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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Illustration Copyright: Sally Hyslop.

 

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

 

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

 

Jade Lauren

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

TrowelBlazing women

 

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#TrowelToon by Jemima Williams for the TrowelBlazers website.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

#RealFossilHunter

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Advances in DNA sequencing technology are occurring at an incredible speed and Kevin Hopkins is one of the Museum's Next Generation Sequencing Specialists working with the sequencing technologies used at the Museum to produce relevant data for our Microverse research.

 

"The challenge is being able to bring together the technology, often developed in biomedical settings, and the samples at the Museum, where limited and often damaged DNA from specimens is the only chance we have of sequencing them. My job involves designing methods that work for our unusual samples, extracting DNA and producing sequencing ready samples from it, and running our MiSeq and NextSeq next generation sequencing platforms."

 

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

 

What is DNA sequencing?

DNA sequencing is the process of reading the order of nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) in a particular strand of DNA. Sequencing can be used for many different applications, such as defining a specific gene or a whole genome. The best way to sequence DNA is in sections; this is because there are a number of challenges to sampling the whole genome of a species in one go.

 

There is so much data within a genome that it takes an incredibly long time for any sequencing machine to process the information. In the Microverse project we are analysing short strands of DNA. At least 60 samples are loaded into the sequencer at a time and the analysis takes a total of 65 hours. If we were to analyse the whole genome rather than smaller parts, it would take a considerably greater amount of time, but luckily we don't need to do it for The Microverse project.

 

Another challenge for sequencing can be old DNA that has been degraded into very short sections, in this situation it is difficult to gain enough DNA from all the microorganism in the samples, to study the community composition. To avoid this in The Microverse project, we asked the schools to return the biofilm samples in a DNA preservative to minimise the degradation of the DNA.

Lab work

When Kevin receives the samples from Anne, the lead researcher on the project, he performs two quality control checks before loading them into the DNA sequencer: these are the concentration of the samples and the average DNA strand length. It is important to know both of these factors as they allow us to estimate the number of DNA fragments that are in each sample.

 

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We are using the Illumina MiSeq machine to sequence The Microverse samples.

 

The equipment that Kevin uses to sequence DNA is an Illumina MiSeq which can sequence up to 75,000 samples per year. Having equipment like this allows scientists at the Museum to carry out research such as looking at plant DNA to reveal the history of their evolution in relation to climate change, and using molecular work to benefit human health by understanding tropical diseases such as leishmaniasis, as well as exploring microbial diversity in soil, lakes and oceans.

 

During DNA sequencing the DNA double helix comprising two strands of DNA is split to give single stranded DNA. This DNA is then placed into a sequencing machine alongside chemicals that cause the free nucleotides to bind to the single stranded DNA. Within this sequencing cycle when a nucleotide, which is fluorescently charged, successfully binds to its complementary nucleotide in the DNA strand (A with T and vice versa, G with C and vice versa), a fluorescent signal is emitted. The intensity and length of this fluorescent signal determines which nucleotide base is present, and is recorded by the sequencing machine. The sequencer can read millions of strands at the same time.

 

Why is this important?

 

DNA sequencing is vitally important because it allows scientists to distinguish one species from another and determine how different organisms are related to each other. In the Microverse project we are using the sequencer to identify the taxonomic groups of the microorganisms in the samples that you have sent to the Museum.

 

Katy Potts

 

Katy Potts is one of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future programme, who is based at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. Alongside her work on the Microverse project she is developing her skills in insect identification, particularly Coleoptera (beetles).

 

If you are taking part in the Microverse project the deadline for sending us your samples is Fri 29 May.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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A stranded Cuvier's beaked whale.

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

 

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

 

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Common dolphin found stranded in Burnham-on-Sea.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

How you can get involved

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jade Lauren

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

 

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

 

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

 

Contact Lil Stevens for details

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.

 

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

 

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Woodland glade in 2003.

 

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

 

Museum Botanist, Fred Rumsey explains some interbreeding:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

© Naomi Lake

 

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

 

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More bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.

