This pre-lockdown publication from the Micropaleontology team at the Museum has received a lot of press and social media attention. CT scans of the calcareous shells of microscopic plankton called Foraminifera have shown that modern examples can be considerably thinner than their equivalents recovered by the ground breaking Challenger Expedition of the 1870s. We argue this thinning is due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and subsequently more acidic oceans.
Read on to find out about the methods used and why this discovery is so significant for the future of our oceans and planet.
I joined the NHM two years ago, passionate about the natural world and all its diversity, yet fearful for its future as a result of the catastrophic loss of species and their habitats due to human action. And the past two years have not been a disappointment. I have found a passionate community at the NHM highly committed to protecting and promoting diversity in nature – it’s at the heart of our vision of a world where people and planet thrive.
Yet, the vastly increased awareness raised through the Black Lives Matter movement following the brutal murder of George Floyd has highlighted the stark inequalities across our society. It’s been a wake-up call that we haven’t been focussed enough on diversity for people at our Museum. If we are truly ‘for people and planet’ then we need to be.
And that this has happened when we are in the midst of a global pandemic which is widening further the inequality gap, drives home the point even more starkly.
Museums are places for society to come together, reflect, debate and discuss, but they can only be so if they are inclusive of the society within which they sit. We have a lot of work to do in diversifying our workforce, audiences, and the way we understand and talk about our collection until that is true.
What were your highlights from the City Nature Challenge this year? Although I missed taking part in a public BioBlitz at the Natural History Museum, I enjoyed my own mini BioBlitz in my little London garden – making 99 observations and managing to identify 80 different species. My favourite find was a tiny Bethylid wasp which was the first one I have ever seen. These wasps are just a few millimetres long and are known as ‘flat wasps’ because of their squashed appearance. They are parasitoids of beetle larvae or moth caterpillars.
The Museum’s new strategy to 2031 has been announced, with a call to arms to take action against the current environmental crisis facing our planet.
In the lead up to the announcement, the Connect product team in the Digital Media department were tasked with a brief: to deliver an impactful “takeover” of the Museum’s homepage which grabbed the attention of the user while not only conveying a sense that urgent action was needed, but delivering a message of hope for the planet’s future, not despair.
High-resolution SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) investigations, along with high-resolution CT imaging of a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite have revealed “fossilised” ice, showing for the first time direct evidence that when early asteroids formed they incorporated frozen water into their matrix. This has allowed Dr Epifanio Vaccaro, Curator of Petrology at the Natural History Museum, along with colleagues in Japan, to create a model of how the asteroids grew and the planets formed, including our own planet Earth.
Some of the Museum’s invaluable butterfly reference material, previously only accessible to a handful of scientists, has been released onto the Museum’s Data Portal. Over 90% of these specimens were designated as types in the 21st Century, but this is the first time that images of many of these species have been freely accessible to the global community.
My type on paper
When scientists describe and name a new species, they aren’t actually describing every individual that belongs to that species. Instead they select one or a few specimens with ‘typical’ characteristics representing a species to write a detailed description. These name-bearing specimens are known as types, and are used as a reference when identifying and grouping other individuals into that species.
A type bears not only a name, but a big responsibility. If you want to identify and name specimens you have observed or collected you need to look to the type (or an illustration of it) and compare the key characteristics that make that species unique and different from others. For this reason, types are arguably some of the most important specimens in a collection and a priority for digitisation projects.
Recently, the Museum’s butterfly types have been separated from the main collection into a new seperate collection, making it easier to find, use and reference them. To make these types even more accessible, it was also decided that this collection would be digitised and made available on data.nhm.ac.uk – separate curation first makes digitisation of these collections much more efficient, removing the need to ‘pick and choose’ from many different collections drawers.
We digitised 1000 specimens, covering 220 species. These specimens were collected from 46 countries, representing all continents. The oldest type in this project was designated in 1939 and the newest in 2017.
What’s in a name?
Digitisation isn’t just about capturing an image of a specimen. Before these butterflies were ready for their close ups, extensive curatorial work was needed to prepare the collection, ensuring that each specimen is associated with the correct taxonomic information (e.g. the species and genus names are correct).
