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This morning I followed Holger Thues (Curator of Lichens) to a remarkable place.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGNot just any old trees ...

 

At first glance this short row of trees looks little more than a typical, beautiful countryside scene. However, these are elm trees and trees like these are a sight that has become exceptionally rare across Europe.

 

 

An increasingly rare sight in Britain and much of Europe, elm trees

 

Dutch elm disease has destroyed virtually all of the adult elm population in lower land Britain and much of Europe, and now many people only know elms from paintings and pictures.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGThe open canopy and twisted branches of elm trees

 

The elm has an open canopy and the trees bend and twist in a magical way that leaves a wonderfully spooky shadow. The Isles of Scilly are one of the last places you can see adult elms - the tree still survives on the mainland as a shrub, but as soon as it gets to a certain size the beetle which transmits dutch elm disease, can burrow into the bark and pass on the infection. Of course, Dutch elm disease has effected much more than just the elms themselves. These trees supported other life, including lichens and Holger showed me one of the rarer lichens that live on elm.

 

 

It isn't just the trees that are affected when they succumb to Dutch elm disease.

 

Tragically, this lichen also lives on ash and with ash dieback destroying so many trees, it has a bleak future. Holger described it as the ‘dodo of the lichen world’, forced into making bad decisions that ultimately could be it’s downfall.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGBacidia incompta (elm lichen), whose existence is linked to the under threat elms and ash trees

 

More optimistically, Holger found a very healthy population of a species that has declined dramatically over the last 100 years in the rest of the UK.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGHeterodermia leucomela

 

 

This is a tropical lichen that now has the south west of Cornwall as it’s most northerly outpost. It is very rare in the rest of Britain but it seems the population here is doing very well.

 

Holger also showed me this photo of a specimen collected 100 years ago on Scilly - he was keen to find out if it was still here and if it was still so large! The size of the lichen is a sign of it’s vitality and it only occurs in a few local parts of the Uk and on Scilly.

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGRoccella fuciformis, collected 100 years ago on the Isles of Scilly

 

You can see it is still doing well on the islands.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).jpgRoccella fuciformis, still doing well on the Isles of Scilly

 

 

It goes to show how important collections are, specimens tell us so much much more than absence or presence. They tell us about the strength of a plant at a given time, what it looked like and how it was living and this means we can make judgments on it’s role in the ecosystem.

 

It really is a treat spending time with Holger; as a lichenologist he looks at the world in a completely different way to other scientists and the things that normally pass unnoticed become much larger and more interesting.

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGHolger sees the world in a different way

 

Although I have spent each day following different scientists, I think some of the most memorable moments have been in the evenings when the scientists come together, talk about what they have found and go through their specimens. I took this photo after dinner

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGThe evening sort

 

The table is turned into a mess of equipment, specimens and reference books and exciting finds are shared amongst the group. It’s not possible to know everything about the natural world but it is possible to try and become friends with enough experts to give you a good idea!

 

By the way, if you would like to do some science of your own and help an important study, find out how to take part in the OPAL project's Tree Health Survey.

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7.30 am and the beginning of another beautiful day. While most of the scientists were preparing for a collection trip to the nearby island of Bryher, the molluscs curators were preparing to talk live via satellite link with visitors attending one of our daily Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

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Meet the scientists: Jon Ablett (left) feeling the heat and covered in sun screen, me - Ana Rita (middle) - shivering in the mild climate of the Isles of Scilly, and Andreia Salvador (right) feeling confident before her first ever Nature Live.

 

In the Attenborough Studio, Miranda Lowe, Invertebrates Collections Leader and Senior Curator of Crustaceans, showed some gems from the Museum's collection: huge barnacles studied by Darwin himself, pretty shells from the Isles of Scilly collected more than one hundred years ago, and a cute hermit crab (that steals the shells of dead molluscs to live in). And, live from Scilly, we showed some of the highlights’ of what curators have been finding:

 

P1020629nl (Custom).JPGAmazing coloured marine snails, periwinkles, which paint the white sand with red, black, green, yellow

 

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Blue rayed limpets collect from the inside of very big kelp

 

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Dino-slug, a species that has been around since the time of T. rex, and still displays a small vestigial shell, that most species of slugs have lost

 

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Left: The garlic snail, which smells of garlic when disturbed. Right: The dinner table in the evening.

 

We also talked about the joy of the evenings in our field work headquarters, with scientists sorting out their catches of the day and preserving the specimens for the collections. Every evening Jon Ablett needs to overcome the challenge of trying to make his snails and slugs crawl across a special paper designed to preserve DNA from their mucous. Jon also deep freezes part of his land molluscs in a container at -200 degC, which is not good fun on very cold evenings ... but the vapours coming out of the container look really cool!

 

The visitors at the Attenborough Studio asked lots of interesting questions. From big, to slow and tasty slugs and snails and tips about what to look for in rock pools, to how to become a scientist and, finally, why and how collections at the Museum are used by researchers from all over the world - we hope that everyone has had a slugtastic and a shell of a good time!

 

P1170550 (Custom).JPGA moment's relaxation turns into an opportunity to showcase the size of a kelp

 

Ana-Rita