I'm the project manager for Identification Trainers for the Future, a new project at the Natural History Museum testing a work-based approach to training for some of the more difficult UK species groups.
I can’t believe the last 12 months have flown by so quickly! Our first 5 trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have now completed their traineeship with us and have been released into the wilds of the UK’s biodiversity sector, only now it’s with a whole host of new skills and a wealth of experience under their belts.
In the final post of our short series on the curation placements of our Identification Trainers for the Future, Chloe Rose gives us an insight into the work she has been doing in the Hymenoptera department. The Hymenoptera include all bees, ants and wasps, but Chloe has been focussing her work on the parasitic wasps, of which there are a surprising number in the UK.
I have been spending the last 2 months of my traineeship in the Hymenoptera department with Dr Gavin Broad (Senior Curator of Hymenoptera, specialist in Braconidae and Ichneumonidae). Here I have been working on a genus known as Alexeter, a group of wasps which parasitise sawflies.
These wasps fall into the Mesoleiini tribe which is part of a large subfamily known as Ctenopelmatinae. There are around 6,000 known species of parasitic wasps in the UK, a staggering number which is a huge portion of our insect diversity. However, little is known about many of these groups and few of these species have well illustrated identification keys available, making the area of study considerably less accessible. This is why I am helping Gavin to construct an easy-to-use identification guide for this poorly understood group of wasps.
In our next blog from the Identification Trainers for the Future trainees, Mike Waller gives you an insight into his curation placement. Mike has been working through lichen collections made by Francis Rose MBE. Rose (1921-2006) is perhaps best known for being the author of The Wildflower Key, for many the guide to British & Irish plants, however he was also an expert in lichens and bryophytes (mosses & liverworts) and much of his lichen collection is housed within the Museum’s cryptogamic herbarium, Mike’s work area for the last 3 months.
Deep within the dark, towering wooden cabinets of the cryptogamic collections, I’m tucked away at the end of a small corridor from where my seemingly endless journey has begun. The cryptogamic herbarium is also known as the Crypt in the Museum, but fortunately our crypt only contains the seedless plants and plant-like organisms such as mosses, lichens, ferns and fungi that are known as Cryptogams.
The ‘Crypt’ in the Museum, housing the cryptogamic herbarium
The ‘Crypt’ in the Museum, housing the cryptogamic herbarium
I’ve been tasked with preparing Francis Rose’s 5 years’ worth of Kent lichen specimens for incorporation into the main collection. With around 700 small packets containing lichen fragments from across 2 vice counties between 1965 and 1970, it’s far from simple.
Currently all five trainees from the Identification Trainers for the Future project are nestled away within various departments in the Museum on their curation placements. Here, we catch up with Katy Potts:
I have spent the past month in the Coleoptera department delving into the wonderful world of beetles. Part of my placement involves working on a project under the guidance of Max Barclay, Head of Coleoptera, assessing the beetle fauna on Bookham Common in Surrey.
Early in the season I set up four Lindgren funnel traps in the oak woodland at Bookham Common and I have returned to each trap fortnightly to empty the traps. I can only describe this process as resembling Christmas; as I unlock the collecting pot underneath the funnel I am faced with an array of invertebrates, most importantly the beetles.
Curation is a key part of the Identification Trainers for the Future programme and over the past 2 months the trainees have been on placement in the Museum collections learning how best to preserve the historical and ecological information held within them. Following on from Anthony’s review of his time with the Odonata collections, Sally Hyslop brings us up to speed with her own project:
My curation placement is in the British and Irish Herbarium, working alongside Mark Spencer, the senior curator of this impressive catalogue of pressed plant specimens.
Each specimen in the herbarium holds information – whether it be from the DNA stored within the plants themselves waiting to be extracted and studied, or the historical annotations which depict the collection event itself. All specimens in the collection have a label describing the all-important who, what, where and when.
The date, location, name of the collector and the collector’s original identification is essential information which can further our scientific understanding.
