Skip navigation
You are here: Home > NaturePlus > Blogs

Blog Posts

Blog Posts

Items per page
1 2 3 Previous Next
2

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!

 

The trainees at Burnham Beeches.jpg

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).

 

Katy & Sally looking for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches.jpg

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.

 

Chloe & Katy finding lichens.jpg

Chloe and Katy looking for lichens

 

Mike & Chloe back in the lab working on their lichen ID.jpg

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.

 

Collecting newt bottle traps.jpg

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:

 

Katys wood ant.jpgKatys wood ant (2).jpg

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.

0

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!

 

florin.jpg

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.

 

metoright.jpg

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.

 

Group Photo Aarti Bhogaita.jpg

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 Aarti Bhogaita.JPG

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!

0

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...

 

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival.jpg

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 Baryonx Skull which is used as a way in to talk about Dinosaur specimens in the museum.jpg

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!

 

Bivalve fossil I found on the beach at Charmouth.jpg

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 team on the stand.jpg

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 discussing seaweeds with a child.jpg

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.

0

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.

 

Blubells 3.jpg

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.

 

bluebells 1.jpg

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.

 

bluebells illustration.jpg

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

0

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 in the Sloane Herbarium.jpg

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 newt surveying in the Wildlife Garden.jpg

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 at Lyme Regis for Big Seaweed Search.jpg

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

0

Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a family of poor dissenters. Despite living in a time when women were not readily recognized for their scientific contribution, Anning made an incredible discovery that led to her becoming one of the most important names in palaeontology. On the 216th anniversary of her birthday, the Museum's online shop takes a look at her life and work and how it is still influencing scientists today.

 

FotorCreatedMAblog.jpg

Our gallery character 'Mary' regularly talks in front some of her own fossils.

 

Anning was not meant for the scientific field. She was the wrong sex, class, religion, and she was even almost killed when she was struck by lightning as a baby. However, she was clearly a born survivor as she and her brother Joseph were the only children to survive out of ten siblings.

 

It was her cabinet-maker father, Richard, that taught Mary how to find and clean up the fossils they found on the Lyme Regis coast. They sold their 'curiosities' along the seafront, possibly inspiring the tongue twister, 'She sells seashells on the seashore'.

 

In 1811, when she was just 10 years old, Mary and her brother were walking along the coastline when they found a skull protruding from the cliffs. Thinking at first that it may have been a crocodile, Mary spent months unearthing its full skeleton. It was later identified as an Icthyosaur or 'fish lizard'.

 

excavation blogblog.jpg

Encourage your little dino hunter to explore their fossil finding skills with an excavation kit, a fossil sticker book, or a dino fossil replica.

 

The Icthyosaur fossil was sold to London's Museum of Natural Curiosities and Mary carried on making her incredible discoveries. She discovered a Plesiosaur - the long-necked fossil that is thought to be what inspired the legend of the Loch Ness monster. She also discovered Pterodactylus, Ammonites and plenty of Gryphaea, the fossil known as 'Devil's toenails' due to their ridged, short, claw-like appearance.

 

Mary knew more about geology and fossils than most people of the time. Despite this she was never allowed to publish the scientific descriptions of the specimens that she found and she was rarely credited with their discovery. The task of describing these creatures fell to the members of the newly formed geological society - all men. This was at a time when women couldn't vote or go to university. They would have no academic background whatsoever. It makes the fact that Anning was literate and an expert a truly remarkable thing.

 

Wrongs were eventually righted when Mary was given an annual payment (i.e. annuity) for her work, raised by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society.

 

Mary died of breast cancer at the age of 47. The Geological Society recorded her death. They started admitting women in 1904.

 

 

Book a free talk with Mary herself when she visits the Marine Fossils gallery at the Museum. Check to see when she's next in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery here

 

TrowelBlazing women

 

maryanning_jwilliams-580x457.jpg

#TrowelToon by Jemima Williams for the TrowelBlazers website.

 

To see how Mary Anning continues to influence women in science today, you only need to look up TrowelBlazers, an organisation dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women to palaeontology, geology and archaeology. They honour the women who went before them as well as celebrating the achievements of women working in the field today. In an article from their site 'Happy Birthday Mary Anning' Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch describes how important Anning really was:

 

We could go on listing her discoveries all day - she was also the first to discover that ink could be made from belemite fossils and that copralites (then called bezoar stones) were actually fossilised faeces.

 

Another great icon of the day was an Anning fan, although the TrowelBlazers aren't sure of everything he has to say about her:

Dickens wrote about her in 1865, though we disagree with his assertion that she was a dull child until being hit by lightning at a young age, thus somewhat dismissing her innate intelligence (and in fact she would have only been 1 year old with the date he provides), we like he also had this to say:

 

"The inscription under her memorial window commemorates her "usefulness in furthering the science of geology" (It was not a science when she began to discover, and so helped make it one) "and also her benevolence of heart and integrity of life." (Dickens 1865: 63)

 

#RealFossilHunter

000-Lottie-Fossil-Hunter -blog.jpg

 

A #RealFossilHunter, Lottie will be appearing in the Museum online shop very soon.

 

Fossil Hunter Lottie was developed in collaboration with the 4 scientists behind TrowelBlazers. Two of the TrowelBlazers team, Dr Tori Herridge and Dr Brenna Hassett, are also Museum scientists and they used their own experiences of fossil hunting, field work and research from the Museum to help make Fossil Hunter Lottie a true real-life inspiration.

