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Welcome to our brand new blog full of behind-the-scenes news about the Museum's online shop. This is where you'll be able to gain insider knowledge about products, reviews and the unique offers that are exclusive to us. To celebrate our very first post (and the fact that spring is almost here) our dinosaurs, and some of their friends, decided to join us for a cup of tea and cake.

 

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Our dinos love any excuse for a bit of #MuseumCake.

 

Although some ended up with more than others...

 

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Never trust a T. rex with your biscuits.

 

Hmmm, well we managed to grab a few crumbs from the plate and are roaring to get going. So what can you expect from us?

 

  • Exclusive offers: missed out on our half price dinosaur trunki, £100 voucher giveaway or Darwin day book offer? Don't you worry we'll have plenty more competitions coming up. Remember to check for free delivery weekends.
  • Product of the month: each month we choose our favourite product and tell you why we love it.
  • Real reviews: do you want to be featured in our blog? Then send us a review of your favourite product in the comments below or tweet a photo to @Shop_at_NHM.
  • Up to the minute news of brand new features of the shop website, including our new, updated prints on demand category.
  • The stories behind our products and how they are sourced.

 

Seriously, what else could you possibly want from us? More? Well, alright. If we have missed something you'd love to see let us know in the comments below.

Why should I shop with the Museum?

Good question. When you shop with the Museum you are supporting our work, whether it's maintaining the amazing late Victorian building, keeping the specimens looking pristine for your visit or funding our research.

Why should I fund your research?

Another good question. Research doesn't just take place in the Museum. Our scientists are sent to the far flung corners of the Earth to monitor endangered species or identify new ones. 

 

Some of our research includes:

 

 

And this is only part of our work.The money raised helps to fund informative and engaging exhibitions that raise public awareness of urgent issues surrounding the natural world. Buying from the Museum's online shop gives you the chance to buy great gifts while supporting valuable work.

 

We hope we've given you enough to stick around and and a good reason to browse our online shop. If there is anything you feel that we missed remember to comment. We're off for some more tea and cake before the dinosaurs eat it all.

 

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It's a hard life living in the Museum.

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On Wed 14 January 2014, the Museum welcomed a guest speaker to present a special science seminar. Richard Pyle of Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii, spoke about:

 

...the number of species on planet Earth that remain unknown to science exceeds (perhaps vastly) the number of species that have so far been discovered, let alone formally documented... Within the global biodiversity library, we are at this point in human history like toddlers running through the halls of the Library of Congress, largely unaware of the true value of the information that surrounds us... Taxonomists are the librarians, developing new tools to build the card catalog for the Greatest Library on Earth... What we accomplish within the next twenty years will impact the quality of life for humans over the next twenty thousand years.

 

Richard is an ichthyologist exploring extreme deep reef habitats, a bioinformatician and an ICZN Commissioner, a SCUBA re-breather engineer and and a two-time, two-topic TED Speaker. Watch the film of Rich's fascinating talk in the Museum's Flett Theatre:

 

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The evolutionary rates of sea urchins are more complex than previously thought, a finding that could apply across the evolutionary tree.

 

Evolution within groups of organisms was first thought to occur continuously, at a constant rate. Fossil-based analyses soon led to the belief that many groups quickly reach maximum diversity early on in their history, followed by a decline in evolutionary rates as habitat types fill up.

 

Now, in a detailed analysis of a group of marine invertebrates called echinoids, Dr Melanie Hopkins of the American Museum of Natural History and Museum palaeobiologist Dr Andrew Smith have found a branch of the evolutionary tree that has increased its evolutionary rate over time.

Slow starters

Modern echinoids originated 265 million years ago, just before the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event that wiped out around 96% of all marine species. They still exist today as sea urchins and sand dollars.

 

Despite the abundance of ecological space left behind after the mass extinction, Dr Hopkins and Dr Smith found that echinoids experienced the lowest rates of evolutionary diversification during this early phase. Said Dr Smith of the result:

This slow start is very different from the standard model of high initial rates of diversification followed by a slowing down as ecological space gets filled that we have come to expect.

Bursts of diversity

When they looked in more detail at sub-groups of echinoids through time, they discovered that some that underwent episodes of 'early bursts' in evolution, primarily associated with the adoption of new feeding strategies.

 

For example, one particular group of echinoids - the sand dollars - evolved a novel method of 'deposit-feeding' that allowed them to filter nutrients from the sand, and this innovation coincided with a marked increase in morphological innovation.

 

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Regular echinoids like the sea urchin (left) have five-fold symmetry and can head in any direction, whereas irregular echinoids, like the sand dollar (right) have two-fold symmetry, with defined 'front' and 'back' ends.

 

A question of scale

The overall pattern of slowing evolutionary rates punctuated by smaller 'early burst' events within certain subgroups points to the importance of considering scale when assessing the evolutionary history of any group. Said Dr Smith:

Rates of evolution turn out to be quite different when viewed at different scales, and both 'continuous' and 'early burst' patterns of evolution may apply to the same group depending upon how you view them.

 

More information:

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Trills and twitters of finches greet us each morning - at extra volume on the chilly bright mornings - and continue throughout the day as goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches compete for space on our bird feeders. Flocks of blue, great and long-tailed tits forage in the tree tops and hedgerows, and occasionally join the finches for seeds or fat balls while our resident blackbirds, robins, wrens and dunnocks can be heard amongst the shrubs and leaf litter.

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A robin singing through a tangle of hawthorn

© Jonathan Jackson

 

Over-wintering redwings were spotted swooping down to feed on the remaining holly berries last month. But what about some of our less common winter visitors? Daniel Osborne, has been looking at recent work by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)'s outstanding citizen science experiment Garden BirdWatch which unravels a mystery surrounding the blackcap:

 

"The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), like other UK warblers, is primarily a summer visitor, arriving in April and May to establish a breeding territory, build a nest and raise young, then departing in September and October to overwinter in Southern Europe and North Africa. Its beautiful varied song can be heard occasionally in the Wildlife Garden in spring and summer and the bird itself - a fairly drab yet distinctive grey and light brown bird, the male with a black cap, the female a brown cap - is regularly observed among the trees and woodland and even bred in the garden in 2012.

 

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

© David Tipling

 

Since the 1950s, with the increase in use of garden bird feeders, the number of Blackcaps overwintering in the UK has increased dramatically. And in the last 30 years ornithologists have noticed the number of blackcaps in the UK during winter has seemed disproportionately large.

 

A number of bird ringing programmes in the UK and Europe provided the explanation. Bird ringing is the process of catching a bird, often in a net or while it is still in the nest, and attaching a small ring of metal to one of its legs before releasing it.

 

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Bird-ringing in progress

© BTO

 

The hope is that the ring will be seen again, either by a keen-eyed birdwatcher or by anyone who should happen to chance upon the bird at close enough range. The ring's unique code means that scientists can be certain of an individual bird's movements. This technique has provided a number of extraordinary insights into bird migration including the large number of overwintering blackcaps.

 

It was found that while some German blackcaps were migrating south to Southern Europe and North Africa some were migrating to spend winter in the UK. The UK's maritime climate warmed by the Gulf Stream means that winters are milder here than in the continental climate of Germany, and global temperatures are increasing as a result of man-made climate change.

 

This increase in warmth is likely to mean more food, in the form of insects and berries, available during the winter and fewer sub-zero nights to endure, and has no doubt made the UK in recent years a more attractive winter destination, but surely not as attractive as Southern Europe and North Africa. That is, until the added benefit of the artificial food left out in UK gardens is taken into account.

 

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Blackcap migration routes from Germany

 

The abundance and reliability of artificial food in our gardens is of course invaluable to our native species, particularly in winter. In the last 30 years or so it has also brought about this change in blackcap migration strategy. Ongoing work by Kate Plummer of the BTO has demonstrated that bird feeding activities have been important in the establishment of the overwintering blackcaps.

 

The food we put out for birds in winter is tempting indeed and the blackcap population that comes here, instead of heading south, enjoys some distinct advantages. The distance is about a third shorter, which means not only do the UK-wintering birds reduce the costs and perils of migration, but they actually arrive back in Germany first.

 

This means they can take the prime breeding territories and potentially raise a greater number of healthier young. A fascinating by-product of this is that Germany's UK-wintering population and the southerly-wintering population breed at different times and are now genetically distinct. This winter I have so far seen one female blackcap in the Wildlife Garden, but look forward to seeing more of these beautiful birds, and speculating about how they came to be spending winter in the UK."

 

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A female blackcap

© Edwyn Anderton, Flickr

 

Thank you Daniel. Last weekend we cleaned and repaired our nest boxes ready for this year's residents.

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As part of International Open Data Day, the Natural History Museum is opening up its digital collections and research data through its new Data Portal. An increasing number of governments and publicly-funded organisations are committed to making data available for unrestricted use - Open Data.  NHM supports this principle and its data are of particular value to scientific research on biodiversity, looking at changes of species over time and in geographical distributions, and predicting future trends. This is something of particular interest in the face of human pressures on the natural environment and the need for effective policy responses for a sustainable future.


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The Portal provides a digital access point to over 2.7 million specimens in the Museum’s collection, as well as thousands of other records and datasets that enthusiasts can browse, download and reuse.  The Data Portal also holds a growing and varied collection of research datasets, including the Museum's wildlife sound archives, checklists of British species, and even assembly instructions for a Lego device to manipulate pinned insects.

 

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The Museum’s Vince Smith and Ben Scott created the system. Vince Smith said,  “Data on the collection is one of our greatest assets. We wanted to expose the Museum’s data to our peers in a way that allows them to easily discover and reuse it.”