In 2009, I visited the Museum’s Darwin Centre for the first time. It had been a culmination of a pilgrimage to see as many exhibitions as possible that celebrated Charles Darwin’s bicentenary of his birth that year. Little did I realise that 6 years later, as a trainee on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, I’d be lucky enough to work in the Darwin Centre itself, re-curating some of the Museum’s 80 million specimens that form the world’s most important natural history collection.
I watched with bated breath on the 14 September 2009 as Sir David Attenborough and Prince William opened the state of the art facility. It allows over 350 scientists and researchers to study zoology, botany and entomology collections to address some of the key challenges of the 21st century such as food security, biodiversity loss and disease. As Sir David Attenborough so eloquently put it:
Never has it been so important to understand the diversity of life on earth and how it is changing, if we are to tackle many of the issues that humans face today … The Darwin Centre will inspire the next generation of naturalists and scientists through its combination of scientific expertise, specimens, public dialogue, film and interactive media. It will enable all of us to explore the wonders of our world and investigate its secrets.
It was therefore a bit surreal when my curation placement actually took me to the 7th floor of the Darwin Centre in the Entomology Research and Curation Lab, where I have been asked to re-curate the Odonata of the UK. This order is split into Zygoptera (Damselflies) and Anisoptera (Dragonflies).
Our initial cohort of ID Trainers for the Future are nearing the end of Phase 2 of their 12-month long traineeship – Chloe Rose provides an update on the work they’ve been doing so far:
Over the last six months you will have heard all about the vast array of workshops we’ve had delivered to us by the Museum’s experts, the beautiful parts of the country we’ve visited for field trips and the various different projects we’ve all been working on. It has been an action packed, whirlwind and we’ve all gained so much. But it’s now time to wrap things up as we head towards Phase 3 of the traineeship. This will mean the five of us going off on our separate ways for three months, to spend time with one of the Museum’s curation teams.
Here is where we will get the opportunity to refine our identification, fieldwork and curatorial skills to one particular species group. Between us we will be covering beetles, dragonflies, lichens and flowering plants. My project will involve working on the hymenoptera collections and looking at an understudied subfamily of parasitic wasps. I will be required to sort and describe the species and look to writing a comprehensive key for identification purposes. Watch this space for future updates on how our curation projects are going. For now, though, back to what we have been doing during August.
In the latest update from our Identification Trainers for the Future project, Sally Hyslop continues the story of the work our five trainees have performed thus far.
Trainee life in the Museum is often focused through a microscope and so, after many months of study, it was brilliant to refresh our zeal for the natural world this month with a field trip to the Dorset coast. We spent three days exploring dramatic cliffs and coastal heathlands: by day, putting our developing botany skills into practise, and by night, spotting bats and catching moths.
The Museum’s Fred Rumsey and Mark Spencer led us through heath and bog on a hunt for the elusive bog orchid, Hammarbya paludosa. By the end of the day we found 109 spikes of these miniscule and delicate, rare, green flowers. On top of this, we encountered blankets of dainty white beaked sedge, flowering bog asphodel and all three UK species of sticky, carnivorous sundews along with their two hybrids.
Our timetables, until now a collage of various colours, have become a very busy reality over the last two months. We got our teeth into another batch of long-anticipated ID workshops – Flowering Plants, Beetles, Flies and Earthworms. I think I speak for everyone when I say the skills and knowledge we’ve been passed by some of the leading scientific experts in the Museum have been rich, extensive and unique. Developing techniques to hoard as much of this golden information as possible have become paramount.
This month it is the turn of Katy Potts to give us an update on the progress of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. Since Anthony’s review of their first month with us the trainees have progressed onto Phase 2 of their programme, where their species identification training really starts in earnest and we’ve certainly been keeping them busy! The past two months have been both exciting and enlightening in educating us about the world of biological recording and species identification. It was while I was at Plymouth University that I first discovered species identification in an invertebrate taxonomy module with the ever inspiring entomologist Peter Smithers. It was under Peter’s guidance and teaching that I fell in love with the six legged insects that run our world. Moreover, it was the passion for taxonomy from Peter that inspired me to delve into this field of biology.