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Nature Live

November 2012
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Last week, Nature Live caught up with Museum scientist Dan Carpenter who has just returned from the wilds of Borneo!  I was lucky enough to join him for the last two weeks of his trip in the state of Sabah (in the North East of Borneo) and was blown away by the size and beauty of the rainforests there.

 

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The trees in Borneo are massive and often have buttress roots.

Dan and his team were using similar methods to those they've used previously in the New Forest, and were trying to find out more about the diversity of invertebrate species living in the rainforests of Borneo. 

 

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A large earthworm found in the rainforest

To carry out their work, Dan and the team used a variety of collecting methods, including pitfall traps and something called a SLAM trap - which looks a bit like a tent hanging up in the trees!

 

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A SLAM trap hanging up in the trees

 

In last week's Nature Live event, Dan explained how all these different collecting methods worked and what it was like to spend six weeks living in the rainforest. 

 

To find out more, catch up with Dan's blog or read my blog about the work being carried out by Dan and other Museum scientists in Borneo (including Holger and Pat, who study lichens) and see some great film footage of the wildlife we encountered.

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Would you go on a one-way trip to Mars? That’s the question I asked our audience at our last evening discussion event “Should we go to Mars?” and about a third of our 100+ audience said they’d like to go. Although I suspect many changed their minds once they heard from our four expert speakers and discussed the reality of such a mission, including poo storage and having babies in reduced gravity.

 

One speaker who particularly sparked off the debate was Arno Wielders from Mars One, a Dutch company which aims to establish a colony on Mars in 2023 paid for by reality TV broadcasting. His ambitious project, a bit like Big Brother in space, really got everyone thinking about what life would be like on the red planet. Particularly since there is no plan to bring the people back to planet Earth. One young visitor asked what would happen if the first trip to send people ends in disaster. Well, according to Arno, they will still send a second trip since there will always be people hoping and willing to go!

 

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   The proposed Mars One colony, complete with biomes, rovers and food huts. I'd like the biome out on the right...

 

This raised plenty of questions about the type of person suited to such a mission, which Iya Whiteley a psychologist who has worked with the European Space Agency on astronaut training programmes tried to answer. Normally space missions require people who are good at taking orders and working harmoniously with each other. But on a one-way mission to another planet, being constantly under the gaze of millions of people a very different type of person is likely to want to go. Their motivations for doing so would have to be carefully examined.

 

Rebekah Higgitt, a science historian, made the great point that previous one-way missions from history, such as Scott’s last expedition, had no selection process but they also had no viewers either. When we read Scott’s diaries today they still have a huge impact on us as we imagine his last hours. What would it be like seeing and hearing members of this crew perish over a live internet stream or on TV millions of kilometres away in space?

 

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   Robert Falcon Scott and his party during his last ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.

 

Not to mention the danger that Mars itself would face from having humans walk upon its surface. We still don’t know whether there is microbial life on Mars or not, and missions to find out aren’t scheduled until 2016. If Mars One arrives and we don’t know enough about the Martian environment, we could end up contaminating the planet and any life living upon it.

 

Perhaps we are still decades away from a manned mission to Mars succeeding. And who knows exactly what form it will take when we do. But Joe Michalski, a Mars geologist working here at the Museum, thinks that we are destined to go to Mars one day. He says, there may be no scientific reason to go but it is inevitable that we will strive for it one way or another. It is human nature to explore.

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On Monday 22nd October, six Italian scientists and an ex-government official were sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly giving 'false reassuances' to the public. It is claimed this statement resulted in the deaths of over 300 people in a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy, 2009.

 

One of the great things about Nature Live and our daytime programme is that when an exciting piece of news hits, we can respond immediately. By end of play that day, I was narrowing down the heavyweight scientific authorities on the subject of natural disasters and risk management. Through our network of contributing scientists I came across Professor David Alexander from University College London, an expert in disaster risk and response. Not only had he worked with all the scientists in question but had family roots in Italy and exceptional knowledge of the Italian judicial system. We met and developed the event for the Friday.

 

The event ran to a packed audience, as broad as any you could find in London on a typical day. When questioned by the audience on whether the case highlighted a failure of science or communication he cited both as contributors. 'Arrogance and irresponsibility was at the heart of the advice they'd offered'. His first hand knowledge of the appeal system in Italy, however, led him to believe the scientists would avoid serving these prison sentences. He elaborated too, on how the failure was also in the authorities lack of sufficient infrastrucure to support those injured or homeless from the effects of the earthquake, a sobering conclusion to why perhaps this reassurance was also made.

 

On a lighter note, did he use animal behaviour to study seismic activity? 'Yes!' He said enthusiastically. 'I've consulted some interesting toad data in my time!'

 

Thanks to Musuem Scientific Associate Brian Rosen, for contacting us to provide this image from his time in L'Aquila, seven months after the earthquake.

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Recently we were joined by American filmmaker and writer Erin Espelie who was in London to show her film True Life Adventure at BFI London Film Festival. We hosted the second ever screening of the film in Nature Live.

 

True Life Adventure highlights the communities of insects found in and around freshwater streams, from stone fly larvae emerging from the water to spiders hoping to catch a meal in their web. Erin filmed the footage in less than two hours in an area of just 3.25 square feet on a single day in June, reminding us of the diversity of life that can be found on our doorstep.

 

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A still from Erin's film. Woodlice shelter under a rock.

 

Erin was joined by David Urry who works in the Angela Marmont Centre at the museum. He had been for a pond dip that morning and brought along the creatures that he found. Even in October the pond is teeming with life, from tiny water fleas to small snails to long leeches.

 

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Even in October there is lots of life in the Wildlife Garden pond. The small red creatures are water fleas or daphnia.

 

Most of the animals in the pond are in a constant battle to survive. David talked us through some of the adventures that the animals in the pond undergo every day such as the fearsome damselfly nymphs which prey on aquatic organisms using their extendable jaws. Damselflies are similar to dragonflies and live as nymphs in ponds or streams for most of their lives, shedding their skin when it becomes too tight as they grow.

 

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Large red damselfly in the museum's Wildlife Garden. Photographed by Derek Adams.

 

After about a year (but it can be longer) the damselfly nymph climbs out of the water and clings to a leaf or twig. Its body dries and after an hour or so its skin begins to crack and the adult damselfly wriggles out complete with fully-formed wings. The adult damselfly only survives for a few weeks and in this time it attempts to find a mate and avoid being eaten.

 

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Children getting a closer look at pondlife after the event.

 

David brought along some OPAL Water Survey packs so that the audience could explore the life in their local pond or stream. By taking part in the OPAL water survey you can help scientists learn more about the water quality of our lakes and ponds.

 

If you weren’t able to attend the event you can download a pack here.