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News in brief

23 Posts

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.



An innovative jaw bone study has revealed that a Jurassic fish ate like modern sea breams.


By measuring the jaws of 89 examples of the fish Dapedium, including specimens from the Natural History Museum, University of Bristol undergraduate Fiann Smithwick was able to recreate how it ate. He said:

My work indicates that Dapedium was well adapted to crush shells, feeding on bivalves and other hard-shelled creatures that it could scrape from the sea floor.


A Dapedium specimen from our collections.


The good preservation of the fossil fish specimens allowed Fiann to use a mechanical model developed to understand modern fishes in his study. By calculating the positions and orientations of the jaw muscles, he was able to determine that Dapedium's jaws moved slowly but strongly, allowing it to work on the hard shells of its prey.


In contrast, other families of fish can have faster but weaker jaws, adapted for feeding on fish prey that are speedier and slipperier.

Ancient fish, historic collections

Dapedium lived 200 million years ago during the Jurassic period, and is one of many ancient sea creatures discovered by Mary Anning in the rocks around Lyme Regis, Dorset.


Museum fossil fish curator Emma Bernard said:

Dapedium is an iconic fossil from Lyme Regis and can be found on many postcards and souvenirs from Lyme Regis. If you are lucky you may even find one when fossil hunting in Lyme Regis.

Viewed from the side, Dapedium was a flat, deep-bodied fish that could grow up to half a metre in length. It had jutting front teeth with a mass of blunt teeth behind. Emma said Fiann was a pleasure to work with as he grasped the importance of our historic collections:

This study would not have been possible without the extensive fossil collections we house, which show a variety of characteristics that Fiann used for his study. His work helps us build up a picture of how Dapedium lived and what it ate.

The study appears in the prestigious journal Palaeontology - a rare achievement for an undergraduate.


Finds from Taiwan and Israel shed light – and confusion – on the story of ancient human species.

Find 1: A mysterious jawbone from Penghu, Taiwan

Discovered by chance by fishermen off the coast of Taiwan, an unusually thick and primitive human jawbone shows a challenging mix of features. While no DNA has yet been recovered from the specimen, its characteristics make it difficult to classify into existing groups.


The jawbone is short and wide, with a thick body and large teeth. It dates within the last 450,000 years, and most likely within the last 200,000.


The jawbone, left, and a reconstruction of the jaw, right © Yousuke Kaifu.


A partial Homo erectus skull from the Chinese mainland has some large associated teeth and could be 400,000 years old, so the new jawbone may belong to the same group. But it could also be one of the elusive ‘Denisovans’, a group known only by DNA from a fragmentary fossil finger bone and two very large molar teeth in a Siberian cave.


Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer said this could be an interesting development:

I have considered the Denisovans as an Asian sister group of the Neanderthals, and like them, derived from Homo heidelbergensis, but if Penghu is indeed a long-awaited Denisovan jawbone, it looks more primitive than I would have expected.

He said of the find:

As the authors note, this enigmatic fossil is difficult to classify, but it highlights the growing and not unexpected evidence of human diversity in the Far East, with the apparent co-existence of different lineages in the region prior to, and perhaps even contemporary with, the arrival of modern humans some 55,000 years ago.

Read the original paper


Find 2: The skull of a possible early migrant, from northern Israel

A later and much better-dated specimen, the partial skull of an early modern human from Manot Cave dates to a time of migration out of Africa and interbreeding with Neanderthals. At about 55,000 years old, it sits comfortably in the timeframe estimated for early modern human and Neanderthal interbreeding, 50-60,000 years ago.


The skull itself has characteristics indicative of early modern humans, and without DNA it is impossible to say yet whether interbreeding with Neanderthals had an impact on the individual. Nonetheless, Prof Stringer said it is a critical find for examining possible migrant populations:

Manot might represent some of the elusive first migrants in the hypothesised out-of-Africa event about 60,000 years ago, a population whose descendants ultimately spread right across Asia, and also into Europe. Its discovery raises hopes of more complete specimens from this critical region and time period.

Read the original paper


Related human origins posts:


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.


Professor Richard Fortey, one of the world’s leading palaeontologists, has been awarded the Lapworth Medal this week at the annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association.