 

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“The Data Portal will provide an archive for the hundreds of research datasets generated by museum scientists each year”, said Vince. “It also allows the Museum to contribute to global science initiatives, such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, who are aggregating all known data on the occurrence of species worldwide.”

 

The collection could once only be accessed when academics took the opportunity to visit the Museum in person.  It is now accessible to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world. Ben Scott said: "There is huge value in exposing this data to the world - we are excited to see what people use it for."

 

The Museum has over 300 Science staff, generating almost 1,000 scientific papers every year - these papers are now being presented as dynamic lists on the new staff biographies, which will link in coming months to a new NHM Open Repository for published materials.  The new Data Portal will provide a platform for scientists to share the datasets that have been created alongside their studies.

 

Vince Smith said: “We hope that the Museum's open approach will further understanding of the natural world, and foster innovation allowing other scientists to test and build upon existing Museum research.” 

 

Open Data Day brings people together around the world to  use open public data in innovative ways: creating new approaches to visual presentation; doing analysis and research; and exploring new data products.  It is part of efforts to  support and encourage open data policies all around the world to open up access and increase benefits to all.  As part of Open Data Day on 21 February 2015, Ben Scott will be attending the London outpost, and helping people use Museum data in their hackathons.

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What does the future hold for the Pangolin?  They are rapidly earning the reputation of being the mammal with the world’s highest level of illegal trade, yet many people have never heard of them.

 

Louise Tomsett, Mammal Curator at the NHM, is giving two Nature Live events on Saturday 21st February 2015 - World Pangolin Day - in order to raise awareness of these lesser-known animals, and to highlight the threat of extinction due to the illegal wildlife trade. She will be showing specimens from the NHM’s scientific collections, not normally on display to the public.

 

What are pangolins?


Pangolins are nicknamed "scaly anteaters" but they are not the same animal we generally think of as an anteater. Despite their distinctive appearance, making them hard to confuse with any other mammal, relatively few people know about them. The scales cover most of their body, giving them the appearance of a "living pine cone" or artichoke. They live in a variety of habitats such as grassland, rainforest and agricultural areas such as plantations. There are four species in Africa and four in Asia.

 

Sunda or Malyan pangolin ii.JPGThe Sunda or Malayan Pangolin


Pangolins are well adapted to their ecological niche. They feed primarily on ants and termites, using large, powerful claws to break open nests and mounds, and very long, sticky tongues to lick up the insects. Their specialised ears and eyelids can be closed to prevent attack by ants. The scales are an aid for digging burrows, and help some species climb trees in addition to acting as armour against ants and larger attackers such as lions.

 

pangolin_scales.JPGPangolin scales

 

When threatened pangolins curl up into a tight ball, rendering them virtually impenetrable, even to a lion’s teeth. Their common name ‘pangolin’ even comes from a Malay term generally meaning ‘rolled up’. Unfortunately it is this defence mechanism that also makes them rather easy for poachers to pick up and carry.


Conservation issues


The main threats to pangolins are the illegal wildlife trade and habitat destruction. Trade in pangolins (live and dead) is on an international scale, with confiscated shipments often amounting to tonnes. Quantities found in seized shipments represent only a fraction of the real numbers traded and estimates of the trade indicate as much as tens of thousands of individuals each year. The main drive for trade is the falsely attributed health benefits of pangolin meat and other body parts such as scales. Alleged benefits range from curing acne to curing cancer. In some countries, the sheer cost of the meat and being able to afford it is used as a status symbol. Pangolins are also used as bush meat, for indigenous folk-law rituals and for leather goods.

 

The traditional source for pangolins for the illegal trade is southeast Asia but this is now appearing to change, with African pangolins now a target as Asian pangolins run out.  The consequence is that all species of pangolins are now threated with extinction.


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Tree or African White-Bellied Pangolin

 

Pangolins are easily stressed and many die during the hunting and trafficking process, or even once rescued. They are extremely difficult to keep in captivity due to the fact that very little is known about their biology and care. In addition to this a continuous food supply of live ants and termites is very difficult to source. They have rarely been bred successfully and usually only have one offspring at a time so with current hunting levels, populations are not sustainable.

 

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The NHM’s collections are used by scientific researchers from all over the world. Like many of our collections, the pangolin specimens we hold contain a wealth of information, much of it waiting to be unlocked. For example, the geographical information can provide historical species ranges, specimen tissue samples for DNA analysis shows the genetics of different populations and isotope analysis of samples indicates geographical sources and movements during an individual’s life. All of this information is extremely valuable for conservation.

 

Louise Tomsett

 

#worldpangolinday

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It's been a while but we have now the penultimate installment of the Peruvian Adventure by Dave the driver Hall...enjoy.

 

I think that fourth night must have been the first one I've spent at 2,700m and I didn't seem any the worse for it. I tugged at the wooden shutters to see what day five on the road might have in store. Weather: acceptable for driving on dodgy roads. High, thin clouds cut with watery pastels. A shabby old town in diluted blue and sunbleached turquoise. The plaza mayor was just creaking into life. A cluster of women in straw hats held conference outside a grocer's. A policeman heaved open the giant wooden double doors of an eroded old police station, yawned, and spat.

 

I took a cold shower, dressed and started lugging trunks and sample boxes from last night's sorting. Prof. Knapp was already up (of course) dismantling the drier. The daily task of packing seemed a little more arduous this morning. Either the altitude, or the shin-barkingly steep antique stairs. The van was parked in a square pound at the back of the hotel, which looked appealingly like the OK Corral. Sandy had been a little concerned that the truck might not still be there this morning, but the locals seemed harmless enough to me, if not exactly chummy.

 

The growing light revealed our hotel to be of a certain vintage; much of the rear was semi-derelict and empty. I creaked back and forth with my boxes through creepy cavernous dusty backrooms, using the return trips to investigate dark passages and musty staircases leading nowhere, the only sounds my wheezing and the drip of an old tap. And here an appealingly dilapidated old dining room-dance hall I could imagine thronging with local revellers.

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Morning in Celendin.

 

After breakfast I took a few moments to explore the town, too. It might be old hat for the Dr Livingstones in our midst but I was unlikely to set eyes on the place again. Erica likes telling me how amusing it is reading my rhapsodic perspective on what she sees as routine grubby fieldwork: I see cascades of mountains; she sees dirty socks drying on the dashboard.

 

(Erica here - not exactly how I phrased it - he was bemoaning us for failing to see the beauty all around us - Sandy and I were concentrating on flies and spuds )

 

The market was already open for a day's easygoing trade. I ambled over. Three schoolboys kicked a burst ball to each other on the way to classes. The policeman hadn't moved. Stallholders unhurriedly erected awnings and set out their wares along the narrow thoroughfares, the alley-tunnels filled with the pungent aroma of meat, overripe fruit and hawker-stall breakfasts. I bought plump oranges and tomatoes for lunch from one of the impassively leather-faced vendors and wandered back to the hotel, ready for another day behind the wheel.

 

But no! Erica announced she'd be driving today, to 'give me a break'. The cheek. I protested firmly, in my quietest voice. This felt like cheating, but I was anticipating incredible scenery, ahead so I didn't flap.

 

(Erica again - they are long days driving- even we are not that nasty to make him drive continuously)

 

In contrast to other towns thus far it was a fair doddle finding the route out of town. Without at least two simultaneous sets of directions being offered in each ear, the going seemed somehow easier. Being fair, it wasn't hard to navigate. There was little traffic, and thanks to the colonial grid system we simply had to find the edge of the town and keep going until we hit a road going east.

 

Nevertheless, this road looked unpromising – a narrow back-street cluttered with the detritus of townsfolk's lives: bits of motorbike, smashed agricultural implements, underfed dogs...

 

But here a sign, which told us it was a mere 150km to our next stop, Leymebamba, and presently we started climbing.

 

The narrow road wound up again through foothills scarred with gold-mining quarries, many illegal. The locals had been protesting for some time, largely to deaf ears, that these mines – many sponsored by American multinationals – are polluting the water supply.

 

Above the scarred hillsides we rose... the road surface was perfect and I couldn't help thinking what an epic bike ride this would make for the stout of heart. Eventually the treeline gave way to rousing views of Celendin far below, where the light-blue double steeple of the church in the town square poked above the ramshackle rooftops. The town nestled in a half-bowl surrounded by hills. It must have looked attractive to the early Inca settlers and, unfortunately for them, the Spanish too. The head of the valley ended in an unseen drop, and far beyond were mountains whose peaks seemed oddly level with the town itself... now it was clear how high up the town was.

 

Still we climbed, this time without finding any locals to pester about their potatoes. Spying as yet no specimens, we meandered upward and upward, through rugged moorland, ever closer to the clouds that before had seemed so far off. As the sun finally renewed hostilities and the clouds began to leak a bit of sunshine, we reached a high pass of about 3,500m where a tiny village sat incongruously amid the rugged landscape, complete with a tiny football pitch and neatly planted conifers. The place had a strangely manicured feel.

 

Then, suddenly, the other side. As we breached the other side of the pass, a completely different panorama opened up. A dramatic series of valleys and mountain ranges rolled into the east, rib upon rib wreathed in mist, multiple horizons fading toward the Amazon. Somewhere to our right, far below and well beyond view, the Marañón River was thundering on its 1,700km looping journey toward the king of rivers. My head span at the spectacle. Sandy and Evelyn discussed tomatoes. Erica drove on without comment.

 

Our way wasn't getting any wider. As we wound downwards, hugging the cliffsides, the road only narrowed further. The bends were like fishhooks, and here and there were patches where the roadworks had not reached or where recent repairs had simply slid down the cliff. There were no barriers to protect motorists from the yawning 1,000-foot drops a matter of inches from the wheels. Superfluous roadsigns warned us to slow down and keep right. Erica didn't need much encouragement. Everyone in the car seemed to become silent. I tried to look far ahead to see if anything was coming the other way. We could only imagine what it must be like for lorry and bus drivers.

