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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!).



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.



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.



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)



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).



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).



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.



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).



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).



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)!



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.



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.



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).



Figure 13. Laphria flava male.


A new and exciting citizen science project has begun and it's time to get involved with Orchid Observers! This research project, in partnership with Oxford University's Zooniverse platform, aims to examine the flowering times of British orchids in relation to climate change.


In order to achieve this, we are inviting the amateur naturalist and professional botanical community, alongside nature loving citizens from across the country, to help us collect and sort orchid data.


Bog orchid.jpg

The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) is our smallest UK species. It usually grows on mountain peat bogs and can be found from July to August.


We want you to go out in the field and photograph any of 29 selected UK orchid species and upload your images onto our dedicated website, Flowering times from each of your records will then be collated and compared with the extensive Museum herbarium collection, and data from the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI), totalling a 180-year-long time-series of orchid records.


The primary aim is to further our understanding of the impacts of the climate on the UK's flora, using orchids as a model group. The extensive data set that you will be contributing to, will tell us how different species of orchids are responding to changes in temperature and rainfall across the UK.


Mike in field.jpg

Get out in the field and support us in our research on orchid phenology.


Field work: We are asking observers - like you - to record orchids by simply photographing the flower spike and uploading the image to our website, with a location and a date. To aid you with identifying the orchids, we have painstakingly produced a lavish ID guide (PDF) complete with images, descriptions, flowering times, and distribution maps. There's also a short guide (PDF) for how to take the most helpful photographs for the project.


Online work: We have over 10,000 herbarium orchid specimens from around the UK, stretching back over three centuries. In order to calculate any change in flowering times we need you to help us sort through images of our herbarium sheets and transcribe key information such as the species, location and flowering condition. This is one that can be done at home on your PC, or when out and about from a mobile device.


Pyramidal orchid.jpg

The Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) adds a splash of colour to the alkaline grasslands of high summer. Keep an eye out for it in June and July.


If you would like to get involved with the project either online, or in the field, then go to visit The orchid season runs from April until the end of September so the first species are starting to flower right now - time to get your camera out!


Mike Waller


Mike Waller is one of the new identification trainees working at the Angela Marmont Cente for UK Biodiversity. His passion lies in botany and ornithology with a particular specialism in European orchids.


In the final post in our series of blogs introducing our new trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project we meet Chloe Rose:


My name is Chloe Rose, I am 30 years old and have spent the last 10 years enjoying living by the sea in Brighton. After graduating in an Ecology and Biogeography degree I spent a year out travelling in South East Asia and New Zealand, marvelling at the wonderful flora and fauna.


Upon my return I began working for the RSPB at the South East regional office as a PA/marketing adminstrator and worked within the wildlife enquiry team. I jumped at the chance of many project opportunities throughout my 2.5 years there, such as project managing the Big Garden Bird Watch, and volunteering where I could at reserve events such as the Big Wild Sleep Out. During my time there I had the pleasure of working with a highly dedicated and passionate team who were devoted to saving nature.


Chloe Rose.jpg

ID Trainer for the Future Chloe Rose, whose background is in ecology and biogeography.


I have spent the last 8 years studying UK biodiversity, during which time I have volunteered for numerous conservation organisations, assisted in countless biological recordings and, along the way, have developed my identification and surveying technqiues. Some of the more recent work I have been involved in includes: wetland bird counts, corn bunting and nightjar surveying for the Sussex Ornithological Trust, bee walks for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, great crested newt surveys for Ecological Consultancy, and barbastelle bat monitoring as part of the National Bat Monitoring Programme.


20150423 Barbastelle bat NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_036107_IA.jpgA 1905 drawing 'from a dead bat' of a barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus) in the Museum's Picture Library.


When I saw the Identification Trainers for the Future project opportunity with the Museum, I knew that I had to give it my everything. I have found it extremely difficult to come across work since completing my degree, with huge competition and so few jobs it can be easy to become disilluisioned.


The training the Museum was offering would provide me with the perfect stepping stone into a career in UK biodiversity, giving me the skills and confidence needed. Whilst preparing for the assessment day, which involved displaying our own projects and revising for the somewhat ominous 'UK wildlife ID test', it re-confirmed my desire to work within this sector and reignited my passion for learning and developing my career.


At the end of the traineeship I want to be able to apply the skills gained into bridging the gap in species identification. So I will be trying to find in particular the more priority organisms - the ones vulnerable and which require most attention. I think it's clear to see that I am passionate about our natural world, but I also take great pleasure from passing my knowledge onto others.


I look forward to working with the Museum's Learning and Engagement team during phase 4 of the traineeship. During this time I hope to be supported in becoming better equipped in inspiring others about UK biodiversity, especially those who have lost connection with the natural world.


There were so many knowledgeable and zealous individuals on the day, I feel extremely lucky to be here, it really is a dream come true. I wish all the other candidates the best of luck with their future endeavours.


Thank you Chloe! So there you have it, you have now met all 5 of our trainees in this year's cohort. You will be hearing more from them as their traineeship advances because they will be telling you all about their progress, but for now if you would like to find out more about the traineeships, or the Identification Trainers for the Future project, visit


In our second to last post in our series introducing our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, we meet Anthony Roach. Although Anthony comes from a background in archaeology, he is a very keen amateur naturalist and science communicator, having already worked as a weekend science educator for the Museum.