 

There's a long-standing adage that comes to mind when I'm asked about why TrowelBlazers worked so hard to help design Fossil Hunter Lottie: if you can't see it, you can't be it," said Dr Brenna Hassett, who is a bioarchaeologist. "Lottie is a fantastic chance to show kids that anyone can get involved in science, and hopefully she will inspire future generations to get out there, start turning over rocks and develop a life long fascination with the natural world."

 

"We wanted Fossil Hunter Lottie to have everything she needed to make her own fossil discoveries: a geological hammer, a hand lens and a trowel," said Dr Tori Herridge, who is a palaeobiologist, "But we also wanted to make sure kids and adults know how to stay safe and be responsible when looking for fossils, so Fossil Hunter Lottie also comes handy tips and a special code for fossil collecting. If you're lucky enough to find a fossil, sometimes the best thing to do is to try and let an expert know - you visit your local museum to ask for help, or you can use the Museum's Identification forum. You never know, you could have made a really important scientific discovery!"

 

Fossil Hunter Lottie was also inspired by Mary Anning, and comes with child-friendly fact cards about the life of the pioneering fossil hunter. There are also mini-biographies of other women palaeontologists, including the Museum's own palaeo pioneer Dorothea Bate.

 

Anning books blog.jpg

Find out more about Mary Anning from our range of books and gifts for adults and kids here

 

Many thanks to the Museum's Learning Engagement department, Jemima Williams and to Dr Tori Herridge, Dr Brenna Hassett, Dr Suzanne Pilaar Birch and the rest of the TrowelBlazers. For further reading about pioneering women palaeontologists visit their site here.

0

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."

 

P1060250.JPG

Kevin Hopkins is a Next Generation Sequencing Specialist at the Museum.

 

What is DNA sequencing?

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.

Lab work

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.

 

P1060254.JPG

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.

 

Why is this important?

 

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

 

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.

0

We take a diversion this week from the Microverse and our newest project, Orchid Observers, to introduce one of the projects that wouldn't get anywhere without the general public reporting sightings, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). Cetaceans are the infraorder of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the Museum has been involved in recording their strandings on UK shores for over a century. So it's over to Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Strandings Support Officer at the Museum, to introduce the project and what she does as a part of it.

 

Warning: You may find some of the images that follow upsetting as they are of stranded and injured animals.

 

The CSIP was created in 1990 to unite the Museum with a consortium of interested parties to formally investigate the stranding of any cetacean, seal, shark and turtle upon the UK coastline. The Museum has actually been recording strandings since 1913 when the Crown granted it scientific research rights for the collection of data on the 'fishes royal'.

 

The first recording was a Cuvier's beaked whale that stranded in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1913. Since then there have been over 12,000 logged reports of whale, dolphin and porpoise strandings, that have ranged from the mighty blue whale to the common harbour porpoise, and even a rogue beluga whale found in Scotland.

 

CBW IMAGE_DOE Marine Division2.jpg

A stranded Cuvier's beaked whale.

(Photo credit: Department of Environment, Marine Divison, Northern Ireland)

 

On the eve of submitting this very blog entry I was contacted via London Zoo - a CSIP partner - with a report of a common dolphin found dead after being stranded in Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. As soon it was confirmed that someone could help me move an animal weighing upwards of 100kg I jumped into the car and followed the afternoon sun westwards.

 

Dolphin.jpg

Common dolphin found stranded in Burnham-on-Sea.

 

A few hours later I arrived at a blustery Sedgemoor council depot where amid a multitude of dustbins and trucks was the dolphin. It was female, roughly 170 cm in length, and appeared in 'good condition' (i.e. it had suffered minimal decomposition), the latter being crucial to making an accurate assessment for the cause of death.

 

For animals smaller than around 2 metres in length, I can transport them to London Zoo for a post mortem in the back of the car (with the back seats pushed down of course…) so our first job was to wrap the specimen in a large polythene bag to protect it from immediate damage and shield the car from any leaking wounds.

 

With a fair amount of careful heave, ho-ing she was settled in the boot and resembling a slightly malformed Christmas cracker. Like with any stranding, I am extremely grateful for those who help with this strenuous and often fairly messy part, so my sincere thanks go to those at Sedgemoor council who assisted with this collection.

 

Dolphin in car.jpg

Once wrapped in polythene, the dolphin can be safely transported to London Zoo for an autopsy.

 

Upon returning to London, I took the dolphin to the fridges at London Zoo where she'll be taken for a post mortem. During this procedure, a sample is taken of each organ, as well as one of the ribs and any unusual parasites found. It is also examined for unusual markings or damage that could have been caused by predation or unnatural damage. Watch this space for an update on the results…

How you can get involved

If you find a dead, stranded cetacean, seal, shark of turtle, please contact the CSIP hotline (0800 6520 333) and leave your name, number and as much detail about the stranding as possible (location and date found, species - if you know it - and the overall length and condition of the animal.)

 

I hope to provide a guide to identifying different species in a future blog post.

 

Rebecca Lyal is the Museum's Cetacean Strandings Support Officer, one of the partnership organisations of the CSIP. She completed her undergraduate degree in Marine Biology at Newcastle University and joined the Museum as the strandings officer in August 2014.