 

I was beginning to enjoy myself.

 

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A yawning 1,000-foot drop inches to the left.

 

In the clouds now. I like being in clouds, but it doesn't help with the driving. Breaks in the mist revealed teasing glimpses of dark, sheer mountainsides. Here and there the sun poked through and a rainbow made a perfect technicolor arch over the road.

 

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Driving through the Peruvian mountains.

 

Then just as suddenly, out of the mist, full sunshine, the scenery changing from hairpin to hairpin. We were descending toward a lush shoulder of high land, an upper valley nestled in a crown of mountains far below, dotted with tiny farmhouses and quiltwork cornfields, into which the road descended in a series of insane switchbacks. It was a perfect lost valley; a prime spot for Eldorado.

 

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A prime spot for Eldorado.

 

I still have no idea how Sandy spots specimens from the car even at the modest speeds we were achieving. But at last Prof Knapp bade us stop for our first samples amid a gradually drier landscape.

 

The sun was melting the clouds away and the morning was mellowing nicely. Nearby, an allotment of sorts, a small bungalow and what I thought were petrol pumps. The immediate area was lush, catching runoff rainwater in a small series of irrigation ditches. Prime mozzie territory, I thought. Again, parts of the area had been cleared recently – the solanum species again proving keener than mustard to move in quick on new space.

 

My ridiculous sample notes about the sampling area – for 'twas my job – read: “A small irrigation ditch is nearby and a 'petrol station' nearby also.”  I see now it was not a petrol station, but someone's dwelling, but their toilets seemed public enough at the time.

 

Sandy and the Fly Girls exited, rummaged in the back for Sucky and Sweep, then set off into the undergrowth. Evelyn swished gamely. Erica bothered a bush. I made notes. Sandy snagged some excellent samples of Solanum dilleni. I went to the toilet again.

 

(Erica once more - many conversations on fieldtrips revolve around toilets - how often you need to go, the facilities etc)

 

On we went. As we sank riverwards, hopes rose in the back of the truck that the ever-more arid terrain may harbour the tomato relatives we had encountered in similar habitats earlier in the trip: habrochaites perhaps. It was getting drier and drier. I prefer the lush stuff up in the mountains.

 

We fairly freewheeled to the next stop a couple of miles hence, where a sharp bend in the road concealed a small clutch of solenum arcanum known from Sandy's notes to be in this location many years previously. It was still there. All manner of insects waited to be sucked from the bushes, but nearby sat a sizeable troop of Homosapiens Peruensis, taking a break from mending the road. They were much animated by the sight of Erica's immense suction apparatus. We had disturbed the species in its natural habitat, so had to bear with good grace the sniggering and what I imagined to be Spanish double entendres. The Challenges of Fieldwork.

 

My notes say we came away with some samples of “Solanum simplefolium” but, according to Google, this doesn't exist. That's a shame – I liked that name. I can only imagine it was Solanum pimpenellifolium. This sports little purple flowers and tiny tomatoes – tomatillos – which are edible. It's a really close relative of our tomatoes. Indeed, it is sometimes called a wild tomato.

 

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Some Peruvian geology.

 

Further we sank toward the Marañón in our search for tomato and potato data, through spectacular peaks and pyramids of twisted volcanic rock where lava seams poked through like ribcages, past abandoned pasture and the occasional hungry-looking donkey picking through the brush.

 

At last we reached the valley floor, at the village of Chacanto in the district of Las Balsas – gateway to the Amazonas region. It was now all firmly semi-desert, reminiscent of parts of Nevada or Utah, catching the full ferocity of the sun. It felt like being stir-fried. The river looked inviting, but the Marañón slides through at a good clip here even in the dry season. It is a mere stream compared with what it would become downstream, but the bridge that spans it is a good 100m in length. We rolled over the bridge, stopped only a few minutes for a coffee in the sleepy village, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go...

 

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The Marañón River at the bottom of the valley.

 

Erica - since writing these blog pieces we have been analysing some of the data and trying to figure out what some of the insects that we sampled are. It has taken months to do this and there have been at least 9 people so far going through the insects. many are about to be sent of to specialists across the globe. Upstairs from where I am typing this at my desk we have two people imaging some of the specimens before they are sequenced for their DNA....its a very exciting time for this project.

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This blog post is a guest blog from the Natural History Investigators at Oxford Univeristy Natural History Museum (OUNHM).  After visiting us in London, to find out more about The Microverse research and to support us in our development of the project, museum educator Sarah Lloyd, took the project back to Oxford to involve students at both the OUNHM and the Oxford University Botanic Garden.  Here is what the Natural History Investigators got up to.

 

One snowy Saturday morning we unpacked our Microverse pack and lay out the scientific looking contents.  We are Natural History Investigators, a group of 14 to 16 year olds who meet every Saturday morning at OUNHM. We carry out our own research using Museum specimens. Before we begin our individual project work, we always spend some time doing something together. We've been into the Museum's spirit store, we have handled live tarantulas, but this week we were to collect samples to contribute to The Microverse project.

 

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Investigator, Gemma George investigating the similarities and differences between domestic and wild cats.

 

We divided the tasks amongst the group. Three of us were photographers. Six of us were keen to glove up and become swabbers and sample collectors.  We read through our instructions carefully and began collecting the grime that has accumulated on the outside of the neo-gothic museum building since 1860. We were very thorough and very efficient. Freezing temperatures definitely focus the mind!

 

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Abdullah Nassar collects samples from the north wall of the Museum.

 

With everything packaged up we eagerly wait to find out how many species exist in this special environment. Our individual projects have been based on things we can observe and hold in our hands.  So we are really keen to find out more about the process of studying life that you can't see or hold!

 

Natural History Investigators, OUNHM

 

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I can confirm that the samples from OUNHM have arrived at the Museum's laboratory.  Our lab assistant Filipa will be starting the PCR process very soon and then they will go into the sequencer.  In just a couple of weeks we'll be able to send the results back the Natural History Investigators, for them to explore.

 

Jade Lauren

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

Three weeks of amazing fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes of the world have come to an end: Popocatépetl and Colima, you have been very generous to us, both in terms of large quantities of promising samples and impressive levels of activity. Now that we are back in London, we want to conclude this blog for the time being with some take-home impressions of our beautiful Mexican volcanoes.

 

As scenic and contemplative these pictures may be, all the steam puff, ash clouds and fresh lava streams are a constant reminder of the immense destructive powers slumbering within these giant volcanoes, posing imminent danger to its surroundings. Both Popo and Colima have shown increasing levels of activity in the last months, making detailed real-time monitoring as well as fundamental studies of the underlying principles of the volcanoes’ dynamics even more pressing and important.

 

Using the samples we collected during the last three weeks, we, at the Natural History Museum and Imperial College will work hard in the future to contribute to the understanding of how Popo and Colima work.

 

There is more fieldwork at Popo to come in the next years, and of course we will be covering these trips at this exact place again. Until then, enjoy the pictures and be sure to watch out for a forthcoming NatureLive event at the Museum’s Attenborough Studio, where we will be talking in detail about our exciting trip to Popo and Colima! Thanks for reading.

 

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Popo as seen from Paso de Cortes: The wind blows the impressive steam plume to the NE.

 

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Looking South: The mildly snow-capped Popo towers in a surreal way over the trees surrounding ‘La Cascada’ resort.

 

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A last view from our hotel in Amecameca: Popo bids farewell to us with a nice trail of steam puffs.

 

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The danger within the clouds: Fuego de Colima. Even through the cloud cover, one can make out the gases that are constantly exhaled from the summit.

 

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The black lava flow in the center of this image has been emplaced during the last two years of activity of Fuego de Colima. The ‘clouds’ you can see here are actually gases coming from this lava flow, which is still hot.

 

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Twin peaks: The steaming, several hundreds of degrees hot summit area of Fuego de Colima in the foreground, and its snow-capped older sister volcano, Nevado de Colima, in the background.

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Last December, Epi Vaccaro (one of our PhD students) and I went to two scientific meetings in Tokyo, Japan. Our aims were to present some of the research that we’ve been doing at the Museum and to meet other scientists who work on similar samples and topics.

 

First up was the Fifth Symposium on Polar Science at the National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR). Since the early 1960s, the NIPR has used Antarctic stations to carry out research into a wide range of areas including climate, atmospheric science and biology. Fortunately for us, they are also interested in meteorites and, after several 'meteorite hunting'expeditions in the Antarctic, now have one of the largest collections in the world.

 

I spoke at the meeting (despite a serious case of jetlag!) about differences I have observed between the mineralogy of CI chondrites that were seen to fall to Earth, such as Orgueil, and those that have been recovered from the Antarctic. These CI meteorites are important as they show very similar characteristics to the surfaces of some asteroids that are soon(ish!) to be visited by space missions.

 

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Presentations were temporarily suspended at the NIPR meeting as we watched the launch of the Hayabusa-2 mission.

 

One of these missions is the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, which aims to collect material from a primitive asteroid and return it to Earth. We think that this material will allow us to learn more about water and life in the early solar system.

 

The samples won’t touch down on Earth until 2020 but the spacecraft was launched (after a few days delay) during our stay in Japan. I think that watching a tiny spacecraft being hurtled into space on the back of a rocket, whilst sitting alongside the people who have invested so much time and energy into the mission, was one of the most tense afternoons of my life!*

 

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Model of the Hayabusa spacecraft at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

 

You may have guessed from its name that Hayabusa-2 is actually a follow up to the original Hayabusa spacecraft, which (despite a few bumps along the way) in 2010 became the first ever mission to collect material from an asteroid and bring it back to Earth.