My name is Anthony Roach and I am an enthusiastic and energetic amateur naturalist with a strong passion for inspiring people about the natural world. I was fascinated by material culture and prehistory and graduated as an archaeologist at the Univeristy of Reading in July 2003.


Anthony Roach.jpg

ID Trainer for the Future Anthony Roach, whose background is in archaeology and science communication.


I have spent the last 9 years in the handling, documentation, interpretation and advocacy of natural science collections (entomology, zoology, geology, archaeology and palaeontology) and inspiring museum audiences by delivering educational workshops and object-handling sessions at Plymouth City Museum and Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum, affectionately known as RAMM.


RAMM was awarded 'Museum of the Year 2012' after a major 4 year re-development and between 2007 and 2010 I was given the opportunity to handle, pack and move its complete natural science collections, assist in delivering natural history outreach sessions, wildlife festivals and events and contributed to a touring exhibition called 'Micro-Sensation' about the beautiful and bizarre microscopic world.


My career working with natural science collections has shown that I have a strong interest in the natural world, but in my spare time I spend much of my time observing, photographing and identifying wildlife around the city of Exeter and the Exe Estuary in my home county of Devon. I have a strong passion for all wildlife, but particularly birds and invertebrates. I am an avid and enthusiastic birdwatcher following voluntary work as Peregrine Warden with the National Trust in 2006. In 2013 I was lucky enough to travel and work in New Zealand, volunteering for The Papa and Auckland War Memorial Museums, whilst travelling to see some of the rarest birds that still survive on remote pacific islands such as the Takahe, Yellow-Eyed Penguin and Kokako.


20150421 IDTrainers Peregrine AnthonyRoach NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_005517_IA.jpg

Anthony is an enthusiastic birdwatcher following voluntary work as Peregrine Warden with the National Trust in 2006. Image: Plate 17 from John Gould's The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 1 (1873, hand coloured lithograph).


Due to my strong interest in the  Museum's collections following repeated visits to exhibitions such as Dino-Birds in 2002, Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Darwin Cenenary exhibitions in 2009, I was delighted to join the Natural History Museum as a Weekend Science Educator in 2010.


My interest in citizen science and teaching and inspiring people of all ages about wildlife has given me the chance to work with school and familiy audiences in the Museum's learning spaces and with Museum scientists on learnin projects and special events such as Dino Snores and Big Nature Day. I have really enjoyed working with fellow Science Educators in the flagship science centre 'Investigate' that allows visitors to handle and explore real natural history specimens, develop scientific literacy skills and inspire their interest in the natural world.


My proudest moment was in 2013, being asked to work alongside fellow Life and Earth sciences scientists in the Hintze Hall for the Museum's annual Science Uncovered event, where the public get the chance to meet scientists and understand the scientific research taking place at the Museum. My role was to assist the scientists and facilitate discussions with the public who were able to see incredibly rare and scientifically important specimens such as those collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.


I applied for the Identification Trainers for the Future traineeship to expand my knowledge of UK biodiversity and the mosaic of habitats that occur, and some of the main indicator species for the health of our environment. I was particularly moved as a result of the 2013 State of Nature report which showed that 60% of UK species studied had declined over recent decades and one in ten species assessed are under threat of disappearing altogether.


I wanted to do something more pro-active to help UK wildlife, inspire people of all ages through citizen science projects as well as continuing my passionate interest in museum collections. Working with staff in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) allows me to do all these thngs, as it is a place where reference collections allow people to identify what they find while the AMC runs citizen science projects, events and courses to help people learn about wildlfie, contributes valuable specimens to an ever-expanding library of life and are custodians of important botanical, entomological and zoological collections.


I love meeting new people and working in a team and so I am looking forward to the experiences that I will have to meet new people, visit new wildlife rich places around the UK and inspire others. I would like to use the skills and experience that I gain during the traineeship to improve my understanding of UK biodiversity and the role of habitat management in creating opportunities for wildlife rich landscape-scale conservation. I would like to further improve my knowledge and experience of handling, documenting and preparing specimens for museum collections, developing wildlife keys and interpretation and the critical skills and experience of surveying, identification and field recording as well as the abiltiy to assess habitats using industry recognised approaches.


Thanks Anthony! We'll be introducing the final member of the first cohort of trainees soon. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


A great icon of British geology is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. The William Smith map or 'A Delination of the strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland' brought revolutionary change to the way we think about the structure of the Earth and vastly advanced the science of geology.


As the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (1-3 May) approaches, where this giant of geology will be celebrated, the Museum's online shop takes a closer look at the man behind the map and what inspired him.



200 years old in 2015, the William Smith map changed the face of geology

Who was William Smith?

Born in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Churchill in 1769, William Smith was the son of a blacksmith. Even though he did well at school there was never any thought of him attending university due to his family's poverty.


In his thrilling book The Map that Changed the World, Simon Winchester describes Smith's early signs of promise.


