Community science: what’s the value?

ONE SCIENTIST OFFERS HER PERSPECTIVE


By Sotiria Boutsi, Intern

I am PhD student at Harper Adams University with MSc in Conservation Biology, currently doing a professional internship at the Museum of Natural History in the Public Engagement office. My PhD uses genomic data to study speciation in figs and fig wasps.


For most of our history, humans have been observational creatures. Studying the natural world has been an essential tool for survival, a form of entertainment, and has provided the backbone for various legends and myths. Yet modern humans are rapidly losing practice when it comes to environmental observation. As more and more of us relocate to busy urban environments, we find ourselves with little to no time to spend outdoors. Knowledge of the natural world is rapidly becoming the purview of professionals — but it doesn’t have to be this way…

Community science is a term that describes scientific research activities conducted by amateurs, often involving observation or simple computational tasks. Many citizen science projects target schools or families, but everyone is a welcome participant. The purpose of such projects, which run all around the world, is to encourage non-professionals to get involved in science in a fun, voluntary manner, while also collecting data that are valuable for scientific research.

One of the most common forms of community science is biodiversity monitoring. Biodiversity monitoring projects invite people with various levels of expertise to record observations of different species in their local area, and upload evidence like photographs and sound recordings to a user-friendly database. In doing so, they also provide important monitoring data to scientists, like information about the date and location of wildlife sightings.

The Asian Ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis) was first spotted in the UK in 2004 and since then it has become very common. It is considered one of the most widespread invasive species in the world, with introductions throughout Europe, North and South America, as well as South Africa. Reported observations through the UK Ladybird Survey (Enter ladybird records | iRecord) can help us monitor the spread of this insect and see how other, native species respond to its presence.

There are a variety of mobile apps and online platforms for reporting observations, with some specialising in particular groups of organisms like plants or birds. From the raw data that is uploaded to these platforms, species can be identified through a range of different methods:

  1. Automatic identification from uploaded evidence – often using techniques like image/sound analysis or machine learning
  2. Community feedback – multiple users can view uploaded evidence and make suggestions about which species have been recorded
  3. Direct use of users’ own suggestions – for users who are more experienced with species identification

But are these data actually used by scientists? Although individual contributions to community science projects may seem to be of minor importance, when considered collectively they act as extremely valuable records. Having distribution data for species can help us understand their habitat preferences, and also enable us to monitor invasive organisms. Moreover, long-term data can inform us about species’ responses to changes in their environments, whether that is habitat alteration or climate change. Science is driven by the accumulation of data, and citizen science projects can provide just that.

Biodiversity monitoring through citizen science projects encourage us to notice the tiny beings around us, like this beautifully coloured shiny Green Dock Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula). Moreover, recording common species like the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) over different years can reveal temporal patterns, like early arrival of spring.

In addition to the benefits to the scientific field, community science projects can also be of huge value to their participants. Firstly, engaging in such activities can help us re-establish our relationship with the wildlife in our immediate environment — we might finally learn to identify common species in our local area, or discover new species that we never realised were so close by. It is surprising how many species we can even find in our own gardens! Moreover, community science events, like biodiversity-monitoring “BioBlitzes”, encourage people from different backgrounds to work together, strengthening local communities and encouraging environmental protection.

Oxford University is currently running the community science project “Oxford Plan Bee“, focusing on solitary bees. The project is creating a network of bee hotels: small boxes with branches and wooden cavities where harmless, solitary bees can rest. The hotels are spread throughout the city, and locals are invited to observe the bee hotels, take photos, and send in their findings.

Overall, community science is as much about being an active participant in the community as it is about doing science. These projects are a celebration of both collective contributions and individual growth. More than anything, they are a chance to pause and notice the little things that keep our planet running.


Want to get involved? Here is a selection of my favourite citizen science projects…

Recording species observations – global:

Recording species observations – UK-based:

Bioblitz events:

Read more:

How a Citizen Science project helped solve a mystery of UK butterflies: Painted Lady migration secrets unveiled – News and events, University of York

Citizen Science Hub – British Ecological Society

Citizen Science Platforms | SpringerLink

Citizen Science in the Natural Sciences | SpringerLink

Disappearing Butterflies

HOW TO SOLVE A BIOLOGICAL MYSTERY USING MUSEUM COLLECTIONS AND DNA TECHNOLOGY


By Rebecca Whitla, PhD student at Oxford Brookes University


The Black-veined white butterfly (Aporia crataegi) was a large, charismatic butterfly with distinctive black venation on its wings. Once commonly found in the UK, the species unfortunately went extinct here in around 1925, with the last British specimens collected from Herne Bay in Kent. It isn’t fully understood why the species disappeared from the UK, but climate change, predation, parasites, and disease have all been suggested to have caused its disappearance — perhaps with several of these factors contributing to its decline. Central to solving the mystery of the disappearance of the Black-veined white will be the collections of butterflies that are stored in museums like OUMNH.

