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12 Posts tagged with the discussion tag

Remember, Jurassic Park? Twenty years ago it hit cinema screens across the world and entertained millions with the storyline of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction ... but it’s just a story, right?

Dino 1.jpg

The answer 20 years later is "Maybe". This Friday we’re going to be discussing the possibility of de-extinction: bringing extinct species of plant and animal back from the dead. What was once sci-fi may soon be reality. But are we ready? Have we considered the implications and ethics of this developing science?


In 2000, the Pyrenean ibex, a species of wild mountain goat, was officially declared extinct. Once common throughout northern Spain and the French Pyrenees, it had been extensively hunted to extinction. But in 2009, with DNA taken from previously collected skin samples, scientists resurrected the species through cloning. 



However, the cloned animal only survived for 7 minutes and died from breathing difficulties. Was it wrong to try to bring it back? Or could emerging scientific techniques be the answer to the current extinction crisis?


If a polar bear cub can generate an increased revenue of five million euros in one year for a German Zoo, imagine how much publicity and money a baby mammoth could generate. While this may seem exploitative, could de-extincting a mammoth result in the conservation of endangered species? Could the mammoth act as a flagship species for the development of new technologies?


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We’ll be asking these and other important questions at this After Hours discussion event during Friday’s Lates, and there should be plenty of food for thought. Do join us if you can but if you can't, I’ll post again next week and give you an insider’s view on the points that were raised and the topics discussed.


Can humans go extinct? This was the question that we asked the audience at the last evening discussion event on 25 January. Louise Humphrey, a palaeontologist here at the Natural History Museum, started the debate by pointing out that human extinction has already happened. Homo sapiens may have been around for 200,000 years but all other species in the genus Homo are now extinct.

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Skull of an Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct human species.


Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute told us that there are more scientific papers about dung beetle sex than human extinction. He suggested that our brains are not well equipped to think about our own extinction, “One life lost is a tragedy, one million lives lost is a statistic, seven million is impossible to comprehend”. Perhaps we are underestimating the risk of our own extinction and should be doing more research into how we could prevent it, after all the dodo didn’t see it coming.

dodo.jpgCould humanity go the way of the dodo?


“What is special about us as a species?” asked Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UCL. He argues that it is our reliance on cumulative culture that defines us, not our large brains or creativity. Maintaining certain skills is dependent upon a threshold population size and it is only when skills are maintained that they can be enhanced. If the human population were to decline below this threshold, we would lose those skills. This prompted questions about data storage with reference to the recent news that researchers have successfully stored information in DNA. Anders commented that storing data is only worthwhile if someone can access it. If the human population fell significantly and some technology was lost then future generations are more likely to be able to access books than computers.


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Are books the best way to store information for future generations?


The discussion moved from human extinction to the future of humanity, could technological advancements save us or contribute to our extinction? Anders warned that technology gives more power to less people and it is becoming easier for a small group of people to cause huge damage to the human species, and our planet. Mark pointed out that if the human population suddenly declined then we would be left with small communities of people who know how to use technology and not how to survive.


The evening concluded with thoughts about where the human species might be in the future. Would we be extinct and, if we were to survive, what might future humans look like? The speakers agreed that if we do survive, we will have evolved significantly. At some point in the future the human species will have changed enough for our descendants to look back and see us as a different species.


This discussion was part of a series of events that we will be running alongside the new exhibition Extinction: Not the end of the world? Next month we will be Bringing Back the Dead, join an expert panel to discuss the benefits, risk and ethics of bringing back extinct species such as the mammoth and the Neandertal. Join the debate on 22 February.


Hopping Mad

Posted by Charlotte - Nature Live host Mar 13, 2011

It's been a busy weekend of events....first Tadpoles on Saturday and then Dwarf Elephants on Sunday.  A curious combination of topics, but each equally fascinating!


Our Tadpole event was timed to tie-in with the first frog spawn starting to appear in our ponds.....which apparently it is, although warmer weather should help more appear.  Apparently (according to our amphibian curator Barry Clarke) frogs have been known to produce spawn as early as December some years, but hard frosts kill the eggs and it's not until the weather becomes milder that the tadpoles are able to start developing.  In fact, the warmer the weather, the quicker they devlop from tadpoles to adults.


Barry was a complete star as always and brought along lots of specimens from our zoology collections.


