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

Blog Posts

Blog Posts

Items per page
1 2 Previous Next

This week we hear back from Kath Castillo, our Orchid Observers Project Officer, about what orchids you can search for in the field this month.


August is nearly here and with it the start of the holiday season, so if you are planning a walking holiday or a bit of wildlife photography in the UK, there are some stunning species on our list to look out for and photograph for Orchid Observers.


Flowering now and into late August, the Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris) is a fairly large orchid with loose clusters of pink and white flowers with a white frilly lower petal. The species, which grows in wetland areas such as fens and damp dune slacks, can flower on a grand scale, with tens of thousands of plants creating a carpet of flowers. Although it may occur in profusion in some areas, the Marsh Helleborine is declining in England and Wales due to habitat loss.


Epipactis palustris Greywell Fen July-2005 020.FR.jpg

A flower of the Marsh Helleborine. Photo credit: Fred Rumsey.



Epipactis palustris 728 [Fred Rumsey].JPG

Marsh Helleborine photographed flowering in large numbers last summer at Berrow Dunes, north Somerset. Photo credit: Fred Rumsey.


If you are up in northern England and in north-east parts of Scotland and likely to be visiting and walking in woodland, particularly pine woods, then look out under the pine trees on the forest floor for small spikes of creamy white flowers which are very hairy! Take a look at the leaves; if the veins are distinctively net-shaped (rather than parallel as in most UK orchids) then you may well have found Creeping lady’s-tresses (Goodyera repens).


Please take a photograph and record the location and date and upload your data to the Orchid Observers website.


Goodyera repens (2) [Mike Waller].JPG

Creeping lady’s-tresses at Eden Valley, Cumbria. Photo credit: Mike Waller.


A similar looking species, but in another genus altogether, is Autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) which is found in southern England, most commonly by the coast This small orchid has tiny white flowers arranged in a single spiral around the stem resembling braided hair, hence the common name. An interesting fact is the leaves develop in autumn and photosynthesise throughout the winter but wither before flowering – this is an adaptation to hot dry climates. Germination to flowering takes 14 years. This is a Mediterranean species that only grows on calcareous grassland with very short turf. Look out for it in late August and into September on chalk downs, fixed dunes, cliff tops and even lawns and old grass tennis courts!


Autumn Lady's Tresses - Eggardon Hill, Dorset 2011-09-02-19 [Chris Raper].JPG

Autumn lady’s-tresses at Eggardon Hill in Dorset. Photo credit: Chris Raper.


The Orchid Observers team would once again like to thank all our participants who have been out photographing orchids and collecting records from all over the country; nearly 1600 records have been submitted so far!


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!


Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have been extremely busy since our last blog post, here's Mike Waller with an update on what they have been getting up to!


Trainees puzzing over the latest capture.jpg

The trainees puzzle over their latest capture (L-R: Sally, Anthony, Mike and Katy)


Our timetables, until now a collage of various colours, have become a very busy reality over the last two months. We got our teeth into another batch of long-anticipated ID workshops - Flowering Plants, Beetles, Flies and Earthworms. I think I speak for everyone when I say the skills and knowledge we've been passed by some of the leading scientific experts in the Museum have been rich, extensive and unique. Developing techniques to hoard as much of this golden information as possible have become paramount.


I've already gathered a thick stack of mixed ID keys, notes, powerpoint handouts and even the odd specimen - usually midway through the processing to go into my personal collection. Sally has taken her learning consolidation to a new level and is producing an incredible assemblage of annotated line drawings and intricate watercolours in her note book. She'll be blogging about that separately, but we're all a little jealous!


Extract from Sallys Notebook.jpg

An extract from Sallys notebook


The first of these workshops was a one-day instalment of flowering plants out in the wilds of East London with Mark Spencer. We met promptly for 9.00 at Mile End tube station before heading out in the company of other trainees from a similar scheme called Wild Talent being run by the London Wildlife Trust (also funded by the HLF's Skills for the Future programme), and people who narrowly missed out on getting the traineeship during the first round. Indeed, several places have been made available on all workshops for the other 20 trainee applicants as an opportunity to maximise the skills-base across the board. It was great to see them again!


Mark pointing out some of the finer points of plant identification.jpg

Mark Spencer highlighting some of the finer points of plant identification


After a scorching day keying out Fabacae and crucifers, dodging cyclists and discussing the horror of path-side 'tidying', we finished in Mark's local pub for a well-earned pint. As always, Mark's casual ability to blend good science, humour and memorable anecdotes always makes for a superb time. We all very much look forward to our next sessions with him in July.


Next up was our very first invertebrate workshop, and what better to start with than beetles - the group within which both Katy and Anthony find their true passion. This workshop was a solid four-day stretch that began with Roger Booth taking us through the depths of beetle anatomy followed by some family keying. Max Barclay provided a two-part lecture on world beetle families that, for me, gave a fascinating insight into the truly spectacular speciation and morphological diversity of the group acoss the planet.


