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Science News

November 2013



Bone eating worm.jpg



Bone-eating worms and wood-eating bivalves: characterising the ecology of deep-sea organic falls from multiple ocean basins


Diva Amon

Department of Life Sciences, NHM and University of Southampton



Wednesday 27 of November 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Large organic inputs to the deep seafloor such as the remains of whales or pieces of wood are termed ‘organic-falls’ and are important sources of food, shelter and hard substrate in the deep sea. Despite over 30 years of research on these habitats, we still have only a basic understanding of their taxonomic composition and for some ocean basins, no natural or experimental studies have ever been conducted. The degree of connectivity between these isolated habitats, as well as how quickly organic matter is remineralised by specialist organic-fall fauna, such as bone-eating Osedax worms and wood-eating Xylophaga molluscs, are poorly known. My PhD research has tried to shed light on these topics resulting in the last three years spent undertaking some extraordinary tasks in a variety of locations: collecting whale bones and bone-eating worms from the Antarctic deep seafloor, cutting bones out of beached whales in Kent, sinking wood and whale bones on the Southwest Indian Ridge, diving to 2500 metres in a Japanese submersible, observing what happens when tiger sharks and whale bones meet in the Bahamas, and haggling over pig carcasses with a Jamaican butcher. All in the name of science! Today I will reminisce on a few of these adventures, as well as present results from the penultimate chapter of my thesis: Ecosystem function of the wood-boring genus, Xylophaga (Pholadidae, Bivalvia) revealed by X-ray micro-computed tomography. Wood deployments from two seamounts on the Southwest Indian Ridge were investigated in detail to examine the nature of intact Xylophaga borings, the comparative abundances and population size structures of the species, their rates of growth and their consumption rates of wood. Two more sets of samples from the Mid-Cayman Spreading Centre and the Tongue of the Ocean, Bahamas were also scanned. The wood at each deployment site was colonised by a different species of Xylophaga. This novel analysis has shown that an individual Xylophaga can bore between 0.235 and 0.606 cm3 of wood per year depending on the species, emphasising the importance of the genus Xylophaga with regard to wood remineralisation in the deep sea and its role as an ecosystem engineer.


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Presentation of PhD results: impact on visitors of meeting scientists in Nature Live


Amy Seakins

Collaborative PhD between the Natural History Museum and King’s College London

Thursday 5 December
DC Seminar Room (underneath the Attenborough Studio) 10.00-11.00


This thesis explores the impacts of meeting research scientists on visitors to the Natural History Museum, London, from the visitors’ perspective. Firstly, the study aims to investigate whether meeting a scientist changes visitors’ identification of scientists, their perceptions of ‘who scientists are’ and what scientists are like, perhaps challenging previously encountered stereotypes of scientists. Secondly, the study looks at visitors’ identification with scientists, whether visitors become more interested in the life and work of the scientist, seeing science as personally relevant, and whether visitors make connections to the scientist. Through researching the impacts of interactions between visitors and scientists, this thesis adds to the literature aiming to increase science literacy and engagement, contributing to knowledge of how individuals can become more active, confident and interested in science as a part of their everyday lives.


Amy is about to submit her thesis so come and discuss her findings with her. They are of value to those who plan public engagement activities as well as those from Science who take part in education programmes and interact with visitors.



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Taxonomy specialists at the Museum are running three week-long short courses for junior environmental science researchers and PhD students in March 2014.


The courses are sponsored by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).


The deadline for application is January 10 2014.




Taxonomic principles and tools in botanical research: a short course

A course about plant taxonomy designed for environmental science researchers and PhD students run by the Museum's taxonomy specialists. The course covers taxonomic tools, nomenclature and the role of collections in botanical research.


March 10-14 2014


Natural History Museum, London.


Find out more about the course and apply online




Taxonomic skills and field techniques for freshwater ecology and quality: a short course

A course about freshwater ecology and water quality designed for environmental science researchers and PhD students run by the Museum's fresh water biology and biodiversity specialists.The course covers the taxonomic skills and field techniques needed for freshwater sciences and water quality research.


March 17-21 2014 (5 days)


Natural History Museum, London, UK.


Find out more about the course and apply online



Molecular Techniques for Taxonomy

The course will provide the practical skills, understanding and expertise necessary to obtain DNA from a variety of specimen types and an introduction to analysing molecular data.


February 17-21 2014 or March 3-7 2014


Natural History Museum, London.


Find out more about the course and apply online




How to make a tapeworm


Pete Olson

The Natural History Museum, Dept. of Life Sciences, Div. of Parasites & Vectors


Wednesday 20 November 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

The evolution of parasitic flatworms represented a major departure from the free-living platyhelminth form, with each group evolving fundamentally different key adaptations toward increased fecundity (i.e. extreme r-selection). Such radical departures in morphology make homology assessment difficult if not impossible and hence we are working to elucidate the molecular signals that underpin their morphological evolution.