 

Jade Lauren

0

How the dinosaurs did it - Brian Switek talk on 15 May 1600

 

Brian Switek is a well-known science writer and blogger, and author of the best-selling popular science book 'My Beloved Brontosaurus'. He will be giving a talk in the Flett Theatre at the Natural History Museum in London on the afternoon of Friday 15 May 2015 from 16.00 entitled 'Big Bang Theory: how the dinosaurs did it'. The talk is free to attend and open to all. Tea and coffee will be served after the talk.

 

Dinosaurs are endlessly fascinating. What they looked like, how they moved, what they ate, and innumerable other questions keep us going back to their bones. But there's one delicate subject that doesn't get quite as much attention as the others in books and museum halls - how did dinosaurs make more dinosaurs? In a special NHM talk, science writer and amateur palaeontologist Brian Switek will reveal what scientists are learning about how dinosaurs made the earth move for each other, from the evolution of sexy ornamentation to new investigations into how dinosaurs may have mated.

 

Contact Lil Stevens for details

0

The rich warbling song of the blackcap has welcomed us into work over the past 2 weeks! (you can hear an Eurasian blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, as recorded by Patrick Aberg here). Not only that but we've had robins nesting just above the threshold of our shed with the accompanying chatter of baby birds anticipating food, holly blue butterflies visiting clusters of fresh holly flowers, sightings of orange tip, brimstone, peacock and speckled wood butterflies, tadpoles in the main pond, the occasional glimpse of a fox cub, and many more signs that Spring has well and truly sprung.

 

20150508-1. Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria on false brome.JPG

A speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) resting on false brome - one of its larval food plants.

 

The mosaic of ground flora throughout the different habitats in the Garden is changing by the day with a particular blue haze and glorious scent of bluebells in the woodland areas.

 

20150508-2 Bluebells in our woodland glade Hyacinthoides non scripta.JPG

Bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.

 

Note the spread compared to 12 years ago,  below,  when the woodland glade was less open than it is today.

 

20150508-3. woodland glade 2003 1.jpg

Woodland glade in 2003.

 

But how many of them are the native British species (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) rather than hybrids or the invasive Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)? The scented plants for sure, but what about their relatives?

 

Museum Botanist, Fred Rumsey explains some interbreeding:

 

"It's that time of the year again when our woods turn azure with one of our favourite wild-flowers. The cool dry winter has held things back; results from the Museum's online survey on flowering times has shown that over the last few years flowering has in some years commenced almost a month later than in some others, the variation making predictions as to the effects of global warming more difficult.

 

For some weeks the show has been building in the Wildlife Garden, where, in spite of our best efforts, the majority of our plants show the influence of Spanish bluebells. In this respect our Garden is typical of urban gardens throughout Britain.

 

The two bluebells are genetically very similar with their distinctions maintained only by their geographic isolation, because they interbreed freely where they meet and the vigorous hybrids are confusingly intermediate in all respects.

 

20150508-4 MG_2871.JPG

Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica in an urban garden in south London.

© Naomi Lake

 

Three hundred years of British gardening has undone several thousand years of glorious isolation - Pandora's potting shed door can't now be closed but we can all act responsibly to prevent further spread into the truly wild places as yet unsullied by the paler-flowered, scentless, blue-pollened invader. In the meantime I will still appreciate the spectacle in our Garden, they may not all be 'pure' but they are still beautiful!"

 

20150508-5  bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta.JPG

More bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.

 

Thank you Fred! You can hear more from him on the main differences between bluebell species in the video on our website.

 

And in the past week I have been out and about in the woods admiring pure blooming bluebells and contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey. Here are some May Day highlights from woodland near Ashford in Kent:

 

20150508-6. 2015 Bluebells 005.jpg

A magnificent display of bluebells in Hunt's Wood, near Woodchurch

© Peter Buckley

 

20150508-7. 2015 Bluebells 005 (2).jpg

Another brilliant display - something for us to aim for in our own Wildlife Garden.

© Peter Buckley

 

You too can help us with our research by contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey.

 

And finally, a small diversion: although our fox cubs are shy, the adult male is more relaxed, spending time around the pond banks to the delight of our visitors, but not so to our nesting moorhens.

 

20150508-8.fox.jpg

Our male fox relaxing in the Wildlife Garden.

© Daniel Osborne

0

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.

 

P1050395_blog.jpg

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'.

 

1912_slide_closeup_blog.jpg

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.

 

Photo9614-dOrbigny_Foraminiferal_models-001_blog.jpg

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.

 

P1050391_blog.jpg

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.

0

The Museum's Patron, the Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to her second child just a few days ago, so the Museum's online shop has been gearing up with gift ideas for newborns. With bibs, toys and T-shirts it's never too early to introduce your littlest to the prehistoric world. We also take a look at some of the incredible facts about the first six months of your little hatchling's life.

 

Dinos and rompers for blog.jpg

Knitted dinosaurs suitable from birth and romper suits for your little ones to grow into.

 

Amazing baby facts

Here's our favourite things about newborns.

They learn words while still in the womb.

According to research from the University of Helsinki, your newborn will recognise sounds it heard whilst in utero for up to four months after birth. This includes words, the theme tune from mum's favourite TV programme or just mum's favourite song.

They're programmed by evolution to put things into their mouth.

It seems that their annoying habit of placing anything and everything in their mouths starts right from birth. It's an evolutionary instinct that they're born with to make sure that they get enough food.

 

T-shirts for blog.jpg

Baby T-shirts for your tiny terror.

