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For July, the Orchid Observers team are simultaneously excited and fretting. We're excited because we're planning field trips to see the next orchids on our hit list, but we're also concerned about the flower spikes scorching in the sun and wilting. It might be a race against the sun this month to catch July's finest orchids. Not only that but this month's highlight species are some of the trickiest to spot and identify. Please don't let this deter you, take up the challenge and see if you can locate and photograph these beauties.

 

Bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa)

 

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The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) is the tiniest of the UK orchid species. © Mike Waller.

 

Being the tiniest of the UK orchids, the bog orchid can be rather inconspicuous. It's just 4-8cm tall and green and there are only 25 flowers on the flower spike, which are said to smell sweet and cucumber-like.

 

As its name implies this species lives on bogs, growing among clumps of sphagnum moss. It needs to live in areas that don't dry out, even in a hot summer. When the summer is hot it flowers earlier than when the summer is cool and wet.

 

Being a bog plant it's our Scottish contributors that are going to have most opportunity to find this one. But there are a few colonies dotted around England, in Cumbria, northwest Yorkshire, Northumberland, one-site in Norfolk, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and some in the west of Wales.

 

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The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) has very distinct flowers, that small sweet and cucumber-like. © Mike Waller.

 

Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

 

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Keep an eye out for the frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride) which is found across the UK. © Fred Rumsey.

 

The frog orchid can be found across the UK, but only in small localised patches. It is more easily found in the north and west of the UK, having declined in the south due to changes in land management.

 

It is quite a hard plant to spot as it is only 5-15cm tall and mostly green in colour. But you can find it on short chalk or limestone grasslands in the south, and in all sorts of places in the north, from railway embankments and road verges, to grasslands and dune slacks.

 

The flowers of the frog orchid have a very enclosed green hood and a long red lower lip, which is lobed at the end. It's classified as vulnerable, so please take extra care when you find this orchid.

 

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The frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride) can be found on chalk and limestone grasslands in the south of England. © Fred Rumsey.

 

Now for a last chance to see:

 

Lesser butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia) and Greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha).

 

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Its a last chance to see the greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). © Mike Waller.

 

Distributed across the UK the lesser butterfly-orchid and greater butterfly-orchid are really quite difficult to tell apart. But here are some top features to help you distinguish between the two.

 

Compared to the greater butterfly-orchid, the lesser butterfly-orchid is shorter, it carries less flowers and it usually flowers a little bit later. It can be found on damp heathlands and moorlands, or in deciduous woodland, whilst the greater butterfly-orchid is found on deciduous woodland and chalk grassland.

 

But the most reliable way of telling the two apart is in the positioning of the pollinia (the pollen bearing structures of the flower). In the lesser butterfly-orchid the pollinia are closer together and parallel to each other, while in the greater butterfly-orchid the pollinia are further apart and slant inwards at the top.

 

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The lesser butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia) can be identified by its parrallel pollinia. © Mike Waller.

 

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The greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) has pollinia that are further apart and slant inwards.

 

Of the two, the lesser butterfly-orchid is classified as vulnerable, due to large declines, particularly in south-eastern regions, so again please be extra vigilant when locating this species.

 

If you manage to find any of the 29 species of orchid we are conducting our research about, then don't forget to take a photo and upload it to the Orchid Observers project here. And if it just gets too hot to go outside then get online and help us transcribe data from our orchid herbarium sheets.

 

Find out more about our Orchid Observers project and how you can get involved.

 

Jade Lauren

 

Jade Lauren Cawthray is Citizen Science Project Officer in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, where she develops and runs citizen science research projects. Having studied an undergraduate degree in Ecology and Conservation and then a master's degree in Science Communication, Jade is combining her two passions, nature and public engagement, by pursuing a career in citizen science.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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: http://cpdinosaurs.org/

 

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

 

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The whole dinosaur swabbing team. © Stefan Ferreira

 

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Jade Lauren

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On 25 June the Museum will open its doors to a special event in celebration of the international and global commitment between countries, industry, charities and academia to work together against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). This commitment was first agreed upon in London in 2012 and has since been termed the London Declaration On NTDs.

 

By joining forces to fight NTDs the world would achieve a huge reduction in health inequality paving the way to sustainable improvements in health and development especially amongst the worlds poor. The 25 June sees the launch of the third progress report, 'Country Leadership and Collaboration on Neglected Tropical Diseases'. A pragmatic overview of what has been done, what has worked, what hasn't and what key areas still need to be achieved.

 

The Museum is thrilled to be participating in this event, having a long-standing history in parasitic and neglected tropical disease research. As both a museum and an institute of research our mission is to answer questions of broad significance to science and society using our unique expertise and collections and to share and communicate our findings to inspire and inform the public. We are excited to be hosting a day of free public events on Neglected Tropical Diseases.

 

What are NTDs?

Neglected Tropical Diseases are termed in this way because they infect hundreds of thousands to millions of people, predominantly the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities, and yet receive comparatively little funding for basic, clinical or drug-development research and even less attention from governments, people and the media of affluent countries. Until now!

 

In total the WHO has identified 17 diseases or groups of diseases that fall within this category.

 

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World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020

 

The 10 selected by the WHO for control and elimination by 2020 are:

 

  1. Onchocerciasis (aka river blindness): A blood worm infection transmitted by the bite of infected blackflies causing severe itching and eye lesions as the adult worm produces larvae and leading to visual impairment and permanent blindness.
  2. Dracunculiasis (aka Guinea-worm disease): A roundworm infection transmitted exclusively by drinking-water contaminated with parasite-infected water fleas. The infection leads to meter-long female worms emerging from painful blisters on feet and legs to deposit her young. This leads to fever, nausea and vomiting as well as debilitating secondary bacterial infections in the blisters.
  3. Lymphatic filariasis: A blood & lymph worm infection transmitted by mosquitoes causing abnormal enlargement of limbs and genitals (elephantiasis) from adult worms inhabiting and reproducing in the lymphatic system.
  4. Blinding trachoma: A chlamydial infection transmitted through direct contact with infectious eye or nasal discharge, or through indirect contact (e.g. via flies) with unsafe living conditions and hygiene practices, which if left untreated causes irreversible corneal opacities and blindness. Trachoma is the leading cause of blindness in the word.
  5. Schistosomiasis (aka bilharzia): A blood fluke infection transmitted when larval forms released by freshwater snails penetrate human skin during contact with infested water. The infection leads to anaemia, chronic fatigue and painful urination/defaecation during childhood, later developing into severe organ problems such as liver and spleen damages, bladder cancer, genital lesions and infertility.
  6. Visceral leishmaniasis (aka Kala azar): A protozoan blood parasite transmitted through the bites of infected female sandflies which attacks internal organs which can be fatal within 2 years. 
  7. Soil-transmitted helminths: A group on intestinal worm infections transmitted through soil contaminated by human faeces causing anaemia, vitamin A deficiency, stunted growth, malnutrition, intestinal obstruction and impaired development.
  8. Leprosy: A complex disease caused by infection mainly of the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and eyes.
  9. Chagas disease: A life-threatening illness caused by a blood protozoan parasite, transmitted to humans through contact with vector insects (triatomine bugs), ingestion of contaminated food, infected blood transfusions, congenital transmission, organ transplantation or laboratory accidents.
  10. Human African trypanosomiasis (aka sleeping sickness): A protozoan blood parasitic infection spread by the bites of tsetse flies that is almost 100% fatal without prompt diagnosis and treatment to prevent the parasites invading the central nervous system.

 

They were selected because the tools to achieve control are already available to us and, for some, elimination should be achievable.

 

Take the Guinea Worm:

 

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Guinea worm infection - from over 3.5 million people infected in the 80s to less than 130 cases in 2014. Set to be second human disease to be eradicated after smallpox (photo credits David Hamm&Peter Mayer)

 

In the 1980s over 3.5 million people were infected with Dracunculiasis (i.e. Guinea worm disease), with 21 countries being endemic for the disease. Now, thanks to the global health community efforts and extraordinary support from the Carter Center, only 126 cases were reported in 2014 and only 4 endemic countries remain: Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and South Sudan! If the WHO goal of global eradication of Guinea Worm by 2020 is met then Dracunculiasis is set to become the second human disease in history to be eradicated (the first, and only one, being smallpox). Not bad for an NTD! But there are still challenges!

 

At the Museum we have a long history of working on health related topics. Indeed our founding father Sir Hans Sloane was a physician who collected and identified plants from all over the world for the purpose of finding health benefits - in fact he developed chocolate milk as a health product.

 

Today we have a vast and biologically diverse collection of parasites and the insects/crustaceans/snails/arachnids that carry and transmit them. These are used by researchers both in the museum (such as myself and colleagues) but also internationally through collaborative work.

 

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Collaboration is key - Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) programme key players: the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, Public Health Laboratories Pemba, the World Health Organization, SCI, SCORE, Swiss TPH, NHM and others

 

We are immensely proud of our collections and the work we do in this field especially of the biological information we can contribute to health programmes in endemic countries. One of our most exciting contributions is to the Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) programme where we are working in collaboration with the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, various NGOs, the World Health Organization and the local communities to identify and implement the best tools and methods to achieve schistosomiasis elimination in Zanzibar. This would be the first time a sub-Saharan African country would achieve schistosomiasis elimination. Fingers-crossed we are up to the challenge! You can read more about this project in an earlier post on our Super-flies and parasites blog

 

On Thursday we are bringing out our Parasites and Vectors specimens to showcase them to the public galleries and answer any questions relating to these fascinating yet dangerous organisms. Our wonderful scientists and curators will be on hand to talk to people about our collections and research as will collaborating scientists from the London Centre of Neglected Tropical Disease Research who will talk to you about the diseases and the challenges faced to achieve the WHO 2020 goals. Please do pop by and say hello, come and look at our specimens and help us raise awareness of these devastating diseases and the fight to control and eliminate them.

 

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We are working together with schools, communities, government and research institutes to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases. Schistosomiasis fieldwork photo with the team from the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania

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Citizen Science Project Manager Lucy Robinson introduces a Q&A with Dr. Anne Jungblut.

 

In an earlier blog post, a group of students from Bedford Girls’ School described their recent visit to the Museum. The girls had taken part in The Microverse, collecting samples of microorganisms from buildings and sending them to the Museum for DNA analysis, and were keen to meet the scientists involved to find out more. We arranged for them to meet the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Anne Jungblut, to ask her some questions about the project and her wider research. We thought you might like to hear her responses:

 

Q. What inspired you to set up this project?

 

A. Of all the life on Earth, only a relatively small proportion are the plants, animals and fungi that we can see – the vast majority are microscopic. My research takes me all over the world, where I collect samples of microorganisms and study them using DNA technologies to better understand these important organisms. I’ve done a lot of work in the Antarctic, but I thought to myself that it would be really cool to also look at the microorganisms in the UK, in particular on buildings. There’s been very little research into the microorganisms that live on buildings in towns and cities to see what role they are playing in urban ecosystems. So I contacted Lucy and Jade in the Museum’s citizen science team as this research would require lots of samples to be collected across the country and I thought citizen science – collaborating with members of the public – could be a good option. Together we developed The Microverse project.

 

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Q. What are you looking for in the data – what kind of patterns?

 

A. Firstly, I’m looking for the overall diversity of microorganisms. They are such an understudied group that these data will give us a baseline understanding of microorganism diversity on buildings. I’m also looking for differences between building materials – we asked participants to sample three different building materials so we will have a lot of different materials to compare.

 

We also asked you to record a number of different variables that might affect diversity for example the distance to the nearest road and the nearest vegetation. These variables show us possible pollution levels, or semi-natural habitats that microorganism may have colonised the wall from. I’m interested to see what influence the proximity to roads and vegetation/soil has on the microbial diversity.

 

I’m also keen to see whether unique locations have different communities of microorganisms. Some sample sites are quite unusual e.g. on land contaminated by heavy metals, and on a pier over the sea. Will these buildings have very different communities of microorganisms to the other samples?

 

This research will also allow us to formulate more detailed hypotheses and refine our research questions. We are also inviting participants to suggest new hypotheses and future directions for the research. Ideas can be emailed to microverse@nhm.ac.uk.

 

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Arachnula impatiens, a microorganism found on walls, is a predatory protozoan

 

Q. How will the Museum judge how accurate the data are?

 

A. The schools and community groups taking part in The Microverse are carrying out exactly the same method to collect samples as a professional Research Assistant would have done. This means that samples need to be collected under sterile conditions, following a strict protocol.

When we were developing the project, we chose A-level students (or equivalent) as the main audience as they’re committed to science, and we felt they would be more likely to carry out the survey correctly and understand the importance of sterile working compared to other potential audiences we considered e.g. primary school students. Collecting samples in the right way is the first step to ensuring data accuracy.

 

Once we receive the samples, there are a number of ways we can check the accuracy of the data. After the PCR step, gel electrophoresis checks whether enough genetic material is present in the sample. The sequencing process also removes low quality sequences (ones that are too short in length) which will not give reliable results. The great thing about using DNA technologies for identification is that it’s very accurate and doesn’t rely upon human ability to make a correct identification.

 

Participants record details about their building surface, but we also ask them to send us photographs, so we can double check if we are unsure about the accuracy of a piece of information, or if it’s an unusual building surface that we need to be able to see to properly interpret the results.

Finally, when we sequence the data, the output shows us how many mitochondria sequences were generated which indicates how much animal DNA there was in the sample. If a sample had been contaminated e.g. by someone’s hands touching the swab, it would show up as a very high number of mitochondria and we would be able to exclude that sample from our analyses. Luckily this hasn’t yet happened.

