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Denis Michez,  University of Mons, Belgium

 

Wednesday 2 April 11:00

 

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

 

Bees (Anthophila) are one of the major groups of angiosperm-pollinating insects and accordingly are widely studied in both basic and applied research, for which it is essential to have a clear understanding of their phylogeny, and evolutionary history. Direct evidence of bee evolutionary history has been hindered by a dearth of available fossils needed to determine the timing and tempo of their diversification, as well as episodes of extinction.

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_015744_Comp-1 bee.jpgCopal from East Africa containing Apis mellifera

 

Here we assess the similarity of the forewing shape of bee fossils with extant and fossil taxa using geometric morphometrics analyses. Predictive discriminant analyses show that fossils share similar diagnostic forewing shapes with families like Apidae, Halictidae, Andrenidae and Melittidae. Their taxonomic assessments provide new information on the distribution and timing of particular bee groups like corbiculate groups, most notably the extension into North America of possible Eocene-Oligocene cooling-induced extinctions.

 

For additional details on attending this or other seminars see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/seminars-events/index.htm

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Author: Stefanie White

Date: 19th March 2013

Temperature: -14.0 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 5/8 knts

Temp with Wind Chill: -21 degrees celcius

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A

 

In Discovery Hut there is a bed (or sleeping platform) that is composed of a section of tongue and groove, originally from the ceiling of the hut itself and positioned on supply boxes beside the stove area. The area surrounding the stove became a cozy den for several desperate explorers seeking security from the harsh Antarctic environment. In the words of Dick Richards of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party (Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917): The hut may have been a dark cheerless place but to us it represented security. We lived the life of troglodytes. We slept in our clothes in old sleeping bags which rested on planks raised above the floor by wooden provision cases.

 

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Bed platform and sleeping aea in the hut. Credit: Stefanie White.

 

 

Before returning to Scott Base this week, Meg and I completed the conservation of the supply boxes that raised the bed. After many hours working in the soot and seal blubber drenched dark room, we learned how to overcome the difficulties working in the cold and dark of the hut. We wore leather padded gloves as opposed to nitrile gloves, which freeze immediately in cold environments. We wore Extreme Cold Weather gear and head lamps as opposed to our white lab coats and magnifying bench lights. We also defrosted ice to wash our tools and hands on the stove that we light every morning in our working container nearby.

 

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Stefanie conserving the area under the bed platform in the sleeping area beside the stove.

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Area under bed platform mid treatment.

We devised a method to systematically map each piece of the bed platform so that upon their return after conservation our interference left minimal mark. As well as leaving minimum traces of our presence in the hut, by taking back all of our equipment and waste to Scott Base every night we also left no trace in the environment.

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See what's bursting into life and who's out and about in the Museum's Wildlife Garden in our spring photo gallery below. Everyone who works behind the scenes in the Wildlife Garden team, including some very shaggy helpers, is busy getting the meadows, pathways, ponds, sheds and greenhouses ready for the garden's opening to the public once more, from 1 April.

 

It's also the time of year that the garden and its different habitats require special attention with all the new life in abundance. Frogs have been getting matey and mallards have been checking out the pond's moorhen island.

 

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The Museum's Wildlife Garden opens its gates to the public once again from 1 April with its first public event, Spring Widllife, on 5 April to herald the start of the Easter holidays.

 

The garden will be the focus of lots of fun and nature-filled activities, planned through the coming spring, summer and autumn seasons. And as usual we'll be hosting regular, free monthly weekend events starting with Spring Wildlife on Saturday 5 April.

 

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Pretty red crab apple blossom caught on camera a couple of weeks ago.

 

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Glowing cowslips appearing in the meadows.

 

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Our Greyface Dartmoor sheep, who usually visit from the Wetland Centre in the autumn, have been staying for a few days to graze down the meadow grass. It's the last chance to do this before wild flowers start coming up. By nipping the spring grass in the bud there will be more light for the flowers to come through.

 

mallards-bird-island-1500.jpgMallard visitors exploring the moorhen island lookout on the pond.

 

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Frogspawn was spotted in the garden's pond around 17 March.

 

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Wood anemones have recently come into flower.

 

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Violets on the hedge banks.

 

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Sweet-smelling gorse bushes in the early morning spring sunshine.

 

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White blackthorn blossom perks up the pathways.