 

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

 

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

 

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

© Peter Buckley

 

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

© Peter Buckley

 

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

 

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

 

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Our male fox relaxing in the Wildlife Garden.

© Daniel Osborne

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Last month a new temporary display featuring some of our foraminiferal specimens and models was placed in the Museum gallery. This features real microfossils on one of our foraminiferal Christmas card slides alongside 20 scale models, part of a set of 120 models generously donated to us last year by Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi.

 

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Senior Microfossil Curator Steve Stukins admiring some of the specimens and models on display and thinking "this is a much better place for them than the Curator of Micropalaeontology's office!"

 

As a curator dealing with items generally a millimetre or less in size I have not often been involved in developing exhibits other than to provide images or scale models like the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Displaying magnified models is one of the best ways to show the relevance of some of the smallest specimens in the Museum collection, the beauty and composition of foraminifera and to highlight our unseen collections.

 

This display features one of our most treasured items, a slide with microscopic foraminifera arranged in patterns to spell out the words 'XMAS 1912'.

 

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A festive slide of foraminifera created by Arthur Earland.

 

This was created by Arthur Earland for his long time collaborator Edward Heron-Allen. A previous blog tells of the sad end to the relationship between these two early 20th Century foraminiferal experts, a story that featured in the Independent under the heading 'shell loving scientists torn apart by mystery woman'.

 

The slide itself is amazingly beautiful under the microscope and a close up view (see above) is shown on the back board of the exhibit. The naked eye can show the arrangement of the specimens on the slide but cannot really pick out the beauty of the foraminifera. I was at a collections management conference about a year ago where it was suggested that the public feel duped by seeing models rather than real specimens on display. In this instance, the scale models serve to show the beauty as well as to enhance the relevance of the real specimens on display.

 

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Foraminiferal models by Alcide d'Orbigny that also feature in the display.

 

French scientist d'Orbigny (1802-1857) was the first to recognise that creating models was a good way to show his studies on the foraminifera. These models were created to illustrate the first classification of the foraminifera, a group that at the time were classified as molluscs.

 

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A selection of Zheng Shouyi's models of foraminifera.


Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi was inspired by d'Orbigny to create models of foraminifera to illustrate her work and to show the beauty of the Foraminifera. Of the 120 models she donated to us in 2014, 20 have been carefully selected for this exhibit. The selection shows a variety of different wall structures, a range of shapes, species for which we have the type specimen as well as some species of planktonic foraminifera relevant to current research at the Museum. Zheng Shouyi is also famous for encouraging and overseeing the production of the world's first foraminiferal sculpture park in Zhongshan, China.

 

If you are able to pop into the Museum, please come and see this free display. It is situated just after the exit from the dinosaur exhibition on the opposite wall to the dino shop. We can't promise any giant scuptures but I'm sure that you'll agree that these models certainly illustrate the beauty and help to explain the relevance of some of the smallest specimens hidden behind the scenes at the Museum.

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

 

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

 

Amazing baby facts

Here's our favourite things about newborns.

They learn words while still in the womb.

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

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

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

 

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Baby T-shirts for your tiny terror.

 

They have incredibly strong reflexes

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

They cry in your accent

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

 

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

 

They can't produce tears

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

They have more tastebuds than you.

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

 

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

 

They're born with a fully developed inner ear.

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

One baby is born every eight seconds.

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

Personalised gifts

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 


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

 

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


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


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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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Beetah all set on her mounting board.


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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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


Terms Badly Explained


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

 


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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks for reading.

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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!).

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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)

 

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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).

 

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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).

 

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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).

 

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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)!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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).

 

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Figure 13. Laphria flava male.

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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.

 

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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, www.orchidobservers.org. 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.

 

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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.

 

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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 www.orchidobservers.org. 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.

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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.

 

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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 www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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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.

 

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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.

Debt

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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

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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.

 

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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: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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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: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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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: www.nhm.ac.uk/idtrainers

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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:

 

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

 

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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!

