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March is the month of women. With International Women's Day, The World of Women festival on London's Southbank and Mother's Day all packed in, the Museum shop is celebrating by bringing you some beautiful yet scientific gifts for Mother's Day. A great example is Images of Nature: Women Artists bringing recognition to women who have contributed and changed the course of natural history. So, let's take a closer look at some brilliant female pioneers.

 

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The Images of Nature Gallery is currently showing works from the women artists featured in the book above.

 

The scientific revolution did little to bring a new age of women scientists. Still seen as a lesser form than men at the time, they were not afforded the right to education and were encouraged to be home schooled instead. Lepidopterist and diarist Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (1862-1940) wrote:

 

The education of women was so shamelessly neglected, leaving the uninitiated female to commence life with all the yearnings of nature unexplained to her.

 

Very few women managed to make a name in their own right. Most had to make do with being assistants to their husbands, brothers or fathers and even then, their interest was seen as a hobby rather than a vocation. The introduction to Images of Nature: Women artists tells us:

 

Few women had the access to the advantageous opportunities provided by the scientific community, so for the majority any involvement in science was in an amateur capacity only.

 

This exclusion from the scientific field only made women more determined to become part of it. Jeanne Baret found a way with a ruse that would be at home in a Shakespearean plot: in 1766 she became credited with being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe after joining explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition as an assistant to the ship's naturalist while dressed as a man.

 

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Although Beatrix Potter was famous for her children's books, she failed to gain scientific recognition for her groundbreaking study of fungi.

 

The importance of the artist.

Without the invention of photography, artists became very important in helping to document and label new species. The need to share information about new discoveries and theories meant that scientific illustration became an invaluable and much needed craft. The job brought with it the excitiment of travel and discovery.

 

The aim of scientific illustration is to give an accurate portrayal of its subject. Linneaus called for a more strigently accurate depiction showing the structures of the plant and fruit to allow for easy identification.

 

The 20th Century saw more women being hired to colour illustrations for text books and journals. It also saw their male counterparts earning a higher income for the same job along with gaining a higher accolade. The Museum holds many paintings signed by women whose history and heritage are impossible to trace.

 

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Margaret Fountaine: despite her concerns for the lack of educational opportunities for women, she went on to become a lepidopterist.

The ladies who broke the mould.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717): She was an extraordinary person who went on a self funded, two year voyage into the unknown territory of the Dutch colony Surinam. It is her painting that is featured on the front cover of Images of Nature: Women Artists. Merian was an entomologist who studied the lifecycle of insects. Her work was often labelled as botanical due to the stunning accuracy and beauty of the detail she captured in the host plants of her subjects.

 

Marianne North (1830-1890): She was a lone traveller who collected many samples for Kew Gardens. Despite this, she never gained recognition for her work.

 

Margaret Fountaine (1862-1940): She collected over 22,000 butterflies. It was her wish that her notebooks, diaries and collection were embargoed until 15 April 1978; 100 years after she began lepidoptery.

 

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Like many female artists, the creater of this painting, Mrs C W W Bewsher, went by her husband's, rather than her own, name.

 

Sarah Stone (1760-1844): An early zoological artist. Her artworks of exotic birds, many unknown to science at the time, remain important to this very day. Her work is thought to be the only surviving evidence of specimens once held in the Leverian Museum.

 

Jane Colden (1724-1766): Possibly the first American-born female botanist. She collected and documented plants in New York. Her accompanying notes to her line drawings show the medicinal uses of plants and method of administration favored by local people.

 

Grace Edwards (fl.1875-1926): Unofficially employed by the Museum's entomology department to prepare illustrations and models of specimens. She produced some remarkable illustrations of African bloodsucking flies which show the skill needed to be a scientific illustrator.

Three ways to treat mum from the Museum:
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MidKent College are one of the 140 schools and community groups to take part in The Microverse so far. We asked two of their students, studying for a BTEC Extended Diploma in Applied Science, to tell us what got them excited about microorganisms, DNA and taking part.

