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

Blog Posts

Blog Posts

Items per page

This week we get an update on the Orchid Observers project, from Project Officer Kath Castillo.


It’s been a busy time for Orchid Observers! The project got off to a great start when the website went live on the Zooniverse platform on 23 April; the very first of the season’s field records was uploaded on day one!


Orchid Observers Team.JPG

The Orchid Observers team, from left to right: Jade Lauren Cawthray, Jim O’Donnell (Zooniverse web developer) Lucy Robinson, Mark Spencer, John Tweddle, Kath Castillo, Chris Raper and Fred Rumsey


At the time of writing this blog we now have 567 registered users on the website who have enthusiastically completed 11,044 classifications, by verifying and transcribing data for our historical specimens and identifying species and flowering stages for around 700 photographic records already submitted by participants. The field records collected span the country, from Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, and from Pembrokeshire across to Norfolk. So far, for early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) approximately 9% of the records are from new/unknown sites (as measured by 2 km square/tetrad); this is valuable information, particularly for green-winged orchid which is considered at risk of extinction in the UK.


Anacamptis morio - herbarium.jpg

A herbarium sheet of green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio); one of around 10,000 historical specimens available online for data verification or transcription


Whilst we have not been able to fully compare the Orchid Observers phenology data with our museum records (as yet, the relevant, verified, 2015 UK weather data has not been released) we have already been able to see that the median date of this year’s flowering of two species (early-purple and green-winged) is at least 10 days earlier than the museum data (which mainly covers 1830 to 1970). These are early figures only, and the full data set will be analysed later this year.


We are immensely grateful for the time and good will of all our participants - without this effort we would not have been able to collect this data. And we’ve still got the rest of the summer to collect more data for all our 29 species in the survey!


The Orchid Observers team had a very busy in May, showcasing the project to the public at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, in Dorset and on Fascination of Plants Day and at Big Nature Day at the Natural History Museum.


Orchid Observers at BND.jpg

Orchid Observers at Big Nature Day


Some of us in the team have also managed to get out to various sites to record and photograph orchids ourselves. Here’s a snapshot of our recent activities:


Visit to Stonebarrow Hill, Dorset, 1 May


After a busy day on the stand at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, Kath, Mike and Chris drove up to the National Trust’s reserve at Stonebarrow Hill to look for orchids and found two beautiful ancient hay meadows of flowering green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio), including the occasional white variety in a sea of purples.


Kath photographing A. morio near Lyme. MW.jpg

Kath photographing green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) at Stonebarrow Hill, near Lyme


Green-winged Orchid_Dorset_01_05_2015_ Kath Castillo (3).JPGGreen-winged Orchid_Dorset_01_05_2015_ Kath Castillo (6).JPG

Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) at Stonebarrow Hill


BBC News report at Darland Banks, Kent, 19 May


Next up, Mark and Kath travelled down to Darland Banks, in Kent, to film a piece for BBC South East News, with reporter Charlie Rose. The south-facing chalk grassland slopes were abundant with the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora). You can see the film piece here.


Man Orchid_Darland_19_05_15KCastillo.JPG

Orchid Observers in the News: The man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) at Darland Banks


Visit to Box Hill in Surrey, 29 May


At the end of May, and despite a weather warning to expect heavy rain later in the day, a group of us left Victoria station in the morning sun and headed down to Box Hill to search for and photograph orchids. Box Hill forms part of the North Downs and is a well-known site to spot many of our wild orchids – there are around 17 species here. We were able to find and photograph 5 of our 29 target species: common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), common twayblade (Neottia ovata), bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) and fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera), by the time the skies darkened. Some species, such as the bird's-nest and fly, are hard to find at the best of times, and were particularly difficult to photograph in a thunderstorm!


Photographing Common spotted orchids at Box Hill.JPG

Lucy, Jade and Mike collecting photographic records for common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)


Birds-nest at Box Hill.JPG

The beautiful bird's-nest orchid, (Neottia nidus-avis) in woodland


orchid observers at Box Hill.JPG

Drenched but happy: orchid observers Jade, Sally and Lucy at Box Hill


We’ve also been busy filming a piece which has just launched on the Museum’s citizen science Orchid Observers webpage. Kath organised with the Museum’s Broadcast Unit team to film a short piece to explain the research behind the project. So, mid-May saw Kath, together with Emma Davis and Hannah Wise, setting off early one morning with two carloads of film equipment, a group of Museum volunteers and Mark Spencer. The team went to Oxfordshire, to a couple of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust’s finest nature reserves. We are very grateful to BBOWT’s Giles Alder and Laura Parker for hosting us.


Find out about why the Orchid Observers research is so important by watching our film here.


Filming for Orchid Observers.JPG

Filming for Orchid Observers in Oxfordshire


Kath Castillo


Kath is a biologist and botanist working as the Orchid Observers project officer and along with the Zooniverse web team developed the Orchid Observers website. She now tries to get out into the field whenever she can to find and photograph wild orchids!


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


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


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


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


Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:


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


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



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


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


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



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

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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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 (


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




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





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!



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.



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.



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.



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!



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



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!



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.


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.

lichen.jpgLeafy Xanthoria.jpg

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


Happy surveying!