A tractor sprays fertiliser across a field.

A tractor sprays fertiliser across a field. 

Thirteen highlights of Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It

The free display, Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It, which closed on 29 August 2022, explored how humans have transformed the natural world and the actions we can take together to repair the damage to our planet. 

The origins of COVID-19

A woman performs a covid swab

While the source of COVID-19 has yet to be confirmed, scientists strongly suspect it began with a wild animal.

Chinese horseshoe bat

It's a bad year to be a bat. While the source of COVID-19 has yet to be confirmed, scientists strongly suspect it began with a wild animal. Bats have taken some of the blame despite humanity's destruction and disruption of natural habitats also being a significant causal factor.

From HIV to SARS, many diseases have 'jumped' from animals to humans, and our continuing destruction of nature and intensive farming practices puts us at risk of future pandemics. This is why Museum scientists are using the collection to investigate how bats (and other creatures) can spread disease.

Horseshoe crab blood is not only bright blue, it also has antibacterial properties.

Horseshoe crab blood is not only bright blue, it also has antibacterial properties. 

Horseshoe crab

The horseshoe crab may have a similar name to the horseshoe bat, but its links to COVID-19 are entirely different. The crab's blue blood is antibacterial and can be used to detect whether vaccines contain lethal bacteria. Its blood cells are the only natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), which scientists use to develop the vaccine contamination test.

Eating Earth

Centuries of farming have changed Earth's landscape. The diets of the world's wealthiest nations are putting the planet - and our own health - in danger. But it isn't too late to bring change. Many projects at the Museum and around the world are pioneering green solutions to offer us, and the planet, a healthier future.   

field of sugar cane

Demand for sugar has caused vast clearances of the rainforest.

The real price of sugar

Sugar can be bad for your health and your teeth, but did you know it is bad for the planet, too? We grow 1.8 billion tonnes of sugar cane every year which has led to the clearance of vast areas of the Caribbean and Brazilian rainforest. From the sixteenth century, sugar brought great wealth to Europe, but these riches came at the expense of enslaved African and Indigenous American people who were forced to produce the sugar.

The Tasmanian tiger became extinct in 1936.

The Tasmanian tiger became extinct in 1936.

Exterminated Tasmanian Tigers

The young Tasmanian tiger in this exhibition would have been carried in its mother's pouch like a baby kangaroo. British settlers in Australia feared that the dog-like marsupial was a threat to sheep. A government campaign, which offered rewards for every Tasmanian tiger killed, helped lead to the animal's extinction in 1936 as well as the extinction of many other animals.

Jellyfish fishing

Human overfishing is unintentionally allowing jellyfish numbers to thrive.

A joyous time to be a jellyfish?

As the number of fish in the oceans decrease, jellyfish are emerging on top. Fewer fish means more plankton for jellyfish to feed on, which effects the entire ocean ecosystem. They also thrive in the warmer waters and seas caused by climate change, even those polluted by fertilisers from farming. In the future could jellyfish be one of the few things left on the menu?

Nature for sale

From cotton to concrete, we all rely on materials taken from the natural world. The impacts of this are huge. For the first time ever, the things we make - buildings, laptops, crisp packets - weigh more than all the world's animals and plants combined.

The time for change is well overdue. If we are to survive on a finite planet, we need to ask some hard questions. How was this product made? How will it be disposed of? And can we keep on buying more if we want the future to be truly sustainable?

Blue whale

Whale earwax can reveal a whale's age, the environmental pollutants it has been exposed to and the hormonal responses throughout its life.

Whale earwax

Whales live a long time, and in that time they build up huge 'plugs' of ear wax. Scientists can study this wax and have identified toxins including those used in paints, plastics, and pesticides. These chemicals would have entered their bodies through the fish and krill they eat. Over time, these chemicals can damage whales' immune systems and reproductive abilities. 

Plastic pulled from the Thames

A huge increase in plastic for food packaging, online shopping, disposable gloves and face masks has had an impact on the Thames wildlife.

River of plastic

The river Thames contains tonnes of plastic waste, from shower gel microbeads to wet wipes. These microplastics not only end up in the water, but also in the stomachs of seals, porpoises, whales and fish, as well as in the stomach of almost every crab collected by Museum scientist Alex McGoran. This can have negative effects on the creature's wellbeing. Scientists are researching the impact on crabs and believe it may stop them from feeding and deposit dangerous chemicals in their bodies. 

Light pollution in Tapei

In well-lit areas such as towns and cities, sky glow can be enough to entirely obscure our view of the stars. 

Bright lights

Artificial light in urban areas is a growing threat to wildlife in the UK. Many species are impacted by light pollution including bats, moths, mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. They are drawn to the light often with fatal results. Other species such as pipistrelle bats feed on insects gathered by lights but many bats find it harder to hunt and roost in these areas.  

Bird with nest of rubbsh

When plastic debris is available to use as a nesting material, the birds will invariably use it.

Rubbish nests?

The sad image of birds building nests out of rubbish is not new, but the impact of the waste in bird's nests continues to be dangerous. Birds might collect plastic wire as it is strong, but their chicks can become stuck in it. Some finches use cigarette butts to drive away mites, however the chemicals within them are also toxic to their young. 

Climate emergency

The effect of climate change is all around us. Changing rainfall patterns, heatwaves and drought threaten our food supply and risk spreading disease. In the oceans, corals are bleaching, while on land bushfires rage with increasing frequency.  

It makes for grim reading, but all is not lost. Here at the Museum, scientists are working to sustainably source green energy, study coral reefs and help restore woodlands, all in the hope we can reverse some of the effects of climate change.

Bleached coral specimen

Bleaching is a major cause of coral mortality. 

Keeping coral alive

Long periods of hot weather cause usually bright corals to 'bleach', damaging, and in some cases, killing whole reefs. Museum scientists are currently studying corals which live in cloudy, fast-flowing waters which keep them cool and avoid bleaching. If these reefs can be protected, surviving corals might be able to repopulate bleached reefs. 

Sunday Stone specimen photo

Sunday Stone is a calcareous deposit that formed as slowly flowing water deposited a white mineral (calcium carbonate) coating the drainage trough at the bottom of the mine.

Written in stone

Since the Industrial Revolution, the global temperature has increased by more than 1°C. That history is written into the Sunday Stone, which records the working life of miners in the 1800s. The rock's dark lines are coal dust, showing working days, while the white lines show nights, Sundays, and holidays.

Lithium specimen

Most of the world’s lithium is produced in South America or Australia. There is currently no commercial lithium production in Europe.

Sustainable mineral mining

Electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels all require lithium batteries to store power. Museum scientists are working on a way to extract lithium from granite mines in the UK for the first time to keep up with growing demand for green technologies.  

Wildfire landscape

Wildfires are large fires that spread quickly and are out of control in wild landscapes. They start in one of two ways: naturally or at the hands of humans.

Wildfires are on the rise

Climate change is making the risk of fire seasons greater than ever before. The Australian fires of 2019-2020 saw at least three billion animals caught in the path of the flames. Koalas, along with thousands of other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants, lost their entire habitat.