Lichen Adventures with Pimlico Academy | Decoding Nature

This week Dr. Della Hopkins tells us about how the Decoding Nature project takes school students out on field trips and involves them in the Museum’s science research.

In June, a group of ‘scientists in the making’ from Pimlico Academy joined up with a small band of research scientists from the Museum as part of a long running project called Decoding Nature. Decoding Nature is a Museum-run venture which delivers residential science courses to school children aged 8-18.

The courses take place at The Old Malthouse School near Wareham in Dorset, and combine learning with original, ongoing scientific research. Over the years the project has evolved and included a wide range of scientists with varied areas of expertise. Each course is different, ensuring that the children are taking part in cutting edge research that will be used for publication.

Amazing lichen communities on Dorset trees - a winning photo from the photography competition. Image credit: Coco from Pimlico.
Amazing lichen communities on Dorset trees – a winning photo from the photography competition. Image credit: Coco from Pimlico.

For this particular course our budding scientists from Pimlico Academy were set several tasks, to aid renowned Lichenologist Holger Thues with several important research questions.

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A very busy time! | Identification Trainers for the Future

Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have been extremely busy since our last blog post, here’s Mike Waller with an update on what they have been getting up to!

The trainees puzzle over their latest capture (L-R: Sally, Anthony, Mike and Katy)
The trainees puzzle over their latest capture (L-R: Sally, Anthony, Mike and Katy)

Our timetables, until now a collage of various colours, have become a very busy reality over the last two months. We got our teeth into another batch of long-anticipated ID workshops – Flowering Plants, Beetles, Flies and Earthworms. I think I speak for everyone when I say the skills and knowledge we’ve been passed by some of the leading scientific experts in the Museum have been rich, extensive and unique. Developing techniques to hoard as much of this golden information as possible have become paramount.

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What to look out for in July | Orchid Observers

For July, the Orchid Observers team are simultaneously excited and fretting. We’re excited because we’re planning field trips to see the next orchids on our hit list, but we’re also concerned about the flower spikes scorching in the sun and wilting. It might be a race against the sun this month to catch July’s finest orchids. Not only that but this month’s highlight species are some of the trickiest to spot and identify. Please don’t let this deter you, take up the challenge and see if you can locate and photograph these beauties.

Bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa)

The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) is the tiniest of the UK orchid species. © Mike Waller.
The bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) is the tiniest of the UK orchid species. © Mike Waller.

Being the tiniest of the UK orchids, the bog orchid can be rather inconspicuous. It’s just 4-8cm tall and green and there are only 25 flowers on the flower spike, which are said to smell sweet and cucumber-like. Continue reading “What to look out for in July | Orchid Observers”

DNA on the dinosaurs: swabbing Crystal Palace’s icons | The Microverse

Crystal Palace Transition Kids and Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs swab the first ever dinosaur sculptures the world had ever seen, to help us identify The Microverse. Ainslie Beattie of Crystal Palace Transition Kids and Ellinor Michel of the Museum and a member of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs report on the event:

Looming out across the lake in front of us are dinosaurs, 160 year old dinosaurs! They look huge, ominous and exciting! These were the first ever reconstructions of extinct animals, the first animals with the name ‘dinosaur’ and they launched the ‘Dinomania’ that has enthralled us ever since.

Never before had the wonders of the fossil record been brought to life for the public to marvel at. These were the first ‘edu-tainment’, built to inform and amaze, in Crystal Palace Park in 1854. They conveyed messages of deep time recorded in the geologic record, of other animals besides people dominating past landscapes, of beauty and struggle among unknown gigantic inhabitants of lost worlds.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were built in 1854 to inform and amaze. © Stefan Ferreira
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were built in 1854 to inform and amaze. © Stefan Ferreira

Most people just get to look at them from vantage points across a waterway, but not us! Transition Kids (part of Crystal Palace Transition Town) and Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs arranged special access to collect data for the Museum’s ‘The Microverse’ project.

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Neglected Tropical Diseases on display at the Museum | Super-flies and Parasites

On 25 June the Museum will open its doors to a special event in celebration of the international and global commitment between countries, industry, charities and academia to work together against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). This commitment was first agreed upon in London in 2012 and has since been termed the London Declaration On NTDs.

World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020
World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020

By joining forces to fight NTDs the world would achieve a huge reduction in health inequality paving the way to sustainable improvements in health and development especially amongst the worlds poor. The 25 June sees the launch of the third progress report, ‘Country Leadership and Collaboration on Neglected Tropical Diseases’. A pragmatic overview of what has been done, what has worked, what hasn’t and what key areas still need to be achieved.

The Museum is thrilled to be participating in this event, having a long-standing history in parasitic and neglected tropical disease research. As both a museum and an institute of research our mission is to answer questions of broad significance to science and society using our unique expertise and collections and to share and communicate our findings to inspire and inform the public. We are excited to be hosting a day of free public events on Neglected Tropical Diseases. Continue reading “Neglected Tropical Diseases on display at the Museum | Super-flies and Parasites”

Bedford Girls’ School Q&A with Dr Anne Jungblut | The Microverse

Citizen Science Project Manager Lucy Robinson introduces a Q&A with Dr Anne Jungblut for the Microverse:

The Microverse logo

In an earlier blog post, a group of students from Bedford Girls’ School described their recent visit to the Museum. The girls had taken part in The Microverse, collecting samples of microorganisms from buildings and sending them to the Museum for DNA analysis, and were keen to meet the scientists involved to find out more. We arranged for them to meet the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Anne Jungblut, to ask her some questions about the project and her wider research.

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New paper: Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction | Meteorites

Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.

A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.
A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.

The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.

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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.

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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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