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The Museum runs an After Hours event called Crime Scene Live that in February featured micropalaeontology curator Steve Stukins.

 

Micropalaeontological evidence is increasingly being used to solve major crimes. Read on to find out about Steve’s involvement in Crime Scene Live, how our collections could help forensic studies and how our co-worker Haydon Bailey gathered some of the evidence that was key to convicting Soham murderer Ian Huntley.

 

Botanical or microfossil evidence?

 

The following image is of modern pollen, so could be described as botanical rather than micropalaeontological evidence.

 

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A variety of modern pollen types similar to the ones investigated at the Crime Scene Live event.

 

As I mentioned in my post What is micropalaeontology?, distinguishing when something is old enough to become a fossil is difficult, particularly when some modern species are present in the fossil record. The Museum's microfossil collections contain modern species, particularly our recently acquired modern pollen and spores collection, and this collection has enormous potential as a reference for forensic investigations.

 

What can microfossil evidence tell us?

 

Because organisms that produce microfossils are present in a wide range of modern and ancient environments and can be recovered from very small samples, they can provide a lot of useful information. Mud or sand recovered from boots or clothing can show where the wearer has been and even the pollen content of cocaine can provide evidence of its origin or where it was mixed.

 

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A scanning electron microscope image of British chalk showing nanofossils.

 

These details can relate a suspect to a crime scene, relate items to a suspect/victim or crime scene and prove/disprove alibis. Evidence can also show cause of death, for example, diatoms or freshwater algae present in bone marrow can indicate drowning.

 

Microfossil evidence helps solve the Soham murders

 

Haydon Bailey, who is working temporarily at the Museum on a project studying our former BP Microfossil Collection, provided some key evidence that convicted Ian Huntley of the Soham murders.

 

Haydon identified chalk nanofossils on and inside Huntley’s car that were common to the track leading up to the site 30 miles from Soham where the bodies had been dumped. For details about all the scientific evidence used, this article on the Science of the Soham murders is an interesting read.

 

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Members of the public participating in Crime Scene Live activities.

 

Senior Micropalaeontology Curator Steve Stukins writes about Crime Scene Live at the Museum:

"This special public event gives the audience a chance to become a crime scene investigator for the evening using techniques employed by scientists here at the Museum. People are often surprised that the Museum is involved in forensic work, especially using entomology (insects), botany (plants) and anthropology (analysis of human remains). Crime Scene Live uses all of these disciplines and forms them into an engaging scenario for the visitors to get involved in.

 

Palynology, in most cases pollen, is used quite often in forensics. As pollen is extremely small, abundant and diverse in many environments it can be used to help determine the location of a crime and whether a victim/perpetrator has been in a particular place by understanding the specific pollen signature of the plants in an area.

 

Our jobs as forensic detectives in the Crime Scene Live Event were to determine where a smuggler had been killed, for how long he had been dead and the legitimacy of the protected animals he was thought to be smuggling. I’ll be giving away no more secrets about the evening, other to say that it was a great pleasure to be involved in a thoroughly enjoyable event and the feedback from the visitors was superb."

 

So if you fancy a bit of murder/mystery then why not come and help micropalaeontology curator Steve Stukins solve the Case of the Murdered Smuggler on 1 May or in October. Details of other Crime Scene Live events scheduled for this year can be found here.

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Here is the final installment of Dave's account of the fieldtrip to Peru. I have to say that it has been really interesting reading his musings on the trip. All of the things that we take for normal - the weird looks, the entertaining facilities, the near-death experiences, the discovery of new species - seen through new eyes has been a pleasure. So for the last time, over to Dave:

 

Out of the frying pan and back along the mighty Marañon and up, following a tributary that irrigates lush orchards - very much the oasis in the desert. Bursting through the tops of the orange trees, and we were climbing again, up the other side of the valley. Not having to drive I could enjoy the views of where we'd come from, and the ribbon of green where the little river had ploughed a green furrow in the dusty gorge.

 

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Enjoying the views.

 

Sandy's keen eye spotted something clinging to a cliff and we stopped smartly. A single specimen of Nicotiniana glutinosa clinging lonesomely to a roadside crag. This variant of nightshade is a species of tobacco, as the name suggests, and is important as a "model organism" as it's resistant to the the tobacco mosaic virus. Useful therefore to the tobacco industry (so possibly best to leave it alone).