Among these specimens, we found various examples that illustrated the importance of this digitisation project. For example, six specimens used to describe the species Cacyreus niebuhri, an African species, in 1982, had no identification labels or registration information when they were found in the mixed collections – they had lost their name!
As part of this project, an investigation was mounted to discover the true identity of these six butterfly types. Fortunately, information about when and where the specimens were collected was available on the labels pinned underneath each butterfly, with a small label from the author stating they were part of a type series.
The specimen labels indicated that they were collected in the Republic of Yemen by “T.B. Larsen” in 1980. A former Scientific Associate of the Museum, Dr Torben Larsen was a world renowned expert on butterflies of Africa and wrote many books on the subject. A search of his name, along with the collection event details from the specimen labels, threw up the only book on butterflies written from the area and at the time of the species’ description in 1982. Although the book is currently out of print, “The Butterflies of the Yemen Arab Republic” is available at the Museum library and had been digitised so we were able to search the text. As we knew the family that these butterflies belong to, we were able to find the description and images of the mysterious specimens and their name. Cacyreus niebuhri – named for the 18th century Danish topographer Carsten Niebuhr, one of five men who took part in an ill-fated expedition to Yemen that saw him as the sole survivor.
Further searching online revealed that Larsen’s book is the only place that any images of this species can be found, including recent revisions and websites describing the species. The images included in the book are of a quality that makes it hard to identify important diagnostic characteristics, and resolution is even lower in the digitised copy of the book. Type specimens are the reference material for any specimen identification, so without access to a detailed image, identifying anything as C. niebuhri becomes extremely difficult, leading to misidentifications or no identifications at all. The quality of the images that we have released on data.nhm.ac.uk help to address this problem.
The Museum’s image of the paratype specimen of Cacyreus niebuhri
The only reference image available for C. niebuhri before this project.
Above left: The Museum’s image of the paratype specimen of Cacyreus niebuhri. Right: The only reference image available for C. niebuhri before this project.
Sharing is caring
By sharing data about our specimens we provide a resource that can be used by the scientific community and the public in a number of ways. One of the reasons museum collections remain such an important scientific resource is because they provide a window into a species’ past, allowing us to compare them over time and space, revealing if and how their distributions have altered with the rapidly changing environment. This all starts with being able to give members of the same species the correct name, so that the comparisons are meaningful.
C. niebuhri, a member of the Lycaenidae family, is endemic to the Republic of Yemen, only occurring on the upper reaches of the wetter mountains of that country. These mountains form part of the Arabian Peninsula ecoregion, a region that supports thousands of unique plants and animals and one that is increasingly under pressure from deforestation and soil erosion. Any work aiming to mitigate these pressures on endemic species needs first to know what species occur in this area so that their populations can be monitored. Comparing individuals currently in the area to a name- bearing type specimen should make this easier.
Dingana alaedeus is another example of an endemic species that the Museum holds type material for. Commonly known as the Wakkerstroom widow, this butterfly is found only in South Africa’s high altitude grasslands at elevations of about 2,000 meters and classified as “Near Threatened” during the 2013 Conservation Assessment of Butterflies for South Africa. Similar to the previous example there is little information relating to this species online, with the same single image being used on several different online resources. In fact, for most of the 220 species we have digitised during this project the images that we have uploaded to the Museum’s Data Portal are the first and only images to be easily accessible online.
Unlocking the Museum’s collections and making them available to all is the mission behind many of our digitisation projects and is one of the Museum’s strategic priorities. There are over 1.5 billion natural history specimens in collections around the world. They have the potential to play a critical role in addressing the most important challenge that humans face over the next years: how to map a sustainable future for ourselves and our changing planet. To see the butterfly types digitised during this project, and over 4.3 million other specimens, visit the Museum’s Data Portal.
Last week the Museum internally launched its new strategy to 2031. It called us to make our data, insight, knowledge and expertise openly available. Strategic priorities included transforming the study of natural history to benefit people and planet as well as training future generations of scientists.
I immediately felt compelled to write about a paper we jointly published on-line this week in the journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology that features our collections. We provided data for a project run by Yale University to create a portal of calcareous plankton called Foraminifera. It can be used to train the scientists of the future and test a machine learning classifier that could generate large datasets vital for research on our oceans.