 

Hayabusa 2014 Symposium at JAXA. The meeting covered diverse subjects such as space weathering and sample curation, and also included a talk by Epi on the challenges of analysing very small samples using non-destructive techniques.

 

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Epi presenting his work at the Hayabusa 2014 Symposium at JAXA.

 

Sample return missions are challenging and expensive but produce very exciting science, as I witnessed at JAXA. There are limits on what kinds of scientific experiments can be carried out remotely, but returned samples from the asteroid belt will provide a wealth of new information about our solar system’s past.

 

*You’ll be pleased to hear that the launch was successful and Hayabusa-2 is safely on its way.

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Museum collections are being transformed into a radical new resource for science through digitisation: creating image resources and immense databases that allow advanced research for the future of the planet. Professor Ian Owens, the NHM Director of Science, gave a symposium on this subject in collaboration with Dr Jonathan Coddington and Dr Kirk Johnston of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California, on 14 February 2015.

 

Ecosystems and human needs

 

All humans depend on biodiversity in a wide variety of ways. Clean water, food crop production, sea fisheries, tourism, timber and many more human needs rely on the functions of ecosystems to a significant degree. Over the last twenty years we have seen much greater development of the idea of ecosystem services - a concept that thinks of the economic and other values of the natural world to humans and integrates those values into policy, education, natural resource management and other activities. This supports better decision making and aims to ensure sustainability - the continued use of ecosystem services by people over time and by generations in the future.  Biodiversity is central to ecosystem services - the variety and complexity of species and populations is immensely valuable to us all, but we know that we do not properly understand how ecosystems work, or the real value of biodiversity.

 

Data: 4.5 billion specimens, 1.9 million species, 300 years, and now DNA

 

Sustainable ecosystems management depends upon the availability of information about the variation of biodiversity. Natural history collections are a vital source of these data, holding billions of specimens collected over three centuries, each witness to past ecological conditions and historic distributions. This presentation showed how collection organizations are using digitization to unlock the vaults of their collections and develop tools to map, monitor and understand the natural world.


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The scale of the world's collections is immense, representing billions of datapoints. The Smithsonian NMNH in Washington is the largest collection with the NHM in London and the MNHN in Paris following. The data from these and many other colections together are a resource recording distribution, species and dates from which changes in biodiversity over time can be analysed.  However, most of these data from the last 350 years is on labels, cards and in books, meaning that they are not readily available to modern science or computing.  The challenge for collaboration is to transform the information into electronic data for modern biosphere science.

 

Collections  transforming science

 

Museum collections have always changed the way that we think about the world by enabling scientific comparison and research: the discovery of the dinosaurs; the origins of humans; and the processes of evolution.

 

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Charles Darwin's Galapagos finches in the NHM: a key to understanding evolution

 

As science and techniques change, so does the potential of museum collections - the recent revolutions in DNA and genomics enable collections to be seen in a completely new light as resources for researching evolution and relationships; the development of computing and data analysis allows rapid analysis of big patterns in space and time to be explored in ways that could only be imagined twenty years ago.  NHM uses CT scanning to create digital replicas of delicate specimens for complex modelling; advanced analytical techniques with electron beam instruments to understand the detail of mineral structure and economic potential; and new applications of electron microscopy to give insights into the smallest detail of anatomy and development.

 

Our partial knowledge - species and diversity as a key to understanding ecosystem value and function

 

When it comes to the Biosphere and understanding how ecosystems work, the last 350 years have seen the discovery and description of around a quarter of the species that exist (excluding bacteria and similar microbes). 400,000 beetle species have been discovered, but this almost certainly represents a minority of those that exist.  New technologies with DNA look likely to revolutionise the nature of discovery - and give access to greater knowledge of the link between diversity and our needs from ecosystems.  Around 1.9 million Eukaryote species have been described out of a probable 8-9 million.  If we consider bacteria, there could be tens of millions more species.  We are currently, worldwide, describing around 15,000 species a year so the rate of discovery with current techniques is not going to close the knowledge gap: we need more rapid approaches to description and characterisation of biodiversity, and more sophisticated thinking on the importance of biodiversity in ecosystem function.

 

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How do we understand biodiversity in a different way, and how can we speed up the development of our knowledge, particularly for the huge diversity of minute soil organisms, fungi and microbes? The effort of our science is at the moment focused on larger, more charismatic species such as birds and mammals, and the work of scientists on big processes and patterns in biodiversity - macroecology - is a small proportion of total activity.

 

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A key area of strategic development is focused on acceleration of biodiversity description and discovery, using forest insects as a pilot group: Breaking the Taxonomic Barrier, an important complement to the digital initiatives.

 

Digitisation - the beginning of the surge

 

We need to unlock the potential of our collections through digitisation to speed up this science -  transforming the labels and individual records into large datasets.  However, this is a major task that requires extensive collaboration and significant resources. Our efforts so far have digitised around 3% of our collection of 80 million specimens - and of this, only some is in suitable form for scientific analysis.

 

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Our response is the development of the Digital Museum: Collections. Over the last year, we have successfully transformed our approach from individual research projects to an efficient processing line with our iCollections project: we've digitised 500,000 UK butterflies and moths with an expert team who have taken images and transformed data for scientific use, taking 2 minutes per specimen and costing £1 per specimen.

 

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Our current project is the rapid digitisation of 70,000 plant specimens on a conveyor-belt digitiser, followed by transcription and database development, as a pilot towards the creation of a Digital Herbarium to allow wider and much more ambitious scientific use.

 

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And we have already put millions of printed pages into digital form as part of the collaborative Biodiversity Heritage Library -  NHM's efforts are part of a global network of digitisation - iDigBio in the US has digitised 25 million specimens from a network of institutions, just as one example.  These efforts amount to the development of big data for biosphere science in coming years.

 

The need for citizen science

 

However, there is a significant challenge in transcribing the label data from older scripts - it cannot be done automatically and until we have transcriptions, these older collections are inaccessible to science

 

15903365787_67d188e362_o copy.jpgAnd this is where the involvement of thousands of volunteers can be essential in transforming collections into a scientific data resource: citizen science and transcription.  Some of this is through online crowdsourcing portals, such as Zooniverse, where we are experimenting with the transcription of our digitised collections.  However, we are also looking at how we can make crowdsourcing a live event: at our annual Science Uncovered event in September 2014 we welcomed 10,000 members of the public into the NHM to see science at first hand and one of the activities on offer was citizen science transcription of beetle specimens.

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Results and data use

 

New science is emerging from these growing digital resources: the beginning of a new type of science possible from this investment.  Steve Brooks, Angela Self and Flavia Toloni from the NHM, with Tony Sparks from Coventry University, have used the digitisation of butterflies and moths to look at how UK butterflies are responding to climate change.  There are good observation data for the UK from the 1970s, but collections hold the key to looking further into the past. They analysed data from 2,630 specimens of four species of British butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines, Hamearis lucina, Polyommatus bellargus and Pyrgus malvae), collected from 1876 to 1999. The data on collection dates gives a record of the first emergence of these species each year and the research shows a good relationship between higher early spring temperature and early emergence dates.

 

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Big Data and Open Data

 

The data produced from our digitisation work is being released through a new Data Portal, enabling scientists to find information of interest and to download datasets for research on Open Data principles - the NHM has adopted a policy of being Open by Default.

 

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The broad challenge of global biodiversity

 

New work is using much broader datasets to understand big changes across multiple ecosystems: Andy Purvis and his team in the PREDICTS project which is taking data from multiple sources, including collections, to look at patterns of how local biodiversity typically responds to human pressures such as land-use change, pollution, invasive species and infrastructure, and aims to ultimately improve our ability to predict future biodiversity changes.  Data is being assembled from a wide range of biomes.

 

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The future of the Digital Museum for the Biosphere: Open Data; Big Data; Community Data

 

The future for the Digital Museum of the Natural History Museum is based on a new model for the development and use of collections data through digitisation:

 

  • Open Data that are available to scientists all around the world for collaboration and research.  We need to involve as wide a range of expertise in thinking about science for the future.  Museums will continue to be a key resource as a focus for evidence and extended collaboration;


  • Big Data that cover whole ecosystems over long periods of time, based on the solid evidence base of collections and extending from population and species to molecules and DNA.  Internationally, there are 4.5 billion specimens of 1.9 million species from 300 years of collecting. We need to use these data effectively but also work out new ways of gathering data on the millions of other species that will allow  understanding to help humanity to  tackle the challenges of the future in terms of environmental change and sustainable use; and


  • Community Data that are based on the involvement of a wide spectrum of public participation, from schoolchildren to students to communities: online, in museums and in the field. This is science for everybody, from basic curiosity, to observation and recording, to data development and interpretation, from appreciation to understanding practical application for the future.

 


 



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One of the most prestigious international gatherings of scientists, policy specialists, journalists, science communications professionals and the US public is the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  It attracts several thousand participants every year: in 2015 it is in San Jose, California from 12-16 February.

 

The NHM is represented this year by Professor Ian Owens, Director of Science, who is co-organiser and speaker at a session Unlocking Natural History Collections to Model the Biosphere in collaboration with NHM's sister institution the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) from Washington D.C.

 

Session information


Unlocking the Vault: Digitizing Collections To Understand Global Biodiversity
Saturday, 14 February 2015: 3:00 PM-4:30 PM, Room LL21C (San Jose Convention Center)
https://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2015/webprogram/Session9604.html


Ian and Jonathan Coddington (from the NMNH) will be speaking on the potential of collections data in addressing global environmental challenges. 4.5 billion specimens in natural history collections are a key resource for science supporting our future on Earth.  Unlocking this valuable data source through digitisation will support sustainable use of biodiversity, better understanding of parasite threats to human health, and essential insights for the development of new crops to feed a growing population.