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Note the specimen in the centre of the bottom row.....this is a Midwife Toad.  They show great parental care (unlike our common frogs which lay their eggs and then leave them!)  The female Midwife Toad lays her eggs and the male then wraps them around his back legs.  He then carries them around with him (swimming and moving about seemingly unhindered) until the tadpoles are ready to emerge and swim off.  Because of this parental care, the eggs are far safer and have a greater chance of survival than if they were left unprotected.


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However, for the ultimate in parental care, go onto the BBC website and use their 'wildlife finder' to watch some incredible footage of Darwin's frog.  You won't believe your eyes


As for the Dwarf Elephants today, well, they were certainly small!  Tori Herridge (a researcher in our Palaeontology Department) brought along some fossils from our collections....including lots of teeth.  The photo below shows the tooth of an extinct Straight-Tusked Elephant at the bottom and an extinct Dwarf Elephant tooth at the top of the photo.  Quite a difference in size!  The Straight-Tusked Elephant was one of the largest elephants ever to live, and could grow to as much as 4 metres tall.  In comparison, Dwarf Elephants were sometimes only 1 metre tall as adults!


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We'll be repeating Tori's Nature Live event later this month, at 2.30pm on Wednesday 30th March in the Attenborough Studio.  As always, the event is free and lasts for 30 minutes.  So come and join us if you can and discover more about these mysterious Dwarf Elephants.....


Phew, hot off the press, we've just released tickets for our October evening event.....Biodiversity: The Next Step


If you enjoyed the Big Nature Debate, or you're interested to know more about biodiversity, why it's important and what's being done to conserve it, then this is the event for you!


We've got some fantastic speakers and the event will be discussion based, so there'll be lots of opportunity for you to ask questions and discuss your ideas and concerns.


Details below or look on our website.


Biodiversity: The Next Step


Why is biodiversity important? In this, the International Year of Biodiversity, are we any more aware of its significance in our lives, and the fact that it is declining at an unprecedented rate?

This October, the United Nations is holding a global conference to discuss the continued decline in animal and plant species and set new targets to prevent a global disaster. But is it too late? We have already failed to meet the targets set in 2002. Will this time be any different?

Join us and hear from the following invited speakers:
Prof Geoff Boxshall (Merit Researcher, Zoology Department, Natural History Museum)
Peter Unwin (Director General for Environment and Rural, Defra)
Tony Juniper (Writer and environmentalist)
Prof Tom Burke (Environmentalist and Environmental Policy Adviser to Rio Tinto)

Take part in the discussions as we consider what needs to change, and how the goals set by the UN in Nagoya will influence both our own future and that of global biodiversity.

Part of Nature Live Nights.

Tickets £8 each (£7.20 members) plus £1.50 booking fee. Please book online, visit an information desk or phone 020 7942 5725.

For a sneak preview of what we'll be discussing on 25th March and the chance to see one of our speakers in action (Rob Parry-Jones from TRAFFIC Europe) have a look at -


And to see our very own Richard Sabin in action (who will also be speaking on the 25th), have a look at this film all about the Thames Whale....remember that, it was a while ago now...!




A couple of weeks ago I hosted an event with mammal curator Richard Sabin.  Richard helps to look after the mammal collections here at the museum, but is also involved in helping HM Revenue & Customs crack down on the illegal trade in endangered animal species.



When customs find suspicious items being shipped or flown into the country, they turn to Richard to help them find out whether the bracelet/ornament/piece of furniture in question is made of a harmless material or whether it contains components of an endangered animal.


Richard specialises in hard materials, such as bone and horn. By studying items closely underneath microscopes, such as the bracelet above, he is able to spot the tell-tale signs that suggest what it has been made out of (ie plastic, bone or horn) but also what animal it may have come from.  Incredibly, the tusks, horns and teeth of different species have different characteristics which, after years of training and experience, Richard is able to recognise.


The illegal trade in endangered species is an ongoing and international problem.  Some say that it is worth more than the arms trade. It's an issue that is being tackled by governments and independent organisations around the world, but one that is far from black and white. There are many reasons for why people chose to kill and sell endangered animals, and many different demands for how these animals are used such as to make medicine, jewellery and food.


CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments, which aims to ensure that the survival of plant and animal species is not threatened by trade. It influences legislation and laws that help protect threatened species. The 175 governments that have signed up to CITES are currently meeting in Qatar to discuss new measures and suggest changes to previous guidelines.  At the top of the agenda are issues such as banning the trade of blue-fin tuna and legalising the sale of ivory stockpiles.  


