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With our satellite dish at the ready, the sun shining and half a dozen Museum scientists raring to go, last weekend's Nature Live events went down a storm!

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Linking back to the studio from the harbour in Lyme Regis, we brought the annual Fossil Festival to South Kensington. For visitors who were unable to visit the south coast in person, we revealed why Lyme Regis is THE place to go fossil hunting and showed our audiences some of the weird and wonderful specimens that can be found there.

 

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Museum curator Zoe Hughes reveals an Ammonite, found in the local area.

 

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Does this count as Big Pond dipping?

 

Sunday's events brought us up to date with the organisms that call our seashore home. I was out first thing trying my luck with my bucket and net. I think I was the oldest 'rock-pooler' on the beach!  Unfortunately, I didn't manage to find very much, except for lots of seaweed ... but this proved to be far more interesting than I had first thought!

 

Museum scientist Lucy Robinson explained that there are many different species of seaweed to be found along our coastline, varying in colour, shape and size. She also explained the various ways seaweeds and their extracts can be used - in toothpaste, ice-cream, fertilizer and cosmetics (to name but a few).

 

And of course, some types of seaweed can be eaten - such as sea lettuce. Lucy and I decided to give it a go ... our conclusion, it's very salty and a bit crunchy (but I think that may have been sand!)  To find out more about seaweed and how to identify them, visit our Big Seaweed Search pages.

 

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Yum!

 

Lyme Regis is a great place to visit at any time of the year. If you're interested in fossil hunting, look out for the many guided walks that are on offer throughout the year, giving you the opportunity to explore the beaches with a local palaeontologist who knows what to look out for and who can tell you more about the fossils that are found there.

 

And if you'd like to experience the Fossil Festival for yourselves, put this date in your diaries: Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 May 2014. If this year is anything to go by, it will be another great weekend!

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Having arrived in Lyme Regis yesterday, greeted by sunshine and sweet salty sea air, we have been exploring the seashore and getting our bearings today.

 

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Lyme Regis

 

No visit to Lyme is complete without a trip to the beach to go fossil hunting!  Keeping an eye on the tides, we headed out first thing this morning to try our luck.  Museum scientist Ed Baker is a regualr visitor to the Jurassic Coast and showed us what to look for.  Rounded rocks can sometimes contain beautiful fossils...but need to be cracked open to reveal the animal or plant within.  This requires a special geological hammer (ordinary ones can shatter if used!) and a touch of experience/skill (cracking the rock open at the right angle is important).  Fortunately Ed has both of these things and showed us how it was done....

 

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Rounded rocks are hit along the edge using the blunt end of the hammer


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Several ammonites are revealed within the rock

 

But you can also find fossils without the need for hammers.  By looking carefully and sifting through the rocks on the beach, you never know what you might find.  Ammonite fossils are pretty common and vertebrae and other bones from fossil marine reptiles can be found by the keen eyed.

 

With our pockets bulging with our dicoveries and faces glowing from the sun and sea air, we headed back into town to start setting up the satellite equipment for this weekend's live links.  If you can't make it down to Lyme Regis, why not join our museum scientists in the Attenborough Studio at the Museum as we link to you live from the festival....

 

 

You can also follow us on Twitter @NatureLive

 

For more information about the Fossil Festival, visit www.fossilfestival.com

 

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Honorary member of the team Ed Baker helps Media Techs Tony and Eddie set up our satellite equipment

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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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Phew, it's been a busy few weeks at the Museum!  With snow outside and schools on holiday, everyone was keen to visit the Museum and to mark the Easter holidays we decided to programme some suitably festive Nature Live events ... my favourite being Eggs-tinct! If you weren't able to see it in person, here are a few highlights:

 

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No egg event at the Museum is complete without reference to dinosaurs and Museum curator Lorna Steel brought along this beauty! A REAL dinosaur egg!

 

Equally, no egg event would be complete without the largest egg in the world ...

 

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No, this isn't some clever perspective, camera trickery - this really is the size of the largest kind of egg in the world (with Lorna's average sized hand above). This one belongs to an extinct Elephant Bird, a species that once lived in Madagascar. These birds were huge - at 3 m tall they were far larger than today's Ostriches - and consequently laid very, very big eggs. EGGs-traordinary!

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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. 

 

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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.

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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.

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

 

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

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

 

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A large earthworm found in the rainforest

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

 

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A SLAM trap hanging up in the trees

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Children getting a closer look at pondlife after the event.