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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.                                                                              

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                                                                     Tussock grass at Cape Pembroke, Falkland Islands.


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                                                                              Diddle-Dee in Fitzroy, Falkland Islands.


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                                                        Fieldwork with the Habitat Restoration Officer, Falklands Conservation.

 

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                                                                               Collection of soil using a corer.

 

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                                                                      Collection of soil for molecular analysis.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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

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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.

Colombia

 

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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.

Sweden

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.

Bermuda

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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.

Norway

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.

Australia

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?

 

 

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Here is the final installment of Dave's account of the fieldtrip to Peru. I have to say that it has been really interesting reading his musings on the trip. All of the things that we take for normal - the weird looks, the entertaining facilities, the near-death experiences, the discovery of new species - seen through new eyes has been a pleasure. So for the last time, over to Dave:

 

Out of the frying pan and back along the mighty Marañon and up, following a tributary that irrigates lush orchards - very much the oasis in the desert. Bursting through the tops of the orange trees, and we were climbing again, up the other side of the valley. Not having to drive I could enjoy the views of where we'd come from, and the ribbon of green where the little river had ploughed a green furrow in the dusty gorge.

 

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Enjoying the views.

 

Sandy's keen eye spotted something clinging to a cliff and we stopped smartly. A single specimen of Nicotiniana glutinosa clinging lonesomely to a roadside crag. This variant of nightshade is a species of tobacco, as the name suggests, and is important as a "model organism" as it's resistant to the the tobacco mosaic virus. Useful therefore to the tobacco industry (so possibly best to leave it alone).

 

But there's no stopping the Sweep Sisters, who were already unpacked and sampling the area. The plant itself was out of reach to safely take a sweep at it, but there was no escape from The Mac, who began her assault with the hoover. She was just able to reach the tiny yellow-flowered specimen to get a suction sample. How unlucky was the fly that, of all the plants available, chose to alight on this lonely specimen that morning.

 

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that it was quite convenient for us that Solanaceae tend to colonise disturbed ground readily, as on our numerous stops we were often able to park the car and sample the area without having to hike too far into the brush.

 

Unfortunate invertebrates stashed once more, on we went. Higher, greener... greyer the skies. The prospect of rain? The road narrower still, and presently there came a tight right-hand corner, a loop where the high cliff was divided by one of the many deep, overgrown ravines where streams sliced the steep mountainsides. We stopped at Sandy's direction and wandered into the bush. So much lusher at this altitude, and to my untrained eye must be a much better prospect for mini-critters.

 

Sandy had also been employing me these past days in "DNA" duties, which consisted of picking the fruits from various solanaceae and carefully extracting the seeds for use by boffins back in London, which I did here to the best of my abilities.

 

Meanwhile, Sandy showed me a sapling - a young Solenum albidum - that to me looked a bit like a rubber plant, with its huge succulent dark-green leaves. The species grows well at mid-elevations (1,000m plus or so) round these parts. Sandy then showed me the adult plant nearby. Frankly, if this had been a human specimen I'd have suspected mummy had been a bit friendly with the milkman: the parent looked nothing like its offspring; this was a small, woody tree with small, veined, oak-shaped leaves. Sandy couldn't understand my surprise at the difference. But I suppose I have come to expect such metamorphoses in certain pupating insects - why not plants?

 

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Sandy pointing out some interesting species.

 

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Evelyn's arachnids.

 

Evelyn turned out her net to reveal two colourful-looking arachnids of respectable size.

 

Back in London the first was identified by Museum spiderwoman Jan Beccaloni as an orb-weaver, but the other remains tantalisingly unidentified many months later:

 

"That's a very interesting spider!" says Beccaloni. "It's in the family Nephilidae and most closely resembles the genus Clitaetra (one of only 4 genera), but it isn't one of the 6 species in that genus - given that they are from Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. I don't suppose you collected it did you?"

 

We didn't - as far as we know. Perhaps Evelyn did and it is preserved in Peru rather than in Blighty. What if it was a new species? Perhaps a target for the next trip.

