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For July, the Orchid Observers team are simultaneously excited and fretting. We're excited because we're planning field trips to see the next orchids on our hit list, but we're also concerned about the flower spikes scorching in the sun and wilting. It might be a race against the sun this month to catch July's finest orchids. Not only that but this month's highlight species are some of the trickiest to spot and identify. Please don't let this deter you, take up the challenge and see if you can locate and photograph these beauties.

 

Bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa)

 

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The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) is the tiniest of the UK orchid species. © Mike Waller.

 

Being the tiniest of the UK orchids, the bog orchid can be rather inconspicuous. It's just 4-8cm tall and green and there are only 25 flowers on the flower spike, which are said to smell sweet and cucumber-like.

 

As its name implies this species lives on bogs, growing among clumps of sphagnum moss. It needs to live in areas that don't dry out, even in a hot summer. When the summer is hot it flowers earlier than when the summer is cool and wet.

 

Being a bog plant it's our Scottish contributors that are going to have most opportunity to find this one. But there are a few colonies dotted around England, in Cumbria, northwest Yorkshire, Northumberland, one-site in Norfolk, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and some in the west of Wales.

 

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The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) has very distinct flowers, that small sweet and cucumber-like. © Mike Waller.

 

Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)

 

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Keep an eye out for the frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride) which is found across the UK. © Fred Rumsey.

 

The frog orchid can be found across the UK, but only in small localised patches. It is more easily found in the north and west of the UK, having declined in the south due to changes in land management.

 

It is quite a hard plant to spot as it is only 5-15cm tall and mostly green in colour. But you can find it on short chalk or limestone grasslands in the south, and in all sorts of places in the north, from railway embankments and road verges, to grasslands and dune slacks.

 

The flowers of the frog orchid have a very enclosed green hood and a long red lower lip, which is lobed at the end. It's classified as vulnerable, so please take extra care when you find this orchid.

 

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The frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride) can be found on chalk and limestone grasslands in the south of England. © Fred Rumsey.

 

Now for a last chance to see:

 

Lesser butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia) and Greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha).

 

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Its a last chance to see the greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). © Mike Waller.

 

Distributed across the UK the lesser butterfly-orchid and greater butterfly-orchid are really quite difficult to tell apart. But here are some top features to help you distinguish between the two.

 

Compared to the greater butterfly-orchid, the lesser butterfly-orchid is shorter, it carries less flowers and it usually flowers a little bit later. It can be found on damp heathlands and moorlands, or in deciduous woodland, whilst the greater butterfly-orchid is found on deciduous woodland and chalk grassland.

 

But the most reliable way of telling the two apart is in the positioning of the pollinia (the pollen bearing structures of the flower). In the lesser butterfly-orchid the pollinia are closer together and parallel to each other, while in the greater butterfly-orchid the pollinia are further apart and slant inwards at the top.

 

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The lesser butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia) can be identified by its parrallel pollinia. © Mike Waller.

 

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The greater butterfly-orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) has pollinia that are further apart and slant inwards.

 

Of the two, the lesser butterfly-orchid is classified as vulnerable, due to large declines, particularly in south-eastern regions, so again please be extra vigilant when locating this species.

 

If you manage to find any of the 29 species of orchid we are conducting our research about, then don't forget to take a photo and upload it to the Orchid Observers project here. And if it just gets too hot to go outside then get online and help us transcribe data from our orchid herbarium sheets.

 

Find out more about our Orchid Observers project and how you can get involved.

 

Jade Lauren

 

Jade Lauren Cawthray is Citizen Science Project Officer in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, where she develops and runs citizen science research projects. Having studied an undergraduate degree in Ecology and Conservation and then a master's degree in Science Communication, Jade is combining her two passions, nature and public engagement, by pursuing a career in citizen science.

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Crystal Palace Transition Kids and Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs swab the first ever dinosaur sculptures the world had ever seen, to help us identify The Microverse. Ainslie Beattie of Crystal Palace Transition Kids and Ellinor Michel of the Museum and a member of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs report on the event:

 

Looming out across the lake in front of us are dinosaurs, 160 year old dinosaurs! They look huge, ominous and exciting! These were the first ever reconstructions of extinct animals, the first animals with the name 'dinosaur' and they launched the 'Dinomania' that has enthralled us ever since.

 

Never before had the wonders of the fossil record been brought to life for the public to marvel at. These were the first 'edu-tainment', built to inform and amaze, in Crystal Palace Park in 1854. They conveyed messages of deep time recorded in the geologic record, of other animals besides people dominating past landscapes, of beauty and struggle among unknown gigantic inhabitants of lost worlds.

 

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The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were built in 1854 to inform and amaze. © Stefan Ferreira

 

Most people just get to look at them from vantage points across a waterway, but not us! Transition Kids (part of Crystal Palace Transition Town) and Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs arranged special access to collect data for the Museum's 'The Microverse' project. The first outing of the newly formed Transition Kids group started with art and science discovery as we decorated our field journals (every good scientist keeps a field journal full of written and sketched observations, musings and potential discoveries) and observed the subjects from afar.

 

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Transition Kids proudly presenting their field journals. © Stefan Ferreira

 

Then we started the trek over the bridge, through the bushes and onto the island. Wow, the dinosaurs are huge up close! Our CP Dinosaur ringmaster, Ellinor Michel, from Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, explained to the kids about the conservation of the historic sculptures and gave an overview of the science behind The Microverse project.

 

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The Microverse participants trekking over to dinosaurs island. © Stefan Ferreira

 

She introduced Dr Anne Jungblut from the Museum who developed 'The Microverse' project, which aims to uncover the diversity of microscopic life on iconic UK buildings. Anne explained what is interesting about the invisible life, called biofilms, on the surface of the dinosaurs. Our involvement in the project is trying to determine what types of organisms are living on the dinosaurs, by sampling and sequencing the DNA!

 

Our results will reveal whole communities of organisms, represented by many phyla of bacteria and archaea, living on each sculpture. Once we get the results back we will be able to investigate which variables affect these communities of organisms, such as substrate, compass direction and distance from vegetation. Then the Museum will compare our results with those from hundreds of other buildings throughout the UK, to look for broader patterns in microorganism ecology. We look forward to meeting again with the scientists to discuss what our results show.

 

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Transition kids collecting samples from the surface of one of the dinosaurs. © Stefan Ferreira

 

We also took some time to explore the surface of the dinosaurs, describing the textures and patterns that had been sculpted to represent dinosaur skin. Even today, scientists are still discussing the likely skin surface of these great beasts and there is evidence to suggest that some dinos had feathers!

 

The children also got the opportunity to sit and contemplate the size of the dinos, to look underneath them and across the lake at the diversity of species on display. Not only did they get to see the great big creatures, but also a few living animals when terrapins popped up, dragonflies zoomed past and ducks paddled by.

 

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Resident artist David Vallade created a set of drawings the kids could use as a visual aid for exploration. © David Vallade.

 

During the summer break we will take the kids who participated in the Dino DNA event to the Museum to explore the science behind 'The Microverse' a bit further, and meet more scientists researching our environment in other ways. Starting with this adventure in deep time and now, Transition Kids are planning many more adventures in Crystal Palace Park and beyond.

 

To find out more about Transition Kids, please email Ainslie

 

And to find out more about the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs visit: http://cpdinosaurs.org/

 

A big thank you to all of the Museum staff and local community supporters who contributed to the event.

 

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The whole dinosaur swabbing team. © Stefan Ferreira

 

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Jade Lauren

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On 25 June the Museum will open its doors to a special event in celebration of the international and global commitment between countries, industry, charities and academia to work together against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). This commitment was first agreed upon in London in 2012 and has since been termed the London Declaration On NTDs.

 

By joining forces to fight NTDs the world would achieve a huge reduction in health inequality paving the way to sustainable improvements in health and development especially amongst the worlds poor. The 25 June sees the launch of the third progress report, 'Country Leadership and Collaboration on Neglected Tropical Diseases'. A pragmatic overview of what has been done, what has worked, what hasn't and what key areas still need to be achieved.

 

The Museum is thrilled to be participating in this event, having a long-standing history in parasitic and neglected tropical disease research. As both a museum and an institute of research our mission is to answer questions of broad significance to science and society using our unique expertise and collections and to share and communicate our findings to inspire and inform the public. We are excited to be hosting a day of free public events on Neglected Tropical Diseases.

 

What are NTDs?

Neglected Tropical Diseases are termed in this way because they infect hundreds of thousands to millions of people, predominantly the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities, and yet receive comparatively little funding for basic, clinical or drug-development research and even less attention from governments, people and the media of affluent countries. Until now!

 

In total the WHO has identified 17 diseases or groups of diseases that fall within this category.