The award recognises Professor Fortey’s contribution to palaeontology over his entire career, more than 40 years of which have been at the Museum.


Said Prof Fortey of receiving the honour:

‘It is a great honour to receive the Lapworth Medal, which is the only ‘lifetime achievement’ medal in British palaeontology. Charles Lapworth, after whom the medal is named, was one of the great nineteenth century scientists - and the originator of the Ordovician period, the age of the rocks on which I have spent much of my research life. And my old professor Harry Whittington was the first ever recipient of the same medal.


Diverse  research


Prof Fortey’s research career has focused around the evolution of some of the earliest animals, but he has contributed to a wide variety of geological and palaeontological topics.


Fellow palaeontologist Professor Derek Briggs of Yale University, one of those who nominated Prof Fortey, commented:

Richard’s research is remarkable for its breadth, covering topics as diverse as Palaeozoic biostratigraphy and biogeography, the evolutionary history and biology of trilobites and graptolites, and the emergence of major groups during the Cambrian explosion.

Prof Fortey began his career at the Museum more than 40 years ago, and still works here as a research associate. Throughout this time he has received numerous honours and awards. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1997.

The great thing about palaeontology is that it is always moving somewhere new. There are always new and wonderful fossils to be discovered, so really the ‘book of life’ is constantly being rewritten.

A major part of Prof Fortey’s research has focused on one group of ancient marine animals, the trilobites, of which he says:

[They] may seem rather esoteric, but the fact that trilobites were around for nearly 300 million years and number many thousands of species, with more being discovered all the time, means that there is no shortage of new work to do.



One of Prof Fortey's seven general-audience books


Public engagement

Prof Fortey says he dislikes the ‘ivory tower’ view of science and has combatted this through seven critically-acclaimed books aimed at a general audience. These include: Life, an unauthorized biography (1998), which tells the story of the evolution of life on earth as seen through his scientific experience, and Dry Store Room No. 1, about the weird and wonderful secrets of the Museum’s collections. He is also a TV presenter, with his most recent series, Fossil Wonderland, airing on BBC Four earlier this year.


Related links



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.


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.



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’.


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.



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!


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.


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.



Despite bouncing around the surface and coming to rest in the shadow of a cliff, the Rosetta mission to sample a comet has transmitted vital scientific data back to Earth.


The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft called Rosetta launched in March 2004 (two years before Twitter!). For the next 10 years it travelled to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or 67P for short, near the orbit of Jupiter. It reached the comet this August, and after taking measurements a landing site was selected for its detachable probe named Philae.

Answering big questions

Philae is the first man-made object ever to intentionally land on a comet (a previous mission had been deliberately crashed into one, but not landed). Its mission was to collect information about the composition of 67P. It is thought that comets formed when the solar system was young, 4.6 billion years ago, and have remained relatively unchanged and undisturbed ever since.


According to Museum extraterrestrial materials researcher Dr Penelope Wozniakiewicz:

Comets contain the most pristine examples of the materials available during the early history of the solar system. Studying cometary samples provides us with the opportunity to learn about the conditions and processes that operated back then.

The landing was the most complex part of the mission and successfully took place on Wednesday 12 November, but it wasn't without complications.


The News in brief team captured the milestones leading up to Philae's bumpy touchdown in a Storify, and you can catch up on the events of the day as they happened.

Off to a good start

It started overnight on 11 November with a series of Go/NoGo decisions - a final checklist of whether all systems were operating and ready to go. All decisions were Go, despite a problem detected with the cold gas thruster around 7.00 GMT. The thruster is part of the apparatus designed to help Philae latch on to the comet. The extremely weak gravity of the comet meant Philae would have to work to secure itself to the surface using just its harpoons and foot screws.

Philae's landing apparatus © ESA


The hundreds of millions of kilometres between comet 67P and Earth mean that any signals coming from Rosetta or Philae took about 30 minutes to reach Earth. Philae separated from Rosetta just after 8.30 GMT on 12 November and confirmation was received at ESA just after 9.00 GMT.


It then took Philae seven hours to travel to the comet's surface, all the while switching on scientific instruments and taking measurements and photos. While everyone waited expectantly for news of Philae's arrival, the Nature Live team at the Museum interviewed ESA Rosetta scientist Leah-Nani Alconcel about what it takes to catch a comet. She described how big the comet was, as shown by an ESA provided graphic of how it would look when hovering over London, and the aims of the mission:

Comet 67P compared to London © ESA


When Philae finally got back in contact it looked like it was safely on the surface, and celebrations and congratulations started to pour in.


