A kaleidoscope of beautiful birdwings

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We have completed digitising the Museum’s birdwing butterfly collection. Images of more than 8000 specimens have been released onto the Museum’s data portal for anyone in the world to access. This digitisation project has enabled us to gather accurate information about what we have within our collection and this new online resource will support conservation plans to protect endangered species for the future.

The Museum’s birdwings collection contains many interesting and spectacular specimens. Our previous blog provides insight into how these species have captured the fascination of amateurs and naturalists. 

mosaic bw
These images have been created by a program which searches and sort thousands of images of specimens on the basis of colour.

The Museum’s birdwing collection contains over 8,000 adult specimens and over 100 immature stages (eggs, larvae and pupae). We have photographed the front and back of each specimen resulting in over 17,000 images in total. Museum developer Alice Butcher has written a program which can search and sort thousands of images of specimens on the basis of colour. We have used this algorithm to with the birdwings dataset to produce images above and below as a tool to demonstrate the scale of our digitisation aims and the uses of natural history collection data in a novel way. 

dataimages
By zooming in its possible to see how many specimens make up each image.

 

Birdwings are a group of the Papilionidae (swallowtail butterflies) comprising the genera Ornithoptera, Trogonoptera and Troides, which contain 36 species between them. These have been preserved at the museum since the first birdwing butterfly was brought into the collections over 200 years ago. The specimen below is one of the oldest. It was described in 1779 and collected sometime before this. This project has helped to recount the total collections holdings as every year new donations are received.

Papilio amphimedon collected by Cramer in 1779
Papilio amphimedon collected in 1779

More than half of the specimens come from the 18 species of Troides genera within the Museum’s collection. However, it is one of the 11 species of Ornithoptera (Ornithoptera priamus) found in the collection that is the most numerous with 2,168 specimens and took 22 days to work through.

Chart of birdwing breakdown
Pie chart showing the amount of specimens of the three birdwing genera.
Birdwings map
Distribution map of birdwing butterflies held in the Museum’s collection (Troides – yellow, Trogonoptera – green, Ornithoptera – blue).

Through the digitisation of this collection, and transcription of specimen label data, it is possible to map in detail the distribution of these species and trends in changing habitats across time. The range of all birdwings spreads from Southeastern Asia to Northern Australasia, with some species spreading to India and Sri Lanka in the west, China and Nepal in the north and others found in Northern Australia in the southernmost extent of their range.

Conserving these species for the future

Digitising and displaying these specimens will highlight the important research done using the Museum collections and engage the public and other researchers across the world to join initiatives in trying to save these spectacular but very fragile butterflies. The conservation of some species of birdwings is a priority and the accessibility of data is critical to support this process. Although some literature is available on this group, books are prohibitively expensive and with distributional records insufficient, limiting the capacity of researchers, organisations and governments to produce accurate threat assessments and to set up action plans. Creating access to comprehensive sets of data across time and geography, such as museum collections, will assist the monitoring of species and habitats. Therefore free online access through the Museum’s Data Portal will open this data to everyone raising awareness about the beauty but fragility of this important group of organisms.

Both the digitisation project and display were made possible through the generous support of a donor.

Experience the beautiful birdwings

Visit the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing display in the Rothschild Room at the Museum at Tring, open until December 2019.

To stay in touch with the Digital Collections Programme you can follow us on twitter or instagram or find out more about the programme on the website.

Wildlife Garden Autumn BioBlitz – Species Review

collared earthstar mushroom

Continuing the blogs about the Autumn BioBlitz in the Museum’s wildlife garden, we would like to introduce you to more species found during the day! BioBlitzes are only one of the ways wildlife garden species are being recorded; biological recordings take place in the garden in many different ways all year round.

Read on to learn more about the autumn findings in the amazing wildlife garden including a species very rare to the UK and one which made it to a top 10 list!

Continue reading “Wildlife Garden Autumn BioBlitz – Species Review”

The humble harbour porpoise | Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme

Bottlenose dolphin hitting a harbour porpoise out of the water in an attack

As part of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), we are often focused on the death of animal and can overlook the amazing lives of marine creatures before they sadly wash up along our coastlines. British waters are home to over 28 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans.

In the UK, the most numerous (and smallest) of these is the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). Unsurprisingly, these porpoises therefore make up the majority of strandings in the UK. 

WARNING: This blog contains photographs of dead stranded porpoises which you may find upsetting Continue reading “The humble harbour porpoise | Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme”

A black stone from Derbyshire turned into pieces of art | Curator of Petrology

The Petrology collection at the Natural History Museum is home to about 189,000 specimens; from the rock collection to building stones, including ocean bottom deposits. The building stone collection is one of the largest documented collections of its kind in the UK, particularly useful for matching stone in historical buildings during conservation work. Beside rock samples, it features amazing pieces of art, like this paperweight in Derbyshire black marble executed by the skilled hands of one of the most prominent nineteenth-century marble makers of the time Thomas Woodruff.

E3864 Black Marble Paperweight
Derbyshire inlaid marble work by Thomas Woodruff in the NHM Petrology (Building stone) collection.