 

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Both NHM and NMNH have ambitious programmes of digitising collections - creating images, data and DNA evidence - to enable much wider scientific use by researchers around the world.   The future of this bold enterprise will be mapped out in the session on at AAAS on Saturday 14 February, showing how  major institutions are creating genomic collections and digitizing biological data to make it openly available, often with the help of thousands of online citizen scientists. Researchers are harnessing the potential of collections as an immense dataset on the planet’s past and present, used for modelling the future for better-informed policy. 

 

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Digitization, genomics and citizen science are enabling scientists to work across multiple collections and millions of specimens. The collections highlight geographic, temporal, morphological, and genomic patterns of diversity across a vast range of species. By combining collections data with new modeling and data visualization tools, analyses of biodiversity are possible on a scale never before seen. 

 

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Society needs systems that deliver the best possible estimate of the abundance, distribution and functional role of all species, from the recent past to projecting into the future. Delivering this requires an unprecedented level of cooperation by natural history organizations and the wider community.

 

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https://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2015/webprogram/Session9604.html


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Hi Fossil lovers!      Tips to help you identify your fossils:


Fossil Guide iBook - a useful resource for the basics about fossils and how to identify many of the common ones.

  • All the major groups of fossils are illustrated with clear diagrams and beautiful, pin-sharp photographs of real specimens.
  • Suitable for beginners as well as those with some knowledge, this authoritative and helpful multi-touch book has been produced by the Open University, in collaboration with the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge.
  • It covers invertebrates, vertebrates and plants, and each fossil group is illustrated with a gallery of photos.
  • Some specimens are presented as 360-degree rotational objects to provide a tactile feel, and the detailed structure of other fossils is captured with high-resolution views of thin sections under a microscope.
  • The Introduction includes useful advice and tips on responsible fossil collecting. As well as being suitable for the educated amateur, this book will also be useful for teachers and should provide a stimulus for children interested in fossils and the wonderful world of geology.

 

Have fun and let me know how you get on!

Best wishes,

Fiona

 

Resourceweblink
Minerals under the Microscope coverhttps://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/fossil-guide/id765391277?mt=11
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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.


Popo times are over (never mind the blog title), but for Chiara and me the journey continues: Colima volcano, here we come! We have planned three days in Colima, and since winter in Mexico is generally a time free of clouds and rain, we are fairly confident that we will get some great shots of this impressive volcano. But alas!, as we arrive at the tiny Colima airport, we find that the view of Colima volcano is somehow underwhelming:

 

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Harder than spotting lava at Popocatépetl's flanks: Whoever finds Colima volcano in this photograph is a true eagle-eyes and deserves an honorary display in the Museum's bird galleries.

 

The weather in Colima remains tropically hot, damp and cloudy for the next one and a half days. Chiara makes the best out of the bad conditions by giving a spontaneous talk about her work at the University of Colima, while I use the time to give you some background information about Colima volcano:

 

Fuego de Colima, as the volcano is called, has been very active in historical times. There were large eruptions about every 100 years in the past, which directly leads us to the alarming part of the story: the last major eruption took place in 1913! And the volcano has certainly woken up in the past few years, with volcanic domes - very viscous lava forming a plug in the crater - frequently being built and subsequently destroyed. (By the way, this is exactly the same type of activity as we see at Popocatépetl, even though the volcanoes are very different in other aspects.)

 

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Fuego de Colima, and its snowcapped older sister, Nevado de Colima, form an impressive mountain mass towering above the State of Colima. Fuego de Colima has been very active in the past few months.

 

Especially since last summer, Colima has produced several small- to medium-sized eruptions every day; one of the largest since 2005 happened while we were peacefully collecting pumice at Popo:

 

 

It seems that Fuego de Colima is preparing for something bigger in the foreseeable future, and authorities are on alert in order to protect the ~300,000 people living in the vicinity of the volcano.

 

After intense rainfall during the second day, the weather clears in the evening, raising our hopes to finally see some action. And as it turns out, we get even more action than we were daring to dream of: we get offered a flight in a small airplane around the volcano on the third day of our stay. Obviously, this is an offer we can't refuse, especially after we are being reassured that the pilot is very experienced and knows how close he can get to the crater without getting into eruptive trouble. So off we go! Take a look at the stunning pictures we were able to take:

 

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Colima volcano, airplane view: gases are constantly emitted from the crater region. The surface of this area is several hundred degrees celsius.

 

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Even though there is some zoom involved in the picture, we are disquietingly close to the place where the explosions happen. The channel in the foreground of the picture is in fact a lava flow descending Colima's SW flank.

 

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A steamy view to the North, with the newest lava flow going down the left side of the picture. The very top of the volcano is a flat or even slightly concave surface (just as a proper crater should be)…

 

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…In December 2013, the summit looked very different. Here, we can see a fully intact, hemispherical dome. The explosions that have taken place since then have literally blasted off the cap of the dome.

 

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After the flight: Chiara is happy about what she has seen, as well as about being safely back on solid ground.

 

As soon as we are back at the airport, the volcano starts an impressive performance of steam and ash emissions. We congratulate ourselves that we are not in an airplane above the top right now and take more pictures!

 

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This eruption column is about 4 km high and contains very little ash, as can be gathered from the bright colour. However, if you look closely, you can see some ash falling out of the cloud towards the ground.

 

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Night falls, and Fuego de Colima continues its show.

 

We could show you plenty more pictures of Colima erupting, since it continued similarly throughout the rest of our stay (and is still ongoing!) and we were quite trigger-happy. But this blog entry is already quite long, so if you want to see more of Colima volcano, we would like to refer you to the freely accessible webcam that delivers live, high-quality pictures right to your computer screen. As I said, there are several eruptions like the ones shown above every day, so if you spend some time with it, chances are that you will be live witness of a proper volcanic eruption!

 

Sadly, our time at Colima is already over now, and also our field campaign draws to a close. Stop by here shortly for final, picturesque remarks about our work in Mexico.

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A species of bryozoan transplanted to an area with increased ocean acidity has been found to grow at half the rate of those living in normal ocean conditions.


Bryozoans are coral-like animals that live in colonies and build their skeletons out of calcium carbonate. An international team including Museum researcher Dr Paul Taylor transplanted several budding colonies from their normal homes in the Mediterranean to an area near an active volcanic vent in Italy.

 

The undersea vent expels heat and carbon dioxide, simulating the global surface ocean acidity predicted for the year 2100 as a result of increased anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. According to Dr Taylor:

Entire ecosystems are threatened by ocean acidification, and this will have economic consequences because animals such as bryozoans are often habitats for the juveniles of commercially exploited fishes and crustaceans or may be in their food chains.

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The bryozoan Calpensia nobilis showing normal growth at the leading edge © Lombardi et al, 2015.

 

During a three-month experiment, the bryozoan colonies around the vent suffered slower growth rates, the absence of some growth stages, and the corrosion of their skeletons. However, individual zooids – the tiny creatures that build the colony – were longer than normal.

 

Dr Taylor thinks this could be an indication of adaptation by the bryozoans to the changing environmental conditions. The colonies seemed to invest more energy in completing zooids that had already started to form rather than budding new generations. In other words, they were strengthening the existing colony rather than expanding.

 

Longer studies are needed along with more detailed information about how the colonies are reacting to possible future scenarios. Said Dr Taylor:

With this information, better predictions could be made of organism survival and evolution, and thus ecosystem changes, loss or survival in a changing world.

The research is published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

 

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I bet you have never wondered what microorganisms are living on London's iconic buildings. I certainly hadn't given it much thought until this August when I joined Dr Anne Jungblut, Lucy Robinson and volunteers Josie Buerger and Stephen Chandler, for an urban field trip. We visited four of London's iconic buildings to collect microorganisms and find out what on earth is living there. This would be the start of our citizen science project, The Microverse; a scientific exploration of the microbes that occupy our built environment across the UK.

 

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The Microverse team collecting samples from Westminster Abbey. Image credit: Josie Buerger

 

The Tower of London, The Gherkin, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey all kindly accepted our request to swab their walls and DNA sequence the biofilms that we found. We carefully selected different types of building material and different sides of the buildings, so we could compare the community of microorganisms from these different aspects of the built environment. We took samples from different aged buildings, from cleaned and un-cleaned walls and even from the roof of St Paul's Cathedral.

 

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Collecting samples from St. Paul's Cathedral.

 

Samples were collected by dampening a cotton wool swab with sterile water and then rubbing this swab against the surface of the wall. The head of the cotton wool swab was then put into a tube of DNA preservative. Samples were stored in the freezer of the Museum until they could be DNA sequenced in the labs. We are currently analysing the lab results to see what communities of microorganisms were living on the different buildings. Will The Gherkin have less microorganisms than the Tower of London? Will south facing walls have more microorganisms than north facing walls? We hope to tell you what we have found very soon.

 

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Dr Anne Jungblut adding sample to DNA preservative at Tower of London. Image credit: Josie Buerger.

 

The Microverse is a citizen science project, suitable for A-level Biology students or equivalent, and community groups. The project takes you out of the classroom to gather microorganisms for DNA analysis, as part of our cutting edge research into the biodiversity and ecology of the microbial world. It's free to participate and you can find out more about the project and how to take part here.

 

Jade Lauren

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

This uncomfortably oblique photograph marks the end of this year’s fieldwork at Popo. As you can see, we have been extraordinarily successful in collecting samples:

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All in all, we have collected twelve boxes full of pumice and lava in the last two weeks, each of them weighing about 20 kg!

