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Nature Live

17 Posts tagged with the research tag

In his book titled ‘What is Life?', British-born scientist JBS Haldane wrote:

‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other’.


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An example of the beetle collections at the Museum.

Haldane was referring to the numerous nature of the coleopteran, or beetles as they are more commonly known. This order consists of more species than any other group. In fact, beetles make up around 40% of the total insects described. The Museum itself boasts an amazing collection of over 10 million species, meticulously stored in 22 thousand draws. This collection is constantly evolving and expanding.




Nature Live took the opportunity to learn more about the entomologists' latest adventure – a trip to Zambia. Entomologist Lydia Smith spoke to the Nature Live team about their findings.


The  landscape in Zambia.


Lydia spent 6 weeks travelling around Zambia collecting samples. Zambia has very varied terrain which provides plenty of scope for a diverse community of beetles and other organisms. The Museum's team worked closely with local guides to navigate the hostile environments. Lydia explained that their help was invaluable, she described them as ‘extremely helpful and excitable people’.


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Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.



The team vehicle surrounded by dense vegetation.

Being in Zambia, the team was constantly surrounded an incredible array of wildlife, some of which interfered with their sampling. Hyenas and civet cats were both suspected of disturbing the insect traps.


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An elephant caught on film by a camera trap.


Camera traps caught glimpses of a variety of species, from elephants to elephant shrews. One day Lydia recalls picking up a beetle and receiving quite a shock – the beetle's backend exploded in her hand!  She had encountered a beetle she had only previously read about, the elusive ‘Bombardier beetle’. As a defence mechanism, this particular type of ground beetle ejects a chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen,  accompanied by a loud popping sound.

Field techniques


During the expedition, a number of techniques were used in order to obtain samples. Light traps were used at dusk to attract insects onto a large sheet or tent like structure where they could then be collected. This type of trap can be extremely effective at gaining samples of nocturnal species.


The team often used pitfall traps, which consist of a plastic cup that is submerged in the soil and partially filled with a preservative. An attractant is then suspended above the traps to draw insects towards the area. Dung or carrion is typically used. The dung is collected from local ungulates – or, in more remote areas, the dung is supplied by the researchers themselves!



Dung and carrion are used to lure insects into these pitfall traps.


Mid-flight traps consist of a piece of Perspex suspended in the air and below the Perspex, a number of colourful trays that contain a small amount of water.

Perspex trap.jpgMid-flight traps in action


Another method involves beating branches and collecting the falling samples on a modified umbrella to capture tree-dwelling species. A pooter is then used to collect the samples from the umbrella.

Lydia explained the critical nature of the permits that allowed the team to bring samples back into the country. Samples, usually suspended in alcohol for preservation, are drained ready for transportation. They are then flown back. Upon hearing this, a younger member of the Nature Live audience curiously enquired…

‘Do the beetles sit next to you on the flight?’

Sadly invertebrates are not permitted in the cabin and are relegated to the hold. Once back at the Museum, the samples are refreshed with a new batch of alcohol and then the sorting process begins.

Back at the Museum

After a six week trip the team will spend up to six months processing all of their findings. While Lydia’s team is only particularly interested in beetles, they process the entire selection and divide the other insects into orders. These insects are then sent to their respective experts for further classification.


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A tiger beetle from the subfamily Cicindelinae, collected by Lydia Smith and the rest of the team.


From this particular expedition, the team have identified a number of new species, including wasps and rove beetles. The total number of new species is difficult to define as a rigorous procedure is followed, involving a number of different specialists before a final decision is made. Often insects are named after the region in which they are found, which helps to highlight the importance of the region and increase the likeliness that this area will be protected in the future.

Beetlemania was yet another superb insight into work at the Museum and in the field. If you are interested in beetles and would like to chat to an expert, there will be a number of the collections displayed at the Museum's upcoming event Science Uncovered on the 26 September.


The sun is shining, the bank holiday weekend is approaching, what better time to head down to the coast? But this is no regular seaside jaunt because this weekend Nature Live is joining scientists from the Museum, Plymouth University, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton to name but a few (! ) for the annual Fossil Festival in Lyme Regis. It's free, open to all and crammed full of exciting events and activities. 


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The coast at Lyme Regis



Nature Live will be linking live, via satellite, back to the studio in South Kensington, reporting on all the comings and goings at the festival, new fossil discoveries along the coast of Lyme Regis and where's the best place in town for a decent ice-cream (extensive sampling will be taking place throughout the weekend!)


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A seagull stole Natalie's (centre) ice-cream shortly after this photo was taken at Lyme Regis last year!


So, if you're free this bank holiday weekend, come and join us in Lyme Regis - more details about the festival can be found here - or join us in the Museum for the following events:



You can also follow us on Twitter @NatureLive


Now, it's time to track down some ammonites ...


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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?

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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.


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.



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. 



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!



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.


To my delight I get to host Zoology Curator Professor Barry Clarke, twice this festive season for Nature Live. No stranger to the blog, Barry's event Cool Frogs and Climate Change this Thursday is brand new and includes beautiful specimens such as this Strongylopus fasciatus (Striped stream frog) and on New Year's Eve visitors get the chance to see Incredible Frogs from the Collection, hand chosen by Barry for their adaptations, reproductive methods and sometimes startling appearance. What better way to see out 2011.



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.....

Who doesn't love a good dinosaur event?!  Triceratops, T-Rex, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus....the list goes on.  But have you ever heard of Scelidosaurus, the topic of our event last Sunday??


