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)

New study shows the value of historical sediment collections | Curator of Micropalaeontology

A study published this week in Frontiers of Ocean Science based on our Ocean Bottom Deposits Collection has shown the value of  historical sediment collections to provide a benchmark to assess global changes in the seafloor environment.

Sediment bottles
A bottle from the Ocean Bottom Deposits Collection that is housed at our outstation.

Read on to find out how NHM/Southampton PhD student Marina Rillo used the microfossil content of these collections to develop a method to assess their usefulness in providing details of the state of the ocean floor as long as 150 years ago.

Continue reading “New study shows the value of historical sediment collections | Curator of Micropalaeontology”

The mystery of the microfossil Christmas cards | Curator of Micropaleontology

At this time of year our famous microfossil Christmas card slides always get a lot of attention. An article in Smithsonian Magazine this week followed a very popular Tweet in early December and perhaps the most famous of the slides is about to be displayed in Museum’s Touring Treasures exhibition in Bahrain in early 2019.

Christmas card slide
Arthur Earland foraminiferal Christmas card slide sent to Edward Heron-Allen in 1921.

This year, three additional Christmas greeting slides were added to our collection as part of an exceptionally generous donation by the Quekett Microscopical Club. They returned Arthur Earland’s foraminiferal collection to its place alongside long term collaborator Edward Heron-Allen’s collection at the Museum by purchasing the collection from the estate of Brian Davidson and donating it to the Museum.

Read on to find out why most of this new acquisition can be considered upside-down, contains more evidence of the two scientists falling out and the mystery of the three “new” Christmas greeting slides.

Continue reading “The mystery of the microfossil Christmas cards | Curator of Micropaleontology”

Stranded Sharks | Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme

Across the UK, many different creatures wash up on our shores. The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) is responsible for documenting stranded animals in the UK and retrieves a portion of those that strand for post-mortem examination every year. The main bulk of the project is made up of cetaceans – a group of marine mammals comprised of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

However, many people don’t realise the project also responds to strandings of sharks. Since 2007, the CSIP has recorded the stranding of basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) across the UK and more recently secured funding  to expand the research to other large-bodied sharks such as porbeagles (Lamna nasus), angel sharks (Squatina squatina) and blue sharks (Prionace glauca).

WARNING: This blog contains photographs of dead stranded sharks which you may find upsetting

Continue reading “Stranded Sharks | Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme”

“Mr. Cooper, meet ALICE.” – Part 2 | Digital Collections Programme

Guest Blog by Phaedra Kokkini

This is the second part of the story behind about the ALICE pilot project. While the first part focused on piloting our ‘Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction’ or ALICE, this part will focus on the collection and collector. Quite unexpectedly, while preparing our chosen collection for imaging I got to know a person through his collection of pinned insects. Continue reading ““Mr. Cooper, meet ALICE.” – Part 2 | Digital Collections Programme”

“Mr. Cooper, meet ALICE.” – Part 1 | Digital Collections Programme

Guest Blog by Phaedra Kokkini

If you visit our Digitisation Team, you might be drawn to one of our more curious imaging setups, the ‘Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction’ or to close friends: ALICE.

ALICE came about through the collaboration of  Small Orders Curator Dr Ben Price and Digital Collections Project Manager Dr Steen Dupont in order to automate some of the processes to speed up our pinned insect digitisation.

A peculiar setup that used to feature a bucket and six cameras is now a hexagonal light box with cameras that can image pinned insect specimens at multiple angles to digitally extract the attached labels and could provide a breakthrough to an even faster specimen digitisation.

Dr Steen Dupont describes ALICE

I was very excited to start this project as the first test of ALICE’s true potential. What I didn’t expect was that the collection chosen to test ALICE would reveal some stunning wasps and an intriguing untold story of its previous owner. Continue reading ““Mr. Cooper, meet ALICE.” – Part 1 | Digital Collections Programme”