 

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Students from Trinity Catholic School collecting samples for The Microverse project

 

Q. Have you seen any microbes in The Microverse samples that you haven’t seen before?

 

A. Not yet. Samples are still coming in and are being sequenced so we only have very early results from a few sample sites. I will know more when all the samples have been sequenced and analysed. The sequencing we are doing is not always able to identify a microorganism to species level, it may be identified to a Genus or Family. Where they are identified to species level, it takes time to work through the data and explore further any sequences that look particularly interesting. We are keeping The Microverse samples frozen in our Molecular Collections Facility so that we, and other researchers, can go back to them in years to come to conduct further research.

 

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Kevin Hopkins, in our film The Microverse in the Lab, placing specimens in the Molecular Collections Facility

 

Q. What are the long-term impacts of your research?

 

A. I work in the polar regions where environmental change is happening at a very fast pace. The deep ice sheets in this area also hold a record of microbial life going back hundreds of years. Understanding the impacts of climate change on all life, not just microorganisms, is an extremely important area of research at the moment. Polar regions are very delicate habitats that have been changed by the introduction of non-native species e.g. reindeer in South Georgia which have had a massive impact on soil quality there. Understanding the microbial life within healthy soils can help us to restore these damaged habitats.

 

In the UK, microorganisms are largely beneficial, through cycling nutrients such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur. But they may also be affecting the colour, moisture levels and other characteristics of buildings – understanding these potentially negative impacts may help the conservation of historic buildings and monuments.

 

In a much longer-term view, it is likely that new active chemicals and medicinal drugs will be derived from microorganisms, so research into microbial diversity facilitates this.

 

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Dr. Anne Jungblut collecting samples in Antarctica

 

Q. You described The Microverse as ‘citizen science’ – what do you mean by that?

 

A. Citizen science is the involvement of volunteers in scientific projects that contribute to expanding our knowledge of the natural world, through the systematic collection, analysis or interpretation of environmental observations. Many of the big research questions of our time require large datasets to be collected over large geographic areas. It just isn’t possible for professional scientists to travel the country gathering samples or observations, so we collaborate with members of the public who volunteer their time, effort and expertise.

 

The Museum has a range of different citizen science projects where you can help our researchers to better understand the natural world. We have a project photographing orchids for climate change research, one recording seaweed distributions around the UK coast to monitor the spread of invasive species, and online projects where you can copy information from handwritten labels on museum specimens to make these data available to our researchers and curators. If you want to see how you can get involved, have a look at the Take Part section of the Museum’s website.

 

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Professional and Citizen Scientists collecting data at Looe Bioblitz, 2013

 

Lucy Robinson

 

Lucy Robinson is Citizen Science Programme Manager in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. She has been working at the Museum in the field of citizen science for 7 years, initially on the Big Lottery Funded OPAL project and has worked on projects studying earthworms, lichens, seaweeds, urban invertebrates, microorganisms and many other areas of biodiversity.  Lucy has a BSc in Zoology from the University of Bristol and a MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from the University of Leeds.

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Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.

 

The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.

 

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A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.

 

The grains in CI chondrites are too small to examine using an optical or electron microscope so we used a technique known as X-ray diffraction (XRD). XRD is a great tool for identifying minerals and determining their abundance in a meteorite sample. We found that the CI chondrites Alais, Orgueil and Ivuna each contain more than 80% phyllosilicates, suggesting that nearly all of the original material in the rock had been transformed by water.

 

As part of the study we also analysed some unusual CI-like chondrites (Y-82162 and Y-980115) that were found in Antarctica. These meteorites have similar characteristics to the CI chondrites we studied, but also experienced a period of thermal metamorphism (heating) after the aqueous alteration. We found that the phyllosilicates had lost most of their water and had even started to recrystallize back into olivine, a process that requires temperatures above 500°C! The CI-like chondrites are probably from the surface of an asteroid that was heated by a combination of impacts with other asteroids, and radiation from the Sun; however, whether the CI and CI-like chondrites come from the same parent body, remains an open question.

 

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XRD patterns from the CI chondrites Alais, Orgueil and Ivuna. X-rays diffracted from atoms in the minerals are recorded as diffraction peaks. Different minerals produce characteristic diffraction patterns allowing us to identify what phases are in the meteorites. In this work we also used the intensity of the diffraction peaks to determine how much of each mineral is present.

 

This research has been published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta and can be accessed here.

 

King AJ, Schofield PF, Howard KT, Russell SS (2015) Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 165:148-160.

 

It was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and NASA.

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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!

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A family of long-tailed tits were noisily searching the woodland canopy for insects, as I arrived at work - a welcoming sight and sound! Following a week's absence from the Garden, the woodland vegetation has changed to a darker green, while the meadows and ponds are now brighter with meadow clary (Salvia verbenaca), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and an increased number of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). All these are great plants for insects to forage amongst, but what about the native plants good enough for us to eat?

 

Our resident foodie, forager and wildlife gardener/ecologist, Daniel Osborne, explores some of our edible plants:

 

"Until about 7,000 years ago, every human that lived in the British Isles hunted and gathered all of their food. They had and shared a rich knowledge of the uses and edibility of the plants in their landscape and were able to sustain themselves throughout the year. They had skills that, through the study of bushcraft and books like Richard Mabey's Food For Free, I have become confident enough to dabble in. The results have been truly enriching.

 

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Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)

 

In these few paragraphs I do not intend to list all edible native species, share recipes or discuss the health benefits or legality of wild food, as these are covered elsewhere with much more expertise and clarity than I could achieve. Instead I will talk about what thrills me: finding new flavours and connecting with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

 

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Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium)

 

I think I came to wild food relatively late. Some things like blackberries were familiar to me as a child and my brother and I often gorged ourselves on them in late summer. But I didn't discover wild garlic until my twenties, on the banks of the River Medway near my girlfriend's house at university. And I have not, to this day, ever eaten a pignut.

 

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Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)

 

The Wildlife Garden at the Museum changed everything for me because it was here that I really started to learn about plants. My identification skills improved, and continue to improve, and what was once an anonymous field or woodland floor is now a host of familiar friends.

 

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Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

 

I have been truly amazed at how many of our native plants are edible. I have many still on my list to try, but have sampled a new plant at least every week as my knowledge and interest have grown. During spring I had cheese sandwiches for lunch with wild garlic, chickweed and ground elder. The almond taste of young rowan leaves and the caramel taste of sweet woodruff have opened my eyes to the fact that the range of flavours of the commonly cultivated salad leaves, like lettuce, rocket, cress and spinach, is but a small part of the spectrum.

 

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Wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) in the Cairngorms National Park

 

When I go camping now or go for long walks in the wilderness, which is, happily, becoming increasingly frequent, I am able to stop and pick leaves, such as young beech, rosebay willowherb or wood-sorrel, or flowers such as primrose and dead-nettle and enjoy the variety of flavours. A big part of the enjoyment for me is knowing how little I know.

 

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Commom nettle (Urtica dioica)

 

I am not alone in this passion for wild edibles. There are a number of outstanding books and YouTube videos on the subject and our friend and colleague Viv Tuffney recently added her name to the list of wild food authors.

 

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Viv Tuffney's new Nettle Cookbook

 

Viv Tuffney's book of nettle recipes 'Nettle Cookbook- Recipes for Foragers and Foodies' - inspired by our biennial Nettle Weekend is devoted to the use of one very common and nutritious species. I have been lucky enough to sample some of Viv's cooking, and have used recipes from the book myself.

 

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A delicious nettle and cashew stuffed mushroom made from a recipe in Viv Tuffney's Nettle Cookbook

 

It encapsulates everything I like about wild food. How, with a little bit of knowledge and effort, it can connect us with our landscape and our past."

 

Thank you Daniel.

 

If you would like to try Viv's nettle recipes for yourself, you can get a copy from the Museum's online shop.

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The Dark Side of Weevils in Beetle blog

Posted by Blaps Jun 9, 2015

Weevil researcher Dr. Chris Lyal elucidates on the darker side of weevil life-histories...they are not as friendly as you may have imagined...

 

 

 

Weevils are perhaps the most inoffensive of beetles - well, unless you’re a farmer, forester or horticulturalist, in which case you may take a rather dimmer view of them, since some species of this huge group are major plant pests.  However, to focus on the animals themselves and ignore inconvenient economics, they seem to look out at the world through immense soulful eyes, and trundle rather erratically along like one of those clockwork plastic children’s toys with slightly more legs than are truly manageable. As herbivores, they spend their lives up to their antennae in plants, nibbling at leaves and flowers, buds and roots.  They may have a long projecting rostrum at the front of their heads, but they do not behave like horse-flies, bed-bugs or any of the rest of the blood-sucking brigade and try and force it through your skin and suck out your life-juices. Adult weevils are covered in scales and sometimes very brightly coloured, but they have a previous existence as a larva, chomping their vegetarian way inside fruit, stems, leaves or roots. Larvae are fat, white, legless comma-shaped beasts, almost blind and apparently interested only in food. Again, not one of nature’s  bad boys (unless, as I said, you are concerned with keeping plants alive, in which case I may be irritating you by now). However, not all is as it seems. Some weevils, it turns out, have a darker side to their nature. Some are killers. Some are cannibals.

 

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Damnux species, a seed predator of dipterocarp trees in Thailand.

 


Our first instance is rather sad, albeit with a shocking element. Most weevil females drill a hole in the host plant using their rostrum – the projection of the front of the head at the end of which is the mouth. They then turn around and carefully lay their egg in the bottom of the hole they have produced. This process, to the observer, can be tense – how does the female know where the hole is? Will she find it, probing blindly with her ovipositor? Not always, it turns out. Several species of European Ceutorhynchine weevils, including the stem cabbage weevil Ceutorhynchus napi, occasionally lay their eggs too soon, and miss their carefully drilled hole. The larva would not survive, were the egg to even hatch. Pragmatically (though not sentimentally – but one can take anthropomorphism too far), rather than waste the resource the female will eat the egg, and therefore be able to use the nutrition to develop more eggs[1] . More deliberate is the elegant Ludovix fasciatus, which lays its eggs in the stems of the water hyacinth, Eichornia crassipes. This is no simple placement in the plant tissue – the female probes with her long slender rostrum until she finds eggs of the grasshopper Cornops, already laid inside the stem. On finding a clutch, she inserts her rostrum into one and, rather like drinking milk from a coconut through a straw, drains the contents. She then lays a single egg and the larva, when it hatches, eats the rest[2] .  Even more extreme is Anthribus nebulosus, another European weevil, which has taken on some of the characteristics of a parasitoid. In this case the female searches out scale insects on coniferous trees, just after the scale produces eggs. The beetle chews a hole in the scale and lays an egg in the ovisac; when the larva hatches it stays where it is, feeding on the scale’s eggs and nymphs before pupating in the same place. When the adults emerge they feed on the remains of the scale, with the occasional pause to imbibe some honeydew as an accompaniment.  Scale insects are not the only Hemiptera to suffer at the mouths of weevils. Researchers in a lab in New Zealand a few years ago, studying resistance of grasses to the pest weevil Listronotus bonariensis, noticed that aphids accidentally included on the grass vanished during the experiments.  Closer examination revealed the adult weevils, if they encountered an aphid as they walked across the plant, would ‘grasp and rupture the aphid with the mandibles, followed by mastication and ingestion’[3]. Nice

 

 

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The larva of a molytine weevil, Alcidodes ramezei, in a dipterocarp seed.
 

The instance that led me to this curculionoid underworld, however, is more extreme, and that was a paper that came out recently on a seed-feeding weevil, with an intriguing title: “Curculio Curculis lupus: biology, behavior and morphology of immatures of the cannibal weevil Anchylorhynchus eriospathae[4] . Many weevils feed on plant seeds as larvae. This is a very good source of food, neatly packaged and concentrated. With one exception, the bizarre cycad-feeding brentid Antliarhinus (of which more, perhaps, another time) generally only one or, more rarely, a few, weevils can develop in a single seed. In fieldwork I sometimes find, on opening a seed, a weevil pupa fully occupying the interior, neatly packaged and waiting to emerge. How weevils arrange this singular occupancy is not clear. In some cases, perhaps, females can detect if another female has already oviposited and avoid the fruit; in others, there may be so many fruit and so few weevils that competition is rare. Perhaps if there is more than one larva there is simply not enough food and one or both starve – so-called ‘scramble competition’.  Maize weevils normally produce several adults from a single seed however many eggs are laid, and aggression between larvae has been seen by X-raying the seed. In the case of two weevils feeding on fruit of the palm Syagrus, however, the mechanism is known, and it’s not pretty. Most weevil larvae have broad triangular mandibles, suitable for chewing plant tissue.

 

 

 

This is the case of the older larvae of weevils in the genera Revena, a baridine, and Anchylorhynchus, a curculionine.  In both cases, however, the first instar larva is different.  The mandibles are long, slender and pointed – predator’s mandibles.  With such mandibles chewing plant material would be difficult, but piercing and killing other insects – that is where one sees this morphology in other beetles. The first intimation of what was happening was in a paper by Cecilia Alves-Kosta and Chrisoph Knogge in 2005[5] , where they discovered the first instar larvae attacked and killed one another, should more than one egg be laid in a fruit. The larva remained in this killer instar until the endocarp of the fruit hardened and no more eggs could be laid, after which it moulted into the more ‘normal’ second instar.  The story was elaborated more recently by Bruno Souza de Medeiros and his colleagues who last year published the paper mentioned above on the ‘weevil wolf’, Anchylorhynchus eriospathae.

 

 

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Anchylorhynchus eriospathae larval mandibles (redrawn from de Medeiros et al, 2014):  first instar, dorsal and ventral.

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Anchylorhynchus eriospathae larval mandibles (redrawn from de Medeiros et al, 2014): 2nd instar, dorsal and ventral.