 

Moreover, not only have we been doing well in bagging rocks, but we also made many important field observations, such as the relation of the different volcanic units in time and space. This is essential for the proper handling and analysis of our samples.

 

As soon as our heavy load arrives at the Natural History Museum, I will crush the rocks into tiny pieces and examine them using different types of microscopes. We are confident that this will tell us intriguing stories about how Popo works. The adventure has just begun!

 

But first, we will drive this trunkful of rocks to Mexico City, where we will also say ‘muchissimas gracias’ and ‘hasta luego’ to Julie, who will fly back to London, and also to Hugo and Guillem, who will stay in Mexico City. Chiara and me will stay in Mexico for another week, which we will mostly spend in Colima. There, about 500km West of Popo, the ‘Fuego de Colima’ volcano is currently very active, with several small eruptions every day. We are excited to go there and see some nice ashclouds, and of course, we will keep you posted about our ventures in West Mexico!

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NHM EARTH SCIENCES SEMINAR

 

Unravelling global warming through soil mineralogy: A case study from a proglacial valley in the Swiss Alps

 

Dr Christian Mavris, Marie Curie Fellow (ES, NHM)

 

Tuesday 10th February - 4.00 pm

 

Earth Sciences Seminar Room (Basement, WEB 05, the previous Mineralogy Seminar Room)

 

Investigations in Alpine soils indicate that mineral weathering is much faster in ‘young’ soils (<1000 yr) than in ‘old’ soils (10,000 yr). However, little is known about the initial stages of weathering and soil formation, i.e. during the first decades of soil genesis. Due to the continuous retreat of the Morteratsch glacier (Upper Engadine, Swiss Alps), the proglacial area offers a full time sequence from 0 to 150 yr old surfaces. The area is well documented regarding vegetation and soils.

 

The glacial till has an acidic character (granitoid parent rock). Mineralogical measurements were carried out using a broad range of analytical approaches, from XRD to wet chemistry to cathodoluminescence and Nomarski DIC microscopy. Specifically, cathodoluminescence and Nomarski DIC microscopy were used for the first time on minerals involved into an early pedogenic process.

 

This work clearly demonstrates that in cryic, ice-free environments, chemical weathering rates are high, leading to the formation and transformation of minerals. This clearly influences pedogenic processes to a remarkable extent – and thus, is linked to the settlement of life in previously deglaciated (and extreme) areas.

 

 

More information on attending seminars at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/news-events/seminars/

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Polymerization in hydrothermal conditions: Darwin's prescient idea.

Dave Deamer, Department of Bimolecular Engineering, University of California, Santa Cruz CA

 

In an often quoted note to Joseph Hooker in 1871, Darwin speculated that life may have begun in a "warm little pond." We have tested this idea in simulations of fluctuating hydrothermal fields associated with volcanism. We found that the chemical energy available in such conditions can drive polymerization of ordinary mononucleotides into surprisingly long oligonucleotides resembling ribonucleic acid (RNA). The polymerization occurs in lipid environments so that the RNA-like polymers become encapsulated in membranous compartments to form protocells, the first milestone on the evolutionary path toward primitive cellular life. 


Energy and Matter at the Origin of Life

Nick Lane, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

 

There is a paradox at the base of life. Membrane bioenergetics - the use of ion gradients across membranes to drive carbon and energy metabolism - are universal, but membranes are not. Radical differences between bacteria and archaea in membrane chemistry and active ion pumping suggest that LUCA, the last universal common ancestor, may have used natural proton gradients in alkaline hydrothermal vents to drive growth. I will outline a possible scenario for the origin of life in this environment, and present some experimental and modelling results which suggest that proton gradients could have driven the transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, and the deep divergence of archaea and bacteria.

Location:

Flett Lecture Theatre, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London - Map

Poster:

Download a copy of the poster here - Poster

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The latest edition of Evolve is out (Issue 22) and the Library and Archive collections (and staff) feature in many of the articles:

 

Dorothea Bate rediscovered map

 

Interview with our Special Collections Librarian, Paul Cooper

A first for the Library and Archives team!

 

Magnificent Monsters: The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs by Karolyn Shindler

 

Snapshot of war: the 100th anniversary of World War One by Karolyn Shindler

 

Cousins across the centuries: the pigeon and the dodo, a strange family tale

 

Evolve is available from the Museum shop or free when you become a member.

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Palaeo-ecosystems in Pleistocene Europe: Insights from stable isotopes of large mammal fossils

 

Prof. Hervé Bocherens, University of Tübingen, Germany

 

Tuesday 3rd February - 4.00 pm

 

Earth Sciences Seminar Room (Basement, WEB 05, the previous Mineralogy Seminar Room)

 

The climatic fluctuations of the Pleistocene have caused dramatic changes in the ecosystems of Europe during the last million years. These ecosystems, cold or warm, included a high diversity of megafauna, in contrast to recent ecosystems under similar climatic conditions.

 

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_024715_preview.jpgTooth of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

 

To gain a better understanding of the functioning of these ecosystems with no modern analogue, the isotopic composition in carbon, nitrogen and oxygen of the large mammal fossil bones and teeth were used to document key aspects of their ecology, such as habitat, diet preference, niche partitioning, and predator-prey interactions. In addition, isotopic analysis of fossil hominids and their prey allows the reconstruction of subsistence patterns and inferences on the possible anthropogenic impact on the environment.

 

More information on attending seminars at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/news-events/seminars/

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

After our dirty but successful pumice-rich first week at Popocatépetl, we were all happy to get that dust off our shoulders and start chasing the various lava flows that make up most of the volcano edifice. Now, if the whole volcano is built by lava flows, it should be really easy to find these rocks, shouldn’t it? The short answer is: no. The longer, picturesque answer will take you into the wild, rough and bumpy world of Popo’s lower flanks, where a good rock is as hard to find as a sleeping baby lion in the vast African savannah. Join us on the magical ROCK SAFARI!

 

Early in the morning, when Popo is still entangled by the night’s misty claws, we make our way from the hotel in Amecameca towards the south-eastern flank of Popo, the land of the sneaky rocks.

 

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Somewhere down there they are hiding: the Popocatepetl lava flows!

 

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On the lookout for rocks: moving in this terrain makes you reconsider what you may call a ‘road’.

 

What makes it so difficult to find these lava flows is the fact that most of them are buried by a thick cover of the Popo pumices (not again!) and lahar deposits. So in many cases the only thing we can find on top of these dirty deposits are loose boulders of rock, which we can’t even be sure belong to the place we find them lying. A tedious job requiring lots of caution!

 

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An easy catch: can you spot the rock?

 

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Julie finds a rock that has tried to hide away from our hammers…

 

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…we took care of it.

 

Such a seek-and-destroy campaign can easily take a couple of hours for one lava flow and is not necessarily successful. However difficult it may be, when you finally spot a nondescript, lichen-covered rock specimen, the adrenaline you feel while smashing it into pieces to see what species it is pays off generously.

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Another boulder from a Popo lava flow successfully tracked down.

 

One factor that contributes to our (otherwise rather questionable) sense of adventurism during this rock safari is the daily recurrence of a group of local forest watchdogs roaming around the terrain. The first time they came, they only surrounded our car with a grim look on their faces, checking if we were hunters (if they could only know!).

 

The second time, they had machetes (they were cleaning the roads from vegetation) and we had to give them some money so they’d let us pass. The third time, it was already getting dark, and they had shotguns to guard a road against any people with mischief in mind. We certainly didn’t at this point. The good thing is that by now they know us and they greet us cheerfully every time we pass them.

 

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Obviously, we weren’t keen on photographing the shotgun watchdogs, so instead we present evidence that some lava flows are not good at hiding away. This the Nealticán lava flow, which is the most recent of Popocatépetl’s lava flows (in geological terms, ‘recent’ means younger than 2,000 years). Because of its young age, it is not covered by a lot of deposits and is thus widely exposed. Unfortunately, this flow is the exception to the rule.

 

In this manner, we have chased down a couple of lava flows in the past few days. We are very happy with the outcome of our rock safari and can’t wait to introduce these samples to their new temporary habitat while they are shipped to the UK: cardboard boxes!

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You could say that this month's post is written in the spirit of January detoxes and body cleanses and all that healthy, New Year resolution-y stuff. It is also, I should mention in advance, not a post for the faint-hearted, so if you are of a nervous or squeamish disposition, you should probably look away now.

 

You could say that this month's specimen is the most intimate and personal one I've ever written about. It is, I believe, unique in our collection as being the only specimen donated by a member of staff having been sourced from his own body.

 

I'll let the protagonist - former Museum Science Educator and current Discovery and Learning Officer at ZSL London Zoo, Theo Blossom, take up the tale:

It was May 2012, 7.30 in the morning. My alarm had gone off in my university campus dorm room, where I was studying for my Masters in Conservation Science. I got up out of bed, and I started to walk across my room. Two steps across the floor, I felt something… something between my legs, something dangling... So I put my hand down my underwear, and I felt something coming out of my… well, my bum! At this point I began to feel a little alarmed.

 

I started to pull at it tentatively. Whatever it was kept coming and coming and coming. It was a bit traumatic, but  finally, "it" came out. All nine inches of it! I held it up in front of my face, in disbelief - and then - it gave its last wiggle of life! That was when I began to freak out.

 

What Theo had just bravely removed from his own behind was (it would later be confirmed) a roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides. He named it Judas and put it in a flatmate's (n.b. 'special thanks to Izzy') Tupperware container.

 

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An example of the human roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides, (however, not 'Judas'). This species can grow up to ~40 cm (16 inches).

