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Hello newcomer!


Many visitors seem to have troubles registering to our ID forum, or they register and don't know how to start posting enquiries, how to attach photos, etc.


If you have the same problems, please download the pdf guide attached here and follow the step-by-step advice in it.


Looking forward to seeing your posts on the forum,




Sapphire Buddha

Posted by Tipula - Museum ID team Jul 24, 2013

We have had an interesting specimen to identify, bought in India some 40 years ago, beautifully carved into a small Buddha head. The specimen was extremely hard  and must have been carved by someone very skilled because it is only about 3 cm high.


We identified the stone as corundum, the scientific name for rubies and sapphires. Gem quality corundum is diagnosed as ‘ruby’ if it is red. All gem quality corundums which are not red are called sapphires even the pink ones like this Buddha!





In the last few days you may have been lucky enough to see a shooting star as one of the year's biggest meteor showers was displayed in the skies over Britain. But does a meteor ever become a meteorite? And how do you know if you have found one? Well in this blog I will tell you a little more about meteors and meteorites,  what to do if you think you have found one, and how to find out more at Meteorites Day 2012, a special event at the Museum on 2 September.


Over the weekend from the 11 to 15 August the UK was treated to the height of a meteor shower recognised as one of the best and most reliable meteor showers in the northern hemisphere. The Perseid meteor shower happens every year between late July and mid August and at its peak can produce tens of meteors an hour.


Originating from the debris stream left by the comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the sun, the Perseids are so called because they often appear to come from the constellation Perseus - but as the number of meteors increases they can be seen all across the night sky.


You may think that this event would lead to an increase in meteorite discoveries that are reported to the Identification Service here at the Museum, but meteors are formed from very small particles of matter ejected from the comet, that burn up completely in the atmosphere. This means that if you see a meteor you are unlikely to find a resultant meteorite.


2012-0402 Iron Meteorite Tanzania (UNK)1.jpgA meteorite discovery from Tanzania


But what if you do think you have found a meteorite - what can you do about it? Well before you jump to conclusions there are a few simple tests you can do on your possible meteorite.


STEP ONE: Test to see if your discovery is magnetic


All meteorites have some degree of magnetism; even the stony meteorites have flecks of iron and nickel mixture throughout the rock that distinguishes them from terrestrial rocks. You should be able to detect the magnetism with an ordinary fridge magnet, so if your object is not magnetic at all - then it is most likely not a meteorite.


P1070568.JPGTest your object with a fridge magnet


STEP TWO: Check the density of your discovery


Meteorites, especially iron meteorites, tend to be far more dense than some of the more commonly mistaken terrestrial rocks, so if your specimen is light in your hand when you pick it up, then again it is unlikely to be a meteorite.


P1070574.JPGYour object should be heavy for it's size


STEP THREE: Look at the surface of your discovery


Meteorites are characterised by something called a fusion crust - when the meteorite comes through the atmosphere the intense heat of entry causes the surface of the meteorite to melt. So if you can see cracks and bubbles or even other bits of rock or mineral stuck to the outside of your discovery, then once again, it is unlikely to be a meteorite.


P1070575.JPGThe surface of your object should be smooth with no bubbles (right)


So what do you do if you have done these three tests and all three suggest that you have found a meteorite? Then bring it in to the Museum! On Sunday the 2nd of September the Museum are holding a 'Meteorites Amnesty' with members of our Earth Sciences department on hand and some genuine meteorites you can touch and compare against your own discoveries.


There will also be talks and activities throughout the day all about meteorites. However, if you miss this event, don't worry. Just send us a photo at the Identification Service email ( or bring your specimen in on another day and we will let you know if you have a meteorite or a meteor-wrong!


Find out more about the Meteorites Day special event at the Museum


Can’t make it in to visit us on a weekday?  We also open the first weekend of each month from April to October, and for a few other special events.  We are usually in the Museum on these weekends, but sometimes we get out and about to other wildlife events in the UK.  The weekends we are in the Museum you can drop in with identification enquiries or book to use the reference collections.  When we are out and about we’ll still look at your identification enquiries wherever we are, but there will be no access to the reference collections.


Please note these dates and events are subject to change, so do check with us to avoid disappointment.


The weekends we are open this year are –


Saturday 31st March and Sunday 1st April

If you are in the Museum on Sunday 1st April why not come along to the Spring Wildlife day in the Wildlife Garden?


Friday 4th – Sunday 6th May

PLEASE NOTE we will be off site this weekend at the fabulous Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, so there will be no Identification Service in the Museum


Sunday 27th May – Big Nature Day

We will be hosting a nature fair, putting members of the public in touch with amateur naturalists, societies and recording schemes from across the country.  Regardless of whether you are interested in ferns, frogs, spiders or stinkhorns there will be a society or recording scheme to match!


Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th June

If you are in the Museum this weekend you can also come along to the Bat Festival run by the NHM and the Bat Conservation Trust


Saturday 30th June and Sunday 1st July

This is Insect Weekend in the Natural History Museum.  We will be celebrating the end of National Insect Week with some special talks and activities


Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th August

Sunday 5th August is also Seashore Day in the Centre for UK Biodiversity, so get beachcombing and bring us your finds.


Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd September

Sunday 2nd September is also Meteorite Day in the Centre for UK Biodiversity.  We challenge you to bring us your meteorites!


Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th October

PLEASE NOTE we will be off site at the AES Annual Exhibition at Kempton Park Racecourse on Saturday 6th October so there will be no identification service in the Museum.

If you are in the Museum on Sunday 7th October Why not come along to our Hedgerow Harvest event in the Wildlife Garden?



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


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


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


seasonal enquiries.JPG



Bee flies

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




Bombylius major 2.JPG



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


2011-0759 Melolontha melolontha DSC_0121.jpg


House spiders

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


2007-1030 Tegenaria sp. 4 for web.JPG


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


Over the last week we've all enjoyed having Nicholas and Olivia with us on work experience in the Angela Marmont Centre, and as one result of their work I've now got loads of great specimen photographs for future blogs, so watch this space! If you fancy doing work experience or maybe volunteeing at the museum, you can find out all about it on our website: So thank you to Olivia and Nicholas for your work and now it's over to you:




We have been lucky enough to work behind the scenes in the Angela Marmont Centre with the UK Biodiversity Team as part of our work experience. Working in the centre has been wonderful for both of us, not only in the fascinating people that we have met but also in the wide range of activities and tasks we have been able to participate in.


On arrival we were shown round the collections and were astonished by the sheer volume of specimens in the archives. We were also thrown into several meetings which were lucky to be able to attend and learnt a lot about how the museum functions, along with scientists time keeping abilities… they tend to get caught up in intellectual discussions.


Throughout the rest of the week we had many other opportunities to get involved. In the laboratories we extracted plant DNA and analysed along with a tour of the lab, only witnessing a fraction of their hugely impressive facilities and machines. We undertook several outdoor activities including surveys in the wildlife garden for the OPAL Project and enjoyed being a part of the Nature Live show.


We were given a hard task of pinning insects and bugs. The specimens were quite old and brittle so our attempts seemed futile as bits of leg and antenna flew across the room. The reason for attempting this was so that the insects looked more alive when it came to setting them in resin for demonstration purposes.


Throughout our week numerous artefacts and creepy crawlies were sent or brought in for identification. We were able to witness and taken part, from beginning to end on the process. For us the most interesting was a fossil brought in by a small boy. To the untrained eye it looked remarkably like stacked starfish, however within seconds the expert Luanne identified it as a stem of a sea lily which lived around 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period.


Perhaps how we spent most of our time was taking photographs of some of the bug and fossil specimens brought in and making sure they had a number for the ease of the system here in the AMC. Of course whilst doing this we saw and photographed some amazing things. There were fascinating and beautiful fossils and minerals, among which was a mammoth tooth trawled in by a fisherman in the North Sea, a necklace made of teeth and tusks and some stone tools found in the Niger.


This is part of the intriguing reply to the person who brought in the stone tools below;

Photos for sorting - Olivia and Nicholas 242.jpg

I’ve had a look at the stone tools that you left in the museum. They are all ground and polished stone axeheads apart from one which is roughly fractured stone [...] I believe that ground stone tools first became important in the Neolithic period, which began around 12 000 years ago. [...] However, this does not mean that these specimens are prehistoric in age at all, as ground stone tools are still quite commonly made around the world, both as tourist objects and as working tools for some groups.’


Finally on our last day, in our final hours, we were privileged enough to be shown some of the amazing historical collection, dating as far back as the sixteen hundreds. Sloane was amongst them and we were able to witness his great plant collections, which contain drawings and the first specimens brought back from Jamaica, China and, at the time many other remote unexplored countries of the world. It was very unique experienced and we feel privileged to be among the few who have gained an insight into the histories of natural science and art.


Overall it has been a marvellous week filled with variety and no hour was the same, we only wish it was possible to stay longer.


You only have to browse through the Fossils and rocks forum to see how many of the suspected fossils put on there turn out to be something completely different! Fossil eggs, bones, turtles, ferns, footprints, you name it, natural rock and mineral processes can mimic it. We call these natural rock and mineral specimens that resemble or are mistaken for fossils "pseudofossils". This post doesn't seek to go through the most common look-a-likes, but if you google "pseudofossil" you will find many excellent guides out there.