 

Like Revena, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th instar larvae have blunt triangular mandibles and, like Revena, those of the first instar are long, slender and pointed. In this case the eggs are laid on the flowers before the fruit are formed, and the larvae, flattened and with long setae to detect their competitors and prey, slide between the sepals and petals of the flower and fruit, fighting and killing others they find.

Unlike Revena they then eat them, a so-far unique observation of cannibalism in weevils. Some cases have been seen of more than one later instar in a fruit, but in this case the ignore one another, other than feeding at opposite ends of the fruit in scramble competition to mature earlier than their competitor – other weevil larvae entering the fruit may still be killed, however.  The two beetles showing this amazing development of the first instar are not closely related, and similar adaptations have not been seen elsewhere in seed-feeding weevils (other than in congeneric species on the same hosts).  On the other hand, not many people have looked.  In fact, we apparently need to look even more widely. Since I wrote the text above another paper has revealed intraspecific aggression in weevils with a totally different lifestyle, where the larvae live externally on the plant – members of the subfamily Hyperinae. Jiří Skuhrovec and his colleagues found that fighting to the death can occur in cultures of two different hyperfine species, Hypera postica and Brachypera vidua[6]. In this case there does not seem to be cannibalism or modification of the mouthparts (although they have introduced some wonderful terms: ‘offensive larva’, ‘defensive larva’ and ‘combat ball’).

What would lead to the evolution of the behaviour and morphology in these weevils, especially those attacking the Syagrus seeds? The leaf-feeding Hyperinae only demonstrate the behaviour when there is insufficient food.  For the seed-feeders one perhaps critical factor is the very high seed-predator load of the plant; it is not unusual for 100% of the seeds to be attacked. This would lead to intense competition, driving the weevils to develop means of eliminating other larvae competing for the same resource – and maybe obtain some extra nutrient at the same time.  One thing is clear – there can be only one.   

 

 

[1] Kozlowski, M.W., 2003, Consumption of own eggs by curculionid females (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Curculioninae, Ceutorhynchinae) – Weevil News: http://www.curci.de, No.10, 4pp., CURCULIO-Institut: Mönchengladbach (ISSN 1615-3472). http://www.curci.de/weevilnews/no/10/

[2] Zwolfer, H. & Bennett, F.D., 1969, Ludovix fasciatus Gyll. (Col., Curculioninae), an entomophagous weevil. Entomologists Monthly Magazine, 105: 122-123

[3] Barker, G.M., 2006, Predation on aphids by the herbivorous weevil Listronotus bonariensis (Kuschel) (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Brachyceridae).  The Coleopterists Bulletin, 60(2), 164-165.

[4] de Medeiros et al. (2014), Curculio Curculis lupus: biology, behavior and morphology of immatures of the

cannibal weevil Anchylorhynchus eriospathae G. G. Bondar, 1943. PeerJ 2:e502; DOI 10.7717/peerj.502

[5 Alves-Costa CP, Knogge C. 2005. Larval competition in weevils Revena rubiginosa (Coleoptera:

Curculionidae) preying on seeds of the palm Syagrus romanzoffiana (Arecaceae).

Naturwissenschaften 92:265–268 DOI 10.1007/s00114-005-0620-6.

[6] Jiří Skuhrovec, Pavel Štys & Alice Exnerová (2015) Intraspecific larval aggression in two species of Hyperini (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), Journal of Natural History, 49:19-20, 1131-1146, DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2014.974704

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Posted on behalf of Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum.


I've just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It's not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it's still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Natural History Museum collection. That doesn't sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.

 

So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family... but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.

 

And for such large creatures we know very little about them. This family is considered to be within the infraorder Stratiomyomorpha, but they have not always been positioned here. Originally they were classified within the Tabanidae – the horseflies – and do superficially resemble them (just on steroids) but there are other differences. They were then moved, along with the Xylophagidae, into Xylophagomorpha, but this infraorder is no longer used, with Pantophthalmidae now being subsumed into Stratiomyomorpha leaving Xylophagidae to roam free along the taxonomic highway (Fig.1).

 

Pantophthalmidae are thought of as being in a relatively stable position snuggled alongside the Stratiomyidae (soldierflies) and Xylomyidae (wood soldierflies). However, I believe some recent work by Keith Bayless of North Carolina State University has now placed the freewheeling Xylophagidae into Tabanomorpha. Everyone up to speed?

 

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Figure 1. Tolweb organisation of Brachycera.

 

Now we have cleared up the higher taxonomy let's move onto distribution. They have only been found in the Neotropical region from Mexico down through Central America and down through Brazil and Paraguay and across to Venezuela and Columbia. And even though this is a vast area, they are infrequent in most collections.

 

The key work for this group was undertaken by Val in 1976. He states that these are rare in the collections, but in order to review all of the species and the types, you need to visit 23 different museums (this figure I presume has grown). That is a lot of effort for a handful of species but that would make a great road trip Although our collection goes back hundreds of years we have only 132 pinned specimens but we do have some important type material (Fig. 2). However we are still missing some of the species and one of the genera!

 

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Figure 2. Species in the Museum and whether type material is housed here.


I've always liked this group of flies because they are just so big, and we have actually had some fresh material that comes from some French Guiana material donated to the Museum. It has been sitting there patiently for the last couple of years waiting to be identified and now seemed the ideal time. They had been found by our volunteers, who were surprised by these beasts, as they were so much larger than all the other specimens in the pots.

 

These flies, as already stated, are big. Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862) with its wings spread, can reach 8.5cm in width. Fig.3 gives you an idea of their robust and chunky bodies … we found seven specimens in the donation (of about 50 samples).

 

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Figure 3. One of the glorious specimens - Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862).

 

The adults are sexually dimorphic with the males having holoptic heads (all eyeballs!)

 

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Figure 4. The differences between the males and the female heads of Pantophthalmidae.

 

And they have beaks! Actually these are a very useful diagnostic feature…

 

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Figure 5. Beaks of the Pantophthalmidae (from Val 1975).

 

The immature stages are not known from most of the species although we have a range of pinned, dry and spirit material of the larvae. And they too are big, like their mothers and fathers, but we have even fewer of them in the collection (Figure 6 & 7).

 

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Figure 6. Pantophthalmid larvae in relation to adult (abdomen shown).

 

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Figure 7. The Museum spirit collection of Pantophthalmidae.

 

Why do we only have one jar? One of the problems is that the larvae are wood borers and inhabit galleries that are carved horizontally into the tree – dead or living depending upon the species. We still really don’t know what they are feeding on but many people believe that it could be fermenting sap. Others believe that the diet is a mixture of wood (either dead or in the process of dying) and micro-organisms.

 

Zumbado writes in his work from 2006 that they seem to prefer mucilaginous trees such as kapok or sap-producing trees such as figs. He goes on to describe how noisy these little critters are – several hundred may be in one trunk and they can be heard munching away from several metres.

 

The larvae have very robust head capsules and massive mandibles – they are some of the largest larvae I have seen (of all insects). When I read accounts of how many can be seen in one tree, I am quite overcome with envy. We don’t have many in the collection – one jar as shown – but it is a mighty jar. I don’t think I am allowed to say what exactly was said by various colleagues when we brought out some of the specimens but, suffice to say, they were impressed.

 

This collection was in a sorry state in old drawers and on slats. These are problematic because the pins are so firmly wedged that when you try and remove the pin from the board you often damage the specimens. The specimens themselves were showing some early signs of damage with verdigris on some of the pins (Fig. 8) Verdigris is when the lipids in the insect react with the copper in the pins. Nowadays we use stainless steel pins, so this doesn't happen, but most of the specimens in the collection are mostly older even than me.

 

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Figure 8. Verdigris on pins.


The first thing that I do when I recurate a collection is to find all of the recent as well as the historical literature in catalogues and monographs, and update the database. The Museum database for this family had not been edited for at least 20 years. But luckily, when going through the literature, I discovered that with this family, not a lot had happened in that time. But our records were still inaccurate, and for a family with very few species people kept changing their mind about the number of genera and where the different species sat. Sorting that out took the most time in terms of overall curation, as there were so many new combinations and I had to be certain of all the taxonomic rearrangements. You should have heard my sighing as I was typing in the data (I promise it was just sighing).

 

Remember that there were only 20 described species of which we had (past tense is important here and I’ll come back to that) only 15? Well, the number of taxonomic records we now have in the database of all the original combinations and numerous synonyms (the many, many synonyms) is about three times as many as the actual number of species (Fig. 9).

 

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Figure 9. Taxonomic names for genera and species.

 

Once this was sorted out, I started on the production of the labels. I have to produce an initial first draft of the list of species names (Fig. 10) as I need to ascertain where and what all of the types were, as well as how many unit trays of each size are needed. I have many lists scattered around my desk so one more can’t hurt…

 

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Figure 10. Lovely lists of the species of Pantophthalmidae in the Natural History Museum Collection.

 

N.B. See – hardly any valid species names without synonyms!

 

Next I needed to make my unit trays up. My lists have codes on them indicating what the type was and how many of which size trays – there is an awful lot of organising with curation and it definitely fulfils my OCD tendencies…We have three sizes of unit trays that we use for Diptera recuration but somehow I knew that I probably wouldn’t be needing any of the very small A trays (Figure 11).

 

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Figure 11. Unit trays –C, B and A.

 

N.B ok that is quite a nerdy photograph!

 

The new sparkly labels (ok the sparkly bit is a lie) were placed into the unit trays and then I started transferring the material across. As the specimens were moved they were inspected for damage – any verdigris removed and any legs etc. placed into gelatine capsules. Three new main drawers later and the collection was now housed in museum-standard drawers, conservation-grade trays and labels, completely updated on the database and new material incorporated into it (Fig. 12).

 

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Figure 12. The largest smallest recuration project.

 

So let’s go back to this new material consisting of just a few specimens. Not a lot you may think – but remember this collection is not very big. For large flies, they were slightly difficult to ID. In fact, as the samples had come out of the window traps (the specimens collect in alcohol) they were very greasy.

 

Chris Raper, a fellow Dipterist at the Museum and lover of these flies, suggested that I give them a bath in ethyl acetate. I was a little nervous about leaving these precise specimens overnight in this rather noxious fluid. But lo and behold! What wonders were to great me the next day! Wonderful, they were – just wonderful. And suddenly we were able to see features that were previously hidden, such as thoracic patterns and, rather more importantly, hairs on the eyeballs. This feature alone split the two different genera and so we realised that for the first time, our collection now has ONE Opetiops alienus (Fig. 13). I believe this is also the first time that it has been collected from French Guiana.

 

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Figure 13. Opetiops alienus – check out not only the hairy eyeballs but also the beak!

 

So one database updated, one collection rehoused and once more new material has been added to the collection. Happiness reigns in the Land of the Curator.

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This week we hear from volunteer Stephen Chandler, who has been supporting The Microverse project by using computer software to identify the taxonomic groupings of the DNA sequences revealed in the sequencing machine.

 

Due to the size of microorganisms, we have until recent years relied on microscopes to identify different species. The advancement of scientific technologies however has made it possible for scientists to extract DNA from microorganisms, amplify that DNA into large quantities and then put the samples into a sequencing machine to reveal the genetic sequences. In The Microverse project, my role begins when the sequencer has finished processing the samples.

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A raw data file from the MiSeq machine.

 

When the gene sequencer has finished decoding the PCR products it creates a file much like a typical excel file. The main difference is that this file can be incredibly large as it contains millions of DNA sequences belonging to hundreds if not thousands of species. This requires a powerful computer to run the analysis to identify what is in the sample.

 

At the Museum we use a number of servers with huge memory capacities and processing capabilities. To give an idea of the power these machines have compared to an everyday computer; a server at the Museum has at least 1.5TB (Terabytes) of RAM, that’s 300 times more processing power than your average computer, which has 4-6GB (Gigabytes) of RAM.

 

In order to use this computing power, the server needs to have a program designed to analyse and identify the DNA sequences, using a reference database of DNA for that group of organisms. To do this I use a program called QIIME (Quantative Insights Into Microbial Ecology).

 

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The QIIME terminal, where the computer code is inputed to process the sequences.

 

The process of turning a raw sequence file listing all the DNA sequences, hot from the gene sequencer, into something that can be used to create graphs is not an easy task, especially when you have hundreds of thousands of sequences, as for the Microverse project.

 

The first step is to remove low quality sequences that have errors. Then the sequences within a sample are grouped together into Operational Taxonomic Units (OTUs), according to their similarity. Sequences that are at least 97% similar to each other are grouped into one undefined OTU. The OTUs that are found are then compared to a reference database containing hundreds of thousands of specific species, and other taxonomic groupings, to identify which type of organisms they are.

 

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A nearly completed file. All the sequences have been identified, but now need to be put into an order.

 

Some of the bacteria that we find are common and you can find them living on most surfaces in our home or garden, but others are incredibly rare and have evolved to survive in the most competitive and extreme environments. And all this microscopic life and diversity can all be found living just outside the front door. Although in the Microverse project no sample or result seems to be quite the same, which makes this a very exciting project.

 

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Three coloumn graphs representing the relative abundance of different microorganisms identified in three different samples.

 

Stephen Chandler

 

Stephen Chandler obtained a degree in marine biology at Portsmouth University and then went on to complete his masters at Imperial College London in ecology, conservation, and evolution in 2014. Stephen’s ambition is to study for a PhD and he is particularly interested in studying microorganisms in marine environments.

 

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Stephen taking samples from the pocket roof of St Paul's Cathedral.