 

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World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020

 

The 10 selected by the WHO for control and elimination by 2020 are:

 

  1. Onchocerciasis (aka river blindness): A blood worm infection transmitted by the bite of infected blackflies causing severe itching and eye lesions as the adult worm produces larvae and leading to visual impairment and permanent blindness.
  2. Dracunculiasis (aka Guinea-worm disease): A roundworm infection transmitted exclusively by drinking-water contaminated with parasite-infected water fleas. The infection leads to meter-long female worms emerging from painful blisters on feet and legs to deposit her young. This leads to fever, nausea and vomiting as well as debilitating secondary bacterial infections in the blisters.
  3. Lymphatic filariasis: A blood & lymph worm infection transmitted by mosquitoes causing abnormal enlargement of limbs and genitals (elephantiasis) from adult worms inhabiting and reproducing in the lymphatic system.
  4. Blinding trachoma: A chlamydial infection transmitted through direct contact with infectious eye or nasal discharge, or through indirect contact (e.g. via flies) with unsafe living conditions and hygiene practices, which if left untreated causes irreversible corneal opacities and blindness. Trachoma is the leading cause of blindness in the word.
  5. Schistosomiasis (aka bilharzia): A blood fluke infection transmitted when larval forms released by freshwater snails penetrate human skin during contact with infested water. The infection leads to anaemia, chronic fatigue and painful urination/defaecation during childhood, later developing into severe organ problems such as liver and spleen damages, bladder cancer, genital lesions and infertility.
  6. Visceral leishmaniasis (aka Kala azar): A protozoan blood parasite transmitted through the bites of infected female sandflies which attacks internal organs which can be fatal within 2 years. 
  7. Soil-transmitted helminths: A group on intestinal worm infections transmitted through soil contaminated by human faeces causing anaemia, vitamin A deficiency, stunted growth, malnutrition, intestinal obstruction and impaired development.
  8. Leprosy: A complex disease caused by infection mainly of the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and eyes.
  9. Chagas disease: A life-threatening illness caused by a blood protozoan parasite, transmitted to humans through contact with vector insects (triatomine bugs), ingestion of contaminated food, infected blood transfusions, congenital transmission, organ transplantation or laboratory accidents.
  10. Human African trypanosomiasis (aka sleeping sickness): A protozoan blood parasitic infection spread by the bites of tsetse flies that is almost 100% fatal without prompt diagnosis and treatment to prevent the parasites invading the central nervous system.

 

They were selected because the tools to achieve control are already available to us and, for some, elimination should be achievable.

 

Take the Guinea Worm:

 

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Guinea worm infection - from over 3.5 million people infected in the 80s to less than 130 cases in 2014. Set to be second human disease to be eradicated after smallpox (photo credits David Hamm&Peter Mayer)

 

In the 1980s over 3.5 million people were infected with Dracunculiasis (i.e. Guinea worm disease), with 21 countries being endemic for the disease. Now, thanks to the global health community efforts and extraordinary support from the Carter Center, only 126 cases were reported in 2014 and only 4 endemic countries remain: Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and South Sudan! If the WHO goal of global eradication of Guinea Worm by 2020 is met then Dracunculiasis is set to become the second human disease in history to be eradicated (the first, and only one, being smallpox). Not bad for an NTD! But there are still challenges!

 

At the Museum we have a long history of working on health related topics. Indeed our founding father Sir Hans Sloane was a physician who collected and identified plants from all over the world for the purpose of finding health benefits - in fact he developed chocolate milk as a health product.

 

Today we have a vast and biologically diverse collection of parasites and the insects/crustaceans/snails/arachnids that carry and transmit them. These are used by researchers both in the museum (such as myself and colleagues) but also internationally through collaborative work.

 

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Collaboration is key - Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) programme key players: the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, Public Health Laboratories Pemba, the World Health Organization, SCI, SCORE, Swiss TPH, NHM and others

 

We are immensely proud of our collections and the work we do in this field especially of the biological information we can contribute to health programmes in endemic countries. One of our most exciting contributions is to the Zanzibar Elimination of Schistosomiasis Transmission (ZEST) programme where we are working in collaboration with the Zanzibar Ministry of Health, various NGOs, the World Health Organization and the local communities to identify and implement the best tools and methods to achieve schistosomiasis elimination in Zanzibar. This would be the first time a sub-Saharan African country would achieve schistosomiasis elimination. Fingers-crossed we are up to the challenge! You can read more about this project in an earlier post on our Super-flies and parasites blog

 

On Thursday we are bringing out our Parasites and Vectors specimens to showcase them to the public galleries and answer any questions relating to these fascinating yet dangerous organisms. Our wonderful scientists and curators will be on hand to talk to people about our collections and research as will collaborating scientists from the London Centre of Neglected Tropical Disease Research who will talk to you about the diseases and the challenges faced to achieve the WHO 2020 goals. Please do pop by and say hello, come and look at our specimens and help us raise awareness of these devastating diseases and the fight to control and eliminate them.

 

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We are working together with schools, communities, government and research institutes to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases. Schistosomiasis fieldwork photo with the team from the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania

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Citizen Science Project Manager Lucy Robinson introduces a Q&A with Dr. Anne Jungblut.

 

In an earlier blog post, a group of students from Bedford Girls’ School described their recent visit to the Museum. The girls had taken part in The Microverse, collecting samples of microorganisms from buildings and sending them to the Museum for DNA analysis, and were keen to meet the scientists involved to find out more. We arranged for them to meet the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Anne Jungblut, to ask her some questions about the project and her wider research. We thought you might like to hear her responses:

 

Q. What inspired you to set up this project?

 

A. Of all the life on Earth, only a relatively small proportion are the plants, animals and fungi that we can see – the vast majority are microscopic. My research takes me all over the world, where I collect samples of microorganisms and study them using DNA technologies to better understand these important organisms. I’ve done a lot of work in the Antarctic, but I thought to myself that it would be really cool to also look at the microorganisms in the UK, in particular on buildings. There’s been very little research into the microorganisms that live on buildings in towns and cities to see what role they are playing in urban ecosystems. So I contacted Lucy and Jade in the Museum’s citizen science team as this research would require lots of samples to be collected across the country and I thought citizen science – collaborating with members of the public – could be a good option. Together we developed The Microverse project.

 

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Q. What are you looking for in the data – what kind of patterns?

 

A. Firstly, I’m looking for the overall diversity of microorganisms. They are such an understudied group that these data will give us a baseline understanding of microorganism diversity on buildings. I’m also looking for differences between building materials – we asked participants to sample three different building materials so we will have a lot of different materials to compare.

 

We also asked you to record a number of different variables that might affect diversity for example the distance to the nearest road and the nearest vegetation. These variables show us possible pollution levels, or semi-natural habitats that microorganism may have colonised the wall from. I’m interested to see what influence the proximity to roads and vegetation/soil has on the microbial diversity.

 

I’m also keen to see whether unique locations have different communities of microorganisms. Some sample sites are quite unusual e.g. on land contaminated by heavy metals, and on a pier over the sea. Will these buildings have very different communities of microorganisms to the other samples?

 

This research will also allow us to formulate more detailed hypotheses and refine our research questions. We are also inviting participants to suggest new hypotheses and future directions for the research. Ideas can be emailed to microverse@nhm.ac.uk.

 

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Arachnula impatiens, a microorganism found on walls, is a predatory protozoan

 

Q. How will the Museum judge how accurate the data are?

 

A. The schools and community groups taking part in The Microverse are carrying out exactly the same method to collect samples as a professional Research Assistant would have done. This means that samples need to be collected under sterile conditions, following a strict protocol.

When we were developing the project, we chose A-level students (or equivalent) as the main audience as they’re committed to science, and we felt they would be more likely to carry out the survey correctly and understand the importance of sterile working compared to other potential audiences we considered e.g. primary school students. Collecting samples in the right way is the first step to ensuring data accuracy.

 

Once we receive the samples, there are a number of ways we can check the accuracy of the data. After the PCR step, gel electrophoresis checks whether enough genetic material is present in the sample. The sequencing process also removes low quality sequences (ones that are too short in length) which will not give reliable results. The great thing about using DNA technologies for identification is that it’s very accurate and doesn’t rely upon human ability to make a correct identification.

 

Participants record details about their building surface, but we also ask them to send us photographs, so we can double check if we are unsure about the accuracy of a piece of information, or if it’s an unusual building surface that we need to be able to see to properly interpret the results.

Finally, when we sequence the data, the output shows us how many mitochondria sequences were generated which indicates how much animal DNA there was in the sample. If a sample had been contaminated e.g. by someone’s hands touching the swab, it would show up as a very high number of mitochondria and we would be able to exclude that sample from our analyses. Luckily this hasn’t yet happened.

