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Nine ways Museum scientists are fighting the planetary emergency

The natural world is disappearing faster than ever before, and we are already experiencing the effects. A shortage of natural resources and global warming are just some of them.

Humans have caused this crisis and we must act to solve it. We are now facing a planetary emergency.

Discover what the Museum’s curators and researchers are doing to reverse the damage.

A group of pitcher plants

The carnivorous pitcher plant attracts insects with nectar-secreting glands and drowns them in digestive liquid

1. Conserving the Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest reduces the effects of climate change by absorbing vast amounts of carbon, so it is vital that we study and protect it for future generations.

For the first time ever, all known plant species growing in the Amazon have been listed, thanks to scientists at the Museum.

Listing the species correctly underpins all future studies on the rainforest's ecology and evolution. It also helps with conservation work such as understanding the effects of climate change on ecosystems.

Plant specimens from the Museum's collection were used to verify data and revise the list.

The published research revealed that there are 14,003 species in the Amazon, of which 6,727 are trees. It also suggested that some previous studies overestimated the numbers.

The information is also being digitised, with georeferencing, to become globally accessible. This helps facilitate new studies on a local and international scale, saving time, money and resources.

A yellow moth rests on a mossy surface

The Darwin Tree of Life was launched in 2019 and data on some specimens, such as the broad-bordered yellow underwing moth, have already been released online

2. Understanding UK biodiversity

There are approximately 66,000 known species in the UK. Between them, they offer a multitude of fascinating characteristics which can help us preserve nature for the future.

The Darwin Tree of Life Project is a 10-year project which will sequence the genomes of all species in the UK.

The research will allow scientists to understand how species have changed over time, offer new ways of treating diseases and possibly help us adapt to climate change.

Fresh specimens of animals, plants, fungi and protists are being used, in addition to the Museum's collections.

The research, which will be available to the public, feeds into a larger, more ambitious undertaking called the Earth Biogenome Project. This project aims to map the genomes of all 1.5 million species known to exist on Earth, as well as discover the remaining unknown species.

A mangrove forest behind a lake

Mangroves are one of the best habitats in the world for carbon storage - they slow down climate change and protect shores against wave damage. But they are being destroyed due to expanding shrimp farms.

3. Predicting biodiversity trends

High levels of biodiversity keep ecosystems running effectively and provide us with valuable natural resources. Recording the state of nature is the first step in conservation.

The world's largest data set on biodiversity has been created after years of research.

The online database gathered research from scientists all over the world, paving the way for an assessment on global biodiversity.

The results show biodiversity is being lost at shocking rates. Two thirds of water surfaces have been changed due to overfishing and pollution, and more than 70% of land has been altered through industrial agriculture. Coral reefs are set to disappear completely by the end of the century.

Among its many uses, the data enables predictions of future scenarios. If we continue as we are, we will cause irreparable destruction to the environment. If we shift towards a more sustainable way of living, we will be better off environmentally, economically and financially.

The open-access report will be used as evidence for intergovernmental negotiations and replace the Aichi Biodiversity Targets this year.

A brown bird floats on blue water

Birds with plastic inside them had shorter wings, high cholesterol and low dissolved calcium

4. Saving birds that have eaten plastic

Once plastic gets into the marine ecosystem, it can easily spread across the globe. Research in how plastic impacts birds is crucial to finding out how we can limit some of the damage.

Flesh-footed shearwaters are medium-sized birds native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Scientists have found that around 90% of these birds have been eating plastic and feeding it to their young.

The plastic had travelled thousands of miles through the ocean and washed ashore on the birds' breeding ground. It was having detrimental impacts on the animals, such as changing the chemistry of their blood.

The research highlights the true extent of plastic pollution and gives some insight into the damage caused to birds.

Combined with other research, scientists can understand how plastic pollution impacts wildlife, what this means for ecosystems and how we may be able to manage some of the consequences.

Fish swim away from a coral reef

Corals are made up of thousands of tiny, soft-bodied animals called polyps. Most polyps have an algae inside them which produces oxygen and other organic products needed for the polyp to grow. In exchange, the algae uses the polyp's waste products for photosynthesis.