 

Erica was well pleased in any case with her catch, which revealed plenty of interesting new pipunculids (literally "big-headed flies"). They like hanging around plants, laying eggs in other flies (useful in pest control) and the adults dine on honeydew (like Kubla Khan). Their bulbous "holoptic" eyes take up their whole heads: they look ridiculous and frankly should be ashamed of themselves. Because of the sheer weight of their eyeballs, pipunculids have to fly head-down-tail up, like a flying exclamation mark.

 

Now it began to rain. It was extraordinary how quick the weather had changed with elevation: an hour ago we were in a dustbowl. We headed upwards as the chasms to our right yawned at us anew. Erica was on the left-hand side of the vehicle so mercifully couldn't see the juicy drops we were narrowly avoiding. As we emerged into sun-dappled uplands and mist again, we came upon a tiny, adobe and-tin-roofed cafe with a rickety balcony overlooking the valleys, where we sat out the showers and had lunch. But it turned out the day's sampling was done. By 2pm! Turns out the insects don't like the rain either.

 

We still had a ways to go, but we were able wind along the tricky bends at a relaxed pace. Erica became relatively comfortable with the precipitous drops, and we were able to plan possible sampling sites the next day. I was just enjoying the views. We breached a pass in the Cordillera de Calla Calla at 3,600m. Sandy says the pass is so named because, before the road was built, "calla calla" is what locals, carts laden with booty for the market in Celendin, would call out before turning the narrow blind bends.

 

…..

 

I now see I was playing a bit fast and loose with the task of record-keeper. I remember fondly my Dad once recounting how he and his school mates would wind up the science teacher by recording the effects of experiments in florid prose: "the aluminium lit up like brimstone, its fiery refulgence white-hot" and so on.

 

My notes, too, were drifting into the arena of the unscientific. Under the "conditions" column it reads: "sun and stratocumulus; v warm; humid, but stiff breeze; like a tart's hairdryer". Elsewhere I seem to dabble with amateur meteorology: "Hot and sunny; but some shade. Good-natured cumulus flit across the sky heading west at about 3,800m asl." "Overcast, dull, but now warm (20C+) stratus dominates. All is grey. It is like Mordor. There is a little offshore breeze."

 

Under the column method of collection, "suction" evolves into "suck", "sucking", "sucky", "socktions" and even "suctionez". I'd thought no harm could come of this, thinking it was for Erica's eyes only.  But apparently it was given to a record keeper at the Museum who wrote it all down verbatim.

 

It was my way of amusing myself in the evenings while I copied my handwritten notes into spreadsheets. What I haven't mentioned yet, scandalously, is that every evening after a day of driving and sampling we unpacked the van and that was when the real work started. Every night I did the spreadsheets, while Sandy erected her plant drier and stared sorting her haul, carefully arranging the samples and layering them in paper sheets ready to dry the sample overnight. Erica and Evelyn sorted through the numerous bags and 'kill jars' from the day's sampling, emptying each one separately on to plastic trays, the thousands upon thousands of insects in each tray then to be sorted that night and either pinned individually with microscopic pins or preserved carefully in alcohol, noting species, date, time, location in lat/longitude, then slotted carefully into little polystyrene boxes, ready for the next day.

 

This red-eyed ritual happened every night before and after dinner till about 11.30pm, sometimes later. At around 6.30am the next morning, we would repack everything into the van (my job chiefly), Sandy having been up for an hour or so already, dismantling the plant drier and packing her samples with scrupulous care. All to be loaded into other boxes for transport eventually to the UK where the real work of identification, classification, labelling and record-keeping begins. And that's just the start - when the real science starts and the project begins to bear fruit. Erica and Sandy can tell you about that in various sober academic journals, I should wager.

 

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Work continues into the evening...


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Sandy packing samples with great care.