 

And now a brief word from Dr. Anne Jungblut, on careers in genomic science:

 

More and more research in biology, ecology and medicine is based on DNA and genome sequencing. The research relies on specialist software and programming in order to be able to analyse data sets as big as the Microverse sequence data, with future genomics projects likely to be much much bigger than our current project. 

 

Along with specialist software the field will also need more and more different types of experts working on DNA projects to tackle future challenges in science, ranging from people interested in going outside to collect field data, molecular biologists that know how to do laboratory work to extract high quality DNA and run sequencing machines, to people that love concentrating on data analysis by applying specialist software, writing programming scripts or even develop new bioinformatics programs.

 

Anne Jungblut

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This month it is the turn of Katy Potts to give us an update on the progress of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. Since Anthony's review of their first month with us the trainees have progressed onto Phase 2 of their programme, where their species identification training really starts in earnest and we've certainly been keeping them busy!

 

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Trainees puzzling over an identification (l-r: Sally Hyslop, Anthony Roach, Mike Waller & Katy Potts)

 

The past two months have been both exciting and enlightening in educating us about the world of biological recording and species identification. It was while I was at Plymouth University that I first discovered species identification in an invertebrate taxonomy module with the ever inspiring entomologist Peter Smithers. It was under Peter's guidance and teaching that I fell in love with the six legged insects that run our world. Moreover, it was the passion for taxonomy from Peter that inspired me to delve into this field of biology.

 

The past two months have been fantastic. We are currently in Phase 2 of our programme where the core identification workshops, Field Studies Council placements and project work are taking place.

 

We have been welcomed into the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) in the warmest way possible. After we settled in we were each given a role in one of five citizen science projects: The Microverse (me), Orchid Observers (Mike Waller), The Urban Tree Survey (Chloe Rose), The Big Seaweed Search (Anthony Roach) and The Bluebell Survey (Sally Hyslop). You might have seen posts from some of us on about our projects on the Citizen Science blog.

 

My role was to work on the Microverse project, which looks at discovering what species of micro-organisms live on buildings in the UK and what environmental factors affect their diversity. In this project, schools are asked to swab buildings made of different materials. They then send the DNA to us at the Museum for analysis. My role in this project is to carry out the DNA extraction in the microbiology labs and then help collate the results to send back out to the schools. Whilst working on this project, I have gained invaluable experience in current methodologies used for DNA extraction, something I was keen to learn but never anticipated doing through the traineeship!

 

My personal highlight of the traineeship is the identification workshops, which began in April with a two day Bryophyte ID course with Dr Fred Rumsey. During this course we looked at the anatomy of bryophytes, learning about their distributions and status as a group in the UK. We used microscopy to become familiar with a wide selection of species, focusing on the features that define their identification. There was also a field trip organised to Burnham Beeches where we observed a range of bryophytes in the field, from sphagnum mosses to the rare Zygodon forseri (knothole moss).

 

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Sally & Katy hunting for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches

 

The second identification workshop was on Lichens with Lichenologist Holger Thues. To begin this course we explored the biology of lichens, their anatomy and distributions in the UK. We then went on a field trip to Hampstead Heath to look at a range of lichens that are present in this area, some of which are important indicators of pollution levels.

 

Personally, I found this an eye opening experience as I come from a part of Devon that is not far from Dartmoor, where I have spent many days walking along the River Dart. Along the riverside and some of the woodlands (such as Whistmans Wood) there is an abundance of lichen species, many growing to be large specimens due to the quality of the habitat. Seeing the effect that pollution has on the growth forms of the same species of lichen in London was very interesting.

 

When back in the museum, we spent some time in the cryptogrammic herbarium where we used a range of keys to begin learning lichen taxonomy and microscopy for identification. This included using chemical tests and cross-section microscopy to aid species identifications.

 

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Chloe and Katy looking for lichens

 

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Mike and Chloe back in the lab working on their lichen identification

 

As the weather begins to warm and the field season begins, many different wildlife groups are emerging and buzzing around. This ignited the desire in all of us to learn field survey techniques. As part of our environmental consulancy module we looked at methods for surveying different groups of wildlife. We were lucky enough to have the chance to survey newts in the Wildlife Garden here at the Museum. Steph West (the Project Manager for the ID Trainers project who has previously worked as an ecological consultant) supervised us while we undertook dusk and dawn newt surveys where we learnt key methods for newt trapping and releases as well has how to identifiy the different species.

 

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Collecting our newt bottle traps in the Wildlife Garden.

 

During the sunnier days in London when we have some free time we are able to retreat into the Wildlife Garden to observe and collect insects. The garden is very diverse with a wide range of UK habitats that support a number of different wildlife groups. This valuable resource allows us to collect specimens and gain experience in identifying them. We are then able to incorporate them into our own collections which we can use as an identification reference. When out in the field we are also encouraged to collect specimens to support our work in identification. I have recently been working on identifying a wood ant I collected whilst out on a field trip:

 

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Formica sp. ant I have been identifying

 

There are many more workshops and events to look forward to over the next month: Coleoptera, Flowering Plants, Dipetera and Earthworms are all coming up. For the last part of May however we are all on placements with the Field Studies Council for one week. I will be heading to the FSC centre in Rhyd-y-creuau in Snowdonia at the end of May assisting on courses on tree identification, arctic alpine flowers and a school Geography field trip.

 

Thank you Katy! Next month we'll be getting an update from Mike Waller on how those placements have gone, as well as some of the workshops and events that the trainees have been working on.

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This week we hear from Freya Bolton and Emily Stearn, students at Bedford Girls' School, about their experience of visiting the Museum to meet with the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity team and Dr Anne Jungblut who leads the Microverse project.

 

On 30 April, we (eleven International Baccalaureate students from Bedford Girls' School) had the opportunity to come and visit the Natural History Museum, having participated in the Museum's exciting project 'The Microverse'. For many of us, despite the fact we'd visited many times previously, we knew this time it was going to be something slightly different, being able to explore the Museum in a new, unique and fascinating light. Having spoken to Jade Cawthray, she kindly agreed to arrange a behind the scenes tour especially for us!

 

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So much to identify so little time. Florin Feneru with a draw of specimens for identification.

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

We were greeted by Lucy Robinson, who explained to us, as we travelled through the Museum, that within there were over 80 million different plant, animal, fossil and mineral specimens. After this, we were introduced to Dr Florin Feneru at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, who confessed that he would receive specimens sent in from thousands of people each year, from the UK and abroad, in the hope that he could identify what exactly they were.

 

He explained that the most common specimen query was the "meteorite" (or as he would like to call them "meteo-wrongs") from members of the public who wanted validation for the rocks they believed to have mysteriously entered from outer space. Dr Feneru did however then excitedly show us, an ACTUAL meteorite received earlier this year, letting us hold it. It was extremely heavy for its size - not surprisingly as it was composed of mainly iron.

 

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An actual meterorite, and not a "meteo-wrong!"

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

He then led us into the Cocoon: an eight storey building with 3 metre thick walls, containing just over 22 million specimens. The building was kept at a particular humidity and temperature in order to keep the specimens in good condition. The storey we entered was maintained at 14°C - 16°C and kept at 45 percent relative humidity. We were shown by Dr Feneru a range of butterfly species on the ground floor, and he explained that, before the Cocoon was built, the curators had to use mothballs to prevent infestations with pest insects.

 

After we'd visited the Cocoon, we were shown to a workshop area, where we met Dr Anne Jungblut, one of the founders of the project we have been participating in. She gave us a brief talk about her other current projects, including an expedition to Antarctica, and we had the opportunity to ask her about The Microverse and what inspired her to create this project. We were informed that one hundred and fifty four schools had taken part, and that Dr Jungblut was looking for a difference in diversity of microscopic life in different urban environments.

 

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A group photo with Dr Anne Jungblut.

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

Following this talk, we had two hours remaining to ourselves, before it was time to depart back to sunny Bedford. Instinctively, we headed first to the cafes and shops before exploring the more scientific parts of the Museum. Full stomachs and emptier purses in hand we chose to explore the Marine Biology and Dinosaur galleries (naturally). One of the pupils explained that she hadn't been to the Dinosaur exhibition since she was 5 years old, as a consequence of being absolutely terrified of the animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex (she had many nightmares apparently). She confirmed that he definitely was not as scary as she thought he was at the time - that being said, she is now 17.

 

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Sophie the Stegosaurus, looking very friendly.

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

Returning back to Bedford with new knowledge of both 'The Microverse' project, marine biology, and dinosaurs, as a whole group we would like to thank the Museum staff members and the teachers at Bedford Girls' School who made this amazing experience possible.

 

Freya Bolton and Emily Stearn

 

Thank you to Freya and Emily for writing their blog post and to Bedford Girls' School for coming to visit. It was an absolute pleasure to have them with us!

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As we enjoyed the bank holiday weekend just gone, we were reminded of the previous one where our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project travelled to the 'Jurassic Coast' to help out at the annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. One of our trainees Anthony Roach has been going to the festival since 2009 and gives us an insight here into how things have changed over the years...

 

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A gloriously sunny May Day bank holiday weekend for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

 

The reaction of friends who aren't natural history geeks is often brilliant! Looking at me rather quizzically they've said, 'So. You're going to a Fossil Festival?!' 'Yes,' I reply. Some respond with, 'cooool...so what do you do exactly? Talk about rocks and fossils?' 'Do you go fossil hunting?' 'Do you show people dinosaurs?' Yes, yes, and well, sometimes we have bits of them! 'And you're doing this for 3 days?' Yes and it is brilliant. With wry smiles they usually say 'right...cool...interesting...'

 

The truth is, despite my friend's reaction, it is a lot more than just a few rocks, fossils and bits of dinosaurs! The Fossil Festival celebrates the unique scientific discoveries that can be read in the rocks at Lyme Regis and how they've shaped our understanding of geological time. The festival also takes inspiration from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site to inspire future generations of scientists, geologists, naturalists and artists.

 

My first experience of the Fossil Festival was in 2009, as a volunteer for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and going to deliver geologically themed outreach activities due to my passion for geology. Every year the festival has a theme. In 2009 it was the centenary of Charles Darwin, so it was rather aptly named 'Evolution Rocks'. I remembered thinking that this was clearly a big deal! There were massive orange flags with ammonites on them for a start. The marquees were constantly filled with the public and the diversity of rocks and fossils is matched by the organisations present. Scientists from the Museum, Oxford University Museums and National Museums Wales were present, along with scientific institutes, universities, NGOs, geologically themed clubs and societies and the Jurassic Coast team, along with many more.

 

It was then that I realised that this was probably the coolest festival I'd ever been to. As a visitor you could go to the Plymouth University stand and literally walk like a dinosaur to see if you are as fast as a Velociraptor or T. rex. You could come face to face with amazing marine life such as giant isopods in resin collected from Antarctic waters by the British Antarctic Survey, study metiorites, dinosaur bones or excavate prehistoric shark teeth with the Museum... or even help create a giant papier mache replica fossil! If that wasn't enough, there are often engaging talks from scientists, historical tours of Lyme, fossil walks and film and drama performances.

 

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A replica Baryonyx skull which is used as a way to talk about dinosaur specimens in the Museum

 

I already adored the Museum by this point, so I remember going into the marquee, walking up to curator Tim Ewin and asking him 'How can I get a job at the Museum?' He kindly explained how I might go about doing this. Little did I know that just over a year later I would actually be working at the festival itself for the Museum as a part of the Science Educator team. Weirdly, I also found a fossil bivalve mollusc during a walk later on in the year at Charmouth beach which was so unusual it became part of the Museum's palaeontology collection. One way or another, because of my passion for geology and engaging with the public I have returned to Lyme Regis every year since and this year it celebrated its 10th birthday in fantastic style!

 

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Anthony's bivalve fossil, now part of the Museum's collections

 

This year's theme was 'Mapping the Earth' to celebrate the amazing contribution made by William Smith to our understanding of geology. A canal builder and surveyor, William Smith had no formal education. He is, however, regarded as the father of modern geology and produced an astoundingly accurate geological map of the British Isles for the first time in 1815 without the aid of any modern technology, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that he travelled around by horse and carriage.

 

Six years on from my first visit, and returning now as a trainee with the Identification Trainers for the Future project, I accompanied the other trainees and colleagues from the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity to raise the profile of our innovative citizen science projects to the public.

 

Our newest project, Orchid Observers, has recieved a lot of interest since going live in April and particularly now that so many orchid species are coming into flower. Fellow trainee Mike Waller (a self-confessed orchidite!), Kath Castillo (orchid expert and project manager for the Orchid Observers project) and Lucy Robinson (Citizen Science Project Manager for the AMC), have inspired visitors to go out and look for 29 of the 52 species of orchids that can be found in the UK. By encouraging the public to record their sightings, we hope to understand how orchids are adapting to climate change and how this is affecting flowering times.

 

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Members of the AMC and ID Trainers for the Future teams on the stand

(L-R: Mike Waller, ID Trainee; Jade Cawthray, Citizen Science Team; Anthony Roach and Chloe Rose, ID Trainees)

 

As the beach was so close to the marquee at Lyme Regis I spent some time walking the strand line and rock pools for interesting seaweeds to help explain our other project, the Big Seaweed Search, to visitors. I was delighted to find over 15 different species and learn of some new ones such as banded pincerweed (Ceramium spp.) and sea beech (Delesseria sanguinea).

 

Additionally, Chloe, Katy and me - along with Chris Raper, expert entomologist within the AMC - were explaining the huge varieties of flying insects that have mimicked bees to avoid predation and ensure their survival. Clear wing moths, flies and hoverflies all do this and some are so convincing that a lot of the public are convinced they are looking at bumblebees!

 

The general atmosphere of the festival was amazing with lots of people, both young and old, interested in our projects and keen to take part. A highlight for the team also included a visit to Stone Barrow Hill near Golden Cap to view green-winged orchids on the coastal cliffs.