 

They have incredibly strong reflexes

That amazingly strong grip that your baby has is due to a reflex. It's strong enough to support their entire body weight.

They cry in your accent

Researchers from Germany found that babies pick up elements of their mother's accent while in the womb. Their cries reflect the inflection and cadences of your mother tongue. While studying the differences between the cries of French and German babies, researchers found that the cries of French babies had a rising accent while the cries of German babies had a falling inflection.

 

Dinky rattles for blog.jpg

These funny, friendly dinosaurs contain a rattle that will keep little hands amused.

 

They can't produce tears

You may be surprised with the amount of crying that your baby does that they don't actually produce tears. This is because of the fact that their tear ducts are still developing, so while they can produce enough moisture to protect baby's eyes they can't produce enough to form actual tears.

They have more tastebuds than you.

And not just on their tongue... these extra tastebuds cover the roof and sides of their mouth. They have the ability to taste sweet and bitter from birth, but they won't develop a sensitivity to salty tastes until they are about four months old.

 

bibs for blog.jpg

Bibs to label or dress up your 'little monster'.

 

They're born with a fully developed inner ear.

It is the only sense organ that develops to its adult size in the womb. It reaches it's full size around week 20 of pregnancy and it is from this point that the foetus will start to respond to sound.

One baby is born every eight seconds.

That's according to the United States Census Bureau, although other statistics claim that it's more like one every two seconds. However you look at it, that's a lot of babies.

Personalised gifts

 

Baby personalised for blog.jpg

These personalised baby T-shirt and baby onesie are the perfect way to give your little one a real dinosaur name.

 

Our range of personalised gifts include a baby T-shirt with a Stegosaurus and a baby onesie featuring a Diplodocus. Simply enter baby's name decide on their dinosaur suffix and enter the year that they were 'discovered'. The perfect gift customised especially for your baby. We hope to be printing #Charlottsaurus soon.

 

Visit the online shop for hundreds of gift ideas that support the Museum's work.

0

The above date marks the sad passing of one of the Museum’s tiniest volunteers: In early February I discovered Beetah, my Carabus violaceous lying still on her coconut substrate, and to be honest, a little dried out.

 

Beetah_blog_01_openingSelfieweb.jpg

My little pet worked hard in life to inspire the public with entomological wonder of what living gems can be found in local parks, let alone the wider world, so I think it’s only fair to take time and reflect on her life and service upon her passing.

 

Beetah_blog_02_liveCloseUp.jpg


Obituary: This Carabus violaceus specimen was collected live while Hillery Warner was taking a walk in Nonsuch Park with her 1 ½ year old son, Dominic on 29/08/2013. Dominic christened the specimen "Beetah" on the spot and it was kept as a family pet until its death of natural causes in early 2015, at which point it was brought to the Museum to join the collections on 11/02/2015. 

 

Beetah led a lavish life for a ground beetle, feasting on fish cakes and the finest chunks and jelly from packets of cat food. She apparently reproduced while in captivity and two of her offspring are also in the collection.  While not an official front of house Museum employee, Beetah wore her public-engagement-purple elytral margins with pride, inspiring visitors at Science Uncovered 2013 and 2014. She also acted as an entomological ambassador during National Insect Week, 2014 where she met artists and UK celebrity Jonathan Ross. While the lights have left the multifaceted ommatidia of her compound eyes, she may yet "see" another Science Uncovered as she continues her service to the Museum in death as she did in life, entering her new role as museum specimen.

 

I found my beetle back in 2013 in a park near my home while walking with my then 1 ½ year old son. As I keenly showed my son this lovely large black beetle with iridescent purple pronotal and elytral margins, he enthusiastically named it ‘Beetah’ and I detected some bonding going on, so I decided Beetah would live with us as a pet. I initially added a snail or two to her tank but soon discovered she was much happier to dine on my husband’s fish cakes. In fact, she ate so much fish cake that I noticed not long after that single meal that she had plumped up so much that her plural suture stretched enough that the underlying membrane was showing. I thought she was just fat.

 

Some time later there were a number, (at least 5), carabid larvae running around the tank (I’m sorry I called you fat, Beetah). How did this happen with just one beetle? In short, it didn’t, but insect reproduction is amazing and entomologists never pass up an opportunity to talk a bit about genitalia!

 

 


The christening of “Beetah”:   Almost as good as the whole Mofasa/baboon/Simba thing from that ’90’s movie.

 

Beetah_blog_04_Carabus_spermathecaweb.jpg

Internal female genital structures of carabid species Badister amazonus (Erwin & Ball, 2011).


Female insects have an internal genital structure called a spermatheca.  Upon mating, sperm is stored in the spermatheca rather than going straight to the eggs for fertilization.  The release of sperm from the spermatheca is under hormonal control and so the female can wait until conditions are ideal for reproduction before releasing the sperm from this structure to fertilize her eggs.  This could mean waiting to find a suitable insect host for a parasitoid wasp, or finding enough fish cake to suitably supply the eggs with nourishment for pet Beetahs'.  Lady insects have quite a lot of control over this and scientists have reported carabids going for as long as 10 months without contact with males before ovipositing (Gilgado & Ortuño, 2012) and honey bees can store sperm for over 3 years (Gullan & Cranston, 2000).


