Growing science at the Natural History Museum | Tim Littlewood, Director of Science

Dead oysters – not something you think will have much of an impact on your life, but in this case I must be the exception to the rule. In 1987 I found myself in Jamaica, working on an initiative at the University of the West Indies to develop low technology oyster culture. One of my tasks was to understand why oyster mortality was so high – it was also what prompted my first experience of science, and with scientists, at the Natural History Museum.

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The Plumage Act and the role of staff at the NHM | Library and Archives

Museum Archives have the important role of documenting and recording the work of an organisation, as ours have since we opened in 1881. For the Natural History Museum, the Archives also illustrate the role that the collections and staff have had in wider social and cultural history, both nationally and internationally. In this intriguing story from our collections, Assistant Archivist Kathryn Rooke looks at the impact of fashion trends on the natural world, and how our staff contributed to an important change in the law.

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The Digital Collections Programme in a year like no other | Digital Collections Programme

It’s been a year since we had to first close the doors of the Museum due to the pandemic, and like the rest of our colleagues, the Digital Collections Programme (DCP) team have adjusted to the world of video calls, furlough and working from home. Despite these challenges, in 2020 the team imaged 72,000 specimens, transcribed data from 85,000 specimens and georeferenced 17,000 specimens, giving us plenty of progress to reflect on from this challenging year. Over 25 billion data records  have now been downloaded from the Data Portal and GBIF in over 360,000 download events, and remote working has only further highlighted the pertinence of digitising collections and making them accessible to the world. 

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Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator Feb 2021

This year I’m writing a diary entry each month for a typical week in the life of a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum. In the February entry I cover working in the fabulous Minerals Gallery, helping my PhD student using a mobile phone down a microscope, Zoom fail during a talk to a local Geological Society, writing a digital strategy and finishing a paper about the assessment of the entire museum collection.

Minerals_gallery
A very empty looking Minerals Gallery
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Prioritising diversity and inclusion during lockdown | Executive Director of Engagement

In previous blogs I have outlined how the launch of our new strategy, has really galvanised our action on equality, inclusion and diversity.

Since my last post, we have appointed a new Head of Diversity and Talent who will take the lead in creating a working environment which is truly inclusive and in diversifying our workforce.

Since April, we have advertised as many roles as possible internally only, to allow for promotion. We know there is far greater diversity, particularly in terms of ethnicity, in our lower grade jobs so we want to offer opportunities for promotion wherever we can and since April 2020 40% of roles have been offered to internal candidates.

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Digitisation on demand: riverflies and redlists | Digital Collections

A guest blog by Robyn Crowther

Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies) and Trichoptera (caddisflies) – or EPT for short – are three orders of insects found in freshwater systems across the world. These three key groups are important bioindicators, meaning that their presence and the size of their populations can give us an idea about the health of a freshwater habitat. There are approximately 89,000 specimens in the Museum’s EPT collection, and the Digital Collections Programme (DCP) are in the process of digitising them. Mobilising this data will aid research being undertaken by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to further our understanding of EPT distribution and assess these species’ vulnerability to extinction.

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Conserving Darwin’s marine fossils | Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Lucia Petrera

While Charles Darwin was travelling on the Voyage of the Beagle, he found thousands of shells and hard parts of marine animals on land, far away from the sea. This shaped his and our current understanding on how the South American continent has changed overtime. In this blog, Lucia Petrera takes us behind the scenes to explore how these fossils will be protected and shared with the world.

The project to conserve and digitise the fossils collected by Darwin began with the fossil mammals collection. Thanks to the generosity of the Hartnett Conservation Fund we are now able to include the other fossils collected by Darwin which form part of the Museum collections. We are currently working to conserve and digitise around 255 marine fossil invertebrates collected in South America from 1831-1836.

They include:

• Brachiopods, or lampshells, which first appear in the fossil record 550 million years ago and are still alive today
• Ammonites, which are coiled shelled molluscs related to octopuses and squids, which first appear in the fossil record 420 million years ago and are extinct
• Bivalves, the group of molluscs that includes mussels and clams, which first appear in the fossil record 520 million years ago and are still alive today
• Gastropods, the group of molluscs that includes slugs and snails, which first appear in the fossil record 500 million years ago and are still alive today


First ammonite in South America

Image of NHMUK PI C 2612, an ammonite in the genus Maorites one of the first ammonites recorded from South America with the original red rectangular Darwin labels.

Many of the specimens that Darwin collected are ‘type’ specimens – they were a new species, unknown to science at that time. Darwin collected one of the first ammonites ever recorded from South America, from Mount Tarn in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Ammonites are excellent ‘index fossils’ – fossils that are often able to be used to identify the geological time period they existed in. Darwin enlisted assistance with the identification of the material from experts at the time, including Alcide D’Orbigny, a French naturalist. Initially this specimen was identified as Ancyloceras simplex, a European ammonite. However, more recent re-identification has placed it in the genus Maorites. Maorites is from the Late Cretaceous period (100-66 million years ago) and found only in the southern continents such as South America, Australia, and Antarctica, the continents that were part of the ancient super continent Gondwana. Gondwana gradually broke up 180 – 80 million years ago, carrying its cargo of ‘Gondwanan’ fossils on each of its constituent continents.

