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4 Posts tagged with the collections tag
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To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, two of our geology curators have been revealing daily treats from their collections.

 

Last December, micropalaeontology curator Dr Giles Miller tweeted a series of patterned slides made up of microfossils including a miniature Christmas card, and this year he’s back with something a little bigger.

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Model of Globigerinoides 'Santa' sacculifer.

 

In fact, the specimens are 10s to 100s of times larger than they are in real life – they’re samples from our new microfossil tree. The tree is a gift from scientist Zheng Shouyi of the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, who oversaw the creation of a foraminiferal sculpture park in Zhongshan City, China.

 

The tree is made up of 120 plastic models of usually microscopic single-celled marine organisms. The delicate models represent the wide variety of shell compositions and structures found in nature.

 

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The microfossil tree.

 

The tree is not only full of beautiful specimens, but a welcome addition to our collections. Says Dr Miller:

It helps us explain the relevance of tiny objects normally hidden behind the scenes and illustrate our science. Eleven of the species modelled are species for which we hold the type specimen and are amongst the specimens that I curate.

The tree was first unveiled at this year’s Science Uncovered event, and while a permanent spot in the galleries is found for it, a few examples of the little sculptures will be on display in 2015.

 

In the meantime, you can get a sneak preview by following Dr Miller on Twitter where he’s posting a different specimen every day in the run-up to Christmas using the hashtag #MicropalaeoAdvent.

micro1.jpgFlintinoides labiosa (in fancy dress as Blitzen!) showing off its aperture.

 

Although not dressed up in festive gear, Dr Miller’s favourite specimens tweeted so far are the star-like pair of Hantkeninids, which he says are ‘amazingly beautiful and scientifically important for climate change studies’.

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Ore-some festive treats

 

Ores collection curator Helena Toman decided to highlight a select few samples from the Museum’s extensive collection of ores - naturally-occurring minerals or assemblage of minerals from which economically important constituents, particularly metals, can be extracted.

I like to think of economic geology as occupying one of those crucial interfaces between science and society and so one of my challenges is to make the science accessible to society.

 

I wanted people to understand just how crucial economic geology is to their everyday lives - how each and every one of us act as a catalyst for mining.

ore-some-reveal.jpgGo to the ore-some Christmas reveal calendar >

 

 

She had a lot of choice for specimens – the collection began its life in the Museum of Practical Geology in 1838, and has now grown to more than 16,000 specimens, representing one of the best historical records for global mining activities.

 

The collection is very active – constantly growing through fieldwork, donations and acquisitions, and being used for research and public outreach.

 

One of her favourites even made it to Parliament this year to help inform ministers about the importance and relevance of the UK’s geological heritage. The sample is from the famous Geevor tin mine in Cornwall, and includes veins of copper.

 

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Sample of ore from the Geevor tin mine.

 

Another favourite is a stunning example of cobalt ore from Morocco, which Helena collected herself on a recent fieldtrip.

This sample not only represents the experience of a wonderful and successful fieldtrip but also highlights the cutting edge research that Museum scientists are taking part in, using microbes to extract metals from their ores. The textures within this sample are also incredible – ores rarely get prettier!

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Cobalt ore from Morocco.

 

All our curators are enthusiastic about their collections, and Helena hopes her and Dr Miller’s efforts will inspire others to dust off some of their favourite specimens:

I would love the format to be adopted by other curators as an annual method by which the Museum promotes the important work that curators have done, behind the scenes, that year. The calendar is a fun, approachable method that allows curators to have a voice/corner in which to show the world why our collections matter.


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A comprehensive catalogue of the world's bird species, which used thousands of specimens from the Museum's collections, is the new gold standard for the taxonomy and conservation of birds.

 

The first volume of the Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, released earlier this summer, defines more than 400 new species of bird.

 

Species for conservation

 

The book was authored by Josep del Hoyo and BirdLife International author and Museum scientific associate Nigel Collar. Part of Collar's job at BirdLife is to help feed into the IUCN Red List - a global record of the conservation status of the world's plants and animals.

 

For this, he needed a robust list of the world's bird species. Whether a bird gets defined as a separate species or not is important for its conservation. If a bird is defined as a subspecies (a variant of a species) many birds will go extinct without ever getting proper conservation attention.

 

Conversely, if too many birds are defined as species, the concept of a species becomes devalued and the idea of conservation becomes difficult to manage.

 

Determining differences

 

In the Illustrated Checklist, birds up for consideration as a new species were scored on a number of characteristics, with particular focus on plumage and voice - the traits important for determining whether breeding can occur between two birds.

 

The results of the first volume estimate that bird diversity may have been previously underestimated by around 10%, meaning one-in-ten birds have been ignored by conservation efforts.

 

In addition to 462 new bird species, the criteria also merged 30 existing species into other species, creating new subspecies.

 

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The Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird is now recognised as four different species - one of which hasn't been seen in nearly 70 years.

© Francesco Veronesi, Flickr Creative Commons.

 

Camped out in the collections

 

For the physical characteristics of birds, Collar says that our Museum collections at Tring have been indispensable:

To look carefully at the characteristics of birds you need them right under your nose. The Museum has the best collection in the world with the best reputation. It's utterly invaluable.