Butterflies tend to be well-represented in museum collections, and the Black-veined white is no exception. While the species has now been extinct in the UK for around 100 years, Lepidoptera enthusiasts from previous centuries often captured wild Black-veined white specimens for their personal collections. The abundance of Black-veined white butterflies in museum collections, like the collections at OUMNH, serve as a valuable repository for scientific research — including my own!

Black-veined white butterflies in the collections at OUMNH

Between June and December 2021, I undertook a research project using OUMNH’s Black-veined white butterflies. My task was to extract enough DNA from the butterflies to use for ‘whole genome sequencing’ — in other words, I was attempting to extract DNA from butterfly specimens to decode their complete DNA sequence. Getting DNA sequences from the historical specimens that are kept in Museums is no easy task, as DNA degrades over time. Nonetheless, animal specimens from natural history museums have successfully been used for whole genome sequencing and genetic analysis in the past, including species as diverse as longhorn beetles and least Weasels.

In order to work out how to extract DNA from the specimens, I had to try a variety of methods. This included experimenting to find out whether butterfly legs or abdomen fragments yielded more DNA, and whether non-destructive methods of DNA extraction were as effective as destructive methods. An example of a non-destructive method of DNA extraction would be a process like soaking a sample overnight and using the leftover liquid for DNA extraction, whereas a destructive method might involve mashing a whole leg or abdomen segment to use as a DNA source.

Preparing a DNA sample

Overall, I found that destructively sampling the legs of the butterflies gave the most reliable results, and also had the added benefit of not destroying the wings or abdomen of the specimens. Keeping the wings and abdomens of the butterflies intact will likely prove useful for conducting morphological studies in future.

Now that I have a reliable DNA extraction method, the next step in my research will be to analyse more Black-veined white specimens from a span of different time periods leading up to the species’ disappearance. I will then compare samples collected from each time period to calculate the genetic diversity of the species at each point in time, leading up to its disappearance. If I find a steady decline in the species’ genetic diversity over time, this may indicate a gradual extinction of the species. This is because we expect that, as numbers of a species decrease, inbreeding will become common, resulting in less diversity in the species’ DNA. However, if the populations of Black-veined white butterflies went extinct very suddenly, the decline in genetic diversity will probably be less pronounced. Learning more about the fate of the Black-veined White could not only help us unlock the historical mystery of the species’ decline in Britain, but will also help us understand more about the species’ decline in other parts of the world.

Re-Collections: Jane Willis Kirkaldy

By Evie Granat, Project Officer Trainee with the Freshwater Habitats Trust and Museum volunteer


The Museum is lucky enough to house several specimens presented by Jane Willis Kirkaldy (1867/9 – 1932). They serve as a reminder of a passionate and dedicated tutor, and of a key figure behind the development of women’s education at Oxford University.


Jane Willis Kirkaldy was born somewhere between 1867 and 1869, and spent her youth in London with her parents and five siblings. After completing her secondary education at Wimbledon High School, Kirkaldy gained entry to Somerville College (Oxford) on an exhibition scholarship in 1887. She finished her degree in 1891, becoming one of the first women to achieve a First Class Hons in Natural Sciences (Zoology). However, since the University didn’t award women degrees in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until 1920 that Kirkaldy received her MA.

Upon completing her undergraduate studies, Kirkaldy worked for a short period as a private tutor in Castle Howard before returning to Oxford in 1894. Whilst researching at the University, she produced two papers for the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, including an article entitled “On the Head Kidney of Myxine”. This study of the renal systems of hagfish was written with the aid of experimental work carried out by renowned zoologist Walter Weldon at his UCL laboratory. She also studied lancelets under the Oxford Linacre Professor of Zoology, publishing “A Revision of the Genera and Species of Branchiostomdae” in 1895.