As our confidence grew, we began to use specific familiy keys to make accurate species identifications of some of the more challenging groups such as Elateridae or the 'click' beetles. Michael Geiser and Roger offered invaluable help during this process as their oceans of knowledge were repeatedly called upon.


A few of our beetles for identifying.jpg

A small selection of beetles for identification


Just as we thought we were getting to understand insects, BOOM, in swept the seemingly impenetrable order of flies - a group with unfathomable diversity! Luckily we were in very good hands as we were led through the array of sub-orders by Erica McAlister, Duncan Sivell, Zoe Adams, Daniel Whitemore and the AMC's very own Chris Raper.


In similar style to the beetles, we used familiy keys to start with then slowly graduated to species identifications where possible. This workshop however came with a difference and on the second day, we all met at Wimbledon Common for a day out collecting.


With nets, pooters and pots at the ready, we were unleased on the varied mix of heathland, pastures and oak woodlands to capture what we could. The weather couldn't have been better and gave us a golden opportunity to use collecting techniques in the field. Once back in the Museum we were then able to pin and mount our specimens for our personal collections.


Wimbledon Common.jpgChloe learning slide preparation for diptera ID.jpg

Left: Out on Wimbledon Common with the Diptera team. Right: Chloe back in the lab working on her diptera slide preparation


Our most recent workshop went subterranean with Emma Sherlock as we dug up seemingly half of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trusts London Wetland Centre in the pursuit of earthworms. Using our trusty spades, and encouraged with the possibility of encountering a rare species, we sampled different habitats around the reserve to gain a good range of species which we then took back to the lab for identification the following day. Emma's unbridled passion for earthworms is infections and we all developed a new-found interest to take forward.



If that wasn't enough, we all packed our walking boots and set out for our placements with the Field Studies Council where we were based at various FSC Centres scattered up and down the country.


During May, I made my way north to Malham Tarn, whilst Chloe took heading north to the extreme with a week at Kindrogan and Milport on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. Meanwhile, Anthony settled at Flatford Mill in Suffolk. Sally followed the South Wales coast to Dale Fort and Katy battled her way through the winding roads of North Wales to Rhyd-y-Creau in the mists of Snowdonia.


The focus of each of our placements was 2-fold: to observe the identification courses each centre was running and to assist with the outdoor teaching for which the FSC is renowned. I got to observe a beginners course called 'Spring Wildflowers of the Dales' which, as you'd expect, concentrated on the botanical.


It was led by local botanist Judith Allinson who taught a mixture of plant structure and lineage with a good dose of field visits to observe some of the specialist plants of the stunning limestone pastures, pavements and hay meadows. Having not been to the Dales proper before, I was continually stunned by this landscape of dramatic limestone cliffs and thick green meadows chequered by moss-drenched dry stone walls where the only sounds were the melancholy warbles of distant curlews. Highlights for me were the rafts of early purple orchids, adder's-tongue ferns and a hungry peregrine attempting to snatch Lapwing chicks on the tarn shore


Malham Tarn FSC Centre.jpg

Malham Tarn FSC Centre


The second part of my stay saw a sudden shift from pupil to teacher as various school groups, ranging from 8-14 year olds, visited for day trips and longer stays. This meant hanging out with the tireless field teachers who work extremely long hours to meet the educational needs of over-excited children!


It was a real privilege to see the field teacher's skills in action, but equally how challenging their roles can be. Trying to deliver a range of syllabus-based content that is relevant and exciting to different age groups, whilst trying to avoid the hazards of controlling a large group of children in an unpredicatable environment is very hard indeed. These observations were echoed by the other trainees who also gained immesurably from their experiences.


To round off our teaching and learning, Sally, Anthony and I also got stuck into some more people engagement at Big Nature Day here at the Museum. This is a coming together of over 50 different specialist wildlife organisations from across the UK. These included the more familiar groups such as the BSBI and iSpot, but it also provided an opportunity for some of the lesser-known societies such as the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Pteridological Society to get their name out there.


Like Lyme Regis, this was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the work of the Angela Marmont Centre while also browsing and networking with some fascinating wildlife groups. As trainees, we ran our own table providing microscopes to observe lichens and several drawers filled with UK insects and bee mimics. I also spent some of my time at the Orchid Observers stand where I helped answer questions about the project alongside Kath Castillo, Fred Rumsey and Mark Spencer.


Big Nature Day.jpg

Mike, Sally and Anthony at Big Nature Day


All in all, an inspiring day, and an inspiring, and hectic couple of months! As the traineeship progresses, we're all looking forward to our next few workshops, which include Freshwater Invertebrates, Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera, as well as our short field trip down to the Isle of Purbeck before we all set sail in September for our three month curation placements at various departments around the Museum. Make sure you stay tuned for the next instalment of the Identification Trainees saga!


