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Paul Barrett is the 2011 recipient of the Bicentenary Medal of the Linnean Society, an organisation that promotes all branches of natural history, including botany and zoology.


Paul does research on dinosaurs but is also heavily involved in working with public audiences through exhibitions, media and other routes.




The medal is awarded annually in recognition of work done by a biologist under the age of 40 years, and it was first awarded in 1978 on the 200th anniversary of the death of Carl Linnaeus. The award was presented at the Linnean Society anniversary meeting in Burlington House, London, in May.


Collection Management Seminar As part of the Annual NHM Integrated Pest Management Awareness Day:


Tuesday 31st May 2011, 2.30pm-4.00pm Flett Lecture Theatre


by Armando Mendez, IPM Coordinator and Clare Valentine, Head of Collections for Zoology (and IPM Group Rep.), Natural History Museum, London.

Pests are widely recognised as one of the major risks to museum collections, yet many of the chemical methods which have been successfully used in the past to control them are now known to be hazards in their own right and can no longer be used. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) looks instead at the whole organisation of a museum, its staff, geography, building fabric, and how appropriate training and planning can reduce the pest risk.  Staff at the NHM have made IPM an integral part of their working lives through our policies and procedures. This seminar will review the latest initiatives the IPM Group has implemented and the plans for our new Quarantine facility which is being built this year will be highlighted.

Colleagues from other institutions welcome. For more information and contact details see


Tea and coffee will be available in the Flett lobby after the talk.


How do new species form?  One key process is by genetic divergence following geographical isolation – allopatric speciation.  This can happen when different populations of a single species are separated, cease to have contact over time and no longer interbreed.  This separation, divergence and formation of new species will often be attributed to changes in genetic makeup as a result of adaptation to different environments or ecosystems, or simply to accumulated genetic changes - genetic drift.

When it's difficult for individuals from the population to cross geographical barriers, it's possible to explain how isolation of populations occurs, and therefore why speciation has happened. An example would be the different but related species found on islands separated from the mainland, where a few individuals managed to cross the water barrier and form a new population that eventually became a distinct new species.  Charles Darwin collected specimens of mockingbirds on the Galapagos, for example, that are related to mainland species but which have diverged from the parent population to become a separate species, living in a new and different environment.

In the sea, however, many animals have pelagic larvae – free-floating planktonic forms - that can be carried for many hundreds of kilometres in currents, even though the adults have limited mobility on the sea bed.  This pelagic mobility means that closely related species from different places are potentially connected over distances of 1,000 km or more, so it is unclear how allopatric speciation is achieved – the populations appear to be capable of connection in geographical terms.

Zoology PhD student Martine Claremont, together with her Museum supervisors Drs Suzanne Williams and David Reid, and university supervisor Professor Tim Barraclough, sampled populations of the intertidal muricid gastropod genus Stramonita (a marine snail) throughout the Atlantic Ocean and used statistical analysis of DNA sequences to identify the number of distinct species, their distributions and relationships.


For species in which the larvae spend only a short time in the plankton, it is possible for populations to be clearly isolated geographically by currents, island chains or other factors such as the immense flow of fresh water flowing from the mouth of the Amazon. However, Stramonita spends 2-3 months as a planktonic larval form, theoretically permitting genetic contact across the entire ocean basin, which might lead to expectations that a single population would be found around the Atlantic. 


cropFig8 small.JPG

Stramonita brasiliensis, the new species described in the work (E, Plymouth, Tobago, BMNH acc. no. 2341; F, holotype, Sao Paulo, Brazil, BMNH 20100324)

However, Martine and her supervisors found five distinct species in the Atlantic (one of which is described as new).  They suggest that this speciation might be attributed in part to past changes or interruptions in ocean currents, preventing free circulation and isolating populations for sufficient time to enable speciation.  Other factors that seem to be of importance are the ancient separation of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and the development of ecological specialization.


Claremont, M., Williams, S.T., Barraclough, T.G., Reid, D.G. (2011) The geographic scale of speciation in a marine snail with high dispersal potential. Journal of Biogeography, 38: 1016–1032.


The NHM has just completed an Ancient DNA Lab Project (aDNA), to convert a lab in the Palaeontology Department into a state of the art dedicated aDNA laboratory.  This will enable specimens will be sampled, prepared, and DNA extracted, before analysis in the Museum’s specialist sequencing facility.


DNA is nowadays easily analysed from tissue taken from organisms while alive, taking steps to preserve the tissue for analysis – such as freezing in liquid nitrogen.  However, once an organism has died, its tissues and the DNA that they contain decay and break down in most cases. 


Research in recent years makes analysis of ancient material possible, extracting DNA from teeth or bones in most cases and using advanced techniques to piece together information on the fragments. A specialist laboratory is essential to avoid contamination by modern DNA. The Museum's existing molecular laboratories for modern DNA provide facilities for a wide range of research projects but are not able to support research on the distant past.


