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Citizen science blog

A family and friends part in a citizen science project

Follow our blog to find out about Museum citizen science projects, and how you can take part. By recording wildlife observations, collecting samples and transcribing handwritten records, you can help us unlock the potential of our collections and gather vital data for scientists so that we can better understand the natural world.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Kath Castillo

 

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

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Today one of our Microverse citizen science project participants, Robert Milne, presents his own interpretation of the results of the microbial samples collected from Mid Kent College in Gillingham where he is a student:

 

The results:

 

Despite our best efforts, the samples we obtained for the Microverse project were taken in different weather conditions, at slightly different times, in slightly different areas of the building, and all three samples were taken from walls facing different directions. The materials of the surfaces we sampled were brick, glass and metal.

 

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Mid Kent College building, swabbed by The Microverse participants.

 

From the results below, it can be seen that all three surfaces have about the same number of OTUs, (Operational Taxonomic Units, a phrase to indicate taxonomic groupings in microorganisms), but this does not mean that each surface has the same number of individual microorganisms. The number of genetic sequences varies greatly.

 

 


Sample Area A

(brick)

Sample Area B

(glass)

Sample Area C

(metal)

Number of genetic sequences generated88,264120,49827,894
Number of OTUs2,1982,1071,960
% of sequences that were from Archaea0.02%0.00%0.00%
% of sequences that were from Bacteria75.62%88.76%87.75%
% of sequences that were from Eukaryotes24.36%11.24%12.19%

 

Table 1: Results from samples of microorganisms swabbed from brick, glass and metal, at Mid Kent College, Gillingham, (% rounded to 2 decimal places).

 

The glass surface has generated the most genetic sequences while metal has generated the least. This could mean that the bacteria on the surface of the glass are more successful than the ones on the metal, for instance.

 

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Sample Area A - Brick.

 

The image above shows the brick wall from which the first sample was taken. This wall had the most eukaryotic cells present, in which the majority of them contained chloroplasts (these are the organelles of plants that convert light energy into sugar).

 

This wall faces southwest and a wall facing south of any kind will always receive the most sunlight on it during the day, which could explain the increased chloroplast numbers compared to the other two surface areas we sampled. The fact that this wall was also close to a lot of grass could also play a part in these numbers.

 

 

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Sample Area B - Glass.


The image above shows the second surface sampled, which was glass. This had the most genetic sequences found out of all three of the surfaces we swabbed. There were, however, less eukaryotic cells on the glass and metal surfaces than on the wall.

 

This could be because the smooth surface of the metal and the glass meant that less eukaryote cells could remain on the surfaces for prolonged periods. The eukaryotic cells (represented by the mitochondria and chloroplast sequences in the sample) could have originated from natural wildlife around the area, such as a snail's trail or some spider webbing.

 

 

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Sample Area C - Metal.

 

Most of the eukaryote sequences found in all samples were chloroplasts, rather than mitochondria. This probably means the surfaces always have some form of sunlight on them, which is somewhat true since all the surfaces faced either west or east to some extent.

 

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Figure 1: The relative abundance of bacterial phyla, archaea, mitochondria and chloroplasts in the three samples.

 

Possible uses:

 

One of the prime examples for undertaking this feat of exploring more of the microbiological world is the need to find better antibiotics; resistance to antibiotics is an increasing threat in the world of medicine. Antibiotic discovery can occur via the identification of bacteria that produce chemical substances that kill or inhibit the growth of other bacteria. Once identified the chemical substance can potentially be cultured and used as a treatment to kill off bacterial infections.

 

Exploring the countless surfaces outside in the world is a treasure trove of information that could lead to the discoveries of new bacteria that can be used effectively as a source for an antibiotic.

 

However, it can also be considered that a new resilient bacteria could be discovered that can survive without much water for a long time, which may, just maybe, hold a specific DNA sequence to help relieve the effects of hunger and thirst in patients that must undergo a fast before an operation (such as colon screening). It can open up a number of new doors to the world of medicine, and with a huge percent of areas still not investigated, it could only be a matter of time before huge changes are discovered.

 

Robert Milne

 

Thank you Robert! Robert Milne is a student of Mid Kent College, who has just finished his second year of an Applied Science Level 3 course. He has a keen interest in biochemistry and genetics and hopes to enrol this Autumn on an Undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Greenwich. To find out more about the Museum's citizen science projects, see our website.

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This week Dr. Della Hopkins tells us about how the Decoding Nature project takes school students out on field trips and involves them in the Museum's science research.

 

In June, a group of ‘scientists in the making’ from Pimlico Academy joined up with a small band of research scientists from the Museum as part of a long running project called Decoding Nature. Decoding Nature is a Museum-run venture which delivers residential science courses to school children aged 8-18.

