The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) and the Natural History Museum (NHM) are pleased to announce that they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for co-operation between the two organisations around research and skills sharing. The MoU will initially run until 2023, covering the period of the RCS’s major building re-development, Project Transform, and will include the Hunterian Museum and the RCS Anatomy and Pathology collection.
The MoU builds on an agreement for the NHM to provide temporary storage of some of the RCS Museums’ Designated collections during the building programme. Researchers will be able to access most of the RCS collections stored at the NHM. For further information please see the RCS Museums’ web pages.
by Camilla Ryan, NHM and Earlham Institute, University of East Anglia
Camilla is a PhD student studying “Genome wide analysis of drift and selection of drift and selection using historic and contemporary samples of the endangered Mauritius pink pigeon”. Professor Ian Barnes from the Museum’s Earth Science department is a co-supervisor for her work.
Many people have never heard of the pink pigeon but almost everyone has heard of the Dodo – one of the most famous animals to have ever gone extinct.
Yet there are many similarities between the two birds; they are even related (by evolutionary standards). Both the pink pigeon and the Dodo come from the Island of Mauritius, both are species of pigeon and both have been severely impacted by the arrival of humans on Mauritius. There is one critical difference between the two: while the Dodo is extinct the pink pigeon is not … yet! Continue reading “The Pink pigeon: can genetic rescue save it from extinction?”
by Sandy Knapp, NHM Department of Life Sciences
The world’s herbaria hold millions of samples of plants, and until recently they have been largely the domain of taxonomists – those scientists who describe diversity. Herbarium taxonomists compare specimens collected in different parts of the world, assess variation and then come to conclusions about what to name as new, and what to call the same. Our ability to talk about plant diversity depends upon this activity – without names, we would be unable to tell each other about distribution – and as so alarmingly today, decline – of the some half a million plant species with which we share the planet.
Herbaria though are often depicted as dry, dusty out-of-date places, not really connected to the dynamic world of today’s societal needs. But actually, a herbarium can be considered a physical database – each plant specimen is a data point – something that occurred somewhere, sometime, with a particular combination of traits. In a study recently published in BMC Biology, Marc Sosef and colleagues show how powerful a resource these herbarium collections can really be, even in the underexplored tropical rainforests.
Using the RAINBIO dataset – a collaborative, curated (more about that later) database of herbarium specimens from many institutions all collected in tropical Africa – they perform a number of analyses exploring African plant diversity. Heterogenous datasets like these assembled from herbarium specimens – whose collection is by its very nature ad hoc – are sometimes considered to be less than useful for generating solid estimates of things like species richness, rarity, or turnover (but see commentary in BMC Biology). But for many environments, these are all the data we have.
Specimens in the RAINBIO dataset date from 1782 to the present – almost 250 years of data collection. Figure 5 in the paper graphically shows how exploration of Africa unfolded, along the rivers, tragically along the west coast in association with the iniquitous trade in enslaved people, and patchily through colonial activity in the early part of the 20th century. The history of European engagement with Africa unfolding along with the plants sent to collections, first in European and later also African institutions, is a reminder that science is part of society and does not develop outside of it.
Time lapse of botanical collecting history across tropical Africa. Figure 5.
The robustness of the conclusions drawn by Sosef and colleagues is highly dependent upon the curational state of the data themselves. Taxonomic verification of the identities of samples held in RAINBIO dataset is key to this – this requires taxonomists. One of the things that most impressed me about this study was the degree to which data were validated by taxonomic experts – those scientists whose knowledge of whether or not two names in a list represent the same thing or different species, or whether a species described as a tree on a specimen label really is a tree. There have been criticisms of data served through the GBIF network, for example, but such data are only as good as the curation effort expended; to make use of these rich data sources, first catch some taxonomists and have them on the team!
The functional data analyzed from the RAINBIO dataset is novel and reveals really interesting patterns. The authors show that the proportion of herbaceous to woody plants is at the upper suggested limit (just under half, 44%). This says to me that tropical botanists need to focus on this vegetation layer as well as on those sexy big trees. An interesting comparison would be of rarity of herbaceous versus woody components of tropical vegetation. If Begonia species are anything to go by, herbs can be extremely rare and range restricted indeed!
Shockingly, the average number of collections per 0.5° square in Africa is 1.84 – that is fewer than two plant records in a square 55 kilometers on each side. Some places, of course, are better collected than others, but let’s get out there! The authors use the patterns revealed by their analysis to suggest collecting priorities for tropical Africa – they identify Tanzania, Atlantic Central Africa and West Africa as priority areas for further collecting to increase our knowledge of plant diversity.
But I might argue that looking at Figure 5, we should seriously think about increasing collecting effort at the northern edge of the African tropics – after all, that is the leading edge of climate change and the area where effects will be felt soon as the environment degrades. These aren’t the big rainforests, but these habitats and areas can be canaries for climate change.
