What have the Orchid Observers been up to? | Orchid Observers

Kath Castillo, Project Officer for Orchid Observers, gives an update on what’s been happening with the project so far:

It’s been a busy time for Orchid Observers! The project got off to a great start when the website went live on the Zooniverse platform on 23 April; the very first of the season’s field records was uploaded on day one!

The Orchid Observers Team
The Orchid Observers team. From left to right: Jade Lauren Cawthray, Jim O’Donnell (Zooniverse web developer), Lucy Robinson, Mark Spencer, John Tweddle, Kath Castillo, Chris Raper and Fred Rumsey

At the time of writing this blog we now have 567 registered users on the website who have enthusiastically completed 11,044 classifications, by verifying and transcribing data for our historical specimens and identifying species and flowering stages for around 700 photographic records already submitted by participants.

Continue reading “What have the Orchid Observers been up to? | Orchid Observers”

Wild food, wild recipes | UK Wildlife

A family of long-tailed tits were noisily searching the woodland canopy for insects, as I arrived at work – a welcoming sight and sound! Following a week’s absence from the Garden, the woodland vegetation has changed to a darker green, while the meadows and ponds are now brighter with meadow clary (Salvia verbenaca), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and an increased number of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). All these are great plants for insects to forage amongst, but what about the native plants good enough for us to eat?

Our resident foodie, forager and wildlife gardener/ecologist, Daniel Osborne, explores some of our edible plants:

“Until about 7,000 years ago, every human that lived in the British Isles hunted and gathered all of their food. They had and shared a rich knowledge of the uses and edibility of the plants in their landscape and were able to sustain themselves throughout the year. They had skills that, through the study of bushcraft and books like Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, I have become confident enough to dabble in. The results have been truly enriching.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)

In these few paragraphs I do not intend to list all edible native species, share recipes or discuss the health benefits or legality of wild food, as these are covered elsewhere with much more expertise and clarity than I could achieve. Instead I will talk about what thrills me: finding new flavours and connecting with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

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The dark side of weevils | Curator of Coleoptera

Weevil researcher Dr Chris Lyal elucidates on the darker side of weevil life-histories and they are not as friendly as you may have imagined…

Weevils are perhaps the most inoffensive of beetles – well, unless you’re a farmer, forester or horticulturalist, in which case you may take a rather dimmer view of them, since some species of this huge group are major plant pests. However, to focus on the animals themselves and ignore inconvenient economics, they seem to look out at the world through immense soulful eyes, and trundle rather erratically along like one of those clockwork plastic children’s toys with slightly more legs than are truly manageable.

Damnux species, a seed predator of dipterocarp trees in Thailand.
Damnux species, a seed predator of dipterocarp trees in Thailand.

As herbivores, they spend their lives up to their antennae in plants, nibbling at leaves and flowers, buds and roots. They may have a long projecting rostrum at the front of their heads, but they do not behave like horse-flies, bed-bugs or any of the rest of the blood-sucking brigade and try and force it through your skin and suck out your life-juices. Adult weevils are covered in scales and sometimes very brightly coloured, but they have a previous existence as a larva, chomping their vegetarian way inside fruit, stems, leaves or roots. Larvae are fat, white, legless comma-shaped beasts, almost blind and apparently interested only in food.

Again, not one of nature’s bad boys (unless, as I said, you are concerned with keeping plants alive, in which case I may be irritating you by now). However, not all is as it seems. Some weevils, it turns out, have a darker side to their nature. Some are killers. Some are cannibals.

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Big is beautiful in the world of flies | Curator of Diptera

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.

Opetiops alienus
Opetiops alienus

And for such large creatures we know very little about them.

Continue reading “Big is beautiful in the world of flies | Curator of Diptera”

Identifying microbial DNA | The Microverse

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.

A raw data file from the MiSeq machine
A raw data file from the MiSeq machine

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.

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The Identification Work Begins! | Identification Trainers for the Future

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 and Katy hunting for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches
Sally and Katy hunting for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches

The past two months have been fantastic. We are currently in Phase 2 of our programme where the core identification workshops, Field Studies Council placements and project work are taking place. Continue reading “The Identification Work Begins! | Identification Trainers for the Future”

Native and non-native bluebells | Bluebell Survey

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.

Bluebells are iconic to our woodlands. © Mike Waller
Bluebells are iconic to our woodlands. © Mike Waller

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.

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Mary Anning: the unlikeliest pioneer of palaeontology | Shop at the Museum

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.

Our gallery character 'Mary' regularly talks in front some of her own fossils
Our gallery character ‘Mary’ regularly talks in front some of her own fossils

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’.

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Bedford Girls’ School meet Dr Anne Jungblut | The Microverse

Freya Bolton and Emily Stearn, students at Bedford Girls’ School, tell us about their experience of visiting the Museum to meet with the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity team and Dr Anne Jungblut who leads the Microverse project.

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!

Florin Feneru with a draw of specimens for identification.  Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita
So much to identify so little time. Florin Feneru with a draw of specimens for identification. Photo credit: Aarti Bhogaita

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.

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Lyme Regis Fossil Festival: 10 years inspiring the next generation of scientists and naturalists | Identification Trainers for the Future

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…’

A gloriously sunny May Day bank holiday weekend for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival
A gloriously sunny May Day bank holiday weekend for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

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.

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