 

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The team at MidKent College pausing for a group photo while collecting microbial specimens for The Microverse.

 

Here's Emmanuel Shobande:

 

We were informed about the Microverse project during a lesson and a majority of the class took a keen interest in what Alison, our lecturer, was saying. On the day, every member of the class went outside to collect biological samples from one side of the college building.

 

I took interest in the project as I wish to study Biomedical Science at university, so collecting data and analysing it is something I take an interest in. The course involves lots of research and analysis of data, so this project would be a great way to enhance my CV, thus making me more employable when applying for a job/placement.

 

But what inspired me was the fact that the data that I collected was going to be published and used for DNA analysis, which could help scientists identify the types of microorganisms with potential nutrient deficiencies, those living in wet/dry conditions and those which are housed in areas of high pollution from different areas and on different buildings. For scientists to say that they are to travel the whole world and swab every building for living microorganisms would be a very time-consuming and expensive task, which is why we, as future scientists, have been given such a great opportunity to get involved in the collection of data, which could one day help identify a new form of microorganism which may not have been studied prior to the project. Who knows, our data could one day be quite essential!

 

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Emmanuel Shobande, studying for a BTEC Extended Diploma in Applied Science

 

And now for Max Squires:

 

To be part of an actual scientific project has helped me gain a range of microbiological skills which will help me with my Biomedical Science course at university. It has made me feel like an actual scientist by helping to gather data which will be analysed and be part of informative research about the microbiological life within urban ecosystems. As part of this, my class swabbed the exterior college building to hopefully identify the types of microorganisms that live in similar conditions across the UK.

 

This project has got me thinking of the life of microorganisms in urban environments. In built up environments, such as the college building which was swabbed, there are not many nutrients for microorganisms to thrive, there are high levels of pollution which can affect how microbes thrive and different weather conditions in which the microbes are exposed to (rain, hot weather, snow, etc.).

 

Could the high levels of pollution, possible lack of nutrients and harsh weather conditions inhibit microbiological life? In theory, microbes thrive in warm, moist, oxygen-rich environments and if one thinks about it, urban environments provide these factors, so it is very likely to find microbes in urban environments. Identifying specifically what microbes live in these environments will help us map out where each different microbe lives and possibly identify many new biofilms, which can give us an idea how microbes interact with each other to thrive.

 

It has been a great opportunity to be part of this research. It feels great knowing that an actual sample I collected will be analysed by top scientists and will be used in actual scientific research! It has got me thinking of the life in urban environments on a microscopic scale and has allowed me to develop my practical skills in science giving me a good start at university and in the future.

 

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Max Squires, studying for a BTEC Extended Diploma in Applied Science.

 

The Microverse is a citizen science project, suitable for A-level Biology students or equivalent, and also 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. Free to participate, you can find out more at: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/microverse/

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With the forthcoming opening of our Sensational Butterflies exhibition in April, and the digitisation of our collections progressing gradually and efficiently, I thought it would be welcoming and encouraging to post a 3D art video on butterflies.

 

The video, titled “Gone?”, was made by Graham Macfarlane and Elitsa Dimitrova of Elyarch, a small but well-established and creative digital company, based in London.

 

I met Graham and Elitsa during the last Science Uncovered evening at the Museum in September, when they approached the Lepidoptera forest station to admire our displays and to chat about flight in Lepidoptera. They were particularly curious to know how butterflies and moths hold their legs during flight.

 

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The Lepidoptera display during last year's Science Uncovered.

 

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How do lepidopterans hold their legs while flying?

Top Hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) © Alessandro Giusti;

bottom Swallotail (Papilio machaon)© Lukas Jonaitis


“Difficult question!” I replied with a pondering smile. As a matter of fact I don’t think I had given the topic much consideration before then.

 

A few days later, after talking with some colleagues and having done a little research on the subject, I sent Graham and Elitsa an email saying that probably, in insects, the position of the legs during flight differs slightly according to groups.