One example of current interest in the Museum is the work of Professor Adrian Lister and colleagues, working on the DNA of woolly mammoth populations to examine patterns of distribution and extinction in past environments.




The new lab is an important addition to the Museum’s science infrastructure and as a necessary compliment to the current molecular facilities. This lab is intended to attract both internal and external researchers to make use of the NHM collections and address priorities identified by major funding bodies. It will also allow the training of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in ancient DNA methods and protocols.


A few natural history museums (such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Copenhagen  Natural History  Museum) already undertake aDNA work as part of the research programmes of scientific staff, post-doctoral research assistants, and students. However, none has a dedicated, in-house, locally managed laboratory facility that serves as an institution-wide focus for aDNA research.


The laboratory will establish the NHM as having probably the most advanced such facility of any major natural history museum. The mere fact that aDNA sampling and extraction procedures can be carried out at the NHM will be sufficient to make it, and its collections, an international focus of aDNA research.


Are we in the middle of a 6th mass extinction event or losing 100 species a day?
An entomology departmental seminar

2 June 2011

11:30 - 12:30

Neil Chalmers Seminar Room, DC2

Professor Nigel E. Stork
Head of Department of Resource Management and Geography,
Melbourne School of Land and Environment,
Melbourne University

Nigel Stork worked in the Entomology Department of the Museum from 1980 to 1995 before taking on the role of managing Australia's national research centre on tropical forest management. His experiences from working in the Museum and elsewhere have lead him to question some of the conclusions that have been made about the current state of biodiversity. Biologists have been predicting species losses of 100 a day for more than 30 years and many suggest that we are in the midst of a 6th mass extinction event. In this talk Prof Stork reviews just how much (or rather how little) we know about the size of global diversity and about species extinction rates. Since 'to the nearest approximation all species are insects' he will focus some of his attention on understanding invertebrate diversity and particularly that in tropical forests.




For further information see


The UK parliament's House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology has released its report on strategically important minerals with a number of recommendations to  government.  The Natural History Museum, among others, made a written submission of evidence.


Strategically important metals include elements such as Niobium, Tantalum, Tungsten and others that are found usually in quite resticted geographical areas in relatively small amounts.  Some of them are commonly called rare earth elements.  They are important in industry and technology: their physical and chemical properties are important in the development of advanced electronic components for computing and communications, for example.


This means that they are economically important for the development of industry and governments and as demand rises, or supply falls or is restricted, the price of components rises.  Research in ore formation, distribution, extraction and refinement from Museum scientists such as Richard Herrington can help to open up new sources of supply and make use of existing resources more efficient.


Dr Tom Richards and postdoctoral fellow Dr Meredith Jones, previously of the University of Exeter but now in the Department of Zoology, with Dr David Bass (Zoology) have uncovered a 'missing link' in the fungal tree of life after analysing samples taken from the university's pond. Their study, published in Nature, explains the discovery of a hitherto unknown type of fungi which has fundamentally expanded the scientific understanding of this group of organisms.

"This study has been very surprising -- not least because the original sample came from the nearby pond. Fungi have been well studied for 150 years and it was thought we had a good understanding of the major evolutionary groups, but these findings have changed that radically. Current understanding of fungal diversity turns out to be only half the story -- we've discovered this diverse and deep evolutionary branch in fungi that has remained hidden all this time."


The researchers have temporarily named the new group cryptomycota -- which is Greek for 'hidden fungi'. Cryptomycota change the understanding of the whole fungi group because they lack something which was previously considered essential for the classification - a tough cell wall which is important for how fungi feed and grow, breaking down dead animal and plant biomass. Despite lacking the tough cell wall, they seem still to be very successful in the environment because of their extensive diversity and cosmopolitan distribution.


"While the first sample used in our investigation was taken from the university pond, Cryptomycota are present in samples taken from all over the world. The huge genetic diversity and prevalence of this group leads us to believe they probably play an important role in a range of environmental processes. It is possible there are many different forms of this organism with a range of characteristics we don't even know about yet. There is a lot more research to be done to find establish how they feed, reproduce, grow, and their importance in natural ecosystems."


This study is the result of new efforts to try to understand the diversity of life on Earth by taking DNA sampling out into the field. Until recent years, researchers investigating microbial diversity have sampled by growing microbes in lab cultures, but now it seems that the vast majority of life forms are never captured using these methods -- meaning most of the evolutionary complexity of life remains unsampled. This work was primarily supported by an NERC grant to Tom Richards and is a result of an international collaboration between his group and Dr Ramon Massana's group at the Institut de Ciències del Mar, Barcelona.