We arrived in Leymebamba in the late afternoon.  It is a quiet and friendly country village with a tiny well-kept plaza de armas, with narrow streets leading off, lined with with adobe-brick houses with renaissance-style balconies and big weathered wooden shutters. And a lovely stone church. It had a contended feel.

 

We found a little guesthouse up a side street. It knocked all the others we'd stayed at into a cocked fedora. The accommodation we'd been staying at, taxpayers, was more than comfortable, and very cheap - about $10 a night. This was only marginally more expensive, and not what you'd call luxury,  but the rooms were more modern - clean, and with the benefit of warm water. The hostel centred round a carefully tended courtyard stuffed with pot plants and rustic local knick-knacks. In one corner a pair of hummingbirds sucked nectar from a feeder. I kid you not. The upstairs balcony opened on to an idyllic view of the higgledy-piggledy red-clay rooftops, with the Andes tumbling into the distance beyond.

 

Someone very clever decided we should stay two nights this time and use Leymebamba as a base to strike out, and I didn't complain. I could have stayed there for a week or more.

 

This would be useful as a base to discover more sampling areas in a comparatively verdant habitat. We had in any case realised that we were now about as far east as we were going to get in the time available, and any further progress would have to be north and then westward to the coast again, on rather faster roads, to complete the 700-mile loop out of the Andes - the journey overall being about 1500 miles in all.

 

But I can't recount that here. I have to cut this short or I'll be here all year... oh wait: I have been already. Such is the curse of the day job, which I am sure you will now be hoping I'll stick to.

 

But in the days that followed if there was less in the way of climbing, offroading and hair-raising cliffhugging, there was no less incident. I got behind the wheel again, so of course the driving got better (...) My notes got worse if anything. There's a lot more to tell in a separate blog, which I'll share later elsewhere. If people are nice. It shall tell of exploding hotwater tanks, ancient ruins and getting caught in landslips. There may be mention of waterfalls, crooked cops, giant wasps, pelicans and bandits. And I lost my special stick.

 

Erica and Sandy are planning their final trip for the project (with an extra botanist as driver this time). Meanwhile, Erica and her team at the Museum are still going through the samples we took on our trip nine months later. Now I know what they're doing over there I see it's worth every penny. Their dedication and expertise impressed me endlessly.

 

If I had to take away one thing from the trip it would be that how astonishingly common it was for the scientists to identify new types of both plant and animal. As Erica says: "It's so nice you get to experience this. Every time I look down a microscope of my foreign material I know that realistically, I have new species. Right now in my study I have new species. God it rocks!"

 

That's under a trained eye: how often must inexperienced eyes come across new species without knowing it? It hammered home the fact that there must be species we haven't even seen yet becoming extinct through human activity every day. The work of Sandy and Erica and others at the Museum is just a small part of the important work being done to prevent this.

 

I count myself fortunate indeed that I was invited to take part in this trip with such distinguished scientists for the world's best natural history museum (and humbled that they entrusted me with their wellbeing on roads like those). Also, thanks to Erica for allowing me to hijack her blog for the best part of a year. But that's quite enough from me. Sorry it took so long. But don't blame me - I'm just the driver.

 

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The highlights of creating and using a wildlife sound collection: reflections on a seminar by Margaret Cawsey, Curator of Data, Australian Wildlife Collection, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences on 3 July 2014. 

 

By Joanna Benedict, Learning Programme Developer at the Natural History Museum.

 

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Margaret Cawsey speaking at the Sounds of Australia seminar Alex Drew is shown working on the sound archive.

 

On 3 July 2014 Margaret Cawsey shared her experience in managing the sound collection from the Sound Archive at the Australian Nationals Wildlife Collection (ANWC).

 

Margaret is passionate about organising data and making it accessible for researchers, museum professionals and others interested in finding out about the sounds of Australian birds. She presents a case for why it is important to make the sounds collection accessible and the challenges involved. 

What is a sound archive?

 

 

Some of the digital formatted sounds can be accessed online via the Atlas of Living Australia website.The taxonomical data and geographical data of these bird species are available from the database on the Online Zoological Collections of Australian Museum (OZCAM).

