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.

Chris Jarvis cleaning the nest box in the Museum Tower Room

A swift return

Chris Jarvis cleaning the nest box in the Museum Tower Room

by Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

‘Look! They’re back! Look!’
This line from Ted Hughes’ excellent poem Swifts shares the excitement generated every year by the arrival of one of the most iconic summer visitors to Britain…. and I’m pleased to announce that they’re here!

Each year at the Museum we eagerly look forward to the swifts returning from their epic migration to southern Africa and back to our tower. Here they will land for the first time in a year, to nest after a 14,000 mile journey on the wing.

Necks of Museum staff are strained as each of us develops a twitcher’s twitch, heads snapping upwards at every bird flying overhead. We all hope to be the first to see a swift returning to the buzz the tower, scoping out the possible nesting opportunities, some no doubt remembering past sites from summers gone by.

Video courtesy Oxford Swift City

With the Museum currently closed due to the global pandemic, this year most staff will be craning their necks to the sky at home, perhaps wondering if any swifts they spot are ‘our’ Museum swifts, or some of the many others that colonise the roof spaces and nest boxes of Oxford and its surrounding towns each year.

Chris cleaning the swifts’ nest boxes with a feather duster

The swifts at the Museum are part of what is probably the longest-running continuous study of any bird colony in the world, started by David Lack in 1948. Because so little is known about these protected and declining populations of birds, every bit of data matters.

Although the Museum’s Swift Warden, George Candelin, is currently unable to reach the Museum during the lockdown, we agreed that it was an essential part of our role as a conservation and research institution to continue the study that has helped us to understand what little we do know about these enigmatic visitors.

Even before the swifts arrive there is a lot to do. With George’s expert guidance, in the last week of April we climbed the winding stone staircase and then the ladders to the very top of the tower to prepare for the swifts’ arrival.

Each of the nest boxes is thoroughly cleaned and their entrance holes dusted to make sure they are free of cobwebs or other obstructions. We then replace the shallow nests used to entice nesting activity. Swifts cannot land to collect nesting material and so have to collect suitable airborne material while on the wing. Their nests are often scanty, basic affairs made of a few stray feathers and other random bits of material they have found blowing about in the wind, so they seem to appreciate a helping hand.

Each of the 80 nest boxes has to be carefully cleaned before the swifts return from Africa

Each of the man-made nests comprises a shallow ring of soft feathers. This is removed from the nest box at the end of each breeding season, frozen to kill off any resident feather lice or other pests, then thawed and gently replaced.

Finally the Swift Cams are put in position and checked, ready to beam intimate shots of life in the tower directly into your home. Now you can follow the breeding season of these fascinating but hard to observe birds from the comfort of your sofa!

All this was completed just in time as, on leaving the Museum, one lucky staff member glanced upwards to see the first swift of the season glide across the sky above the tower. Perhaps a visitor travelling further north to breed, just passing through, or perhaps an early arrival feeding up and replenishing itself before starting its nesting, checking its old nest site is still there and reminding us, as Ted Hughes continued in his poem, that…

They’ve made it again,

Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s

Still waking refreshed, our summer’s

Still all to come —

Excavating amber

First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit IGME-UB.

By Dr Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, Research Fellow

Amber, or fossilised plant resin, is a unique material to learn about the history of life on Earth. Its incredible preservation and ability to capture life “in action” are well known thanks to the Jurassic Park saga, but fewer people know where amber is found, what it looks like in the field, and how it is gathered.

Cretaceous amber, about 130 to 70 million years old, is the oldest amber that provides abundant fossils, specifically insects and spiders. Ecosystems drastically changed during this period due to global greenhouse conditions and the diversification of flowering plants, among other factors. Amber from that time has been discovered in Lebanon, Spain, France, Myanmar, eastern United States, Canada, and northern Russia.

My research team and I carry out regular amber excavations in northern Spain, working in teams of six to ten people. The outcrops that we excavate are often located next to roads and highways because amber is typically uncovered during roadworks. Excavations take place during the summer or fall to try and minimise the risk of rain, and we usually embark on one field trip each year.

The goal is to recover as much amber as possible – usually a few kilograms – from the muddy and sandy sediments. These materials were transported downstream tens of million of years ago by heavy rain and river swellings from the forests where the resin was produced, before being finally deposited in near-shore areas.

Manual extraction of amber. Credit IGME-UB
Manual extraction of amber in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, northern Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

I find amber excavations quite romantic. In the field, amber has a dull appearance that makes it difficult to distinguish from rocks or woody remains. This is due to an opaque crust resulting from oxidation in the sediments and other processes.

This outer layer makes detecting potential fossils inside the amber highly unlikely while the excavation is ongoing. So, in the field we just gather as many amber pieces as possible, and hope for the best.

Only when amber is polished – or shows broken surfaces – does its distinct yellowish to reddish shine emerge, and any possible fossils within become evident. Some ambers are highly fossiliferous, while others are very poor in fossils.

Amber can be gathered by hand using regular tools such as hammers. However, the most efficient method to extract amber from soft sediments is with concrete mixers! This rather unsophisticated piece of equipment provides the best way to recover medium quantities of amber in the field.

