This past month I seem to be in reporting mode, with a number of Conferences all lined up in a row. It’s been a great opportunity to meet many other scientists and researchers with Natural History collections and compare notes about our efforts to fully digitise those and get them online for anyone in the world to research or explore.
As we wait on the final few images in the Miniature Lives Magnified (MLM) expedition to be fully retired (don’t let that 100% complete fool you ), I thought it would be a nice moment to report back to you what we’ve been learning so far, thanks to your help!!
The slideshow below is the one that I presented to my SYNTHESYS consortium partners at a two-day meeting in the Natural History Museum to share all of our outcomes with each other. This is the source of my own funding up until this coming August, and all of us in the consortium have natural history collections that we have been digitising.
I always try not to put too many words on the slides themselves, so I’ve replicated my voice-over for you below, following the slides numerically.
(There is something going wrong with embedding that slideshow in the post here – so please open up the presentation in another tab, and read my notes below at the same time: https://www.slideshare.net/MobileMaggie/setting-collections-data-free-with-the-power-of-the-crowd-synthesys3 to open it.
- The title of my talk
- Where my work has fit into the total SYNTHESYS project (WP = Work Package, Obj = Objective)
- The context of my work here at the Natural History Museum London, it’s a pretty big collection, so a very ambitious project to digitise it all!
- We have a huge variety of types of specimens, that all have their own unique photography challenges
- And we’ve got some unique specimen label challenges as well!
- Not the least of which is, reading handwritten labels – and this is the main reason that we can’t use Optical Character Recognition software to let computers digitise it for us.
- Because of the scale of the challenge, we’ve been asking people’s help by donating some of their ‘down-time’ to transcribe these labels – that’s YOU! 🙂 Did you know that you were using your cognitive surplus? 😉 The reason I like this example of how many hours people have spent watching Gangnam Style on YouTube, is that time could have built Wikipedia a time and a half over again. This relates pretty closely to what we’re trying to do – we want to make the data in our collections available for anyone in the world online, and our even longer term goal is to link that to research, curators, scientists, etc…
- …getting a giggle from the audience…
- We started by scanning all of the things in our collection that are small and flat – because they are the easiest to start with – and that’s why you are seeing so many microscope slides from us!
- This is our Open Data Portal, where everything that you help us process will be published. I’m really looking forward to sending you a link to the final data there by the end of the summer (fingers crossed).
- As we get better at the scanning work, we’re starting to be able to handle large volumes. This is my colleague Louise, who is currently scanning our Louse collection, both imaging the microscope slides AND making lovely enlarged images of the specimen itself. We’re hoping that this might become an expedition, and it will be FAR more enjoyable to be able to see the specimens up close like that.
- And this is what your volunteer effort has helped us to accomplish so far. YAY!
- These are the two expeditions that the Natural History Museum London has on Notes from Nature, both in Magnified
- Introducing Notes from Nature to the SYNTHESYS audience, with thanks to NfN for their support in being able to use this great platform, and to be working closely with the NfN community – that’s YOU! 🙂
- This is what your pattern of contribution has been looking like for the three batches of the MLM expedition.
- Those big spikes are the days that we’ve had a group of volunteers in the Museum with us for the whole day on the expedition – it’s been wonderful to be able to give them face-to-face training and support, and once they get the hang of it, some of them have been stellar super-transcribers. This slide is our record holder day 🙂
- This is an event format that we call “Visiteering” because it is both volunteer work with us for the day, but also visiting the museum and meeting the curator. If you’re ever in London (yes, I’ve got your name on my list GH!!) please do tell me so that you can join one of these days!!
- Some of you are really super 🙂 – super-transcribers that have made a HUGE contribution as an individual – but the whole picture of lots of little contributions also absolutely adds up to something very valuable. (This is the data from our first batch of Chalcid slides).
- The first data that we got from the first batch showed us what we already new to a degree – telling the difference between the scientific name of the Chalcid specimen itself, and the host insect it had parasitised, and the host plant on which that was found – is pretty tough!! The errors we were finding were mostly related to that. But your transcription work isn’t lost in those cases – where it looks like a piece of data is in the wrong field, we’ll simply move it over to a catch-all notes section so that it is still fully searchable.
- Two of our partners in the SYNTHESYS consortium also have an expedition on Notes from Nature, which I helped them put together and launch.