 

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Students from Trinity Catholic School collecting samples for The Microverse project

 

Q. Have you seen any microbes in The Microverse samples that you haven’t seen before?

 

A. Not yet. Samples are still coming in and are being sequenced so we only have very early results from a few sample sites. I will know more when all the samples have been sequenced and analysed. The sequencing we are doing is not always able to identify a microorganism to species level, it may be identified to a Genus or Family. Where they are identified to species level, it takes time to work through the data and explore further any sequences that look particularly interesting. We are keeping The Microverse samples frozen in our Molecular Collections Facility so that we, and other researchers, can go back to them in years to come to conduct further research.

 

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Kevin Hopkins, in our film The Microverse in the Lab, placing specimens in the Molecular Collections Facility

 

Q. What are the long-term impacts of your research?

 

A. I work in the polar regions where environmental change is happening at a very fast pace. The deep ice sheets in this area also hold a record of microbial life going back hundreds of years. Understanding the impacts of climate change on all life, not just microorganisms, is an extremely important area of research at the moment. Polar regions are very delicate habitats that have been changed by the introduction of non-native species e.g. reindeer in South Georgia which have had a massive impact on soil quality there. Understanding the microbial life within healthy soils can help us to restore these damaged habitats.

 

In the UK, microorganisms are largely beneficial, through cycling nutrients such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur. But they may also be affecting the colour, moisture levels and other characteristics of buildings – understanding these potentially negative impacts may help the conservation of historic buildings and monuments.

 

In a much longer-term view, it is likely that new active chemicals and medicinal drugs will be derived from microorganisms, so research into microbial diversity facilitates this.

 

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Dr. Anne Jungblut collecting samples in Antarctica

 

Q. You described The Microverse as ‘citizen science’ – what do you mean by that?

 

A. Citizen science is the involvement of volunteers in scientific projects that contribute to expanding our knowledge of the natural world, through the systematic collection, analysis or interpretation of environmental observations. Many of the big research questions of our time require large datasets to be collected over large geographic areas. It just isn’t possible for professional scientists to travel the country gathering samples or observations, so we collaborate with members of the public who volunteer their time, effort and expertise.

 

The Museum has a range of different citizen science projects where you can help our researchers to better understand the natural world. We have a project photographing orchids for climate change research, one recording seaweed distributions around the UK coast to monitor the spread of invasive species, and online projects where you can copy information from handwritten labels on museum specimens to make these data available to our researchers and curators. If you want to see how you can get involved, have a look at the Take Part section of the Museum’s website.

 

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Professional and Citizen Scientists collecting data at Looe Bioblitz, 2013

 

Lucy Robinson

 

Lucy Robinson is Citizen Science Programme Manager in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. She has been working at the Museum in the field of citizen science for 7 years, initially on the Big Lottery Funded OPAL project and has worked on projects studying earthworms, lichens, seaweeds, urban invertebrates, microorganisms and many other areas of biodiversity.  Lucy has a BSc in Zoology from the University of Bristol and a MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from the University of Leeds.

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Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.

 

The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.

 

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A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.

 

The grains in CI chondrites are too small to examine using an optical or electron microscope so we used a technique known as X-ray diffraction (XRD). XRD is a great tool for identifying minerals and determining their abundance in a meteorite sample. We found that the CI chondrites Alais, Orgueil and Ivuna each contain more than 80% phyllosilicates, suggesting that nearly all of the original material in the rock had been transformed by water.

 

As part of the study we also analysed some unusual CI-like chondrites (Y-82162 and Y-980115) that were found in Antarctica. These meteorites have similar characteristics to the CI chondrites we studied, but also experienced a period of thermal metamorphism (heating) after the aqueous alteration. We found that the phyllosilicates had lost most of their water and had even started to recrystallize back into olivine, a process that requires temperatures above 500°C! The CI-like chondrites are probably from the surface of an asteroid that was heated by a combination of impacts with other asteroids, and radiation from the Sun; however, whether the CI and CI-like chondrites come from the same parent body, remains an open question.

 

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XRD patterns from the CI chondrites Alais, Orgueil and Ivuna. X-rays diffracted from atoms in the minerals are recorded as diffraction peaks. Different minerals produce characteristic diffraction patterns allowing us to identify what phases are in the meteorites. In this work we also used the intensity of the diffraction peaks to determine how much of each mineral is present.

 

This research has been published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta and can be accessed here.

 

King AJ, Schofield PF, Howard KT, Russell SS (2015) Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 165:148-160.

 

It was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and NASA.

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This week we get an update on the Orchid Observers project, from Project Officer Kath Castillo.

 

It’s been a busy time for Orchid Observers! The project got off to a great start when the website went live on the Zooniverse platform on 23 April; the very first of the season’s field records was uploaded on day one!

 

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The Orchid Observers team, from left to right: Jade Lauren Cawthray, Jim O’Donnell (Zooniverse web developer) Lucy Robinson, Mark Spencer, John Tweddle, Kath Castillo, Chris Raper and Fred Rumsey

 

At the time of writing this blog we now have 567 registered users on the website who have enthusiastically completed 11,044 classifications, by verifying and transcribing data for our historical specimens and identifying species and flowering stages for around 700 photographic records already submitted by participants. The field records collected span the country, from Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, and from Pembrokeshire across to Norfolk. So far, for early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) approximately 9% of the records are from new/unknown sites (as measured by 2 km square/tetrad); this is valuable information, particularly for green-winged orchid which is considered at risk of extinction in the UK.

 

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A herbarium sheet of green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio); one of around 10,000 historical specimens available online for data verification or transcription

 

Whilst we have not been able to fully compare the Orchid Observers phenology data with our museum records (as yet, the relevant, verified, 2015 UK weather data has not been released) we have already been able to see that the median date of this year’s flowering of two species (early-purple and green-winged) is at least 10 days earlier than the museum data (which mainly covers 1830 to 1970). These are early figures only, and the full data set will be analysed later this year.

 

We are immensely grateful for the time and good will of all our participants - without this effort we would not have been able to collect this data. And we’ve still got the rest of the summer to collect more data for all our 29 species in the survey!

 

The Orchid Observers team had a very busy in May, showcasing the project to the public at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, in Dorset and on Fascination of Plants Day and at Big Nature Day at the Natural History Museum.

 

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Orchid Observers at Big Nature Day

 

Some of us in the team have also managed to get out to various sites to record and photograph orchids ourselves. Here’s a snapshot of our recent activities:

 

Visit to Stonebarrow Hill, Dorset, 1 May

 

After a busy day on the stand at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, Kath, Mike and Chris drove up to the National Trust’s reserve at Stonebarrow Hill to look for orchids and found two beautiful ancient hay meadows of flowering green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio), including the occasional white variety in a sea of purples.

 

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Kath photographing green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) at Stonebarrow Hill, near Lyme

 

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Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio) at Stonebarrow Hill

 

BBC News report at Darland Banks, Kent, 19 May

 

Next up, Mark and Kath travelled down to Darland Banks, in Kent, to film a piece for BBC South East News, with reporter Charlie Rose. The south-facing chalk grassland slopes were abundant with the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora). You can see the film piece here.

 

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Orchid Observers in the News: The man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) at Darland Banks

 

Visit to Box Hill in Surrey, 29 May

 

At the end of May, and despite a weather warning to expect heavy rain later in the day, a group of us left Victoria station in the morning sun and headed down to Box Hill to search for and photograph orchids. Box Hill forms part of the North Downs and is a well-known site to spot many of our wild orchids – there are around 17 species here. We were able to find and photograph 5 of our 29 target species: common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), common twayblade (Neottia ovata), bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium) and fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera), by the time the skies darkened. Some species, such as the bird's-nest and fly, are hard to find at the best of times, and were particularly difficult to photograph in a thunderstorm!

 

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Lucy, Jade and Mike collecting photographic records for common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)

 

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The beautiful bird's-nest orchid, (Neottia nidus-avis) in woodland

 

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Drenched but happy: orchid observers Jade, Sally and Lucy at Box Hill

 

We’ve also been busy filming a piece which has just launched on the Museum’s citizen science Orchid Observers webpage. Kath organised with the Museum’s Broadcast Unit team to film a short piece to explain the research behind the project. So, mid-May saw Kath, together with Emma Davis and Hannah Wise, setting off early one morning with two carloads of film equipment, a group of Museum volunteers and Mark Spencer. The team went to Oxfordshire, to a couple of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust’s finest nature reserves. We are very grateful to BBOWT’s Giles Alder and Laura Parker for hosting us.

 

Find out about why the Orchid Observers research is so important by watching our film here.

 

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Filming for Orchid Observers in Oxfordshire

 

Kath Castillo

 

Kath is a biologist and botanist working as the Orchid Observers project officer and along with the Zooniverse web team developed the Orchid Observers website. She now tries to get out into the field whenever she can to find and photograph wild orchids!