Mike as a dipterist.jpg

Your blog author, Mike Waller


Thanks Mike! Don't forget you can find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project at, including how and when to apply for next years traineeship positions.


Crystal Palace Transition Kids and Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs swab the first ever dinosaur sculptures the world had ever seen, to help us identify The Microverse. Ainslie Beattie of Crystal Palace Transition Kids and Ellinor Michel of the Museum and a member of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs report on the event:


Looming out across the lake in front of us are dinosaurs, 160 year old dinosaurs! They look huge, ominous and exciting! These were the first ever reconstructions of extinct animals, the first animals with the name 'dinosaur' and they launched the 'Dinomania' that has enthralled us ever since.


Never before had the wonders of the fossil record been brought to life for the public to marvel at. These were the first 'edu-tainment', built to inform and amaze, in Crystal Palace Park in 1854. They conveyed messages of deep time recorded in the geologic record, of other animals besides people dominating past landscapes, of beauty and struggle among unknown gigantic inhabitants of lost worlds.



The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were built in 1854 to inform and amaze. © Stefan Ferreira


Most people just get to look at them from vantage points across a waterway, but not us! Transition Kids (part of Crystal Palace Transition Town) and Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs arranged special access to collect data for the Museum's 'The Microverse' project. The first outing of the newly formed Transition Kids group started with art and science discovery as we decorated our field journals (every good scientist keeps a field journal full of written and sketched observations, musings and potential discoveries) and observed the subjects from afar.


journal design.jpg

Transition Kids proudly presenting their field journals. © Stefan Ferreira


Then we started the trek over the bridge, through the bushes and onto the island. Wow, the dinosaurs are huge up close! Our CP Dinosaur ringmaster, Ellinor Michel, from Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, explained to the kids about the conservation of the historic sculptures and gave an overview of the science behind The Microverse project.



The Microverse participants trekking over to dinosaurs island. © Stefan Ferreira


She introduced Dr Anne Jungblut from the Museum who developed 'The Microverse' project, which aims to uncover the diversity of microscopic life on iconic UK buildings. Anne explained what is interesting about the invisible life, called biofilms, on the surface of the dinosaurs. Our involvement in the project is trying to determine what types of organisms are living on the dinosaurs, by sampling and sequencing the DNA!


Our results will reveal whole communities of organisms, represented by many phyla of bacteria and archaea, living on each sculpture. Once we get the results back we will be able to investigate which variables affect these communities of organisms, such as substrate, compass direction and distance from vegetation. Then the Museum will compare our results with those from hundreds of other buildings throughout the UK, to look for broader patterns in microorganism ecology. We look forward to meeting again with the scientists to discuss what our results show.



Transition kids collecting samples from the surface of one of the dinosaurs. © Stefan Ferreira


We also took some time to explore the surface of the dinosaurs, describing the textures and patterns that had been sculpted to represent dinosaur skin. Even today, scientists are still discussing the likely skin surface of these great beasts and there is evidence to suggest that some dinos had feathers!


The children also got the opportunity to sit and contemplate the size of the dinos, to look underneath them and across the lake at the diversity of species on display. Not only did they get to see the great big creatures, but also a few living animals when terrapins popped up, dragonflies zoomed past and ducks paddled by.



Resident artist David Vallade created a set of drawings the kids could use as a visual aid for exploration. © David Vallade.


During the summer break we will take the kids who participated in the Dino DNA event to the Museum to explore the science behind 'The Microverse' a bit further, and meet more scientists researching our environment in other ways. Starting with this adventure in deep time and now, Transition Kids are planning many more adventures in Crystal Palace Park and beyond.


To find out more about Transition Kids, please email Ainslie


And to find out more about the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs visit:


A big thank you to all of the Museum staff and local community supporters who contributed to the event.


Full group.jpg

The whole dinosaur swabbing team. © Stefan Ferreira


CPTT.jpg FCPD2.jpg

Jade Lauren


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!


This week Sally Hyslop, one of the trainees on our Identification Trainers for the Future programme, gives an update on the results of our 9-year-long Bluebell Survey:


The arrival of bluebells each spring is an iconic sight. The floods of nodding colour characterise our ancient woodlands, support a commotion of insect life and make up an important part of Britain's natural heritage. Our native bluebell species is widespread in Britain; in fact half of the world's population is found here. But the introduction of non-native bluebells, planted in our parks and gardens, may be threatening our native species.


Blubells 3.jpg

Bluebells are iconic to our woodlands. Copyright: Mike Waller.


The introduced Spanish bluebell is deceptively similar to our native species, except for a few subtle differences in its features. It is broader in size, its petals flare out a little more, and the pollen is not white, but characteristically blue.


