A million threatened species? Thirteen questions and answers

Prof. Andy Purvis

Coordinating Lead Author, IPBES Global Assessment and Life Sciences Research Leader at The Natural History Museum, London

@AndyPurvisNHM

The IPBES Global Assessment estimated that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. It also documents how human actions have changed many aspects of nature and its contributions to people; but species threatened with extinction resonate with the media and the public in ways that degradation of habitats and alteration of rates of ecosystem processes perhaps don’t, so the figure was widely reported.

IPBES is the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent intergovernmental body that was established in 2012 to strenthen links between science and policy to support conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being, and sustainable development

Because only the Summary for Policymakers has so far been made available, it wasn’t clear where the figure of 1 million threatened species came from. Some journalists and researchers asked me, so I explained it to them, and will explain it again here. Some other writers, often with a long history of commenting critically on reports highlighting environmental concerns, instead railed against the Global Assessment in general and the figure of 1 million threatened species in particular. Given that these writers often advance empty or bogus arguments, I thought it would be also be useful to explain why these arguments are wrong.

I have therefore written this blog post in the form of thirteen questions and answers.

Continue reading “A million threatened species? Thirteen questions and answers”

UK Pyralidae and Crambidae…much more than little brown moths!| Digital Collection Programme  

A guest blog by Nicola Lowndes

Thistle ermine
This beautiful thistle ermine (Myelois circumvoluta) can be spotted during the day on thistles in gardens and parklands across Southern Britain.

The digitisation team are currently imaging the Museum’s collections of British and Irish Pyralidae (snout moths) and Crambidae (grass moths). The team were sure this would be one of their less exciting projects as at first glance the moths looked small and brown. However, the team were pleasantly surprised to find many interesting and beautiful species in these collections, including the thistle ermine. Continue reading “UK Pyralidae and Crambidae…much more than little brown moths!| Digital Collection Programme  “

A kaleidoscope of beautiful birdwings

cover page 2

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.

Continue reading “A kaleidoscope of beautiful birdwings”

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”

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)