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A family of long-tailed tits were noisily searching the woodland canopy for insects, as I arrived at work - a welcoming sight and sound! Following a week's absence from the Garden, the woodland vegetation has changed to a darker green, while the meadows and ponds are now brighter with meadow clary (Salvia verbenaca), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and an increased number of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). All these are great plants for insects to forage amongst, but what about the native plants good enough for us to eat?

 

Our resident foodie, forager and wildlife gardener/ecologist, Daniel Osborne, explores some of our edible plants:

 

"Until about 7,000 years ago, every human that lived in the British Isles hunted and gathered all of their food. They had and shared a rich knowledge of the uses and edibility of the plants in their landscape and were able to sustain themselves throughout the year. They had skills that, through the study of bushcraft and books like Richard Mabey's Food For Free, I have become confident enough to dabble in. The results have been truly enriching.

 

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Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)

 

In these few paragraphs I do not intend to list all edible native species, share recipes or discuss the health benefits or legality of wild food, as these are covered elsewhere with much more expertise and clarity than I could achieve. Instead I will talk about what thrills me: finding new flavours and connecting with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

 

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Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium)

 

I think I came to wild food relatively late. Some things like blackberries were familiar to me as a child and my brother and I often gorged ourselves on them in late summer. But I didn't discover wild garlic until my twenties, on the banks of the River Medway near my girlfriend's house at university. And I have not, to this day, ever eaten a pignut.

 

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Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)

 

The Wildlife Garden at the Museum changed everything for me because it was here that I really started to learn about plants. My identification skills improved, and continue to improve, and what was once an anonymous field or woodland floor is now a host of familiar friends.

 

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Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

 

I have been truly amazed at how many of our native plants are edible. I have many still on my list to try, but have sampled a new plant at least every week as my knowledge and interest have grown. During spring I had cheese sandwiches for lunch with wild garlic, chickweed and ground elder. The almond taste of young rowan leaves and the caramel taste of sweet woodruff have opened my eyes to the fact that the range of flavours of the commonly cultivated salad leaves, like lettuce, rocket, cress and spinach, is but a small part of the spectrum.

 

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Wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) in the Cairngorms National Park

 

When I go camping now or go for long walks in the wilderness, which is, happily, becoming increasingly frequent, I am able to stop and pick leaves, such as young beech, rosebay willowherb or wood-sorrel, or flowers such as primrose and dead-nettle and enjoy the variety of flavours. A big part of the enjoyment for me is knowing how little I know.

 

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Commom nettle (Urtica dioica)

 

I am not alone in this passion for wild edibles. There are a number of outstanding books and YouTube videos on the subject and our friend and colleague Viv Tuffney recently added her name to the list of wild food authors.

 

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Viv Tuffney's new Nettle Cookbook

 

Viv Tuffney's book of nettle recipes 'Nettle Cookbook- Recipes for Foragers and Foodies' - inspired by our biennial Nettle Weekend is devoted to the use of one very common and nutritious species. I have been lucky enough to sample some of Viv's cooking, and have used recipes from the book myself.

 

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A delicious nettle and cashew stuffed mushroom made from a recipe in Viv Tuffney's Nettle Cookbook

 

It encapsulates everything I like about wild food. How, with a little bit of knowledge and effort, it can connect us with our landscape and our past."

 

Thank you Daniel.

 

If you would like to try Viv's nettle recipes for yourself, you can get a copy from the Museum's online shop.

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The Dark Side of Weevils in Beetle blog

Posted by Blaps Jun 9, 2015

Weevil researcher Dr. Chris Lyal elucidates on the darker side of weevil life-histories...they are not as friendly as you may have imagined...

 

 

 

Weevils are perhaps the most inoffensive of beetles - well, unless you’re a farmer, forester or horticulturalist, in which case you may take a rather dimmer view of them, since some species of this huge group are major plant pests.  However, to focus on the animals themselves and ignore inconvenient economics, they seem to look out at the world through immense soulful eyes, and trundle rather erratically along like one of those clockwork plastic children’s toys with slightly more legs than are truly manageable. As herbivores, they spend their lives up to their antennae in plants, nibbling at leaves and flowers, buds and roots.  They may have a long projecting rostrum at the front of their heads, but they do not behave like horse-flies, bed-bugs or any of the rest of the blood-sucking brigade and try and force it through your skin and suck out your life-juices. Adult weevils are covered in scales and sometimes very brightly coloured, but they have a previous existence as a larva, chomping their vegetarian way inside fruit, stems, leaves or roots. Larvae are fat, white, legless comma-shaped beasts, almost blind and apparently interested only in food. Again, not one of nature’s  bad boys (unless, as I said, you are concerned with keeping plants alive, in which case I may be irritating you by now). However, not all is as it seems. Some weevils, it turns out, have a darker side to their nature. Some are killers. Some are cannibals.

 

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Damnux species, a seed predator of dipterocarp trees in Thailand.

 


Our first instance is rather sad, albeit with a shocking element. Most weevil females drill a hole in the host plant using their rostrum – the projection of the front of the head at the end of which is the mouth. They then turn around and carefully lay their egg in the bottom of the hole they have produced. This process, to the observer, can be tense – how does the female know where the hole is? Will she find it, probing blindly with her ovipositor? Not always, it turns out. Several species of European Ceutorhynchine weevils, including the stem cabbage weevil Ceutorhynchus napi, occasionally lay their eggs too soon, and miss their carefully drilled hole. The larva would not survive, were the egg to even hatch. Pragmatically (though not sentimentally – but one can take anthropomorphism too far), rather than waste the resource the female will eat the egg, and therefore be able to use the nutrition to develop more eggs[1] . More deliberate is the elegant Ludovix fasciatus, which lays its eggs in the stems of the water hyacinth, Eichornia crassipes. This is no simple placement in the plant tissue – the female probes with her long slender rostrum until she finds eggs of the grasshopper Cornops, already laid inside the stem. On finding a clutch, she inserts her rostrum into one and, rather like drinking milk from a coconut through a straw, drains the contents. She then lays a single egg and the larva, when it hatches, eats the rest[2] .  Even more extreme is Anthribus nebulosus, another European weevil, which has taken on some of the characteristics of a parasitoid. In this case the female searches out scale insects on coniferous trees, just after the scale produces eggs. The beetle chews a hole in the scale and lays an egg in the ovisac; when the larva hatches it stays where it is, feeding on the scale’s eggs and nymphs before pupating in the same place. When the adults emerge they feed on the remains of the scale, with the occasional pause to imbibe some honeydew as an accompaniment.  Scale insects are not the only Hemiptera to suffer at the mouths of weevils. Researchers in a lab in New Zealand a few years ago, studying resistance of grasses to the pest weevil Listronotus bonariensis, noticed that aphids accidentally included on the grass vanished during the experiments.  Closer examination revealed the adult weevils, if they encountered an aphid as they walked across the plant, would ‘grasp and rupture the aphid with the mandibles, followed by mastication and ingestion’[3]. Nice

 

 

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The larva of a molytine weevil, Alcidodes ramezei, in a dipterocarp seed.
 

The instance that led me to this curculionoid underworld, however, is more extreme, and that was a paper that came out recently on a seed-feeding weevil, with an intriguing title: “Curculio Curculis lupus: biology, behavior and morphology of immatures of the cannibal weevil Anchylorhynchus eriospathae[4] . Many weevils feed on plant seeds as larvae. This is a very good source of food, neatly packaged and concentrated. With one exception, the bizarre cycad-feeding brentid Antliarhinus (of which more, perhaps, another time) generally only one or, more rarely, a few, weevils can develop in a single seed. In fieldwork I sometimes find, on opening a seed, a weevil pupa fully occupying the interior, neatly packaged and waiting to emerge. How weevils arrange this singular occupancy is not clear. In some cases, perhaps, females can detect if another female has already oviposited and avoid the fruit; in others, there may be so many fruit and so few weevils that competition is rare. Perhaps if there is more than one larva there is simply not enough food and one or both starve – so-called ‘scramble competition’.  Maize weevils normally produce several adults from a single seed however many eggs are laid, and aggression between larvae has been seen by X-raying the seed. In the case of two weevils feeding on fruit of the palm Syagrus, however, the mechanism is known, and it’s not pretty. Most weevil larvae have broad triangular mandibles, suitable for chewing plant tissue.

 

 

 

This is the case of the older larvae of weevils in the genera Revena, a baridine, and Anchylorhynchus, a curculionine.  In both cases, however, the first instar larva is different.  The mandibles are long, slender and pointed – predator’s mandibles.  With such mandibles chewing plant material would be difficult, but piercing and killing other insects – that is where one sees this morphology in other beetles. The first intimation of what was happening was in a paper by Cecilia Alves-Kosta and Chrisoph Knogge in 2005[5] , where they discovered the first instar larvae attacked and killed one another, should more than one egg be laid in a fruit. The larva remained in this killer instar until the endocarp of the fruit hardened and no more eggs could be laid, after which it moulted into the more ‘normal’ second instar.  The story was elaborated more recently by Bruno Souza de Medeiros and his colleagues who last year published the paper mentioned above on the ‘weevil wolf’, Anchylorhynchus eriospathae.