Spanish bluebells can breed freely with our native species, creating a hybrid plant with features from both species. Since the Bluebell Survey started in 2006, citizen scientists have been carefully identifying bluebells across Britain and recording the whereabouts of native, non-native and hybrid forms. This helps us to investigate these changes.


Exploring change in Britain's bluebells is no easy task, but by submitting their records, citizen scientists have created a nationwide picture of our bluebells. Using this data, scientists at the Museum have gained a greater understanding of the threats to our native species.


For example, we now know that, although large populations of native bluebells exist in the countryside, in urban areas hybrid bluebells are increasingly common. Each hybrid bluebell has a mixed genetic make-up, inheriting a blend of features from both its native and non-native parent. The mixed hybrids may cope better with changing environments and could out-compete our native species.


bluebells 1.jpg

A native bluebell with characteristic bell shape and nodding tip. Copyright: Mike Waller.


To better understand the threat of hybrid bluebells, we have been asking citizen scientists to record flowering times for the bluebells they identify. Using this data, scientists will uncover how native, non-native species and their hybrids are responding to climate change.


Due to natural fluctuations in climate, scientists need many years of data to accurately interpret the effect of climate change on flowering time. This is why records from the public continue to be so important! If you have been or want to take part, by collecting this information over several years and for the same plants, you can provide scientists with consistent data to study our bluebells.


The effect of climate change on Britain's biodiversity is likely to be vast, but by collecting data we can start to work with the unpredictable, anticipate the future and direct change. If you'd like to help discover more about Britain's bluebells take part in 2015's Bluebell Survey.


bluebells illustration.jpg

Illustration Copyright: Sally Hyslop.


Thanks Sally! As part of her work as an Identification Trainee at the Museum, Sally has been collating and managing the records that you have been sending in for this year's Bluebell Survey.


And, for another take on the Bluebell Survey, see the latest from the Wildlife Garden blog.


Jade Lauren


Advances in DNA sequencing technology are occurring at an incredible speed and Kevin Hopkins is one of the Museum's Next Generation Sequencing Specialists working with the sequencing technologies used at the Museum to produce relevant data for our Microverse research.


"The challenge is being able to bring together the technology, often developed in biomedical settings, and the samples at the Museum, where limited and often damaged DNA from specimens is the only chance we have of sequencing them. My job involves designing methods that work for our unusual samples, extracting DNA and producing sequencing ready samples from it, and running our MiSeq and NextSeq next generation sequencing platforms."



Kevin Hopkins is a Next Generation Sequencing Specialist at the Museum.


What is DNA sequencing?

DNA sequencing is the process of reading the order of nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) in a particular strand of DNA. Sequencing can be used for many different applications, such as defining a specific gene or a whole genome. The best way to sequence DNA is in sections; this is because there are a number of challenges to sampling the whole genome of a species in one go.


There is so much data within a genome that it takes an incredibly long time for any sequencing machine to process the information. In the Microverse project we are analysing short strands of DNA. At least 60 samples are loaded into the sequencer at a time and the analysis takes a total of 65 hours. If we were to analyse the whole genome rather than smaller parts, it would take a considerably greater amount of time, but luckily we don't need to do it for The Microverse project.


Another challenge for sequencing can be old DNA that has been degraded into very short sections, in this situation it is difficult to gain enough DNA from all the microorganism in the samples, to study the community composition. To avoid this in The Microverse project, we asked the schools to return the biofilm samples in a DNA preservative to minimise the degradation of the DNA.

Lab work

When Kevin receives the samples from Anne, the lead researcher on the project, he performs two quality control checks before loading them into the DNA sequencer: these are the concentration of the samples and the average DNA strand length. It is important to know both of these factors as they allow us to estimate the number of DNA fragments that are in each sample.



We are using the Illumina MiSeq machine to sequence The Microverse samples.


The equipment that Kevin uses to sequence DNA is an Illumina MiSeq which can sequence up to 75,000 samples per year. Having equipment like this allows scientists at the Museum to carry out research such as looking at plant DNA to reveal the history of their evolution in relation to climate change, and using molecular work to benefit human health by understanding tropical diseases such as leishmaniasis, as well as exploring microbial diversity in soil, lakes and oceans.


During DNA sequencing the DNA double helix comprising two strands of DNA is split to give single stranded DNA. This DNA is then placed into a sequencing machine alongside chemicals that cause the free nucleotides to bind to the single stranded DNA. Within this sequencing cycle when a nucleotide, which is fluorescently charged, successfully binds to its complementary nucleotide in the DNA strand (A with T and vice versa, G with C and vice versa), a fluorescent signal is emitted. The intensity and length of this fluorescent signal determines which nucleotide base is present, and is recorded by the sequencing machine. The sequencer can read millions of strands at the same time.


Why is this important?