Inspirational tweets from the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission

Teething problems

However, it soon became clear that Philae's harpoons did not fire upon landing. Without harpoons or the cold jet thruster, the lander was vulnerable to bouncing across the surface of the comet.


After several hours of confusion, it turned out that Philae had indeed bounced across the surface, touching down three times in total before coming to rest. The first bounce caused Philae to drift hundreds of metres above the surface for nearly two hours. A second bounce lasted only six minutes.


Finally, more than 24 hours after Philae separated from Rosetta, we got to see the view from the surface of a comet:


Philae's final landing site on the comet © ESA


Although Philae was down safely and transmitting back to Earth, it was not at its intended landing site, and the race was on to use Rosetta's cameras to locate its exact position on the comet. From the photos Philae sent back, however, it was clear that it had come to rest at the base of a cliff, and in considerable shadow for most of the day.


This was a problem for its power supply, which comes from solar arrays. Comet 67P was always intended as Philae's final resting place after it ran out of solar power, but the shade meant it would have an even shorter lifespan.

Mission (nearly) accomplished

Philae shut down early on Saturday 15 November, but not before drilling into the comet and performing 80% of its planned scientific readings. The data beamed back to Earth will take months to analyse, but already scientists have one conclusion: the material making up the comet beneath its dusty covering is far harder than anticipated. It's more akin to rock than ice, breaking some instruments. It also explains Philae's first high bounce; the impact of landing was not absorbed by a soft surface as had been hoped.


Philae may yet be able to recharge and come back to life, but even if not, Museum planetary scientist Prof Sara Russell thinks the mission has been a huge success:

I think it is exciting and amazing that some data has been acquired and transferred to Earth by Philae. These data are now being processed by the mission scientists, so there is no further news about what has been sent back, and there may not be for a while. I am hoping that the lander was able to make chemical analyses of the cometary material.

Rosetta as a mission is already a success, as the orbiter has been successfully acquiring lots of information about the comet. The lander part of the mission was always the most risky but it has worked remarkably well too, sending us beautiful and intriguing images of the comet surface.

At the time of writing, the hunt is still on for the lander. The latest news is that Rosetta was able to capture images of Philae as it approached the comet's surface, and also during the first bounce where the lander can be seen heading 'east' and away from the planned landing site:



Rosetta’s Philae lander as it approached and then rebounded from its first touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014. The final inset image (top right) in the series shows the lander during its bounce, not its final resting place that is still be found. © ESA




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.



The femur of a man found near Ust'-Ishim, Siberia, has yielded the oldest modern human genome yet recovered.


The DNA of the 45,000-year-old man contains Neanderthal DNA in a similar proportion to modern non-African people, as reported in the journal Nature.

When did we meet Neanderthals?


Modern humans migrating out of Africa interbred with Neanderthals somewhere in Asia, leaving today's non-African people with an imprint of around two per cent Neanderthal DNA in their genome.


However, exactly when this interbreeding occurred was previously unknown. Estimates based on the chunks of Neanderthal DNA present in humans today gave a range of 37,000-86,000 years ago for the interbreeding event, but new data from the ancient Siberian man has considerably narrowed this estimate.



Models of an early modern human (left) and a Neanderthal (right)


While the Siberian man had a similar proportion of Neanderthal DNA to living humans, the individual chunks of DNA were more intact. The longer it has been since the interbreeding event, the more the chunks of DNA get broken up and shortened.


So, the Siberian man lived closer to the time of the original event than we do, and using the information from his DNA, scientists have estimated the interbreeding occurred between 7,000-13,000 years before he lived; no more than 60,000 years ago.


How many times did we leave Africa?


The timing of Neanderthal interbreeding has important implications for theories of early human migration out of Africa.


Skeletons of early modern humans have been found in the Middle East that date back to 100,000 years ago. One theory states that these bones represent an early dispersal of modern humans into Asia and beyond, reaching Australia and New Guinea. A second dispersal of early humans out of Africa, around 60,000 years ago, would then have spread to Europe and Asia.