 

 

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Anchylorhynchus eriospathae larval mandibles (redrawn from de Medeiros et al, 2014):  first instar, dorsal and ventral.

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Anchylorhynchus eriospathae larval mandibles (redrawn from de Medeiros et al, 2014): 2nd instar, dorsal and ventral.

 

Like Revena, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th instar larvae have blunt triangular mandibles and, like Revena, those of the first instar are long, slender and pointed. In this case the eggs are laid on the flowers before the fruit are formed, and the larvae, flattened and with long setae to detect their competitors and prey, slide between the sepals and petals of the flower and fruit, fighting and killing others they find.

Unlike Revena they then eat them, a so-far unique observation of cannibalism in weevils. Some cases have been seen of more than one later instar in a fruit, but in this case the ignore one another, other than feeding at opposite ends of the fruit in scramble competition to mature earlier than their competitor – other weevil larvae entering the fruit may still be killed, however.  The two beetles showing this amazing development of the first instar are not closely related, and similar adaptations have not been seen elsewhere in seed-feeding weevils (other than in congeneric species on the same hosts).  On the other hand, not many people have looked.  In fact, we apparently need to look even more widely. Since I wrote the text above another paper has revealed intraspecific aggression in weevils with a totally different lifestyle, where the larvae live externally on the plant – members of the subfamily Hyperinae. Jiří Skuhrovec and his colleagues found that fighting to the death can occur in cultures of two different hyperfine species, Hypera postica and Brachypera vidua[6]. In this case there does not seem to be cannibalism or modification of the mouthparts (although they have introduced some wonderful terms: ‘offensive larva’, ‘defensive larva’ and ‘combat ball’).

What would lead to the evolution of the behaviour and morphology in these weevils, especially those attacking the Syagrus seeds? The leaf-feeding Hyperinae only demonstrate the behaviour when there is insufficient food.  For the seed-feeders one perhaps critical factor is the very high seed-predator load of the plant; it is not unusual for 100% of the seeds to be attacked. This would lead to intense competition, driving the weevils to develop means of eliminating other larvae competing for the same resource – and maybe obtain some extra nutrient at the same time.  One thing is clear – there can be only one.   

 

 

[1] Kozlowski, M.W., 2003, Consumption of own eggs by curculionid females (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Curculioninae, Ceutorhynchinae) – Weevil News: http://www.curci.de, No.10, 4pp., CURCULIO-Institut: Mönchengladbach (ISSN 1615-3472). http://www.curci.de/weevilnews/no/10/

[2] Zwolfer, H. & Bennett, F.D., 1969, Ludovix fasciatus Gyll. (Col., Curculioninae), an entomophagous weevil. Entomologists Monthly Magazine, 105: 122-123

[3] Barker, G.M., 2006, Predation on aphids by the herbivorous weevil Listronotus bonariensis (Kuschel) (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Brachyceridae).  The Coleopterists Bulletin, 60(2), 164-165.

[4] de Medeiros et al. (2014), Curculio Curculis lupus: biology, behavior and morphology of immatures of the

cannibal weevil Anchylorhynchus eriospathae G. G. Bondar, 1943. PeerJ 2:e502; DOI 10.7717/peerj.502

[5 Alves-Costa CP, Knogge C. 2005. Larval competition in weevils Revena rubiginosa (Coleoptera:

Curculionidae) preying on seeds of the palm Syagrus romanzoffiana (Arecaceae).

Naturwissenschaften 92:265–268 DOI 10.1007/s00114-005-0620-6.

[6] Jiří Skuhrovec, Pavel Štys & Alice Exnerová (2015) Intraspecific larval aggression in two species of Hyperini (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), Journal of Natural History, 49:19-20, 1131-1146, DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2014.974704

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Posted on behalf of Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera at the Natural History Museum.


I've just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It's not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it's still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Natural History Museum collection. That doesn't sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.

 

So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family... but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.

 

And for such large creatures we know very little about them. This family is considered to be within the infraorder Stratiomyomorpha, but they have not always been positioned here. Originally they were classified within the Tabanidae – the horseflies – and do superficially resemble them (just on steroids) but there are other differences. They were then moved, along with the Xylophagidae, into Xylophagomorpha, but this infraorder is no longer used, with Pantophthalmidae now being subsumed into Stratiomyomorpha leaving Xylophagidae to roam free along the taxonomic highway (Fig.1).

 

Pantophthalmidae are thought of as being in a relatively stable position snuggled alongside the Stratiomyidae (soldierflies) and Xylomyidae (wood soldierflies). However, I believe some recent work by Keith Bayless of North Carolina State University has now placed the freewheeling Xylophagidae into Tabanomorpha. Everyone up to speed?

 

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Figure 1. Tolweb organisation of Brachycera.

 

Now we have cleared up the higher taxonomy let's move onto distribution. They have only been found in the Neotropical region from Mexico down through Central America and down through Brazil and Paraguay and across to Venezuela and Columbia. And even though this is a vast area, they are infrequent in most collections.

 

The key work for this group was undertaken by Val in 1976. He states that these are rare in the collections, but in order to review all of the species and the types, you need to visit 23 different museums (this figure I presume has grown). That is a lot of effort for a handful of species but that would make a great road trip Although our collection goes back hundreds of years we have only 132 pinned specimens but we do have some important type material (Fig. 2). However we are still missing some of the species and one of the genera!

 

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Figure 2. Species in the Museum and whether type material is housed here.


I've always liked this group of flies because they are just so big, and we have actually had some fresh material that comes from some French Guiana material donated to the Museum. It has been sitting there patiently for the last couple of years waiting to be identified and now seemed the ideal time. They had been found by our volunteers, who were surprised by these beasts, as they were so much larger than all the other specimens in the pots.

 

These flies, as already stated, are big. Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862) with its wings spread, can reach 8.5cm in width. Fig.3 gives you an idea of their robust and chunky bodies … we found seven specimens in the donation (of about 50 samples).

 

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Figure 3. One of the glorious specimens - Pantophthalmus bellardii (bellardi 1862).

 

The adults are sexually dimorphic with the males having holoptic heads (all eyeballs!)

 

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Figure 4. The differences between the males and the female heads of Pantophthalmidae.

 

And they have beaks! Actually these are a very useful diagnostic feature…

 

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Figure 5. Beaks of the Pantophthalmidae (from Val 1975).

 

The immature stages are not known from most of the species although we have a range of pinned, dry and spirit material of the larvae. And they too are big, like their mothers and fathers, but we have even fewer of them in the collection (Figure 6 & 7).

 

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Figure 6. Pantophthalmid larvae in relation to adult (abdomen shown).

 

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Figure 7. The Museum spirit collection of Pantophthalmidae.

 

Why do we only have one jar? One of the problems is that the larvae are wood borers and inhabit galleries that are carved horizontally into the tree – dead or living depending upon the species. We still really don’t know what they are feeding on but many people believe that it could be fermenting sap. Others believe that the diet is a mixture of wood (either dead or in the process of dying) and micro-organisms.

 

Zumbado writes in his work from 2006 that they seem to prefer mucilaginous trees such as kapok or sap-producing trees such as figs. He goes on to describe how noisy these little critters are – several hundred may be in one trunk and they can be heard munching away from several metres.

 

The larvae have very robust head capsules and massive mandibles – they are some of the largest larvae I have seen (of all insects). When I read accounts of how many can be seen in one tree, I am quite overcome with envy. We don’t have many in the collection – one jar as shown – but it is a mighty jar. I don’t think I am allowed to say what exactly was said by various colleagues when we brought out some of the specimens but, suffice to say, they were impressed.

 

This collection was in a sorry state in old drawers and on slats. These are problematic because the pins are so firmly wedged that when you try and remove the pin from the board you often damage the specimens. The specimens themselves were showing some early signs of damage with verdigris on some of the pins (Fig. 8) Verdigris is when the lipids in the insect react with the copper in the pins. Nowadays we use stainless steel pins, so this doesn't happen, but most of the specimens in the collection are mostly older even than me.

 

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Figure 8. Verdigris on pins.


The first thing that I do when I recurate a collection is to find all of the recent as well as the historical literature in catalogues and monographs, and update the database. The Museum database for this family had not been edited for at least 20 years. But luckily, when going through the literature, I discovered that with this family, not a lot had happened in that time. But our records were still inaccurate, and for a family with very few species people kept changing their mind about the number of genera and where the different species sat. Sorting that out took the most time in terms of overall curation, as there were so many new combinations and I had to be certain of all the taxonomic rearrangements. You should have heard my sighing as I was typing in the data (I promise it was just sighing).