DNA sequencing is vitally important because it allows scientists to distinguish one species from another and determine how different organisms are related to each other. In the Microverse project we are using the sequencer to identify the taxonomic groups of the microorganisms in the samples that you have sent to the Museum.


Katy Potts


Katy Potts is one of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future programme, who is based at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. Alongside her work on the Microverse project she is developing her skills in insect identification, particularly Coleoptera (beetles).


If you are taking part in the Microverse project the deadline for sending us your samples is Fri 29 May.


In our second to last post in our series introducing our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, we meet Anthony Roach. Although Anthony comes from a background in archaeology, he is a very keen amateur naturalist and science communicator, having already worked as a weekend science educator for the Museum.


My name is Anthony Roach and I am an enthusiastic and energetic amateur naturalist with a strong passion for inspiring people about the natural world. I was fascinated by material culture and prehistory and graduated as an archaeologist at the Univeristy of Reading in July 2003.


Anthony Roach.jpg

ID Trainer for the Future Anthony Roach, whose background is in archaeology and science communication.


I have spent the last 9 years in the handling, documentation, interpretation and advocacy of natural science collections (entomology, zoology, geology, archaeology and palaeontology) and inspiring museum audiences by delivering educational workshops and object-handling sessions at Plymouth City Museum and Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum, affectionately known as RAMM.


RAMM was awarded 'Museum of the Year 2012' after a major 4 year re-development and between 2007 and 2010 I was given the opportunity to handle, pack and move its complete natural science collections, assist in delivering natural history outreach sessions, wildlife festivals and events and contributed to a touring exhibition called 'Micro-Sensation' about the beautiful and bizarre microscopic world.


My career working with natural science collections has shown that I have a strong interest in the natural world, but in my spare time I spend much of my time observing, photographing and identifying wildlife around the city of Exeter and the Exe Estuary in my home county of Devon. I have a strong passion for all wildlife, but particularly birds and invertebrates. I am an avid and enthusiastic birdwatcher following voluntary work as Peregrine Warden with the National Trust in 2006. In 2013 I was lucky enough to travel and work in New Zealand, volunteering for The Papa and Auckland War Memorial Museums, whilst travelling to see some of the rarest birds that still survive on remote pacific islands such as the Takahe, Yellow-Eyed Penguin and Kokako.


20150421 IDTrainers Peregrine AnthonyRoach NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_005517_IA.jpg

Anthony is an enthusiastic birdwatcher following voluntary work as Peregrine Warden with the National Trust in 2006. Image: Plate 17 from John Gould's The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (1873, hand coloured lithograph).


Due to my strong interest in the  Museum's collections following repeated visits to exhibitions such as Dino-Birds in 2002, Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Darwin Cenenary exhibitions in 2009, I was delighted to join the Natural History Museum as a Weekend Science Educator in 2010.


My interest in citizen science and teaching and inspiring people of all ages about wildlife has given me the chance to work with school and familiy audiences in the Museum's learning spaces and with Museum scientists on learnin projects and special events such as Dino Snores and Big Nature Day. I have really enjoyed working with fellow Science Educators in the flagship science centre 'Investigate' that allows visitors to handle and explore real natural history specimens, develop scientific literacy skills and inspire their interest in the natural world.


My proudest moment was in 2013, being asked to work alongside fellow Life and Earth sciences scientists in the Hintze Hall for the Museum's annual Science Uncovered event, where the public get the chance to meet scientists and understand the scientific research taking place at the Museum. My role was to assist the scientists and facilitate discussions with the public who were able to see incredibly rare and scientifically important specimens such as those collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.


I applied for the Identification Trainers for the Future traineeship to expand my knowledge of UK biodiversity and the mosaic of habitats that occur, and some of the main indicator species for the health of our environment. I was particularly moved as a result of the 2013 State of Nature report which showed that 60% of UK species studied had declined over recent decades and one in ten species assessed are under threat of disappearing altogether.


I wanted to do something more pro-active to help UK wildlife, inspire people of all ages through citizen science projects as well as continuing my passionate interest in museum collections. Working with staff in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) allows me to do all these thngs, as it is a place where reference collections allow people to identify what they find while the AMC runs citizen science projects, events and courses to help people learn about wildlfie, contributes valuable specimens to an ever-expanding library of life and are custodians of important botanical, entomological and zoological collections.


I love meeting new people and working in a team and so I am looking forward to the experiences that I will have to meet new people, visit new wildlife rich places around the UK and inspire others. I would like to use the skills and experience that I gain during the traineeship to improve my understanding of UK biodiversity and the role of habitat management in creating opportunities for wildlife rich landscape-scale conservation. I would like to further improve my knowledge and experience of handling, documenting and preparing specimens for museum collections, developing wildlife keys and interpretation and the critical skills and experience of surveying, identification and field recording as well as the abiltiy to assess habitats using industry recognised approaches.