 

In the evening I was very inspired by an amazing comedic play by Tangram Theatre about the life and challenging times of Charles Darwin, proving that science really can inspire the visiual arts. The festival continues to grow in scale and imagination every year and I will continue to be a part of something that inspires and enthuses all people and proves that science is for everyone!

 

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Anthony inspiring a potential new recruit for the Big Seaweed Search!

 

Thanks Anthony! If you want to visit the next Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in 2016, keep your May Day bank holiday free for a trip to Dorset.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

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Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have now finished Phase 1 of their programme and are busy working on Phase 2. During Phase 1 they had the opportunity for a fantastic introduction to the work and collections of the Museum as well as an introduction to biological recording and collections principles.

 

In Phase 2 they will be focussing more on their identification skills through a series of workshops as well as getting involved in the work of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. In this blog post Anthony gives an overview of their experiences in Phase 1 as well as looking forward to some of the work he will be doing in Phase 2.

 

Prior to starting on the ID Trainers for the Future programme, I have already been lucky enough to work at the Museum as a Science Educator for over 4 years and, through my new role as a trainee in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, I have been given the opportunity to develop new skills, gain experience of practical field work and wildlife recording. Most of all, I have glimpsed the wonderful - exploring the Museum's scientifically, historically and culturally significant collections behind the scenes.

 

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ID Trainees and colleagues from the AMC discovering the Hans Sloane Herbarium

 

I couldn't have asked for a better welcome in the AMC, and the programme for the first phase has been a thoroughly engaging mix of professional development and collections-based training. Besides learning the craft of pinning and identifying insects, I have recieved training on organising field work, field work first aid and how to handle and use biological data with expertise from the National Biodiversity Network.

 

Online recording systems such as iSpot and iRecord encourage the public to share and record their wildlife sightings and, through a practical session with Martin Harvey from the Open University, I created a working identification key to Damselflies, one of my favourite insect groups. You can use the identification keys on iSpot to identify anything from butterflies to lichens, so go on and have a go yourself at www.ispotnature.org.

 

With such lovely Spring weather recently we've been let loose to collect and record wildlfie from the Museum's own Wildlife Garden which is currently buzzing with insects and the melodies of British songbirds. Late night newt surveying in the Garden was a real highlight so far. The Garden is a haven for thousands of British plants and animals and demonstrates wildlife conservation in the inner city. Over 2,000 species have been identified in the Garden since it opened in 1995.

 

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Katy Potts, an ID Trainee, surveying for newts in the Wildlife Garden

 

The AMC works hard to encourage people to become 'citizen scientists' to explore, identify and record the wildlife they see, and this plays a key role in the monitoring of and recording of UK biodiversity. This helps researchers see how species are adapting with climate change and human activity. There are several brilliant Citizen Science projects that you yourself can get involved with, the most recent from the Museum being The Microverse and Orchid Observers. If you want to find out more and see new projects when they come on stream, keep an eye on the Take Part section of the website.

 

Part of my traineeship will involve championing a Citizen Science project. Growing up near the sea in Devon I have a passion for exploring marine life so I was delighted to find out that I'll be working as part of a team to enhance the Museum's Big Seaweed Search. The UK's coast is rich in seaweeds because of its geographical position and warming by the gulf stream, which means it is in a perfect 'golidlocks' zone.

 

An astounding 650 seaweed species can be found off the UK coastline and according to Professor Juliet Brodie, an expert on seaweeds at the Museum, seaweed coverage is so great that they are as abundant as the entire broadleaf forests combined. Seaweeds - like plants on land - photosynthesise; turning the sun's energy into food, removing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Seaweeds therefore play a vital role in the functioning of the marine environment.

 

The Big Seaweed Search was launched in 2009 and we aim to inform scientific research by allowing the public to record and identify seaweeds that they find. By mapping the national distribution of 12 seaweed species, we hope to see changes over time, perhaps in response to climate change, or the spread of non-native species. With the weather and tides at this time of year it's perfect for exploring rock pools, so download our survey and join our Big Seaweed Search!

 

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Anthony inspiring others about seaweeds at this year's Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, which took place on the first weekend of May

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Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a family of poor dissenters. Despite living in a time when women were not readily recognized for their scientific contribution, Anning made an incredible discovery that led to her becoming one of the most important names in palaeontology. On the 216th anniversary of her birthday, the Museum's online shop takes a look at her life and work and how it is still influencing scientists today.

 

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Our gallery character 'Mary' regularly talks in front some of her own fossils.

 

Anning was not meant for the scientific field. She was the wrong sex, class, religion, and she was even almost killed when she was struck by lightning as a baby. However, she was clearly a born survivor as she and her brother Joseph were the only children to survive out of ten siblings.

 

It was her cabinet-maker father, Richard, that taught Mary how to find and clean up the fossils they found on the Lyme Regis coast. They sold their 'curiosities' along the seafront, possibly inspiring the tongue twister, 'She sells seashells on the seashore'.

 

In 1811, when she was just 10 years old, Mary and her brother were walking along the coastline when they found a skull protruding from the cliffs. Thinking at first that it may have been a crocodile, Mary spent months unearthing its full skeleton. It was later identified as an Icthyosaur or 'fish lizard'.

 

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Encourage your little dino hunter to explore their fossil finding skills with an excavation kit, a fossil sticker book, or a dino fossil replica.

 

The Icthyosaur fossil was sold to London's Museum of Natural Curiosities and Mary carried on making her incredible discoveries. She discovered a Plesiosaur - the long-necked fossil that is thought to be what inspired the legend of the Loch Ness monster. She also discovered Pterodactylus, Ammonites and plenty of Gryphaea, the fossil known as 'Devil's toenails' due to their ridged, short, claw-like appearance.

 

Mary knew more about geology and fossils than most people of the time. Despite this she was never allowed to publish the scientific descriptions of the specimens that she found and she was rarely credited with their discovery. The task of describing these creatures fell to the members of the newly formed geological society - all men. This was at a time when women couldn't vote or go to university. They would have no academic background whatsoever. It makes the fact that Anning was literate and an expert a truly remarkable thing.

 

Wrongs were eventually righted when Mary was given an annual payment (i.e. annuity) for her work, raised by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society.

 

Mary died of breast cancer at the age of 47. The Geological Society recorded her death. They started admitting women in 1904.

 

 

Book a free talk with Mary herself when she visits the Marine Fossils gallery at the Museum. Check to see when she's next in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery here

 

TrowelBlazing women

 

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#TrowelToon by Jemima Williams for the TrowelBlazers website.

 

To see how Mary Anning continues to influence women in science today, you only need to look up TrowelBlazers, an organisation dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women to palaeontology, geology and archaeology. They honour the women who went before them as well as celebrating the achievements of women working in the field today. In an article from their site 'Happy Birthday Mary Anning' Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch describes how important Anning really was:

 

We could go on listing her discoveries all day - she was also the first to discover that ink could be made from belemite fossils and that copralites (then called bezoar stones) were actually fossilised faeces.

 

Another great icon of the day was an Anning fan, although the TrowelBlazers aren't sure of everything he has to say about her:

Dickens wrote about her in 1865, though we disagree with his assertion that she was a dull child until being hit by lightning at a young age, thus somewhat dismissing her innate intelligence (and in fact she would have only been 1 year old with the date he provides), we like he also had this to say:

 

"The inscription under her memorial window commemorates her "usefulness in furthering the science of geology" (It was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped make it one) "and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life." (Dickens 1865: 63)

 

#RealFossilHunter

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A #RealFossilHunter, Lottie will be appearing in the Museum online shop very soon.

 

Fossil Hunter Lottie was developed in collaboration with the 4 scientists behind TrowelBlazers. Two of the TrowelBlazers team, Dr Tori Herridge and Dr Brenna Hassett, are also Museum scientists and they used their own experiences of fossil hunting, field work and research from the Museum to help make Fossil Hunter Lottie a true real-life inspiration.

 

There's a long-standing adage that comes to mind when I'm asked about why TrowelBlazers worked so hard to help design Fossil Hunter Lottie: if you can't see it, you can't be it," said Dr Brenna Hassett, who is a bioarchaeologist. "Lottie is a fantastic chance to show kids that anyone can get involved in science, and hopefully she will inspire future generations to get out there, start turning over rocks and develop a life long fascination with the natural world."

 

"We wanted Fossil Hunter Lottie to have everything she needed to make her own fossil discoveries: a geological hammer, a hand lens and a trowel," said Dr Tori Herridge, who is a palaeobiologist, "But we also wanted to make sure kids and adults know how to stay safe and be responsible when looking for fossils, so Fossil Hunter Lottie also comes handy tips and a special code for fossil collecting. If you're lucky enough to find a fossil, sometimes the best thing to do is to try and let an expert know - you visit your local museum to ask for help, or you can use the Museum's Identification forum. You never know, you could have made a really important scientific discovery!"

 

Fossil Hunter Lottie was also inspired by Mary Anning, and comes with child-friendly fact cards about the life of the pioneering fossil hunter. There are also mini-biographies of other women palaeontologists, including the Museum's own palaeo pioneer Dorothea Bate.

 

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Find out more about Mary Anning from our range of books and gifts for adults and kids here

 

Many thanks to the Museum's Learning Engagement department, Jemima Williams and to Dr Tori Herridge, Dr Brenna Hassett, Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch and the rest of the TrowelBlazers. For further reading about pioneering women palaeontologists visit their site here.

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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."

 

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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.

 

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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.

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We take a diversion this week from the Microverse and our newest project, Orchid Observers, to introduce one of the projects that wouldn't get anywhere without the general public reporting sightings, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). Cetaceans are the infraorder of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the Museum has been involved in recording their strandings on UK shores for over a century. So it's over to Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Strandings Support Officer at the Museum, to introduce the project and what she does as a part of it.

 

Warning: You may find some of the images that follow upsetting as they are of stranded and injured animals.

 

The CSIP was created in 1990 to unite the Museum with a consortium of interested parties to formally investigate the stranding of any cetacean, seal, shark and turtle upon the UK coastline. The Museum has actually been recording strandings since 1913 when the Crown granted it scientific research rights for the collection of data on the 'fishes royal'.

 

The first recording was a Cuvier's beaked whale that stranded in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1913. Since then there have been over 12,000 logged reports of whale, dolphin and porpoise strandings, that have ranged from the mighty blue whale to the common harbour porpoise, and even a rogue beluga whale found in Scotland.

 

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A stranded Cuvier's beaked whale.

(Photo credit: Department of Environment, Marine Divison, Northern Ireland)

 

On the eve of submitting this very blog entry I was contacted via London Zoo - a CSIP partner - with a report of a common dolphin found dead after being stranded in Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. As soon it was confirmed that someone could help me move an animal weighing upwards of 100kg I jumped into the car and followed the afternoon sun westwards.

 

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Common dolphin found stranded in Burnham-on-Sea.

 

A few hours later I arrived at a blustery Sedgemoor council depot where amid a multitude of dustbins and trucks was the dolphin. It was female, roughly 170 cm in length, and appeared in 'good condition' (i.e. it had suffered minimal decomposition), the latter being crucial to making an accurate assessment for the cause of death.

 

For animals smaller than around 2 metres in length, I can transport them to London Zoo for a post mortem in the back of the car (with the back seats pushed down of course…) so our first job was to wrap the specimen in a large polythene bag to protect it from immediate damage and shield the car from any leaking wounds.

 

With a fair amount of careful heave, ho-ing she was settled in the boot and resembling a slightly malformed Christmas cracker. Like with any stranding, I am extremely grateful for those who help with this strenuous and often fairly messy part, so my sincere thanks go to those at Sedgemoor council who assisted with this collection.

 

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Once wrapped in polythene, the dolphin can be safely transported to London Zoo for an autopsy.

 

Upon returning to London, I took the dolphin to the fridges at London Zoo where she'll be taken for a post mortem. During this procedure, a sample is taken of each organ, as well as one of the ribs and any unusual parasites found. It is also examined for unusual markings or damage that could have been caused by predation or unnatural damage. Watch this space for an update on the results…

How you can get involved

If you find a dead, stranded cetacean, seal, shark of turtle, please contact the CSIP hotline (0800 6520 333) and leave your name, number and as much detail about the stranding as possible (location and date found, species - if you know it - and the overall length and condition of the animal.)

 

I hope to provide a guide to identifying different species in a future blog post.

 

Rebecca Lyal is the Museum's Cetacean Strandings Support Officer, one of the partnership organisations of the CSIP. She completed her undergraduate degree in Marine Biology at Newcastle University and joined the Museum as the strandings officer in August 2014.

 

Jade Lauren

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How the dinosaurs did it - Brian Switek talk on 15 May 1600

 

Brian Switek is a well-known science writer and blogger, and author of the best-selling popular science book 'My Beloved Brontosaurus'. He will be giving a talk in the Flett Theatre at the Natural History Museum in London on the afternoon of Friday 15 May 2015 from 16.00 entitled 'Big Bang Theory: how the dinosaurs did it'. The talk is free to attend and open to all. Tea and coffee will be served after the talk.

 

Dinosaurs are endlessly fascinating. What they looked like, how they moved, what they ate, and innumerable other questions keep us going back to their bones. But there's one delicate subject that doesn't get quite as much attention as the others in books and museum halls - how did dinosaurs make more dinosaurs? In a special NHM talk, science writer and amateur palaeontologist Brian Switek will reveal what scientists are learning about how dinosaurs made the earth move for each other, from the evolution of sexy ornamentation to new investigations into how dinosaurs may have mated.