 

A visit to the campus doctor confirmed the aforementioned species type and also allayed some of Theo's fears about this strange creature that had been living in his body.

(The campus doctor) was a very well-spoken old boy who was probably, quite frankly, bored of handing out condoms. So when I slapped down Izzy's Tupperware box in front of him he became quite animated. Thumbing through a rather tatty book of potions he said: "Mebendazole, that will kill them. That is, if you want to kill them? It seems a shame. This little fella has probably been providing you a service - I presume you're fit and healthy with no allergies?"

 

It's all about the idea of "ecosystem services", Theo in turn explained to me. That is, the benefit that human species gain from resources and processes supplied by ecosystems. In this case, exposure to parasites (roundworm) keeps our immune system active and therefore better able to cope with other foreign bodies, from everyday pollen to more harmful bacteria.

I've since worked out that this little dude was inside me for two years. I didn't know. He caused me no problems. Coincidently or not, I have no allergies. The reality is our bodies are riddled with living organisms which are there all the time but do us no harm whatsoever. In fact, they benefit us in many ways.

 

After learning all this, I began to feel a bit bad. This little guy has been part of a marvellous little ecosystem that was boosting my immune system, and I'd just ended the party.

 

But Judas - who is actually female, not male - lives on, in body, and, technically, in spirit, in the Museum's specimen collection. After speaking to a Museum expert in parasitic worms to find out more about Ascaris lumbricoides, Theo was encouraged to donate his find (or should that be harvest?) to live on in perpetuity behind the scenes of the Darwin Centre, among our more than half a million other parasitic worm specimens.

 

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Theo revisiting his roundworm, affectionately known as Judas, in the Museum's Darwin Centre this week.

It's a dream come true for anyone into natural history to have their name recorded in the scientific scriptures of the Natural History Museum, alongside the likes of Charles Darwin. I just didn't think it would be quite like this!

 

My great, great grandchildren, can, if they wish, in years from now, walk into the Museum and request to see Judas in all her glory. My great grandchild will ask my granddaughter: "Mummy, can we go and see great Granddad's worm?" And from beyond the grave, that will be a proud moment for me.

 

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'To see "Ex Homo sapiens (Theo Blossom)" written on a specimen jar at the Natural History Museum is pretty awesome!' Theo said, adding: 'She looked a bit smaller than I remember, though.'

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An innovative jaw bone study has revealed that a Jurassic fish ate like modern sea breams.

 

By measuring the jaws of 89 examples of the fish Dapedium, including specimens from the Natural History Museum, University of Bristol undergraduate Fiann Smithwick was able to recreate how it ate. He said:

My work indicates that Dapedium was well adapted to crush shells, feeding on bivalves and other hard-shelled creatures that it could scrape from the sea floor.

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A Dapedium specimen from our collections.

 

The good preservation of the fossil fish specimens allowed Fiann to use a mechanical model developed to understand modern fishes in his study. By calculating the positions and orientations of the jaw muscles, he was able to determine that Dapedium's jaws moved slowly but strongly, allowing it to work on the hard shells of its prey.

 

In contrast, other families of fish can have faster but weaker jaws, adapted for feeding on fish prey that are speedier and slipperier.

Ancient fish, historic collections

Dapedium lived 200 million years ago during the Jurassic period, and is one of many ancient sea creatures discovered by Mary Anning in the rocks around Lyme Regis, Dorset.

 

Museum fossil fish curator Emma Bernard said:

Dapedium is an iconic fossil from Lyme Regis and can be found on many postcards and souvenirs from Lyme Regis. If you are lucky you may even find one when fossil hunting in Lyme Regis.

Viewed from the side, Dapedium was a flat, deep-bodied fish that could grow up to half a metre in length. It had jutting front teeth with a mass of blunt teeth behind. Emma said Fiann was a pleasure to work with as he grasped the importance of our historic collections:

This study would not have been possible without the extensive fossil collections we house, which show a variety of characteristics that Fiann used for his study. His work helps us build up a picture of how Dapedium lived and what it ate.

The study appears in the prestigious journal Palaeontology - a rare achievement for an undergraduate.

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Finds from Taiwan and Israel shed light – and confusion – on the story of ancient human species.

Find 1: A mysterious jawbone from Penghu, Taiwan

Discovered by chance by fishermen off the coast of Taiwan, an unusually thick and primitive human jawbone shows a challenging mix of features. While no DNA has yet been recovered from the specimen, its characteristics make it difficult to classify into existing groups.

 

The jawbone is short and wide, with a thick body and large teeth. It dates within the last 450,000 years, and most likely within the last 200,000.

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The jawbone, left, and a reconstruction of the jaw, right © Yousuke Kaifu.

 

A partial Homo erectus skull from the Chinese mainland has some large associated teeth and could be 400,000 years old, so the new jawbone may belong to the same group. But it could also be one of the elusive ‘Denisovans’, a group known only by DNA from a fragmentary fossil finger bone and two very large molar teeth in a Siberian cave.

 

Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer said this could be an interesting development:

I have considered the Denisovans as an Asian sister group of the Neanderthals, and like them, derived from Homo heidelbergensis, but if Penghu is indeed a long-awaited Denisovan jawbone, it looks more primitive than I would have expected.

He said of the find:

As the authors note, this enigmatic fossil is difficult to classify, but it highlights the growing and not unexpected evidence of human diversity in the Far East, with the apparent co-existence of different lineages in the region prior to, and perhaps even contemporary with, the arrival of modern humans some 55,000 years ago.

Read the original paper

 

Find 2: The skull of a possible early migrant, from northern Israel

A later and much better-dated specimen, the partial skull of an early modern human from Manot Cave dates to a time of migration out of Africa and interbreeding with Neanderthals. At about 55,000 years old, it sits comfortably in the timeframe estimated for early modern human and Neanderthal interbreeding, 50-60,000 years ago.

 

The skull itself has characteristics indicative of early modern humans, and without DNA it is impossible to say yet whether interbreeding with Neanderthals had an impact on the individual. Nonetheless, Prof Stringer said it is a critical find for examining possible migrant populations:

Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesised out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia, and also into Europe. Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period.

Read the original paper

 

Related human origins posts:

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A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

Time flies – we've already been here for a whole week! While Popo was smoking and steaming like a champion, we dived deeply into the dirty, dark side of geology during this week: We sampled ash and pumice from the four large eruptions of the last 15,000 years. For hard-rock geologists like Chiara, Julie and me, this was a challenging task. So much dust, so few proper minerals! But if you want to understand how Popo works, this is simply what you need to go through.

 

Armed with shovels of various sizes, a tape measure, our geological hammers (you never know!), and, last but not least, a hoe (romantically referred to as the ‘mano de gato’ - ‘the hand of the cat’), we went out onto Popo’s flanks to search and exploit its volcanic deposits. Hugo, the Popo expert, unerringly navigated us to the top spots, where we then got to work. The following series of pictures reveals what this actually involved:

 

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First of all, we need to get an overview about what we see. In this case, we are looking at the deposits of at least three large eruptions of the last 5,000 years. If you want to know more about such eruptions, just ask us!

 

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Next, we describe the different layers we see. This includes the size and properties of the clasts, the structures, and the thicknesses of the units.

 

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After that, we can start sampling. Sometimes it can be straightforward, sometimes you may need a helping mano de gato (‘the hand of the cat’) to clear the sampling site and guarantee a neat sample.

 

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Some or all parts of the layers might be covered with soil or debris. In this case, the shovels of various sizes come into play. This picture demonstrates that in doing so you may excavate more than rocks, such as the rubbish of what apparently was a big Mexican Fiesta (including diapers and mayonnaise).

 

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On other occasions, it might not be garbage, but a proper treasure that you dig out: A volcanic bomb! Hard-rock geologists, get your hammers and cameras ready!

 

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And this is what you get if you repeat the above steps for a whole week.

 

Now, this might have all been a bit nerdy, so I’ll finish this blog entry with an almost completely unrelated note. Of course we are not only interested in rocks, but also in Mexican culture. Naturally, when a worker in a quarry (we were there by chance, obviously) told us that there was a man in the nearby town San Nicolás de los Ranchos who would craft wonderful molcajetes (pestle and mortars), we went there immediately.

 

On the way there, Hugo explained to us that molcajetes are mortars especially designed for making salsa. Did I mention that they are made of rock? This is also why the salsa made using molcajetes tastes different than if you just use a simple blender – the sauce takes up the taste of the rock.

 

With this salsa-lesson learned, we were all quite keen to see these wonderful items. But how would we find the Molcajete Man in the village? It’s easier than you’d think: you just ask anyone on the street for molcajetes. He/she won’t be able to give you a helpful answer, but 3 minutes later the whole village will know about the lost tourists looking for molcajetes. Out of nowhere, a random girl will appear next to your car, offering to bring you to Molcajete Man. Being a lost tourist, you accept the offer and follow the girl for about 30 minutes through the village, which gives you the opportunity to take some tourist pictures:

 

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San Nicolás de los Ranchos is built on laharic deposits from Popocatépetl.

 

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Evacuation routes are signposted all around Popo.

 

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The presence of the volcano inspires local artists to draw their own conclusions on what happens in nature.

 

Finally, we reached the mansion of Molcajete Man. He looked different than I expected, but obviously he is a master of molcajeting.

 

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Molcajete Man crafting a molcajete.

 

We would have really loved to get our own molcajete by that time, but these mortars are just way too big to transport to the UK. At least they are if you are already sending a garage full of pumice there.

 

Thus our pumice week has ended, and we enter phase two: rocks! I can already promise you it will be an exciting ride, so visit us again!

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Hello Super-flies and Parasites fans!