We'll be discussing the work of CITES and extent of the illegal trade at this months evening event, Crossing Borders: The Illegal Trade in Endangered Species on Thursday 25th March.  Tickets are available on our website and by phone 020 7942 5555.  Richard Sabin will be speaking about his involvement, as well as representatives from TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network), Defra and a researcher from Oxford Brookes University who is involved in undercover work in South East Asia.




What fish have your eaten in the last month? If it includes Cod, Salmon, Tuna or Haddock, then you are not alone! These are the most commonly eaten fish in the UK, and our appetite for them is putting pressure on their survival.


We are often told we should eat two portions of fish a week, as it's a really nutritious food, but at the same time warned that some fish are severely over-fished, that their stock levels are dangerously low, and that several species should be listed as endangered!


So what are people supposed to do?


This was the focus or our Nature Live Nights evening event, on Thursday 28th January, also a 4SEAS event.


Well, there were lots of suggestions from our speakers. Oliver Crimmen, one of the foremost fish experts at the Natural History Museum, stated that there actually lots of different types of edible fish out there - by widening the types of fish we eat, and not just sticking to the same four main ones, that could help take the pressure off. However, we do need to have a good understanding of the ecology of our new choices.



               Jo from the Billingsgate Seafood Training School prepared some delicious samples for our taste test - results up soon!



Tim Ferrero and Geoff Boxshall, also from the Zoology Department, talked about checking how your fish was caught, and also the aquaculture or fish farming option - with the global human population set to soar, could this be an answer?


Background to the quota system, and possible options at a governmental level were the focus of both Dr Kenneth Patterson from the European Commision, and Zoe Hodgson from DEFRA.


And finally, sustainability, eco labels, and how consumers can make a difference by Tom Pickerell, from the Shellfish Association of Great Britain. There are lots of different eco labels out there for fish - Tom recommends the Marine Stewardship Council stamp, as it takes into account lots of different considerations including stock levels, fish ecology, and how they are caught.


So next time you fancy some fish and chips, try a different fish (Coley was very popular in our taste test!) and check to see whether your fish has the MCS seal of approval.


The Name Game

Posted by Ivvet - Nature Live host Jan 16, 2010

Why do scientists insist on using long complicated scientific names?

Well one reason is that they are universal. Take the common grove snail (below). In English this creature is also known as the brown-lipped snail or the dark lipped banded snail. It becomes even more confusing if you go abroad; in Germany the same creature is called Hain-Baenderschnecke. So how do scientists make sure they’re all speaking the same language? They speak in science of course; usually a combo of Latin and Greek.

There are estimated to be 6809 different languages spoken around the world but wherever you go ‘Cepaea nemoralis’ will always mean the grove snail (or the brown-lipped snail or Hain-Baenderschnecke).

Some Latin names can be weird and wonderful; take Osedaz mucofloris, also known as the bone eating snot-flower. In today’s show we asked our visitors to pit their wits against a panel of scientists and guess which one was lying. Can you work it out? Which of these names is made up?

Abra cadabra or Megadoris russelensis or Rasta thiophila


Image: Cepaea nemoralis - or the common grove snail in England or the Hain-Baenderschnecke in Germany



As part of our Future for Nature season (which has been running on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past few months) last Thursday I hosted an event about how much oil is left.  Needless to say, it was very thought-provoking.  Andy Fleet, from the mineralogy department, used to work in the petroloeum industry.  He explained how oil is formed over millions of years and how it is found and extracted.  For further information, he suggested visitors have a look at the website of The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO)  Here you'll discover the debate and discussion surrounding how much oil is left and whether we have reached a peak in oil production....or not.  To give you an idea of the varying estimates, have a look at the graph below.  This shows various predictions for when we will reach peak oil production, the majority of which suggest we have already reached the peak or will do so in the next ten years.  There are a few estimates that suggest a continuing increase in oil production, but whatever the conclusion, one thing is for some point, whether today or tomorrow, oil production will decline and we need to be ready with an alternative. 


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Graph sourced from The Oil Drum


Here in Nature Live we never miss an opportunity to celebrate and Halloween is no exception.  


