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Field work with Nature Live

The coast of the Isles of Scilly

Museum scientists visited the Isles of Scilly in May 2013.

Join our Nature Live hosts as they see first-hand what it's like to perform cutting-edge research with Museum scientists in some of the most biologically and geologically diverse places on the planet.

Between 18-29 May 2013, Museum scientists surveyed the species that live on the beautiful Isles of Scilly. See what they discovered from Nature Live hosts Tom Simpson and Ana Rita Rodrigues, and James Maclaine, Curator of Fish, as they reported back from the field.

Find out about their exciting discoveries in the Field work with Nature Live blog

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Before our field trip to the Isles of Scilly, I conducted the following short interview with Jo Wilbraham, an algae and seaweed specialist:

GA: Can you tell me about your fieldwork methods when collecting seaweeds?

JW: When searching the intertidal zone, we aim to spot all distinct species and collect samples where necessary for identification/voucher preservation. It is important to get an eye in for spotting seaweeds that look different, which probably are (but not necessarily) different species. Observation is the key to finding and recording species diversity. Photos of species in situ and the general habitat are very useful as are notes on observations in the field etc.

 

GA: What do you do with the specimen after it has been collected?

JW: We Identify the samples. We tend to take a microscope and ID book to the field station with us if possible, and work on identifications in the evening before pressing the specimens.

 

GA: Can drawing help to tune the scientist’s observation, benefiting their scientific fieldwork?

JW: Observation is critical in fieldwork as you are trying to visually pick out the species diversity of the group you are looking for against a lot of background ‘noise’. This is where drawing is very helpful and delineation can show important morphology and omit surrounding details. We never have much time as we also have to press the specimens/change wet drying papers etc. So there is no time to do drawings or extensive notes.

 

Shared methods

 

During the trip, the field methods of exploring, observing and collecting were shared by the artist and the scientist. It is the motivations, selection criteria and outcomes of the fieldwork that differentiate what we do.

 

method-700.jpg

Diagram showing where artistic and scientific fieldwork methods converge and diverge.

 

As an artist, I identify the morphological subset of forms within the specimen and then re-order and re-classify the specimen through drawing methods. I spend time with the specimen in it’s three-dimensional form, observing and drawing, building on my previous drawing and observational practice. The scientists take lots of photos of the specimen and then process it for the Museum collections, pressing plants into two dimensional forms and pinning insect material.

 

Although observation is still important in many scientific practices, the motivation behind observation in fieldwork is to identify the specimen (to name) and observational drawing is rarely prioritised in contemporary practice. I do not want to name the specimen, but to creatively explore it’s morphology through drawing methods in order to expand what and how I can know about the object.

 

Drawing the ‘uncollected’ fieldwork specimens

 

The collected fieldwork specimens are immediately pressed; their three-dimensional form squeezed into two dimensions before anyone - scientist or artist - has observed them in detail. It becomes clear that there is no time on fieldwork for the scientists to draw the collected specimens, or even for an artist to draw them!

 

But I am still determined to draw what the scientists have collected, and I decide to ask  if I can draw the specimens that  will not be taken back to the Museum - ‘the collected, uncollected’. These specimens, which have been brought together by the scientists, create a very unusual species combination at the field station. They are superfluous to the needs of this field trip, and would otherwise be thrown away as rubbish, so drawing them transforms them into a different material, it is a nice form of recycling!

 

etching-process700.jpgDrawing leftover specimens: the etching process.

 

I draw the specimens together to create a micro environment, where the work of the scientists and the artist combine. As an artist I am interested in how these specimens, which have been valued and subsequently devalued, can be re-valued and re-known through drawing practice; a practice which scientists are valuing less and less in contemporary scientific work.

 

finished-etching.jpgA scan of the finished etching: 'Collected, uncollected'.

 

I have explored these ideas further in my recent research paper ‘Endangered: A study of the declining practice of morphological drawing in zoological taxonomy’ (Published by Leonardo Journal, MIT Press 2013). I focus on the established drawing practice of three zoologists at the Natural History Museum in relation to my own drawing practice, adapted to the camera lucida device.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At the field station on St. Mary’s I find Martin Honey, an entomologist who works on lepidoptera. He shows me his moth trap, which is a circular vessel filled with empty egg cartons with a glass lid and a large light bulb in the middle (in other words, it looks a bit like a big rice cooker with a light bulb sticking out of the top!).

moth-trap-600.jpgMartin's moth trap in a shady area at the field station. Awaiting winged nighttime visitors.

 

Martin tells me that when he switches on the bulb - which is mainly ultraviolet light - at night, the moths are attracted and once inside, they can rest on the egg cartons until he collects them in the morning. Martin keeps the trap in shady places so that the moths don’t get too hot in the sunlight. He shows me a few specimens that are inside and says he has just freed quite a lot so if I come back tomorrow he will keep some for me to draw.

 

Martin shows me a specimen that he has put to sleep with a special liquid. The moth’s wings are closed, and I ask how the wings are kept open as we see in the museum collections. This proves to be a good question...

