museum’s collection, while the white vapours of liquid nitrogen made Mark and Tom (who was hosting the event) feel even more cold. Jon is looking mainly for land snails, but will also try to fish for some octopus and squid as we are not sure which species live in these waters. Keep an eye on this blog to find out what he discovers!

 

The secondary school students had the chance to meet lichen curator Holger Thues. Holger explained that lichens are composite organisms (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. they both benefit from one another). Lichens are incredibly important indicators of the environment around them and are often used to study changes in the atmosphere and air pollution.

 

bird poo lichen2.jpg

Orange lichen on a rock, but how did it get its nutrients?

 

The orange lichen in the photo above only exists in places with high levels of nutrients, you will see them near the sea where the wind itself is loaded with nutrients. However, if you see them on a rock in land, wait and with time you’re more than likely to see a bird arrive ...  you’ll soon find out how the nutrients arrived there!

 

Thanks to all the schools for their many questions during the video conferences, it was great to speak to you all!

0

We have settled in to island life on the Isles of Scilly. Our digs for the next two weeks are an old bunker in the south western corner of St Mary’s with a wonderful view across to St Agnes. It is quiet and beautiful and we are surround by the spectacular atlantic ocean.

 

scilly-day-1-image-1.jpg

The view out onto the Atlantic Ocean

 

Our trip is part of a project led by Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum. The Isles of Scilly are a unique and stunning environment and they contain common and rare and (in some cases) invasive species - Mark’s work here aims to enrich the Museum's collection of British and European plants and animals with recent material.

 

This will fill gaps in our collections and make sure they cover a continuous span of time right up to the present day. Often, we don’t know how a collection will be used in future and they can play a key role in research. By keeping a collection like the one at the Museum, we have access to the information locked inside the specimens which could be used to answer questions on environmental change and other, similarly huge issues in the future.

 

The rest of the science team are arriving later in the week so, as an introduction to the island (and to find something to eat), Mark led us on a foraging tour of St Mary’s.

 

scilly-day-1-image-2.jpg

Mark Spencer looking for plants on St. Mary's to cook for supper

 

We found a whole host of amazing (and delicious) species, more than enough for supper. It should be said that we found a lot more edible species that we didn’t collect. It is important to understand a plant's role in the ecosystem and environment and some plants were too rare, or delicate to collect. Mark has an excellent knowledge of the local flora and it is important to really understand an area before harvesting anything from the wild as well as having permission for anything you want to collect.

 

 

I think it is safe to say if you’re in doubt, leave it in the ground. Not only does this protect the environment but also saves any potential poisoning (so don't try this at home unless you know what you are doing!). We passed lots of species that are absolutely deadly including whole fields of hemlock water dropwort, which is exceptionally poisonous.

 

scilly-day-1-image-3.jpg

The exceptionally poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) - not part of our supper later in the day!

 

Having said that, when in the company of an expert like Mark, the natural world explodes with interest and intrigue. Every plant has story and history and a whole world of edible possibilities is opened up.

 

scilly-day-1-image-4.jpgThe basis of our supper, all harvested from the wild.

 

Later in the day we cooked up our foraged plants - finding things that are good, or interesting, to eat is always great fun and the meal at the end of the day was blooming delicious.

 

0

For the next two weeks I am fortunate to be joining a Museum field trip to the Isles of Scilly, 30 miles off the southwest corner of Cornwall. Alongside my Nature Live colleague Ana Rita Rodrigues and Media Technician Tony Vinhas, we will be reporting back from the trip in daily posts and organizing live-video-links to for 4-days-worth of Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

If you want to experience the project live and direct come to the Attenborough Studio for one of the following events, and keep checking the blog for updates:

 

 

All the events are are free to attend (as is entry to the Museum) and each will last 30 mins. You’ll be able to see and talk live to scientists in the field, see specimens collected during the trip and meet a Museum scientist in the studio.

 

The team in the Isles of Scilly comprises scientists studying topics as varied as flowering plants, fishes, lichens and flies! I will introduce the different scientists and their areas of specialism over the coming days but for now - to set the scene - here are some photos the trip's leader, Mark Spencer, took last time he visited the islands.

 

1-scilly-beach (Custom).jpg

They are clearly exceptionally beautiful, a fact that makes the involvement of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty even more pertinent and this collaborative project will strive to further our understanding of these incredible islands.

 

2-scilly-flora-coast (Custom).jpg

I am so excited to be visiting the islands and to be accompanying the team. Spending any time with our scientists is an education in the natural world and two weeks exploring a stunning part of the world with such experts is a very exiting prospect. On a more personal note, I am also very pleased to be able to relive one of my Dad’s dinner time stories. Many a family meal have been the forum for a retelling of the old man’s ‘best ever, EVER dream. In his own words ...

 

‘At some point it the 70s, or was it the 80s(?), I was in Bryher in the Isles of Scilly. Half way through a walk around the island I lay down on the beach for a nap. During the dream that followed I became a professional tennis player and managed, against all odds, to win Wimbledon. Having raised the trophy and flushed with pride, I woke up and finished my walk.'

 

3-Tom-and-dad (Custom).JPG

Some say he [my dad] never fully woke up from that nap on the Isles of Scilly ...

 

See you again next week when we will all have arrived!

 

Tom

0

With our satellite dish at the ready, the sun shining and half a dozen Museum scientists raring to go, last weekend's Nature Live events went down a storm!