This post is just some of my personal favourites from the last year. Fun and amazingly co-incidental pseudofossils are one of my favourite parts of my job in Earth Sciences identification.


2010-2444 mineral thought to be fossil bird head 003.jpg

"Fossil bird head"


It's got everything - neck, beak, even an eye. But this shape is created by the growth of a mineral upon the rock surface.

2011-0695 P1040137.JPG

"Fossil shark"


This shark shape, silhouetted in white against the dark background, would have me swimming for my life if I saw the silhouette peaking out of the sea. But it is just a chance area of cleaner white Chalk against a backdrop of Chalk discoloured by dirt and moss.

2010-2360 Fossi fish.jpg

"Fossil fish"


I can see what they mean, it looks like a guppy with a long flowing tail and fin. But this is a type of the rock flint known as banded flint. Banded flints form a series of roughly parallel lines such as this, which can create all sorts of misleading shapes. The cause is still not fully understood but the movement of water and silica through the flint is thought to be involved.


The rock flint can mimic any kind of fossil you can think of - bones, eggs, whole heads and bodies, you name it. Look out for a blog all about the wonders of flint coming soon!


2011-0058 dinosaur head pseudofossil 001.jpg"Fossil dinosaur head"


If this were a dinosaur, I can even see what kind it would be - one of the duck-billed hadrosaurs I reckon. Sadly, this is just the shape of the lump of rock, that had probably been exaggerated by weathering.



While writing this I've realised that these pseudofossils do have something in common after all. They all demonstrates one of the key things to appreciate when looking for fossils: don't look for the overall shape of an animal. This is because the soft parts of animals like muscle and skin only fossilise very rarely and in unusual conditions. You can assume you won't come across soft part preservation without knowing what to look for and where to look. To find fossils, look for the hard parts such as bones and shells, and bear in mind these are most often broken, mixed up and/or isolated.


Although we can say what these aren't, the hardest question to answer is, so why did the rock or mineral form or weather into exactly that shape? There are millions of rocks out there and so even if such coincidental resemblences are rare, there will still be plenty of pseudofossils. And of course those are the rocks that are going to catch your eye and get picked up.


So what should you look for? This page on our website has some good information and links for fossil hunting advice. And of course we will be happy to see whatever you find, whether rock, mineral or uncannily-vegetable-shaped-rock on the rock and Fossil forum here.


Happy fossil - and pseudofossil - hunting!


One of the first signs of spring for the Identification and Advisory service is a wave of intriguing descriptions of a mysterious garden visitor. Here are some from last year:

“A curious flying insect which was about 10mm long, hairy, beige/brown coloured, triangular in shape with a long snout which had the ability of flying backwards.”

“Approx 1 cm long, wing span twice body length, mix of light brown and black, teardrop shaped, hovers and darts at leaves and dead twigs, long spear-like proboscis approx half body length apparently non retractable”

“If I was to describe it compared to other animals it was a cross between a bee, a golden mole and a narwhal - but that sounds really silly.”

“Small (about 1/2 in long) humming insects. They were light brown with a furry appearance and had a spike at the rear and at the front. Their way of flying was to hover then move, very quickly, to a plant or another part of the garden. I could also hear the hum of their wings. They had to settle when feeding from the grape hyacinths, and I observed that their wings were like bee's wings (clear) and not like moths. Were these baby hawk moths?”

“I knew it was a hornet because it had a horn”

“It looks like a bat, but was the size of a wasp and had insect wings and legs. What is it?”


These are all descriptions of the same type of insect - bee flies.


There are 9 species of bee fly found in the UK, but the weird and wonderful creatures described above are from the genus Bombylius. The most common species is Bombylius major, and you can read more about its fascinating lifestyle here.


For serious bee fly enthusiasts the best book on the subject is British Soldierflies and Their Allies by Alan Stubbs and Martin Drake


07-445 Bee Fly - Bombylius major 1.jpgBombylius major


If your bee fly has a strong dark mark across the front half of its wings it is Bombylius major like the one above. If it has a spotty wing edge it is the rarer Bombylius discolor like the picture below. Both of these lovely images were sent in to us for identification by curious members of the public!


08-1027 Bombylius major 2.BMP

Bombylius discolor


So keep your eyes peeled for bee flies this spring, and share your pictures on our bug forum like these fine people:



A beginner's guide to how we identify a surprisingly common enquiry: mammoth and elephant teeth.


elephant tooth web.jpg

This tooth above was a family heirloom brought in for ID this week. Many elephant and mammoth teeth that are brought in are heirlooms that have been knocking about the house for a couple of generations. This is an Asian elephant tooth. It is a molar, so it's a grinding tooth.



