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Science News

3 Posts tagged with the birds tag

We have around 80 million items in the Museum collection.  This makes us one of the world's greatest natural history collections and there is a huge amount of expertise, organisation, investment and thinking goes into caring for this resource and making it available to scientists and to many other users, including the general public in the UK and worldwide.


A basic characteristic of any item in the collection is that we know what it is, where it comes from and when it was collected.  Without this information, its value for science is much reduced.  However, because collecting has been in progress since the 17th Century, most of the information that accompanies the specimens is written on paper: on labels or in books, record cards and registers.  A scientist wanting to know whether we have particular items or to find out more information would need to talk to NHM curators or visit us to look at the information resources first-hand.


But in the last ten years in particular, we have been developing electronic databases of the collections.  It's a major task with a lot of experimentation with the best techniques and tools - how do we transfer tens of millions of information points from paper to databases to enable online searches and research resources?  We've got basic information for around 400,000 specimens on our main database at the moment but we need to move faster, and we are trying out different approaches.



a plot of 400,000 specimen records that have been databased, showing origins


A new initiative is to involve members of the public in copying information from the registers online - crowdsourcing.  We are doing this at the moment for our bird collections and would like as many people as possible to join us in this effort - we'll then be able to move more quickly to online information on which bird specimens we have, with information on their place of origin and dates.  Sometimes this information can be used to do research on where bird species once occured but where they have now disappeared because of habitat loss or other factors.




a snapshot of one of the register pages


Have a look at the online ornithology registers on the Notes from Nature site and have a try - you can attempt one-off transcriptions, or register and create an account that allows you to track your contribution to this effort.


Robert Prys-Jones (Zoology) is co-author on a new paper on Indian Ocean Parrot biogeography and evolution being published in Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution. It is the latest in a line of research papers deriving from Robert’s on-going Indian Ocean island research programme, and comprises a comprehensive overview of extant and extinct parrot evolution on western Indian Ocean islands. 



Psittacula eupatria


Parrot diversity around the Indian Ocean is high, with many possible geological, ecological and geographical explanations.This paper examines DNA data from modern and extinct parrots and suggests that the Indian Ocean islands acted as stepping stones in  the radiation of the Old-World parrots, and that past sea-level changes may help to explain distributions and  differences in speciation. A molecular phylogeny shows complex colonisation of Africa, Asia  and the Indian Ocean islands from Australasia via multiple routes, and  of island populations ‘seeding’ continents.

A second paper develops a comprehensive phylogeny of the finches, a large and familiar bird family within which many genus-level relationships have previously been unclear, and is the first product of a co-operation with Dr Per Ericson, Director of Science at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and is further co-authored by Dr Pamela Rasmussen (Michigan State University Museum), a Scientific Associate of the NHM. The similarity of plumage of finches, and of feeding habits, has in the past given misleading impressions of related groups.  DNA from nuclei and mitochondria give a much clearer and more reliable picture in this paper.


  • Kundu, S., Jones, C.G., Prys-Jones, R.P. & Groombridge, J.J. The evolution of the Indian Ocean parrots (Psittaciformes): extinction, adaptive radiation and eustacy. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution, Volume 62, Issue 1, January 2012, Pages 296-305.
  • Zuccon, D., Prys-Jones, R.P., Rasmussen, P.C. & Ericson, P.G.P. The phylogenetic relationships and generic limits of finches (Fringillidae). Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution, in press,

Understanding the diversity of life is central to the mission of the Natural History Museum. Science sees diversity in many ways: populations, species, ecosystems, individuals or genes and the Museum's collections of more than 70 million items are used by scientists for research on many aspects of diversity.  The collections have developed over the past 250 years with a very strong emphasis on the idea of the species, but reflect diversity within species as well - the differences between populations from different areas, for example.


What separates one species from another is not always an easy question: it is a key question for the science of taxonomy and has important practical implications.  The established biological species concept defines two species as two groups of organisms that cannot interbreed to produce fertile young when in the same location.  When different species are present in the same location, this can be observed in theory.  However, when two groups of similar organisms are geographically separate, are they different populations, different subspecies, or different species? This will be the case for many thousands of species and has led to heated debate among scientists who have taken different views.


Beyond science, this is of importance because the species is often used in practical policy-making and economic activity.  There needs to be accurate definition for biodiversity conservation, pest control in agriculture, human health and other activities.


A group of collaborating scientists from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and from BirdLife International have used the Museum's bird collections to try to define a reliable standard for species. They aimed to define how much genetic, morphological and behavioural distance there was between known species and subspecies, and within species.


The scientists looked at pairs of 58 closely-related species and subspecies, including European swallows and linnets, North American blackbirds and tyrant flycatchers and African Illadopsis. They examined more than 2,000 specimens from the NHM bird collections and more than 140 from Louisana State University for morphological data and plumage, and looked also at song, ecological and behavioural differences. The intention was to use this suite of characters to define a reliable and objective difference between species.


Tobias et. al (2010) published their results in the journal Ibis, concluding that this is a reliable way of confirming species separations and propose that this could be used increasingly to improve the reliability of understanding of bird diversity. An article in Nature (Brooks and Helgen, 2010), commenting on the paper, suggested that there could be very interesting possibilities in applying similar techniques to other groups of organisms and with DNA data.


Thousands of visiting scientists routinely use the Museum's collections as a research resource: the collection represents a body of evidence to address new questions and test established knowledge of natural diversity, and continues to develop as research interests expand.


TOBIAS, J. A., SEDDON, N., SPOTTISWOODE, C. N., PILGRIM, J. D.,  FISHPOOL, L. D. C. and COLLAR, N. J. (2010), Quantitative criteria for  species delimitation. Ibis, 152: 724–746.  doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2010.01051.x


Brooks, T. M. and K. M. Helgen (2010). "Biodiversity: A standard for species." Nature 467(7315): 540-541.