 

In the field work room we find Martin's microscope and a few dozen moth specimens. He tells me that the wings are set by hand, and proceeds to show me how this is done. He carefully takes a moth specimen with forceps and places it under the microscope alongside some pins, which are so small they are almost invisible!

microscope-wing-setting-550.jpg

Moth specimens and pins at the microscope, ready for setting.

 

Martin looks down the microscope, controls the instrumental pins with forceps and begins to slowly open the wings… he arranges the legs at 45 degrees and makes sure the antennae are forward, then slowing impresses the pins into the foam to hold the posture that he has now created for the moth specimen. He makes it look effortless and I am inspired, it is really quite an artful practice.

 

Martin tells me he learned to set moth wings by hand at the Museum, and I am intrigued to hear more:

GA: Are all entomologists at the NHM expected to do this in their job description?

MH: Some people just cannot do this, it requires too much dexterity.

GA: So some scientists can do it, but are people employed just to do the setting, and in the past, has the NHM employed setting staff?

MH: Yes - there used to be a special room called the setting room in the NHM, and specially trained people just did that work. Now there are specialist setters in Prague, they are not scientists but mostly amateur entomologists. I may send the larger specimens there depending on their number and I might do some setting work when I retire, and challenge the Prague group!

live-specimens-550.jpgMartin gives me four live moth specimens found on St.Mary's. I will draw them and let them go afterwards.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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Today I am observing the fieldwork methods of Museum scientists Jo Wilbraham (algae, including seaweed) and Mary Spencer Jones (bryozoans). We depart on the boat from St.Mary's to St. Agnes at 10.15am in calm waters, under clear blue skies.

 

St. Agnes is a beautiful island, with many interesting locations to collect specimens. We arrive at low tide, which is ideal for finding a diverse range of seaweed and bryozoan specimens. Jo chooses a beach 10 minutes walk east of the quay, where it is possible to wade far out. It takes a while, and some skilled rock climbing to reach where we are going but once we arrive at the tidal interface the diverse range of species is quickly apparent. We see a wide range of seaweeds, sea anemones and polychetes patiently waiting for the tide to come back in and relieve them from the stress of exposure to the mid-day August sunshine.

st-agnes-seaweed.jpgJo Wilbraham examines seaweeds great and small at the beach on St. Agnes.

 

Jo seems quite happy with the spot and comments on the range of species whilst pulling collecting bags and knife out of her pocket and rucksack to begin collecting, making the most of the low tide. The method of exploring and collecting are surprisingly similar to the methods that I use when working in the landscape or on a residency, although the selection criteria and motivation differ considerably. Some of the specimens collected are Furcellaria, Bifurcaria bifurcata and Palmaria palmata.

 

By this point my walking shoes have flooded after being submerged in shin deep seawater and I am inspired to draw some of the collected species on dry land. I am also preparing for the drawing workshop of creative morphology (a method inspired by Goethe’s ‘Delicate Empiricism’) at Phoenix art studios in the evening.

seaweed-field-drawing.jpgDrying out my feet and drawing seaweed specimens on the beach.

 

The free drawing workshop is fully booked, and attendees will be almost exactly half Museum scientists and half St.Marys residents or visitors. Due to the demands of fieldwork some of the Museum scientists are late, which means they have a bit of catching up to do. The workshop builds up observational drawing techniques that prepare the individual for a creative exploration of the morphology of the specimen.

 

Creative morphology drawing workshop

 

The group produce some very interesting drawings and discussions. One scientist remarks that they did not expect drawing to have method, rather that it was something they associated with scientific work. This point was important as it helped the scientist to acknowledge artistic research and methodology.

 

Another scientist remarks that drawing helped them to identify important characters of the specimen, and to engage with it. This was helpful as it led to a discussion of the values of drawing and photography/SEM technologies in scientific work. We end the workshop by considering the relationship between the practice of creative morphology and creative evolutionary processes. 

herbarium-sheet-specimen.jpgSpecimens collected at the beach on St. Agnes are arranged on a herbarium sheet, ready for entering the Museum's collections.

 

After the drawing workshop I put a few questions to Jasmin Perera, an entomologist at the Museum:

GA: Do you feel the method helped you to 'know' or think about the specimen in a new or different way? If so, could you try to describe this difference?

JP: Yes the method did make me think a lot more about the specimen. It made it far more memorable structurally. There are parts that I would never have thought of analysing so much that I now know exist, which is great because I would feel far more confident in identifying the specimen if I came across it in future.

 

GA: Do you feel that the method helped you to deepen your engagement with the specimen?

JP: I think I did engage a lot with the specimen, however I feel I get a similar experience when identifying flies under the microscope as the keys we have to follow go into details as little as the length and direction of the little hairs on their body.

 

GA: Do you think this method could be useful in your scientific or artistic work? If so, how?

JP: I would find this method useful in a scientific environment as it would really make me remember any specimen I came across. Especially by pulling the specimen apart, figuring out all the bits that put it together.

 

After the drawing workshop I visit the Museum field station at the Garrison, St.Mary’s, where I find Jo sorting through the day's collections, soaking and pressing before carefully arranging on a herbarium sheet. The sun is setting, the team is tired and tomorrow awaits...the marvellous world of insects!