 

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Behind the scenes in the garden's greenhouse, staff and volunteers have been preparing seedlings.

 

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The latest green roof in the garden atop the sheep shed was created last autumn. The sloping roof is planted with stonecrops and plants such as thrift, sea campion and sea lavender. More about green roofs coming later in the season.

 

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Alfred Russel Wallace the collector stands watch in front of the Wildlife Garden. His statue was unveiled here last November to commemorate his centenary.

 

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It is a huge privilege to work in such a beautiful and truly fascinating building. Regardless of how long you work here, there is always something new to notice built into the fabric of the building, both inside and out. I firmly believe that you can never tire of this structure, and throughout the seasons of the year, its character actually changes. We have Alfred Waterhouse to thank for this.

 

The original winner in 1864 of the competition to design the building that would house the natural history collections of the British Museum and fullfill Richard Owen's vision, had been architect Francis Fowke. However, when he died a year later, Alfred Waterhouse was asked to take over, and he chose to put forward fresh designs and drawings. Work finally began on construction in 1873.

 

 

 

(Above) Two of seven animals that stand on the balustrades and gables of the pavilion.

 

Both living and extinct creatures are depicted in the fabric of the building both inside and out. When originally designed those on the external east side were extinct and those on the west side were living and indicated the nature of the galleries inside. On the whole this remains true for today's permanent galleries, except for the Dinosaur Gallery. Since the Museum opened in 1881 there are two animals that are now recognised to be on the wrong sides. The passenger pigeon is now extinct and the coelacanth has since been rediscovered.

 

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The Library & Archives here at the Natural History Museum hold original Waterhouse detailed pencil drawings and some chalk colour wash drawings. The collection consists of 136 mounted drawings and one volume of 66 drawings.

 

The volume is a relatively recent acquisition to the collection and is described as 'Some details of the enrichments of the new Museum of Natural History (South Kensington) modelled by C. Dujardin for A. Waterhouse Esq. A.R.A. architect circa 1874-1879'.

 

 

(Above) Detail from inside the building including on the right  an Iguana  'spandrel' in the Entrance to the Central Hall.

 

It was purchased in March 2003 from a collector of architectural drawings in France. He acquired the album 28 years previously in Angers from a book dealer who discovered it in the local flea market. The whereabouts of the album between the time Monsieur Dujardin presumably returned to this native France and its appearance in Angers is unknown.

 

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Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) is well known as the architect of the Natural History Museum, built in the Romanesque style which opened to the public in 1881. Originally his Quaker family denied his chosen career as an artist, and therefore he trained as an architect, soon achieving acclaim for his support of the Gothic revival. He prepared the drawings in the album, for Monsieur Dujardin, foreman of Farmer and Brindley, the architectural modellers. Waterhouse worked up the drawings with the help of Sir Richard Owen, the Museum's first Superintendent, who loaned him actual specimens to ensure the accuracy of his designs. All of the drawings were checked by Owen before being passed to Dujardin.

 

 

By the end of his life Waterhouse had designed a significant number of public buildings, country houses, clubs and churches. After the Museum he is best known for Manchester Town Hall, the Prudential Insurance buildings in Holborn and Eaton House, Cheshire.

 

 

(Above) Detail of the 'shafts' that can be seen at the main entrance in the museum and in particular the foliage 'annulets' banded around them.

 

In this album there are 66 drawings, mostly pencil, but 10 have a colour wash applied to show the tone of the finished terracotta pieces. Over a third of the drawings are different from any of the master drawing set of 136, acquired in 1962 from Waterhouse's grandson. A further third are similar to other surviving drawings but show developments in the design process of the reliefs. Only 15 drawings exactly match those already held.

 

Examples of further reading:

 

Cunningham, C (2001) The terracotta designs of Alfred Waterhouse London: Natural History Museum

 

Cunningham, C & Waterhouse, P (1992) Alfred Waterhouse 1830-1905 : biography of a practice Oxford: Clarendon Press

 

Girouard, M (1981) Alfred Waterhouse and the Natural History Museum, London: British Museum (Natural History)

 

Holmes, J (2013) 'Building a vision of nature: Owen, Waterhouse and the design of the building', Evolve, Issue 17, Autumn pp.37-41

 

Visit the NHM Picture Library to view more examples of the terracotta designs.