 

But there's no stopping the Sweep Sisters, who were already unpacked and sampling the area. The plant itself was out of reach to safely take a sweep at it, but there was no escape from The Mac, who began her assault with the hoover. She was just able to reach the tiny yellow-flowered specimen to get a suction sample. How unlucky was the fly that, of all the plants available, chose to alight on this lonely specimen that morning.

 

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that it was quite convenient for us that Solanaceae tend to colonise disturbed ground readily, as on our numerous stops we were often able to park the car and sample the area without having to hike too far into the brush.

 

Unfortunate invertebrates stashed once more, on we went. Higher, greener... greyer the skies. The prospect of rain? The road narrower still, and presently there came a tight right-hand corner, a loop where the high cliff was divided by one of the many deep, overgrown ravines where streams sliced the steep mountainsides. We stopped at Sandy's direction and wandered into the bush. So much lusher at this altitude, and to my untrained eye must be a much better prospect for mini-critters.

 

Sandy had also been employing me these past days in "DNA" duties, which consisted of picking the fruits from various solanaceae and carefully extracting the seeds for use by boffins back in London, which I did here to the best of my abilities.

 

Meanwhile, Sandy showed me a sapling - a young Solenum albidum - that to me looked a bit like a rubber plant, with its huge succulent dark-green leaves. The species grows well at mid-elevations (1,000m plus or so) round these parts. Sandy then showed me the adult plant nearby. Frankly, if this had been a human specimen I'd have suspected mummy had been a bit friendly with the milkman: the parent looked nothing like its offspring; this was a small, woody tree with small, veined, oak-shaped leaves. Sandy couldn't understand my surprise at the difference. But I suppose I have come to expect such metamorphoses in certain pupating insects - why not plants?

 

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Sandy pointing out some interesting species.

 

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Evelyn's arachnids.

 

Evelyn turned out her net to reveal two colourful-looking arachnids of respectable size.

 

Back in London the first was identified by Museum spiderwoman Jan Beccaloni as an orb-weaver, but the other remains tantalisingly unidentified many months later:

 

"That's a very interesting spider!" says Beccaloni. "It's in the family Nephilidae and most closely resembles the genus Clitaetra (one of only 4 genera), but it isn't one of the 6 species in that genus - given that they are from Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. I don't suppose you collected it did you?"

 

We didn't - as far as we know. Perhaps Evelyn did and it is preserved in Peru rather than in Blighty. What if it was a new species? Perhaps a target for the next trip.

 

Erica was well pleased in any case with her catch, which revealed plenty of interesting new pipunculids (literally "big-headed flies"). They like hanging around plants, laying eggs in other flies (useful in pest control) and the adults dine on honeydew (like Kubla Khan). Their bulbous "holoptic" eyes take up their whole heads: they look ridiculous and frankly should be ashamed of themselves. Because of the sheer weight of their eyeballs, pipunculids have to fly head-down-tail up, like a flying exclamation mark.

 

Now it began to rain. It was extraordinary how quick the weather had changed with elevation: an hour ago we were in a dustbowl. We headed upwards as the chasms to our right yawned at us anew. Erica was on the left-hand side of the vehicle so mercifully couldn't see the juicy drops we were narrowly avoiding. As we emerged into sun-dappled uplands and mist again, we came upon a tiny, adobe and-tin-roofed cafe with a rickety balcony overlooking the valleys, where we sat out the showers and had lunch. But it turned out the day's sampling was done. By 2pm! Turns out the insects don't like the rain either.

 

We still had a ways to go, but we were able wind along the tricky bends at a relaxed pace. Erica became relatively comfortable with the precipitous drops, and we were able to plan possible sampling sites the next day. I was just enjoying the views. We breached a pass in the Cordillera de Calla Calla at 3,600m. Sandy says the pass is so named because, before the road was built, "calla calla" is what locals, carts laden with booty for the market in Celendin, would call out before turning the narrow blind bends.

 

…..

 

I now see I was playing a bit fast and loose with the task of record-keeper. I remember fondly my Dad once recounting how he and his school mates would wind up the science teacher by recording the effects of experiments in florid prose: "the aluminium lit up like brimstone, its fiery refulgence white-hot" and so on.

 

My notes, too, were drifting into the arena of the unscientific. Under the "conditions" column it reads: "sun and stratocumulus; v warm; humid, but stiff breeze; like a tart's hairdryer". Elsewhere I seem to dabble with amateur meteorology: "Hot and sunny; but some shade. Good-natured cumulus flit across the sky heading west at about 3,800m asl." "Overcast, dull, but now warm (20C+) stratus dominates. All is grey. It is like Mordor. There is a little offshore breeze."