Thanks Anthony! We'll be introducing the final member of the first cohort of trainees soon. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


The next of our new trainees to introduce themselves is Katy Potts. Katy is a keen entomologist and has volunteered with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and most recently with our own Coleoptera department before joining the traineeship programme.


I have been an amateur entomologist for the past 3 years and I am passionate about all aspects of wildlife, but particularly things with six legs. I recently graduated from Plymouth University where I studied Conservation Biology, since I graduated I have been keen to gain more knowledge in the identification of UK wildlife with particular focus on conservation. I am very interested in all aspects of wildlife but I am fascinated with insects, I find their morphology, behaviour and evolution extremely interesting.


Katy Potts.jpg

ID Trainer for the Future Katy Potts, with a drawer of coleoptera from the Museum's collection.


Over the last four years I have been involved with public engagement events with Opal and Buglife where we ran invertebrate surveys and BioBlitz projects to encourage the public to become interested in their local wildlife. I was also involved with a pollinator survey run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology that involved me surveying for hoverflies and bumblebees on Dartmoor and then identifying specimens to species level. This survey ignited my passion for identification further and I engaged in entomological and recording communities to develop my understanding.


Wildlife fascinates me, all aspects from trees, mosses and lichens to beetles and hoverflies, I find it all amazing to watch in the wild and also to learn about their ecology. The content of the traineeship enthused me as it covers core groups of UK wildlife. As I said, I have a particular interest in the six legged insects, particularly beetles.


After studying conservation at university I realised there has never been more importance for naturalists to have good biological skills, particuarly when species are under threat from habitat fragmentation and climate change. Naturalists need to have good biological skills in order to monitor and record trends in populations of wildlife, this can allow for the most optimal conservation of our wildlife. I knew I wanted to improve my identification skills after I left university so I came to the museum to volunteer in the Coleoptera department learning the basic skills in taxonomy and how to preserve biological records.


This traineeship is the next step in my path to becoming a wildlife expert. I am looking forward to engaging in the identifcation workshops and field trips where we will learn the key knowledge, principles and skills of taxonomy and biological recording. I am keen to develop my identification skills and this traineeship will equip me with the skills to begin my career as a UK wildlife scientist.


After this section of the training we can then apply this knowlege and pass it on to others by learning how to teach others about UK wildlife. This part of the traineeship can be done in a practical manner and I am particularly looking forward to fomulating my own identifcation workshops to teach others what I have learnt. I hope to engage others in the identification of insects in the UK by creating a guide to the commonly found insects by encouraging them to look around their local parks and woodlands. This should be fun and engage people with their local wildlife.


I feel inspired by this traineeship, a career in the biodiversity sector represents what I have been working towards during my degree and now as a graduate. I hope to gain a broad range of knowlege in UK wildlife identification skills, with a developing expertise in the insects. I would like to increase my skillset in biological recording both in the field and in the curation of biological records and I hope to improve my skills in science communication and public engagement, which will allow me to effectively teach others and raise awareness about natural history in the UK.


The Museum is an important resource for schools and many of the UK's future scientists, I am eager to ensure that future generations are able to identify the wildlife that is around them.


Thanks Katy! We'll be introducing the remaining 2 members of the first cohort of trainees over the next week. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


In the second post in our series introducing the new trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, meet Sally Hyslop a keen volunteer recorder who will be focussing on our Bluebells survey project in the next few weeks.


My curiosity for natural history stems from many years of study, both out in the field and academically. I studied Zoology at the University of Sheffield where I completed an undergraduate Masters degree. Volunteering, however, has always complimented my studies and I take any opportuity to learn a little more about the natural world. These experiences range from volunteering in the collections of my local museum to working with big cats in wildlife sanctuaries.

Sally Hyslop.jpg

ID Trainer for the Future Sally Hyslop, whose background is in zoology.


Since leaving university and returning to my home in Kent, I have become increasingly involved in recording and monitoring the biodiversity in my area, taking part in identification courses and surveys with orgnaisations such as Kent Wildlfie Trust, Kent Mammal Group and Plantlife. I also volunteer as a Meadow Champion for the Medway Valley Countryside Partnership, a community-focused project which aims to increase understanding and conservation of our remaining meadow habitats.


Prior to starting as a trainee at the Museum, I was Young Facilitator for the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, working alongside partner organisation The Conservation Volunteers on wildlife projects in Kent. I supported and led weekly sessions of school groups which were focused on inspiring environmental action and promoting outdoor learning. The children were always enthusiastic and inquisitive, making the challenge of explaining new ideas and concepts to them a pleasure.


Through my own amateur interest in ecology, I was able to introduce the children to basic identification, using all sorts of species encountered during the sessions as examples. Our sessions concentrated on creating new habitats in school grounds and I particularly enjoyed planting meadows with the children, an activity through which I could introduce the children to native wildflowers and their defining features. Working with school groups and at my local environment centre has given me new insight into wildlife education, which I hope will benefit my experience during the traineeship.