Kirkaldy’s achievements are especially noteworthy given how few women studied Natural Sciences at Oxford during the nineteenth century. In addition to her contributions to the scientific field, she also helped advance women’s education at Oxford University. In 1894, The Association of the Education of Women named Kirkaldy a tutor to female students in the School of Natural Sciences. The following year she ceased all research to concentrate fully on teaching, co-authoring ‘Text Book of Zoology’ with Miss E.C. Pollard in 1896, and Introduction to the Study of Biology with I. M. Drummond in 1907. She eventually became a tutor or lecturer at all of Oxford’s Women’s Societies, and a Director of Studies at all five of the women’s colleges. Amongst the many female scientists that came under her care was the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.

Left: Page from one of our donations books listing Jane Willis Kirkaldy as the donor of a series of Middle Devonian fossils (from the Eifel) to the Museum in October 1901. Right: Chromite from East Africa, also donated to the Museum by Kirkaldy.

Beyond the Department of Natural Sciences, Kirkaldy was an important figure at Oxford — she served as a member of the Council of St. Hugh’s College for 14 years, and was made an honorary fellow of Somerville College in 1929. At the Museum of Natural History, she presented beetles from New Guinea (1890), Devonian Fossils from the Eiffel (1901), and Chromite from near Beira, Mozambique (1924).

Kirkaldy retired from the University in 1930 due to ill health, before passing away in a London care home in 1932. Oxford University subsequently dedicated the junior and senior ‘Jane Willis Kirkakdy Prizes’ in her memory, which still exist to this day.


References

https://www.firstwomenatoxford.ox.ac.uk/article/principals-and-tutors

https://archive.org/details/internationalwom00hain/page/160/mode/2up

https://www.ias.ac.in/article/fulltext/reso/022/06/0517-0524

http://wimbledonhighschool.daisy.websds.net/Filename.ashx?tableName=ta_publications&columnName=filename&recordId=72

http://wimbledonhighschool.daisy.websds.net/Filename.ashx?tableName=ta_publications&columnName=filename&recordId=71

https://archive.org/details/internationalwom00hain/page/160/mode/2up

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin: Patterns, Proteins and Peace: A Life in Science, by Georgina Ferry

Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science

Reindeer are not just for Christmas

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BRITAIN’S ICE AGE RANGIFER


By Emily Wiesendanger, Volunteer


If you’ve ever visited the Skeleton Parade in the Main Court of the Museum, you may have noticed that nestled between the Malayan tapir and the rhinoceros is the skeleton of a reindeer, or caribou if you are from North America.

Today, reindeer are found throughout the Arctic and Subarctic in places like Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Lapland (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). However, their range was not always so limited. During the Late Pleistocene – around 126,000 to 11,700 years ago – it would not have been unusual to see herds of reindeer roaming freely across most of Britain and western Europe. In fact, reindeer sub-fossils in the form of bones, teeth, and antlers have been found at a number of Oxfordshire sites including the excavations at Cassington and Sutton Courtenay, which are kept behind the scenes in the Museum’s extensive Paleontological Collections.

Studying these Ice Age reindeer can teach us as much about the future as they can about the past. Pleistocene reindeer were likely similar to their modern counterparts, which undertake large, bi-annual migrations between summer and winter grazing pastures. Looking at the movements of Ice Age populations of reindeer can therefore help us to understand how modern reindeer may respond to climactic and environmental changes in the future. This is possible because reindeer only come together in large herds at certain times of the year. During these seasonal aggregations, the herd is characterised by different combinations of ages and sexes. Therefore, by looking at the age and sex of the remains of reindeer present at a site, we can tell the time of year that they were left there — in particular, we can infer the sex of reindeer from their bones, their age from their teeth, and their age and sex from their antlers.

Modern reindeer are highly adapted to cold environments (-45 to +15°C) with two layers of fur (the tips of which turn white in the winter), short and furry ears and tails, and large feet to make walking on snow and digging for food much easier. Reindeer even make a clicking noise with their feet, produced by a tendon slipping over a bone, to help keep track of each other in blizzards or fog.

Unfortunately, it is extremely rare to find anything so complete as the reindeer in the skeleton parade. Instead, you are much more likely to find remains like the antler below, which was excavated from Sutton Courtenay. Despite being only a fragment, it is exactly this kind of sub-fossil that can help us to understand more about the movements of reindeer during the Late Pleistocene.