 

Apparently, the ANWC is the only organisation in the Australian museum community to make bird sound files available through the Atlas of Living Australia.

Why collect bird noises?

During the seminar, Margaret played the sounds from the Grey butcherbird and the Pied butcherbird to demonstrate that the sounds from the two similar species are different. This gives researchers the opportunity to use sounds to differentiate the two birds from the same family.

 

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Grey butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) © Ejdzej. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

 

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Pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) © Michael Schmid. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Researchers can use the data to analyse the function of bird sounds in:

•          mating

•          giving out warning signs

•          protecting their young

•          communicating with each other

 

One study of the sounds from the Moonwalking birds found that the sounds were from the flapping of their wings. This information alone is valuable to further the understanding of the science of wing motion and the unique physicality of the species.

Challenges and questions

There is a high volume of analogue sound recordings, some of which are slowly degrading. This poses a real challenge for Margaret and her team. Converting analogue data to digital data requires many hours of laborious work.

 

Margaret explains that one physical container of sounds such as a tape or a reel can generate multiples of bird sound files and metadata. Sometimes the metadata for those bird species may also be stored elsewhere on letters and notes. It demands a lot of attention to detail to ensure that the sound files and metadata are named, matched and stored correctly on the Excel spread sheet which feed into the ANWC and the OZCAM database.

 

The seminar discussed some interesting questions:

 

•          How accessible is the collection of sounds in Museums compared to other cultural organisations?

•          How useful are the sound files versus the cost of digitalising the files?

•          What are the intrinsic values of the bird sounds to further the understanding of bird research?

•          Does the quality of the sounds matter or it is just a matter of getting the sounds available to the public?

 

These issues remain to be conclusively dealt with, but the ANWC will continue to work towards the answers as it develops a sustainable approach to the prioritisation of curation of sounds for research.

 

Margaret is determined to make the collection as accessible as possible to benefit the researchers who can reveal the value of the data. Margaret feels that the intrinsic value of bird sounds lie in being occurrence records as well as providing sounds for the analysis of species distributions and studies of speciation. As occurrence records, the quality of the sound is unimportant as long as it is identifiable and adequate to future analysis.

What’s next?

Margaret welcomes more collaborative work to share knowledge, including the strategic use of volunteers to convert the analogue files and assist with identification of species and collection of metadata, and more funding to recruit staff to locate, identify and curate valuable multimedia collection objects.

 

In reality, it will take more than 100 years to digitise the analogue data and curate the metadata due to lack of human resources. It is undeniable that there is real value in making the sound collection accessible; however curating and digitalising sound collection remain low in Museums’ work priority as most museums already struggle to find resources to convert their specimen collection to image files.

Despite this, museums professionals can at least start a conversation to discuss the potential in their sound collection and to develop a plan with a vision where the public get to hear those less heard sounds from nature.

 

Do you have a sound collection?

What is your vision for the collection?

What does your sound collection sounds like?

 

Share your thoughts and let us hear your sounds get in touch with Margaret Cawsey here

 

Read more about the Natural History Museum’s Collection Seminars Series.

 

With thanks to Margaret Cawsey.

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Welcome to the first blog post for the Museums Identification Trainers for the Future project! This exciting new project centers around 15 work-based traineeship positions that will be hosted at the Museum and has been designed to address the growing skills gap in species identification in the UK. We will be doing this by targeting species groups where there is a lack, or loss, of ID skills in biological recording.

 

Our first group of trainees started with us this month, having come through a very competitive selection process, and were selected from over 400 applications. Choosing our first cohort has meant we have had to make some difficult decisions: certainly by the standard of the 25 we invited to selection day back in January, there are some very capable and enthusiastic people out there, with everyone who came along performing extremely well. Hopefully that, of course, means great things for UK biodiversity and biological recording!