 

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(Above left and right) Further examples of flora and fauna detail that can be seen around the main entrance to the museum, in the Central Hall and along Dinosaur Way.

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Do you know the difference between a cryptogamist and a cryptogramist? The MoD certainly didn't, at least not during World War II, and that's why it recruited former Museum scientist Geoffrey Tandy to work at Bletchley Park.

 

You see, a cryptogamist is an expert in non-flowering, spore-reproducing plants like seaweeds, mosses and ferns. That's what Tandy was. He worked at the Museum from 1926 until 1939 and was the first member of staff to specialise in algae.

 

However the MoD got his speciality confused with a cryptogramist, someone who deciphers messages written in code. And so Tandy - who had enlisted as a volunteer in the Royal Navy Reserves in 1939 - was sent to Bletchley, the centre of signals intelligence during the war. He was tasked with helping to crack the code of the German Naval Enigma machine.

 

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An Enigma machine, used by the Germans to send and receive encrypted military messages.

 

Lieutenant-Commander Tandy (codenamed 'Six') did his best to learn the skills for which he'd been mistakenly hired, but while he was no Alan Turing, he did still play a significant role in the breaking of the Enigma cipher and in turn, the defeat of the Germans.

 

You see, in 1941, a German U-boat was torpedoed and valuable items were salvaged by the allied forces. Among them were German procedural handbooks, navigational charts, and most vitally, bigram tables (or double-letter conversion tables).

 

The bigrams were used by the Germans to unscramble the coded messages sent via the Enigma. But, alas, the paper on which the bigrams were printed was sodden and the Bletchley lot feared the secrets were beyond recovery.

 

And that is where Geoffrey Tandy came to the rescue. With years of scientific experience preserving and preparing wet plant specimens, such as algae, as herbarium sheets, he knew exactly what to do to safely dry the precious paper.

 

A call to the Museum elicited a supply of the tools Tandy needed, and he was able to save the paper and its cryptic clues from soggy obscurity. And that's how a seaweed scientist helped win the war.

 

The cracking of the German Enigma machines at Bletchley Park is credited with considerably hastening the end of World War II.

 

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A specimen of marine algae, Kallymenia perforata, collected by Geoffrey Tandy. Preparing such specimens  provided Tandy with the experience required to preserve wet documents captured from the Germans during World War II.

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No description of fairylike perfection is too saccharine for the hummingbird. They live in a world of blossoms, sweet nectar, and the untainted freshness of everlasting spring

 

Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo

 

If I was forced to choose a favourite specimen or exhibit at the Museum, at best I could probably narrow it down to a top three. Among the group would definitely be the beautiful case of hummingbirds on display in the Birds gallery.

 

Standing over six feet tall and containing at least 100 of the tiny, shiny little birds, the case is typical of the Victorian-era exotic displays sought by natural history and curiosity collectors.

 

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One of my favourite Museum items: the hummingbird case in the Birds gallery, with close-up showing the shimmering plumage of the birds inside.

 

Unfortunately the origin of this magnificent case is not clear. Our best guess is that it came from collector William Bullock's personal museum, the contents of which was sold at auction in 1819.

 

In the document, 'A companion to Mr. Bullock's London Museum and Pantherion,' his hummingbird case is listed as 'the finest collection in Europe', and of the birds it is said that 'precious stones, polished by art, cannot be compared to these jewels of nature'.

 

But if you demand provenance with your hummingbirds, then look no further than our collection of John Gould cases. Gould was a gardener turned taxidermist, illustrator and publisher whose big break came when he was commissioned by King George IV to mount the monarch's pet giraffe.

 

Ever commercially minded, in 1851 Gould self-financed an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds to capitalise on the footfall of those attending the Great Exhibition. The birds were presented in 24 custom-built cases which revolved and were specially lit to show off the iridescence of the hummingbirds' feathers.

 

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A picture from the Illustrated London News showing Gould’s 1851 hummingbird exhibition.

 

Among the reported 75,000 people who attended during the run of the Great Exhibition were Charles Dickens, and also Queen Victoria who wrote in her diary:

It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little humming birds, their variety, and the extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.

 

After Gould's death, the Treasury provided a grant to the Museum to purchase his hummingbird cases, 3,800 unmounted hummingbird skins and 7,000 skins of other birds, which were divided between South Kensington and Tring.

 

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Three of Gould's 24 hummingbird cases purchased by the Museum.

