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Science News

February 2014

Not so Scilly after all!

Posted by John Jackson Feb 28, 2014

Mark Spencer

Department of Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 5 March 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


The Isles of Scilly are a small archipelago of islands off the coast of Cornwall in SW Britain. Over the last few years I have led several teams of volunteers and, more recently, staff members on expeditions to collect material to enhance our UK collections. In 2013 this culminated in a cross-departmental project in partnership with the NHM’s Nature Live team and the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. In this talk I will explore ideas around how field collecting can be linked to our public engagement activities as well as identify why the Isles of Scilly are a collections-based research worthy destination. And show some pretty pictures….



Friday 28 Feb, 4.30pm, Neil Chalmers Seminar Room


Livestreamed on



Chemosynthesis-based communities through time: a 3.2 billion year history


Cris Little, University of Leeds


At the beginning of this seminar I will briefly review the ecology of modern chemosynthetic communities at hydrothermal vents, hydrocarbon (‘cold’) seeps and sunken dead whales (whale-falls) touching on biogeography and discussing evolutionary issues, including molecular divergence estimates for several major taxonomic groups.




Then I will turn to the fossil record of these communities, which for vents goes back 3.25 billion years. I will show that vent and seep fossil assemblages have changed in taxonomic structure during the Phanerozoic, from brachiopod dominated communities in the Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic to mollusc (bivalve and gastropod) dominated communities from the later Mesozoic onwards. Some of the ecologically dominant taxa that have chemosymbiotic bacteria (e.g. vesicomyid clams and bathymodiolin mussels) are relative newcomers to vent and seep environments and were preceded by other, now extinct, bivalves that may (or may not) also have had symbionts.


Whale-fall communities from the Miocene are similar in structure to modern examples in the so-called sulfophilic stage, but older Oligocene and latest Eocene whale-fall communities lack some of the typical molluscs. This may be related to the small size of whales in their early evolutionary history. Prior to the Eocene whale-fall-like communities may have existed on sunken marine reptiles (e.g. turtles, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs), or even large fish carcasses.



About SciFri


SciFri is a cross-departmental science seminar series and social event run by the NHM Science Forum, held the last Friday of each month. The 45 minute talks are intended to be informal, contemporary, inter-disciplinary and cover a range of fields including the latest research, curation, science policy, publishing, media, fieldwork and science methods. If you have ideas for future speakers from any of these areas please contact the seminar organiser Adrian Glover, Life Sciences Department.





Emiel van Loon

University of Amsterdam


Friday 28 February 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


Species distribution modelling (SDM) is increasingly applied to answer all sorts of ecological questions. Implicitly, the
SDM literature suggests that the question of interest together with the available data prescribe the appropriate methods for data analysis. In contrast with this suggestion, it can be argued that a range of questions concerning the distribution of a species is usually interesting, while the available species occurrence and environmental data cannot easily be changed. Hence it may be effective to establish which questions may be answered by the available data as a first research step. The number of species records is one of the most important factors limiting the research questions and methods that are applicable. For that reason this presentation will focus on the relation between the number of available species records and the potential to answer different research questions.


First a hierarchy is proposed to organise research questions that differ in nature and complexity, and to cast different research questions in a model comparison framework. Using this framework, research questions of different complexity are translated into SDMs. Through different simulation examples, the effect of the number of occurrence data on the possibilities to identify SDMs with different numbers of predictor variables as well as on predictive performance are shown. Next, it is shown that with increasing scarcity of species records, either the information requirement as dictated by the research questions has to decrease or more prior knowledge about the species-environment or geographical relations have to be specified. The presentation concludes with a preliminary overview of research questions on species distributions and the matching levels of occurrence records that are required to obtain an adequate answer.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


Those people over fifty in the UK will remember the tremendous change to the landscape in many areas of the country as a result of the death of more than 25 million Elm trees from Dutch Elm Disease. 


There are fears now that we may see the same loss for Ash from Ash Dieback and Mark Spencer has been representing the NHM in government-organised stakeholder forums and summits as part of the UK response to this invasive alien disease.