 

Presumably, as in other insects, lepidopterans' legs hang more or less down under the body, and very likely their position changes according to the particular moment of flight, ie migration versus flying while feeding or moving short distances, or during courtships etc, and I suggested to look at images and slow motion videos of flying insects on the internet. 

 

A few weeks later they sent me the art video with thanks for the information I supplied, so I thought I'd share the video with you in case you haven’t seen it yet.

 

 

 

 

I really enjoyed the video; it's well-designed and captivating, even if the legs of the flying butterflies are probably not portrayed 100% correctly.

 

But let’s give the artists the benefit of poetic licence, and it shouldn’t matter after all, as long as the work entertains and stirs something in the viewer. Which I think “Gone?” does. 

 

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I like how the butterflies are taking off from an immobile position, as if they are all dormant inside a collection box, and a kind of imperceptible and secretive command suddenly wakes them up.

 

This makes me think of our collections, and how the digitisation projects currently taking place in our Museum are a sort of revival of our specimens and of all the useful data associated with them. A virtual awakening which makes our specimens more accessible.

 

But what I like most about the video is that it carries a nice message of hope, and it’s not just about butterflies, but also about any other organism we share our planet with: it’s an invitation for us all to reflect on the beauty, complexity and fragility of the natural world, and the responsibility each of us has to preserve it. A philosophy that is ingrained in the values of the Natural History Museum, as we have always aspired to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

 

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The vivid beams of light shining on the gliding butterflies and the shimmer created by the dislodged tiny scales of their wings give a wonderful sense of hope and awakening.

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Last week saw the launch of the Museum's own bag for life, and much to our delight you absolutely love it. With over 1,000 sold in just under a week, you have been declaring that you are on nature's side.

 

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Stay on nature's good side with a Museum bag for life

 

What is it made of?

The bag for life is made of non-woven polypropylene; a recyclable plastic that is strong yet lightweight, making it perfect for the weekly shop.

So it is plastic?

A recyclable one, yes.

What makes it more environmentally friendly then?

Businesses in the UK give out an average of 8 million single-use plastic bags per year. Hardly any of these are ever reused or sent for recycling and, instead, they become a major part of the country's littering problem. Animals often mistake the bags for food, particularly along the coastline where birds perceive them to be jellyfish.

 

The durability and styling of the bag for life means that they are reused a lot more. The material is made from 5 different types of recyclable plastic which in turn can go on to be remade into another bag for life. Whereas it is very common to see a single use bag littering the streets, it's very rare - if ever - that you'll see a bag for life doing so.

Wouldn't a cotton bag be even more environmentally friendly?

Not necessarily. The amount of energy it takes to produce non-woven polypropylene is a lot less than to produce cotton, meaning fewer pollutants are released into the environment.

 

Have you bought a bag for life recently? Tweet your #bagforlife photos to @Shop_at_NHM or leave your reviews in the comments.

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Last month we welcomed our new student Marina Rillo, who is studying for a PhD on the evolution of planktonic foraminifera. The collection she is studying is very relevant to climate and oceanic studies and was compiled by the inspiring Henry Buckley, a curator in the former Mineralogy Department.

 

This post outlines how the collection was made, Marina's project and why the study of planktonic foraminifera and our collections are very relevant.

 

What are planktonic foraminifera?

 

Foraminifera are a class of protists (single celled organisms) that are characterised by granular ectoplasm. They are almost exclusively marine but also occur in freshwater and brackish enviroments.

 

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The species Globorotalia (Clavatorella) oveyi (left) was originally described by Henry Buckley in 1973 and named after one of my curatorial predecessors, Cameron D. Ovey.

 

The name is derived from the term foramen or opening as each shell or test has one or many openings. All planktonic foraminiferal tests are composed of calcium carbonate, but benthic varieties can have shells made of agglutinated sediment and others are naked, ie composed completely of organic material.