Using the beetle/rodent tapeworm Hymenolepis microstoma as a laboratory model of a strobilate (i.e. segmented) tapeworm, we now have not only a full catalog of its genes, but also transcriptome (i.e. expressed gene) samples from different regions of the body and ontogenetic stages. These genome-wide transcriptome profiles provide both qualitative and quantitative data on gene expression within a given sample, and through comparison we can thus identify which genes are up- or down-regulated throughout their complex life cycle. Among these we have selected the comparatively small number (~50) of 'developmental genes' (i.e. signalling and transcription factors) and have begun to survey their spatial expression patterns through whole-mount in situ hybridisation.


Results show both stereotyped and novel spatial patterns and allow us to associate the genes with organs, such as the ovaries, which prove to be an important source of developmental signals in tapeworms, just as they are in other animals including ourselves. These data provide a comprehensive picture of the factors governing tapeworm development and offer an effective means of identifying the 'hidden synapomophies' that underpin key innovations in form.


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The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has announced results for proposals from universities and partners for Doctoral Training Programmes. This replaces NERC's former system for allocating studentships directly to university departments.   The  purpose of this change is to ensure PhD  students will be equipped with a wider range of specific skills that will enhance  their employability in a wide variety of academic, commercial, media, and  government sectors and to ensure training is focused on NERCs strategic  priorities and/or priority skills needs.


The  announcement on 4 November covered 1,200 studentships that will be awarded over  the next five years: 240 PhD studentships per year. These will  be distributed over 15 successful DTPs with a total programme budget of £100  million.


The Museum is a hosting partner of four DTP proposals, as follows:


  • Great  Western 4 Plus (GW4+) DTP (28 studentships per year)
    • Lead - University of Bristol

    • Hosting and Training Partners - University of  Exeter, Cardiff University, University of Bath, The Natural History Museum,  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Plymouth Marine  Laboratory, Met Office
  • Spitfire  DTP (15 studentships per year)
    • Lead - University of Southampton
    • Hosting and Training Partners - National  Oceanography Centre, The Natural History Museum, British Antarctic Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, HR Wallingford
  • London DTP  (24 studentships per year)
    • Lead - University College London
    • Hosting and Training Partners - Birkbeck  University of London, Brunel University, King’s College London,  Queen Mary University of London, The  Natural History Museum, British Geological Survey,  Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Met Office, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew,  Zoological Society  of London - Institute of Zoology
  • Science  and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) DTP (15 studentships per year)
    • Lead - Imperial College London (Grantham  Institute for Climate Change)
    • Hosting and Training Partners - The Natural History Museum, Met Office, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Royal  Botanic Gardens Kew, Zoological Society of London - Institute of Zoology

In addition to development and supervision of DTP-related project proposals, Museum staff will provide lectures, practicals, field trips, and other elements in professional development training courses. Museum staff have particular expertise in theprinciples and practice of taxonomy, collections, systematics and taxonomy of particular groups, presentation skills, communication of science to public audiences, scientific publishing and scientific media work.




belemnites_borings (2).jpg


The boredom of belemnites: endoliths in belemnite guards from the Cretaceous Speeton Clay



Paul D. Taylor

Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum.


Tuesday 12 November- 4pm

Earth Sciences Seminar Room  (Basement, WEB 05, the previous Mineralogy Seminar Room)



The Early Cretaceous Speeton Clay Formation is renowned for its rich and diverse belemnite fauna. During October 2009 and March 2011 NHM field parties collected numerous examples of Speeton belemnites from the coastal exposures of the Speeton Clay south of Filey in East Yorkshire. These collections have been used in a research project, undertaken jointly with Consuelo Sendino and Museum volunteer Jane Barnbrook, on the previously unstudied biota of boring organisms that infested dead belemnite guards lying on the Cretaceous sea floor.


At least 15 ichnotaxa of borings can be recognized, ranging from brachiopod pedicle attachment traces (Podichnus), to rosette-like traces believed to have been made by foraminifera (Semidendrina), and putative fungal microborings (Orthogonum and Saccomorpha). The study of these endoliths can provide evidence for palaeoenvironmental conditions on the sea floor during deposition of the Speeton Clay.


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Phylogenetics and evolution of some early and oddball plants


Sean Graham

University of British Columbia


Friday 8 November 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

My research group works on multiple problematic nodes in the plant Tree of Life. Here I focus on two major subjects from phylogenetic and evolutionary perspectives: (1) The 'early' aquatic flowering-plant family Hydatellaceae; (2) the mycoheterotophic plants, which are diverse lineages of non-photosynthetic plants that rely on fungi for their carbon budget.



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