MDM Jones, I Forn, C Gadelha, MJ Egan, D Bass, R Massana, TM Richards (2011). Discovery of novel intermediate forms redefines the fungal tree of life. Nature doi:10.1038/nature09984


The NHM Mineralogy department covers a wide range of research topics, from fundamental mineral chemistry, to nanoparticles and nanotoxicity, to meteorite research, to ore expoloration and economic geology.


Research on mineral ores has always involved close collaboration with the mining industry and the NHM set up a centre to ensure more effective liaison with industry some years ago: CERCAMS, the Centre for Russian and Central EurAsian Mineral Studies.  This centre is supported by subscriptions from industry partners.


Reimar Seltmann, with CERCAMS associated researchers and members of the Working Group on Tin & Tungsten Deposits of the International Association on the Genesis of Ore Deposits (WGTT IAGOD), contributed to the compilation of the digital database on global tin and tungsten deposits, with the support of the Geological Survey of Canada.



Tungsten mineral NaturalHistoryMuseum_002374_IA.jpg


Tungsten in mineral form


The tin-tungsten database has been incorporated into the Geoscience Data Repository (GDR) of the Earth Sciences Sector, Geological Survey of Canada and is now accessible as an online publication ( 


Sinclair, W.D., Gonevchuk, G.A., Korostelev, P.G., Semenyak, B.I., Rodionov, S., SELTMANN R., and Stemprok, M., 2011, World Distribution of Tin and Tungsten Deposits; Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 5482, scale 1:35 000 000.


Scientists working on the diversity of life are familiar with new estimates of the number of species – we believe that there are around 1.7 million species that have been described over the past three centuries, the vast majority represented in collections such as that of the NHM.  Estimates of the total number of species that actually exist vary hugely, ranging from 10 million to up to 100 million - but the majority certainly seem to be unknown and undescribed. Contrast this with the view in the mid-Eighteenth Century, when Linnaeus thought in terms of the thousands of species that might exist, and was able to describe what he thought was a substantial proportion of life on Earth.


We know some groups reasonably well: for example the discovery of new bird species is at a low frequency and mammals similarly so, despite there being a large number of scientists who specialise in these groups.  The situation with invertebrates is rather different – we think that there are millions of undescribed species and the limiting factor is the number of scientists available to find and describe them.


But this traditional model is based on knowing that a group exists and (more or less) what a species is in that group– such as beetles, or flowering plants, or nematodes.  When it comes to very small organisms – whether bacteria or other groups, we are much less certain of the overall extent and groupings of natural diversity.


Our view has been limited in the past by the need to see the organism or to be able to culture it in a laboratory..  Our understanding now can change rapidly as a result in advances in the use of molecular biological techniques that enable us to look for distinctive DNA or RNA in the environment and compare this with what is already known.


A new discovery, led by NHM scientist Tom Richards with David Bass (both in Zoology), and collaborators from Exeter, Cambridge, Barcelona and Harvard, has opened up a new horizon in how we think about fungal diversity (Jones et al., 2011). It could represent the discovery of a new fungal phylum - a major group in taxonomic terms.


Fungi are extremely diverse – with traditional estimates of 1.5 million species.  They are more closely related - as a sister group - to animals than to plants and have traditionally been thought to have characteristic cell walls made of chitin or cellulose.  It is thought that plants, animals and fungi all originated from single-celled organisms that used flagellae to propel themselves through water (James et al., 2006).


Tom, David and their colleagues took information on known RNA diversity in fungi and compared this with new material from sea and freshwater samples from Devon in the UK.  They found a wide diversity of new RNA profiles for previously unknown organisms that were clearly within the fungi but which were distinctly different from what was already known: the new profles were most similar to a couple of unusual species in the genus RozellaRozella is considered a primitive fungus because it lacks the normally characteristic cell wall (as do the newly discovered fungi) and has represented a tiny and uncharacteristic group in past understanding of fungal diversity.  The lack of a cell wall seems to make these fungi difficult to culture in the laboratory - and so difficult to find.


They also found evidence that these new and hidden fungi – which they called Cryptomycota – have three life cycle stages: one a resistant dormant cyst; a second mobile zoospores with flagellae; and a third attached to the cell of another organism (such as diatoms, which are single-celled plants).


What does this mean?  These fungi could play a significant part in ecosystems, interacting with other organisms and influencing how those ecosystems work and how other organisms live.  We don’t at this stage know how widespread they are, how diverse they are, or their ecology, but given their diversity it seems possible that they are widespread and their ecology diverse.


It also shows that our traditional methods of exploring diversity can miss major groups – if we have not been able to see organisms easily, and they cannot be cultured in the lab, we do not know that they exist, so our estimates of possible diversity could be significantly in error. What else is there to be found?