 

For a time, the cases were displayed on our Central Hall balcony, but as special collections librarian Paul Cooper explains, at one point they almost met a terribly unbefitting demise:

They were rescued them from being thrown into a skip in the 1970s. Presumably they were thought out of fashion, out of date, not needed... but the Library saved them when the Museum was going to get rid of them.

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A watercolour showing Gould's hummingbird cases on display in one of the Central Hall balconies (left), and a c. 1932 photograph showing a couple of cases precariously placed at the top of the Central Hall stairs where our giant sequoia now stands (right).

 

Six of the hummingbird cases now reside behind the scenes in the Rare Books Room in the Library at South Kensington and one other is in Walter Rothschild's library at Tring.

 

It is hard to believe that these cases of hummingbirds, which can excite such romantic infatuation, could ever be considered surplus to requirements. In the words of Gould himself (the brackets are mine):

The pleasure I experience each time I see (our) hummingbird (case) is as great at the present moment as when I first saw (it).

 

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Six of the hummingbird cases now resident in the Library's Rare Books Room.

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It is nearing the end of the financial year so only 9 new book additions this week, covering Zoology, General Natural History, Earth Sciences, Ornithology, Entomology and Botany. Download the PDF attached to the bottom of this blog to view this week's list.


If you wish to view these or any other items, please contact the library to arrange an appointment library@nhm.ac.uk or 020 7942 5460

 

The Library catalogue is available online and more information about the Library & Archives collections can be found via our website

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Maarja Öpik,  Department of Botany, University of Tartu, Estonia


Wednesday 26 March 11:00   Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF, Phylum Glomeromycota) are soil and root-dwelling, obligate plant root symbiotic organisms present in most terrestrial environments. Their occurrence and diversity have important roles in life, and in diversity and functioning of host plant communities. Therefore, understanding the taxonomic and functional diversity of AMF is the topic of increasing popularity. Their diversity patterns are described to address questions ranging from climate change and land use effects to understanding ecosystem succession and macroecological patterns.

 

Diversity of AMF is commonly measured using DNA sequences of nuclear ribosomal operon markers; the most frequently used one being the SSU rRNA gene. Total AMF molecular operational taxonomic unit (MOTU) richness of SSU rRNA gene sequences suggests at least twice as high number of species present as is currently known on the basis of morphotaxonomy.

 

These MOTUs have been organised into a common system of “virtual taxa” (VT) in a public database MaarjAM (http://maarjam.botany.ut.ee). VT are delimited as phylogenetically related clades of sequences of SSU rRNA gene at approximately species level. VT nomenclature provides comparability among data and consistent communication among scientists.Application of the VT nomenclature has allowed description of AMF diversity patterns from global to local scales.

 

In this talk, I will present evidence of global scale patterns of AMF diversity being related to biomes and climatic zones; and of local scale patterns related to host ecological groups, spatiotemporal processes and root- vs. soil-localising AMF growth strategies. I will conclude with highlighting the questions of urgent need to advance the understanding about this important group of organisms.

 

For additional details on attending this or other seminars see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/seminars-events/index.htm

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by Lisa Di Tommaso (Special Collections Librarian)

 

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There’s no doubt many of you have enjoyed exhibitions of art or artefacts from around the world on a variety of topics. But have you ever considered just how the items brought together from across the globe actually made it to the gallery, and the activity involved? The Library at the Natural History Museum lends many items from its collections to exhibitions, be it to an institution just down the road, or to far-flung places overseas. The process of lending material starts many months in advance and involves a large number of people.

 

I was fortunate enough to travel to Australia recently, to oversee the delivery and installation of some unique artworks from our First Fleet Collection.

 

 

 

(Above and below) The cases containing the artwork are packed into the bespoke crate, before it is sealed.

 

The paintings were borrowed by the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, for their exhibition entitled Artist Colony, which brings together paintings by officers, convicts and other colonists who helped establish the first European settlement in Port Jackson in the early years from 1788.

 

In order for the State Library to be Packed crate.jpgable to borrow the items, a number of negotiations took place with the NHM, confirming the items they wished to borrow, the dates and length of time they would be lent for, the temperature and lighting conditions in which they would be displayed, and any security issues. This always involves a lot of paperwork and many emails back and forth across the globe. Temporary export licences are also arranged at this time. A specialist global shipping company was engaged to assist with the transport of items door to door by road and air.