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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At 10am I find Mark Spencer and Jacek Wajer on St. Mary's south beach identifying a plant specimen with a field guide. The Isles of Scilly are the northernmost habitat for a number of plant species, including aeoniums, which originate from the Canary Islands and were introduced in the 1850’s as a garden plant. But it is not the garden plants that Mark and Jacek are interested in, it is the weeds.

 

While we root around in flower beds by the south beach, local authorities jokingly suggest that they could do with a bit of weeding. "Save us some effort!" they say. Mark tells them about the Museum's work and assures them that we will indeed be helping remove some of the unwanted plants. The three of us continue to nosy around in the flower beds.

mark-bagging-weeds.jpgBy the south beach on St. Mary's, Mark Spencer approaches weeding with more enthusiasm than most.

 

We find lots of interesting weeds and some fungi, and I find a small succulent weed which Mark says may never have been recorded at St. Mary's before. The specimens we select show a good representation of the whole plant in maturity; flower, leaf, all salient features that are necessary to qualify for the herbarium. The morning’s collections are then bagged and tagged, each labelled with who collected it, the location, the date and the species. It may take up to six months for the specimens to be dried, prepared and mounted on a herbarium sheet, at which point they finally become part of the Museum’s collections.

plant-specimen.jpg

Unidentified succulent weed found by Gemma Anderson in a flower bed near St. Mary's beach. A possible first record of this species for the area.

 

We then carry the bagged plants back to base for sorting. Delicate specimens are prioritised, and the specimens are left to wilt overnight in a flower press until herbarium paper is brought on Monday.

 

At 4pm we leave the base and walk to the east of St. Mary's, plant spotting in hedges along the way. Jacek spots another possible new plant record for the Isles of Scilly, and we immediately press the specimen in my sketchbook before continuing along footpaths, small lanes, fields and coastal paths. We finally come to gorse land in wave formations, a micro landscape which Mark tells us is an endangered environment. There is an unusual mix of white and purple heather and a folkloric atmosphere as a rainbow emerges overhead.

white-purple-heather.jpg

An unusual mix of white and purple heather on the Heathland, St.Marys.

 

I ask Mark if the walk is part of his method: to orientate, to locate, and to formulate ideas and questions. He replies ‘yes, very much so’. I had taken an observational walk the evening before for the very same reasons; as artist and scientist, this method is essential to the beginning of our fieldwork.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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Between 17 and 23 August 2013, some of our scientists were back on the Isles of Scilly to carry out more of their studies. This time, instead of someone from the Nature Live team, they were accompanied by an artist and PhD researcher, Gemma Anderson, and she has been keeping a diary of the trip:

 

Arrival


It is wet and windy and the rain soaks the decks of the Scillonian 3 as it departs Penzance for St. Mary’s. After a bumpy ride with many tales of seasickness, we arrive into a foggy and rainy St. Mary’s to begin the Museum’s August fieldwork trip. We are assured that the weather will get better tomorrow!

 

Artist on a scientific fieldwork trip?

 

Artists and scientists are interested in how Earth has been shaped by the forces of nature, and my research addresses how we engage with and observe the natural world. I am here to observe the scientists’ field methods, and to explore possible ways of constructing records across scientific disciplines.

 

The ‘field’ can be anywhere, it has no geographical or physical bounds; it is defined by those who go there to investigate, study or commune with nature. In this case the field is the islands of St. Marys and St. Agnes, and the people are botanists, entomologists and an artist.

 

18-08-13-2-650-wide.jpgCareful observation and recording of flora and fauna are important skills for both artists and scientists studying the natural world.

 

The traditions of recording: enquiry, careful observation, patience and arduous experimentation, perseverance in the face of monsoons and parasites (or massive arts cuts!) are shared by artists and scientists. Fieldwork mixes scientific pursuits with exposure to new terrain, languages and peoples and has an inseparable aspect of adventure, from which a narrative of the field has also emerged.

 

I have previously participated in this narrative as artist-in-residence in the Galapagos Islands, Poustinia Jungle Park (Belize) and rural Japan, where I practiced the field methods of exploration, collection, observation and recording, although the selection criteria and motivations differ considerably to those of the scientists.

 

Although the focus of my artwork is the morphology of species in the specific location, my approach to the ‘field’ equally values observing and interacting with the people, so culture is just as important. My artistic practice is also a part of this narrative and asks questions about natural form and morphology. Isomorphology is the study of the shared forms of animal, mineral and vegetable species through drawing practice. As part of this research I have been working with Natural History Museum scientists and collections since 2005.

 

Documenting the art of natural history

 

Fieldwork is important because of the immeasurable diversity of life, but also because of the human experiences that inevitably arise through study, adventure, and sightings that take place in the field. Record-keeping and field notes exist as a critical component of the study and experience of the field.

 

I will be emphasizing the role of drawing within these practices, both as a way of recording memories and as a way of experiencing the natural world. The act of drawing can heighten our awareness and sensitivity to the natural environment, changing the way that we see and feel the world around us. Seeing the natural wealth in our environment and our relation to it, can enrich the quality of our lives.

 

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful." Jules Henri Poincare

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson.

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