 

Contact Lil Stevens for details

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The rich warbling song of the blackcap has welcomed us into work over the past 2 weeks! (you can hear an Eurasian blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, as recorded by Patrick Aberg here). Not only that but we've had robins nesting just above the threshold of our shed with the accompanying chatter of baby birds anticipating food, holly blue butterflies visiting clusters of fresh holly flowers, sightings of orange tip, brimstone, peacock and speckled wood butterflies, tadpoles in the main pond, the occasional glimpse of a fox cub, and many more signs that Spring has well and truly sprung.

 

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A speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) resting on false brome - one of its larval food plants.

 

The mosaic of ground flora throughout the different habitats in the Garden is changing by the day with a particular blue haze and glorious scent of bluebells in the woodland areas.

 

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Bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.

 

Note the spread compared to 12 years ago,  below,  when the woodland glade was less open than it is today.

 

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Woodland glade in 2003.

 

But how many of them are the native British species (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) rather than hybrids or the invasive Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)? The scented plants for sure, but what about their relatives?

 

Museum Botanist, Fred Rumsey explains some interbreeding:

 

"It's that time of the year again when our woods turn azure with one of our favourite wild-flowers. The cool dry winter has held things back; results from the Museum's online survey on flowering times has shown that over the last few years flowering has in some years commenced almost a month later than in some others, the variation making predictions as to the effects of global warming more difficult.

 

For some weeks the show has been building in the Wildlife Garden, where, in spite of our best efforts, the majority of our plants show the influence of Spanish bluebells. In this respect our Garden is typical of urban gardens throughout Britain.

 

The two bluebells are genetically very similar with their distinctions maintained only by their geographic isolation, because they interbreed freely where they meet and the vigorous hybrids are confusingly intermediate in all respects.

 

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Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica in an urban garden in south London.

© Naomi Lake

 

Three hundred years of British gardening has undone several thousand years of glorious isolation - Pandora's potting shed door can't now be closed but we can all act responsibly to prevent further spread into the truly wild places as yet unsullied by the paler-flowered, scentless, blue-pollened invader. In the meantime I will still appreciate the spectacle in our Garden, they may not all be 'pure' but they are still beautiful!"

 

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More bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.

 

Thank you Fred! You can hear more from him on the main differences between bluebell species in the video on our website.

 

And in the past week I have been out and about in the woods admiring pure blooming bluebells and contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey. Here are some May Day highlights from woodland near Ashford in Kent:

 

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A magnificent display of bluebells in Hunt's Wood, near Woodchurch

© Peter Buckley

 

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Another brilliant display - something for us to aim for in our own Wildlife Garden.

© Peter Buckley

 

You too can help us with our research by contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey.

 

And finally, a small diversion: although our fox cubs are shy, the adult male is more relaxed, spending time around the pond banks to the delight of our visitors, but not so to our nesting moorhens.

 

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Our male fox relaxing in the Wildlife Garden.

© Daniel Osborne

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Last month a new temporary display featuring some of our foraminiferal specimens and models was placed in the Museum gallery. This features real microfossils on one of our foraminiferal Christmas card slides alongside 20 scale models, part of a set of 120 models generously donated to us last year by Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi.

 

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Senior Microfossil Curator Steve Stukins admiring some of the specimens and models on display and thinking "this is a much better place for them than the Curator of Micropalaeontology's office!"

 

As a curator dealing with items generally a millimetre or less in size I have not often been involved in developing exhibits other than to provide images or scale models like the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Displaying magnified models is one of the best ways to show the relevance of some of the smallest specimens in the Museum collection, the beauty and composition of foraminifera and to highlight our unseen collections.

 

This display features one of our most treasured items, a slide with microscopic foraminifera arranged in patterns to spell out the words 'XMAS 1912'.

 

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A festive slide of foraminifera created by Arthur Earland.

 

This was created by Arthur Earland for his long time collaborator Edward Heron-Allen. A previous blog tells of the sad end to the relationship between these two early 20th Century foraminiferal experts, a story that featured in the Independent under the heading 'shell loving scientists torn apart by mystery woman'.

 

The slide itself is amazingly beautiful under the microscope and a close up view (see above) is shown on the back board of the exhibit. The naked eye can show the arrangement of the specimens on the slide but cannot really pick out the beauty of the foraminifera. I was at a collections management conference about a year ago where it was suggested that the public feel duped by seeing models rather than real specimens on display. In this instance, the scale models serve to show the beauty as well as to enhance the relevance of the real specimens on display.

 

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Foraminiferal models by Alcide d'Orbigny that also feature in the display.

 

French scientist d'Orbigny (1802-1857) was the first to recognise that creating models was a good way to show his studies on the foraminifera. These models were created to illustrate the first classification of the foraminifera, a group that at the time were classified as molluscs.

 

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A selection of Zheng Shouyi's models of foraminifera.


Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi was inspired by d'Orbigny to create models of foraminifera to illustrate her work and to show the beauty of the Foraminifera. Of the 120 models she donated to us in 2014, 20 have been carefully selected for this exhibit. The selection shows a variety of different wall structures, a range of shapes, species for which we have the type specimen as well as some species of planktonic foraminifera relevant to current research at the Museum. Zheng Shouyi is also famous for encouraging and overseeing the production of the world's first foraminiferal sculpture park in Zhongshan, China.

 

If you are able to pop into the Museum, please come and see this free display. It is situated just after the exit from the dinosaur exhibition on the opposite wall to the dino shop. We can't promise any giant scuptures but I'm sure that you'll agree that these models certainly illustrate the beauty and help to explain the relevance of some of the smallest specimens hidden behind the scenes at the Museum.

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The Museum's Patron, the Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to her second child just a few days ago, so the Museum's online shop has been gearing up with gift ideas for newborns. With bibs, toys and T-shirts it's never too early to introduce your littlest to the prehistoric world. We also take a look at some of the incredible facts about the first six months of your little hatchling's life.

 

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Knitted dinosaurs suitable from birth and romper suits for your little ones to grow into.

 

Amazing baby facts

Here's our favourite things about newborns.

They learn words while still in the womb.

According to research from the University of Helsinki, your newborn will recognise sounds it heard whilst in utero for up to four months after birth. This includes words, the theme tune from mum's favourite TV programme or just mum's favourite song.

They're programmed by evolution to put things into their mouth.

It seems that their annoying habit of placing anything and everything in their mouths starts right from birth. It's an evolutionary instinct that they're born with to make sure that they get enough food.

 

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Baby T-shirts for your tiny terror.

 

They have incredibly strong reflexes

That amazingly strong grip that your baby has is due to a reflex. It's strong enough to support their entire body weight.

They cry in your accent

Researchers from Germany found that babies pick up elements of their mother's accent while in the womb. Their cries reflect the inflection and cadences of your mother tongue. While studying the differences between the cries of French and German babies, researchers found that the cries of French babies had a rising accent while the cries of German babies had a falling inflection.

 

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These funny, friendly dinosaurs contain a rattle that will keep little hands amused.

 

They can't produce tears

You may be surprised with the amount of crying that your baby does that they don't actually produce tears. This is because of the fact that their tear ducts are still developing, so while they can produce enough moisture to protect baby's eyes they can't produce enough to form actual tears.

They have more tastebuds than you.

And not just on their tongue... these extra tastebuds cover the roof and sides of their mouth. They have the ability to taste sweet and bitter from birth, but they won't develop a sensitivity to salty tastes until they are about four months old.

 

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Bibs to label or dress up your 'little monster'.

 

They're born with a fully developed inner ear.

It is the only sense organ that develops to its adult size in the womb. It reaches it's full size around week 20 of pregnancy and it is from this point that the foetus will start to respond to sound.

One baby is born every eight seconds.

That's according to the United States Census Bureau, although other statistics claim that it's more like one every two seconds. However you look at it, that's a lot of babies.

Personalised gifts

 

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These personalised baby T-shirt and baby onesie are the perfect way to give your little one a real dinosaur name.

 

Our range of personalised gifts include a baby T-shirt with a Stegosaurus and a baby onesie featuring a Diplodocus. Simply enter baby's name decide on their dinosaur suffix and enter the year that they were 'discovered'. The perfect gift customised especially for your baby. We hope to be printing #Charlottsaurus soon.

 

Visit the online shop for hundreds of gift ideas that support the Museum's work.

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The above date marks the sad passing of one of the Museum’s tiniest volunteers: In early February I discovered Beetah, my Carabus violaceous lying still on her coconut substrate, and to be honest, a little dried out.

 

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My little pet worked hard in life to inspire the public with entomological wonder of what living gems can be found in local parks, let alone the wider world, so I think it’s only fair to take time and reflect on her life and service upon her passing.

 

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Obituary: This Carabus violaceus specimen was collected live while Hillery Warner was taking a walk in Nonsuch Park with her 1 ½ year old son, Dominic on 29/08/2013. Dominic christened the specimen "Beetah" on the spot and it was kept as a family pet until its death of natural causes in early 2015, at which point it was brought to the Museum to join the collections on 11/02/2015. 

 

Beetah led a lavish life for a ground beetle, feasting on fish cakes and the finest chunks and jelly from packets of cat food. She apparently reproduced while in captivity and two of her offspring are also in the collection.  While not an official front of house Museum employee, Beetah wore her public-engagement-purple elytral margins with pride, inspiring visitors at Science Uncovered 2013 and 2014. She also acted as an entomological ambassador during National Insect Week, 2014 where she met artists and UK celebrity Jonathan Ross. While the lights have left the multifaceted ommatidia of her compound eyes, she may yet "see" another Science Uncovered as she continues her service to the Museum in death as she did in life, entering her new role as museum specimen.

 

I found my beetle back in 2013 in a park near my home while walking with my then 1 ½ year old son. As I keenly showed my son this lovely large black beetle with iridescent purple pronotal and elytral margins, he enthusiastically named it ‘Beetah’ and I detected some bonding going on, so I decided Beetah would live with us as a pet. I initially added a snail or two to her tank but soon discovered she was much happier to dine on my husband’s fish cakes. In fact, she ate so much fish cake that I noticed not long after that single meal that she had plumped up so much that her plural suture stretched enough that the underlying membrane was showing. I thought she was just fat.

 

Some time later there were a number, (at least 5), carabid larvae running around the tank (I’m sorry I called you fat, Beetah). How did this happen with just one beetle? In short, it didn’t, but insect reproduction is amazing and entomologists never pass up an opportunity to talk a bit about genitalia!

 

 


The christening of “Beetah”:   Almost as good as the whole Mofasa/baboon/Simba thing from that ’90’s movie.

 

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Internal female genital structures of carabid species Badister amazonus (Erwin & Ball, 2011).


Female insects have an internal genital structure called a spermatheca.  Upon mating, sperm is stored in the spermatheca rather than going straight to the eggs for fertilization.  The release of sperm from the spermatheca is under hormonal control and so the female can wait until conditions are ideal for reproduction before releasing the sperm from this structure to fertilize her eggs.  This could mean waiting to find a suitable insect host for a parasitoid wasp, or finding enough fish cake to suitably supply the eggs with nourishment for pet Beetahs'.  Lady insects have quite a lot of control over this and scientists have reported carabids going for as long as 10 months without contact with males before ovipositing (Gilgado & Ortuño, 2012) and honey bees can store sperm for over 3 years (Gullan & Cranston, 2000).


While both mother and larvae enjoyed cat food, I noticed that the larvae were active and fed during the day while mum was nocturnal.  (I often described having a pet carabid like having a 6-legged carnivorous hamster due to the audible night time scrabbling sounds coming from her tank).  This division of activity surely reduces the likelihood of intraspecific predation in nature.  (Metamorphosis is a generally fantastic strategy to reduce intraspecific competition).  I won’t comment on what happened to the larvae.  Truthfully, I don’t know for sure (ref. 1).  I’ll just let the mystery be.

 

Not long after that exciting event, Beetah began her work as and Museum volunteer.  Her first public outreach event was Science Uncovered, 2013 where she assisted Dr. Eggleton and Dr. Inward in delighting the public with the wonders of soil associated invertebrates.  In 2014 she participated in both a second Science Uncovered and National Insect Week activities where she met artists and an English television and radio presenter named Jonathan Ross, among other visitors.


I did rather wonder if she might make it to a third Science Uncovered (alive) but alas, she saw her last sunsets in early 2015. So what did I do with the husk of my fallen friend?  Put the kettle on for her, of course.  One of the quickest ways to get a desiccated beetle specimen relaxed for mounting is to pop it into warm water (ref. 2.)  So after a few minutes of steeping a Beetah tea, I pulled her out of the hot water, wrapped her in moist tissue, and took her to work.

 

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Steeping beetle tea prior to mounting.  These are Rothschild bequest beetles I prepared from our dried accession material.

 

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Beetah all set on her mounting board.


Once at the Museum, I pinned and set Beetah with extra-special care - after all, a Beetah’s work doesn’t finish just because haemolymph stops pumping through her dorsal vessel (or “heart”- but insect circulatory systems are very different to vertebrates’.  See ‘Insect Circulation in Short, below).  Oh no, I fully expect her to continue public outreach duties long after death- no rest for the dead in entomology! Normally, I would tuck a specimen’s antennae a bit closer to its body to make them less vulnerable to breakage and save them best for taxonomic preservation and study, but Beetah is a common species, already identified and described long ago so setting her for a really attractive dorsal habitus with no limb overlap won out over supreme specimen protection.

 

Once set out nicely and (re)dried, it was time to label her up and database her.  We here at the Museum hope to digitize our entire collection.  With 80 million objects, this is no small ask so we’re coming up with snazzy ways to do this as efficiently as possible, but Beetah, being a single and super special specimen, I entered into our digital catalogue individually, manually, myself.  Her unique identifier is now and forever 1681080.  The data matrix attached to her pin jutting out clearly visible from above can be read by computers and smart phones to quickly access all her collection information.  The details of where and when she was collected are now digitally stored along with her species determination, (obituary), and where she’s kept in our cavernous labyrinth of cabinets so she can be easily retrieved for, oh, I don’t know maybe I will make her make an appearance for her third Science Uncovered in September….