- The Amaranthacae were still not done yet at that time, and they have been more slow going. They are completely transcribed now though – HUGE thanks! We look forward to sharing information with you about what that partner (The Botanisher Garten in Berlin) learns from the collection.
- We think (thanks to your comments in Talk and Chat), that this has been more difficult partially because there is such a wide range of label styles, such as this one
- and this one.
- And we (I) made the mistake of trying to capture all of the possibilities – which resulted in a pretty long workflow, that can be confusing.
- Going back up to the other project
- The Primulacae from Kew Gardens are still not completed yet, and are similarly slow going.
- Once again we think that the wide variety of labels is one of the factors
- as well as a more complicated workflow that is trying to capture all of the possibilities
- And then the most recent Natural History Museum London expedition is the Fossil slides.
- This is the display table that I had out at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival where we launched that project. The pyramid is made out of the same sandstone that the real pyramids are built out of, and they contain Nummulites, a Formanifera fossil that is shown in the specimen beside it. On the smooth side of the pyramid you can see what these fossils look like as a ‘slice’ – which is how they appear on the Miniature Fossils Magnified (MFM) microscope slides!
- Here is how the MFM project is going so far
- There are a number of things I’ve been learning from your feedback in the Talk forums, and from the data you’ve been generating for us – such as Drop Down menus making the workflows much easier, and lowering the risk of error.
- And this is the latest project that I’ve helped a SYNTHESYS partner to launch – the Exploring Tropical Sweden expedition that was built directly onto the Zooniverse platform instead of Notes from Nature, because we were offering both an english and a swedish-language workflow for the local audience of Swedish Museum of Natural History fans. Luckily they needed less information from their labels, so the workflow is very easy!
- This project got a huge boost when it first launched, thanks to the communications from the Museum in Stockholm, and the Zooniverse community of testers for new projects built on Panoptes (the open project builder that we used to launch this).
- The Museum in Stockholm held an in-house Citizen Science day where they invited the public to take part in helping to transcribe their Brachiopod labels, and they really enjoyed speaking to volunteers like yourselves.
- Their Talk forums have been very active, and you can see a few peaks when a person really dove in and did lots of transcribing, and also had lots of interesting questions!
- So coming back to the context of the SYNTHESYS project, as this presentation is being given to my consortium partners (21 institutions from all over Europe, who all have natural history collections). In particular I wanted them to know that the value of the effort you’ve been making on our behalves is not just about the volume of transcriptions – there are all sort of other ‘non-quantifiable’ benefits of institutions doing projects like this together with the public.
- I shared an example of one of you lovely people who went diving into a thorough research of the web to discover the exact location of Wema Island (with apologies again from me for mis-reporting the country, after an in-house volunteer also did a deep search for this) – I know from the Talk forums that many of you have been enjoying finding out more and are really great detectives for these collections!
- I shared the example of our favourite ‘nature blogger’ in the Talk forums 🙂 sharing so many lovely observations of the plants and flowers in her immediate environment, and how she is encouraging others to share their observations as well.
- And I shared some of my own examples of a computer-room session I ran at my daughter’s primary school here in England, with a group of 10 and 11 year olds doing the Tiger Beetles. Through this project they learned the names of the provinces of Canada, which we wrote on the whiteboard along with their abbreviations. They learned what ‘altitude’ meant. We talked about why collectors write down all of this information on labels, and why it is important. They had great questions for me, such as ‘Are there any Tiger Beetles in England?’ – so we did some internet searching together. And these quotes are what they told me at the end :).
- There are sometimes some lovely little surprises in these collections. For example, some of the Brachiopod fossils in the Swedish Museum of Natural History collection were collected by the then King of Sweden!
- And although this example is from someone who works with collections in Ontario, and is not related to one of these projects, it does show that sometimes there is some quite poignant history captured in these collections as well.
- From our point of view at the Natural History Museum in London, providing more awareness of our collections behind the scenes is an important part of our public outreach. (That is our Chalcids curator Natalie showing our Visiteers her specimen work space, and some of the pinned Chalcids in her collection)
- This is the Data Portal where all of your hard work will be published, and made available for anyone in the world to research. As a Museum we hold these specimens in trust for the public. They don’t belong to us. And that is why it is so important that they are truly available to anyone – which includes folks without research & accommodation budgets to come and spend time physically studying our collections, as well as those who are just generally curious.