While both mother and larvae enjoyed cat food, I noticed that the larvae were active and fed during the day while mum was nocturnal.  (I often described having a pet carabid like having a 6-legged carnivorous hamster due to the audible night time scrabbling sounds coming from her tank).  This division of activity surely reduces the likelihood of intraspecific predation in nature.  (Metamorphosis is a generally fantastic strategy to reduce intraspecific competition).  I won’t comment on what happened to the larvae.  Truthfully, I don’t know for sure (ref. 1).  I’ll just let the mystery be.

 

Not long after that exciting event, Beetah began her work as and Museum volunteer.  Her first public outreach event was Science Uncovered, 2013 where she assisted Dr. Eggleton and Dr. Inward in delighting the public with the wonders of soil associated invertebrates.  In 2014 she participated in both a second Science Uncovered and National Insect Week activities where she met artists and an English television and radio presenter named Jonathan Ross, among other visitors.


I did rather wonder if she might make it to a third Science Uncovered (alive) but alas, she saw her last sunsets in early 2015. So what did I do with the husk of my fallen friend?  Put the kettle on for her, of course.  One of the quickest ways to get a desiccated beetle specimen relaxed for mounting is to pop it into warm water (ref. 2.)  So after a few minutes of steeping a Beetah tea, I pulled her out of the hot water, wrapped her in moist tissue, and took her to work.

 

Beetah_blog_06_beetleTeaweb.jpg

Steeping beetle tea prior to mounting.  These are Rothschild bequest beetles I prepared from our dried accession material.

 

Beetah_blog_07_mountingBeetahweb.jpg

Beetah all set on her mounting board.


Once at the Museum, I pinned and set Beetah with extra-special care - after all, a Beetah’s work doesn’t finish just because haemolymph stops pumping through her dorsal vessel (or “heart”- but insect circulatory systems are very different to vertebrates’.  See ‘Insect Circulation in Short, below).  Oh no, I fully expect her to continue public outreach duties long after death- no rest for the dead in entomology! Normally, I would tuck a specimen’s antennae a bit closer to its body to make them less vulnerable to breakage and save them best for taxonomic preservation and study, but Beetah is a common species, already identified and described long ago so setting her for a really attractive dorsal habitus with no limb overlap won out over supreme specimen protection.

 

Once set out nicely and (re)dried, it was time to label her up and database her.  We here at the Museum hope to digitize our entire collection.  With 80 million objects, this is no small ask so we’re coming up with snazzy ways to do this as efficiently as possible, but Beetah, being a single and super special specimen, I entered into our digital catalogue individually, manually, myself.  Her unique identifier is now and forever 1681080.  The data matrix attached to her pin jutting out clearly visible from above can be read by computers and smart phones to quickly access all her collection information.  The details of where and when she was collected are now digitally stored along with her species determination, (obituary), and where she’s kept in our cavernous labyrinth of cabinets so she can be easily retrieved for, oh, I don’t know maybe I will make her make an appearance for her third Science Uncovered in September….

 

P.S.- If my son asks any of you where Beetah is… she’s at the Museum.  Just leave it at that.


Insect Circulation in Short: One of the more basic zoological divisions in the animal kingdom is that of deuterostomes vs. protostomes.  These terms roughly translate to “second mouth” vs. “first mouth”.  When the first divot forms in the blob of cells that eventually grows into an animal, it is destined to either become a mouth, or a bottom.  Our cell-blob-divot becomes an used-food exit route, so we’re deuterostomes.  Insects’ divot becomes a mouth.  So right from the start insects couldn’t be much more different to us.

 

Beetah_blog_10_deuteroVSprotoweb.jpg

A rather useless diagram showing the end destination for the blastopore in both protostome and deuterostome blastocysts.

 

Other equally fundamental differences in development mean that while our nerve chord is in our back, insects’ are in their chests.  Our heart is in our chest. Insects’ “hearts” are in their backs.  But the location of an insect heart isn’t the only huge difference to our circulatory system.  Our blood carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, but insect blood only carries nutrients.  Our blood is closed into veins, arteries, and capillaries.  Insect blood washes more or less freely around the body cavity.  The insect “heart” is basically a tube with muscles and valves that takes in haemolymph from around the midgut of an insect where nutrients from digested food diffuses into the “blood” and then pumps it into the head where it’s released to freely wash over the all-important primary ganglion (brain) and then wishily washily work its way back to the tail end of the insect; feeding cells and picking up waste on its way.


Terms Badly Explained


Desiccated- Dried up.  Because scientists decided one word with 4 syllables is more efficient communication than two one-syllable words.
Dorsal habitus- The view normal to the lateral plane of the animals’ body.  Whatever that means.
Elytral- Of the elytra, which are the hard forewings of a beetle.
Haemolymph- Insect blood.  It’s not Haemoglobin because it doesn’t bother with oxygen-carrying globulin proteins.  There are exceptions- some larvae in oxygen deprived environments have proper haemoglobin but this is a badly explained term, not another blog topic.
Intraspecific- Within a species.  Interspecific would be between species.  Like interstates are roads that travel between states.  Intrastates would be roads that don’t cross state lines.  Like a roundabout in the middle of Kentucky.  I’m clearly an American.
Parasitoid- Like a parasite but much much more dark and disturbing.
Plural Suture- Where the top tough exoskeleton bits meet the bottom exoskeleton bits on the side of
an insect’s belly.  The side-seam.
Pronotal- Of the pronotum.  Which is the first notum.       (Which is the top part of the thorax.  The thorax is divided into three sections).
Spermatheca- a copulatory receptical.
Substrate- Stuff on the ground.  Dirt.  Leaves.  Gravel.  Bark.  Sand.  And such.