A second theory states that the Middle Eastern skeletons represent a failed early migration of humans, and that the migration at 60,000 years ago was the one that dispersed people across Asia, Europe and Australasia.


However, Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer thinks that the new data from the Siberian man lends more support to the second model.


The same stream


Modern Australasian people have the same approximate percentage of Neanderthal DNA as other modern non-Africans, so would have been the result of the same interbreeding event, which is now shown to have happened no more than 60,000 years ago.


This means that modern Australasians cannot be the descendants of an early migration out of Africa, but from the same migration 60,000 years ago that also spawned modern Europeans and Asians. As Prof Stringer says:

While it is still possible that modern humans did traverse southern Asia before 60,000 years ago, those groups could not have made a significant contribution to the surviving modern populations outside of Africa which contain evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals.



Stencils of hands and figurative drawings of animals in Indonesian caves show that expressive art existed in southern Asia and Europe at the same time.

A team of Australian and Indonesian researchers dated art in several caves on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi and found that some were at least 35,000 years old.


Advanced cave art depicting animals and people has been found in sites across Europe, with some dated to around 35,000 years old, but this is the first time that art of this age has been identified in southern Asia.


Art out of Africa


The finding challenges a traditional view that palaeoart originated in Europe as simple geometric designs and evolved there into expressive and figurative art.


40,000 years ago, Europe and southeast Asia were at nearly opposite ends of the Palaeolithic world, following two main migration routes out of Africa some 20,000 years before. Advanced cave art in both these places suggests that art originated before early modern humans reached Europe, spreading out of Africa with them.



Modern hand stencils created in the style of ancient cave paintings at our Science Uncovered event.


Artistic roots and routes


Museum human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer thinks this is a blow to the view that art in southern Asia or Australia would be younger than that in Europe, and had either developed by the spread of ideas from Europe, or by independent developments of artistic expression after modern humans settled in those regions.


I think these exciting discoveries allow us to move away from Eurocentric ideas on the development of figurative art to consider the alternative possibility that such artistic expression was a fundamental part of human nature 60,000 years ago, when modern humans not only occupied most of Africa but were beginning to disperse out towards Europe and the Far East.


I predict that even older examples of cave art will be discovered on Sulawesi, and in mainland Asia, and ultimately in our African homeland dating to more than 60,000 years ago.

The research team that dated the Indonesian art think that similar art found in southeast Asia and northern Australia could be the same age, expanding the range of early human artistic expression.



A Chinese mitten crab has been recorded in Scotland for the first time, posing a potential threat to local biodiversity and habitats.


The invasive crab species is already known to have populated rivers in the UK as far north as the Tyne, but this sighting in Glasgow's River Clyde confirms its migration over the Scottish border.


The Chinese mitten crab, named for the furry mats covering its claws, is one of the top 100 worst alien species in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It threatens biodiversity by competing for food, preying on native species and causing severe structural damage to riverbanks through burrowing.

Crabs on tour


The specimen found in the River Clyde, the remains of a female mitten crab, is the first recorded sighting north of the border.


The Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis), is native to East Asia but is now found across NE Europe and the USA. It was first recorded in the River Thames in 1935, probably introduced by shipping. In the late 1980s the mitten crab began to disperse westwards along the Thames, and there are now well-established populations of E. sinensis in a number of Welsh and English rivers, as well as a single sighting in Ireland in 2006.



The left claw of a male mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis).


The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has set out standards for the control and management of ships’ ballast water and sediments, in an effort to control the transport of species to non-native waters.

Potential threat to biodiversity


Mitten crabs may target the eggs of salmon and trout, according to recent research by Royal Holloway University of London (RHUL) student Jessica Webster and supervisors Dr Paul Clark (the Museum) and Dr David Morritt (RHUL).


Dr Clark sees the recent discovery as a major threat:

"An established River Clyde Chinese mitten crab population could pose an enormous environmental risk to the salmon and trout in this catchment (…) if this reported Clyde specimen came from a deliberate human release, the environmental authorities need to urgently consider what appropriate actions are required to prevent such introductions happening again in the future."


Dr Clark is studying the biology and behaviour of mitten crabs to better understand how we might control their migration and ultimately eradicate alien populations outside East Asia.