 

As the time to send the items approached, the Museum’s Paper Conservator prepared the material for transport and for display, and wrote detailed reports on the condition of each item. Having a detailed record of the state of the material before it leaves the Library allows us to check the items again after their long journey to make sure no damage occurred en-route.  The art was then wrapped very carefully in layers of tissue and then packed securely into what look like large suitcases, lined with protective material to prevent any movement on the journey. The shipping company manufactured a bespoke wooden crate, in which the cases were again packed securely, allowing no room for movement and providing maximum shock absorption.

 

Checking the conditions of the artwork in Sydney.jpgInstalling one of our paintings.jpg

 

 

My job as courier was to travel with that case to Sydney, as far as possible not allowing it out of my sight. The crate and I were collected from the Museum early one morning on a lorry and taken to the company depot where last minute checks and paperwork were completed. We were next driven to the airport, where I oversaw the loading of the crate into a pallet which would then be loaded on to the aircraft. As ‘civilians’ are not allowed on to the tarmac, a company representative oversaw the loading of the pallet onto the plane.

 

 

 

(Above) Checking the conditions of the artwork in Sydney and installiing one of our paintings.

 

After a quick petrol stop at Dubai and assurances that the crate hadn’t been off-loaded, the journey continued on to Sydney. The crates were collected from the freight cargo area, and we were back on the truck to the State Library.

 

 

 

The items were left for 48 hours to acclimatise to their new environmental conditions before the crate was opened. I worked with the Conservation staff at the State Library to check the condition of each item on arrival, and then to oversee the installation of the paintings on to walls in the display area, and books in to their special cases. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to stay for the official opening of the exhibition, but feedback from visitors so far suggests they are thrilled to be able to see artworks which have travelled all the way from London, to be displayed alongside local collections for the first time.

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(Above) Exhibition installation in progress and ensuring one of the NHM's volumes is correctly placed in its case.

 

It takes a huge team effort and plenty of logistics to bring together items for exhibitions – so spare a thought for all the people involved next time you admire an item on loan from another institution!

 

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The final installation!

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Friday 28 Mar, 4.30pm

Neil Chalmers Seminar Room, DC2

 

 

The Evolution of Vertebrate Reproduction

 

by Zerina Johanson, Department of Earth Sciences

 

The early history of the jawed vertebrates, and the evolutionary transition from jawless to jawed vertebrates, is recorded entirely in the fossil record. Phylogenetically, the most basal jawed vertebrates (and some of the most crownward stem gnathostomes) are the placoderms, fossil taxa ranging in age from the early Silurian to the end of the Devonian (435-360mya). As such, placoderms record the origins and evolution of a number of major jawed vertebrate morphologies. A re-examination of the superb three-dimensionally preserved placoderms recovered from the Gogo Formation (Late Devonian, Western Australia) has provided the most detailed knowledge of this group to date.

 

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We review recent information on placoderm embryos as well as previous descriptions of the placoderm pelvic structures and reinterpret the morphology of the pelvic region, in particular the position of the pelvic fin and the relationship of the male clasper to the pelvic girdle. Claspers in placoderms and chondrichthyans develop in very different ways; in sharks, claspers develop from the pelvic fin while the claspers in placoderms develop separately, suggesting that their independent development involved a posterior extension of the ‘zone of fin competence’.

 

 

SciFri is a cross-departmental science seminar series and social event, held on the last Friday of each month. The 45 minute talks are intended to be informal, contemporary, inter-disciplinary and cover a range of fields including the latest research, curation, science policy, library & archives research, publishing, media, fieldwork and science methods.

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This weekend will no doubt be a busy one for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in our Waterhouse Gallery. The exhibition closes here at the Museum on Sunday 23 March. However, it's at the later time of 20.00 GMT as we've extended opening for the last day (last admissions are at 19.15 so you have time to view the exhibition).

 

On Saturday, the exhibition also stays open a little later until 19.15, so book your tickets now if you don't want to miss out. On both evenings, you can also dip into tapas at the bar in the Deli Cafe between 17.30 until 19.30. Check out the exhibition page for more details.

 

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Light path by Charlie Hamilton James, runner-up in the Behaviour: Birds award category, WPY 2013 competition. Select images to enlarge.