Herbaria (and other natural history collections) represent big science – they are the CERN of natural history. These resources represent an unparalleled infrastructure for looking at how plant diversity is distributed, and are our best hope for documenting how it is changing at a global scale. Imagine if governments or private foundations invested in the digitization of all these invaluable resources, pretty straightforward for flat 2D objects like herbarium sheets, more difficult for 3D objects like insects or worms. The infrastructure thus created, especially if investment is also made in its careful curation and verification, would be the most powerful picture, however flawed it might be, of the Earth’s diversity before it is lost forever. We are crazy not to pull together to create this infrastructure to help us predict our plant’s fate.
This blog post was originally published in the On Biology blog
A little over a month ago, the Museum applied for planning permission to continue with an ambitious transformation of its outdoor spaces. Drs John Tweddle, Paul Kenrick and Sandy Knapp of the Museum’s Science Group provide the background to the project and clarify its impact on the Wildlife Garden.
This week marks 21 years since the establishment of the Museum’s Wildlife Garden – a wonderfully green and diverse space tucked away in the western corner of our South Kensington grounds. Since then these habitats have been actively managed and have matured into their current condition.
The anniversary gives us a moment to reflect on how the Museum and its partners are contributing to inspiring people to look more closely at wildlife around them – something that’s a hugely important part of our jobs – and to look forward to how we can make even more of this in the future.
by Dr Peter Jourdan, Director of Science and Policy, DeWorm3, NHM
This recent interview outlines the plans and vision for DeWorm3, a major Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Museum project that is conducting rigorous research to provide evidence for the next generation of policies to guide the global control and elimination of infection by soil-transmitted helminths – STH.
STH are intestinal worms that cause a major neglected tropical disease (NTD) affecting millions of people worldwide in less-developed countries, especially in communities with poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. This disease has major impacts on quality of life, ability to work and economic development. Continue reading “DeWorm3: interview on disease elimination with Peter Jourdan│Sustainabilty”
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
31st Annual Meeting June 20-25 2016, Berlin
Museum collections are rapidly evolving in response to new research questions, innovations in digitisation and molecular analysis, and major challenges for society. It’s essential that museums work together to ensure that new ideas are exchanged and collaboration strengthened to make development more rapid and effective.
The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) is an international society whose mission is to improve the preservation, conservation and management of natural history collections to ensure their continuing value to society. The annual conference is one of the largest gatherings of museum professionals each year and it gives us museum and conservation folk an excellent opportunity to network and share the latest cutting-edge knowledge in our field.
by Chris Hughes, Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum
Every year in early May the Museum participates in the Fossil Festival at Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. It’s an event involving thousands of members of the public with an interest in the ancient marine fossils found in the rocks along the coast near Lyme. Museum scientists occupy a large marquee on the sea front and engage in a whole range of outreach activities. The idea is to enable everybody to meet scientists, to talk about real fossils and enjoy exploring the geology and natural history of this area.
We headed down to Lyme Regis on the Tuesday before the Fossil Festival commenced. This allowed us a day to carry out some fieldwork in this world famous fossil locality before we led an outreach event at the Thomas Hardye School, in Dorset. On our field visit we had a look at some of the great fossil sites that are found all around Lyme. We decided to head out west toward the famous ammonite pavement at Monmouth beach. This was my first time in Lyme Regis and I was very excited because I had been told that these rocks were some of the best in the world for these fossils.
by Hannah Wolley, Museum Development Intern
As someone with two science degrees and a fascination for the unusual I was intrigued, when I found out that the Museum is a world leader in the research of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).
NTDs are a group of parasitic and bacterial infections that affect over 1 billion people worldwide. Infection can lead to disabling chronic conditions, delayed and cognitive development. Children are predominantly affected and impacted as they are more likely to come into contact with the parasites.
The research at the Museum has in recent years mainly focused on schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharzia), a debilitating disease caused by schistosome blood flukes that are picked up from contaminated fresh water – freshwater snails are hosts for part of the life cycle.
However, Museum research is now radically expanding to include major work on a group of NTDs called Soil Transmitted Helminths (STH) and they have recently launched DeWorm3. Aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of using integrated platforms to interrupt the transmission of STH, DeWorm3 is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
by Professor Richard Herrington, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences
The world needs copper – we all need copper. It carries the electricity and hot water in our homes through cables and pipes. It is part of all the electrical appliances we use at home and in industry – an essential ingredient in any low-carbon economy. The sources and security of supply of copper are important in economic terms and of great interest for government policy and business strategy.
Every person in the UK uses around 8kg of copper per year. Worldwide usage exceeds 24 million tonnes annually and, whilst around 41% of European copper needs are met by recycling, the demands of growing economies like China and India mean that 75% of this usage is met by mined metal. Copper can’t be grown and simply recycling what we have already extracted won’t keep pace with demands.
We have a massive digital challenge. How do we transform museum collections of millions of diverse specimens, each with complex information in many forms, into digital resources – images and data – to be used by modern science and shared across the world?
The collections have been at the centre of scientific knowledge for 300 years – how do we take them into science’s future? In the words of Rod Page from Glasgow University: how do we transform a 19th Century technology into a 21st Century technology? This is the question we have been looking at in a Cisco Pitstop at the London Digital Catapult Centre over two days in February 2016.