Celebrating 160 years of the Museum

Temple of Science banner showing painted, decorative arched window

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a very unusual and troubled year, but it is also the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Museum, so we wanted to snatch a little breather from the difficulties of the pandemic, if possible, to take a positive look at the past and future of the Museum.

We have made a few special productions to mark this. Our new temporary exhibition – Truth to Nature – opens in the centre court on 18 October, and is accompanied by this online version for those who can’t make it to the Museum. The displays chart the philosophies and artistry underpinning the creation of the Museum in the mid-19th century and reflect on the role of natural history museums today, including the need for greater equity in science.

Taking a look at the unique and treasured building itself, this short film reveals some of the hidden secrets of the Museum’s architecture:

And finally, this week we have released a new five-part video podcast series looking in greater detail at the history of the Museum’s art and architecture, written and presented by John Holmes, Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at Birmingham University, who is also an Honorary Associate of the Museum.

We’ll be sharing an episode a week here and on our social media channels, but you can dive into the series here or watch Episode 1, Oxford’s Pre-Raphaelite Natural History Museum, below.

 

Drawn to life

A set of illustrated cartoons of the heads of eleven people with their names handwritten underneath

By Rachel Simpson

Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…

I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.

Barma Booties used on the rocks at Mistaken Point, and my first drawing of the series.

I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.

The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.

Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.

Annelid worms drawn with Tombow brush pens.

Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.

I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.

Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.

For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.

As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.

During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.

Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!

It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane – and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.

Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.

Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.

Two images of coloured drawings of extinct marine creatures side by side
Comparison between week 2, Luke Parry’s talk (left), and Week 9, Derek Briggs’ talk (right): What a difference 16 weeks of drawing practice makes!

The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.

To see more of Rachel’s illustrations visit www.rachelerinillustration.co.uk.

Bees use shark ‘supersense’ to help find food

This article is taken from European research magazine Horizon as part of our partnership to share natural environment science stories with readers of More than a Dodo.

Armed with sensitive antennae and wide-angled compound eyes, bees have a sophisticated set of senses to help them search out pollen and nectar as they buzz from flower to flower.

But new research is revealing that bumblebees may employ another hidden sense that lets them detect when a flower was last visited by another insect.

Professor Daniel Robert, an expert in animal behaviour and senses at the University of Bristol, UK, has discovered that bumblebees have the ability to sense weak electrostatic fields that form as they fly close to a flower.

‘A bee has a capacity, even without landing, to know whether a flower has been visited in the past minutes or seconds, by measuring the electric field surrounding the flower,’ Prof. Robert explained.

The discovery is one of the first examples of electroreception in air. This sense has long been known in fish such as sharks and rays, which can detect the weak electrical fields produced by other fish in the water. Water-dwelling mammals such as platypus and dolphins have also been found to use electric fields to help them hunt for prey.

But rather than hunting for fish, bees appear to use their ability to sense electrical fields to help them find flowers that are likely to be rich in pollen and nectar.

Charge
Bees develop an electrostatic charge because as they fly they lose electrons due to the air rubbing against their bodies, leading to a small positive electric charge. The effect is a bit like rubbing a party balloon against your hair or jumper, except the charge the bees accumulate is around 10,000 times weaker.

Flowers, by comparison, are connected to the ground, a rich source of electrons, and they tend to be negatively charged.

These electrostatic charges are thought to help bees collect pollen more easily. Negatively charged pollen sticks to the positively charged bee because opposite charges attract. Once the pollen sticks to the bee, it too becomes more positively charged during flight, making it more likely to stick to the negatively charged female part of a flower, known as a stigma.

Bees develop a positive electric charge as they fly, which helps them to collect pollen from negatively charged flowers. Image credit – Pxfuel.com/DMCA

But Prof. Robert and his colleagues wondered whether there could be more to this interaction. When they put an electrode in a flower, they detected a current flowing through the plant whenever a bumblebee approached in the air. Their study revealed that the oppositely charged flower and bee generate an electrostatic field between them that exerts a tiny attractive force. 

To study whether the bees are aware of this electrostatic field, they then offered bumblebees discs with or without sugar rewards. Those with sugar also had 30 volts of electricity flowing through them to create an electrical field. They showed that the bees could sense electrical field and learn that it was associated with a reward. Without the charge, bees were no longer able to correctly identify the sugary disc.

Research by another group published shortly after Prof. Robert’s own work also showed that honey bees are also able to detect an electrical field. But exactly how the insects were able to do this remained a mystery, leading Prof. Robert to set up the ElectroBee project.