 

Making one last tour of the gallery this morning, I noticed the tiny details in this vivid shot of a kingfisher taken by Charlie Hamilton James in Gloucestershire. The focus may be the motion blur of the bird's dazzling feathers, but look closer and you'll spot a tiny fish in its beak and another attentive kingfisher far away in the distance (the other parent). That's the joy of seeing these unforgettable photographs close up and so beautifully lit in the gallery.

 

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The magical kokerbooms by Ugle Fuertas Sanz, commended in the Botanical Realms category, WPY 2013 competition.

 

Stars twinkling over kokerbooms on one enchanted night in Namibia is another one - the image comes alive when you stand in front of it. You're beamed into that dream sunsetting scene.

 

To come across a family of endangered Amur leopards in Russia's Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve is a rare and extraordinary sight. Valeriy Maleev's composition of the staring leopards caught in the act among the deer carnage, and blending into the pale jagged rocks, has incredible impact close up.

 

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Survivors by Valeriy Maleev, runner-up in the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Species, WPY 2013 competition.

 

The exhibition of these 100 award-winning images is already on its UK tour, so even though it closes in London this weekend, it will open in Edinburgh and Cardiff shortly with more venues to follow. The 50th competition winners will go on show in the Waterhouse Gallery later in the year in October.

 

If you've entered the 50th competition, check out the jury who have now started their selection process, with the final judging rounds due in April.

 

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Last week I and several colleagues (including Daniel Whitmore and Mindy Syfert) arrived back from deepest, darkest Peru. This is not the first time that I have been on a museum trip to Peru; in fact it is part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sandy Knapp and she joined us for part of it (read her blog about it).

 

So instead of telling you about the project (which Sandy has already covered) or about the amazing exciting insects there, I thought I would take time out to explain some of the less glamorous things associated with fieldwork. This little blog will detail the annoyances and the downright bizarre things involved.

 

First there are the 3 am drives to the airport; or rather the 2:30 drive because the taxi had arrived early. And so, on the day of travel, you find that your consumption of coffee increases exponentially... so, before I have left my flat I have my first coffee. Then your driver is Jensen Button and as such has broken every speed limit on the way to the airport and is exceptionally pleased with himself in the process. Consequently, you arrive at the airport way too early and there is nothing to do. An hour of twiddling thumbs sitting on my rucksack before the bag drop desk opens. I get through and have some more coffee.

 

Finally a few hours later, we board and depart during the most glorious sunset (ok, so that was nice). Then we arrive in Madrid, which I have to say is one of the worst airports in terms of having something to do; I have another coffee and wait a further four hours for my long haul flight. There is nothing to say about a flight that takes 12 hours apart from that it is not fun. Not at all. Especially when there is turbulence for half of it ... several glasses of wine and more coffee sorts that out though. My colleague Dan's flight was slightly more traumatic as he was surrounded by many children under the age of 2 :-)

 

So that was just the start of the trip - I wrote most of this blog sitting in my hotel room at the end with decidedly dodgy insides. I can't decide if it was the food, the altitude, a parasite or just the tiredness from these crazy roads but, at the time I was writing, all was not well in the land of Erica. I missed the last full day of fieldwork as well which was annoying, but just couldn't risk it.

 

The last time I was in Peru, we were on the road less travelled (as the Lonely Planet described our route). This time around, we didn't even make that! A few places that we were planning to stay were in the guide but often just with a passing reference. It was all up to Paul - our intrepid Peruvian Botanist - to lead us on our potato quest. Not always so easy in a country that does not really do road signs.

 

Let me continue with the less glamorous side to fieldwork. There are always the early starts (and not just the flight). Potatoes and tomatoes have to be sorted out...

 

So, the main reason why the team are in Peru is that at the Museum there is a group of us trying to establish what species of insects are associated with the wild relatives of potatoes and tomatoes. The collections of both the plants (Solanacea) and the known associated insects at the Museum are being digitised at the moment and that information will help us model the distributions. The fieldwork side, though, is to see what is actually there - there are many new species waiting to be described for both the insects and plants!

 

I never thought, however, that this would lead to me scrambling around cliff faces 4,000m up, looking for tiny potatoes, but that is what has happened. But the problem with these high altitude loving species is that we have to get up there in the first place. And this is why we have upsettingly early starts, to enable us to get high enough to find them.