Camera action.JPG

 

Linking back to the studio from the harbour in Lyme Regis, we brought the annual Fossil Festival to South Kensington. For visitors who were unable to visit the south coast in person, we revealed why Lyme Regis is THE place to go fossil hunting and showed our audiences some of the weird and wonderful specimens that can be found there.

 

lyme2.jpg

Museum curator Zoe Hughes reveals an Ammonite, found in the local area.

 

P1020418.JPG

Does this count as Big Pond dipping?

 

Sunday's events brought us up to date with the organisms that call our seashore home. I was out first thing trying my luck with my bucket and net. I think I was the oldest 'rock-pooler' on the beach!  Unfortunately, I didn't manage to find very much, except for lots of seaweed ... but this proved to be far more interesting than I had first thought!

 

Museum scientist Lucy Robinson explained that there are many different species of seaweed to be found along our coastline, varying in colour, shape and size. She also explained the various ways seaweeds and their extracts can be used - in toothpaste, ice-cream, fertilizer and cosmetics (to name but a few).

 

And of course, some types of seaweed can be eaten - such as sea lettuce. Lucy and I decided to give it a go ... our conclusion, it's very salty and a bit crunchy (but I think that may have been sand!)  To find out more about seaweed and how to identify them, visit our Big Seaweed Search pages.

 

Its all about the icecream.JPG

Yum!

 

Lyme Regis is a great place to visit at any time of the year. If you're interested in fossil hunting, look out for the many guided walks that are on offer throughout the year, giving you the opportunity to explore the beaches with a local palaeontologist who knows what to look out for and who can tell you more about the fossils that are found there.

 

And if you'd like to experience the Fossil Festival for yourselves, put this date in your diaries: Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 May 2014. If this year is anything to go by, it will be another great weekend!

0

Saturday and Sunday at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival were busy in the tent. Lots of people swarmed around our fossil table to see the invertebrates and sharks on display, talk to our experts and get their own fossil finds identified.

 

Adrian Glover was showing off his ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), sending it out into the sea to get live images of the sea floor! Alex Ball was showing people the wonders of the scanning electon microscope and the meteorites team were explaining impacts using pink gravel.

 

ROV.jpg

Laetitia Gunton launching "REX" the ROV and Adrian Glover controlling from inside the tent.


sat_montage.jpg

Just some of the Museum scientists at work on Saturday.

 

Martin Munt, Emma Bernard and I were also called upon to do a live link-up with the Nature Live studio back at the Museum, to talk about the fossil festival and going fossil hunting. We took along a selection of specimens to help us talk about some of the things that can be found in Lyme Regis.

 

David Nicholson was live in the Attenborogh Studio with Ana Rita and some specimens from the collection we selected last week. Our filming took place at the Cobb (harbour) in glorious sunshine. This did however mean that both Emma and I got slightly sunburnt! If you do come down, make sure you've got plenty of sun cream.

 

Nature_live.jpg

Martin being interviewed for the 12.30 show (top). Me and Emma talking about a nautilus and a shark with Charlotte for the 2.30 show (below).

 

It's not just specimens on display - outside you can visit a pliosaur cinema and go on the Jurassic airline!

 

Pliosaur cinema.jpg

The Pliosaur Cinema!

 

We also had some special guests come along to talk to us: Mary Anning and Charles Darwin! (well...people dressed as them at least).

 

Mary and Charles.jpg

Mary Anning and Charles Dawrin.

 

Today is the last day of the fossil festival and its looking like is will be another busy day in the tent with lovely weather and lots of people on the beach eating ice cream.

 

We hope you have enjpyed reading this blog and hope to see you next year at the festival!


0

Having arrived in Lyme Regis yesterday, greeted by sunshine and sweet salty sea air, we have been exploring the seashore and getting our bearings today.

 

Lyme Regis.JPG

Lyme Regis

 

No visit to Lyme is complete without a trip to the beach to go fossil hunting!  Keeping an eye on the tides, we headed out first thing this morning to try our luck.  Museum scientist Ed Baker is a regualr visitor to the Jurassic Coast and showed us what to look for.  Rounded rocks can sometimes contain beautiful fossils...but need to be cracked open to reveal the animal or plant within.  This requires a special geological hammer (ordinary ones can shatter if used!) and a touch of experience/skill (cracking the rock open at the right angle is important).  Fortunately Ed has both of these things and showed us how it was done....

 

Rocks are hit on the edge with the blunt end of the hammer.JPG

Rounded rocks are hit along the edge using the blunt end of the hammer


Ammonite fossil inside broken rock.JPG

Several ammonites are revealed within the rock

 

But you can also find fossils without the need for hammers.  By looking carefully and sifting through the rocks on the beach, you never know what you might find.  Ammonite fossils are pretty common and vertebrae and other bones from fossil marine reptiles can be found by the keen eyed.

 

With our pockets bulging with our dicoveries and faces glowing from the sun and sea air, we headed back into town to start setting up the satellite equipment for this weekend's live links.  If you can't make it down to Lyme Regis, why not join our museum scientists in the Attenborough Studio at the Museum as we link to you live from the festival....

 

 

You can also follow us on Twitter @NatureLive

 

For more information about the Fossil Festival, visit www.fossilfestival.com

 

Setting up the satellite equipment.JPG

Honorary member of the team Ed Baker helps Media Techs Tony and Eddie set up our satellite equipment