We charge water and amber-bearing sediments into the mixer, and after stirring for a while amber floats to the top because it is less dense than muddy water. Then, the surface of the water containing the amber is poured into sieves, which separates even the tiniest pieces.

Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after washing
Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after having been “washed” from their sediment. First amber excavation in the La Manjoya outcrop, Asturias, northern Spain in 2017.

After fieldwork, many hours will be spent looking for fossils within the amber and preparing them. Gathering raw amber is just the first part of a process in unearthing the secrets held within – fragments of encapsulated time.

Top image: First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

Digital reconstruction of a Cambrian ocean

Meet the First Animals

The latest exhibition in our Contemporary Science and Society series, First Animals, tells the tale of Earth’s mysterious early animals, which evolved in the sea over half a billion years ago. Here, Dr Imran Rahman, Deputy Head of Research at the Museum, introduces some of the fossils that form a key part of this story.

From sponges to sea slugs and hagfish to humans, all animals alive today trace their roots back to a common ancestor that lived in the ocean more than 600 million years ago. We have no direct evidence of this first animal, but the fossil record reveals some of its earliest descendants. Our First Animals exhibition explores the evidence for Earth’s earliest animal life, attempting to answer the ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the origin of animals.

Yunnanozoon lividum from the Chengjiang fossil site had a long body with several filament-covered arches at the front and a fin-shaped structure towards the back. It cannot be confidently assigned to any known animal group.

First Animals features the oldest animals yet recovered from the fossil record, including specimens from 571-million-year-old rocks in Newfoundland, Canada. These represent the remains of originally entirely soft-bodied organisms, which have proven difficult to classify because they look so different to living species. However, new research on their anatomy and how they grew, including work by Museum researcher Dr Frankie Dunn, suggests they were early animals.

Charnia masoni consisted of alternating branches arranged along a frond. It is thought to be one of the oldest animal fossils yet found.

Microscopic fossils record the first animal skeletons, which first appeared about 550 million years ago. These include the remains of complete animals, as well as fragments such as spines and scales. Work by Museum researcher Dr Duncan Murdock using a particle accelerator to generate X-ray images of these tiny fossils has allowed us to reconstruct how the skeletons changed as they grew. This helps to establish the modern groups to which these ancient animals belonged, and unravels the mystery of why animals evolved hard skeletons when they did.

Virtual cross-sections through small shelly fossils created using X-ray imaging.

The most complete evidence for the early evolution of animals comes from sites of exceptionally-preserved fossils, or Lagerstätten, which retain impressions of soft tissue as well as hard parts, and include rare soft-bodied animals like worms and jellyfish.

First Animals brings together extraordinary specimens from three key fossil sites: Sirius Passet in northern Greenland (518 million years old), Chengjiang in Yunnan province, China (518 million years old) and Burgess Shale in British Columbia, Canada (508 million years old). This includes 55 unique fossils loaned by Yunnan University in China, as well as specimens from the University of Bristol and the Royal Ontario Museum.

The mollusc Halkieria evangelista from the Sirius Passet fossil site had a long body covered in hundreds of overlapping hard plates, with a large shell plate at either end.

The arthropod Haikoucaris ercaiensis from the Chengjiang fossil site had a semicircular head shield with a pair of large grasping appendages, a segmented body and a short tail.

The worm Ottoia prolifica from the Burgess Shale fossil site had a spiny proboscis and a long trunk that was divided into a series of fine rings.

These exceptionally-preserved fossils reveal the evolutionary diversification of life during the so-called ‘Cambrian explosion’. Through careful study of the fossils, scientists have begun to reconstruct the very first animal ecosystems, which are brought to life in the exhibition through a series of stunning digital reconstructions and the Cambrian Diver interactive installation. This allows visitors to explore a 360-degree oceanic environment in a virtual submersible craft, coming face-to-face with some of the first animals on Earth!

Digital reconstruction of the sea floor 518 million years ago, based on specimens from the Chengjiang fossil site, Yunnan province, China.
Video by Mighty Fossils.

 

First Animals is open until 24 February 2020. Entry is free, no booking required. www.oum.ox.ac.uk/firstanimals.

Image: (c) Mark Garrett

All hail the swift

Image: Maciej Szymański

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

This week is Swift Awareness Week and that means it’s time to celebrate our screaming summer visitors – the avian ones, that is.

Here at the Museum we eagerly await the return of these long distance migrants each May. This is not only because for many of us they herald the start of summer, but also because the swifts that nest each year in the Museum tower are part of the longest-running continuous study of any bird species in the world.

Taking the long view of these amazing birds we know that, like all birds, they evolved from a particular group of dinosaurs. Birds, in effect, are living dinosaurs. The earliest fossil swift, the ‘Scania Swift’, is around 49 million years old and shows us that by this time they had already evolved in forms that are virtually indistinguishable from today’s birds. Today, they have diversified into around 100 different species including our Common Swift (Apus apus).