 


Ref 1. Two of the larvae joined the collection.
Ref 2. This works for any insect that isn’t overly hairy or scaly but is bad for DNA.

 

References:
Erwin T, Ball G (2011) Badister Clairville, 1806: A new species and new continental record for the nominate subgenus in Amazonian Perú (Coleoptera, Carabidae, Licinini). ZooKeys 147: 399-417. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.147.2117

Gilgado, J. D., & Ortuño, V. M. (2012). Carabus (Oreocarabus) guadarramus La Ferte-Senectere, 1847 (Coleoptera, Carabidae): first instar larva and reflections on its biology and chorology. Animal biodiversity and conservation, 35(1), 13-21.

Gullan, P.J. & Cranston, P.S.. (2000) Insects: An Outline of Entomology, 2nd edition. Blackwell Science, 502 pp.

0

Some time ago I got a tip-off from my regular library source about the existence of a mineralised human skull in our collection. All she could tell me was that a scientist had been down to consult a book that contained some information about it; but she wasn't sure what book it was.

 

Armed with the scientist's name, and with visions of the crystal clear skulls of ancient Mesoamerican - and more recently, Indiana Jones - legend circling my mind, I set off to find out more.

 

But like the coded letter from Indy's old friend Oxley, which lead him to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital, and the interpretation of symbols scrawled therein which lead to the subsequent discovery of the grave of a sixteenth-century Conquistador which contained a crystal skull, my library tip off set in motion an epic series of twists and turns I had to navigate in order to track down our specimen and record its story in this here blog.

 

After months of emails and answer phone messages, conflicting schedules and workloads that didn't permit a spare moment to meet, I received an unexpected call from a scientist on the coast of Cornwall.

Hi, it's (Minerals Collection Manager) Mike Rumsey here. I'm on holiday right now, but I've got a 15 minute walk by myself back to my car so I thought I'd call you to talk about the skull. What would you like to know?

 

Hooray, I cheered internally, and replied: 'Everything!' And so he began:

It's a Hans Sloane specimen which dates to the foundation of the Museum, and we can trace it back quite a long way. We know that Sloane got it from the collection of a guy called Cardinal Filippo Gualtieri after Gualtieri died in 1728.

 

There's not many things we can trace back that far in the Mineral Collection.

 

It's a bit of a curiosity, really. It's supposedly the skull of someone who had fallen into the Tiber river in Rome. It's covered in a deposit called travertine.

 

Sadly for my crystal skull fantasy, Rumsey revealed that the skull is in fact a creamy limestone colour (not clear), and contains no crystal points (and probably never did). But, he continued:

It's got what looks like a handle attached to it. That sounds a bit morbid, but there's no evidence it was ever used as a drinking vessel. We think it's a rib bone of the same skeleton the skull came from.

 

Scientifically, we've not really done a great deal of work on it, although quite recently it was CT-scanned. I think they did find out that the skull is still in there, not completely replaced, which is quite interesting.

 

mineralised-skull-in-book_700_2.jpg

An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.

 

mineralied-skull_700.jpg

A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane.

 

Indeed, Farah Ahmed, manager of the Museum's X-Ray CT Scan Facility, confirmed Rumsey's belief.

Of all the skulls I've had come my way, this is probably one of the most well preserved. And considering the fact that you couldn't see it, and we had no idea what level it might have been preserved at underneath  - it's pretty special. The whole skull is intact, with only a small bit of damage above the nasal cavity, which is surprising, considering it must have had a bit of a bashing.

 

That's a rib going through its mouth. We think the whole body went in, and then the commotion and the motion of the river over time broke it up and just that rib got lodged there.

 

mineralied-skull-scan_700.jpg

An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit.

 

The mineralised skull is currently on long-term loan to the British Museum, and can be seen on display in the King's Library, home to their permanent Enlightenment exhibition.

 

It is perhaps fitting that this specimen is no longer (at least for the next 25 years or so) at the Museum, as I am about to leave the Museum, too. The completion of my quest to track down, and uncover the history of, our mineralised skull marks my final Behind the Scenes blog before I move on to career pastures new.

 

Thanks for reading.

1

OK, I have decided to create #Worldrobberflyday. All the time now, we hear that this large mammal or that large mammal has a 'day', and that got me thinking. Buglife have an invertebrate of the month, but even they are not very often the lesser-known insects, including the flies.

 

And I wanted global. Let the world celebrate! Why is it always the large stuff or the pretty (and, in my opinion, slightly less important) species? So I thought about it and decided it was about time that we championed more aggressively the rights of the small and endangered flies. These creatures are some of the most charismatic animals on the planet. The robberflies, or Asilidae, are truly worth celebrating for their looks, for their behaviour, for their good deeds to us, and because many of them are threatened.

 

The UK boasts 28 species of Asilidae (OK, so that's not a lot in terms of flies, but hold on – we have only 30 native terrestrial mammals, of which 17 are bats and 2 are native marine mammals). Globally there are more than 7,500 species, and as such, it is one of the largest families of insects today. In fact Torsten Dikow, a world expert on this group, has them as the third most speciose group of diptera. This is a group, therefore, that has a large impact on the environment in which they live.