The grinding surfaces of an Asian elephant tooth (left) and an African elephant tooth (right) in the Museum's Mammals gallery. The African elephant tooth has a more diamond shaped pattern to the grinding surface.



And the elephants themselves in the Mammal gallery - African (left) and Asian (right). Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and their teeth are smaller on average too.



On the left, a mammoth tooth. On the right, a modern Asian elephant tooth.


fossils 010.jpg


Mammoth tooth. This was dredged up by a fisherman from the North sea and brought to us for ID. Mammoth teeth have a similar grinding surface to the Asian elephant, so look different to the grinding surface of the African elephant. And mammoths are indeed more closely related to Asian elephants than African elephants!


Mammoth and elephant teeth can be very fragile and tend to crack downwards as you can see here. This can leave isolated plates instead of the whole tooth.


Hopefully you can now begin to identify elephant and mammoth teeth!

We get interesting, funny and beautiful fossils brought in for ID all the time. But now and again, we see something really special - better preserved or more complete than those in the museum's huge collections, or even completely new to science.


Here are some of the best from the last six months, and because their owners kindly agreed donate them to the Natural History Museum, they can be preserved, studied and maybe even named and published.


New insect family?

Insect wing enquiry low res.jpg

This insect was flying around the heads of the dinosaurs in the lower Jurassic period. It then got a bit tatty floating far out to sea before finally sinking, and against all the odds being fossilised in marine sediments. 190 million years later it was found by the donor on Charmouth beach in Dorset and you can still see the spots of colour on the wing. It was sent to us for ID and kicked off a debate between fossil insect experts around the world.


Opinions are divided about whether it belonged to a bush cricket or a lacewing. Bush crickets and lace wings aren’t closely related and don’t look very similar, but with fossils like this all you have to work with is the pattern of veins on the wings. This may be not just a new species, but a completely new family of fossil insect.


Ancient horse bone

Picture 052 with bone highlight.JPG


When this fossil haul from the Isle of Wight was brought in, we had no idea that the most interesting fossil would turn out to be the small bone that the red arrow is pointing to. Two avid teenage collectors brought us tons of fossils from the Isle of Wight, mostly bones of Eocene and Oligocene vertebrates around 55 to 25 million years old, including turtles, crocodiles, fish and mammal bones.


This one bone turned out to be another mystery – experts looked through the mammal, bird and reptile collections before realising it is the left radius (front lower limb bone) of a tiny 35 million year old dog-sized fossil horse called Plagiolophus minor. This bone from this species is a first in our collection and it will probably be figured and published.


Rare Cretaceous starfish


This starfish was brought in to us at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival ( again the Lyme Regis connection!). We saw a lot of cool stuff that weekend, including some stunning ammonites and ichthyosaur skull fragments. This particular enquiry didn’t look like much (hence no picture!), just a star shape the size of a 5 pence on a huge sandy coloured slab that had been sitting outside in its owner's garden for many years!


But fossil starfish are rare, espcially if they’re complete. Cretaceous starfish are especially rare, particularly from the Upper Greensand Formation (around 115 to 110 million years old) like this one. An expert also identified this as the rare species Comptonia sp. Future research may include dissolving the fossil with acid and pouring silica into the hole left behind to create an artificial cast. When removed, the silicon rubber cast will show the detail on the underside of the specimen that has been lost through weathering on the surface.


Exceptionally preserved ammonites



The donor of these ammonites got in touch when he realised that they were better preserved than any pictures of specimens of Pavlovia pallasoides from the Kimmeridge Clay (Upper Jurassic, 155-150 million years ago) he could find. We have few complete examples of this species in the collections and this is better preserved. It will help to build up our comprehensive ammonite collection and is a potential source for future research.


Well preserved fossil lobster


Another find from Charmouth! After hundreds of years of people looking for fossils around Lyme Regis since the time of Mary Anning (, it’s still one of the best places in the UK to find new and exciting stuff. This one was brought in to the Charmouth Heritage Centre: by a family who just happened to split this soft rock on the beach while fossil hunting and there it was!


It was brought to us for expert ID and belongs to the species Coleia brodei. We have other specimens in the collection but this one is beautifully and unusually preserved in strange way. The preservation in a soft shale means left alone this species will crack and disintegrate, but now the specialist Palaeontology Conservation unit will be able to consolidate and preserve it for future research.


Thanks to everyone who offered these and other donations! If you’ve got a fossil knocking about the house somewhere, bring it along for ID or post a pic – we’d love to see it, whatever it turns out to be!

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