He had an apparent aptitude for geometry, he could draw more than adequately, and he had a fascination for the rocks among which he lived.


Smith's diaries reveal his growing eagerness for what lay beneath the greeness of the Oxfordshire fields. It seems to have been the extraordinary colours and qualities of the rocks and minerals that surfaced that first caught his eye. Winchester says:


...he found the whiteness of chalk extraordinary, [he wondered] why there were no stones in the Churchill fields on which he could sharpen a knife or strike a spark. Notes tell how he had collected crystals of fool's gold - iron pyrites- that workmen found when draining a great pond ... he marvelled at some farmers who were using a local blue clay to colour their barn doors.


After leaving education, Smith found work as a surveyor building canals during the time of the industrial revolution. At the time of this great change, Britain needed greater resources of coal and other raw materials. In 1794 Smith started work as a surveyor and prospector on the construction of the Somerset coal canal, which would be used to transport these valuable resources and help the county to trade competitively against the Welsh mines.


The process of building the canal involved cutting into the land revealing what lay beneath for the very first time. This confirmed Smith's suspicions of being able to identify each strata by the fossils it enclosed. He needed further information, so he collected studies of other regions and fossil catalogues to build his argument.


Unlike many geologists of the time, Smith had to earn his own living. Luckily he was highly sought after as a surveyor. This gave him the chance to travel the country and continue to study the land.


Smith found further luck when the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks was introduced to his work through John Farey, whom Banks had hired to drain his land in Derbyshire. Farey explained to Banks that Smith had made two great discoveries: the ability to record the sequential order of rocks and the ability to identify those rocks by the fossils within the layer. Banks was suitably impressed and sponsored Smith's work. The map was eventually published in 1815.


The brilliance of Smith's map was also its downfall. It became a valuable resource for pilferers and plagiarists to create their own works. His own humble background and limited education became an obstacle for him being accepted amongst the learned scientific community.




Despite William Smith revolutionising the geological world, his maps were palgiarised and he ended up in a debtors prison.


John Farey, who had previously introduced Smith's work to Joseph Banks, also introduced it to George Bellas Greenough, who then used Smith's map to create his own. It was eventually published by Longman and distributed by Smith on the Strand (no relation to William Smith). Greenough knew that Smith's map was not selling well and decided to undercut him on the price of his maps.


Simon Winchester explains:


Undercutting Smith had an immmediate and devastating effct - and it coincided, almost exactly, with his committal to debtors' prison. The precise nature of cause and effect can be argued over. The coincidence of events, though, was just too cruel.



The Map that Changed the World is Simon Winchester's engaging account of the life and work of William Smith.

Why was the map so important?

William Smith became known as 'Strata' Smith after he realised the relationship between fossils and the layer of rocks that they lay in. This helped him to create the first geological map that was based on the fossils the strata contained rather than on the composition of rock.


Simon Winchester possibly gives the best explanation of the importance of this particular:

It is a map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science. It is the a document that lay the groundwork for the making of great fortunes - in oil, in iron, in coal, and in other countries in diamonds and tin and platinum and silver - that were won by explorers who used such maps. It is a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed a man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet. It is a map that had an importance, symbolic and real, for the development of one of the great fields of study - geology - which, arguably like physics and mathematics, is a field of learning and endeavour that underpins all knowledge, all understanding.

Gift ideas

Celebrate the work of William Smith with our gift range inspired by the great man. Hone your drawing skills with an artist's tin or sketch pad; read about Smith's life or display his iconic design on an eco-friendly tote bag.


William Smith map tote bag available from the Museum's online shop


The next of our new trainees to introduce themselves is Katy Potts. Katy is a keen entomologist and has volunteered with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and most recently with our own Coleoptera department before joining the traineeship programme.


I have been an amateur entomologist for the past 3 years and I am passionate about all aspects of wildlife, but particularly things with six legs. I recently graduated from Plymouth University where I studied Conservation Biology, since I graduated I have been keen to gain more knowledge in the identification of UK wildlife with particular focus on conservation. I am very interested in all aspects of wildlife but I am fascinated with insects, I find their morphology, behaviour and evolution extremely interesting.


Katy Potts.jpg

ID Trainer for the Future Katy Potts, with a drawer of coleoptera from the Museum's collection.


Over the last four years I have been involved with public engagement events with Opal and Buglife where we ran invertebrate surveys and BioBlitz projects to encourage the public to become interested in their local wildlife. I was also involved with a pollinator survey run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology that involved me surveying for hoverflies and bumblebees on Dartmoor and then identifying specimens to species level. This survey ignited my passion for identification further and I engaged in entomological and recording communities to develop my understanding.


Wildlife fascinates me, all aspects from trees, mosses and lichens to beetles and hoverflies, I find it all amazing to watch in the wild and also to learn about their ecology. The content of the traineeship enthused me as it covers core groups of UK wildlife. As I said, I have a particular interest in the six legged insects, particularly beetles.


After studying conservation at university I realised there has never been more importance for naturalists to have good biological skills, particuarly when species are under threat from habitat fragmentation and climate change. Naturalists need to have good biological skills in order to monitor and record trends in populations of wildlife, this can allow for the most optimal conservation of our wildlife. I knew I wanted to improve my identification skills after I left university so I came to the museum to volunteer in the Coleoptera department learning the basic skills in taxonomy and how to preserve biological records.