Ash Dieback was first seen in the UK in early 2012 in imported nursery trees and in late 2012 in the wider environment in the east of England.  It's a disease caused by the fungal pathogen commonly known as chalara (Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus) that has had significant impacts on Ash trees across Europe over the past twenty years.


2013 saw significant development of policy, disease monitoring and raising public awareness and involvement. The UK Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) convened a Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce (chaired by Professor Christopher Gilligan, an NHM Trustee) as part of the response to the outbreak of Ash dieback. The taskforce report recommended better prediction, monitoring and other measures to control the problem. One of the recommendations was for a UK Plant Health Risk Register which was launched on the 21 January 2014.


As a consequence of his work on plant health and the Risk Register in particular, Mark Spencer has been asked to contribute to a Defra-funded consultation on ‘Major drivers of emerging risks in plant health, in particular concerning native broad leaved trees in the UK’.


The Forestry Commission has been active in promoting public awareness and reporting of Chalara through its own website and receives data through web and smartphone tools such as Ashtag. NHM has been developing wider public participation with partner organisations through the OPAL Tree Health Survey that enables members of the public and schools to identify trees and tree health problems such as Ash Dieback with guides and Apps and to submit results as part of scientific research.


caribbean mammal.jpg


Ian Barnes

Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum


Friday 21 of February 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Until very recently, the Caribbean hosted one of the world’s most diverse insular land mammal faunas, with approximately 100 endemic species of rodents, insectivores, sloths and monkeys found on the major islands of the Greater Antilles. However, Caribbean mammals have experienced the most severe post-glacial extinctions of any mammal fauna, and today only 15 putative species, mostly highly threatened capromyid rodents, survive in the region. In marked contrast to other insular regions which still retain a significant component of their pre-human mammal fauna (e.g. Madagascar), there have been only limited attempts to reconstruct either the colonization history of the insular Caribbean by different mammal lineages, or inter-island patterns of Quaternary mammalian phylogeny and biogeography.


In order to better understand the origins and evolution of this fascinating and formerly highly diverse fauna, we have been working on the recovery and analysis of DNA from a wide range of Caribbean mammal remains. The conditions in most Caribbean Quaternary sites are however not well suited for the preservation of organic molecules, despite their relatively recent age. In this talk I will discuss our ongoing work, with a focus on our efforts to utilise next generation sequencing on this poorly preserved material.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see



Hein van Grouw

Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum


Wednesday 19 of February 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


Grouse are subject to three peculiarities that have caused a lot of taxonomic confusion in this group of birds in the past. These phenomena are hybridisation, sex-change plumages and colour aberrations. While these occurrences are usually rare in birds, they appear to be quite common in grouse. Up to now it is unknown why the phenomena are so frequent among these birds and if there is an evolutionary explanation. This talk presents insights into an ongoing research project on grouse specimens in natural history museums that re-analyses our knowledge of such aberrations.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


Tibet plateau.bmp(Image from Wikipedia)


Robert Angus

Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum


Friday 14 February 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


This is an illustrated account of my travels on the north-eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau in June 2013. The extent of the Plateau is shown with its division into the various Chinese provinces, including the Xizang Autonomous Region. My objective was to collect and do research on various beetles, and this was fundamental to the design of the trip.  Some of the research will be discussed in a future seminar. This one is to illustrate the landscape and the sheer fun of it.



For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


Lichen Sri Lanka.jpg



Gothamie Weerakoon

Department of Botany, University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Sri Lanka


Wednesday 12 February 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Corticolous lichen species are identified as indicators of disturbance for seven vegetation types in central mountains of Sri Lanka (four disturbed, and three undisturbed matched by habitat). Ordination of lichen communities (six sites / type for 42 sites) showed distinct species composition in the vegetation types. Disturbed and undisturbed sites differ; undisturbed sites have higher species richness of both trees and lichens. Canopy cover, bark pH, distance to an undisturbed site, and years since disturbance, were all correlated with a disturbance gradient. Indicator species analysis (ISA) was performed on three different sets of site groups: seven vegetation types, three groups of sites with different disturbance levels, and two groups of sites near to vs. far from an undisturbed site. Twenty species were strong indicators of undisturbed sites from all three ISA analyses; three species indicate moderately disturbed sites; five species indicate very disturbed sites. Six additional species were weaker indicators of disturbance level. Thirty-four species were strong indicators for a single vegetation type. Most indicators of disturbance level are visually distinct. Parataxonomists could be trained to identify them in the field; these will be the most useful indicators for land managers.