Today we were on a mission to find the scariest creature in the sea. It was a face-off between Ollie Crimmen, fish curator, and Jon Ablett, mollusc curator, and it got pretty competitive in the studio!  


Both of them chose some 'scary' sea creatures and had to convince our audience to vote for them. Who had the power to scare? 


Jon chose to advocate the Geography Cone Snail, which looks harmless enough, and Ollie went with the angler fish. 


Image credit: Kerry Matz

Above: Jon chose the venomous cone snail


Jon explained that although it looks unassuming do not underestimate this snail. To catch its prey it shoots a harpoon which contains venom so potent that it could kill a human. Some say that it could be the most venomous creature in the world in relation to its size.  


Ollie chose the angler fish which definitely got the desired 'wow' effect when he revealed an impressive specimen that has been kept in alcohol for 15 years. He tried to win over the audience by explaining that these creatures live in the deep dark oceans and if you were the poor little fish it had lined up for lunch all you’d see are a few pretty lights and then it's lights out...for you.


Dying to find out who was crowned our Halloween winner? Well, no surprises for guessing that fangs beat the snail but if my vote counts for anything I would have chosen the deadly snail! 


Do you know any really scary sea creatures? And no, the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t count...


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Image © Natural History Museum

Above: The football fish that won Ollie the game




Image  © NASA

Above: NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured images of ice deposits, which would be crucial for the terraforming of Mars.



Today’s Nature Live featured Dr. Matt Genge, a planetary scientist who works at Imperial College. The event was part of the Future for Nature  season, so Matt began by reminding us that the population of the Earth is 7 billion and rising. If this continues we will eventually need the resources of  another planet, but is this even possible?


If humans do end up having to move to another planet, the most likely candidate is Mars. It is within the ‘goldilocks’ zone, ie not too close and not too far away from  the sun, so that temperatures are ‘just right’. Actually Mars is still too chilly for me -  rising to only a few degrees above freezing at the equator, but it’s definitely preferable to Venus, where the temperature is about 400 degrees centigrade.


But before we start packing, moving to a new planet is no easy task, so where do we begin? A common theme in science fiction is terraforming – changing the atmospheres of planets to make them habitable for humans.


Matt outlined one plan, based in science fact, for terraforming Mars. It would involve diverting asteroids or comets so that they crash into the planet, thereby melting ice deposits under the surface. The water vapour produced by these impacts would thicken the atmosphere, which would mean that  more heat is retained, so that temperatures slowly rise. With a warmer, wetter  atmosphere, microorganisms such as algae could be seeded to convert CO2 to  oxygen, making the atmosphere breathable for humans. Sounds simple enough.


Alas, all this will take a while to get going so I'm not hoping to see it ready in my lifetime, but at least it's nice to know that there are people out there who are thinking about the long-term future of our species.


In order to benefit from the terraforming technology we just need to survive the next few hundred years in the face of drastic environmental changes and dwindling resources. If we can do that then it would seem that anything is possible. Energy-saving light bulb anyone?



Today will go down in history. Not world history but this momentous day should at least figure as a footnote in the Museum’s vast annals. It’s the very last Nature Live event in the Marine Invertebrates Gallery. Obviously I’m excited about moving into the brand shiny new Attenborough Studio where there’ll be lots of new technology for us to break but having hosted events in MI for the last 3 years it’s the end of an era.


The last show was with Dr Shelley Cook who works in our entomology department and I think has probably been to nearly every country on my wish list. She looks for new viruses that are carried by mosquitoes and could potentially be passed on to other animals and maybe even humans.


We spoke about the importance of her science and mosquito diversity; did you know that there are some mosquitoes that are so specialised they only live in the water that collects in elephant footprints! We got some good questions; my favourite being ‘how fast do mosquitoes fly? Answer: we don’t know.


Then we get on to the ‘best’ bit…how you collect them. I suggest that maybe she offers herself up as a sacrifice; I seem to get bitten within the confines of the M25 so it shouldn’t be too difficult in a Thai jungle. But she can go one better. The ghostbuster pack. Yes, it looks just like something that was used by Bill Murray. It’s basically a 20kg mosquito vacuum that is worn as a backpack but when they spot some mossies they flip the switch and the fun begins. Call me evil but there must be some joy in collecting the insects that feasted on your flesh the previous evening. So once they have been collected up they are put on ice at minus 80C. Where you find those sorts of temperatures in a jungle is one of the wonders of modern science!