 

P.S.- If my son asks any of you where Beetah is… she’s at the Museum.  Just leave it at that.


Insect Circulation in Short: One of the more basic zoological divisions in the animal kingdom is that of deuterostomes vs. protostomes.  These terms roughly translate to “second mouth” vs. “first mouth”.  When the first divot forms in the blob of cells that eventually grows into an animal, it is destined to either become a mouth, or a bottom.  Our cell-blob-divot becomes an used-food exit route, so we’re deuterostomes.  Insects’ divot becomes a mouth.  So right from the start insects couldn’t be much more different to us.

 

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A rather useless diagram showing the end destination for the blastopore in both protostome and deuterostome blastocysts.

 

Other equally fundamental differences in development mean that while our nerve chord is in our back, insects’ are in their chests.  Our heart is in our chest. Insects’ “hearts” are in their backs.  But the location of an insect heart isn’t the only huge difference to our circulatory system.  Our blood carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, but insect blood only carries nutrients.  Our blood is closed into veins, arteries, and capillaries.  Insect blood washes more or less freely around the body cavity.  The insect “heart” is basically a tube with muscles and valves that takes in haemolymph from around the midgut of an insect where nutrients from digested food diffuses into the “blood” and then pumps it into the head where it’s released to freely wash over the all-important primary ganglion (brain) and then wishily washily work its way back to the tail end of the insect; feeding cells and picking up waste on its way.


Terms Badly Explained


Desiccated- Dried up.  Because scientists decided one word with 4 syllables is more efficient communication than two one-syllable words.
Dorsal habitus- The view normal to the lateral plane of the animals’ body.  Whatever that means.
Elytral- Of the elytra, which are the hard forewings of a beetle.
Haemolymph- Insect blood.  It’s not Haemoglobin because it doesn’t bother with oxygen-carrying globulin proteins.  There are exceptions- some larvae in oxygen deprived environments have proper haemoglobin but this is a badly explained term, not another blog topic.
Intraspecific- Within a species.  Interspecific would be between species.  Like interstates are roads that travel between states.  Intrastates would be roads that don’t cross state lines.  Like a roundabout in the middle of Kentucky.  I’m clearly an American.
Parasitoid- Like a parasite but much much more dark and disturbing.
Plural Suture- Where the top tough exoskeleton bits meet the bottom exoskeleton bits on the side of
an insect’s belly.  The side-seam.
Pronotal- Of the pronotum.  Which is the first notum.       (Which is the top part of the thorax.  The thorax is divided into three sections).
Spermatheca- a copulatory receptical.
Substrate- Stuff on the ground.  Dirt.  Leaves.  Gravel.  Bark.  Sand.  And such.

 


Ref 1. Two of the larvae joined the collection.
Ref 2. This works for any insect that isn’t overly hairy or scaly but is bad for DNA.

 

References:
Erwin T, Ball G (2011) Badister Clairville, 1806: A new species and new continental record for the nominate subgenus in Amazonian Perú (Coleoptera, Carabidae, Licinini). ZooKeys 147: 399-417. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.147.2117

Gilgado, J. D., & Ortuño, V. M. (2012). Carabus (Oreocarabus) guadarramus La Ferte-Senectere, 1847 (Coleoptera, Carabidae): first instar larva and reflections on its biology and chorology. Animal biodiversity and conservation, 35(1), 13-21.

Gullan, P.J. & Cranston, P.S.. (2000) Insects: An Outline of Entomology, 2nd edition. Blackwell Science, 502 pp.

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Some time ago I got a tip-off from my regular library source about the existence of a mineralised human skull in our collection. All she could tell me was that a scientist had been down to consult a book that contained some information about it; but she wasn't sure what book it was.

 

Armed with the scientist's name, and with visions of the crystal clear skulls of ancient Mesoamerican - and more recently, Indiana Jones - legend circling my mind, I set off to find out more.

 

But like the coded letter from Indy's old friend Oxley, which lead him to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital, and the interpretation of symbols scrawled therein which lead to the subsequent discovery of the grave of a sixteenth-century Conquistador which contained a crystal skull, my library tip off set in motion an epic series of twists and turns I had to navigate in order to track down our specimen and record its story in this here blog.

 

After months of emails and answer phone messages, conflicting schedules and workloads that didn't permit a spare moment to meet, I received an unexpected call from a scientist on the coast of Cornwall.

Hi, it's (Minerals Collection Manager) Mike Rumsey here. I'm on holiday right now, but I've got a 15 minute walk by myself back to my car so I thought I'd call you to talk about the skull. What would you like to know?

 

Hooray, I cheered internally, and replied: 'Everything!' And so he began:

It's a Hans Sloane specimen which dates to the foundation of the Museum, and we can trace it back quite a long way. We know that Sloane got it from the collection of a guy called Cardinal Filippo Gualtieri after Gualtieri died in 1728.

 

There's not many things we can trace back that far in the Mineral Collection.

 

It's a bit of a curiosity, really. It's supposedly the skull of someone who had fallen into the Tiber river in Rome. It's covered in a deposit called travertine.

 

Sadly for my crystal skull fantasy, Rumsey revealed that the skull is in fact a creamy limestone colour (not clear), and contains no crystal points (and probably never did). But, he continued:

It's got what looks like a handle attached to it. That sounds a bit morbid, but there's no evidence it was ever used as a drinking vessel. We think it's a rib bone of the same skeleton the skull came from.

 

Scientifically, we've not really done a great deal of work on it, although quite recently it was CT-scanned. I think they did find out that the skull is still in there, not completely replaced, which is quite interesting.

 

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An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.

 

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A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane.

 

Indeed, Farah Ahmed, manager of the Museum's X-Ray CT Scan Facility, confirmed Rumsey's belief.

Of all the skulls I've had come my way, this is probably one of the most well preserved. And considering the fact that you couldn't see it, and we had no idea what level it might have been preserved at underneath  - it's pretty special. The whole skull is intact, with only a small bit of damage above the nasal cavity, which is surprising, considering it must have had a bit of a bashing.

 

That's a rib going through its mouth. We think the whole body went in, and then the commotion and the motion of the river over time broke it up and just that rib got lodged there.

 

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An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit.

 

The mineralised skull is currently on long-term loan to the British Museum, and can be seen on display in the King's Library, home to their permanent Enlightenment exhibition.

 

It is perhaps fitting that this specimen is no longer (at least for the next 25 years or so) at the Museum, as I am about to leave the Museum, too. The completion of my quest to track down, and uncover the history of, our mineralised skull marks my final Behind the Scenes blog before I move on to career pastures new.

 

Thanks for reading.

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OK, I have decided to create #Worldrobberflyday. All the time now, we hear that this large mammal or that large mammal has a 'day', and that got me thinking. Buglife have an invertebrate of the month, but even they are not very often the lesser-known insects, including the flies.

 

And I wanted global. Let the world celebrate! Why is it always the large stuff or the pretty (and, in my opinion, slightly less important) species? So I thought about it and decided it was about time that we championed more aggressively the rights of the small and endangered flies. These creatures are some of the most charismatic animals on the planet. The robberflies, or Asilidae, are truly worth celebrating for their looks, for their behaviour, for their good deeds to us, and because many of them are threatened.

 

The UK boasts 28 species of Asilidae (OK, so that's not a lot in terms of flies, but hold on – we have only 30 native terrestrial mammals, of which 17 are bats and 2 are native marine mammals). Globally there are more than 7,500 species, and as such, it is one of the largest families of insects today. In fact Torsten Dikow, a world expert on this group, has them as the third most speciose group of diptera. This is a group, therefore, that has a large impact on the environment in which they live.

 

Asilidae are Brachycerans (Fig. 1), which are the more advanced and robust flies. Asilidae are known from the Jurassic era, but some of the more important finds are from the Cretaceous, including those from the Crato Formation of north-eastern Brazil (approximately 112 million years old). This site is truly extraordinary in terms of the invertebrate remains that were found there (and just another reason for me to get back to Brazil!).

 

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Figure 1. Phylogenetic arrangement of Diptera showing the more advanced Brachycerans and the position of the Asilidae (robberflies) within it.

 

It was again Linnaeus, or Linne, who described these flies in his 10th edition (1758) Systema Naturae when he erected the genus Asilus. Within this, eleven species were described and then a further four were added in the 12th edition. You may be unsurprised to know that most of these are no longer in the original genus! Ten have been moved to other genera, three we are unsure of due to the original descriptions being vague, so that leaves only two in the genus.

 

However, the species Asilus crabroniformis, commonly called the hornet robberfly in the UK – and the type species of the family – still sits within this genus in all its magnificence. The division of flies into different families came later with Latreille, a very eminent entomologist who tried to put some more organisation into the entomological hierarchy in 1802. Since then we have increased the number of species and have split the family into many subfamilies –14 in fact (Fig. 2) But as regular readers know, Dipteran taxonomists are still not satisfied and expect more movement in the future.

 

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Figure 2. Subfamilies within Asilidae (image is Tigonomiminae © Thomas Shahan).

 

Even still, you can comprehend how much work has gone on into understanding the relationships within this family so far.

 

Moustaches and mouthparts

 

So why are people interested in these flies? Well once more, this is a family of flies that rock! And these rock harder than most. All armed with moustaches and powerful piercing mouthparts, these predators are aptly named, as they truly are the most vicious and effective aerial predators. These flies are venomous, probably both as adults and as larvae (although we know so very little about the offspring). The adults are able to catch, then sedate, their prey whilst on the wing, suck out the contents and then drop the husk of what was once a living breathing entity. It's almost poetry.

 

And to be fair, to catch these little predators you often have to become a predator yourself. There is no majestic leaping around the countryside, freely swinging your nets with wild exuberance: instead you must 'become the fly'. You stalk it; determine where it rests and then strike. If you are me, this is often followed by a squeal of delight or a wail of despair. I once spent a glorious afternoon on one of the Isles of Scilly at the beach (obviously working very hard) trying to stalk these flies. My volunteer and I tried to work in unison hunting them, and I could almost hear the flies mocking us…

 

The adults are most active during sunny, hot conditions. Again, another reason for loving flies – they have an affinity for the nicer weather conditions.

 

Although these flies range a lot in size, from 2mm to 6cm, they all share distinctive features that help identify the family. The adults have enormous eyes, which is one of the many tools that make them such efficient predators. And it also helps us recognise this family easily. The bulbous eyes and the distinct dip between the two eyes are very characteristic (see Fig. 3). They can swivel their heads around and their eyes can see what's going on behind them as well.

 

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Figure 3. My, my... what big eyes you have...!

 

Some of them scout amongst the grasses, their rapid wingbeat enabling them to turn whilst hovering. These truly are the stealth-bombers of the insect world.

 

The leptogastriniiae are the skinniest of the Asilidae, with very long bodies and legs. They use these long, gangly first two pairs of legs to catch their prey whilst – we think – using the third pair to stabilise themselves. Not all actively scan like this: some will sit and wait, only darting out to impale their prey when they are ready. If fact, there are several different ways in which they hunt and, as with all good scientists, someone has devised a terminology for all of these (Fig. 4)

 

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Figure 4. Lehr (1979) from the Geller-Grimm Asilidae site.

 

For that is another characteristic of this group – a well-formed, stout beak often hidden in a luxurious moustache or, more correctly termed, a mystax (Fig. 5).

 

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Figure 5. Mouthparts of a robber fly (Brachycera: Asilidae). an=antenna; cl=clypeus; ip=hypopharynx; li=labium; ls=labrum (epipharynx); m=mystax; ms=maxillae; oc=eye; pm=maxillary palpus © Giancarlo Dessì. Licensed under CC BY NC SA 3.0 US.

 

It is the needle-like hypopharynx (Fig. 5) that pierces their prey. This is not for the faint-hearted, as they often try and pierce the soft parts of the insect, such as the neck or sometimes the eyes. They have this moustache (Mystax – Fig. 5) to help protect their mouthparts from the flailing prey.

 

They don't have to flail for long, though, as the fly injects saliva that contains nerve toxins that paralyse the prey, and proteolytic enzymes that dissolve the insides. They are nasty for insects, spiders, and occasionally a very unfortunate hummingbird, but apart from giving a nasty jab, they are not dangerous to humans. Research done by Adamovic in 1963 found that injecting robberfly saliva into invertebrates kills them instantly, but they never inject venom into humans. There are several researchers in the Natural History Museum who are now studying the venoms within these flies, so watch out for future Museum publications to follow what is happening in this field.

 

But this leads me to one of the first reasons that these flies are very important. It's because they are such good predators. Within the UK, between 1930 and 1933, Hobby produced a list of the prey records (Fig. 6).

 

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Figure 6. Hobbies lists from Stubbs and Drake 2014.


We have spent the last century working out the prey species and now have a greater understanding of the potential impact these flies can have in helping control populations of species that we often consider as pests – with aphids being a classic example. Although they are opportunistic species, they can have an impact on the overall densities and therefore become the gardener's friends.

 

Flirty flies

 

So let's move on to courtship. As with most creatures, some do, some don't; with some species the males just grab, while others put a fair amount of time and effort into it and have different modifications on their bodies to both attract the opposite sex as well as hold on to them. And it's not just the males that do the flirting. Oh no - there are some females that entice the male.