This traineeship is the next step in my path to becoming a wildlife expert. I am looking forward to engaging in the identifcation workshops and field trips where we will learn the key knowledge, principles and skills of taxonomy and biological recording. I am keen to develop my identification skills and this traineeship will equip me with the skills to begin my career as a UK wildlife scientist.


After this section of the training we can then apply this knowlege and pass it on to others by learning how to teach others about UK wildlife. This part of the traineeship can be done in a practical manner and I am particularly looking forward to fomulating my own identifcation workshops to teach others what I have learnt. I hope to engage others in the identification of insects in the UK by creating a guide to the commonly found insects by encouraging them to look around their local parks and woodlands. This should be fun and engage people with their local wildlife.


I feel inspired by this traineeship, a career in the biodiversity sector represents what I have been working towards during my degree and now as a graduate. I hope to gain a broad range of knowlege in UK wildlife identification skills, with a developing expertise in the insects. I would like to increase my skillset in biological recording both in the field and in the curation of biological records and I hope to improve my skills in science communication and public engagement, which will allow me to effectively teach others and raise awareness about natural history in the UK.


The Museum is an important resource for schools and many of the UK's future scientists, I am eager to ensure that future generations are able to identify the wildlife that is around them.


Thanks Katy! We'll be introducing the remaining 2 members of the first cohort of trainees over the next week. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


In the second post in our series introducing the new trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, meet Sally Hyslop a keen volunteer recorder who will be focussing on our Bluebells survey project in the next few weeks.


My curiosity for natural history stems from many years of study, both out in the field and academically. I studied Zoology at the University of Sheffield where I completed an undergraduate Masters degree. Volunteering, however, has always complimented my studies and I take any opportuity to learn a little more about the natural world. These experiences range from volunteering in the collections of my local museum to working with big cats in wildlife sanctuaries.

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ID Trainer for the Future Sally Hyslop, whose background is in zoology.


Since leaving university and returning to my home in Kent, I have become increasingly involved in recording and monitoring the biodiversity in my area, taking part in identification courses and surveys with orgnaisations such as Kent Wildlfie Trust, Kent Mammal Group and Plantlife. I also volunteer as a Meadow Champion for the Medway Valley Countryside Partnership, a community-focused project which aims to increase understanding and conservation of our remaining meadow habitats.


Prior to starting as a trainee at the Museum, I was Young Facilitator for the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, working alongside partner organisation The Conservation Volunteers on wildlife projects in Kent. I supported and led weekly sessions of school groups which were focused on inspiring environmental action and promoting outdoor learning. The children were always enthusiastic and inquisitive, making the challenge of explaining new ideas and concepts to them a pleasure.


Through my own amateur interest in ecology, I was able to introduce the children to basic identification, using all sorts of species encountered during the sessions as examples. Our sessions concentrated on creating new habitats in school grounds and I particularly enjoyed planting meadows with the children, an activity through which I could introduce the children to native wildflowers and their defining features. Working with school groups and at my local environment centre has given me new insight into wildlife education, which I hope will benefit my experience during the traineeship.


I look forward to developing my understainding of UK biodiversity throughout my time at the Museum, yet I am particularly excited about learning and developing creative ways to pass these skills on. I'm especially keen to start delving into the collections and it will be brilliant to have both the time and resources to improve on my identification - I also hope to use any spare moment practising scientific illustration!


Thanks Sally! We'll be introducing other members of the first cohort of trainees over the next couple of weeks. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


Welcome to our series of posts introducing our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. We start with Mike Waller, who over the coming months will be working particularly on our Orchid Observers project:


Hello! I'm Mike - a wildlife fanatic and general all round naturalist from Wolverhampton where I've been based in between my years at Aberystwyth University studying Physical Geography. I graduated with a 1st Class Honours degree in 2013 and since then I've been immersing myself in anything wildlife orientated with the long-term goal of a career in conservation. Most notably, I spent last summer working with the superb team at RSPB Ynys-hir running the visitor centre and assisting with practical conservation work on the reserve.


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ID Trainer for the Future Mike Waller, who has a keen interest in orchids.


In terms of my interests, I've always loved British wildlife in all its forms but I first specialised in birds, winning the RSPBs 'Young Birder of the Year' award aged eleven. In the depths of winter I dragged my mum to the freezing coastal plains of Norfolk and Southern Scotland for geese and waders and watched garden birds for hours on end.


From around the age of twelve I became fascinated with wildflowers and recorded every species within a three mile radius of my grandmother's house. It wasn't long before I saw my first bee orchid and instantly became fascinated with terrestrial European orchids. Over ten years I criss-crossed the country and amassed a large database of images in the pursuit of every UK species but it was the ecology of the bee orchid on which I ultimately focussed my dissertation.


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The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera). Watercolour by Arthur Harry Church, 17 June 1913.