I look forward to developing my understainding of UK biodiversity throughout my time at the Museum, yet I am particularly excited about learning and developing creative ways to pass these skills on. I'm especially keen to start delving into the collections and it will be brilliant to have both the time and resources to improve on my identification - I also hope to use any spare moment practising scientific illustration!


Thanks Sally! We'll be introducing other members of the first cohort of trainees over the next couple of weeks. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


Welcome to the first blog post for the Museums Identification Trainers for the Future project! This exciting new project centers around 15 work-based traineeship positions that will be hosted at the Museum and has been designed to address the growing skills gap in species identification in the UK. We will be doing this by targeting species groups where there is a lack, or loss, of ID skills in biological recording.


Our first group of trainees started with us this month, having come through a very competitive selection process, and were selected from over 400 applications. Choosing our first cohort has meant we have had to make some difficult decisions: certainly by the standard of the 25 we invited to selection day back in January, there are some very capable and enthusiastic people out there, with everyone who came along performing extremely well. Hopefully that, of course, means great things for UK biodiversity and biological recording!

Our first trainees taking part in the Identification Trainers for the Future project

L-R Sally Hyslop, Michael Waller, Katy Potts, Anthony Roach and Chloe Rose


Sally, Katy, Michael, Chloe and Anthony will be introducing themselves in their own blog posts which will appear here over the next few weeks, so I will save mentioning more about their backgrounds here. They have a very busy year in front of them getting involved in our work in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity as well as working with our specialist curation teams and helping out at Field Studies Council centres across the country.


They will be building their own species identification skills through a wide range of workshops, field visits and private study and later on we will be looking at building their communication and teaching skills so they can pass on to others what they have learnt, which is the priniciple purpose of our new project. In the mean time they will also be out and about at various Museum events throughout the year, and we will be reporting back on those too as soon as we can.


For now that leaves me only needing to say a big welcome to all our trainees, I look forward to working with you over the next 12 months!


Steph West

Project Manager - Identification Trainers for the Future


The ID Trainers for the Future project is sponsored through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme and is supported by the Field Studies Council and National Biodiversity Network Trust.


For more information, see our website


If you've joined us from our last blog post where we introduced the team, hello again! I'm really excited to be taking part in the Museum's newest citizen science project, The Microverse, that we launched at the end of 2014. This is a research project that will explore what microorganisms are living on UK buildings.



The research is being led by Dr Anne Jungblut, who studies microorganisms in extreme environments, exerting much of her research effort on the microorganisms that are found in Antarctica. Despite taking field trips to Antarctica, Anne is also very keen to explore the life that lives on buildings here in the UK, which - perhaps surprisingly - have received very little attention with respect to their microbiology to date.



Cyanobacteria are the specific type of microorganism that Anne studies in Antarctica.


Like Antarctica, buildings are an extreme environment for life, exposing microorganims to extremes of wet and dry and - sometimes - high levels of pollution, while providing little access to nutrients. Anne approached Lucy Robinson and I to see if we could help her to recruit members of the public into collecting data (it would take Anne years if she collected the data from across the UK herself).


So we want to get 250 secondary schools to step out of the classroom and swab a local building.



Students will find a local building and collect samples from the wall using a cotton swab.


Throughout January and February, A-Level Biology students from across the UK will be swabbing buildings and recording data about the building's environment and form. The students will collect the samples on cotton wool swabs and post them back to the Museum in a preservative. Once here, Anne will then extract DNA from the swabs and sequence it, to reveal what types of microorganism groups are living there and how many different types.



Samples are added to labelled tubes of DNA preservative to be sent back to the museum for analysis.


Schools will literally be contributing the genuine scientific research and to the Museum's collection, because Anne will use the data to publish academic research in a scientific journal and the specimens will be incorporated into our Molecular Collections Facility. This research project aims to determine the diversity of microorganisms on buildings across the UK and what types of variables are impacting on that diversity. It will form a foundation of knowledge from which more detailed questions can be asked.


If you are an A-Level Biology student or teacher, or you know of anyone that might like to get involved in The Microverse, there is still time to join the programme, just visit our webpage to find out how to take part. It's completely free and each school receives a pack with equipment and resources guiding both teachers and students through the method and the science. Data collection has already started in January and will continue throughout February, and the results will be returned to students by the end of March 2015.


Jade Lauren


Today I would like to write about a very exciting new and free science project for upper school and nature groups all around the UK called The Microverse.


You may not have thought about what a microbe is before, but there are millions - possibly billions - of different kinds. So why should we care? Well, firstly, most life on earth exists because of one group - the cyanobacteria. Then there are all those important ecosystem services that microbes provide. And remember the 'healthy bacteria' in your gut, which have been linked to all sorts of health benefits (or diseases, when things go wrong).


