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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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At 10am I find Mark Spencer and Jacek Wajer on St. Mary's south beach identifying a plant specimen with a field guide. The Isles of Scilly are the northernmost habitat for a number of plant species, including aeoniums, which originate from the Canary Islands and were introduced in the 1850’s as a garden plant. But it is not the garden plants that Mark and Jacek are interested in, it is the weeds.

 

While we root around in flower beds by the south beach, local authorities jokingly suggest that they could do with a bit of weeding. "Save us some effort!" they say. Mark tells them about the Museum's work and assures them that we will indeed be helping remove some of the unwanted plants. The three of us continue to nosy around in the flower beds.

mark-bagging-weeds.jpgBy the south beach on St. Mary's, Mark Spencer approaches weeding with more enthusiasm than most.

 

We find lots of interesting weeds and some fungi, and I find a small succulent weed which Mark says may never have been recorded at St. Mary's before. The specimens we select show a good representation of the whole plant in maturity; flower, leaf, all salient features that are necessary to qualify for the herbarium. The morning’s collections are then bagged and tagged, each labelled with who collected it, the location, the date and the species. It may take up to six months for the specimens to be dried, prepared and mounted on a herbarium sheet, at which point they finally become part of the Museum’s collections.

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Unidentified succulent weed found by Gemma Anderson in a flower bed near St. Mary's beach. A possible first record of this species for the area.

 

We then carry the bagged plants back to base for sorting. Delicate specimens are prioritised, and the specimens are left to wilt overnight in a flower press until herbarium paper is brought on Monday.

 

At 4pm we leave the base and walk to the east of St. Mary's, plant spotting in hedges along the way. Jacek spots another possible new plant record for the Isles of Scilly, and we immediately press the specimen in my sketchbook before continuing along footpaths, small lanes, fields and coastal paths. We finally come to gorse land in wave formations, a micro landscape which Mark tells us is an endangered environment. There is an unusual mix of white and purple heather and a folkloric atmosphere as a rainbow emerges overhead.

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An unusual mix of white and purple heather on the Heathland, St.Marys.

 

I ask Mark if the walk is part of his method: to orientate, to locate, and to formulate ideas and questions. He replies ‘yes, very much so’. I had taken an observational walk the evening before for the very same reasons; as artist and scientist, this method is essential to the beginning of our fieldwork.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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I have just finished doing a videoconference with a group of schools who will be following our field trip to the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica next week. It was really fun and as usual we had some very good (and difficult) questions.

 

The plan is that we will share our scientific field work, which to be honest is one of the must fun parts of our work at the Museum, with the public and a pre-arranged group of schools. We will be running Nature Live sessions from the forest using an Inmarsat video satellite link, which will let us talk to visitors in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

As well as blogging about the trip we'll also be answering the questions of teachers and school children who have been invited to sign-up for our schools link. If you know any teachers who might want to get involved and get access then please get them to contact Grace from the Museum's Learning Programme by email (videoconferencing@nhm.ac.uk).

 

So, we leave here Monday morning and by Wednesday we should be collecting our first moss, lichen, algae and plant specimens!

 

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On February 6 a team of us, four botanists and a host of the Museum's Nature Live programme are heading off to Costa Rica to explore the flanks a remote area of tropical forest known as 'El Valle de Silencio' (The Valley of Silence). This area forms part of the La Amistad Binational Park that is shared between Costa Rica and Panama and within which the Natural History Museum has been working for almost 10 years! We will be spending about two weeks camping and making collections of flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and algae in an area of unspoilt forest at an altitude of between 1800 and 3400 m. So far we have obtained our collection permit, permission to film in the Park, plane tickets and located a team of porters to help us get our food and equipment into place and we are getting very excited! Below is a picture of the forest taken on a visit last year.DSC_9387.JPG

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Liondancers

 

After a true Cantonese breakfast with dumplings and all sorts, we set off to the tip of mainland China to see what we could find. It was chaos going through town, everyone was out and about; it is nearly last day of Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and the celebrations are reaching their peak in south China, where the holiday is taken very seriously! In the village of XiaoLiao we encountered lion dancers who went from house to house to the accompaniment of firecrackers and drums – in some places the firecrackers were so many you couldn’t see the dancers for the smoke!