More recently I co-founded 'The Ghost Orchid Project' - a research initiative seeking to locate extant populations of the extremely rare ghost orchid through the training of willing volunteers to identify specific indicator species and habitat types. We are currently expanding our research and hopefully will be able to use the resources of the Museum to aid our understanding of this mysterious species.


Indeed, while I am here I plan to take full advantage of the rest of the Museum, especially the frequent lectures and seminars and opportunities for networking and building bridges with experts in some of my other fields of interest. I was particularly inspired to hear that Adrian Lister - an expert in Pleistocene megafauna - works at the Museum and it is people like this that I hope to get involved with, whether with the work they are doing or simply grill them for the answers to some burning questions.


Visiting different parts of the country and finding wildlife highlighted to me the importance of biological recording but equally the paucity of recording that actually takes place. This is particularly acute for some of the more 'difficult' species groups such as mosses, flies and earthworms (to name a few). This traineeship addresses that issue directly. Identifying and recording is not only essential but exciting and I know our fantastic public can be enthused given half the chance.


Simply having the chance to be shown the intricate diversity of the species groups in the workshop phase of our programme here at the Museum will be undoubtedly fascinating. Ultimately I hope to come out of this year with the confidence and knowledge to help others to unlock their passion for UK wildlife and the subtleties of identification. We have the longest and grandest tradition of biological recording anywhere in the world and we simply cannot allow that legacy to dwindle any further.


Thanks Mike! We'll be introducing other members of the first cohort of trainees over the next couple of weeks. If you'd like to find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project, and the traineeships, visit:


While winter tasks kept most of us busy outside for the first quarter of the year, these cold months are also a good excuse to hunker down inside and look back at the previous season's species records, enter new records on our database and consolidate reports on our findings.


As mentioned in one of our early blogs biological recording is carried out - like most activities here - with the help of many volunteers (specialists as well as beginners), and naturally our own scientists, during the course of their working day. Sometimes we enlist the help of aspiring young scientists...


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Volunteer Alex Domenge has spent days entering records on the Wildlife Garden database.


Recording is carried out by observation and surveys. From mosses on walls, rocks and bare ground and the animals that inhabit these miniature forests, to the tree tops where great and blue tits may be spotted feeding on aphids and other small insects in the upper branches, as well as high flying butterflies such as the purple hairstreak that feed off honeydew.


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Purple hairstreak butterfly (Favonius quercus). It's hard to see because it spends most of its time in the upper leaf canopy feeding on honeydew.

© Jim Asher, Butterfly Conservation


Invertebrate surveys are carried out using a variety of methods including pitfall traps for ground invertebrates, malaise traps for flying insects, and light traps for nocturnal fliers.


Former Museum Lepidopterist, Martin Honey, has been trapping and recording moths since before the Wildlife Garden was created 20 years ago using a Robinson light trap. Martin has recorded an amazing number of moths since the garden was created - over 500 species! - and in the process he has taught many of us not only how to identify moths caught in the trap but also day-flying moths and leaf miners.


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6-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae) - one of our most colourful day-flying moths - breed on our chalk downland in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


As Martin explains:


'A Robinson light trap is fitted with a 125w mercury vapour lamp. The bulb emits both ultraviolet and visible light, so not only moths but also people passing on a 'moth trapping night' would see an eerie glow coming from the centre of the garden. The light attracts moths and other night-flying insects - which enter the trap via a funnel. The insects are 'caught' within the trap and settle on egg boxes that are provided within the trap.


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A light trap with net in the morning to prevent any escapees

© Sue Snell


On arrival in the morning, each egg box is gently removed and checked for insects which we either identify straight away or carefully place in a glass tube for closer examination. Once identified, the specimens are released back into the garden into dense vegetation away from predators, such as robins, which regard the whole operation with hungry interest.'


You can see a little bit about this technique in our short film from 2011 that features Martin:




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The ever opportunistic robin

© Jonathan Jackson


Other nocturnally active insects are also attracted to the light and it is another way of recording insects apart from moths



And this is just how we found an interesting species of ladybird in July last year. This was memorable for more than one reason since I had a young friend and future volunteer assisting me for that day - possibly even a future scientist...


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Anders with light trap


Anders takes up the story about  the light trap set on 25 July 2014:


'To our delight we found lots of different species of insects; moths, beetles, shield bugs and a very interesting little ladybird. It was about 5mm long, quite round, black with no dots.We put all the insects into collecting tubes, identified and recorded each one on to a sheet of special paper...


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Recording sheet


However, we could not identify all of them, so we took them into the 'cocoon' to the entomologists' offices. The man we wanted to see was sadly not there, but another nice man from Italy stepped in to help us. He knew all of the insects except for the little black beetle. Determined to discover the identity of the ladybird we showed it to everyone in the department but no one knew what it was. Finally, it was suggested that we take the specimen to a man called Roger Booth in the beetle section of the Department of Life Sciences. He looked at it and said:


"Hmm, Rhyzobius forestieri", he said thoughtfully, "very interesting". He led us across the room to another man called Max Barclay who confirmed not only that it was Rhyzobius forestieri, but that it may have been the first ladybird of its kind to have been found in the UK'.