We now know that human activity is changing the world we see, but what is it doing to the world we can’t? Nobody really knows. There are many questions to answer about about the microbial diversity that can be found in urban environments in cities, towns and villages. What is microbial diversity like on concrete pavements and glass skyscrapers? How can they survive the temperature extremes, lack of nutrients and high levels of pollutants?


The Microverse project is asking schools and nature groups to take samples from buildings for analysis at the Natural History Museum in London. Are our cities a disaster for microbial diversity, or are there thriving, species-rich communities out there? Who knows? It’s a whole new world we’re entering. More information on the biology, science and activities in this Microverse clip.





It is is easy and free to join the project. Just sign up on the The Microverse webpage.



Here in the identification service we don’t need a diary or calendar to know what time of year it is, in fact we don’t even have to look out of the window!  We can tell the time of year by trends in the enquiries we get by email, phone, through the post or on our forum. 


Many species of insect have a lifecycle that lasts for a year, with the larvae or nymphs around in one season, and the adults around in another.  Last year we blogged about the amazing bee fly and how it is a sure sign that spring is on the way, but it’s not the only enquiry with a strong seasonal distribution.


I searched our database and the forum for enquiries right back through the mists of time to 1992 to collect data on 3 of our common seasonal species – bee flies (Bombylius sp.), the excellently named cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) and house spiders (Tegenaria sp.). 


seasonal enquiries.JPG



Bee flies

These amazing little critters are around in April and May making the most of the spring flowers.  The two species we see most often are the common bee fly (Bombylius major, see picture) and the dotted bee fly (Bombylius discolour).  They have a fascinating life cycle and you can find out more about them here -




Bombylius major 2.JPG



No, we didn’t make that name up, the common English name for Melolontha melolontha is indeed the cockchafer.  Although they are beetles they are also commonly called May bugs, and you can see why from the graph above.  These large beetles emerge as adults in May or June after living in the soil as larvae for 3-5 years. They are strong though inelegant fliers and are attracted to light, meaning they often fly through open windows and gatecrash evening barbeques!  But don’t worry; they are not harmful to humans.  Find out more here  -


2011-0759 Melolontha melolontha DSC_0121.jpg


House spiders

There are several species of common house spider in the UK which are difficult to tell apart.  However, they all belong to the genus Tegenaria.  They are around all year, but are most commonly encountered between August and October when the fully grown males set out to find love.  This is when they are most likely to run out from under your sofa or turn up in the bath – just in time for Halloween!  You can find out more here -


2007-1030 Tegenaria sp. 4 for web.JPG


On a more serious note this little project shows how the identification service records are a mine of fascinating and potentially useful information.  This data also shows that both bee flies and cockchafers emerged significantly earlier in 2011 than 2010, so it would be interesting to see how they fare in 2012 – keep your enquiries and observations coming in to our forum!


A little while ago CSIPs head honcho Rob went to Devon to get a dolphin and came back with 3 5 post mortem animals for 2 trips this time he went and only came back with the one, standards are obviously dropping (just joking boss!).


We got wind of a live strandings over the weekend from BDMLR, the local coastguard and one of my favourite volunteers David J. Despite some local surfers staying in the water with the common dolphin for what sounds like hours, the local vet had to make the hard decision to put the animal down. I know everyone on the scene worked really hard to keep the animal alive and were understandably disappointed at the outcome. It’s not the perfect end to the story but hopefully our post-mortem will help answer some questions about why the animal had to die.


David J just emailed me this picture of one of the guys trying to save the dolphin, such a shame it didn't work out.


1-11-2011- to 6-12-2011 290.JPG


It's been a busy week for pick ups, CSIP's head honcho Rob did a gallant round trip to Devon to pick up 2 animals and whilst on the road I got a call about a 3rd on Hayling Island beach. With a squeal of the brakes and a quick turn around Rob was able to squeeze the third animal in the back of his car.


There was then a 'mass' stranding in Kent, nr Folkstone. I say 'mass' as it was 2 animals, probably not quite what you'd term as mass but scientific history states 2 or more animals to be recorded as 'mass'. Unable to get anyone to check the animals were still there and not being too far away myself, I headed there on the Monday morning. I had a fun time scouting what is possibly one of the larges beaches I've ever seen for 2 not very large harbour porpoises. With the help of a very lovely couple (sorry I didn't get your names) we managed to track down the animals and secure them for pick up by James (who was on his way from the museum).


Unfortunately I've been unable to put up PM results so far as they all have to go to Defra first, but after talking to head honcho Rob he said we may be able to put up some basic results a bit sooner, fingers crossed!


2 head.JPG



Photo of one of the 'mass' strandings from New Romney, photo by Susanna Clerici