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6 Posts tagged with the zoology_news tag

The evolutionary rates of sea urchins are more complex than previously thought, a finding that could apply across the evolutionary tree.


Evolution within groups of organisms was first thought to occur continuously, at a constant rate. Fossil-based analyses soon led to the belief that many groups quickly reach maximum diversity early on in their history, followed by a decline in evolutionary rates as habitat types fill up.


Now, in a detailed analysis of a group of marine invertebrates called echinoids, Dr Melanie Hopkins of the American Museum of Natural History and Museum palaeobiologist Dr Andrew Smith have found a branch of the evolutionary tree that has increased its evolutionary rate over time.

Slow starters

Modern echinoids originated 265 million years ago, just before the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event that wiped out around 96% of all marine species. They still exist today as sea urchins and sand dollars.


Despite the abundance of ecological space left behind after the mass extinction, Dr Hopkins and Dr Smith found that echinoids experienced the lowest rates of evolutionary diversification during this early phase. Said Dr Smith of the result:

This slow start is very different from the standard model of high initial rates of diversification followed by a slowing down as ecological space gets filled that we have come to expect.

Bursts of diversity

When they looked in more detail at sub-groups of echinoids through time, they discovered that some that underwent episodes of 'early bursts' in evolution, primarily associated with the adoption of new feeding strategies.


For example, one particular group of echinoids - the sand dollars - evolved a novel method of 'deposit-feeding' that allowed them to filter nutrients from the sand, and this innovation coincided with a marked increase in morphological innovation.



Regular echinoids like the sea urchin (left) have five-fold symmetry and can head in any direction, whereas irregular echinoids, like the sand dollar (right) have two-fold symmetry, with defined 'front' and 'back' ends.


A question of scale

The overall pattern of slowing evolutionary rates punctuated by smaller 'early burst' events within certain subgroups points to the importance of considering scale when assessing the evolutionary history of any group. Said Dr Smith:

Rates of evolution turn out to be quite different when viewed at different scales, and both 'continuous' and 'early burst' patterns of evolution may apply to the same group depending upon how you view them.


More information:


A species of bryozoan transplanted to an area with increased ocean acidity has been found to grow at half the rate of those living in normal ocean conditions.

Bryozoans are coral-like animals that live in colonies and build their skeletons out of calcium carbonate. An international team including Museum researcher Dr Paul Taylor transplanted several budding colonies from their normal homes in the Mediterranean to an area near an active volcanic vent in Italy.


The undersea vent expels heat and carbon dioxide, simulating the global surface ocean acidity predicted for the year 2100 as a result of increased anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. According to Dr Taylor:

Entire ecosystems are threatened by ocean acidification, and this will have economic consequences because animals such as bryozoans are often habitats for the juveniles of commercially exploited fishes and crustaceans or may be in their food chains.

20150211 Bryozoan Calpensia nobilis © Lombardi et al..jpg

The bryozoan Calpensia nobilis showing normal growth at the leading edge © Lombardi et al, 2015.


During a three-month experiment, the bryozoan colonies around the vent suffered slower growth rates, the absence of some growth stages, and the corrosion of their skeletons. However, individual zooids – the tiny creatures that build the colony – were longer than normal.


Dr Taylor thinks this could be an indication of adaptation by the bryozoans to the changing environmental conditions. The colonies seemed to invest more energy in completing zooids that had already started to form rather than budding new generations. In other words, they were strengthening the existing colony rather than expanding.


Longer studies are needed along with more detailed information about how the colonies are reacting to possible future scenarios. Said Dr Taylor:

With this information, better predictions could be made of organism survival and evolution, and thus ecosystem changes, loss or survival in a changing world.

The research is published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science.



Two species of wasp have been identified as belonging to a whole new genus endemic to the isolated Atlantic island of St Helena.


St Helena, a British Overseas Territory, is home to more than 400 species that can't be found anywhere else. However, the wildlife is under serious threat from development and invasive species.

Napoleon complex

The new wasp genus, named Helenanomalon in honour of its home territory, belongs to a family of parasitoid wasps - those that spend a part of their lifecycle on another organism that they eventually kill. However, little is known about the specific lifestyle of Helenanomalon since only a handful of specimens are known to exist.


One of the new wasps species, Helenanomalon bonapartei


The most recent specimens came to the Museum following a collecting expedition in 2006 that included the former Head of Entomology collections at the Museum, Howard Mendel. On re-examining the specimens, and a couple of others at the Musée de l'Afrique Centrale, Museum hymenoptera curator Dr Gavin Broad assigned them to two different species in the new genus:

These little wasps belong to the family Ichneumonidae, a huge family with over 24,000 described species in the world, but with only six species known to have made it all the way to St Helena. That two of these species form a genus not known anywhere else in the world is remarkable.