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Anders with Rhyzobius forestieri


It was, in fact, the second Rhyzobius forestieri to be recorded in Britain. This was a very exciting find for the Wildlife Garden and also for Anders:


'I was surprised and pleased to hear this and felt a bit like a scientist myself. I'm very proud of my little ladybird and look forward to my next visit to the Museum to see her and all her little bug friends!'

Max went on to publish an article on the beetle in issue 23 of The Coleopterist journal:



Max's paper in the journal, The Coleopterist, issue 23(2), pages 81-83.



A picture of the Rhyzobius forestieri beetle found by Anders, only the second of its kind to have been recorded in Britain (photograph by Harry Taylor)


We'll bring you news of further findings - interspersed over the next few months - with other news about biodiversity in the Museum's living gallery of Wildlife and that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.


And now, our Wildlife Garden has re-opened this year for visitors and, on Saturday 11 April, we will be celebrating Spring Wildlife at a free, day long event in the Wildlife Garden, Darwin Centre and Investigate.


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Investigating pond life at last year's Spring Wildlife event


Come and join in betwen 12.00 to 17.00 and even get to hear the 'nice man from Italy' talk about butterflies in Nature Live: A date with a Butterfly at 12.30 and 14.30 in the Attenborough Studio.


We look forward to seeing you here!


Thanks to a Shackleton Scholarship Fund and the help of Falklands Conservation, we were able to spend a few days on the Falklands to do sampling of soils for microbiology analysis at sites where Falklands Conservation is currently carrying out habitat restoration pilot studies.


We spent two busy days in the Fritzroy area and Cape Pembroke. The first day, we not only got to visit various sites covered in rich Diddle-dee and grassland vegetation as well as see exposed peat and clay areas with the Habitat Restoration Officer, but also got to enjoy one of the rare hot summer days on the Falkland Islands. Our second day was apparently a lot more like a 'normal' day in February with thick clouds, rain and strong gusts of winds.                                                                              


                                                                     Tussock grass at Cape Pembroke, Falkland Islands.


                                                                              Diddle-Dee in Fitzroy, Falkland Islands.


                                                        Fieldwork with the Habitat Restoration Officer, Falklands Conservation.



                                                                               Collection of soil using a corer.



                                                                      Collection of soil for molecular analysis.


It is exactly four months today since I stood on the first floor balcony overlooking Earth Hall and watched our scientists build a dinosaur. And not just any dinosaur - the world's most complete Stegosaurus skeleton.


I helped to capture the four-hour process with a time-lapse video and a follow-up blog post, including comments from the scientists about the joys and 'butt-clenching' nervousness of assembling such an internationally significant and scientifically invaluable specimen.


Not content with being one of the handful of members of staff to witness a dinosaur build, I wanted to have a go myself. Of course, there was no way anyone was going to let me loose in the fossil collection (although I did once get to hold a piece of Dippy's original tail - but that's a cast), so I had to think of an alternative.


I found that alternative in the Museum shop and our range of assembly model dinosaur skeletons.


And so, here is my toy-sized tribute to the building of our Stegosaurus:



You can recreate your own historic dinosaur build with the Museum's assembly model Stegosaurus skeleton, or one of five other dino species, available online and pick one up in the shops on your next visit.


John Benjamin Stone, known as Benjamin, was born in Birmingham on 9 February 1838. He was the son of a local glass manufacturer and took over the business after his father's death. He was a staunch conservative and soon entered local politics, eventually serving as MP for Birmingham East from 1895 to 1909. He was knighted in 1892.


Stone was also keenly interested in anthropology and science. He was a member of many learned societies. He wanted to make a record of his life and times and so collected photographs and postcards. Then he decided to learn to take photographs for himself, employing two men full-time to develop and print his plates. Stone was one of the first photographers to switch from wet to dry plates.


This meant the plates no longer needed to be developed on the spot, as soon as they had been exposed. It made photography much easier, and the equipment lighter to carry around. Stone went on to make 26,000 photographs documenting daily life, local customs and his travels throughout the British Isles, Spain, Norway, Japan and Brazil.


Stone's interest in science means it's no surprise that he visited the Natural History Museum and photographed both the galleries and the staff.


The museum wardens - all men - are pictured outside the museum wearing smart military-style uniforms complete with peaked caps. In the nineteenth century similar uniforms were common in many large museums. Nowadays visitors to the NHM recognise the front of house staff by their purple shirts emblazoned with the museum's logo. messenger.jpg


Stone's photos show the curators and scientists dressed in frock coats and top hats as if for a smart dinner party. Today these staff are indistinguishable from the visitors except for the all-important security pass, and perhaps a white coat for laboratory work.

Meanwhile, some of the galleries are completely different, but some have hardly changed.

This is the Hintze Hall in 1907 - the statue of Darwin is in the same place now, but the elephant display has been replaced by Dippy the Diplodocus.


Here's Dippy as he appeared in the reptile gallery in 1907.


Stone reached the peak of his photographic career when he acted as official photographer for the coronation of King George V in 1911. Stone died a few years later, on 2 July 1914.


The majority of Stone's photographs are housed at the Library of Birmingham, and you can browse many of them online. His photographs are also in the collections of the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Library.