This left antler base and skull from a male reindeer found at Sutton Courtenay can be used to determine which season reindeer were present at the site.

Reindeer grow and shed a new pair of antlers every year, and this happens at different times of the year for males and females. If you can identify whether an antler is male or female, shed or unshed, you can also tell the season of death. The Sutton Courtenay antler featured above would have belonged to a male reindeer. At its base, we can see it is still clearly attached to some skull bone, and so is unshed. Because males only have their fully grown antlers between September and November, this particular reindeer must have been in the area around Sutton Courtenay during the autumn. It is by using similar deductions that we can also tell that Rudolph and his antlered friends would have actually all been females — by the 24th December, males have already shed their antlers, but females will keep them until the spring!

After studying thousands of these kinds of remains from all over Britain, we can start to build a picture of where reindeer were at different times of the year. It’s amazing to think that we can learn so much from simple skeletons. So, the next time you visit the skeleton parade, take a moment to think about the secrets they may be hiding.

Beyond Buckland

DISCOVERING YORKSHIRE’S ANCIENT BEASTS


By Susan Newell

Susan Newell is a doctoral student researching the teaching collections of William Buckland, the first Professor of Geology at Oxford who taught from 1813 to 1849. She reminds us here about Buckland’s role 200 years ago in interpreting the important Pleistocene discoveries being celebrated this year, and the way that Mary Morland, a talented local naturalist, and many others, contributed to making this new knowledge.


This year marks the 200th anniversary of a great advance in our understanding of the geological past… a story which begins in the nineteenth century, with the discovery of a bone-filled cave in Kirkdale, Yorkshire. 

Uncovered by local quarrymen in 1821, the discovery of the Kirkdale cave and its contents of mysterious bone was the source of much intrigue. When news of the discovery reached William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University, he decided to travel up North to visit the site. However, by the time Buckland arrived at the cave, local collectors had scooped up most of its contents. Nonetheless, he was able to retrieve and examine some of the cave’s remaining material, which led him to an astonishing conclusion — Yorkshire must once have been home to hyaenas, elephants, hippopotamus and rhinoceros, and what was now known as the Kirkdale cave was once a hyaenas’ den.

W. B. Conybeare, lithograph, ‘The Hyaena’s Den at Kirkdale near Kirby Moorside in Yorkshire, discovered A.D. 1821’. Reproduced by kind permission of Christ Church, Oxford.
This light-hearted reconstruction of the hyaenas’ den shows Buckland illuminating the scene, in every sense. It is thought to be the first visual reconstruction of the pre-human past.

Central to Buckland’s theories were some small white balls that he had found amongst the debris in the cave. Buckland sent these balls to William Wollaston, a celebrated chemist based in London, for analysis.  He also asked Wollaston to visit the zoo at Exeter Exchange in London and show the balls to the hyaena’s keeper there.  Together with the results from Wollaston’s chemical analyses, the keeper confirmed Buckland’s hypothesis — the balls were droppings from animals very similar to modern hyaenas. Meanwhile, the anatomist William Clift was able to identify the bones from the Kirkdale cave as belonging to other extinct species related to those found living in tropical countries today. Buckland concluded that the cave must have been a den for ancient hyaenas, who would drag parts of the dead animals they had found (or killed) inside and, after feeding on them, leave piles of bones and droppings behind.

In order to strengthen his theory, Buckland discussed the behaviour of hyaenas in the wild with army officers connected to Britain’s colonial expansion in India. These officers also sent Buckland fresh specimens captured by local people. When a travelling menagerie visited Oxford in 1822, Buckland took the opportunity to experiment; feeding bones to a hyaena and noting that the teeth marks matched those on the fossilised bones from the cave.

Buckland’s findings were something of a shock to his contemporaries. When lecturing, he employed several different methods to try and convince his audiences that his theories were true. This included presenting fossil specimens and bones from living species for comparison, and showing maps, diagrams and drawings. Mary Morland contributed some of these illustrations, including large drawings of living animals, and technical drawings of bones that were later engraved for use in Buckland’s publications. Mary’s Kirkdale drawings seem to have been the first that she produced for William before the couple married in 1825.