 

Under the column method of collection, "suction" evolves into "suck", "sucking", "sucky", "socktions" and even "suctionez". I'd thought no harm could come of this, thinking it was for Erica's eyes only.  But apparently it was given to a record keeper at the Museum who wrote it all down verbatim.

 

It was my way of amusing myself in the evenings while I copied my handwritten notes into spreadsheets. What I haven't mentioned yet, scandalously, is that every evening after a day of driving and sampling we unpacked the van and that was when the real work started. Every night I did the spreadsheets, while Sandy erected her plant drier and stared sorting her haul, carefully arranging the samples and layering them in paper sheets ready to dry the sample overnight. Erica and Evelyn sorted through the numerous bags and 'kill jars' from the day's sampling, emptying each one separately on to plastic trays, the thousands upon thousands of insects in each tray then to be sorted that night and either pinned individually with microscopic pins or preserved carefully in alcohol, noting species, date, time, location in lat/longitude, then slotted carefully into little polystyrene boxes, ready for the next day.

 

This red-eyed ritual happened every night before and after dinner till about 11.30pm, sometimes later. At around 6.30am the next morning, we would repack everything into the van (my job chiefly), Sandy having been up for an hour or so already, dismantling the plant drier and packing her samples with scrupulous care. All to be loaded into other boxes for transport eventually to the UK where the real work of identification, classification, labelling and record-keeping begins. And that's just the start - when the real science starts and the project begins to bear fruit. Erica and Sandy can tell you about that in various sober academic journals, I should wager.

 

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Work continues into the evening...


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Sandy packing samples with great care.


We arrived in Leymebamba in the late afternoon.  It is a quiet and friendly country village with a tiny well-kept plaza de armas, with narrow streets leading off, lined with with adobe-brick houses with renaissance-style balconies and big weathered wooden shutters. And a lovely stone church. It had a contended feel.

 

We found a little guesthouse up a side street. It knocked all the others we'd stayed at into a cocked fedora. The accommodation we'd been staying at, taxpayers, was more than comfortable, and very cheap - about $10 a night. This was only marginally more expensive, and not what you'd call luxury,  but the rooms were more modern - clean, and with the benefit of warm water. The hostel centred round a carefully tended courtyard stuffed with pot plants and rustic local knick-knacks. In one corner a pair of hummingbirds sucked nectar from a feeder. I kid you not. The upstairs balcony opened on to an idyllic view of the higgledy-piggledy red-clay rooftops, with the Andes tumbling into the distance beyond.

 

Someone very clever decided we should stay two nights this time and use Leymebamba as a base to strike out, and I didn't complain. I could have stayed there for a week or more.

 

This would be useful as a base to discover more sampling areas in a comparatively verdant habitat. We had in any case realised that we were now about as far east as we were going to get in the time available, and any further progress would have to be north and then westward to the coast again, on rather faster roads, to complete the 700-mile loop out of the Andes - the journey overall being about 1500 miles in all.

 

But I can't recount that here. I have to cut this short or I'll be here all year... oh wait: I have been already. Such is the curse of the day job, which I am sure you will now be hoping I'll stick to.

 

But in the days that followed if there was less in the way of climbing, offroading and hair-raising cliffhugging, there was no less incident. I got behind the wheel again, so of course the driving got better (...) My notes got worse if anything. There's a lot more to tell in a separate blog, which I'll share later elsewhere. If people are nice. It shall tell of exploding hotwater tanks, ancient ruins and getting caught in landslips. There may be mention of waterfalls, crooked cops, giant wasps, pelicans and bandits. And I lost my special stick.

 

Erica and Sandy are planning their final trip for the project (with an extra botanist as driver this time). Meanwhile, Erica and her team at the Museum are still going through the samples we took on our trip nine months later. Now I know what they're doing over there I see it's worth every penny. Their dedication and expertise impressed me endlessly.

 

If I had to take away one thing from the trip it would be that how astonishingly common it was for the scientists to identify new types of both plant and animal. As Erica says: "It's so nice you get to experience this. Every time I look down a microscope of my foreign material I know that realistically, I have new species. Right now in my study I have new species. God it rocks!"