 

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Striking landscapes at high altitude, but don't try pootering here when you can barely breath...

 

For our first base of the trip we stayed in a town called Canta. We were only 2,800m above sea level but we could feel it - even walking up the stairs at this altitude was odd. And this was one of the lower altitudes of the trip!

 

We collected up to 4,800m - trying to pooter at this altitude is almost impossible – you have no ability to breath and so the fly just sits there on the leaf wondering what you are doing whilst you are desperately trying to suck the little thing up into a tube. If you have never experienced high altitudes it is like strapping an enormous rugby player to your chest as they hold on with an overpowering squeeze.

 

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Canta and other high altitude towns were often shrowded in mist from about 3pm onwards, giving them a surreal appeal.

 

The accommodation is often not the most glamorous of hotels or field stations that you think of most of the time. Here we are all sleeping in one large room that felt like we had stepped out of a Enid Blyton novel ... except with added snoring ...

 

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Not the Ritz Hotel

 

Now, please, add ontop of the snoring: dogs barking, car horns and alarms, and weird South American pop music for the entire night, to truely immerse yourself in the experience.

 

So, if the early starts are not going to kill you, then the roads definitely will. As I have already mentioned above, these plants like to get up and around in the mountains which meant some long and sometimes dangerous journeys on less than great roads - I had my stomach in my mouth many a time ... And that's assuming that you could see the roads in the first place ...

 

13133787504_56f530d7f1_o.jpgThere's a road along the edge of the cliff here somewhere...

 

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Not sure where the road goes here ...

 

Then there was the traffic - there are crazy drivers over here. We learnt that road signs, regulations etc. are generally just there for their purely aesthetic qualities rather than anything else:

 

No adelantar (don't overtake): translation - of course you can overtake and the less you can see in front of you the better! Blind bend you say; we laugh in its face, haha.

 

40km speed restriction: translation - surely that is just for mototaxi? I am a car/lorry/bus and I laugh at that speed restriction; if I am not going double then I am not happy!

 

One-way: translation - really? I am sure that it will be fine if I go 'my' one way, they will move.

 

Solo carril (single lane): translation - surely you are joking? I know it is a mountain pass but I must get through now ...

 

No Mototaxi (on main road): translation - then I shall use the hard shoulder instead, that is not the main road ...

 

And as for livestock...

 

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Charging bulls can be a little intimidating, even in a car

 

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... however, goats were better behaved

 

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... never trust animals with long eyelashes when they are on the road ...

 

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And, as for the llamas ... the guy was wearing a safety helmet!!

 

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And then there were the petrol stations ...

 

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... but at least that one had a hose ... and a wall.

 

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"I nonchalantly lean at the possibility of a road existing here..."
We saw this a lot on the road too. Usually it meant that either there was no road to drive on, or that it had lots of potholes, or they were creating avalanches...

 

And more annoyingly sometimes there were good roads but we couldn't take them:

 

Me: Paul, why can't we take that road?
Paul: It's not good
Me: ... but it's much quicker
Paul: ... it's dangerous
Me (thinking about all crazy roads so far): Really?
Paul: Men with guns
Me: Oh... ok, let's go on other road

 

And what about the diet? Some of the food was a tad rich for my liking - check out these cakes...

 

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Ummm, cakes. Rich, rich cakes.

 

This was a country that eats guinea pig, both the populous and their pets. We came across a dog eating a guinea pig and I thought of how my sister would feel if she knew that my childhood pet was feasting upon hers!

 

We shopped everywhere for food. Street corners were a must but receipts for the inevitable claim forms at the end of the trip were often scraps of paper if anything!

 

shopping.jpg

 

Then of course there is the Health and Safety aspect of the trip. Not forgetting the dodgy stomachs resulting from god knows what there are the other things that we must consider.

 

You had to remember the repellent before collecting near a river or your life becomes a living hell. Dan (modelling the mere handful of bites) had to sit through several days of Mindy and I complaining about the couple we had ourselves, knowing that we were being smug in our irritations.

 

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Dan's legs model the latest must have fashion, just a 'few' bites

 

So next time you think that we are all swanning around having a lovely time remember that ... it is mostly true :-)

 

Even all the things that make fieldwork hard are also the things that we reminisce over and smile about! It is an amazing experience to be able to collect new material including new species from such remote and challenging places! You will often here us hidden in the corner of a pub trying to outcompete each other over who had the worst fieldwork belly or internal parasite. Sadly, my next tall pub tales will not be quite so good ... I did not get a human botfly this time!