Hello! I'm Filipa, the laboratory assistant in the Microverse project. My role is to prepare all the samples that arrive from schools and community groups for DNA sequencing.


Each group collected 10 samples from three different locations, which they labelled A, B and C. I select one sample from each location and I set up my lab bench with everything I need, including micropippetes, tubes and the reagents necessary for DNA extraction.


Filipa's workbench, ready to extract DNA from the samples.


Then I label all the tubes I'm going to use with the respective sample code, so that none of the samples gets mixed up, otherwise that would lead to misleading results. Then I extract the cotton wool, where all microorganisms are, from the wooden stick with the help of a pair of forceps and I use the reagents - following a specific protocol - to extract the DNA from the microorganisms. Finally I get a tube with DNA in it!



DNA extracted from the microorganisms.


We then use this DNA to carry out a PCR (Polimerase Chain Reaction) - a process through which we are able to amplify a specific DNA region, by producing millions of copies. We chose to sequence the gene for the 16S rRNA, which is regarded to be an excellent genetic marker for microbial community biodiversity studies due to it being an essential component of the protein synthesis machinery. That will enable us to identify which microorganisms are present in the sample. We amplify each sample three times (with different DNA concentrations), plus a negative control (with no DNA) to make sure that there isn't any contamination in the reaction.



This is the machine to visualise PCR products on an agarose gel using electrophoresis.


Then we run the PCR products on an agarose gel to see whether we have amplified the right size fragment - we expect our gene (16S rRNA) to be a 300-350 base pair fragment, which we compare with the ladder on the left - and that the control sample does not show up at all. The result is something like this:


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A photograph of the PCR products after gel electrophoresis.


Everything worked! For each sample we have three bright bands in the position for 300-350 base pairs and a blank one, where we put the control.


Lets imagine that this was not the case and some things hadn't worked so well. For instance, if we didn't get a bright band from our samples it would mean that the DNA fragment wasn't amplified. In this case it would mean that an error occurred during the PCR set up and as a result we would need to repeat it.


It could also happen that we found a band in one of our negative controls, this would reveal a contamination in the PCR reagents, which are not supposed to have any DNA. To solve this, we would need to start again with brand new reagents (and be more careful!).


In the control sample, and in some of the samples with DNA, we see a short faint fragment, this is a by-product of the reaction called a primer-dimer. To remove this we do a PCR clean-up. When that is done the samples are almost ready to be sent for sequencing, and soon after we will find out what microorganisms inhabit the surfaces you've been swabbing!



Filipa Leao Sampaio, laboratory assistant.


Filipa is a laboratory assistant at the Museum, she began her career with an undergraduate degree in Biology and then a masters in Biodiversity, Genetics and Evolution in the University of Porto, in Portugal. For her dissertation she worked on a project where she studied phylogenetic relationships and patterns of genetic diversity in reptiles from the Mediterranean Basin.


Since September 2013 she has been working at the Museum carrying out molecular lab work on different projects - snake vision evolution, Antarctic soil microbial diversity and UK urban microbial diversity. Later this year she starts a PhD in London where she will receive training in different areas of environmental sciences.


Jade Lauren


It felt like Christmas was only yesterday, and yet here we are almost a quarter of the way through 2015 and heading straight into Easter. Whether you celebrate Easter or not, it is a fantastic holiday for taking a bit of time out to sit back and recharge your batteries.


Being based in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, the Museum shop attracts visitors from all round the globe, each celebrating Easter in their own unique way.




Capybara could be on your Easter menu in Colombia


In the predominately Roman catholic country, some Colombians enjoy eating exotic (to us) animals during the Easter season. Don't be surprised to find turtle egg omlettes, iguana soup, cayman or turtle stew or even capybara. These animals were often on the menu for indigenous people before the Spanish colonisation of the 15th Century.


You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's Halloween in Sweden with the children dressing up as witches and knocking on doors in the hope of sweets. It's possible that the Swedish for Easter bunny, Paskharen, somehow became Paskkarlen meaning Easter man or Easter wizard. There's another strain of thought that this tradition came from a legend that witches flew down to feast in Blokula, the Earthly meadow where the devil would hold court.



The passion flower has a special meaning for Bermudans at Easter. Image © Florilegius.


Bermudans have their own specific flower that signifies Easter for them, the passion flower. It has two sets of five identical petals, representing the disciples, but minus Judas and Peter, a double row of filaments representing the halo or crown of thorns on Jesus' head, the stamens represent the nails and wounds he sustained on the cross and the tendrils represent whips used to scourge him.


Norwegians celebrate Easter by reading crime and mystery novels or watching crime series on TV. The tradition known as Paskekkerim started in 1923 when a publisher promoted their new book on the front pages of a newspaper, and people mistook it for a real story.


Instead of the Easter bunny the Australians have opted for the Easter bilby to raise money and awareness of the threat to these endangered marsuipials. The first documented use was in 1968 by 9 year old Rose Marie Dusting who wrote a story called Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby. Also known as rabbit bandicoots, they have been threatened by the change to their environment and the increase of non-idigenous animals.

Easter at the Museum: A survival guide

The Museum first opened its doors to the public on an Easter Monday, 18 April 1881. What better way to mark the Easter holidays and the Museum's 134 years than to pay us a visit?