I certainly hadn't until I met Palaeontology Curator Tim Ewin.  Scelidosaurus was the first whole dinosaur ever to be discovered (before that, only parts of dinosaurs had been found, and no-one had discovered any skulls)....and what's more, it was found right here in England, along the coast at Lyme Regis.



Scelidosaurus wasn't a massive dinosaur, diplodocus and the like were all ALOT bigger, but it had some fantastic armour plating which may have helped protect it from predators but also may have acted as a form of display, to deter opponents or attract a mate.



But what's so special about the Scelidosaur remains in Lyme Regis (which are continually being discovered as the cliffs slowly erode) is their quality.  The fossils have been brilliantly preserved and scientists are able to study the bodies of these animals in great detail, including their skin which remarkably has also been fossilised.  



So next time you're talking about your favourite dinosaur, spare a thought for the often (and wrongly) forgotten Scelidosaurus.  The first whole dinosaur ever to be discovered, found right here on our fair isle and with fossilised skin too - you don't get much better than that!


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Scelidosaurus is the dinosaur at the bottom of the picture.  Megalosaurus is at the top.


At about midday my mind drifts from the numerous emails and office politics and starts to consider my lunch options. Do I fancy a hot meal, a quick sandwich, healthy salad or maybe something a little more exotic? Sushi perhaps? Well not after speaking to Eileen Harris who works on parasitic worms! She’s doing a Nature Live event on the 31st August and I just met her to find out more about what her work involves. It’s fascinating, but you do need a strong, and preferably empty, stomach.


Parasitic worms live in everything from the largest whale to the smallest insects. Eileen will be bringing out a whole host (no pun intended!) of parasites to the event including her personal favourite, Eric; the 7m long tapeworm…definitely not one to be missed!


Back to sushi and let me introduce you to Anisakis simplex. This marine roundworm can be found in fish, eel and octopus and when you eat raw, unprepared seafood you could be also be swallowing live larval forms of this parasite. Needless to say once inside your system you’re going to know about it but the good news is that they usually die after a few weeks.


If, like myself, you’re a big sushi fan then rest assured that high-street sushi is safe as chefs are trained to identify these little parasites but they’re definitely something to look out for if you’re making it at home. Luckily Anisakis simplex is visible to the naked eye so happy hunting!



Above: Anisakis simplex is commonly known as "herringworm"


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...!




Richard Sabin from our Mammal Department uses microscopes to identify whether products siezed by HM Revenue & Customs have been made from protected species such as elephant and rhino.  But scientists elsewhere use DNA to identify species - such as in this film which shows how shark fins can be tested and the species of shark identified.




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.




Today the studio was taken over by lichen. Yes, lichen.


The first question for me (embarrassingly) was 'what are they…or it?' Turns out, pretty cool.


Pat Wolseley who works in our Botany department explained that lichens are actually two types of organisms living together, a fungus and an alga. They have managed to carve out an existence by working together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus makes the body that protects the alga and the alga provides the food for the fungus. Who said nature is red in tooth and claw!


Fun fact of the day No. 2, lichens are hardcore. They have been found everywhere from the cold arctic and hot deserts to rocky beaches and inner-city gravestones. Not only are some very tough, others are very sensitive to air quality and this makes them perfect when it comes to monitioring air pollution.


In simple terms, if you see this fluffy greenish beard lichen on trees (Usnea florida) you can be sure the air is clean or getting cleaner. However, if you find trees and stones covered with the golden shield lichen (Xanthoria parietina) there is a lot of nitrogen about.

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Image caption: Usnea florida (above) and Xanthoria parietina (below)


Now you can tell the difference why don't you get involved in the OPAL air survey? Join the hundreds of people logging on and helping scientists answer questions about the quality of the air we breathe.


To help scientists collect data on the air quality in your local area visit


Happy surveying!


Last Thursday museum scientist Paul Barrett (the man when it comes to dinosaurs) took part in a Nature Live event on Dinosaur Diversity.  We covered everything from the latest news about ginger dinosaurs to how we know what noise dinosaurs made.  We also talked about Oxford Street!!  More commonly associated with massive department stores and high street fashion, Oxford Street is currently home to some impressive animatronic dinosaurs!


As you can see from the photo below, Paul brought a few things from the museum collections with him.  Notice the large lower jaw on the left of the photo (next to Paul) - a cast from a T-rex specimen.  And, of course, there was the poo....dinosaur poo (hiding in the white box on top of the table and referred to as coprolites).  Believe it or not, it is possible to find fossilised dinosaur poo - it's pretty hard, and no longer smells (!), but it can still help scientists to understand more about these remarkable animals.


Brilliant stuff! 




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



With Christmas fast approaching, here in the Nature Live team we were thinking what would be a good subject to cover? Robins, mistletoe, frankincense? No, we decided to go with the story of the whale that swam up The Thames nearly 4 years ago! Sadly it died but did you know that we have its skeleton here in our reference collection?


Today we spoke to Louise Tomsett, mammal curator at the Museum, who talked us through the long and somewhat gory process that got it from the dockside into our collection. It took nearly a month and involved stripping and cleaning each of the bones individually in large vats of detergent. To get the really small bones clean they used the Museum’s smallest workers…flesh-eating beetles! It wasn’t until all the bones were clean that they could start piecing the skeleton together.


The Thames Whale holds a special place in the hearts of Londoners and it’s good to know that it will be preserved forever in the national collection where scientists researching these fascinating animals can study it.


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