 

He looked at thousands of specimens for the first volume of the book, and is now ‘camped out' at Tring researching for volume two.

 

Thousands of birds

 

Collar, del Hoyo and their co-authors assessed the species status of around 1,000 birds for the first volume, which covers non-passerines. Passerine birds account for over half of all the world's bird species and are often called ‘perching birds' thanks to the arrangement of their toes.

 

The authors have another 1,000 birds in the passerines group to consider before they release volume two of the Illustrated Checklist, due out in 2016.

 

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Some of the earliest mammals had more specialised diets than previously thought, leading to key evolutionary traits we carry today.

 

Shrew-sized mammals living 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period were thought to be opportunistic insect-eaters with a generalised diet. But a new study by a team of researchers including the Museum's Nature Live science communicator Dr Nick Crumpton shows that two core taxa of early mammals had teeth and jaws adapted to specific kinds of insects.

 

At this time, small early mammals were known to be evolving the precise chewing and better hearing that are traits of mammals worldwide today. However, it was thought that, because of their general diets, these traits did not evolve in response to different hunting and feeding behaviours.

 

The new research shows teeth and jaws of early mammals were in fact becoming specialised as a response to different diets.

 

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The Early Jurassic basal mammals, Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium, hunting their prey on the small island they shared in what is now Glamorgan, southern Wales. © John Sibbick.

 

Dr Crumpton said this gives us new ideas on how the earliest mammals lived:

 

The idea of the first mammals eking out a meagre living, hiding in the shadows whilst dinosaurs ruled the land is a pervasive one, but we have revealed that even the earliest mammals were already showing specialisations for certain lifestyles.

 

Tale of the teeth

 

The team, led by the Universities of Bristol and Leicester, analysed 2cm long jaws and tiny teeth from the mammals Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium found in Glamorgan, South Wales. When the creatures were alive 200 million years ago, the area was made up of small islands in a shallow sea.

 

Bits and pieces of jaw were scanned and the images stitched together to allow the researchers to determine the bite and strength of the creatures' jaws. This was combined with evidence of 'microwear' on the teeth, patterns of pits and scratches that indicate what the animal was eating.

 

The patterns on the ancient mammal teeth were compared to those of insect-eating bats alive today that have specialised diets. The combined evidence shows that Morganucodon favoured harder, crunchier food such as beetles, while Kuehneotherium prefered softer prey such as moths and scorpion flies.

 

Old specimens, new techniques

 

Dr Crumpton said this research also highlights the importance of specimens that may have been in the collections for decades, but still have stories to tell:

 

Although our methods were very modern, the fossils themselves had been stored in collections including the Natural History Museum for decades. It's work like this that shows how important museum collections are, and that even though those techniques didn't exist in the 1950s, we were able to study them in fresh new ways in order to discover the secrets they held.

 

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Egg arms race

Posted by Hayley Dunning Jul 8, 2014

Birds targeted by cuckoos develop sophisticated egg patterns to help them recognise the fakes.

 

Cuckoos infamously lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, forcing them to care for their young. But species that are repeatedly targeted by cuckoos have developed a range of complex egg patterns to help distinguish the invader's eggs and kick them out of the nest.

 

Cuckoos will hatch before their nest-mates and throw them out, so that the parent birds will only raise the cuckoo. When a host bird recognises a cuckoo egg, they may puncture it or throw it out the nest before it hatches.

 

Signature patterns

 

Scientists from Harvard and Cambridge Universities developed a pattern-recognition software called NaturePatternMatch that mimics the way birds see the world. Using the extensive egg collections of the Natural History Museum at Tring, they then analysed the eggs of eight bird species commonly targeted by cuckoos.

 

They found that where cuckoos had developed accurate copies of host-bird eggs, the host birds had in turn developed more complex egg patterns. 'The egg patterns on cuckoo and host eggs reveal an evolutionary arms race,' said lead author Dr Mary Caswell Stoddard from Harvard University.

 

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Samples of cuckoo's eggs in host bird clutches from the Museum's collections. Cuckoo's eggs are often bigger than their host's.

 

'In many cases, cuckoos have evolved excellent egg mimicry in order to trick host birds into accepting foreign eggs. In these instances, host birds have evolved excellent egg pattern signatures on their own eggs as a defence.'

 

The host birds studied used different techniques to set their eggs apart. Some females of the same species, such as the great reed warbler, laid very different eggs to each other, but very similar eggs within their own nest. Others, such as the brambling, lay eggs with unevenly spaced, sparse markings, making a good signature.

 

Collections and tools

 

Museum egg and nest curator Douglas Russell said he was 'fascinated by the insights [this paper] provides into the particular mechanisms that appear to be involved.' The extensive bird collections, which cover 95% of all bird species alive today, are involved in numerous studies.

 

'They can contribute to research as diverse as understanding migratory routes and investigating chemical contamination of the environment over time.'

 

The NaturePatternMatch software may also be used in a range of projects. 'How do animals recognize their neighbours, enemies and kin? How have visual signals evolved to maximize distinctiveness? Computer vision tools like NaturePatternMatch will help us answer these important evolutionary questions,' said Dr Stoddard.