An original artwork of the Museum by its architect Alfred Waterhouse


School holidays are the busiest time of the year, so here's our top tips for getting the most out of your day.


  1. Get here early. Queues during the school holidays have been known to reach from 45 minutes to an hour and a half at its peak. There can also be a wait to get into the dinosaur gallery. The easiest way to beat the queues is with a ticket to one of our indoor temporary exhibitions (Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea and Widllife Photographer of the Year 2014 at the moment - see below) or via membership of the Museum.
  2. If you are anticipating that you will be part of the queue, buy a Museum guide book for adults or kids. Both include a map and in depth information about all of the galleries and permanent exhibitions. The kid's guide includes activities and games to keep your little ones entertained. Alternatively, download our Visitor app for your iOS or Android device.
  3. Don't forget that we have three fantastic temporary exhibitions open in time for the Easter weekend: Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Seas and Sensational Butterflies are the newest, with Coral Reefs just open last Friday 27 March and Sensational Butterflies due to open on Thursday 2 April. For its 50 year anniversary, Wildlife photographer of the Year will stay open until the end of August. If you can't visit the exhibition, order your copy of the Coral Reefs exhibition book here.
  4. When shopping at the Museum remember we have 6 shops to choose from, three permanent locations by Hintze Hall, the Dinosaur Gallery and the Earth Hall and a shop after each of the three temporary exhibitions.
  5. If you would like your shopping delivered to you browse the online shop, which is mobile and tablet friendly. This is especially useful for previewing framed wall prints.


Still need inspiration this Easter?

If you are looking for a permanent gift to supplement the chocolate you eat during Easter then look no further than our online shop. We have a whole host of hatching Easter eggs with a dino waiting to be discovered inside. From cute finger puppet babies to dissolving magic eggs that reveal a mini surprise dinosaur hidden within.



Dino Easter eggs have a baby dino inside that is ready to pop out and say hello.


The Museum runs an After Hours event called Crime Scene Live that in February featured micropalaeontology curator Steve Stukins.


Micropalaeontological evidence is increasingly being used to solve major crimes. Read on to find out about Steve’s involvement in Crime Scene Live, how our collections could help forensic studies and how our co-worker Haydon Bailey gathered some of the evidence that was key to convicting Soham murderer Ian Huntley.


Botanical or microfossil evidence?


The following image is of modern pollen, so could be described as botanical rather than micropalaeontological evidence.

A variety of modern pollen types similar to the ones investigated at the Crime Scene Live event.


As I mentioned in my post What is micropalaeontology?, distinguishing when something is old enough to become a fossil is difficult, particularly when some modern species are present in the fossil record. The Museum's microfossil collections contain modern species, particularly our recently acquired modern pollen and spores collection, and this collection has enormous potential as a reference for forensic investigations.


What can microfossil evidence tell us?


Because organisms that produce microfossils are present in a wide range of modern and ancient environments and can be recovered from very small samples, they can provide a lot of useful information. Mud or sand recovered from boots or clothing can show where the wearer has been and even the pollen content of cocaine can provide evidence of its origin or where it was mixed.

A scanning electron microscope image of British chalk showing nanofossils.


These details can relate a suspect to a crime scene, relate items to a suspect/victim or crime scene and prove/disprove alibis. Evidence can also show cause of death, for example, diatoms or freshwater algae present in bone marrow can indicate drowning.


Microfossil evidence helps solve the Soham murders


Haydon Bailey, who is working temporarily at the Museum on a project studying our former BP Microfossil Collection, provided some key evidence that convicted Ian Huntley of the Soham murders.


Haydon identified chalk nanofossils on and inside Huntley’s car that were common to the track leading up to the site 30 miles from Soham where the bodies had been dumped. For details about all the scientific evidence used, this article on the Science of the Soham murders is an interesting read.

Members of the public participating in Crime Scene Live activities.


Senior Micropalaeontology Curator Steve Stukins writes about Crime Scene Live at the Museum:

"This special public event gives the audience a chance to become a crime scene investigator for the evening using techniques employed by scientists here at the Museum. People are often surprised that the Museum is involved in forensic work, especially using entomology (insects), botany (plants) and anthropology (analysis of human remains). Crime Scene Live uses all of these disciplines and forms them into an engaging scenario for the visitors to get involved in.


Palynology, in most cases pollen, is used quite often in forensics. As pollen is extremely small, abundant and diverse in many environments it can be used to help determine the location of a crime and whether a victim/perpetrator has been in a particular place by understanding the specific pollen signature of the plants in an area.


Our jobs as forensic detectives in the Crime Scene Live Event were to determine where a smuggler had been killed, for how long he had been dead and the legitimacy of the protected animals he was thought to be smuggling. I’ll be giving away no more secrets about the evening, other to say that it was a great pleasure to be involved in a thoroughly enjoyable event and the feedback from the visitors was superb."


So if you fancy a bit of murder/mystery then why not come and help micropalaeontology curator Steve Stukins solve the Case of the Murdered Smuggler on 1 May or in October. Details of other Crime Scene Live events scheduled for this year can be found here.