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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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...
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Anthony inspiring others about seaweeds at this year's Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, which took place on the first weekend of May
Advances in DNA sequencing technology are occurring at an incredible speed and Kevin Hopkins is one of the Museum's Next Generation Sequencing Specialists working with the sequencing technologies used at the Museum to produce relevant data for our Microverse research.
"The challenge is being able to bring together the technology, often developed in biomedical settings, and the samples at the Museum, where limited and often damaged DNA from specimens is the only chance we have of sequencing them. My job involves designing methods that work for our unusual samples, extracting DNA and producing sequencing ready samples from it, and running our MiSeq and NextSeq next generation sequencing platforms."
Kevin Hopkins is a Next Generation Sequencing Specialist at the Museum.
DNA sequencing is the process of reading the order of nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) in a particular strand of DNA. Sequencing can be used for many different applications, such as defining a specific gene or a whole genome. The best way to sequence DNA is in sections; this is because there are a number of challenges to sampling the whole genome of a species in one go.
There is so much data within a genome that it takes an incredibly long time for any sequencing machine to process the information. In the Microverse project we are analysing short strands of DNA. At least 60 samples are loaded into the sequencer at a time and the analysis takes a total of 65 hours. If we were to analyse the whole genome rather than smaller parts, it would take a considerably greater amount of time, but luckily we don't need to do it for The Microverse project.
Another challenge for sequencing can be old DNA that has been degraded into very short sections, in this situation it is difficult to gain enough DNA from all the microorganism in the samples, to study the community composition. To avoid this in The Microverse project, we asked the schools to return the biofilm samples in a DNA preservative to minimise the degradation of the DNA.
When Kevin receives the samples from Anne, the lead researcher on the project, he performs two quality control checks before loading them into the DNA sequencer: these are the concentration of the samples and the average DNA strand length. It is important to know both of these factors as they allow us to estimate the number of DNA fragments that are in each sample.
We are using the Illumina MiSeq machine to sequence The Microverse samples.
The equipment that Kevin uses to sequence DNA is an Illumina MiSeq which can sequence up to 75,000 samples per year. Having equipment like this allows scientists at the Museum to carry out research such as looking at plant DNA to reveal the history of their evolution in relation to climate change, and using molecular work to benefit human health by understanding tropical diseases such as leishmaniasis, as well as exploring microbial diversity in soil, lakes and oceans.
During DNA sequencing the DNA double helix comprising two strands of DNA is split to give single stranded DNA. This DNA is then placed into a sequencing machine alongside chemicals that cause the free nucleotides to bind to the single stranded DNA. Within this sequencing cycle when a nucleotide, which is fluorescently charged, successfully binds to its complementary nucleotide in the DNA strand (A with T and vice versa, G with C and vice versa), a fluorescent signal is emitted. The intensity and length of this fluorescent signal determines which nucleotide base is present, and is recorded by the sequencing machine. The sequencer can read millions of strands at the same time.
DNA sequencing is vitally important because it allows scientists to distinguish one species from another and determine how different organisms are related to each other. In the Microverse project we are using the sequencer to identify the taxonomic groups of the microorganisms in the samples that you have sent to the Museum.
Katy Potts is one of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future programme, who is based at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. Alongside her work on the Microverse project she is developing her skills in insect identification, particularly Coleoptera (beetles).
If you are taking part in the Microverse project the deadline for sending us your samples is Fri 29 May.
Last month a new temporary display featuring some of our foraminiferal specimens and models was placed in the Museum gallery. This features real microfossils on one of our foraminiferal Christmas card slides alongside 20 scale models, part of a set of 120 models generously donated to us last year by Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi.
Senior Microfossil Curator Steve Stukins admiring some of the specimens and models on display and thinking "this is a much better place for them than the Curator of Micropalaeontology's office!"
As a curator dealing with items generally a millimetre or less in size I have not often been involved in developing exhibits other than to provide images or scale models like the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Displaying magnified models is one of the best ways to show the relevance of some of the smallest specimens in the Museum collection, the beauty and composition of foraminifera and to highlight our unseen collections.
This display features one of our most treasured items, a slide with microscopic foraminifera arranged in patterns to spell out the words 'XMAS 1912'.
A festive slide of foraminifera created by Arthur Earland.
This was created by Arthur Earland for his long time collaborator Edward Heron-Allen. A previous blog tells of the sad end to the relationship between these two early 20th Century foraminiferal experts, a story that featured in the Independent under the heading 'shell loving scientists torn apart by mystery woman'.
The slide itself is amazingly beautiful under the microscope and a close up view (see above) is shown on the back board of the exhibit. The naked eye can show the arrangement of the specimens on the slide but cannot really pick out the beauty of the foraminifera. I was at a collections management conference about a year ago where it was suggested that the public feel duped by seeing models rather than real specimens on display. In this instance, the scale models serve to show the beauty as well as to enhance the relevance of the real specimens on display.
Foraminiferal models by Alcide d'Orbigny that also feature in the display.
French scientist d'Orbigny (1802-1857) was the first to recognise that creating models was a good way to show his studies on the foraminifera. These models were created to illustrate the first classification of the foraminifera, a group that at the time were classified as molluscs.
A selection of Zheng Shouyi's models of foraminifera.
Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi was inspired by d'Orbigny to create models of foraminifera to illustrate her work and to show the beauty of the Foraminifera. Of the 120 models she donated to us in 2014, 20 have been carefully selected for this exhibit. The selection shows a variety of different wall structures, a range of shapes, species for which we have the type specimen as well as some species of planktonic foraminifera relevant to current research at the Museum. Zheng Shouyi is also famous for encouraging and overseeing the production of the world's first foraminiferal sculpture park in Zhongshan, China.
If you are able to pop into the Museum, please come and see this free display. It is situated just after the exit from the dinosaur exhibition on the opposite wall to the dino shop. We can't promise any giant scuptures but I'm sure that you'll agree that these models certainly illustrate the beauty and help to explain the relevance of some of the smallest specimens hidden behind the scenes at the Museum.
From the field
From our archive
At the Museum