 

That's under a trained eye: how often must inexperienced eyes come across new species without knowing it? It hammered home the fact that there must be species we haven't even seen yet becoming extinct through human activity every day. The work of Sandy and Erica and others at the Museum is just a small part of the important work being done to prevent this.

 

I count myself fortunate indeed that I was invited to take part in this trip with such distinguished scientists for the world's best natural history museum (and humbled that they entrusted me with their wellbeing on roads like those). Also, thanks to Erica for allowing me to hijack her blog for the best part of a year. But that's quite enough from me. Sorry it took so long. But don't blame me - I'm just the driver.

 

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The highlights of creating and using a wildlife sound collection: reflections on a seminar by Margaret Cawsey, Curator of Data, Australian Wildlife Collection, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences on 3 July 2014. 

 

By Joanna Benedict, Learning Programme Developer at the Natural History Museum.

 

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Margaret Cawsey speaking at the Sounds of Australia seminar Alex Drew is shown working on the sound archive.

 

On 3 July 2014 Margaret Cawsey shared her experience in managing the sound collection from the Sound Archive at the Australian Nationals Wildlife Collection (ANWC).

 

Margaret is passionate about organising data and making it accessible for researchers, museum professionals and others interested in finding out about the sounds of Australian birds. She presents a case for why it is important to make the sounds collection accessible and the challenges involved. 

What is a sound archive?

 

 

Some of the digital formatted sounds can be accessed online via the Atlas of Living Australia website.The taxonomical data and geographical data of these bird species are available from the database on the Online Zoological Collections of Australian Museum (OZCAM).

 

Apparently, the ANWC is the only organisation in the Australian museum community to make bird sound files available through the Atlas of Living Australia.

Why collect bird noises?

During the seminar, Margaret played the sounds from the Grey butcherbird and the Pied butcherbird to demonstrate that the sounds from the two similar species are different. This gives researchers the opportunity to use sounds to differentiate the two birds from the same family.

 

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Grey butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) © Ejdzej. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

 

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Pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) © Michael Schmid. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Researchers can use the data to analyse the function of bird sounds in:

•          mating

•          giving out warning signs

•          protecting their young

•          communicating with each other

 

One study of the sounds from the Moonwalking birds found that the sounds were from the flapping of their wings. This information alone is valuable to further the understanding of the science of wing motion and the unique physicality of the species.

Challenges and questions

There is a high volume of analogue sound recordings, some of which are slowly degrading. This poses a real challenge for Margaret and her team. Converting analogue data to digital data requires many hours of laborious work.

 

Margaret explains that one physical container of sounds such as a tape or a reel can generate multiples of bird sound files and metadata. Sometimes the metadata for those bird species may also be stored elsewhere on letters and notes. It demands a lot of attention to detail to ensure that the sound files and metadata are named, matched and stored correctly on the Excel spread sheet which feed into the ANWC and the OZCAM database.

 

The seminar discussed some interesting questions:

 

•          How accessible is the collection of sounds in Museums compared to other cultural organisations?

•          How useful are the sound files versus the cost of digitalising the files?

•          What are the intrinsic values of the bird sounds to further the understanding of bird research?

•          Does the quality of the sounds matter or it is just a matter of getting the sounds available to the public?

 

These issues remain to be conclusively dealt with, but the ANWC will continue to work towards the answers as it develops a sustainable approach to the prioritisation of curation of sounds for research.

 

Margaret is determined to make the collection as accessible as possible to benefit the researchers who can reveal the value of the data. Margaret feels that the intrinsic value of bird sounds lie in being occurrence records as well as providing sounds for the analysis of species distributions and studies of speciation. As occurrence records, the quality of the sound is unimportant as long as it is identifiable and adequate to future analysis.

What’s next?

Margaret welcomes more collaborative work to share knowledge, including the strategic use of volunteers to convert the analogue files and assist with identification of species and collection of metadata, and more funding to recruit staff to locate, identify and curate valuable multimedia collection objects.

 

In reality, it will take more than 100 years to digitise the analogue data and curate the metadata due to lack of human resources. It is undeniable that there is real value in making the sound collection accessible; however curating and digitalising sound collection remain low in Museums’ work priority as most museums already struggle to find resources to convert their specimen collection to image files.

Despite this, museums professionals can at least start a conversation to discuss the potential in their sound collection and to develop a plan with a vision where the public get to hear those less heard sounds from nature.

 

Do you have a sound collection?