A map showing the continents that made up Gondwana. Image: United States Geological Survey via Wikimedia Commons.

Miles of seashells

NHMUK PI G 25287 Adelomelon alta, a carnivorous snail from Santa Cruz in Argentina. This species lived in shallow seas on sandy bottoms where they can find clams to pry apart and eat.

Fossils can be also indicators of past habitats and geological processes, and some of the marine shells collected by Darwin told a fascinating tale. Darwin observed marine shells along 1200 miles (1900 km) of coastline on what he called ‘successive beaches’- geological features now known as ‘marine terraces’. A marine terrace is any relatively flat, horizontal, or gently inclined surface of marine origin, bounded by a steeper ascending slope on one side and by a steeper descending slope on the opposite side. Darwin theorised his ‘successive beaches’ extended to 1600 miles (2600 km) or more. He collected his thoughts in an essay entitled ‘The Elevation of Patagonia’, documenting his model for the formation of successive beaches. This challenged his geological learning from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, that had supposed elevation change to be much more localised. Darwin’s conclusions are confirmed by geologists today, and his successive beaches were most likely formed during ice ages alternating roughly every 100,000 years between glacial and warmer periods. During the glacial periods much of the world’s water was locked away and sea level fell by about 100m. In warmer times, the sea rose and areas were flooded again. This interplay of sea level change and regional uplift is why Darwin found so many marine fossils at high elevations and in some cases far from the sea. Some specimens Darwin found were species that could still be found living on local coasts, which told him that this land change happened relatively recently. One of Darwin’s major achievements on the Beagle voyage was his discovery that much of the southern half of South America had been uplifted in relatively recent geological times.

Preserving Darwin’s Legacy

NHMUK PI G 26369-26370-26371 Three specimens of the Plio-Pleistocene carnivorous gastropod Chorus blainvillei (d’Orbigny) from Coquimbo, Chile. Before and after restorage.

To conserve these specimens, we need to keep them in a stable environment to minimise the risk of damage to them during handling and storage. We use conservation grade inert materials to re-house these specimens so that they will be kept in the same condition for many years to come. Due to the historic nature of this collection, some of this work has involved the fabrication of bespoke supports suited for long-term preservation. For example, some of Darwin’s brachiopods were stored on old wooden boards using nails to keep the specimen in place. At the bottom of each board there is a handwritten label with the specimen’s data. As we want to both conserve the specimen and the historical label, this required some creativity. These nails are ordinary builders’ nails, however due to the metal in the nails being lot harder than the soft rock of the fossil shells, this can cause abrasion and  leave grooves where they touch the specimen, so needed to be removed. After removing the nails, the board was partially padded using Plastazote® foam which was cut to the exact size needed to support the specimens. This prevents movement, further abrasion and damage, while leaving the label area uncovered so that the important collection data, such as species name, collections site and date can be read.

In addition to conserving and re-storing the specimens, we are also photographing and capturing associated data on the specimens to be released via the Museum’s Data Portal. High resolution photographs are being taken so that all angles and defining characteristics of the specimen, as can be seen with the image of Terebratula above. Terebratula had a fleshy stem protruding from its shell that it used to attach to something hard and firm such as a rock. To feed, they open their shell and the sea water (containing small food bits) circulates and the animal uses its filter feeding organ to get the nutrients it needs. Researchers use these example specimens as reference material and will want to be able to clearly see the characteristics unique to that species.

All of these specimens had a significant impact on Darwin’s thinking. By fully digitising the specimens, researchers all over the world working in taxonomy, geology, biogeography, ecology and more will be able to access high resolution photographs and specimen data from these historically and geologically important specimens without travelling, continuing the long process of study of those specimens started by Darwin himself. Read more about other parts of Darwin’s collections that we are digitising in our previous blogs or stay up to date the Darwin digitisation project by following @NHM_Digitise and @NHMfossilmammals on twitter.

Digitisation on demand: mobilising natural history data to address society’s biggest challenges

Access to natural history collections can be added to the ever-growing list of things that became virtual in 2020. Along with virtual coffee breaks, virtual meetings and the ubiquitous virtual pub quizzes, SYNTHESYS+ users are now able to request Virtual Access to natural history collections. 

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Digital accessibility at the Natural History Museum

Why digital accessibility is important to the Museum

Digital accessibility is crucial to help support the Museum’s new core values and deliver its strategy.

We champion diversity. We embrace the challenge of creating a diverse and inclusive organisation and recognise the benefits it brings. We are approachable and welcoming, engaging with different needs and perspectives. We seek out information and share ideas widely and in a variety of ways.

NHM Strategy to 2031

It’s vital that we are a diverse and inclusive organisation. It’s equally important that everyone can experience the Museum and what we offer. This is part of our strategic goal to engage and involve the widest possible audience.

To meet this goal, we need to ensure our digital experiences are accessible to everyone.

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Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator Jan 2021

NHM_collections_footprint

This year I’m writing a diary entry each month for a typical week in the life of a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum. In the January entry I cover the return to work after Christmas, home schooling, the return of Dippy, news of a possible move of the collection in my charge to Harwell and a rare trip into S Kensington.

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