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.
The rich warbling song of the blackcap has welcomed us into work over the past 2 weeks! (you can hear an Eurasian blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, as recorded by Patrick Aberg here). Not only that but we’ve had robins nesting just above the threshold of our shed with the accompanying chatter of baby birds anticipating food, holly blue butterflies visiting clusters of fresh holly flowers, sightings of orange tip, brimstone, peacock and speckled wood butterflies, tadpoles in the main pond, the occasional glimpse of a fox cub, and many more signs that Spring has well and truly sprung.
The mosaic of ground flora throughout the different habitats in the Garden is changing by the day with a particular blue haze and glorious scent of bluebells in the woodland areas.
Last month a new temporary display featuring some of our foraminiferal specimens and models was placed in the Museum gallery. This features real microfossils on one of our foraminiferal Christmas card slides alongside 20 scale models, part of a set of 120 models generously donated to us last year by Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi.
As a curator dealing with items generally a millimetre or less in size I have not often been involved in developing exhibits other than to provide images or scale models like the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Displaying magnified models is one of the best ways to show the relevance of some of the smallest specimens in the Museum collection, the beauty and composition of foraminifera and to highlight our unseen collections.
The Museum’s Patron, the Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to her second child just a few days ago, so the Museum’s online shop has been gearing up with gift ideas for newborns. With bibs, toys and T-shirts it’s never too early to introduce your littlest to the prehistoric world. We also take a look at some of the incredible facts about the first six months of your little hatchling’s life.
The date in the title of this post marks the sad passing of one of the Museum’s tiniest volunteers: in early February I discovered Beetah, my Carabus violaceous, lying still on her coconut substrate and to be honest, a little dried out.
OK, I have decided to create #WorldRobberFlyDay. All the time now, we hear that this large mammal or that large mammal has a ‘day’, and that got me thinking. Buglife have an Invertebrate of the Month, but even they are not very often the lesser-known insects, including the flies.
And I wanted global. Let the world celebrate! Why is it always the large stuff or the pretty (and, in my opinion, slightly less important) species? So I thought about it and decided it was about time that we championed more aggressively the rights of the small and endangered flies. These creatures are some of the most charismatic animals on the planet. The robberflies, or Asilidae, are truly worth celebrating for their looks, for their behaviour, for their good deeds to us, and because many of them are threatened.
The UK boasts 28 species of Asilidae (OK, so that’s not a lot in terms of flies, but hold on – we have only 30 native terrestrial mammals, of which 17 are bats and 2 are native marine mammals). Globally there are more than 7,500 species, and as such, it is one of the largest families of insects today. In fact Torsten Dikow, a world expert on this group, has them as the third most speciose group of diptera. This is a group, therefore, that has a large impact on the environment in which they live.