- We’ve been showcasing this data, via our Data Portal and the Application Programming Interface (API) through which you can access that data, to the developer community as well. This is a ‘Hack Day’ event that I ran with 200+ developers, where we invited them to explore our collections data and do interesting things with it.
- This is the team that won our ‘Natural History Open Data Challenge‘, by creating a wonderful interface into our Bioaccoustica data, that allows you to listen to them ‘spatially’.
- I then had a moment for our audience to ask any questions.
- These are spare photos that I had ready in case anyone had questions about our efforts to digitise all of our collections.
- Here you see a contraption that one of my colleagues invented to hold an ancient folio of bound herbarium sheets open for photographing, in a way that won’t tear the pages or break the spine. He built it using LEGO Mechanics, with the cut-off fingers of surgical gloves on their tips to protect the pages!
- This is what the first photo looks like, using this method (on the left), and then with software we’re able to straighten that image out a bit better (on the right).
- And this is our set-up for photographing the pinned-insects, that not only need to be captured from more than one angle to study them properly, but also to capture the labels that are pinned underneath the insect itself.
And that’s a wrap 🙂 Do let me know if you have any questions!! You can contact me at any time at email@example.com.
If you’re interested in finding out more about our digisitsation work at the Natural History Museum in London, you can read our own blog here: https://blog.nhm.ac.uk/tag/digital-collections-programme/, and you can find out more about the Digital Collections Programme itself here: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/our-work/digital-museum/digital-collections-programme.html
A few words from our Senior Curator of Micropalaeontology, Giles Miller, about the Larger Benthic Forams in this collection:
One of my curatorial predecessors Randolf Kirkpatrick (1863-1950) thought that larger benthic foraminifera (LBFs) were so important that he published a theory that they were vital to the formation of all rocks on earth. Our collection of LBFs has received relatively little attention over the 20 years I have been at the Museum, but recently it has been the most viewed part of the microfossil collection.
Traditionally LBFs have been difficult to study but new techniques, particularly CT scanning, are changing this perception. This post “The importance of being the largest microfossils” tells the story of Kirkpatrick and explains how the collection is currently being used for studies in stratigraphy, oil exploration, past climates and biodiversity hot spots.
Larger benthic foraminifera (LBF)
Larger benthic foraminifera are classified as microfossils because they were produced by a single celled organism, but they can reach a size of several centimetres. Their study is difficult because it usually relies on destructive techniques such as thin sectioning to make precise identifications.
My first line manager at the Museum Richard Hodgkinson was an expert at producing these thin sections. He described the technique of cutting the specimens exactly through the centre as an art rather than science.
Sadly there are very few people in the world skilled enough to make these sections, but thankfully the Museum collection is packed with LBF thin sections available for study.
Thank-you for helping to make this possible, by making all of the data in this collection available to research, along with the images of the specimens themselves.
Help scientists learn secrets of ancient seas
Today we drove down from the Natural History Museum in London to the jurassic coast of Dorset for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival – where we are launching our latest crowdsourcing project – Miniature Fossils Magnified – just in time for #FossilFriday!!
The slides feature fossils of single-celled organisms called foraminifera, or forams for short, embedded in slices of rock.
Foraminifera are found in both modern and ancient marine environments and preserve well thanks to shells called tests.
The foraminifera specimens in the Miniature Fossils Magnified project lived in shallow tropical seas from 500 million years ago to the present day.
More than 2,000 microscope slides have been digitally imaged so far. Now the Museum needs as many people as possible to help transcribe the information on the specimen labels – such as the species name, location of where the sample material came from and its geological age – so that the data can be used for scientific research.
Dr Stukins says,
‘These fossilised organisms were very sensitive to their environment, so with this data we can better understand past conditions in the oceans and climate change through time.
‘All of this knowledge can be applied to what is happening now and in the future, giving us a better understanding of how our climate and oceans are changing.‘
Ocean organisms with a tale to tell
Foraminifera are among the most abundant shelled organisms in our oceans. A cubic centimetre of sediment may hold hundreds of living individuals, and many more shells.
Some forams spend their lives floating in the ocean. When they die, they sink to the seafloor and gradually become buried in sediment. Others – benthic foraminifera – live on or near the seafloor. The Miniature Fossils Magnified project features a collection of large benthic foraminifera.
Their sizes range from a few tens of microns in diameter – like a small grain of sand – to several centimetres across.
The material was collected during the mid-twentieth century as part of oil exploration in the Middle East. The scientists involved in dating rocks described many new foraminifera species and the slides were later given to the Museum due to their scientific value.
The data on the slide labels are invaluable. Analysing them can help us to understand how our climate and sea levels have changed, and also tell us the geological history of the area in which they were found.
A record of ancient environments
Foraminifera shells are often divided into chambers and can be quite elaborate, although simple open tube or hollow sphere forms exist.
Because of the abundance and variety of foraminifera, their fossils are extremely important for dating rocks.
They also provide a record of the environment where they’re found. Sea level and temperature changes affect the diversity and population sizes of foraminifera species, as well as the growth of individuals, impacting their size. Studying fossil foraminifera can therefore help scientists to understand past conditions.
Scientists can also study fossils from known periods of change to observe how foraminifera responded to particular climate and ocean conditions. If we then see similar changes to foraminfera living on tropical reefs in the future, this can help scientists to deduce how quickly the changes are happening and predict what may happen.
Dr Miller says,
‘The Museum collection of larger benthic foraminifera is one of the most significant in the world but is little used because much of it remains undigitised.
‘By helping to digitise this collection, you will keep it relevant for scientific studies long into the future.’
Well, that came quick! We’re thrilled to now be launching our third and final batch of Chalcid slides on Notes from Nature!
Before you dive in, we thought you might like to find out more about these astonishing creatures in this article about the third-smallest winged insect ever known, which was discovered by our now-retired NHM colleague John Noyes and fellow researcher John Huber while on a research trip in Costa Rica:
Thank-you to everyone who gave us feedback about how we might make this last set easier to transcribe, with some additional information about where to find the required data on the labels.
There are three collectors in particular who have made a very large contribution to this collection, so we thought it might be useful to highlight their slide labels and point out some information that might have been hard to interpret.
John Noyes is a recently-retired colleague at the Natural History Museum who we still regularly see in our collection room pursuing his love of studying the Chalcidoidae – in fact he created a database that you may find to be a valuable resource when puzzling out scientific names: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/chalcidoids/. We like how neat and tidy his slides always are!
SB / S.C.B.
Sydney Charles Scarsdale Brown lived in Bournemouth, and seems to have gone on lots of local jaunts to collect the Mymaridae, using Malaise Traps. You can learn more about him in our post The Dentist who collected Fairyflies . His slides are some of the most frustrating in the collection because they’ll get your head flipping from one side to the other, but once you know that there are typically only a few pieces of data we need here, they are much easier to process.
Charles Waterhouse was an Assistant Keeper at the Natural History Museum, and seems to have preferred Richmond and Burnham Beeches to go on his collection trips for the Chalcidoideae. His slides will often have nicely printed labels with old fashioned hand-writing and a neatly typed British Museum registration number.
You will also see many slides that have been prepared by Fred Enock, who worked at the Museum at the same time as C. Waterhouse, and was an Entomologist in his own right – naming many species (see if you can spot ‘enock’ written after any of the scientific species name on some of these labels). But more commonly found in our collection will be his preparation labels, where he is NOT the Collector. He’s quite an interesting person who we know a fair bit about – so keep your eyes peeled for a future blog post!
Thanks to an awesome group of volunteers who came to visit us at the Natural History Museum London today (Visiteers), the second batch of Chalcid slides in the Magnified section have now been completely classified! Hurray!
Visiteering is one of the ways in which we invite the public to take part in our science at the museum, and today’s stellar group has set an all-time record for number of classifications in one day. Absolutely Awesome.
We’ll try to get the third and final batch of Chalcid slides launched in a new Expedition soon – but in the meantime, a VERY big thank-you to the Notes from Nature community and our Visiteers in the museum for all of your help in setting this data free.
For those of you who have been helping us to transcribe the Chalcid specimen labels in Miniature Lives Magnified, you’ll have been coming across one particular style of slide label that always get us flipping our heads from side to side to read.
And almost all of those specimens seem to have been collected in Bournemouth, and the surrounding area.
Once you start seeing a few of these, you’ll start to notice that they are all marked ‘S.B.’ – who is in fact the Collector of these specimens.
I started to become curious about the mysterious S. B., and the hyper-local nature of his or her collecting, so I decided to do a bit of sleuthing with the help of our Curator Natalie.
“I do know about the Bournemouth man: he was a dentist, and originally a lepidopterist but worked a lot on Mymarids… “
So here’s what I’ve found out.
S.B. is Sidney Charles Scarsdale Brown – born in London in 1903, and passed away in Bournemouth, Dorset in 2003.
You will have noticed that many of his slides are also marked ‘Trap‘ (which is why we don’t see host insect & host plant information on these). Mr. Brown has written something about how he found these marvelous creatures in the following note in the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine: 108: 94 (1973):
Mr Brown is mentioned on page 18 of The Conservation of Invertebrates report of the Monks Wood Experimental Station Symposium No 1, March 23rd – 25th, 1965:
“…a great deal of the information about the insect fauna of Scotland can be found in the diaries of a Mr. Harwood who lived in Aviemore just before the War…the diaries were now in the possession of Mr. Scarsdale Brown of Bournemouth, and on his death would be handed to the Hope Department, Oxford.”
He is also listed with all of his bona fides as S.C.S. Brown. F.D.S., L.D.S.. R.C.S., Vice President of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society, in their published proceedings from 1989 – 1990, which shares this wonderful background information about him:
“At the present time, the Society is very fortunate to have as a member Mr S.C. Scarsdale Brown. He joined the Society in 1937, was Chairman of Entomology 1939- 48.
After a few years away from the Society, he rejoined in 1967 and was – 44 – President 1975-76, the subject of his Presidential Address being “The Natural History of Bournemouth 1800-1900”. He edited the Proceedings from 1978-82 and is now an Honorary Member.
He has lived all his life in the Bournemouth area, working as a Dental Practitioner.
As a young man his interests centred on the Macrolepidoptera. He met W. Parkinson Curtis, who became a life-long friend, and joined the Society for British Entomology. There he met eminent entomologists such as Lt. Cdr. Fraser and William Fassnidge. The latter introduced him to the world of Microlepidoptera, at which he quickly became an expert, especially on the group of tiny moths known as Nepticulidae. Mr Brown was one of the contributors to the Illustrated Papers on British Microlepidoptera published in 1978 by the British Entomological and Natural History Society, his paper being illustrated with the superb paintings of Lt. Col. Fraser.
A meeting with Philip Harwood – one of the finest field entomologists – further added to his interests. Harwood concentrated on what are known to Lepidopterists as “Other Orders”, i.e. groups such as Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (bugs) and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps).
Scarsdale Brown has studied all these groups, but has become one of the country’s leading specialists in Aculeate and Parasitic Hymenoptera. His meticulous and painstaking fieldwork is illustrated by his work on the group of Parasitic Hymenoptera known as Fairy Flies (family Mymaridae). This contains what must be some of the world’s smallest insects – one of the largest of the fairy flies has a wingspan of only 3mm; they pass their larval stages inside the eggs of other insects such as dragonflies.
During the course of his study, he has recorded 7 species of Mymaridae new to Britain.
His collection of specimens is a joy to behold – each fairy fly mounted in a microscope slide, and the tiny Nepticulid moths perfectly set. Mr Brown is an excellent artist in watercolour, and has contributed many notes to entomological magazines.
Over the years the members of the Society have heard some fascinating lectures from him on Hymenoptera and other groups. In 1988 he received an award in the Manse 1-P leydel 1 Prize Essay Competition.
In recent years he has suffered from failing eyesight, which has prevented any of the entomological study he loves, but he still attends some lectures of the Society, and maintains his own garden, where he specialises in growing camellias and lilies.”
For all of you who have been helping us transcribe the specimen labels of the Chalcids – our slide-mounted parasitoid wasps, we thought you might enjoy learning about these fascinating creatures, and other members of the wasp family. Gavin Broad, who is Curator of Hymenoptera at the Natural History Museum did an #NHM_Live on Facebook last night (a weekly broadcast). Do watch the recording to find out why wasps are so undeserving of their bad reputation and that some even make honey.