 

We are back with all things nasty from the Parasites and Vectors division here at the Museum. There have been some exciting developments in the New Year, most importantly the launch of the Museum’s brand new website!

 

This is another ‘Forever Flies’ series of blog posts, bringing you news from the Museum'sforensic entomologygroup.

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Forever Flies is our forensic entomology blog series. This image shows a carrion-eating greenbottle blowfly.

 


Forensic Entomology

You will remember from my previous Forever Flies post that forensic entomology is the study of the insects and arthropods found at a crime scene. The most common role for Museum forensic entomologists is establishing a minimum time since death in suspicious cases, by analysing the carrion insects on the body.

 

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Blowflies use the bodies of dead animals to grow and develop. The rate at which they do this, going from egg to larva to pupa to adult fly, is pretty consistent and depends largely on ambient temperature. Forensic entomologists use this to determine the minimum post-mortem interval (PMImin), which helps crime scene investigators determine approximate time-of-death.


Thanks to entomological expertise (Greek – entomo = insect, logos = knowledge) scientists can collect insects from a corpse and/or crime scene, determine what stage in their life cycle the insects have reached and, using their knowledge on the duration of each stage of the insects’ life cycle, determine how long ago the parent insect laid her eggs on the corpse.

 

This gives an incredibly useful estimate of the minimum amount of time this body has been dead (minimum post-mortem interval - PMImin), which helps crime scene investigators determine approximate time-of-death. The more accurate this minimum post-mortem interval is, the more accurate the time of death can be. Knowing time of death can focus the police investigation and suggest the likelihood of a suspect’s involvement.

 

Scientists can also use these insects to determine if the body has been moved since death and how long a body was exposed above ground before burial.

 

Metamorphosis in pupae


Flies spend over 50% of their developmental life in the pupae stage, protectively encased inside a hard shell (called a puparium) where they slowly transform from a maggot into a fly in a process called metamorphosis (Greek again - Meta = change, morphe = form).

 

A puparium looks quite bland and boring but underneath there are all sorts of wonderful things going on. Scientists can remove the shell and, using traditional microscopy, take a look at the fascinating changes of metamorphosis. But this process does destroy the pupa sample, making it difficult to work out how long it takes for the pupa to go through the different stages of metamorphosis.

 

Scientists know that the length of time metamorphosis takes to complete really depends on temperature, the question is can we use our knowledge of the process to pinpoint a more accurate estimate of PMImin?  What forensic scientists need is a standardised method to work out:

  1. At what stage in the metamorphosis process is the pupa
  2. how long did it take to reach this stage

 

If these two points can be determined then scientists can provide a far more accurate PMImin.

 

The ‘MORPHIC’ project

 

Dr Daniel Martin-Vega, a forensic entomologist, has joined the Museum from the University of Alcalá in Spain to research carrion fly pupae and to develop a standardised protocol for aging pupae (as in determining their age) that can be used by forensic scientists. This project is called MORPHIC and is funded by the European Commission through a Marie-Curie fellowship.

 

It sounds all neat, logical and tidy but there is A LOT of work and dedication involved!

 

For this projectDaniel is raising two species of the carrion-loving blowflies, the greenbottle blowfly Lucilia sericata and the bluebottle blowfly Calliphora vicina. The flies live in netting covered cages, where they feed and reproduce whilst he monitors them.

 

Daniel feeding flies_resized2.jpgDaniel showing me the Diptera (insect) culture room. Each netting-covered box has a species of carrion blowfly in it. He is researching the pupae of these flies to see if he can improve the estimate of  PMImin and thus improve the information given to crime scene investigators.


He also has to collect the post-feeding maggots and place them in a box with some nice clean soil for them to happily grow until they are ready to start the metamorphosis process. These boxes are then placed in a cabinet kept at a specific temperature. Since the rate of metamorphosis largely depends on temperature it is very important the Daniel can control this environmental factor in order to document the rate of change at different temperatures.

 

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The maggot house! This is a comfy box with soil where maggots crawl around and prepare to pupate. When the maggots start pupating Daniel has to come in every 6 hours or so to monitor and collect them for his research

 

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Blowfly maggots and pupae.

 

 

Once the maggots start to pupate Daniel has to collect the pupae:

 

I come in every 6 hours when the maggots start to pupariate in order to collect blowfly pupae at 6-hour intervals during the first 48 hours after puparium formation (the period when the greatest morphological changes of metamorphosis occur). Luckily, I only do this from time to time. After that, the collection of pupae is just daily until the adult flies’ emergence.

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Daniel sieving out the pupae from the box.

 

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Maggots and pupae, oh my!

 

Watch those maggots wriggle about!

 

He then has to sieve out the pupae from the soil and carefully place them in a petridish labelled with the blowfly species name, the date collected and the time collected. These petridishes are also placed in the special temperature-control cabinet.

 

 

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Daniel has separated out the pupae of different species of blowfly. Each petridish with pupae has the species name, the date collected and the time collected.

 

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The petridishes are kept at a specific temperature. Since the rate of metamorphosis largely depends on temperature it is very important the Daniel can control this environmental factor.

 

Daniel uses the Museum’s wonderful micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scanner to take detailed images of the inside of the pupae without destroying them. A micro-CT scanner is a type of X-ray scanner that produces 3D images, much like a hospital CAT scanner, but at a much smaller scale and a higher resolution. The results are like 3D microscope images! 

 

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Daniel with colleague Dr Thomas Simonsen using the Museum’s micro-CT scanner to look at 3D images of blow-fly pupae. The micro-CT scanner uses x-ray technology to produce 3D 'microscopy' images at high resolution without damaging the sample.

 

By using the Museum’s micro-CT scanner Daniel can take these detailed images at specific time points of the metamorphosis process.  He will then have a catalogue of images of the blow fly pupal development at specific temperatures. This catalogue of images will be used to develop a standardised tool to determine the age of blow fly pupae. Then when pupae are collected from a crime scene, they can be compared to this catalogue and scientists will be able to determine how long the fly has been in its pupal stage. Giving scientists a more accurate estimate of PMImin! Ta daaaaa!

 

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Micro-CT scanner images of a bluebottle blowfly Calliphora vicina pupa. The one on the left is at 48 hours, the one on the right at 216 hours. You can see the difference in development between the two pupa images.

 

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Dorsal micro-CT scanner image of a blowfly pupa.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you fancy a stab at a bit of CSI work why not check out the Museum's Crime Scene Live After Hours events.

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Adrian GloverDeep-Sea Systematics and Ecology Group, Department of Life Sciences

Wednesday 28 January 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


The deep oceans contain a vast and untapped wealth of minerals useful to humans. In geological terms, there is much known with regard the distribution of these minerals at different types of deep-sea environment. The first polymetallic (or manganese) nodules were recovered by the Challenger expedition in 1873, in the deep Atlantic. In the 1960s, the first estimates were made of the total mineral wealth of the oceans, and the first surveys undertaken. In 1978, the first fully integrated mining trials recovered several hundred tonnes of nodules from the central abyssal Pacific at depths of 5500m; in the preceding year, hydrothermal vents were discovered on the Galapagos rift. Since then, an average of 5 hydrothermal vent fields have been discovered every year, and 19 exploration licences for deep-sea minerals in both abyssal nodule and deep-sea vent environments have been issued by the United Naitons International Seabed Authority, 5 of these in 2014 alone. The United Kingdom government is sponsor to 2 exploration licence claims in the central Pacifc covering 267,000 square km, an area larger thant the UK itself.

Despite our accumulated knowledge of the mineral wealth of deep-sea ecosystems, our biological data remains extremely patchy. The central Pacific nodule regions have been well-sampled for nodules, but the majority of species are undescribed and fundamental questions such as the biogeographic distributions of animals unstudied. The diversity and ecological resilience of species to disturbance regimes are largely untested. At hydrothermal vents, critical data such as degrees of endemicity and gene-flow between vent fields is lacking.

The NHM is in a unique position to provide advice to industry and government, as well as academic research, in deep-sea mining from both the geological and environmental point of view. This has potential to be a key area in our Sustainable Futures strategy. In my research group, we have been working with an industrial contractor on the UK-1 deep-sea mining claim in the central Pacific for the last 18 months and are part of an EU FP7 deep-sea mining project. In this talk I will outline some of the history of deep-sea mining, the fundamental science at stake, our role in current projects, the importance of taxonomy, open data and bioinformatics and some of our plans for our forthcoming fieldwork (we sail for a 2-month trip on Feb 12).

 

More information on attending seminars at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/news-events/seminars/

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Large centipedes and larger datasets

 

Dr Greg Edgecombe, Department of Earth Sciences, NHM

 

27th January - 4.00 pm

 

Earth Sciences Seminar Room (Basement, WEB 05, formerly Mineralogy Seminar Room)

                                         

Scolopendromorpha includes the largest and most fiercely predatory centipedes, totalling more than 700 species.  Subjected to phylogenetic analysis since the late 1990s, early studies drew on small sets of external morphological characters, mostly those used in classical taxonomic works.

 

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Scolopendra gigantea

 

In order to bolster the character sample, new anatomical data were worked up by systematically sampling the group’s diversity in order to formulate new characters from understudied structures/organ systems. Simultaneously, targeted sequencing of a few markers for a small (but growing) number of species provided the first molecular estimates of phylogeny.  These have resulted in stable higher-level relationships that predict a single origin of blindness in three lineages that share this trait, and are now backed up by transcriptomic datasets with high gene occupancy. Explicit matrices of morphological characters and fossils coded as terminal taxa remain vital to “total evidence” dating/tip dating of the tree.

 

More information on attending seminars at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/news-events/seminars/

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jade Lauren