 

Remember that there were only 20 described species of which we had (past tense is important here and I’ll come back to that) only 15? Well, the number of taxonomic records we now have in the database of all the original combinations and numerous synonyms (the many, many synonyms) is about three times as many as the actual number of species (Fig. 9).

 

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Figure 9. Taxonomic names for genera and species.

 

Once this was sorted out, I started on the production of the labels. I have to produce an initial first draft of the list of species names (Fig. 10) as I need to ascertain where and what all of the types were, as well as how many unit trays of each size are needed. I have many lists scattered around my desk so one more can’t hurt…

 

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Figure 10. Lovely lists of the species of Pantophthalmidae in the Natural History Museum Collection.

 

N.B. See – hardly any valid species names without synonyms!

 

Next I needed to make my unit trays up. My lists have codes on them indicating what the type was and how many of which size trays – there is an awful lot of organising with curation and it definitely fulfils my OCD tendencies…We have three sizes of unit trays that we use for Diptera recuration but somehow I knew that I probably wouldn’t be needing any of the very small A trays (Figure 11).

 

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Figure 11. Unit trays –C, B and A.

 

N.B ok that is quite a nerdy photograph!

 

The new sparkly labels (ok the sparkly bit is a lie) were placed into the unit trays and then I started transferring the material across. As the specimens were moved they were inspected for damage – any verdigris removed and any legs etc. placed into gelatine capsules. Three new main drawers later and the collection was now housed in museum-standard drawers, conservation-grade trays and labels, completely updated on the database and new material incorporated into it (Fig. 12).

 

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Figure 12. The largest smallest recuration project.

 

So let’s go back to this new material consisting of just a few specimens. Not a lot you may think – but remember this collection is not very big. For large flies, they were slightly difficult to ID. In fact, as the samples had come out of the window traps (the specimens collect in alcohol) they were very greasy.

 

Chris Raper, a fellow Dipterist at the Museum and lover of these flies, suggested that I give them a bath in ethyl acetate. I was a little nervous about leaving these precise specimens overnight in this rather noxious fluid. But lo and behold! What wonders were to great me the next day! Wonderful, they were – just wonderful. And suddenly we were able to see features that were previously hidden, such as thoracic patterns and, rather more importantly, hairs on the eyeballs. This feature alone split the two different genera and so we realised that for the first time, our collection now has ONE Opetiops alienus (Fig. 13). I believe this is also the first time that it has been collected from French Guiana.

 

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Figure 13. Opetiops alienus – check out not only the hairy eyeballs but also the beak!

 

So one database updated, one collection rehoused and once more new material has been added to the collection. Happiness reigns in the Land of the Curator.

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This week we hear from volunteer Stephen Chandler, who has been supporting The Microverse project by using computer software to identify the taxonomic groupings of the DNA sequences revealed in the sequencing machine.

 

Due to the size of microorganisms, we have until recent years relied on microscopes to identify different species. The advancement of scientific technologies however has made it possible for scientists to extract DNA from microorganisms, amplify that DNA into large quantities and then put the samples into a sequencing machine to reveal the genetic sequences. In The Microverse project, my role begins when the sequencer has finished processing the samples.

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A raw data file from the MiSeq machine.

 

When the gene sequencer has finished decoding the PCR products it creates a file much like a typical excel file. The main difference is that this file can be incredibly large as it contains millions of DNA sequences belonging to hundreds if not thousands of species. This requires a powerful computer to run the analysis to identify what is in the sample.

 

At the Museum we use a number of servers with huge memory capacities and processing capabilities. To give an idea of the power these machines have compared to an everyday computer; a server at the Museum has at least 1.5TB (Terabytes) of RAM, that’s 300 times more processing power than your average computer, which has 4-6GB (Gigabytes) of RAM.

 

In order to use this computing power, the server needs to have a program designed to analyse and identify the DNA sequences, using a reference database of DNA for that group of organisms. To do this I use a program called QIIME (Quantative Insights Into Microbial Ecology).

 

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The QIIME terminal, where the computer code is inputed to process the sequences.

 

The process of turning a raw sequence file listing all the DNA sequences, hot from the gene sequencer, into something that can be used to create graphs is not an easy task, especially when you have hundreds of thousands of sequences, as for the Microverse project.

 

The first step is to remove low quality sequences that have errors. Then the sequences within a sample are grouped together into Operational Taxonomic Units (OTUs), according to their similarity. Sequences that are at least 97% similar to each other are grouped into one undefined OTU. The OTUs that are found are then compared to a reference database containing hundreds of thousands of specific species, and other taxonomic groupings, to identify which type of organisms they are.

 

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A nearly completed file. All the sequences have been identified, but now need to be put into an order.

 

Some of the bacteria that we find are common and you can find them living on most surfaces in our home or garden, but others are incredibly rare and have evolved to survive in the most competitive and extreme environments. And all this microscopic life and diversity can all be found living just outside the front door. Although in the Microverse project no sample or result seems to be quite the same, which makes this a very exciting project.

 

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Three coloumn graphs representing the relative abundance of different microorganisms identified in three different samples.

 

Stephen Chandler

 

Stephen Chandler obtained a degree in marine biology at Portsmouth University and then went on to complete his masters at Imperial College London in ecology, conservation, and evolution in 2014. Stephen’s ambition is to study for a PhD and he is particularly interested in studying microorganisms in marine environments.

 

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Stephen taking samples from the pocket roof of St Paul's Cathedral.

 

And now a brief word from Dr. Anne Jungblut, on careers in genomic science:

 

More and more research in biology, ecology and medicine is based on DNA and genome sequencing. The research relies on specialist software and programming in order to be able to analyse data sets as big as the Microverse sequence data, with future genomics projects likely to be much much bigger than our current project. 

 

Along with specialist software the field will also need more and more different types of experts working on DNA projects to tackle future challenges in science, ranging from people interested in going outside to collect field data, molecular biologists that know how to do laboratory work to extract high quality DNA and run sequencing machines, to people that love concentrating on data analysis by applying specialist software, writing programming scripts or even develop new bioinformatics programs.

 

Anne Jungblut

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This month it is the turn of Katy Potts to give us an update on the progress of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. Since Anthony's review of their first month with us the trainees have progressed onto Phase 2 of their programme, where their species identification training really starts in earnest and we've certainly been keeping them busy!

 

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Trainees puzzling over an identification (l-r: Sally Hyslop, Anthony Roach, Mike Waller & Katy Potts)

 

The past two months have been both exciting and enlightening in educating us about the world of biological recording and species identification. It was while I was at Plymouth University that I first discovered species identification in an invertebrate taxonomy module with the ever inspiring entomologist Peter Smithers. It was under Peter's guidance and teaching that I fell in love with the six legged insects that run our world. Moreover, it was the passion for taxonomy from Peter that inspired me to delve into this field of biology.

 

The past two months have been fantastic. We are currently in Phase 2 of our programme where the core identification workshops, Field Studies Council placements and project work are taking place.

 

We have been welcomed into the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) in the warmest way possible. After we settled in we were each given a role in one of five citizen science projects: The Microverse (me), Orchid Observers (Mike Waller), The Urban Tree Survey (Chloe Rose), The Big Seaweed Search (Anthony Roach) and The Bluebell Survey (Sally Hyslop). You might have seen posts from some of us on about our projects on the Citizen Science blog.

 

My role was to work on the Microverse project, which looks at discovering what species of micro-organisms live on buildings in the UK and what environmental factors affect their diversity. In this project, schools are asked to swab buildings made of different materials. They then send the DNA to us at the Museum for analysis. My role in this project is to carry out the DNA extraction in the microbiology labs and then help collate the results to send back out to the schools. Whilst working on this project, I have gained invaluable experience in current methodologies used for DNA extraction, something I was keen to learn but never anticipated doing through the traineeship!

 

My personal highlight of the traineeship is the identification workshops, which began in April with a two day Bryophyte ID course with Dr Fred Rumsey. During this course we looked at the anatomy of bryophytes, learning about their distributions and status as a group in the UK. We used microscopy to become familiar with a wide selection of species, focusing on the features that define their identification. There was also a field trip organised to Burnham Beeches where we observed a range of bryophytes in the field, from sphagnum mosses to the rare Zygodon forseri (knothole moss).

 

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Sally & Katy hunting for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches

 

The second identification workshop was on Lichens with Lichenologist Holger Thues. To begin this course we explored the biology of lichens, their anatomy and distributions in the UK. We then went on a field trip to Hampstead Heath to look at a range of lichens that are present in this area, some of which are important indicators of pollution levels.