 

Asilidae are Brachycerans (Fig. 1), which are the more advanced and robust flies. Asilidae are known from the Jurassic era, but some of the more important finds are from the Cretaceous, including those from the Crato Formation of north-eastern Brazil (approximately 112 million years old). This site is truly extraordinary in terms of the invertebrate remains that were found there (and just another reason for me to get back to Brazil!).

 

taxonomy.jpg

Figure 1. Phylogenetic arrangement of Diptera showing the more advanced Brachycerans and the position of the Asilidae (robberflies) within it.

 

It was again Linnaeus, or Linne, who described these flies in his 10th edition (1758) Systema Naturae when he erected the genus Asilus. Within this, eleven species were described and then a further four were added in the 12th edition. You may be unsurprised to know that most of these are no longer in the original genus! Ten have been moved to other genera, three we are unsure of due to the original descriptions being vague, so that leaves only two in the genus.

 

However, the species Asilus crabroniformis, commonly called the hornet robberfly in the UK – and the type species of the family – still sits within this genus in all its magnificence. The division of flies into different families came later with Latreille, a very eminent entomologist who tried to put some more organisation into the entomological hierarchy in 1802. Since then we have increased the number of species and have split the family into many subfamilies –14 in fact (Fig. 2) But as regular readers know, Dipteran taxonomists are still not satisfied and expect more movement in the future.

 

subfamilies.jpg

Figure 2. Subfamilies within Asilidae (image is Tigonomiminae © Thomas Shahan).

 

Even still, you can comprehend how much work has gone on into understanding the relationships within this family so far.

 

Moustaches and mouthparts

 

So why are people interested in these flies? Well once more, this is a family of flies that rock! And these rock harder than most. All armed with moustaches and powerful piercing mouthparts, these predators are aptly named, as they truly are the most vicious and effective aerial predators. These flies are venomous, probably both as adults and as larvae (although we know so very little about the offspring). The adults are able to catch, then sedate, their prey whilst on the wing, suck out the contents and then drop the husk of what was once a living breathing entity. It's almost poetry.

 

And to be fair, to catch these little predators you often have to become a predator yourself. There is no majestic leaping around the countryside, freely swinging your nets with wild exuberance: instead you must 'become the fly'. You stalk it; determine where it rests and then strike. If you are me, this is often followed by a squeal of delight or a wail of despair. I once spent a glorious afternoon on one of the Isles of Scilly at the beach (obviously working very hard) trying to stalk these flies. My volunteer and I tried to work in unison hunting them, and I could almost hear the flies mocking us…

 

The adults are most active during sunny, hot conditions. Again, another reason for loving flies – they have an affinity for the nicer weather conditions.

 

Although these flies range a lot in size, from 2mm to 6cm, they all share distinctive features that help identify the family. The adults have enormous eyes, which is one of the many tools that make them such efficient predators. And it also helps us recognise this family easily. The bulbous eyes and the distinct dip between the two eyes are very characteristic (see Fig. 3). They can swivel their heads around and their eyes can see what's going on behind them as well.

 

eyes.jpg

Figure 3. My, my... what big eyes you have...!

 

Some of them scout amongst the grasses, their rapid wingbeat enabling them to turn whilst hovering. These truly are the stealth-bombers of the insect world.

 

The leptogastriniiae are the skinniest of the Asilidae, with very long bodies and legs. They use these long, gangly first two pairs of legs to catch their prey whilst – we think – using the third pair to stabilise themselves. Not all actively scan like this: some will sit and wait, only darting out to impale their prey when they are ready. If fact, there are several different ways in which they hunt and, as with all good scientists, someone has devised a terminology for all of these (Fig. 4)

 

hunting.jpg

Figure 4. Lehr (1979) from the Geller-Grimm Asilidae site.

 

For that is another characteristic of this group – a well-formed, stout beak often hidden in a luxurious moustache or, more correctly termed, a mystax (Fig. 5).

 

mouthparts.jpg

Figure 5. Mouthparts of a robber fly (Brachycera: Asilidae). an=antenna; cl=clypeus; ip=hypopharynx; li=labium; ls=labrum (epipharynx); m=mystax; ms=maxillae; oc=eye; pm=maxillary palpus © Giancarlo Dessì. Licensed under CC BY NC SA 3.0 US.

 

It is the needle-like hypopharynx (Fig. 5) that pierces their prey. This is not for the faint-hearted, as they often try and pierce the soft parts of the insect, such as the neck or sometimes the eyes. They have this moustache (Mystax – Fig. 5) to help protect their mouthparts from the flailing prey.

 

They don't have to flail for long, though, as the fly injects saliva that contains nerve toxins that paralyse the prey, and proteolytic enzymes that dissolve the insides. They are nasty for insects, spiders, and occasionally a very unfortunate hummingbird, but apart from giving a nasty jab, they are not dangerous to humans. Research done by Adamovic in 1963 found that injecting robberfly saliva into invertebrates kills them instantly, but they never inject venom into humans. There are several researchers in the Natural History Museum who are now studying the venoms within these flies, so watch out for future Museum publications to follow what is happening in this field.

 

But this leads me to one of the first reasons that these flies are very important. It's because they are such good predators. Within the UK, between 1930 and 1933, Hobby produced a list of the prey records (Fig. 6).

 

feeding.jpg

Figure 6. Hobbies lists from Stubbs and Drake 2014.