 

The courses take place at The Old Malthouse School near Wareham in Dorset, and combine learning with original, ongoing scientific research. Over the years the project has evolved and included a wide range of scientists with varied areas of expertise. Each course is different, ensuring that the children are taking part in cutting edge research that will be used for publication.

 

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Amazing lichen communities on Dorset trees - a winning photo from the photography competition. Image credit: Coco from Pimlico.

 

For this particular course our budding scientists from Pimlico Academy were set several tasks, to aid renowned Lichenologist Holger Thues with several important research questions. The week began with an introduction to lichens and a recap on classification and how to use keys, before launching into investigations into the species composition of spice lichens; bags of mixed lichen species sold as cooking ingredients in many Asian supermarkets.

 

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Recording the lichens on coastal trees. Image Credit: Annabel Crookshank, The Old Malthouse.

 

Next we took to the fields to carry out an air quality survey (designed by the OPAL project), using nine target lichen species growing on tree branches to give an indication of pollution levels. Three of these lichens are very sensitive to pollution, three are ‘intermediate’ and the final three are nitrogen-tolerant. The children’s findings were of great interest, showing that the presence of sheep dramatically altered the lichen community, with the nitrogen sensitive species nowhere to be found. Less than a mile away, by the coast, these species were flourishing.

 

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Comparing the lichen species on trees in grazed fields. Image credit: Annabel Crookshank, The Old Malthouse.

 

Once they had honed their lichen-identification skills we headed out to Dancing Ledge, a beautiful area on the coast where the cliffs meet the sea. The students carried out a series of transects to answer questions about the habitat preferences of the coastal lichens, such as whether the rocks were sea- or land-facing, vertical or horizontal, and how close to the sea they were. We made some surprising discoveries, and were able to make some collections to take back to the Natural History Museum.

 

Image 4 Hopkins NHM.JPG

Making a (permitted!) lichen collection at Dancing Ledge.

 

Finally we used DNA barcoding techniques on a number of European and British samples of the lichen Verrucaria pachyderma. This involved working in the laboratory to extract DNA, and amplify it to a level which could be taken to the museum for the sequences to be read. This was very important work, and great care was needed with the samples. Everyone managed the task superbly, and we were successful in extracting the DNA.

 

Image 5 Hopkins NHM.jpg

Ready and prepared for DNA extraction.

 

Once we left Dorset, and returned to the museum, the DNA samples were sequenced. Genetic analysis of the lichens collected from Europe show that the British collections may in fact represent an entirely separate species. The next step is to expand the collection range and analyse more genetic markers, but the results so far are already a big surprise and wonderfully exciting.

 

Image 6 Crookshank OMH.jpg

Holger Thues explaining the different habitat preferences of the lichens. Image credit: Annabel Crookshank, The Old Malthouse.

 

The week was full of games to encourage learning, especially with the more tricky subjects such as DNA barcoding. The children entered each challenge with enthusiasm, whether they were in the lab extracting DNA, or buzzing around the field as worker bees collecting their sand pollen. We also found time to learn about other techniques used by scientists in botany (plants) and entomology (invertebrates).

 

To find out more, visit our Decoding Nature webpage.

You can also find out how to participate in OPAL surveys here.

 

Della Hopkins

 

Dr Della Hopkins has worked at the NHM for 6 years, and has managed the Decoding Nature project for the past 5. She previously worked on seed conservation with the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. She studied Environmental Biology at Royal Holloway University of London, followed by an MSc in Ecology (Bangor) and her PhD from London investigated heathland conservation and restoration.

 

Della runs the Decoding Nature project with Dr Robert Dyer (molecular laboratory assistant).

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

 

Bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

 

Coeloglossum viride Ladle Hill 1.FR.jpg

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Coeloglossum viride Ladle Hill3.FR.jpg

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

 

Now for a last chance to see:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

lesser butterfly closeupMW.JPG

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

 

Greater butterfly close upMW.JPG

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jade Lauren

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

journal design.jpg

Transition Kids proudly presenting their field journals. © Stefan Ferreira

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

To find out more about Transition Kids, please email Ainslie

 

And to find out more about the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs visit: http://cpdinosaurs.org/

 

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

 

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The whole dinosaur swabbing team. © Stefan Ferreira

 

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Jade Lauren

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About the authors

The Citizen science blog is written by:

  • Jade Lauren Cawthray
    Citizen Science Project Officer
  • Lucy Robinson
    Citizen Science Programme Manager

Jade and Lucy work with colleagues to develop citizen science projects that help the Museum answer scientific research questions.

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