 

Personally, I found this an eye opening experience as I come from a part of Devon that is not far from Dartmoor, where I have spent many days walking along the River Dart. Along the riverside and some of the woodlands (such as Whistmans Wood) there is an abundance of lichen species, many growing to be large specimens due to the quality of the habitat. Seeing the effect that pollution has on the growth forms of the same species of lichen in London was very interesting.

 

When back in the museum, we spent some time in the cryptogrammic herbarium where we used a range of keys to begin learning lichen taxonomy and microscopy for identification. This included using chemical tests and cross-section microscopy to aid species identifications.

 

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Chloe and Katy looking for lichens

 

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Mike and Chloe back in the lab working on their lichen identification

 

As the weather begins to warm and the field season begins, many different wildlife groups are emerging and buzzing around. This ignited the desire in all of us to learn field survey techniques. As part of our environmental consulancy module we looked at methods for surveying different groups of wildlife. We were lucky enough to have the chance to survey newts in the Wildlife Garden here at the Museum. Steph West (the Project Manager for the ID Trainers project who has previously worked as an ecological consultant) supervised us while we undertook dusk and dawn newt surveys where we learnt key methods for newt trapping and releases as well has how to identifiy the different species.

 

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Collecting our newt bottle traps in the Wildlife Garden.

 

During the sunnier days in London when we have some free time we are able to retreat into the Wildlife Garden to observe and collect insects. The garden is very diverse with a wide range of UK habitats that support a number of different wildlife groups. This valuable resource allows us to collect specimens and gain experience in identifying them. We are then able to incorporate them into our own collections which we can use as an identification reference. When out in the field we are also encouraged to collect specimens to support our work in identification. I have recently been working on identifying a wood ant I collected whilst out on a field trip:

 

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Formica sp. ant I have been identifying

 

There are many more workshops and events to look forward to over the next month: Coleoptera, Flowering Plants, Dipetera and Earthworms are all coming up. For the last part of May however we are all on placements with the Field Studies Council for one week. I will be heading to the FSC centre in Rhyd-y-creuau in Snowdonia at the end of May assisting on courses on tree identification, arctic alpine flowers and a school Geography field trip.

 

Thank you Katy! Next month we'll be getting an update from Mike Waller on how those placements have gone, as well as some of the workshops and events that the trainees have been working on.

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This week we hear from Freya Bolton and Emily Stearn, students at Bedford Girls' School, about their experience of visiting the Museum to meet with the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity team and Dr Anne Jungblut who leads the Microverse project.

 

On 30 April, we (eleven International Baccalaureate students from Bedford Girls' School) had the opportunity to come and visit the Natural History Museum, having participated in the Museum's exciting project 'The Microverse'. For many of us, despite the fact we'd visited many times previously, we knew this time it was going to be something slightly different, being able to explore the Museum in a new, unique and fascinating light. Having spoken to Jade Cawthray, she kindly agreed to arrange a behind the scenes tour especially for us!

 

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So much to identify so little time. Florin Feneru with a draw of specimens for identification.

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

We were greeted by Lucy Robinson, who explained to us, as we travelled through the Museum, that within there were over 80 million different plant, animal, fossil and mineral specimens. After this, we were introduced to Dr Florin Feneru at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, who confessed that he would receive specimens sent in from thousands of people each year, from the UK and abroad, in the hope that he could identify what exactly they were.

 

He explained that the most common specimen query was the "meteorite" (or as he would like to call them "meteo-wrongs") from members of the public who wanted validation for the rocks they believed to have mysteriously entered from outer space. Dr Feneru did however then excitedly show us, an ACTUAL meteorite received earlier this year, letting us hold it. It was extremely heavy for its size - not surprisingly as it was composed of mainly iron.

 

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An actual meterorite, and not a "meteo-wrong!"

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

He then led us into the Cocoon: an eight storey building with 3 metre thick walls, containing just over 22 million specimens. The building was kept at a particular humidity and temperature in order to keep the specimens in good condition. The storey we entered was maintained at 14°C - 16°C and kept at 45 percent relative humidity. We were shown by Dr Feneru a range of butterfly species on the ground floor, and he explained that, before the Cocoon was built, the curators had to use mothballs to prevent infestations with pest insects.

 

After we'd visited the Cocoon, we were shown to a workshop area, where we met Dr Anne Jungblut, one of the founders of the project we have been participating in. She gave us a brief talk about her other current projects, including an expedition to Antarctica, and we had the opportunity to ask her about The Microverse and what inspired her to create this project. We were informed that one hundred and fifty four schools had taken part, and that Dr Jungblut was looking for a difference in diversity of microscopic life in different urban environments.

 

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A group photo with Dr Anne Jungblut.

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

Following this talk, we had two hours remaining to ourselves, before it was time to depart back to sunny Bedford. Instinctively, we headed first to the cafes and shops before exploring the more scientific parts of the Museum. Full stomachs and emptier purses in hand we chose to explore the Marine Biology and Dinosaur galleries (naturally). One of the pupils explained that she hadn't been to the Dinosaur exhibition since she was 5 years old, as a consequence of being absolutely terrified of the animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex (she had many nightmares apparently). She confirmed that he definitely was not as scary as she thought he was at the time - that being said, she is now 17.

 

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Sophie the Stegosaurus, looking very friendly.

Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

 

Returning back to Bedford with new knowledge of both 'The Microverse' project, marine biology, and dinosaurs, as a whole group we would like to thank the Museum staff members and the teachers at Bedford Girls' School who made this amazing experience possible.

 

Freya Bolton and Emily Stearn

 

Thank you to Freya and Emily for writing their blog post and to Bedford Girls' School for coming to visit. It was an absolute pleasure to have them with us!

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As we enjoyed the bank holiday weekend just gone, we were reminded of the previous one where our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project travelled to the 'Jurassic Coast' to help out at the annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. One of our trainees Anthony Roach has been going to the festival since 2009 and gives us an insight here into how things have changed over the years...

 

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A gloriously sunny May Day bank holiday weekend for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

 

The reaction of friends who aren't natural history geeks is often brilliant! Looking at me rather quizzically they've said, 'So. You're going to a Fossil Festival?!' 'Yes,' I reply. Some respond with, 'cooool...so what do you do exactly? Talk about rocks and fossils?' 'Do you go fossil hunting?' 'Do you show people dinosaurs?' Yes, yes, and well, sometimes we have bits of them! 'And you're doing this for 3 days?' Yes and it is brilliant. With wry smiles they usually say 'right...cool...interesting...'

 

The truth is, despite my friend's reaction, it is a lot more than just a few rocks, fossils and bits of dinosaurs! The Fossil Festival celebrates the unique scientific discoveries that can be read in the rocks at Lyme Regis and how they've shaped our understanding of geological time. The festival also takes inspiration from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site to inspire future generations of scientists, geologists, naturalists and artists.

 

My first experience of the Fossil Festival was in 2009, as a volunteer for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and going to deliver geologically themed outreach activities due to my passion for geology. Every year the festival has a theme. In 2009 it was the centenary of Charles Darwin, so it was rather aptly named 'Evolution Rocks'. I remembered thinking that this was clearly a big deal! There were massive orange flags with ammonites on them for a start. The marquees were constantly filled with the public and the diversity of rocks and fossils is matched by the organisations present. Scientists from the Museum, Oxford University Museums and National Museums Wales were present, along with scientific institutes, universities, NGOs, geologically themed clubs and societies and the Jurassic Coast team, along with many more.

 

It was then that I realised that this was probably the coolest festival I'd ever been to. As a visitor you could go to the Plymouth University stand and literally walk like a dinosaur to see if you are as fast as a Velociraptor or T. rex. You could come face to face with amazing marine life such as giant isopods in resin collected from Antarctic waters by the British Antarctic Survey, study metiorites, dinosaur bones or excavate prehistoric shark teeth with the Museum... or even help create a giant papier mache replica fossil! If that wasn't enough, there are often engaging talks from scientists, historical tours of Lyme, fossil walks and film and drama performances.

 

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A replica Baryonyx skull which is used as a way to talk about dinosaur specimens in the Museum

 

I already adored the Museum by this point, so I remember going into the marquee, walking up to curator Tim Ewin and asking him 'How can I get a job at the Museum?' He kindly explained how I might go about doing this. Little did I know that just over a year later I would actually be working at the festival itself for the Museum as a part of the Science Educator team. Weirdly, I also found a fossil bivalve mollusc during a walk later on in the year at Charmouth beach which was so unusual it became part of the Museum's palaeontology collection. One way or another, because of my passion for geology and engaging with the public I have returned to Lyme Regis every year since and this year it celebrated its 10th birthday in fantastic style!

