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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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 http://www.opalexplorenature.org/

 

Happy surveying!

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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! 

 

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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.

 

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               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.

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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

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

 

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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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More to your morning cuppa...

Posted by Aoife Nov 28, 2009

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

 

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     Tea Plantatation in India                                         The Tea Plant, Camellia sinensis

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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


 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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