Very few animals have the capacity to read the stars and use it to find, north, south, east or west.
Professor Eric Warrant, Lund University, Sweden

Hairs
He has discovered that fine hairs on the bees’ bodies move in the presence of weak electrical fields. Each of these hairs has nerves at its base that are so sensitive they can detect tiny movements – as little as seven nanometres – caused by the electrical field.

Prof. Robert believes that when a bee visits a flower, it may cancel out some of the negative charge and so reduce the electrostatic field that forms when bees approach. This change in the strength of the electrostatic field could allow other bees flying past to work out whether a flower is worth visiting before they land, helping to save time and energy.

Other signals, such as changes in the colour and smell of flowers, happen in minutes or hours, while switches in electric potential occurs within seconds.

Prof. Robert and his team are now testing their theory that the electric field helps bees know which flowers to visit by counting visits by bumblebees to flowers in a meadow this summer and measuring electric fields around the flowers.

Their findings could help scientists better understand the relationship between plants and pollinating insects, which may prove crucial for improving the production of many vital fruit crops that rely upon bees for pollination.

Prof. Robert is also investigating whether bumblebees use their electrostatic charge to communicate to their nest sisters about the best places to fly for pollen.

But while bumblebees use their extraordinary sensory power to find food just a few kilometres from their nests, another insect is using another hidden sense to make far longer journeys.

The Bogong moth can travel more than 1,000km to hibernate in caves during the Australian summer. Image credit – Lucinda Gibson & Ken Walker, Museum Victoria/Wikimedia, licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0

In Australia, Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) flitter steadily from various parts of the country and make their way towards the Snowy Mountains in the southeast. They fly for many days or even weeks to reach the high alpine valleys of the highest mountain range in the country, sometimes travelling over 1,000km. Once there, the insects hibernate in caves typically above 1,800m for the Australian summer, before making the return journey.

The only other insect known to migrate so far is the monarch butterfly in North America. But while the monarch butterfly relies in part on the sun’s position for navigation, the moths fly by night. Professor Eric Warrant, a zoologist at Lund University in Sweden, has been fascinated with how these insects, just a couple of centimetres in length, managed such a feat ever since he was a student in Canberra, Australia.

Moth mystery
He suspected that the moths might use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way, so his team tethered moths to a stalk that allowed them to fly and turn in any direction before surrounding them with magnetic coils to manipulate Earth’s magnetic field.

For two years, experiments failed. While the moths did appear to be influenced by the magnetic field, they were using something else to navigate too – their vision.

‘It is a little like how we would go hiking,’ said Prof. Warrant, who is trying to unravel how the moths sense the Earth’s magnetic fields in his project MagneticMoth. ‘We’d take a reading from a compass, then look for something to walk towards in that direction, a tree or mountain peak.’

His research has already shown that the moths check their internal compass every two or three minutes and continue to make for a visual cue ahead. But what are the insects able to see at night?

Further research revealed something remarkable. When Prof. Warrant downloaded an open source planetarium programme called Stellarium and projected the Australian night sky above the moths, he discovered they were using the stars.

‘Very few animals have the capacity to read the stars and use it to find, north, south, east or west,’ said Prof. Warrant. ‘We (humans) learnt how to do it. Some birds do it.’

But insect eyes of bogongs mean they don’t simply follow one guiding star. Rather they are sensitive to panoramic scenes.

‘In the southern hemisphere, the Milky Way is much more distinct than it is here in the northern hemisphere,’ said Prof. Warrant. ‘It really is a stripe of pale light in which there are interspersed very bright stars.’ He believes that the moths are at least in part guided to their cool alpine caves by the light of the Milky Way.

Prof. Warrant believes that Bogong moths naviagte in part by using the Milky Way as a guide. Image credit – Dave Young/Flickr, licenced under CC BY 2.0

The discovery could also lead to the development of new types of navigation for our own species too. GPS, for example, relies upon a constellation of satellites that are vulnerable to disruption. Prof. Warrant believes studying an insect capable of flying 1,000km to a cave using a brain the size of a rice grain, could help us find alternatives too.

‘Animals seem to solve complex problems with little material and low amounts of energy,’ Prof Warrant said.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

This post Bees use shark ‘supersense’ to help find food was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.