 

The inspiring Henry Buckley

 

Henry Buckley was a curator in the Museum's Mineralogy Department for much of his life and died in 2002 shortly after his retirement. His curatorial work focused on the Ocean Bottom Deposits (OBD) Collection, and he developed a research interest in the taxonomy of planktonic foraminifera.

 

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Part of the 1999 Mineralogy Department photo displayed in the Mineralogy corridor beneath Waterhouse Way, known to staff as the 'Miner-alley'. Henry Buckley is the smiling character wearing a tie in the middle on the back row.

 

The OBD Collection consists of samples from some 40,000 locations worldwide and is the most comprehensive British collection of seabed samples and cores, with all the world's oceans represented. The Sir John Murray Collection, which includes the HMS Challenger 1872-76 sea-bed samples, was given to the Museum by the Murray family in 1921 following his death in 1914 and forms the most significant part of the collection.

 

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Slide from the Henry (Alexander) Buckley collection, where he formed his initials from specimens of Globigerinoides ruber (Image by Giancarlo Manna).

 

Despite the fact that he was actively discouraged by his managers in the Museum from carrying out work as a micropalaeontologist, Buckley amassed an amazing collection of 1,500 slides of individual species of planktonic foraminifera that he extracted from over 260 samples from the OBD Collection.

He published relatively little on the planktonic foraminifera but was a pioneer of scanning electron microscopy, leaving a collection of over 10,000 scanning electron micrographs of planktonic foraminifera with the collection. He was also one of the first to publish on the relationship of seawater to the composition of foraminiferal tests.

  • Shackleton, N J, Wiseman, J D H, Buckley H A (1973) Non-equilibrium isotopic fractionation between seawater and planktonic foraminiferal tests. Nature 242, 177-179. doi:10.1038/242177a0

 

Why planktonic foraminifera collections are relevant

 

Because planktonic foraminifera secrete calcium carbonate directly from the sea water in which they live, their isotopic composition can give an indication of the isotopic composition of the oceans at the time. The ratio of oxygen isotopes 16O to 18O in sea water is a very good indication of past climate. A higher abundance of 18O in calcite is indicative of colder water temperatures, since the lighter isotopes are preferentially stored in ice.

 

Recent high profile publications have highlighted the use of planktonic foraminifera in studies providing evidence that records of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere millions of years ago support current predictions on climate change.

 

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Ice age South Kensington?

 

From observations of the modern day distribution of planktonic foraminifera, we know that some species prefer to live in warmer waters while others prefer more polar settings. The situation is of course far more complicated than these simple explanations suggest and a variety of different factors can affect their distribition and evolution through geological time.

 

The Buckley and OBD collections contain vast numbers of planktonic foraminifera from ocean basins around the world. They are therefore a very valuable tool for studying the effects of global change on recent foraminifera, as well as the factors that drive evolution in general.

 

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Marina Rillo, who is studying for a PhD on the evolution of planktonic foraminifera.

 

Marina is a biologist interested in understanding what generates and shapes the amazing diversity of life. She completed her degree at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil and a masters in Evolutionary Biology in a joint programme between the University of Groningen and the University of Montpellier. Marina says:

 

"The Buckley collection will give us many insights on evolutionary processes, because it reveals not only foraminiferal diversity by number of species, but also the great morphological variety within each species"

 

She will be based at the Museum for the first six months of her project and will be supervised by myself and Prof Andy Purvis in Life Sciences. The remainder of her PhD will be spent at the University of Southampton with her main supervisor Dr Tom Ezard.

 

In the last month we have heard that David King is also joining us to study for a PhD via the London Doctoral Training Programme. David will also be studying the evolution of planktonic foraminifera and will jointly supervised by myself, Prof. Bridget Wade at University College London and Mark Leckie (UMass, USA). Look out for future posts highlighting David's project and for updates on Marina's project. I'm sure this news would have made Henry Buckley smile!

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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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RLPOnBoatCropped_Smaller.jpgOn Wed 14 January 2015, 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.

 

giant African pangolin scale.JPGScale of the Giant African Pangolin

 

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.