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Author: Sue Bassett

Date: 12 March 2013

Temperature: -25 degrees celcius

Wind speed: 20 knots

Temperature with wind chill: -41 degrees celcius

Sunrise: 06.39

Sunset:  21:21

 

 

The world has changed exponentially since I began my professional life as an archaeologist… back in the olden days when hardcopy books and journals were our main sources of information. One of the more remarkable changes is without doubt the access we now have to information on pretty much everything, via the internet. A good example occurred this week as I was treating artefacts from Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery hut, down here at Scott Base. The hut was constructed in 1902 by Scott's 1901–04 expedition, was used a number of times by Shackleton's 1907–09 expedition, used for periods by Scott's 1910–13 expedition, and again by Shackleton's depot-laying Ross Sea Party in 1915–16. The US Navy was next to visit in the late 1940s, a US research base grew alongside it from the 1950s, and a group of NZ volunteers carried out some restoration work in the early '60s, and fitted a lock to the building for the first time. So there is a long history of activity in and around the hut, which was found filled with snow and ice on several occasions, and emptied. Artefacts that remain there today could date from any of the 'heroic-era' periods of use or subsequent visits, so it's interesting to ponder how and when an artefact came to be there … and particularly satisfying to discover some evidence of its age. An object I was working on this week revealed just such information, with more than a little help from Google. It was a Primus stove made by a Swedish company, and now covered with a thick layer of black soot from Discovery hut's seal-blubber stove, suggesting it dated from one of the early expeditions. Whilst stabilising the corrosion, I discovered a small letter 'D' stamped in the base beneath the soot layer, and a quick search revealed that, from 1911, Primus stoves made by this company were stamped with a letter to indicate their year of manufacture! How convenient is that?!

 

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So this one was made in 1914 … after Scott but in the same year that Shackleton's Ross Sea Party was stocking the refitted SY Aurora in Australia in preparation for laying supply depots for Shackleton's unsuccessful Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in Endurance. Aurora took on supplies in Sydney and then more in Hobart before heading south in late December of 1914. So this Primus, brand spanking new at that time, almost certainly made its way from Sweden to Australia to be procured by the expedition in either Sydney or Hobart, travelled to Antarctica on Aurora, and was used in the hut by the Ross Sea Party. Cool! And that was revealed in just a few short minutes from the comfort of Scott Base, on the ice, via satellite. Whatever did we do before Google … or modern technology, for that matter?

 

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Eocene.jpg

Fridgeir Grimsson

Department of Palaeontology, University of Vienna

 

Tuesday 25 March - 4.00 pm

Earth Sciences Seminar Room
(Basement, WEB 05, the previous Mineralogy Seminar Room)
 
Oldest records of many modern north-temperate woody angiosperm genera are from the Eocene. However, the precise time and place of origin of individual tree genera that play important roles in modern temperate forest ecosystems has largely remained unresolved. One hypothesis about the origin of modern temperate woody elements in the northern hemisphere was proposed in the late 19th century by Adolf Engler, who suggested that many modern temperate tree genera originated in Arctic areas and migrated southwards in the course of the Cenozoic when global climate cooled.

 

The final objective of the present study is to test the validity of Engler’s (1882) concept of the “arctotertiary element”, that is, to determine whether early Cenozoic high latitude floras were the cradle of a number of tree genera that now dominate north-temperate mid-latitude forests. To achieve this, the systematic affinities of  pollen from Paleocene and Eocene sediments of western Greenland and the Faröe Islands are being assessed using combined light and scanning electron microscopy. Macrofossils from the same areas housed in existing museum and university collections are also under study, and new material has been collected in the field. By combining evidence from the palynofloras and the revised macrofloras, the phylogenetic affinities of the recognized plant taxa are being established in order to determine the proportion of extinct lineages and co-occurring extant genera, representing the “arctotertiary element” in the fossil floras.

 

 

For additional details on attending this or other seminars see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/seminars-events/index.htm

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Coll man flyer 28 March.jpg

 

If you have any queries please contact the organiser Julie Reynolds (julie.reynolds@nhm.ac.uk)

 

 

 

For additional details on attending this or other seminars see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/seminars-events/index.html