We have spent the last century working out the prey species and now have a greater understanding of the potential impact these flies can have in helping control populations of species that we often consider as pests – with aphids being a classic example. Although they are opportunistic species, they can have an impact on the overall densities and therefore become the gardener's friends.

 

Flirty flies

 

So let's move on to courtship. As with most creatures, some do, some don't; with some species the males just grab, while others put a fair amount of time and effort into it and have different modifications on their bodies to both attract the opposite sex as well as hold on to them. And it's not just the males that do the flirting. Oh no - there are some females that entice the male.

 

The rather unusual courtship of the British robberfly Choerages marginatus was described by Ian Rabarts in 2009 (paraphrased from Alan Stubbs' rather amusing synopsis on the subject, in his and Martin Drake's book British Soldierflies and their Allies): Firstly the flies recognise that (a) they are the right species, and (b) that they are of the opposite sex (a very good start in most situations to do with copulation leading to fertilisation).

 

Then they check out each other's hunting moves and, if OK, the female stands facing the male in a sort of 'yeah, you'll do' posture. After this, she flies in a slow 'flaunting' circuit (hussy) very similar to that of a prey item (all very kinky). He attacks when he sees her 'shimmer-strip', whereupon she slows down her flight, but flies in an angular pattern. He realises then that this is his lady and adjusts his attack from one of capturing prey to one of copulation.

 

Alan then states in his book: 'Failure [of copulation] results in going back a few steps in the courtship sequence.' A not-unfamiliar event…

 

Bob Lavigne, a collaborator of mine and another international robberfly expert, wrote in 2003: 'It is postulated that courtship first developed when male search flights (which end abruptly with copulation), were consistently unsuccessful.' It sounds so final when it ends with copulation!

 

In fact, reading the literature when it comes to robberfly mating in copulation has been very entertaining. Morgan (1995) records that another species that were just about to do the do were scared off by a sheep! Given the size difference I too in a similar position may have been scared off...

 

But check out Pegesimallus teratodes (Fig.7) – these have amazing structures on their hind legs. These are used in the dance of the males to attract the females –they are indeed the peacocks of the robberfly world.

 

Pegesimallus-teratodes.jpg

Figure 7. Pegesimallus teratodes and its amazing legs.

 

And that is not all that is fantastic about the males. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the genitalia of the males (Fig. 8).

 

Pegesimallus-teratodes-genitalia.jpg

Figure 8. The male Pegesimallus teratodes with his rather impressive genitalia.


And then there are specimens in our collection that we think give us an indication of a courtship story, although I doubt we will ever be able to find out for certain. Take, for example, two specimens of Mallophora infernalis from our collection (Fig. 9). Now, had the female caught the bush cricket and the male had thought:“Excellent! Both food and sex!”? Or, had the male caught the cricket to attract the female? Either way, it was not going to end well for the bush cricket (or in this case for the robberflies).

 

mallophora.jpg

Figure 9. Male and Female of Mallophora infernalis who were caught mid air carrying this bush cricket.

 

So whether there is dancing, waving, differences in wingbeats, or offerings, the end result hopefully is the production of eggs. And blimey, the females have a big range of ovipositors (egg laying tubes) (Fig. 10)!

 

table.jpg

Figure 10. Ovipositors (adapted from Stubbs and Drake 2014).


Now this is where it gets tricky, as we know less about the egg and larval stage than any of the others. And this is the main reason why we should be concerned about these gorgeous creatures – many of the UK species are rare. We have no real idea for many species globally but can only assume that this is the case everywhere. In fact, several of our UK species are protected.

 

However we don't know much, if anything, about many of the species' diet, where they live, development and so on. In Collins' book The Conservation of Insects and their Habitats, he discusses how little is known about the species, despite the fact that they are classed as threatened.

 

Take one of the most charismatic insects in the UK (no bias there) the hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis – a mimic of (you guessed it) a hornet. There is still very little information. Previous work dating back to the 90s states that the eggs were laid in or under the old dung of cows, horses and rabbits, and soil nearby. Maybe the adults (and subsequent larvae) are that flexible in their habitat? The larvae are then thought to feed on dung beetles but again this has only been observed (and not by many authors) during late-stage instars. What do the little ones eat? It is a UK priority species and we need to know more about it. How can we consider conserving a species (if it needs it) if we don't know where it is or what it's getting up to? It's like a wayward teenager.

 

Now, if you want to know more about what is going on with UK robberflies, there are loads of pages giving you what information there is.

There is a nice little piece by naturespot (Fig. 11) featuring some of the UK species, and of course you must check out the Dipterists Forum for all of their information.

 

naturespot.jpg

Figure 11. Nature spot.

 

But what we really want now is information coming the other way. Personal observations in the field, the location of eggs and the like, and species distributions are all critical in ensuring that we maintain and enhance our existing populations.

 

Martin Harvey @kitenet runs the UK recording scheme for these wonderful little animals (See Fig. 12 or visit the website) and you can send all your records to that site. Martin also runs many courses on these as do others in the Dipterists Forum, so sign up and go along to them.

 

screenshot.jpg

Figure 12. The Soldierfly and allies recording scheme, which includes the robberflies.


So there you go - robberflies are amazing, and they do need celebrating. And if you still need convincing here is a little fluffy one to tug at your heartstrings. When asked what is my favourite fly, Laphria flava is at the center of my heart (Fig. 13).

 

Laphria-flava-male.jpg

Figure 13. Laphria flava male.