Swifts in the tower nests as seen on webcam
Swift chicks in a nestbox in the Museum tower, shown on the webcam feed

Swifts have taken life on the wing to the extreme. Not only are they the fastest recorded bird in level powered flight, reaching speeds of nearly 70mph, but once launching themselves from the nest that they hatched in they may not land for the next two years of their lives!

They are so adapted to life in the air that they are capable of eating, mating and even sleeping on the wing. During sleep, it is thought that the two hemispheres of the brain take it in turns to nap as the swift slowly circles at heights of up to 30,000 feet. They do not even land to collect nesting material, instead relying on whatever feathers or pieces of plant material are floating in the air to build their nests.

During this two-year flight they will follow their food – the seasonal blooms of flying insects that appear after summer rains – on a 14,000 mile annual migration to southern Africa and back, living in perpetual summer.

Whilst for a long time scientists thought swifts were closely related to similar looking birds, swallows and martins, DNA analysis has revealed that they are the product of another amazing type of evolution – called convergent evolution – where organisms with similar lifestyles independently evolve similar traits. It turns out that whilst swifts may look like swallows, they are actually more closely related to hummingbirds; swallows, on the other hand, are more closely related to kingfishers than to swifts.

Swifts flying around the Museum tower
Swifts circle the entrances to the nest areas in the Museum’s tower. Image: Gordon Bowdery

Studies show that the population of breeding swifts in the UK has roughly halved between 1995 and 2016. The causes of this decline are debated: Lack of nest sites, lack of food, and changes to global weather patterns have all been implicated. The truth is that a bird which lands only once a year is extremely difficult to study.

We hope for a successful breeding season here in the tower, but if you would like to observe them yourself you can watch the swifts on our nest cam and compare the ups and downs of their populations over the years on our website.

 

 

Petri dish to puppetry

Spheres, spirals, rods, corkscrews… bacteria come in strange and beautiful shapes. Our Bacterial World exhibition (19 October 2018 – 28 May 2019) tells the untold story of life on a microscopic scale, and a recent Museum project brought together a research scientist, a group of school students and an artist to explore the patterns, textures and forms of beautiful bacteria. This science and art collaboration led to the creation of three fabulous bacteria-inspired puppets.

Volunteers and puppets in the museum
The puppets let loose in the Museum. Volunteers Tayo, Chantelle and Humaira (hidden behind the blue puppet!), with Carly from the Museum’s public engagement team.

Our Public Engagement team worked with Iffley Academy, a school for students with special educational needs and disabilities in Oxford. The pupils were from the brilliantly-named ‘Jackson Pollock’ class and they fully embraced the bacteria theme, through museum visits, workshops and classroom activities.

As well as visiting Bacterial World, the students had a workshop with Dr Frances Colles, a microbiology researcher from the University of Oxford, where they learnt about the importance of bacteria in their lives. As well as working with the students to create their own bacteria superheroes, Fran talked about her own work and took part in a Q&A, where the students made the most of quizzing a real, live scientist.

One of the character boards that Georgina created with the students

Next, the students spent two days with artist and puppet-maker Georgina Davy, who gave them the chance to experiment with a variety of textiles and techniques, including Japanese shibori dyeing, fringing, plaiting and knotting. The children even created latex faces to ‘personalise’ the bacteria. The pupils worked with Georgina to gather ideas and create mood boards and ‘characters’ for each puppet. She then used these individual pieces to build three giant, bacteria-inspired puppets.

Georgina Davy in her studio, working on the bacteria puppets

Just like the real bacteria that inspired them, the final puppets all have distinctive appearances and styles of movement. One is tall, green and plodding, another is pink, bobbing and quivering. The long, winding Chinese dragon-style puppet is slinky and searching. An artistic interpretation of bacteria, in motion.

Georgina Davy got a lot out of the collaboration and says:

This project has been the most unusual and marvellous project that a puppet maker could work on. Drawing upon scientific information from museum and academic staff that is enhanced and brought to life by students’ imaginations.

This project is unique in that the physical 3D puppet outcomes come from an almost entirely invisible world. Bacteria operate on an unfathomable microscopic scale. I am still finding it remarkable trying to envision this microscopic galaxy of bacteria taking place around us everyday in riots of colour, shape and movement. We cannot see the surreal bacteria forms that wriggle, bounce and swell around us, but they are there, some even tumbling around in forms like Chinese calligraphy. Their secret world is only unlocked by the microscope.

Once the puppets had been revealed to (and played with by) the students, they were transported to the Museum for the finale of the project – a public performance. On Saturday 11 May, three brilliant volunteers, Humaira, Tayo and Chantelle, showed off the work of Georgina Davy and the Jackson Pollock class to Museum visitors. The puppets twisted, shook and wiggled through the aisles, accompanied by percussion – drums and shakers courtesy of volunteers and visitors joining in with the performance.

If you’d like to see more about the Beautiful Bacteria project, we’ve put together a display in the Museum’s Community Case, where you can see original works by the Iffley Academy students. Until 6 August 2019.

The Beautiful Bacteria project was funded by BBSRC.