For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


Tien Shan 2.jpg(Image from Wikipedia)


Dmitry Konopelko

Geological Faculty Saint Petersburg State University, Russia



Tuesday 11 February - 4.00 pm


The presented results are part of a bigger project on Hercynian post-collisional magmatism in the Tien Shan carried out during the last two decades. Results are presented for two vast terranes of the Tien Shan which previously were inaccessible due to their remoteness or political reasons: the whole Tajik part of Tien Shan and the Alai ridge in Kyrgyzstan. In both areas the main types of granites and alkaline rocks including carbonatites were sampled. In Tajikistan special attention was paid to subduction-related granitoids that were studied for comparison with arc magmatism elsewhere in Tien Shan.

Four samples of subduction-related granites from the Gissar ridge in Tajikistan yield ages showing active subduction under Gissar block that continues from 321 to 300 Ma. This is similar to ages of subduction-related granites in the Middle Tien Shan terrane in Uzbekistan (315-300 Ma). The ages of 17 post-collisional intrusions including alkaline rocks and carbonatites in both terranes are in the range from 300 to 274 Ma. Some of the alkaline complexes have slightly younger ages but none formed in post-Permian time as shown on some regional geological maps. Post-collisional rocks of the Alai ridge have crustal isotopic Pb-Sr-Nd compositions supporting suggestion that the basement of the Alai segment comprises a Precambrian micro-continent. Similar crustal signatures were previously reported for other terranes of the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The features of the post-collisional intrusions in Tajik Tien Shan and Kyrgyz Alai ridge match well the general characteristics of the post-collisional magmatism in Tien Shan: (1) Early Permian Hercynian post-collisional magmatism culminated after the closure of the Paleo-Turkestan ocean and affected the whole region across terrane boundaries, (2) The majority of post-collisional intrusions were emplaced within a relatively short time span between 295 and 280 Ma, (3) Ages of intrusions emplaced syn-kinematically into the regional shear zones, and ages of alkaline intrusions indicating regional extension also match the 295-280 time span, (4) Similar ages were reported for the major orogenic gold deposits in the Tien Shan, (5) The post-collisional intrusions are geochemically diverse and their volume varies from one terrane to the other. This suggests different scenarios of post-collisional development in various terranes of the Tien Shan.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see




Juliet Brodie and Jo Wilbraham: Department of Life Sciences, NHM


Friday 7 February 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

The seashores and shallow seas around Britain support an important component of UK biodiversity with over 650 species of red, green and brown seaweeds which represent c. 7% of the described seaweed flora of the world.  However, over 55% are Data Deficient according to IUCN criteria, there is increasing evidence that large brown habitat-forming seaweeds (kelps and fucoids) are disappearing, and invasive seaweeds species are increasing.  Seaweeds remain an under-recorded group with over 50% data deficient, yet there is an urgent and increasing need for good quality, verifiable data on past and present species occurrence to inform on e.g. environmental change, potential pressures from harvesting, loss of habitats, increases in non-native species (currently c. 6% of the UK flora). 


Data from the NHM seaweed collection provide crucial evidence points for mapping changing patterns in species distribution around the UK but regional museums often hold important collections from their local area which will help fill in current spatial and temporal data gaps.  So we set about capturing from UK national and regional museum collections specimen data against a target list of seaweed species in order to provide data on distribution of species over time around the UK, and to make these data widely available via a purpose built website which provides a unique resource for disseminating information about these species.  Fourteen institutions participated, 8334 records were received of which 4334 were newly generated. 


We will describe this model project, discuss the findings in relation to temporal and spatial change, detective work, social history, taxonomy, the role of Queen Victoria and her children, and the detrimental impact that the Victorian collectors had on some of our more charismatic seaweeds.  We will also demonstrate the web site:


This project was funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see