James, T. et al. (2006) Reconstructing the early evolution of Fungi using a six-gene phylogeny. Nature 443, 818-822 (19 October 2006) doi:10.1038/nature05110


Jones, D.M. et al. (2011) Discovery of novel intermediate forms redefines the fungal tree of life. Nature, Published online 11 May 2011 doi:10.1038/nature09984


Palaeontology Seminar


Thursday 12th May
Neil Chalmers Seminar Room, DC2, 16:00

Eocene mammals from Abbey Wood: evidence of tropical London?

By: Jerry Hooker Department of Palaeontology, NHM

With a tally of 46 species after 40 years of major excavation, the Blackheath Formation of Abbey Wood, London Borough of Bexley, has yielded the richest Early Eocene mammal fauna in the UK. New evidence for close proximity of the coast may explain the occurrence of such a diversity of land mammals in this marine deposit. A dawn horse is the most abundant species, representing the richest assemblage known from Europe and facilitating comparison with those from North America. Several species of mammal are indistinguishable from ones in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, and testify to limited intercontinental interchange half a million years after the major northern hemisphere Mammalian Dispersal Event at the very beginning of the Eocene. Ecological diversity analysis of the mammals indicates a broadleaved evergreen forested habitat and supports palaeobotanical evidence for paratropical-aspect forest in the Early Eocene.



For further information see


The Museum's collections have a core purpose of reflecting the diversity of the natural world - animals, plants, fossils, minerals and other materials.  The collection is structured and used in the main to reflect this goal, so insects will be grouped in terms of beetles, flies, moths, bugs and others, for example.


The collection is continually reorganised and developed as understanding of natural diversity changes - so the evolutionary relationships of groups will be changed, for example, when new DNA data are gathered.  This results in additions to collections, databases and specimens and a reorganisation of knowledget that goes with the collection.


However, the collection also reflects the historical development of human ideas - understanding of evolution, geographical understanding of distribution, histories of exploration and contact between societies, developments in how collections are assembled, collaboration between scientists.  As such the Museum holds specimens and documents from major initiatives in exploration and scientific enterprise from the past 300 or so years and is of great interest beyond the core of natural scientists in biology and earth sciences.


In addition to the formal knowledge recorded with the collection, institutions such as the Museum have huge informal resources of knowledge and experience that are held by staff and developed throught their careers.  It's not often apparent to the scientists themselves what will be of interest to the world at large, but this value is being increasingly recognised.


The Museum has set up a new Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (CAHR) to foster the use of our collections (books, manuscripts, field notebooks, maps, specimen data labels, etc) by academic researchers in the humanities and arts. Its development has been based on an AHRC ( the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research project to Kingston University/NHM called ‘New Perspectives’ which revealed the rich resource of humanities research material in our collections.


The centre has raised new external funds for collaborative research with UK and foreign universities, including some staffing costs from Kingston University. An advisory board of external and internal experts have had their first formal meeting and the Centre will be formally launched on 11 July 2011.  The Centre manager is Mrs Julie Harvey (Library and Information Systems)

One of the first major meetings fostered by the CAHR is Science Voices being held at the Royal Society 12-13 May 2011. This meeting will include a keynote address on an AHRC-funded project to record the oral history of the NHM by Prof Brian Cathcart (Kingston University).  The project, Museum Lives, has involved interviewing and recording the experience and insight of scientists and will provide a resource for research by oral historians in the future.


How to make a tapeworm

Posted by C Lowry May 5, 2011

How to make a tapeworm

Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Neil Chalmers Seminar Room, DC2

Pete Olson and group members will each present brief reports on the development of the model tapeworm Hymenolepis microstoma, currently being used to understand major transitions in the evolution of flatworms through comparative developmental and genomic studies.

Pete Olson – Introduction and flatworm evolution
Lucas Cunningham – Description and confocal anatomy of Hymenolepis microstoma
Magdalena Zarowiecki – Assembling the Hymenolepis genome and transcriptome
Natasha Pouchkina-Stantcheva – Hox genes, in vitro culture and functional genomics
Nick Riddiford – Wnt gene loss in flatworms and expression in Hymenolepis


See for further details


Just a quick link through to a NERC blog on the use of Araucaria trees in investigating plant responses to higher carbon dioxide levels. The visiting researchers used NHM botany collections and those of a number of other institutions, in addition to growing and experimenting on living plants.


Araucaria includes the familar garden Monkey Puzzle tree and are part of a group of plants that reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods between 200 and 65 million years ago.  It is known that in conditions of higher or lower carbon dioxide, plants will have different numbers of gas-exchange pores (stomata) on their leaves.  The interest of Araucaria lies in whether the number of stomata in fossils can be used to understand more about past patterns of carbon dioxide variation and hence climate change linked to atmospheric changes.


araucaria NaturalHistoryMuseum_015374_IA.jpg

Fossil Araucaria cones from the Jurassic