Fossil hyaena jaw in the Museum’s collection, possibly the one featured in the engraving alongside it. Engraving is by James Basire after a drawing by Mary Morland. Published in William Buckland’s article in the Royal Society’s journal (1822) on the Kirkdale cave discoveries. [1]

Buckland’s work on the Kirkdale cave was revolutionary, not least because he was the first to make a scientific study of a cache of bones of this type.  Although similar bones from ‘tropical’ species had previously been found in Northern Europe, people thought that they had been washed up by a catastrophic flood, believed by many to be the biblical Noah’s Flood.  Modern analysis has now allowed us to deduce that the bones date to an Interglacial period when Britain was joined to Europe and had a hot climate, about 120,000 years ago.  

Here at the Museum, Buckland’s collections and archives are as much of a treasure trove as the Kirkdale cave. It is through accessing these archives that we can learn about the surprising range of people who contributed to the emergence of new scientific knowledge from the Kirkland cave — quarrymen, collectors, zookeepers, chemists, anatomists, colonial officers in India, workers in India, and artists like Mary Morland. To find out more about the incredible legacy of the Kirkdale Cave, look out for ‘Kirkdale200 – Lost Beasts of the North’, a symposium organised by the Yorkshire Fossil Festival, 12th March 2022.

Mary Morland, watercolour and gouache, lecture illustration of a hippopotamus, signed ‘MM’.
Hippopotamus bones were found at Kirkdale cave in Yorkshire, but as there were no living hippos to be seen in Britain at the time, this drawing would have been a valuable teaching aid.

[1] William Buckland, ‘Account of an Assemblage of Fossil Teeth and Bones of Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Bear, Tiger, and Hyaena, and Sixteen Other Animals; Discovered in a Cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, in the Year 1821: With a Comparative View of Five Similar Caverns in Various Parts of England, and others on the Continent’, Phil. Trans., 2 (1815-30), 165-167.

Thanks for the Myrmories

AMAZING ANTS AND THE LEGACY OF E.O. WILSON


By Jordan Wernyj – Deputy Visitor Services Manager


If you happen to encounter one of the 50+ ant types in Britain, observe their hurried activities and interactions with each other. One cannot help but compare the complex functioning of an ant society to our own, and consider its advanced societal structures in relation to humans. The way an ant colony organises itself is highly industrial and commanding, subdivided into castes including queens, males, and worker ants, the latter of which contribute to their colony through roles as diverse as tending to larvae, foraging, or attacking rival threats.

Having worked at the Museum of Natural History for a few months, my interactions with specimens and discussions with the entomology department have reignited an intrigue in myrmecology, the study of ants. This began with locating the ant case on the Upper Gallery on the south side of the Museum. You can find fantastic British insects on display, selected from our ginormous British Insect Collection. Specimens include Lasius fuliginosus (Jet Black Ant) and Formica saunguinea (Slave-Making Ant) —the latter aptly named given its tendency to attack ants from other colonies and force its victims to work for them.

Slave-making Ant and Jet Black Ant on display in the Museum

Outside of the Museum, a viral video of a group of ants following each other in a circle led me to the even more surprising discovery that ants can mistakenly cause their own demise. The name of this circular march is an ‘ant mill’ which, rather morbidly, is a circle of death. Ants use pheromones to communicate with and organise each other during normal behaviour. However, these chemical trails can be lost, which for worker or army ants that leave the colony to forage or attack, it is a prominent risk. Ants follow one another, and if the leading ant loses the trail and begins to follow an ant behind, a rotational spiral motion occurs. Sadly, an ant mill can cause tragic consequences, with either the ants picking up the trail back to the colony, or continuing in the rotation until they die of exhaustion.

Having expressed curiosity in myrmecology, an entomologist at the Museum provided me with a fascinating book Tales of the Ant World by Edward O. Wilson. Wilson’s enlightening work within myrmecology and ecology gave him the nickname ‘Dr. Ant’. Wilson, highlighting his scholarship on the ant species Camponotus femoratus – one of the most aggressive in the world.

These intriguing invertebrates are located within the depths of the Amazon rainforest and are largely arboreal, territorial, and scary! Nonetheless, the intrepid Wilson decided to test out the ants’ offensive tactics. A mere brush up against an inhabited tree would provoke swarming formations, snapping mandibles and, if the pain wasn’t already discomforting enough, a release of formic acid. Edward Osbourne Wilson sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2021, while I was halfway through reading this book. It is a fascinating work that not only informs the reader of ant facts, but tells the most interesting story of a myrmecologist’s life and his discovery of ant species.