5. Figuring out the future of corals

The Coral Triangle is home to 30% of the world's reefs. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, it is still thriving despite climate change. To understand how this is possible, we need to know its history.

The Coral Triangle consists of dark, muddy water which also sustains a large human population of 250 million. This environment is not typically associated with coral reefs, but this is where they are flourishing.

In order to understand coral reefs, scientists need to know its history. They have learned that the Coral Triangle was as diverse 20 million years ago as it is now, based on fossils from eastern Borneo.

Finding out why the area has continued to support a huge variety of animals and plants for so long can help save other coral reefs from changing conditions and warming ocean temperatures.

A brown coloured rock with many grooves

Polymetallic nodules cover vast areas of the sea floor and grow at an excruciatingly slow rate of about 1cm over a million years

6. Exploring the deep sea

The deep sea is rich in organisms and resources but remains a mystery because it's so remote. It is increasingly being targeted for mining, which could have severe impacts on the wildlife that lives there.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is an abyssal plain that spans 4.5 million square kilometres between Hawaii and Mexico.

It is home to trillions of rock concretions called polymetallic nodules, which contain valuable minerals such as nickel, manganese and cobalt.

Mining the area is an attractive prospect; however, it could do untold damage to marine life - many of which are unknown.

Scientists at the Museum are exploring the deep sea to learn about these organisms and their habitat. During a recent diving expedition, they discovered several new species and many wildlife rarely seen by humans.

The research aims to learn about the wildlife that resides in the CCZ and whether conservation efforts to protect the area is robust enough to withstand mining impacts.

A group of penguins walking through snow

Research on cyanobacteria will help us understand the overall biodiversity of Antarctica

7. Protecting polar life

Antarctica is one the most extreme places on Earth, where bacteria is often the only form of life for hundreds of miles. Studying these organisms is key to understanding how the rest of the planet thrives.

Cyanobacteria, a unique organism also known as blue-green algae, thrives just about anywhere with access to sunlight. It represents one of the earliest forms of life on Earth, having contributed most of the oxygen to the early atmosphere.

Scientists are researching how cyanobacteria currently survives on Antarctica. This will shed light on how life started and evolved, and what its limits are.

The research has already influenced the conservation of some parts of Antarctica, for further scientific study and to protect it from human threats.

The research may also be used for other areas of science, such as how we can grow crops more effectively or find life in space.

As climate change alters the polar landscape, it is vital we study the tiny organisms now.

Local people wash copper ores in a mining site

Cobalt is mostly mined in Congo, but it is present in many other places too, including the UK and Europe © Fairphone/Flickr (CC BY NC-SA)

8. Monitoring mining

The UK has pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. A large part of achieving that lies in switching to electric cars.

Electric cars rely on metals such as cobalt for their batteries and construction. Cobalt is acquired through mining, but its amount is limited and difficult to obtain.

Scientists are helping to develop sustainable ways of locating, extracting and reusing the metal. This includes using natural bacteria to help with environmentally friendly extraction, and recovering cobalt from spent batteries to avoid waste.

Scientists are also looking at acquiring cobalt and other metals locally. There is a chance of obtaining at least 30% of cobalt from within Europe, allowing us to both ensure it is ethically sourced and have control over our carbon footprint.

Sandy fossil of a fish

Fossil records show animals shrank in body size just before past global warming and mass extinction events. Scientists predict that this will happen again. © Thomas Bresson/wiki (CC BY 2.0)

9. Studying the past

Our planet has already experienced mass extinctions, global warming and ocean acidification. It is therefore vital that we learn the past to predict and protect the future.

Scientists are studying how ancient ecosystems, particularly marine animals, responded to major environmental changes in the past.

Specimens from the Museum's collections were used to understand and predict our response to current climate change.

The research is supporting a global scientific community by helping marine biologists and other scientists become more conscious of deep-time records, changing how we understand Earth's history and how we tackle problems affecting animals and ecosystems.

Past records are vital for measuring the true scale of the environmental crisis we are living in.