What is your vision for the collection?

What does your sound collection sounds like?

 

Share your thoughts and let us hear your sounds get in touch with Margaret Cawsey here

 

Read more about the Natural History Museum’s Collection Seminars Series.

 

With thanks to Margaret Cawsey.

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Welcome to the first blog post for the Museums Identification Trainers for the Future project! This exciting new project centers around 15 work-based traineeship positions that will be hosted at the Museum and has been designed to address the growing skills gap in species identification in the UK. We will be doing this by targeting species groups where there is a lack, or loss, of ID skills in biological recording.

 

Our first group of trainees started with us this month, having come through a very competitive selection process, and were selected from over 400 applications. Choosing our first cohort has meant we have had to make some difficult decisions: certainly by the standard of the 25 we invited to selection day back in January, there are some very capable and enthusiastic people out there, with everyone who came along performing extremely well. Hopefully that, of course, means great things for UK biodiversity and biological recording!

 

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Our first trainees taking part in the Identification Trainers for the Future project

L-R Sally Hyslop, Michael Waller, Katy Potts, Anthony Roach and Chloe Rose

 

Sally, Katy, Michael, Chloe and Anthony will be introducing themselves in their own blog posts which will appear here over the next few weeks, so I will save mentioning more about their backgrounds here. They have a very busy year in front of them getting involved in our work in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity as well as working with our specialist curation teams and helping out at Field Studies Council centres across the country.

 

They will be building their own species identification skills through a wide range of workshops, field visits and private study and later on we will be looking at building their communication and teaching skills so they can pass on to others what they have learnt, which is the priniciple purpose of our new project. In the mean time they will also be out and about at various Museum events throughout the year, and we will be reporting back on those too as soon as we can.

 

For now that leaves me only needing to say a big welcome to all our trainees, I look forward to working with you over the next 12 months!

 

Steph West

Project Manager - Identification Trainers for the Future

 

The ID Trainers for the Future project is sponsored through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme and is supported by the Field Studies Council and National Biodiversity Network Trust.

 

For more information, see our website

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Last year the online shop integrated prints on demand into our new website, making it easier for you to order a print and any other product at the same time. After listening to initial feedback we are relaunching our prints online with some additional features.

 

When selecting your frame you will now be able to see how it will look surrounding your image, allowing you to decide the best way to showcase your chosen work.

 

POD BLOG BLACK.jpgLeopard stare, photographed by Luke Marazzi, in a black frame.

 

POD BLOG NATURAL.jpgBut does a natural frame look better?

 

All prints - whether they are rolled or framed - arrive with a white border, which has previously been included in the measurements of the print. After your feedback you will now be able to see the size of the image alone, in addition to the size of the print.

 

POD actual image.jpgActual image size is shown at the bottom of your options.

 

Remember that all of our framed images come ready to hang. Read more about your prints including the specialist printing process, bespoke handmade frames and recommended hanging guides here.

The Choice is Yours

But which print is right for you? With over 500 images the choice can be overwhelming. With that in mind let's take a look at our top five bestsellers since the integration and see which key trends you are picking up on.

 

1) Golden birch

 

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Photographed by Herfried Marek, Golden birch is our most popular image.

 

This has been, by far, your favourite image. With such vibrant greens and yellows shining through a stark white surface, it's almost hard to believe that this is a photograph. It's easy to see why so many of you love it.

 

2) Magic mountain

 

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Magic mountain photographed by David Clapp.

 

Any image featuring the northern lights is always popular. Not surprising when you see the range and depth of colour some of our photographers manage to capture. The ethereal glow of Magic mountain has found its way into many of your homes.

 

3) The mouse, the moon and the mosquito

 

The_mouse_the_moon_and_the_mosquito.jpgThe mouse, the moon and the mosquito photographed by Alex Badyeav.

 

The deep violet and pink of the Western Montana night sky has been another firm favourite amongst you. The perfect piece of wall art to create an atmospheric setting in your home.

 

4) The greeting.

 

The_greeting.jpgThe greeting photographed by Richard Packwood.

 

The greeting is the most popular print that doesn't feature in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. It was actually entered into last year's competition where it came first in the Nature Black and White category.

 

5) Snow stand

 

Snow_stand.jpgSnow stand photographed by Silvio Tavolaro.

 

Snow on trees has been a big feature this year. This snowy forest scene caught Silvio's eye on his drive home through the heart of Italy. The monochrome contrast crisp white snow against the dark bark underneath made this image a real-life black and white photograph.