Top image: Fine hairs on bees’ bodies can sense tiny changes in electrostatic fields, enabling them to sense whether another bee has visited a flower before them. Image credit – Unsplash/George Hiles, licenced under Unsplash licence

High-tech insect origami

By Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Research Fellow

Earwigs are fascinating creatures. Belonging to the order Dermaptera, these insects can be easily recognised by their rear pincers, which are used for hunting, defence, or mating. But perhaps the most striking feature of earwigs is usually hidden – most can fly with wings that are folded to become 15 times smaller than their original surface area, and tucked away under small leathery forewings.

With protected wings and fully mobile abdomens, these insects can wriggle into the soil and other narrow spaces while maintaining the ability to fly. This is a combination very few insects achieve.

I have been working on research led by Dr Kazuya Saito from Kyushu University in Japan, which presents a geometrical method to design earwig wing-inspired fans. These fans could be used in many practical applications, from daily use articles such as fans or umbrellas, to mechanical engineering or aerospace structures such as drone wings, antennae reflectors or energy-absorbing panels!

Dr Saito came to Oxford last year for a six-month research stay at Prof Zhong You’s lab, in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. He introduced me to biomimetics, an ever-growing field aiming to replicate nature for a wide range of applications.

Biological structures have been optimised by the pressures of natural selection over tens of millions of years, so there is much to learn from them. Dr Saito had previously worked on the wing folding of beetles, but now he wanted to tackle the insect group that folds its wings most compactly – the earwigs.

He was developing a design method and an associated software to re-create and customise the wing folding of the earwig hind wing, in order to use it in highly compact structures which can be efficiently transported and deployed. Earwigs were required!

Here at the Museum we provided access to our insect collections, including earwig specimens from different species having their hind wings pinned unfolded. These were useful to inform the geometrical method that Saito had been devising.

Dr Saito was also interested in learning about the evolution of earwigs and finding out when in deep time their characteristic crease pattern established. Some fossils of Jurassic earwigs show hints of possessing the same wing structure and folding pattern of their relatives today.

However, distant earwig relatives that lived about 280 million years ago during the Permian, the protelytropterans, possessed a different – yet related – wing shape and folding pattern. That provided the chance to test the potential and reliability of Saito’s geometrical method, as all earwigs have very similar wings due to their specialised function.

The geometrical method turned out to be successful at reconstructing the wing folding pattern of protelytropterans as well, revealing that both this extinct group and today’s earwigs have been constrained during evolution by the same geometrical rules that underpin the new geometrical design method devised by Dr Saito. In other words, the fossils were able to inform state-of-the-art applications: palaeontology is not only the science of the past, but can also be a science of the future!

We were also able to hypothesise intermediate extinct forms – somewhere between protelytropterans and living earwigs – assuming that earwigs evolved from a form closely resembling the protelytropterans.

As a collaboration between engineers and palaeobiologists, this research is a great example of the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach in science and technology. It also demonstrates how even a minute portion of the wealth of data held in natural history collections can be used for cutting-edge research, and why it is so important to keep preserving it for future generations.

Soon these earwig-inspired deployable structures might be inside your backpacks or used in satellites orbiting around the Earth. Nature continues to be our greatest source of inspiration.

Original paper:  Saito et al. (2020). Earwig fan designing: biomimetic and evolutionary biology applications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Stop, look, listen

By Sarah Lloyd, Head of Education, and William Sharpley, Youth Forum member

Connecting with the natural world around us is important for many reasons. It’s proven to help our mental health, it’s enjoyable and fascinating, and it gives us an insight into the rhythms and changes of the life that surrounds us. And during the pandemic lockdown this has taken on more significance than ever.

Over the past few months we have been keeping in touch with the Museum’s youth groups as part of our HOPE for the Future project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project is themed around the Museum’s British insect collection and our discussions with the youth groups have triggered a particular interest in the diversity of insects in our outdoor spaces.

Common Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). These beetles are often found basking in the sun on leaves and flowers in woodland margins. Image: William Sharpley.

A great way to become more observant about the world around you is through photography. During a recent lockdown walk, Youth Forum member William Sharpley took out his camera and captured the beautiful images of insects you can see in this post. Looking at insects more closely made William curious about what he could find in his garden, where he noticed a colony of bees active around a compost bin.

The compost bin is in an old coal bunker. It gets very hot in the sunny weather. I have watched the bees going in and going out of here.

The compost bin in an old coal bunker provides a good habitat for a colony of Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum). Image: William Sharpley.

Noticing what animals are present, and learning to identify them, helps to build a picture of how the natural world may be changing.

Bees are a good case study. The image below is of a Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). Tree Bumblebees were first recorded in the UK in 2001, and since 2007 they have thrived in our increasing urban environments, with numbers and range rising dramatically. They are now a common sight in gardens, establishing colonies in enclosed spaces above ground. William’s old coal bunker compost heap is the perfect spot.

Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) like this one have increase in numbers and range dramatically in the UK over the past couple of decades. Image: William Sharpley.

By noticing new species around us we are reminded that populations of living things change over time. Some species, like the Tree Bumblebee, have become more common, while others, such as the Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus), are now much rarer than they once were.

Great yellow bumble bee (Bombus distinguendus). Image by Nick Owens.

Once we know what is around us we can turn our attention to patterns of behaviour. William went on to use his science skills to plan an investigation.

I will be trying to find out if bees are more active during the morning or in the afternoon. I will count the bees going in and out of the nest at different times during the day.

The Youth Forum conducted a similar study earlier in the spring, observing when female Hairy-footed Flower Bees and Honeybees were active and feeding on garden plants. They found that the Hairy-footed Flower Bees foraged mostly in the morning, and the Honeybees in the afternoon.

Feeding behaviour in bees is an interesting thing to study because it may be affected by some pesticides called neonicotinoids. Honeybees exposed to low levels of these pesticides spend less time feeding, and over a long period their reduced food intake causes a hive of bees to decline and become more susceptible to other pressures, such as disease, habitat destruction, or extreme weather.

Rather than relying on a handful of chemicals like neonicotinoids, farmers are now encouraged to use a range of methods to control pests. These include using natural predators – known as biological control – and organic methods.

From these relatively simple observations of the natural world we can gain important information about changing environments. And by sharing what we notice, and encouraging others to do the same, we are better able to understand environmental changes and we’ll feel more connected to nature as a bonus. So head out and start looking!

The Museum’s Youth Forum was established to connect with and learn from local young people. The group meet every month to take part in a programme of activities designed for and by the group.

Top image: Common mayfly (Ephemera Danica) by William Sharpley.

When life got hard

By Dr Duncan Murdock, Research Fellow

Whether you’re a great white shark with a deadly conveyor belt of teeth, a deep sea snail with a coat of armour or a coral building the Great Barrier Reef one polyp at a time, mineralized skeletons are a crucial part of many animals’ way of life. These hard skeletons – shells, teeth, spines, plates and bones – are all around us.

The fossil record is full of the remains of the skeletons of long-extinct critters, so much so that entire layers of rocks can be composed almost completely of them. But this has not always been the case…

A piece of 425 million year old sea floor containing the skeletons of trilobites, brachiopods, bryozons, corals and gastropods preserved as limestone

Travel back some 570 million years to a time known as the Ediacaran and the picture is very different. Although there were large-bodied creatures that were possibly animals, they were entirely soft-bodied. Then, right at the end of the Ediacaran Period, the first animals with hard skeletons evolved, creating strange tubes, stacked cones, and other bizarre forms such as Namacalathus, which resembles a baby’s rattle!

Some of the first animals with skeletons, Cloudina and Namacalathus alongside the soft-bodied Ediacaran fauna. Reconstruction based on rocks from Namibia, Southwest Africa, from 543 million years ago. Image: Mighty Fossils.

 

In the following few tens of millions of years, in the early part of the Cambrian Period, a whole host of animals burst onto the scene baring their ‘teeth’, hiding in their shells, and bristling their spines. In fact, we can trace the origin of almost every kind of animal skeleton to this relatively short window of the Earth’s past.

In my research, I have compiled the evidence for how and when these skeletons first appear. Three key observations have emerged. First, skeletons evolved independently many times in different animal groups. Second, there is both direct and indirect evidence, such as exceptionally preserved fossils and trace fossils, for entirely soft-bodied examples of animal groups that later evolved skeletons. And lastly, the first animal skeletons are less complex and more variable than later examples.

Added to what we know about how living animals build their skeletons, this all points to one explanation: Animal skeletons evolved independently in different groups by utilising a common ‘toolkit’ of genes, inherited from their common ancestor but used in different ways in different skeletons.

In other words, the soft-bodied ancestors of animals with hard parts had inherited all they needed to build simple skeletons that were then honed into the array of shells, teeth, spines, plates and bones we see today. For these skeletal pioneers, armed with their genetic ‘toolkit’, the environmental and ecological pressures of the early Cambrian prompted the evolution of similar, but independent, responses to their changing world – when life got hard.

Murdock, DJE. 2020. The ‘biomineralization toolkit’ and the origin of animal skeletons, Biological Reviews, is available for free here.

Top image: Tiny fragments of early skeletons, shells and spines, from around 510-515 million years ago.