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Nature Live

November 2009

More to your morning cuppa...

Posted by Aoife Nov 28, 2009

Did you start the day with a cup of tea? Well, if you did you are not alone – over 165 million cups of tea are drunk in the UK in a year…that’s a lot of tea! We were joined by museum botanist Vilma Bharatan to find out more about the world of tea – and there is a lot to find out about.


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     Tea Plantatation in India                                         The Tea Plant, Camellia sinensis


There are lots of teas available in the market today; black, green, white, yellow, pu-erh, but it turns out that all these different types of tea come from just two varieties or subspecies of the one plant, Camellia sinensis – ALL of them! It all comes down to which bits of the plant were picked, which variety, and how they are processed afterwards. Where they are grown and what time of year the tea is picked can also affect the taste of the tea – a bit like vintages in wine. And then we come on to scented teas, like jasmine tea where the leaves are scented with Jasmine flowers, and flowering teas which open to reveal a ‘flower’ in the tea pot when you add hot water; truly a performance tea.


The chemistry of tea also means that, although by weight it has more caffeine than coffee, it releases it much slower, so its refreshing rather than giving you that coffee 'buzz'. And why does it have the caffeine? Well, its a natural insecticide and so protects the plant from pests, particularly the new green shoots at the top of the plant, which are the bits most used for tea.


There are lots of different things to try! The great news is that its much easier than it used to be to find all these different types of tea. We got ours from the Tea Box, a tea shop in Richmond, London, and there are lots of other places that stock them.

So the next time you decide to have a cuppa, why not try some of the other amazing types of tea out there, and get a little experimental.


November 2 to the 6 was National Pathology Week, and we were joined by the Veterinary Pathologist Alun Williams to find out about the afflictions that animals of all shapes and sizes can suffer.


A quick question to start you off. what is the round thing that Ana Rita is holding in the picture below? Read to the end to get the answer.


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If you thought that a pathologist was just someone who told the guys in CSI what the victim died of, then think again! Pathologists find the causes of disease, so if you have ever had a blood sample taken, or any other kind of sample then the person who worked out what was causing your illness was a pathologist. And it's not just for humans; a veterinary pathologist does the same work for animals, and it turns out they suffer from much the same illnesses and injuries as us which makes sense; we are after all just another kind of animal.


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In the event, we saw evidence in bones and brains for the tell tales signs of disease and trauma, and found out about the effects the diseases have on the animals themselves.



Alun has worked on a huge variety of creatures over his career, from dogs, cats and calves, to lions and elephants, which he encountered while starring in Channel 4's documentary Inside Natures Giants.



So what is Ana Rita holding? It’s a giant hairball from the stomach of a cow! Alun tells me that this didn’t bother the cow at all! Its stomach is so large, it wouldn't even have noticed it!


‘What’s a megatherium?’  That’s what I asked Saturday’s Nature Live audience.  They looked as blank as I would have done, had I not already met palaeontology curator Andy Currant. 


Andy looks after all the large mammal fossils within the palaeo department, and has a hoard of wonderful stories to tell about ancient giant animals that once roamed the land….Megatherium was a giant ground sloth, found in north and south America. 


They’re a distant relative of today’s living tree sloths, and didn’t look that dissimilar.  They went extinct about 10,000 – 12,000 years ago, but have left certain ‘evidence’ behind of their existence.  As you would expect, there are bones – it’s estimated that a giant ground sloth could weigh about 2.5 tonnes, so their skeletons are massive!  However, they also left behind skin and poo, of which we have some great examples!  During Saturday’s event, Andy had a large piece of skin and a ball of dung, both about 13,000 years old.  We let the audience have a feel and a closer look afterwards, and I was amazed at how fresh they still appear!  The dung ball no longer really smells, but trust me, it still looks pretty fresh!  If you missed the event but would like to see a Megatherium for yourself, there’s an impressive example at the end of the Marine Reptiles Gallery – an exhibit not to be missed on your next visit!