 

We can see from your top five that there are two themes you are raving over.

 

  1. Stark white images that highlight other colours shining through.
  2. Dark, yet 'glowing' colours that give an ethereal yet atmospheric feel.

 

But there's plenty more to choose from if you want to buck the trend. Each printed to a Museum shop finish on a choice of paper or canvas, and then yet another choice of framed or rolled. Our prints on demand is the ultimate bespoke service.

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We’re delighted to announce the start of a new meteorites project called Shooting Stars @ the Natural History Museum that aims to observe meteors over the UK.

 

Meteors (also known as shooting stars) are dust and rocks from space that generate a bright trail in the sky as they pass through the atmosphere. When a piece of rock enters Earth’s atmosphere it is moving very quickly (11 – 70km per second). As it falls to Earth the friction from the air causes it to glow and disintegrate. A very bright meteor is called a fireball. If the fireball is large enough (usually >1m), some of the rock may survive the fall and land on the Earth’s surface, which is when it becomes known as a meteorite.

 

Meteorites record 4.5 billion years of solar system history, but we rarely know where exactly in the solar system they came from. We think most are from asteroids, and some may even be from comets. One way to confirm this is to know a meteorite’s original orbit, which can be estimated if its fireball is witnessed from multiple locations. However, out of a collection of ~50,000 meteorites worldwide, fewer than 10 have been observed falling to Earth in enough detail to accurately calculate their orbit.

 

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My desk is getting crowded but we now have everything we need to start watching the skies!

 

To increase the chances of seeing a meteorite while it is falling to Earth, a number of digital camera networks, dedicated to detecting meteors and fireballs, have been set up around the world. Some use highly sophisticated cameras and software, whilst others are more low-tech affairs.

 

Our Shooting Stars project will contribute to these networks by using two CCTV cameras to search for meteor fireballs above the UK. One camera will be placed on the roof of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, and the second will be located at our Tring site to avoid the effects of light pollution in central London.

 

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Our new toy! This is one of the CCTV cameras that we will use to search for meteors and fireballs above the UK.

 

Over the last few months we have received almost daily deliveries of cameras, lenses, cables and computers. We’re hoping to have the first camera built and ready for testing in the next couple of weeks, so check back here and keep an eye on our twitter account for the latest updates.

 

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A fish-eye lens will be attached to the camera to give us a wide-angle view of the night sky.

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Nearly every beach has its friendly population of elephant seals that spend the days sleeping, yawning and laying around while they are shedding their fur. I think fur seals also try to be friendly but usually they find a reason to growl at you; defending their pups and territories being two of the reasons they have to come chasing towards you across the beach.

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Elephant seals laying between grass and tussock.

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Group of elephant seals on the beach at St Andews bay.

 

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A very sleepy fur seal next to our hut.

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Fur seal pups near King Edward Point station.

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The diversity and abundance of sea birds in South Georgia is stunning! We were fortunate to be able to visit many areas on South Georgia including St Andrews bay, which has one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world... but also other birds can be found such as gentoo penguins, giant petrels and of course skuas. 

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King penguins on St Andews bay.

 

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Gentoo penguin.

 

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Giant petrel.

 

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Skuas.

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Our team went on a one month field expedition to South Georgia at the beginning of this year, funded by the National Geographic Society to collect water, sediment, ice and snow samples from glaciers around South Georgia.

 

South Georgia is located south of the Antarctic Convergence and its mountainous landscapes are dominated by glaciers. More than 150 glaciers can be found on South Georgia, and until recently glaciers have been seen as abiotic features, but now it is known that they contain diverse ecosystems with rich communities of bacteria, cyanobacteria, microbial eukaryotes, Archaea, fungi and microfauna even sometimes insects.

 

South Georgia is located in a zone that will likely be affected by climatic change, which could lead to a further decline of glacial ecosystems. In our project we will therefore do a detailed documentation of the biology and biodiversity found on glaciers on South Georgia using a combination of environmental (eDNA), culture isolation and sequencing. The project is a collaboration between Dr Arwyn Edwards and Tris Irvine-Fynn (Abyerystwyth University), Dr David Pearce (Northumbria University) and me based at the Natural History Museum.

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Heaney Glacier.

 

IMG_1467.jpg    Nordenskjöld Glacier.

 

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Calving glacier front.

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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.