 

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Aubergines, ready to go

 

This is a true mega-production zone – irrigated and full of vegetables – including aubergines! They were being harvested and readied for sending to the north. We spoke to one farmer in his field where he told us they were all planting the new variety Nong Feng #3, it gave two crops a year and after two years they took the plants out and began again.

 

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Aubergine field

 

We passed through areas of chilli peppers and onions as well, where the air changed scent depending on what crop was being harvested. Despite it being a festival the harvest was going on. We also collected much Solanum undatum, the putative wild progenitor of the aubergine, in several villages – the local people say it is a wild plant and is not now eaten, though it used to be and is still used as medicine.

 

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Salt pans (click images to enlarge)                                                      Fishing boats

 

We reached the southern-most tip of mainland China, after going through black plastic evaporating tanks for making salt. There we found fishermen mending their nets at low tide, waiting to go out again. They had a piece of red coral that had caught in their net (collecting it on purpose is not legal) – it was beautiful, you can see why it is endangered.

 

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Red coral (click image to enlarge)

 

Then off to catch the ferry to Hainan Island. Tiangang and JinXiu said this was truly travelling Chinese style, and they would never do it again – it was wild. The pushing and shoving was intense and the ferry was stuffed with people, cars and buses. We made it though, and the solanums of Hainan Island await!

 

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The Hainan ferry (click images to enlarge)                                            The ferry queue

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Some of the spectacular scenery that Sandy Knapp has photographed on her fieldtrip to China

 

Sandy Knapp continues to search for aubergines (Solanum melongena) and other interesting Solanum species in China, and I've been reading her blog with interest.

 

Aubergine varieties seem to have evaded discovery so far - a farmer in one of the locations she visited said his crop had failed due to the cold weather, but there are apparently lots of other interesting crops and plant life to be seen, and in some cases eaten.

 

On Monday Sandy was served the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, which is a common weed in Britain and thought to be poisonous! She says it was obviously not very, at least in China. A braver approach than I'd have, and I was relieved to read from her blog posts later in the week that she didn't seem to be any the worse for it.

 

Sandy's not just exploring fields, brush and spectacular limestone mountains: she found another species, Solanum torvum, growing in a rubbish dump in the north of China. Who said fieldwork isn't glamorous!

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It's worth it though. Yesterday she wrote that they'd found their first exciting Solanum species - Solanum violaceum (shown right). Although it's a common species, she wants to compare it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.

 

Not all of her observations have been positive. She has seen first-hand evidence of habitat destruction in the beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills near Gansu. She says mining for stone and gravel will have destroyed many of them by next year, along with the native flora that grows there.

 

I look forward to finding out more about Sandy's travels, including whether she finds the elusive aubergine and whether she's served up any other risky dishes.

 

Read Sandy's blog, Investigating aubergines in China.

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Today the studio was taken over by lichen. Yes, lichen.

 

The first question for me (embarrassingly) was 'what are they…or it?' Turns out, pretty cool.

 

Pat Wolseley who works in our Botany department explained that lichens are actually two types of organisms living together, a fungus and an alga. They have managed to carve out an existence by working together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus makes the body that protects the alga and the alga provides the food for the fungus. Who said nature is red in tooth and claw!

 

Fun fact of the day No. 2, lichens are hardcore. They have been found everywhere from the cold arctic and hot deserts to rocky beaches and inner-city gravestones. Not only are some very tough, others are very sensitive to air quality and this makes them perfect when it comes to monitioring air pollution.

 

In simple terms, if you see this fluffy greenish beard lichen on trees (Usnea florida) you can be sure the air is clean or getting cleaner. However, if you find trees and stones covered with the golden shield lichen (Xanthoria parietina) there is a lot of nitrogen about.

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Image caption: Usnea florida (above) and Xanthoria parietina (below)

 

Now you can tell the difference why don't you get involved in the OPAL air survey? Join the hundreds of people logging on and helping scientists answer questions about the quality of the air we breathe.

 

To help scientists collect data on the air quality in your local area visit http://www.opalexplorenature.org/

 

Happy surveying!