One of the new species, Helenanomalon bonapartei, is named after St Helena's most famous exile, whilst Helenanomalon ashmolei is named after Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, who have led recent work in exploring and documenting the fauna of St Helena.

Lost giants

Islands like St Helena often host unique organisms that have evolved in isolation for millions of years. However, these species are also extremely vulnerable to changes such as introduced predators and habitat loss.


St Helena used to be home to the world's largest earwig, the giant earwig, which reached over 8cm long and lived in deep burrows. Only a few specimens of the giant earwig have been recorded, and several scouting trips since the 1960s have failed to find any living examples. It is now considered extinct.


St Helena giant earwig, Labidura herculeana


Says Dr Broad:

The extinction of the giant earwig was a sad reminder of how vulnerable island endemics can be. There is still much work to be done on assessing just how unique the St Helena fauna is, and Philip Ashmole tells me that they have collected other potentially new genera of insects and spiders but the taxonomy of the groups concerned is difficult and there are few people with the expertise.


The native vegetation has been massively reduced by the usual pressures of introduced goats, non-native species, inappropriate agriculture, and so on. Restoring the native vegetation, particularly the seriously denuded forests, is the most important step in conserving the unique invertebrates.


A Kickstarter project has launched to raise funds for a new app that reveals the beauty and diversity of the world's bees, using many Museum specimens.


1000 Bees is an interactive art project to raise the profile of bees and highlight their plight across the globe. While many people are aware that honeybee colonies are facing collapse, 'honeybee' is a term applied to just 11 species, and many other bee species are also important pollinators.


As the project creators Ana Tiquia and Callum Cooper say:

Wild bees are just as important for pollination and play a crucial role in ecosystems throughout the world. Many wild bees face similar threats to the honeybee: bee-killing pesticides, loss of habitat for forage and nest sites, and climate change.

1000 Bees aims to raise £90,000 in order to create the dynamic app, including an animation that flicks through all of the one thousand species in its gallery.

Enormous bee resource

The 1000 Bees app will showcase high-resolution images of bee specimens, many of which are housed at the Museum. As well as photographs, the Museum contributed information on specific bee specimens, including a couple of bees collected at least 212 years ago and a giant bee collected by noted naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.



A giant carpenter bee, Xylocopa perforator, collected by Alfred Russel Wallace on the island of Timor.



Museum bee curator David Notton said:

As a curator, art projects aren’t my core work but it’s nice to have one now and again, as it gets the collection to new audiences and realises the wider cultural value of the collection.

There are over 20,000 species of bee in the world, but Notton's favourite is probably a rare species he recently managed to find on Blackheath in southeast London called the shrill carder bee. Described by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust as 'probably the UK's rarest species of bumblebee', it is one of 90 bee species found on Blackheath and was spotted by Notton while intensively surveying the area for bees during 2014.



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.



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.



A section of the new Infrastructure Bill designed to control invasive species could end up harming important native species such as the barn owl and the red kite.


In an open letter to the UK Government published last week in Nature magazine, 24 leading scientists including Museum researcher Prof Geoff Boxshall called for the bill to be re-written. The letter states that, "If the bill is passed in its present form, it could lead to an irreversible loss of native biodiversity."


The potential problem lies in the way the bill defines a 'non-native' species. According to the letter:

The draft bill defines non-native species as those that are “not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain”. This definition covers past native species that are now extinct, species that may become naturally established under a changing climate, and species listed in Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Schedule 9 contains, among others, several species that have gone extinct in the UK and been reintroduced, such as the barn owl and the capercaillie (a type of grouse).



The barn owl is one species that could have its status changed by the new bill.

© David Tipling Photo Library / The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.


The wording of the bill means that species slated for reintroduction, such as the European beaver and wolf, would be classed as non-native and their conservation threatened. Species naturally migrating from Europe as the climate changes, such as butterflies and other insects, would also be punished by the new definition.


Prof Boxshall thinks the definition needs to be changed:

The classification of native versus non-native is an ongoing matter for scientific debate, particularly in the face of climate change. By using such a simplistic definition, the government effectively bars the possibility of reintroduction of locally extinct species and adaptation to climate change.


Amendments have been suggested in the House of Lords to correct the problems in the legislation, but so far these have been rejected.