 

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/resources/natureplus/images/life-sciences/id-trainers/Our-first-cohort-of-trainees.jpg

Our first trainees taking part in the Identification Trainers for the Future project

L-R Sally Hyslop, Michael Waller, Katy Potts, Anthony Roach and Chloe Rose

 

Sally, Katy, Michael, Chloe and Anthony will be introducing themselves in their own blog posts which will appear here over the next few weeks, so I will save mentioning more about their backgrounds here. They have a very busy year in front of them getting involved in our work in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity as well as working with our specialist curation teams and helping out at Field Studies Council centres across the country.

 

They will be building their own species identification skills through a wide range of workshops, field visits and private study and later on we will be looking at building their communication and teaching skills so they can pass on to others what they have learnt, which is the priniciple purpose of our new project. In the mean time they will also be out and about at various Museum events throughout the year, and we will be reporting back on those too as soon as we can.

 

For now that leaves me only needing to say a big welcome to all our trainees, I look forward to working with you over the next 12 months!

 

Steph West

Project Manager - Identification Trainers for the Future

 

The ID Trainers for the Future project is sponsored through the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme and is supported by the Field Studies Council and National Biodiversity Network Trust.

 

For more information, see our website

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Last year the online shop integrated prints on demand into our new website, making it easier for you to order a print and any other product at the same time. After listening to initial feedback we are relaunching our prints online with some additional features.

 

When selecting your frame you will now be able to see how it will look surrounding your image, allowing you to decide the best way to showcase your chosen work.

 

POD BLOG BLACK.jpgLeopard stare, photographed by Luke Marazzi, in a black frame.

 

POD BLOG NATURAL.jpgBut does a natural frame look better?

 

All prints - whether they are rolled or framed - arrive with a white border, which has previously been included in the measurements of the print. After your feedback you will now be able to see the size of the image alone, in addition to the size of the print.

 

POD actual image.jpgActual image size is shown at the bottom of your options.

 

Remember that all of our framed images come ready to hang. Read more about your prints including the specialist printing process, bespoke handmade frames and recommended hanging guides here.

The Choice is Yours

But which print is right for you? With over 500 images the choice can be overwhelming. With that in mind let's take a look at our top five bestsellers since the integration and see which key trends you are picking up on.

 

1) Golden birch

 

Golden_birch.jpg

Photographed by Herfried Marek, Golden birch is our most popular image.

 

This has been, by far, your favourite image. With such vibrant greens and yellows shining through a stark white surface, it's almost hard to believe that this is a photograph. It's easy to see why so many of you love it.

 

2) Magic mountain

 

Magic_mountain.jpg

Magic mountain photographed by David Clapp.

 

Any image featuring the northern lights is always popular. Not surprising when you see the range and depth of colour some of our photographers manage to capture. The ethereal glow of Magic mountain has found its way into many of your homes.

 

3) The mouse, the moon and the mosquito

 

The_mouse_the_moon_and_the_mosquito.jpgThe mouse, the moon and the mosquito photographed by Alex Badyeav.

 

The deep violet and pink of the Western Montana night sky has been another firm favourite amongst you. The perfect piece of wall art to create an atmospheric setting in your home.

 

4) The greeting.

 

The_greeting.jpgThe greeting photographed by Richard Packwood.

 

The greeting is the most popular print that doesn't feature in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. It was actually entered into last year's competition where it came first in the Nature Black and White category.

 

5) Snow stand

 

Snow_stand.jpgSnow stand photographed by Silvio Tavolaro.

 

Snow on trees has been a big feature this year. This snowy forest scene caught Silvio's eye on his drive home through the heart of Italy. The monochrome contrast crisp white snow against the dark bark underneath made this image a real-life black and white photograph.

 

We can see from your top five that there are two themes you are raving over.

 

  1. Stark white images that highlight other colours shining through.
  2. Dark, yet 'glowing' colours that give an ethereal yet atmospheric feel.

 

But there's plenty more to choose from if you want to buck the trend. Each printed to a Museum shop finish on a choice of paper or canvas, and then yet another choice of framed or rolled. Our prints on demand is the ultimate bespoke service.