 

The rather unusual courtship of the British robberfly Choerages marginatus was described by Ian Rabarts in 2009 (paraphrased from Alan Stubbs' rather amusing synopsis on the subject, in his and Martin Drake's book British Soldierflies and their Allies): Firstly the flies recognise that (a) they are the right species, and (b) that they are of the opposite sex (a very good start in most situations to do with copulation leading to fertilisation).

 

Then they check out each other's hunting moves and, if OK, the female stands facing the male in a sort of 'yeah, you'll do' posture. After this, she flies in a slow 'flaunting' circuit (hussy) very similar to that of a prey item (all very kinky). He attacks when he sees her 'shimmer-strip', whereupon she slows down her flight, but flies in an angular pattern. He realises then that this is his lady and adjusts his attack from one of capturing prey to one of copulation.

 

Alan then states in his book: 'Failure [of copulation] results in going back a few steps in the courtship sequence.' A not-unfamiliar event…

 

Bob Lavigne, a collaborator of mine and another international robberfly expert, wrote in 2003: 'It is postulated that courtship first developed when male search flights (which end abruptly with copulation), were consistently unsuccessful.' It sounds so final when it ends with copulation!

 

In fact, reading the literature when it comes to robberfly mating in copulation has been very entertaining. Morgan (1995) records that another species that were just about to do the do were scared off by a sheep! Given the size difference I too in a similar position may have been scared off...

 

But check out Pegesimallus teratodes (Fig.7) – these have amazing structures on their hind legs. These are used in the dance of the males to attract the females –they are indeed the peacocks of the robberfly world.

 

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Figure 7. Pegesimallus teratodes and its amazing legs.

 

And that is not all that is fantastic about the males. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the genitalia of the males (Fig. 8).

 

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Figure 8. The male Pegesimallus teratodes with his rather impressive genitalia.


And then there are specimens in our collection that we think give us an indication of a courtship story, although I doubt we will ever be able to find out for certain. Take, for example, two specimens of Mallophora infernalis from our collection (Fig. 9). Now, had the female caught the bush cricket and the male had thought:“Excellent! Both food and sex!”? Or, had the male caught the cricket to attract the female? Either way, it was not going to end well for the bush cricket (or in this case for the robberflies).

 

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Figure 9. Male and Female of Mallophora infernalis who were caught mid air carrying this bush cricket.

 

So whether there is dancing, waving, differences in wingbeats, or offerings, the end result hopefully is the production of eggs. And blimey, the females have a big range of ovipositors (egg laying tubes) (Fig. 10)!

 

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Figure 10. Ovipositors (adapted from Stubbs and Drake 2014).


Now this is where it gets tricky, as we know less about the egg and larval stage than any of the others. And this is the main reason why we should be concerned about these gorgeous creatures – many of the UK species are rare. We have no real idea for many species globally but can only assume that this is the case everywhere. In fact, several of our UK species are protected.

 

However we don't know much, if anything, about many of the species' diet, where they live, development and so on. In Collins' book The Conservation of Insects and their Habitats, he discusses how little is known about the species, despite the fact that they are classed as threatened.

 

Take one of the most charismatic insects in the UK (no bias there) the hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis – a mimic of (you guessed it) a hornet. There is still very little information. Previous work dating back to the 90s states that the eggs were laid in or under the old dung of cows, horses and rabbits, and soil nearby. Maybe the adults (and subsequent larvae) are that flexible in their habitat? The larvae are then thought to feed on dung beetles but again this has only been observed (and not by many authors) during late-stage instars. What do the little ones eat? It is a UK priority species and we need to know more about it. How can we consider conserving a species (if it needs it) if we don't know where it is or what it's getting up to? It's like a wayward teenager.

 

Now, if you want to know more about what is going on with UK robberflies, there are loads of pages giving you what information there is.

There is a nice little piece by naturespot (Fig. 11) featuring some of the UK species, and of course you must check out the Dipterists Forum for all of their information.

 

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Figure 11. Nature spot.

 

But what we really want now is information coming the other way. Personal observations in the field, the location of eggs and the like, and species distributions are all critical in ensuring that we maintain and enhance our existing populations.

 

Martin Harvey @kitenet runs the UK recording scheme for these wonderful little animals (See Fig. 12 or visit the website) and you can send all your records to that site. Martin also runs many courses on these as do others in the Dipterists Forum, so sign up and go along to them.

 

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Figure 12. The Soldierfly and allies recording scheme, which includes the robberflies.


So there you go - robberflies are amazing, and they do need celebrating. And if you still need convincing here is a little fluffy one to tug at your heartstrings. When asked what is my favourite fly, Laphria flava is at the center of my heart (Fig. 13).

 

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Figure 13. Laphria flava male.

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A new and exciting citizen science project has begun and it's time to get involved with Orchid Observers! This research project, in partnership with Oxford University's Zooniverse platform, aims to examine the flowering times of British orchids in relation to climate change.

 

In order to achieve this, we are inviting the amateur naturalist and professional botanical community, alongside nature loving citizens from across the country, to help us collect and sort orchid data.

 

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The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) is our smallest UK species. It usually grows on mountain peat bogs and can be found from July to August.

 

We want you to go out in the field and photograph any of 29 selected UK orchid species and upload your images onto our dedicated website, www.orchidobservers.org. Flowering times from each of your records will then be collated and compared with the extensive Museum herbarium collection, and data from the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI), totalling a 180-year-long time-series of orchid records.

 

The primary aim is to further our understanding of the impacts of the climate on the UK's flora, using orchids as a model group. The extensive data set that you will be contributing to, will tell us how different species of orchids are responding to changes in temperature and rainfall across the UK.

 

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Get out in the field and support us in our research on orchid phenology.

 

Field work: We are asking observers - like you - to record orchids by simply photographing the flower spike and uploading the image to our website, with a location and a date. To aid you with identifying the orchids, we have painstakingly produced a lavish ID guide (PDF) complete with images, descriptions, flowering times, and distribution maps. There's also a short guide (PDF) for how to take the most helpful photographs for the project.

 

Online work: We have over 10,000 herbarium orchid specimens from around the UK, stretching back over three centuries. In order to calculate any change in flowering times we need you to help us sort through images of our herbarium sheets and transcribe key information such as the species, location and flowering condition. This is one that can be done at home on your PC, or when out and about from a mobile device.

 

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The Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) adds a splash of colour to the alkaline grasslands of high summer. Keep an eye out for it in June and July.

 

If you would like to get involved with the project either online, or in the field, then go to visit www.orchidobservers.org. The orchid season runs from April until the end of September so the first species are starting to flower right now - time to get your camera out!

 

Mike Waller

 

Mike Waller is one of the new identification trainees working at the Angela Marmont Cente for UK Biodiversity. His passion lies in botany and ornithology with a particular specialism in European orchids.

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In the final post in our series of blogs introducing our new trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project we meet Chloe Rose:

 

My name is Chloe Rose, I am 30 years old and have spent the last 10 years enjoying living by the sea in Brighton. After graduating in an Ecology and Biogeography degree I spent a year out travelling in South East Asia and New Zealand, marvelling at the wonderful flora and fauna.

 

Upon my return I began working for the RSPB at the South East regional office as a PA/marketing adminstrator and worked within the wildlife enquiry team. I jumped at the chance of many project opportunities throughout my 2.5 years there, such as project managing the Big Garden Bird Watch, and volunteering where I could at reserve events such as the Big Wild Sleep Out. During my time there I had the pleasure of working with a highly dedicated and passionate team who were devoted to saving nature.

 

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ID Trainer for the Future Chloe Rose, whose background is in ecology and biogeography.

 

I have spent the last 8 years studying UK biodiversity, during which time I have volunteered for numerous conservation organisations, assisted in countless biological recordings and, along the way, have developed my identification and surveying technqiues. Some of the more recent work I have been involved in includes: wetland bird counts, corn bunting and nightjar surveying for the Sussex Ornithological Trust, bee walks for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, great crested newt surveys for Ecological Consultancy, and barbastelle bat monitoring as part of the National Bat Monitoring Programme.

 

20150423 Barbastelle bat NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_036107_IA.jpgA 1905 drawing 'from a dead bat' of a barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus) in the Museum's Picture Library.

 

When I saw the Identification Trainers for the Future project opportunity with the Museum, I knew that I had to give it my everything. I have found it extremely difficult to come across work since completing my degree, with huge competition and so few jobs it can be easy to become disilluisioned.

 

The training the Museum was offering would provide me with the perfect stepping stone into a career in UK biodiversity, giving me the skills and confidence needed. Whilst preparing for the assessment day, which involved displaying our own projects and revising for the somewhat ominous 'UK wildlife ID test', it re-confirmed my desire to work within this sector and reignited my passion for learning and developing my career.

 

At the end of the traineeship I want to be able to apply the skills gained into bridging the gap in species identification. So I will be trying to find in particular the more priority organisms - the ones vulnerable and which require most attention. I think it's clear to see that I am passionate about our natural world, but I also take great pleasure from passing my knowledge onto others.

 

I look forward to working with the Museum's Learning and Engagement team during phase 4 of the traineeship. During this time I hope to be supported in becoming better equipped in inspiring others about UK biodiversity, especially those who have lost connection with the natural world.

 

There were so many knowledgeable and zealous individuals on the day, I feel extremely lucky to be here, it really is a dream come true. I wish all the other candidates the best of luck with their future endeavours.

 

Thank you Chloe! So there you have it, you have now met all 5 of our trainees in this year's cohort. You will be hearing more from them as their traineeship advances because they will be telling you all about their progress, but for now if you would like to find out more about the traineeships, or the Identification Trainers for the Future project, visit www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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A great icon of British geology is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. The William Smith map or 'A Delination of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland' brought revolutionary change to the way we think about the structure of the Earth and vastly advanced the science of geology.

 

As the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (1-3 May) approaches, where this giant of geology will be celebrated, the Museum's online shop takes a closer look at the man behind the map and what inspired him.

 

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200 years old in 2015, the William Smith map changed the face of geology

Who was William Smith?

Born in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Churchill in 1769, William Smith was the son of a blacksmith. Even though he did well at school there was never any thought of him attending university due to his family's poverty.

 

In his thrilling book The Map that Changed the World, Simon Winchester describes Smith's early signs of promise.

 

He had an apparent aptitude for geometry, he could draw more than adequately, and he had a fascination for the rocks among which he lived.

 

Smith's diaries reveal his growing eagerness for what lay beneath the greeness of the Oxfordshire fields. It seems to have been the extraordinary colours and qualities of the rocks and minerals that surfaced that first caught his eye. Winchester says:

 

...he found the whiteness of chalk extraordinary, [he wondered] why there were no stones in the Churchill fields on which he could sharpen a knife or strike a spark. Notes tell how he had collected crystals of fool's gold - iron pyrites- that workmen found when draining a great pond ... he marvelled at some farmers who were using a local blue clay to colour their barn doors.

 

After leaving education, Smith found work as a surveyor building canals during the time of the industrial revolution. At the time of this great change, Britain needed greater resources of coal and other raw materials. In 1794 Smith started work as a surveyor and prospector on the construction of the Somerset coal canal, which would be used to transport these valuable resources and help the county to trade competitively against the Welsh mines.

 

The process of building the canal involved cutting into the land revealing what lay beneath for the very first time. This confirmed Smith's suspicions of being able to identify each strata by the fossils it enclosed. He needed further information, so he collected studies of other regions and fossil catalogues to build his argument.

 

Unlike many geologists of the time, Smith had to earn his own living. Luckily he was highly sought after as a surveyor. This gave him the chance to travel the country and continue to study the land.

 

Smith found further luck when the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks was introduced to his work through John Farey, whom Banks had hired to drain his land in Derbyshire. Farey explained to Banks that Smith had made two great discoveries: the ability to record the sequential order of rocks and the ability to identify those rocks by the fossils within the layer. Banks was suitably impressed and sponsored Smith's work. The map was eventually published in 1815.

Debt

The brilliance of Smith's map was also its downfall. It became a valuable resource for pilferers and plagiarists to create their own works. His own humble background and limited education became an obstacle for him being accepted amongst the learned scientific community.

 

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Despite William Smith revolutionising the geological world, his maps were palgiarised and he ended up in a debtors prison.

 

John Farey, who had previously introduced Smith's work to Joseph Banks, also introduced it to George Bellas Greenough, who then used Smith's map to create his own. It was eventually published by Longman and distributed by Smith on the Strand (no relation to William Smith). Greenough knew that Smith's map was not selling well and decided to undercut him on the price of his maps.

 

Simon Winchester explains:

 

Undercutting Smith had an immmediate and devastating effct - and it coincided, almost exactly, with his committal to debtors' prison. The precise nature of cause and effect can be argued over. The coincidence of events, though, was just too cruel.

 

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The Map that Changed the World is Simon Winchester's engaging account of the life and work of William Smith.

Why was the map so important?

William Smith became known as 'Strata' Smith after he realised the relationship between fossils and the layer of rocks that they lay in. This helped him to create the first geological map that was based on the fossils the strata contained rather than on the composition of rock.

 

Simon Winchester possibly gives the best explanation of the importance of this particular:

It is a map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science. It is the a document that lay the groundwork for the making of great fortunes - in oil, in iron, in coal, and in other countries in diamonds and tin and platinum and silver - that were won by explorers who used such maps. It is a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed a man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet. It is a map that had an importance, symbolic and real, for the development of one of the great fields of study - geology - which, arguably like physics and mathematics, is a field of learning and endeavour that underpins all knowledge, all understanding.

Gift ideas

Celebrate the work of William Smith with our gift range inspired by the great man. Hone your drawing skills with an artist's tin or sketch pad; read about Smith's life or display his iconic design on an eco-friendly tote bag.

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William Smith map tote bag available from the Museum's online shop

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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.

 

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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: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers