The Most Natural Science Positive Film of Recent Times?

holmes-bee

Hollywood hasn’t always portrayed the natural sciences in the best light. From the entomology nerds in Silence of the Lambs to the evil taxidermist in Paddington, the people who live it daily don’t often come off looking good. Even when museums are the star of the show, it is the night watchmen, not the curators and conservators, who steal the glory. Where, then, is cinema’s role in encouraging the next generation to pursue a career in the natural sciences? Some have said they watched the original Jurassic Park and that sparked their interest in genetics. Did you watch a film and think “that’s the life for me?” If so I’d love to hear from you. Nature inspires movies all the time. It behoves the film industry to keep this passion alive.

Enter a new film into the UK top ten (no, we aren’t talking about Jurassic World). Mr. Holmes is the latest adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. Set in war-ravaged Sussex, Sherlock Holmes is an old man, retired and trying to cope with the changes in his life. I won’t give away the plot for you but I will say this: The plot depends upon an accurate  understanding of the natural world, specifically botanical and entomological. The film is filled with beautiful species and fascinating facts about nature. I can quite easily see someone leaving the cinema thinking “I want to know more about this world”. Holmes’ personal collection is lovely and I want to know whose skull that is on his desk.

Further refreshing news, if you’re as sick of explosions and CGI as I am right now, this film has the fewest special effects of any new film I’ve seen for a long time. Less definitely is more in Mr. Holmes. The performances are superb – not just Sir Ian McKellen but I don’t think there’s a bad actor in the entire movie. I’d highly recommend you go and see this.

Tweeting up a Storm

With the theme of last week’s 2015 NatSCA Conference being sharing collections through social media, there was much discussion about Twitter and the many natural science-related hashtags that abound. So we thought we should compile a list, to make it easier for people wanting to get involved to know what’s out there!

For those new to Twitter, a few pointers:

  • It doesn’t matter how you write hashtags (some capitalisation/all lower case), but capitalising the first letter of each word can make them easier to read, and removes the risk of embarrassing unintended meanings (remember #susanalbumparty?).
  • If you’re starting a new hashtag, search for it first on Twitter to see if it already exists and if so, how it’s used. Also don’t make it too long. It will eat up your 140 characters, and other people will be less likely to use it.
  • When tweeting about an event, find out if there is an official hashtag. If you’re the organiser, communicate what it is! There were so many variations used for International Museum Day this year that it was confusing. This also dilutes the pool of tweets that people will see if they’re following one of several hashtags for the same event, and makes it more difficult to compile them in Storify.

Weekly Hashtags

There are many hashtags based on days of the week:

Monday

#BotanicMonday

#MaggotMonday

#MewseumMonday

#MineralMonday

#MolluscMonday

Tuesday

#TaxidermyTuesday

#TaxonomyTuesday

#TrilobiteTuesday

Wednesday

#WaspWednesday

#WeevilWednesday

#WombatWednesday

#WormWednesday

#WrasseWednesday

Thursday

#TherapodThursday

#ThinSectionThursday

Friday

#FluidFriday

#FlyFriday

#FossilFriday

#FungusFriday

Saturday

#SauropodSaturday

#ScienceSaturday

#SeaBirderSaturday

#SpiderSaturday

Sunday

#ScienceSunday

A Toxodon skull from @NHM_London for #FossilFriday

A Toxodon skull from @NHM_London for #FossilFriday

Others

There are lots of other natural science and museum-related hashtags out there, for use any time!

#CreaturesFBTS – Creatures from behind the scenes. Share images of amazing specimens from your stored collections.

#NatSciFashion – Natural science fashion. A new one to come out of this year’s NatSCA conference! Share images of your fabulous natural science-related wardrobe/bags/accessories!

#SciArt and #BioArt – Share your scientific artworks.

#MuseumDocumentation – Explain what documentation work you’re doing, and why it’s important, in only 140 characters (120 once you’ve added the hashtag). Try it, it’s quite a challenge!

#MuseumSelfie – Share selfies in your museum or with your specimens! There is also a Museum Selfie Day. The next one is on 20th Jan 2016.

#MuseumShelfie – What’s on your museum shelves?

And there are many, many more! Museum Week, organised by @CultureThemes, is also a really good event to get involved with on Twitter. It features seven different themed hashtags over seven days, and is now an international affair. A great way to reach new audiences and share your collections! It ran in March 2015, and will be back for 2016. Culture Themes also organise special museum-related hashtags throughout the year, so keep an eye on their site for upcoming days.

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered suggestions! What have I missed? What are your favourites?

Rachel Jennings, NatSCA Blog Editor

Collections at Risk

The biggest problems facing collections today are almost certainly posed by reductions in funding. The financial support for museums of all sizes has been decreasing every year, with jobs being lost and stored collections often bearing the brunt of cuts, since they are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind for many decision makers.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

NatSCA has been to trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support in an effort to make the vital role of collections, and the people with the skills to care for them, more clearly recognised by management. Much of this work in the UK has been alongside our colleagues in the Geological Curators Group.

The first issue of our new online publication NatSCA Notes & Comments provides a case study of decline from the Midlands, written by Geoffrey Hall. Although the picture painted is bleak, there have been some small wins, as Ludlow have since acknowledged the importance of maintaining a geologist to manage their globally important geology collection.

We have also been looking at the wider societal role of collections and have been working to raise their profile at a variety of levels, including internationally, alongside the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. Our message about the importance of collections is being heard by a wider and more influential audience, something that is reflected in this week’s Nature, which features an article about the importance and decline of collections.

If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or disposal, please let us know by editing our Natural History Near You map or emailing us at advocacy@natsca.org

Bill Pettit Memorial Fund: Discovery Collections Project

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award was set up a few years ago by NatSCA to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections. One of the recent projects we have been able to help with was the curation of some amazing specimens from the voyage of the Discovery. Hear more about the project from Tammy below.

David Gelsthorpe

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In early 2013 we set about organising the task to begin with the curation of the largest, most recent and least organised of the three collections – that of the ECOMAR collection. The start of the ECOMAR project coincided with commissioning of the new UK Royal Research Ship James Cook officially named by the Princess Royal on 6 February 2007. The first ECOMAR cruise departed from Southampton on 13 July 2007. The ECOMAR project was designed to investigate the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone area which lies approximately mid-way between Iceland and the Azores. Four super stations were defined (two north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and two to the south), all had the same bottom depth (2500m) and were revisited during voyages by the R.R.S. James Cook and the R.R.S. Discovery during the years 2007–2010 to replicate sampling, time-series investigations and flux studies.

The Discovery Collections have no full-time curatorial post and we rely on the goodwill and interest of students and other volunteers (including scientific visitors and work experience volunteers) to help with cataloguing, labelling, respiriting, and general curatorial jobs. The samples, though incredibly valuable should be considered at risk. I look after the collections in as much that I manage the visitors to the collections, host students, and manage public enquiries, visits and displays of the specimens. I am also a taxonomist employed to conduct research, describing new species and studying the ecology of the deep-sea benthic fauna. I was employed for four years to work on the ECOMAR program to describe the ecology of the scavenging fauna of the area. I therefore had a particular interest in the curation of this collection.

We employed Amanda Serpell-Stevens, to work on this project, but we had funds for only 8 weeks of her time. Thus the project was reduced from cataloguing the three large collections to just one. When Amanda’s contract ended there was still much reshelving and reordering of the material to be carried out which was carried out on an ad hoc basis by myself, a retired member of staff, Mike Thurston, and Amanda who returned on a voluntary basis to continue work on the project.

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The project began by working shelf by shelf to curate and to catalogue (in paper record) what was held including location and size of each jar, and to change containers for those specimens that were in plastic containers or inappropriate sized jars. The preservative was also replaced in most of the jars and a new label produced for each specimen, as many were poorly labelled. This curation and cataloguing process took the majority of the 8 weeks, with just enough time remaining to enter the data into Excel.

With the availability of a digital catalogue the task of reorganising the lots into taxonomic order was greatly eased. This meant adjustment of shelf heights to incorporate the various sizes of tubs and jars (some of the lots are 20 litre tubs full of holothurian specimens of a single species), and removing all the specimens in turn, which were then replaced first by taxonomic order then by station order using Excel to sort the data. The spreadsheet was updated with the new locations of the specimens as we progressed. The final part of the process involved cross referencing the specimens with the newly published papers and updating the names where they had changed (on both the specimen labels and in the spreadsheet).

There were numerous new species described during the ECOMAR project, which meant further problems in allocating the correct new name to specimens in the collections variously named as e.g. Peniagone sp. nov ‘pink’. While holotypes have been registered in the NHM, London, the rest of the material needs updating to current knowledge, a process which is often neglected, despite it being referenced in the many new publications resulting from the project.

It is very satisfying to have the ECOMAR collection properly curated and to know that I can locate any specimen needed easily. In total we curated, relabelled and catalogued a total of 1300 lots comprised of 1148 smaller jars, 88 tubs (between 5 and 20 litres) and 64 loan specimens. We plan to publish a detailed analysis of this work for the NatSCA journal, including a list of available species, and will make the catalogue available online when time and funding allow. In the meantime interested parties can contact Tammy Horton (tammy.horton@noc.ac.uk) for a copy.

Dr Tammy Horton
Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems
National Oceanography Centre,
Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
UK

State of the Union! Natural History Museums 2014

Author Mark Carnall, Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL
#NatureData Coordinating Committee
All views are the opinion of the author. August 2014.

‘After visiting the recent natural history museum community conference in July: SPNCH 2014, Cardiff, Mark Carnall reflects on what the sector internationally is thinking and doing – in particular what’s happening digitally and what people’s thoughts are on a UK natural science database’.

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

At the end of June was a rather special event; the coming together of three subject specialist networks (SSN), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales. Between them, these three networks represent a sizeable chunk of curators, conservators, directors and educators who work in and with natural history museums and collections. Each SSN has yearly meetings but a syzygy rarely happens.

The full conference was a six day affair packed with field trips, stores tours, talks, workshops, demos, poster sessions and discussions attended by over 250 delegates from almost as many natural history institutions. This provided a great opportunity to catch up and meet friends, facilitated the catharsis in sharing frustrations unique to natural history museums and offered a rare chance to establish a sense of ‘the state of the union’ in natural history museums across Europe, North America and elsewhere.

 

The broad theme of the conference was historic collections and future resources and many of the presentations were about off-label uses of collections, advocacy and digitisation. Inspiringly, the conference was kicked off with a series of keynotes which carried the resounding message of “get over it” when it comes to the communities’ existential crisis in demonstrating value and worth with a rousing series of presentations from Professor Paul Smith and Dr Chris Norris setting the tone for the rest of the conference.

Off-label use of collections, a term borrowed from accidental discoveries of secondary beneficial side effects in the pharmaceutical industry, came up time and time again. Cynically, as the curator of a small museum it’s nice to finally be joined by colleagues from some bigger museums who, without having to face the “use it or lose it” challenge to keep a museum in existence, have cottoned on to the notion that perhaps collections have uses beyond the 10% of material that has a function in alpha taxonomy and (often low impact) taxonomic research. Colleagues presented example after example of natural history collections being used for research into environmental change. One question that wasn’t satisfactorily answered was about how this use of collections can be procedurally built into research. Many of the examples were incidental discoveries (hence off-label) rather than arising from researchers deliberately thinking of uses of collections in the first instance. However, advocates for the importance of natural history collections now have a new suite of examples to convince decision and policy makers about unique insights into the natural world which can only be gleaned from scrutinising collections.

When it came to advocacy, unfortunately the community fell into the trap of talking about scientific research use of collections almost to the exclusion of all other audiences. I’ve written before about how natural history museums need to celebrate and contribute more to being a part of the cultural sector, especially for museums which don’t hold scientifically important collections and specimens. Myopia aside, the community seems to have come on to some degree, telling each other how important natural history collections are, which came out in a panel discussion on advocacy. There are still a lot of stereotypes about what museums are and what they do that need to be pulled down, but there’s a danger in evangelising which can be quite divisive. Another general theme that came out across the series of talk days is that we need to get more sophisticated and generally get better at demonstrating what we do well. The finding of the NatSCA and Arts Council England study into the popularity of different kinds of museum galleries was presented, demonstrating that natural history collections are the most popular, but put some audiences off if they don’t appear to be well maintained or invested in. Natural History Near You was also presented, finally making headway into ascertaining exactly where all the natural history collections are, a fundamental piece of information that has eluded several generations of natural history collections workers. Interestingly, one of the contrasts between the UK delegates and those from the rest of Europe and North America was that with a handful of exceptions, the majority of the social media generated around the conference came from UK colleagues. It seems that social media is yet to take off as a promotional, professional networking and advocacy tool for museum professionals elsewhere.

Lastly, there was a cornucopia of presentations on digitising collections. It’s uncontroversial to say that museums in general are far from being digital – let alone post digital – and that natural history museums and collections as a group are lagging behind the rest of the museum sector. It seems that colleagues in North America and from the rest of Europe are making huge advances in all aspects of digitisation from technical advances, standards in digitisation, data capturing pipelines and networks, and databases linking specimen information. Embarrassingly, UK museums are somewhat left in the dust, contributing little to the 20 or so European and International data repositories and the data that does exist is incomplete, hard to export, manipulate or in many cases even locate – let alone scrutinise. This is in part what the #naturedata project hopes to solve, with “one portal to rule them all” in the UK at least. The need for this is even more pressing thanks to worryingly vague requirements for databases required for compliance with the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. Three conference sessions on the Nagoya Protocol valiantly tried to deconstruct the bureaucratic layers represented by this legislation but it looks like the practicalities of compliance will be causing headaches for generations of museum professionals yet.

Overall, the conference was an excellent set of days. Networking and socialising with enthusiastic, passionate and brilliant colleagues really is the best way to recharge the batteries and reinvigorate the soul. Throughout the presentations the niggling thought I kept returning to was that all the innovative, experimental and inspiring ways we use to get the most of our collections are still hamstrung by our fundamental issue of getting a handle on what we have in our collections. The curse and gift of natural history collections is their vast size, but it’s no longer good enough to use the size of our collections as an excuse for not getting to grips with every single specimen we have and making them available to the people for whom we keep them in trust.

 

Night at the Museum, Uni Week

“Every night all the specimens in the museum come alive and instantly drown in industrial methylated spirits or silently scream without flesh”

Mark Carnall, Grant Museum.

Most people’s experiences of museums after dark differ to Ben Stiller’s. Mine last night was no exception. I visited the Natural History Museum, London, to see what science’s next generation are doing with our natural science collections.

It didn’t take long to wade past the cultural historians and robot musicians to find a relevant stand:

The University of Leicester

These guys have been studying the process of organic decay. Their stand, titled “Rotten Fish and Fossils – Resolving the Riddle of our Earliest Vertebrate Ancestors”, showcased photographs of a series of exquisitely preserved fossils – many from the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. I was shown a 300 million year old relative of the lamprey who stared lifelessly back at me from deep time. His modern counterpart lay equally lifeless in a nearby vacuum bag.

As part of their research, the team have been deliberately decaying various modern vertebrates in an attempt to better understand the process. One thing their team found was that the order in which structures decayed seemed to be a reverse mirror of the order in which they evolved. The implication: if you don’t identify how far along something is in the rotting process, its evolutionary relationships could very easily be misdiagnosed. You can read more about this on their site. This includes citations of published material (£).

The University of Cardiff

Project Splatter is a relatively new endeavour to track the location, variation, and frequency of road kills around the UK. Roadkills are a daily occurrence and form an important part of the corvid and fox diet. The University of Cardiff are asking for your help using social media to crowd source the data.

Most of the time all they want is the species, location, and date but, if it’s a bird of prey or an otter, they need the carcass too. As we know all too well from the DDT egg shell research, if there’s toxins in the environment it’s the top predators who get the most concentrated dose. Here’s the best part: after they have finished analysing the specimens, their remains are sent to the National Museum, Scotland to contribute to their natural science collection. With around 200 otter fatalities on the road per year, the NMS is fast becoming the best place to go for otter variation studies.

You can help out via Twitter, Facebook. They even have an Android app.

Middlesex University

Andrew Greenhargh has been playing with some fun toys involving biomechanics. While his current research is predominantly aimed at humans, the technology has been used to analyse obstacle avoidance techniques in running guineafowl during his stint at the Royal Veterinary College.

Andrew was squeamish until he met John Hutchinson: one elephant dissection later and he was a new man. One thing I learned talking to Andrew is that, when you have to euthanise a sick elephant, it is important to do it in front of the remaining elephants and give them time to grieve. They are very emotional and social animals. If you don’t do this, the other elephants can often become violent. He also talked about the keepers sitting vigil with the deceased elephant: despite recent tabloid stories to the contrary, most zoos care deeply for the animals in their care.

That’s all for my round-up of natural science university research. I did take a look at the other stands ad am happy to talk about what those institutions are up to. If you missed it and want to know more, do ask.

Collecting biological specimens essential to science and conservation

A letter signed by more than 100 biologists and biodiversity researchers,  published online in Science today (Science 23 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 814-815 DOI:10.1126/science.344.6186.814), states why collecting plant and animal specimens is essential for scientific studies and conservation and does not, as some critics of the practice have suggested, play a significant role in species extinctions.

Beetle collection. Image by Paolo Viscardi

The letter is a response to an April 18 Perspectives article in Science arguing that alternative methods of documentation—such as high-resolution photography, audio recordings and nonlethal tissue sampling for DNA analysis—make the field collection of animal and plant specimens unnecessary. As most natural sciences collections professionals are fully aware, this is simply not the case.

“None of the suggested alternatives to collecting specimens can be used to reliably identify or describe animals and plants,” said Cody Thompson, mammal collections manager and assistant research scientist at the U-M Museum of Zoology.

“Moreover, identification often is not the most important reason to collect specimens. Studies that look at the evolution of animal and plant forms through time are impossible without whole specimens. Preserved specimens also provide verifiable data points for monitoring long-term changes in species health and distribution.”

In addition, specimens from museum collections and their associated data are essential for making informed decisions about species management and conservation now and in the future, the authors state.

“Photographs and audio recordings can’t tell you anything about such things as a species’ diet, how and where it breeds, how quickly it grows, or its lifespan—information that’s critical to assessing extinction risk,” said Luiz Rocha of the California Academy of Sciences, who organized the response to the Science article.

And contrary to statements made in the April 18 Science article titled “Avoiding (Re)extinction,” collecting biological specimens does not play a significant role in species extinctions, according to the rebuttal authors.

In the April article, Arizona State University’s Ben Minteer and three co-authors cite several examples of species extinctions and suggest that the events were linked to overzealous museum collectors.

Not so, according to authors of the rebuttal letter, who reviewed the evidence and found that none of the cited extinctions—including the disappearance of flightless great auks in Iceland and Mexican elf owls on Socorro Island, Mexico—can be attributed to scientific collecting.

Millions of great auks were harvested for food, oil and feathers over the millennia, and only about 102 exist in scientific collections. Mexican elf owls were common when specimens were collected between 1896 and 1932, and the most likely reasons for extinction around 1970 were habitat degradation and predation by invasive species.

At the same time, Minteer and his colleagues failed to point out any of the valuable services that museum biological collections have provided over the decades, according to the rebuttal authors.

Both historical and new collections played a key role in understanding the spread of the chytrid fungus infection, one of the greatest current global threats to amphibians. The decision to ban DDT and other environmental pollutants was based on the discovery of thinning bird eggshells collected over an extended period. And the declining body size of animals, one of the negative effects of climate change, was discovered using body-size data from museum specimens.

Egg collections like this helped identify the harm done by DDT. Image by Paolo Viscardi

In other cases, genetic data from decades-old scientific specimens has even been used to “de-extinct” species. One of these, the Vegas Valley leopard frog, was thought to have gone extinct in the wake of Las Vegas development. However, a study published in 2011 compared the genetics of specimens from the extinct population to individuals from surviving populations of similar-looking frogs elsewhere in the Southwest and found them to be the same species.

These types of discoveries are “the hallmark of biological collections: They are often used in ways that the original collector never imagined.” And with the continuing emergence of new technologies, this potential only grows.

That potential, combined with the increasing number of threats species face and the need to understand them, suggests that the need to collect specimens—and to share the information they hold—has never been greater.

In their April article, Minteer and his colleagues erroneously portray scientific collecting in a negative light that distracts from the primary causes of modern extinctions: habitat degradation and loss, unsustainable harvesting and invasive species.

“Halting collection of animal and plant specimens by scientists would be detrimental not only to our understanding of Earth’s diverse biota and its biological processes, but also for conservation and management efforts,” said Diarmaid O’Foighil, director of the U-M Museum of Zoology and a co-author of the rebuttal letter.

“That detriment in understanding would only increase with time because having museum specimens available for future generations of scientists will allow their study using research methodologies that have yet to be invented.”

A pre-publication pdf version of the letter can be read here.