I’ve just recurated an entire family of flies – and in only three days! It’s not often I can do that (I have been recurating the world bee-fly collection for over three years now and it’s still ongoing), but then there were only 14 species of this family in the Museum collection. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but after all the shuffling around over the last 40 years with the taxonomy there are only 20 described species within 2 genera.
So in terms of species numbers, it’s a very small family… but in terms of individuals, they are far from small. The family I am talking about are Pantophthalmidae, and they are some of the largest flies on the planet (although I think that Mydidae can rival them). There is no real common name; they are more often than not shortened to Pantophthalmid flies, but are sometimes referred to as timber flies or giant woodflies.
And for such large creatures we know very little about them.
Volunteer Stephen Chandler tells us how he has been supporting The Microverse project by using computer software to identify the taxonomic groupings of the DNA sequences revealed in the sequencing machine.
Due to the size of microorganisms, we have until recent years relied on microscopes to identify different species. The advancement of scientific technologies however has made it possible for scientists to extract DNA from microorganisms, amplify that DNA into large quantities and then put the samples into a sequencing machine to reveal the genetic sequences. In The Microverse project, my role begins when the sequencer has finished processing the samples.
When the gene sequencer has finished decoding the PCR products it creates a file much like a typical excel file. The main difference is that this file can be incredibly large as it contains millions of DNA sequences belonging to hundreds if not thousands of species. This requires a powerful computer to run the analysis to identify what is in the sample.
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.
Sally Hyslop, one of the trainees on our Identification Trainers for the Future programme, gives an update on the results of our 9-year-long Bluebell Survey:
The arrival of bluebells each spring is an iconic sight. The floods of nodding colour characterise our ancient woodlands, support a commotion of insect life and make up an important part of Britain’s natural heritage. Our native bluebell species is widespread in Britain; in fact half of the world’s population is found here. But the introduction of non-native bluebells, planted in our parks and gardens, may be threatening our native species.
The introduced Spanish bluebell is deceptively similar to our native species, except for a few subtle differences in its features. It is broader in size, its petals flare out a little more, and the pollen is not white, but characteristically blue.
Spanish bluebells can breed freely with our native species, creating a hybrid plant with features from both species. Since the Bluebell Survey started in 2006, citizen scientists have been carefully identifying bluebells across Britain and recording the whereabouts of native, non-native and hybrid forms. This helps us to investigate these changes.
Mary Anning was born in 1799 to a family of poor dissenters. Despite living in a time when women were not readily recognized for their scientific contribution, Anning made an incredible discovery that led to her becoming one of the most important names in palaeontology. On the 216th anniversary of her birthday, the Museum’s online shop takes a look at her life and work and how it is still influencing scientists today.
Anning was not meant for the scientific field. She was the wrong sex, class, religion, and she was even almost killed when she was struck by lightning as a baby. However, she was clearly a born survivor as she and her brother Joseph were the only children to survive out of ten siblings. It was her cabinet-maker father, Richard, that taught Mary how to find and clean up the fossils they found on the Lyme Regis coast. They sold their ‘curiosities’ along the seafront, possibly inspiring the tongue twister, ‘She sells seashells on the seashore’.
On 30 April, we (eleven International Baccalaureate students from Bedford Girls’ School) had the opportunity to come and visit the Natural History Museum, having participated in the Museum’s exciting project ‘The Microverse’. For many of us, despite the fact we’d visited many times previously, we knew this time it was going to be something slightly different, being able to explore the Museum in a new, unique and fascinating light. Having spoken to Jade Cawthray, she kindly agreed to arrange a behind the scenes tour especially for us!
We were greeted by Lucy Robinson, who explained to us, as we travelled through the Museum, that within there were over 80 million different plant, animal, fossil and mineral specimens. After this, we were introduced to Dr Florin Feneru at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, who confessed that he would receive specimens sent in from thousands of people each year, from the UK and abroad, in the hope that he could identify what exactly they were.