Continue reading to learn more about the marble masons in Derbyshire, the stone itself, the techniques used to create the objects, and the many other works of art created out of this stone such as Samuel Birley’s table in the V&A collection.

 

Continue reading “A black stone from Derbyshire turned into pieces of art | Curator of Petrology”

Celebrating two years of the NHM Art-Science Interest Group

The Museum’s Art-Science interest group (ASIG) is a forum for interesting talks and provocations, aimed at exploring interactions between science and the arts. It meets every few months.

We had our eighth meeting on Thursday 15th November 2018. It was our two year anniversary, so we were celebrating with wine, interesting talks and a growing number of ASIG participants. There were participants from the NHM, art galleries, including our neighbours the Serpentine, other museums, and universities.

We were treated to talks by three great speakers:

Continue reading “Celebrating two years of the NHM Art-Science Interest Group”

Ida Lilian Slater (1881-1969) | International Women’s Day 2019

2019 marks the centenary of women being allowed to join the Geological Society of London (GSL). That women might not be permitted to join any learned society today is unimaginable, and we sometimes take for granted the rights women have in today’s society. But before 1919 women were not only barred from joining the GSL, but had to have their research papers read out at meetings by their male colleague.

This blog, by Consuelo Sendino, attempts to enhance the reputation of a singular woman whose work was sadly neglected until a recent publication (Sendino et al. 2018) sought to correct that injustice and recognise her achievements.

Continue reading “Ida Lilian Slater (1881-1969) | International Women’s Day 2019”

Remnants of ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ in a Museum drawer |Curator of Petrology

Some rare treasures are hidden within the Petrology collection of the Natural History Museum, and this brunch of a bush, encrusted with sinter, which formed prior to 1886 around hot springs on the shores of the old Lake Rotomahana (warm lake) in New Zealand, is one of them.

Siliceous sinter.BM 1911.1584-1
NHM petrology specimen of siliceous sinter encrusting a brunch of a bush, from White Terraces of Lake Rotomahana.

Read on to learn about the Pink and White Terraces, a natural wonder of the world, regarded by the Māori as a taonga (a treasure), their tragic fate and how specimens in the museum collection are helping current research. Continue reading “Remnants of ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ in a Museum drawer |Curator of Petrology”

Collecting the periodic table’s rarest elements: osmium, rhodium and iridium #IYPT2019

by Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences

At the Natural History Museum our work is based on scientific collecting to support research on the natural world. In our collections we hold naturally occurring chemical elements in many different forms, compounds and combinations, so with many others, we are marking the 150 years since the periodic table was published in 1869 by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev by celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table.  We are aiming to cover all of the elements in our collections in a blog, starting with osmium, rhodium and iridium.

Continue reading “Collecting the periodic table’s rarest elements: osmium, rhodium and iridium #IYPT2019”

Are our collections relevant to modern science? How do we know?

During a conversation with colleagues recently, the topic of “How can we judge that our collections are useful” came up. We can measure the number of visitors into the collections and we can keep tabs on the loans that we send to researchers at different institutes, but is this ever useful. I tasked myself this afternoon to finding out, for just one collection that I care for, just how much our collections are used for relevant science.

For my afternoon task, I chose to use the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology (JWIP) as my example collection. The JWIP is a database using old-style cards (over 250 000 cards in fact) of the written literature on organic-walled microfossils (spores, pollen and algal cysts are a few such things). Many researchers on these organic-walled microfossils (called palynologists) visit the Museum to look through this resource every year. Read more about this collection https://bit.ly/2BiRtlb

Picture 1 A fossil dinoflagellate cyst (Apectodinium augustum) barely the size of a grain of sand, one of several groups of organic-walled microfossil

To find out how useful the collection has been for the visiting palynologists, I searched the internet for all of the published scientific papers that acknowledge/cite the JWIP. To my surprise, there were many more articles than I was expecting in the last 10 years alone. Twenty-three scientific papers and three PhD theses (there is also another from 2003 that appears on the first page of the search engine) have presented data that they found using the JWIP. There are possibly more that I have yet to find or have not acknowledged the data (Please researchers, acknowledge where your data comes from!). The current list of publications citing JWIP can be found by clicking here

The research in these publications is quite varied. They range from climate change through the Cenozoic Era to diversity changes over extinction events to understanding new species concepts in some of the oldest organic-walled fossil groups.

This is timely as a piece of work has just been published in the journal Nature Communications by Dr. Hendrik Nowak and his colleagues on the greatest extinction event of all time – the Permian/Triassic mass extinction ~250 million years ago. This study uses extensive data collected during a two-week visit that Hendrik had to the JWIP in 2017. You can read about his work in this blog

Simply acknowledging museum collections might not be on the front of all researchers’ minds, but it does help advocate the use of these important scientific materials. It is fantastic to see that in the last ~10 years, one of our collections has contributed so much and that people have felt the need, without pressure to do so, to acknowledge the resource.

We are trying to put as much information about our collections online, so that researchers understand more about what there really is to study here. Hopefully, this will be a positive step in making even more use of the museum and its incredibly vast resources.

Picture 2 Dr. John Williams in part of his index (Picture taken around 2005)