 

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Anthony's bivalve fossil, now part of the Museum's collections

 

This year's theme was 'Mapping the Earth' to celebrate the amazing contribution made by William Smith to our understanding of geology. A canal builder and surveyor, William Smith had no formal education. He is, however, regarded as the father of modern geology and produced an astoundingly accurate geological map of the British Isles for the first time in 1815 without the aid of any modern technology, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that he travelled around by horse and carriage.

 

Six years on from my first visit, and returning now as a trainee with the Identification Trainers for the Future project, I accompanied the other trainees and colleagues from the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity to raise the profile of our innovative citizen science projects to the public.

 

Our newest project, Orchid Observers, has recieved a lot of interest since going live in April and particularly now that so many orchid species are coming into flower. Fellow trainee Mike Waller (a self-confessed orchidite!), Kath Castillo (orchid expert and project manager for the Orchid Observers project) and Lucy Robinson (Citizen Science Project Manager for the AMC), have inspired visitors to go out and look for 29 of the 52 species of orchids that can be found in the UK. By encouraging the public to record their sightings, we hope to understand how orchids are adapting to climate change and how this is affecting flowering times.

 

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Members of the AMC and ID Trainers for the Future teams on the stand

(L-R: Mike Waller, ID Trainee; Jade Cawthray, Citizen Science Team; Anthony Roach and Chloe Rose, ID Trainees)

 

As the beach was so close to the marquee at Lyme Regis I spent some time walking the strand line and rock pools for interesting seaweeds to help explain our other project, the Big Seaweed Search, to visitors. I was delighted to find over 15 different species and learn of some new ones such as banded pincerweed (Ceramium spp.) and sea beech (Delesseria sanguinea).

 

Additionally, Chloe, Katy and me - along with Chris Raper, expert entomologist within the AMC - were explaining the huge varieties of flying insects that have mimicked bees to avoid predation and ensure their survival. Clear wing moths, flies and hoverflies all do this and some are so convincing that a lot of the public are convinced they are looking at bumblebees!

 

The general atmosphere of the festival was amazing with lots of people, both young and old, interested in our projects and keen to take part. A highlight for the team also included a visit to Stone Barrow Hill near Golden Cap to view green-winged orchids on the coastal cliffs.

 

In the evening I was very inspired by an amazing comedic play by Tangram Theatre about the life and challenging times of Charles Darwin, proving that science really can inspire the visiual arts. The festival continues to grow in scale and imagination every year and I will continue to be a part of something that inspires and enthuses all people and proves that science is for everyone!

 

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Anthony inspiring a potential new recruit for the Big Seaweed Search!

 

Thanks Anthony! If you want to visit the next Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in 2016, keep your May Day bank holiday free for a trip to Dorset.

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This week Sally Hyslop, one of the trainees on our Identification Trainers for the Future programme, gives an update on the results of our 9-year-long Bluebell Survey:

 

The arrival of bluebells each spring is an iconic sight. The floods of nodding colour characterise our ancient woodlands, support a commotion of insect life and make up an important part of Britain's natural heritage. Our native bluebell species is widespread in Britain; in fact half of the world's population is found here. But the introduction of non-native bluebells, planted in our parks and gardens, may be threatening our native species.

 

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Bluebells are iconic to our woodlands. Copyright: Mike Waller.

 

The introduced Spanish bluebell is deceptively similar to our native species, except for a few subtle differences in its features. It is broader in size, its petals flare out a little more, and the pollen is not white, but characteristically blue.

 

Spanish bluebells can breed freely with our native species, creating a hybrid plant with features from both species. Since the Bluebell Survey started in 2006, citizen scientists have been carefully identifying bluebells across Britain and recording the whereabouts of native, non-native and hybrid forms. This helps us to investigate these changes.

 

Exploring change in Britain's bluebells is no easy task, but by submitting their records, citizen scientists have created a nationwide picture of our bluebells. Using this data, scientists at the Museum have gained a greater understanding of the threats to our native species.

 

For example, we now know that, although large populations of native bluebells exist in the countryside, in urban areas hybrid bluebells are increasingly common. Each hybrid bluebell has a mixed genetic make-up, inheriting a blend of features from both its native and non-native parent. The mixed hybrids may cope better with changing environments and could out-compete our native species.

 

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A native bluebell with characteristic bell shape and nodding tip. Copyright: Mike Waller.

 

To better understand the threat of hybrid bluebells, we have been asking citizen scientists to record flowering times for the bluebells they identify. Using this data, scientists will uncover how native, non-native species and their hybrids are responding to climate change.

 

Due to natural fluctuations in climate, scientists need many years of data to accurately interpret the effect of climate change on flowering time. This is why records from the public continue to be so important! If you have been or want to take part, by collecting this information over several years and for the same plants, you can provide scientists with consistent data to study our bluebells.

 

The effect of climate change on Britain's biodiversity is likely to be vast, but by collecting data we can start to work with the unpredictable, anticipate the future and direct change. If you'd like to help discover more about Britain's bluebells take part in 2015's Bluebell Survey.

 

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Illustration Copyright: Sally Hyslop.

 

Thanks Sally! As part of her work as an Identification Trainee at the Museum, Sally has been collating and managing the records that you have been sending in for this year's Bluebell Survey.

 

And, for another take on the Bluebell Survey, see the latest from the Wildlife Garden blog.

 

Jade Lauren

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Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have now finished Phase 1 of their programme and are busy working on Phase 2. During Phase 1 they had the opportunity for a fantastic introduction to the work and collections of the Museum as well as an introduction to biological recording and collections principles.

 

In Phase 2 they will be focussing more on their identification skills through a series of workshops as well as getting involved in the work of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. In this blog post Anthony gives an overview of their experiences in Phase 1 as well as looking forward to some of the work he will be doing in Phase 2.

 

Prior to starting on the ID Trainers for the Future programme, I have already been lucky enough to work at the Museum as a Science Educator for over 4 years and, through my new role as a trainee in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, I have been given the opportunity to develop new skills, gain experience of practical field work and wildlife recording. Most of all, I have glimpsed the wonderful - exploring the Museum's scientifically, historically and culturally significant collections behind the scenes.

 

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ID Trainees and colleagues from the AMC discovering the Hans Sloane Herbarium

 

I couldn't have asked for a better welcome in the AMC, and the programme for the first phase has been a thoroughly engaging mix of professional development and collections-based training. Besides learning the craft of pinning and identifying insects, I have recieved training on organising field work, field work first aid and how to handle and use biological data with expertise from the National Biodiversity Network.

 

Online recording systems such as iSpot and iRecord encourage the public to share and record their wildlife sightings and, through a practical session with Martin Harvey from the Open University, I created a working identification key to Damselflies, one of my favourite insect groups. You can use the identification keys on iSpot to identify anything from butterflies to lichens, so go on and have a go yourself at www.ispotnature.org.

 

With such lovely Spring weather recently we've been let loose to collect and record wildlfie from the Museum's own Wildlife Garden which is currently buzzing with insects and the melodies of British songbirds. Late night newt surveying in the Garden was a real highlight so far. The Garden is a haven for thousands of British plants and animals and demonstrates wildlife conservation in the inner city. Over 2,000 species have been identified in the Garden since it opened in 1995.

 

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Katy Potts, an ID Trainee, surveying for newts in the Wildlife Garden

 

The AMC works hard to encourage people to become 'citizen scientists' to explore, identify and record the wildlife they see, and this plays a key role in the monitoring of and recording of UK biodiversity. This helps researchers see how species are adapting with climate change and human activity. There are several brilliant Citizen Science projects that you yourself can get involved with, the most recent from the Museum being The Microverse and Orchid Observers. If you want to find out more and see new projects when they come on stream, keep an eye on the Take Part section of the website.

 

Part of my traineeship will involve championing a Citizen Science project. Growing up near the sea in Devon I have a passion for exploring marine life so I was delighted to find out that I'll be working as part of a team to enhance the Museum's Big Seaweed Search. The UK's coast is rich in seaweeds because of its geographical position and warming by the gulf stream, which means it is in a perfect 'golidlocks' zone.

 

An astounding 650 seaweed species can be found off the UK coastline and according to Professor Juliet Brodie, an expert on seaweeds at the Museum, seaweed coverage is so great that they are as abundant as the entire broadleaf forests combined. Seaweeds - like plants on land - photosynthesise; turning the sun's energy into food, removing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Seaweeds therefore play a vital role in the functioning of the marine environment.

 

The Big Seaweed Search was launched in 2009 and we aim to inform scientific research by allowing the public to record and identify seaweeds that they find. By mapping the national distribution of 12 seaweed species, we hope to see changes over time, perhaps in response to climate change, or the spread of non-native species. With the weather and tides at this time of year it's perfect for exploring rock pools, so download our survey and join our Big Seaweed Search!

 

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Anthony inspiring others about seaweeds at this year's Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, which took place on the first weekend of May