See live mitten crabs at Science Uncovered


As part of the Museum's annual festival of science on 26 September 2014, Dr Paul Clark and Dr David Morritt will be showcasing some live Chinese mitten crabs and talking about their work on the biology and behaviour of this problem species.


Come along to Science Uncovered to see these and a whole host of other specimens, take part in activities and meet Museum scientists.


The skeletons of ancient marine reptiles were home to deep-sea communities in the same way that whale carcasses on the ocean floor are today, scientists have discovered.


Modern whale carcasses that drop to the bottom of the sea provide food and shelter for deep-sea creatures such as bone-eating worms, flesh-eating fish and grazing sea urchins, in what are known as whale fall communities.

Modern whale fall communities evolved from ancient deep-sea creatures


And now a fossilised skeleton of a 157-million-year-old ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like toothed reptile, has revealed that the carcasses of marine reptiles that fell to the seabed in the late Jurassic period also housed and fed deep-sea animals.

A reptile under the roadway


The ichthyosaur skeleton was discovered in 1991 during the construction of the A303 Zeals-Bourton bypass in Wiltshire. More than half of the creature’s ribs were recovered, as well as vertebrae, limb bones and parts of its paddles and skull.


A team of scientists, including the Museum palaeontologist Prof Richard Twitchett and researchers from the University of Plymouth, have been studying the fossilised skeleton.


Itchy fish.jpg

An Ophthalmosaurus icenius specimen, a common ichthyosaur species, in the Museum's collection

Careful cleaning to reveal remains


The ichthyosaur specimen was preserved at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The researchers painstakingly cleared the mud and rock off the skeleton without damaging the remains of animals that lived on and in the bones. They then discovered evidence of an array of deep-sea life that proves that modern whale fall communities evolved from similar communities on ancient reptile carcasses, as Prof Twitchett explains:

The bones themselves are horribly scattered and look quite grotty – as one might expect given their lengthy exposure on the Jurassic sea floor – but their surfaces preserve some wonderful fossils, including beautiful, intricate carvings made by the teeth of grazing sea urchins, and a stunning array of tiny tunnels a fraction of the width of a human hair and made by colonising microbes.


Find out more about the Museum's ocean studies:



An Indian rust fungus has been released at several sites across England as a form of 'biocontrol' - using a natural enemy to control an invasive species, in this case the Himalayan balsam.


Introduced by Victorians as an ornamental plant, the Environment Agency now estimates that the Himalayan balsam occupies over 13% of river banks in England and Wales. It can reach over 3 metres in height and causes trouble by smothering vegetation, out-competing native plants and by adding to the risk of flooding by clogging waterways.


This week, the not-for-profit organisation CABI released the rust fungus in Berkshire, Cornwall and Middlesex after successful laboratory trials showed that it causes significant damage to Himalayan balsam but does not impact on native species.


The wet Bank Holiday weekend was a wash-out for some, but as Museum botanist Dr Mark Spencer explained, it was the perfect conditions for release: "the fungus does best in warm, wet conditions!"


Know your enemy


Dr Spencer has been advising on the project, which is headed by CABI with primary funding from Defra and the Environment Agency, and with contributions from Network Rail, the Scottish Government and Westcountry Rivers Trust.


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The Himalayan balsam, dominating the banks of the River Alt.

© Mike Pennington


The rust fungus, a natural enemy of the Himalayan balsam in its native lands in the foothills of the Himalayas, has been extensively tested as a natural control method. Conversely, using existing methods, the Environment Agency estimates it would cost up to £300 million to eradicate Himalayan balsam from the UK.


Selection of a suitable natural enemy and laboratory trials took eight years. If the rust is successful in the UK, Dr Spencer predicts it could resolve the problem of Himalayan balsam within a few years.

This is a really important step forward for the control of invasive species in Europe, I wholeheartedly support the decision to approve release. Project partners have already set up a monitoring programme to assess the spread of the fungus onto Himalayan balsam. If the fungus establishes itself at the trial sites there should be no need for additional releases, the fungus will spread naturally through the UK.

The licence to release the rust fungus is only the second of its kind ever issued in the UK, following the 2010 release of a specialist insect, Aphalara itadori, to control the plant Japanese knotweed.


Read more about invasive species in the UK:

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