As we enjoyed the bank holiday weekend just gone, we were reminded of the previous one where our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project travelled to the ‘Jurassic Coast’ to help out at the annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. One of our trainees Anthony Roach has been going to the festival since 2009 and gives us an insight here into how things have changed over the years…
The reaction of friends who aren’t natural history geeks is often brilliant! Looking at me rather quizzically they’ve said, ‘So. You’re going to a Fossil Festival?!’ ‘Yes,’ I reply. Some respond with, ‘cooool…so what do you do exactly? Talk about rocks and fossils?’ ‘Do you go fossil hunting?’ ‘Do you show people dinosaurs?’ Yes, yes, and well, sometimes we have bits of them! ‘And you’re doing this for 3 days?’ Yes and it is brilliant. With wry smiles they usually say ‘right…cool…interesting…’
The truth is, despite my friend’s reaction, it is a lot more than just a few rocks, fossils and bits of dinosaurs! The Fossil Festival celebrates the unique scientific discoveries that can be read in the rocks at Lyme Regis and how they’ve shaped our understanding of geological time. The festival also takes inspiration from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site to inspire future generations of scientists, geologists, naturalists and artists.
Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have now finished Phase 1 of their programme and are busy working on Phase 2. During Phase 1 they had the opportunity for a fantastic introduction to the work and collections of the Museum as well as an introduction to biological recording and collections principles.
In Phase 2 they will be focussing more on their identification skills through a series of workshops as well as getting involved in the work of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. In this blog post Anthony gives an overview of their experiences in Phase 1 as well as looking forward to some of the work he will be doing in Phase 2.
Prior to starting on the ID Trainers for the Future programme, I have already been lucky enough to work at the Museum as a Science Educator for over 4 years and, through my new role as a trainee in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, I have been given the opportunity to develop new skills, gain experience of practical field work and wildlife recording. Most of all, I have glimpsed the wonderful – exploring the Museum’s scientifically, historically and culturally significant collections behind the scenes.
I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome in the AMC, and the programme for the first phase has been a thoroughly engaging mix of professional development and collections-based training. Besides learning the craft of pinning and identifying insects, I have recieved training on organising field work, field work first aid and how to handle and use biological data with expertise from the National Biodiversity Network.
Advances in DNA sequencing technology are occurring at an incredible speed and Kevin Hopkins is one of the Museum’s Next Generation Sequencing Specialists working with the sequencing technologies used at the Museum to produce relevant data for our Microverse research.
“The challenge is being able to bring together the technology, often developed in biomedical settings, and the samples at the Museum, where limited and often damaged DNA from specimens is the only chance we have of sequencing them. My job involves designing methods that work for our unusual samples, extracting DNA and producing sequencing ready samples from it, and running our MiSeq and NextSeq next generation sequencing platforms.”
What is DNA sequencing?
DNA sequencing is the process of reading the order of nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) in a particular strand of DNA. Sequencing can be used for many different applications, such as defining a specific gene or a whole genome. The best way to sequence DNA is in sections; this is because there are a number of challenges to sampling the whole genome of a species in one go.
We take a diversion this week from the Microverse and our newest project, Orchid Observers, to introduce one of the projects that wouldn’t get anywhere without the general public reporting sightings, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). Cetaceans are the infraorder of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the Museum has been involved in recording their strandings on UK shores for over a century. So it’s over to Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Strandings Support Officer at the Museum, to introduce the project and what she does as a part of it.
Warning: You may find some of the images that follow upsetting as they are of stranded and injured animals.
The CSIP was created in 1990 to unite the Museum with a consortium of interested parties to formally investigate the stranding of any cetacean, seal, shark and turtle upon the UK coastline. The Museum has actually been recording strandings since 1913 when the Crown granted it scientific research rights for the collection of data on the ‘fishes royal’.
The first recording was a Cuvier’s beaked whale that stranded in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1913. Since then there have been over 12,000 logged reports of whale, dolphin and porpoise strandings, that have ranged from the mighty blue whale to the common harbour porpoise, and even a rogue beluga whale found in Scotland.