 

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

 

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

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The Bure

 

It is an early Thursday morning and I am on the banks of The Bure in Norfolk. Three Environment Agency staff are sweeping across a windy stretch of river; two with electro-fishing rods, another pushing a boat behind them. Sometimes they sing (despite their waders the water is cold and spirits need to be kept high) and every few seconds a quick flick of a hand net transfers a momentarily knocked out fish into a bucket on the boat - these fish will be passed to us and on the bank we will weigh, measure and ‘gut-flush’ certain fish before all are returned to the river alive and well.

 

I am with Murray Thompson, a PhD student at the Natural History Museum studying the effect of woody debris on life in rivers. He tells me that last year; they only pulled 31 trout out of this particular stretch of river compared to 56 this year, a sign that in the Bure, trout are prospering from the presence of trees. Also included in the haul were: 11 stone loach, 3 three-spined stickleback, 1 roach and, rather wonderfully, 1 eel. Murray wants to find out whether recreating natural tree-fall in rivers creates better environments for the various levels of life in a river, something that ultimately benefits top predators like the trout.

 

Many of the rivers he works on have been straightened and had any woody debris removed. All of the rivers are fished and although potential hook snags like fallen trees are an obstacle for fishermen, Murray hopes that by showing that mixed and complex environments ultimately benefit the fish, those who own the rivers (and the rites to fish on them) will be more inclined to leave rivers in a more natural state.

 

‘Gut-flushing’ a trout

 

It is important to know what the fish in a river are eating and to do this without killing them we ‘gut-flushed’ a few of each species sampled:

 

After being measured and weighed the fish to be gut-flushed are placed in a bucket of river water to which we add a few drops of sedative. In just a few minutes the fish are subdued at which point they can be ‘gut-flushed’. River water is gently pumped into the stomach of the fish and the contents of the stomach are regurgitated. These stomach contents are then collected in carefully labeled test tubes to be brought back to the museum and analyzed in the lab. The 'gut-flushed' fish is then placed in a bucket with aerated river water and after just a few minutes will be fit for release back into the river.

 

This process is repeated at various sites along the river; some have natural pieces of woody debris - namely fallen trees not yet removed, some have nothing and some are sites to which Murray has carefully added woody debris or fallen trees. This process is also repeated in another 4 rivers in an attempt to find common trends within the vast array of ecological variability encountered across the country. The results from these different sites will hopefully provide Murray with evidence for the effectiveness of ‘Re-wilding Britain’s rivers’.

 

Thanks to National Trust Head Warden Dave Brady for devising the restorations, Murray Thompson, Charlie Hanison, Jon Clarke, Tom Howard, and Nick Beardmore from the Environment Agency.

 

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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.

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Meet Ollie Crimmen, fish section, Zoology. A scientist with a 37 year history at NHM. Earlier today I hosted his event (14:30 to be precise, come see a Nature Live sometime!) where he spoke with our audience about the likelihood of great whites in the UK. It seems the water temperature would suit and they have certainly been known to travel huge distances before. Food sources aren't a problem here either. So why no confirmed sightings? Maybe it's just a matter of time.....

The specimen here is from the massive collections Ollie cares for and is from a great white found stranded on a beach in Port Fairy, Australia. From at least as far back as 1831. For those of you located on UK shores, pop Ollie on your speed dial. He'll want to be the first to know if you spot Carchorodon carcharias roaming our coastal waters....
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Friday March 25th sees the second of our evening events linked to the current Sexual Nature exhibition. The Science of the Sexual Spectrum has all the promise of a hearty debate on such questions as; is a person's sexuality determined by genes or environment? Is there a spectrum where we all have a fixed place? Should we even be looking for a scientific answer to such questions?

 

Our speakers: Peter Tatchell, Jeffrey Weeks and Qazi Rahman are excellently placed to lead the discussion with myself and Tom hosting what we envisage to be a fascinating exchange on sexual orientation.

 

Join the conversation - Audience is king at Nature Live so we'd love readers to contribute a burning question on the subject. Post yours here and we'll endeavour to read it out on the night. You can follow us on Twitter on the night from 18.30 @NatureLive and get stuck in yourselves #sexualnature. We're talking about sex so welcome the explicit and expect the respectful. Oh and by the way you can come too....

 

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/events/programs/naturelive/the_science_of_the_sexual_spectrum_-_after_hours_event.html

 

The Nature Live swingometer patiently waits to make its debut on the 25th. On the night, which way will the votes go? If it's between straight or gay, where on it would you be?

 

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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    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Darwin%27s_Frog#p004j5y9

 

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.....

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