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.’
I’m sure that many of you around the world are as big a fan as we are of David Attenborough here in England, and we hope that the new series of Planet Earth is reaching you where you are as well. (If not, we do encourage you to buy the DVD the second it comes out!)
If you watched the first episode, then you will have learned of the plight of the red crabs native to Christmas Island, and how they are being decimated by an invasive species of ant.
Well, we’re pleased to tell you that this marvelous creature in the image below is coming to the rescue!
Have you heard the one about the wasp that kills the bug that feeds the ants that kill the crabs that keep the forests healthy on Christmas Island?
If not, that’s because it hasn’t happened yet, but it is a tale worth telling.
In the coming weeks, Parks Australia will release a 2mm wasp on Christmas Island to control the island’s yellow crazy ant infestation. Crazy ants are a big threat to the island’s wildlife, including its famous red crabs.
Biological control – when we use one species to control another – is infamous for giving Australia its cane toad invasion. So, how do we know this one will work?
Read more about how A Tiny Wasp Could Save Christmas Island’s Spectacular Red Crabs from Crazy Ants.
Here on Notes from Nature, we have an entire collection of these marvelous microscopic parasitoid wasps – containing much valuable information for researchers around the world, with many more potential ‘biological control’ applications yet to be uncovered.
Help us set that information free, in our Magnified expedition: The Killer Within: Wasps, but not as you know them.
There has been a flurry of activity at Notes from Nature these past few days, as a number of new Expeditions join us in the Plants section, and new sections for Aquatics and Fossils are launched, all in time for the 3-day WeDig Bio event that launched today!
Starting in Australia….
It all kicked off at the Australian Museum, where the DigiVol team gathered a group of volunteers to spend the day transcribing some fascinating specimens – check out their projects here: https://www.wedigbio.org/content/digivol. You can help out with these projects at any time, or if that’s your corner of the world, why not join them on Saturday for a great chance to hang-out with others interested in Biodiversity Collections around the world?
….over to Europe – live in London at the time of writing ….
As the planet turned, we were handed the baton here in London at the Natural History Museum, where we have a team of Visiteers joining us in our Specimen Preparation Area in the Cocoon, helping us to transcribe our ‘Killer Within’ chalcid slides. These tiny wasps are parasitoids, meaning they lay their eggs inside other insects.
When chalcid eggs hatch, the emerging larvae eat the inside of their host. They then grow and pupate until mature enough to burst out as adults, finally killing the host. These tiny creatures play a very important role as biological control agents – they are the natural enemy of a wide range of insect pests that damage our food crops, thus reducing the need for chemicals and pesticides, and saving a significant amount of money as well. You can join us too!
Primulaceae from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
The tropical Primulaceae form a species-rich but poorly known group. Research at Kew aims to further understand the taxonomy, evolution and diversification of the family to mirror our understanding of the temperate Primulaceae. When thinking of Primulaceae, most of us will picture the spring flowers primroses and cowslips.
These are not only charismatic wild flowers but are also important in horticulture. Traditionally, Primulaceae contained only temperate herbaceous groups and whilst known to be very closely related to Myrsinaceae, was kept separate, primarily on account of Myrsinaceae being woody and tropical. However, based on a suite of similar morphological characters and more recent DNA evidence, all species of Myrsinaceae have been placed in Primulaceae. Come take a look!
Amaranthaceae from the Botanischer Garten Berlin
And just a short trip down to the European continent, we are joined by the Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum Berlin, and their newly launched Amaranthaceae Expedition in the Herbarium.
These plants represent the most species-rich lineage within the flowering plant order of Caryophyllales, and are economically important to study because they include vegetables such as spinach (Spinacia oleracea) or forms of beet (Beta vulgaris) (beetroot, chard), and ‘pseudocereals’ such as lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule).
A number of species are popular garden ornamental plants, (such as Alternanthera, Amaranthus, Celosia, and Iresine), others are considered weeds (such as redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) and alligatorweed (Alternanthera philoxeroides)), and many others cause pollen allergies.
Up Next: North America
Where will you visit? What projects will you join?
Now it’s your turn!
Your help transcribing these specimen labels will allow many more scientists around the world to study the mechanisms of their evolution and investigate biological diversity around the world.
It is essential to link information about organisms and specimens in the collections, to secure this data sustainably and to make it widely accessible and usable. You are helping us to make these collections accessible around the world, and this important information on biodiversity available to everyone.
Many of the Expeditions on Notes from Nature are taking part in the upcoming WeDig Bio event from the 20th to the 23rd of October. It’s all about digitising natural history collections around the world, and we’ll be hosting live events at our home institutions, as well as inviting others to join us online.
It will be a great opportunity to meet other natural history enthusiasts face-to-face (check out the event listing to find one near you), or engage with other volunteers online who will be helping us to transcribe specimen information to set the data free!
For members of the Notes from Nature community there will be plenty of your favourite projects to choose from, plus a number of new ones that are launching just for the occasion.
Miniature Lives Magnified from the Natural History Museum
The collection that the Natural History Museum is profiling as part of WeDigBio focuses on a group of wasps called chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’). These tiny wasps are parasitoids, meaning they lay their eggs inside other insects. When chalcid eggs hatch, the emerging larvae eat the inside of their host. They then grow and pupate until mature enough to burst out as adults, finally killing the host.
These tiny creatures play a very important role as biological control agents – they are the natural enemy of a wide range of insect pests that damage our food crops, thus reducing the need for chemicals and pesticides, and saving a significant amount of money as well.
We have imaged 100,000 microscope slides of these tiny insects, barely visible to the naked eye. Now we need your help to transcribe information from the specimen labels so that the data can be used for scientific research.
This ‘Miniature Lives Magnified‘ project is part of our mission to mobilise the world’s natural history collections, and digitise the 80 million specimens we hold in our collection. at the Natural History Museum. We want to make the information the specimens contain about the natural world more openly available to scientists and the public – and you can help make this happen!
Other Notes from Nature projects taking part:
On Friday the 30th of September, from 16.00 – 22.00, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington London will be hosting our annual festival of science as part of European Researchers’ Night. The theme is Uncovering the hidden worlds of nature – from the depths of the oceans to planets beyond our own – and the Miniature Lives Magnified team at the museum will be showing off our Chalcids!
“Beyond our sight: using the latest technology, scientists can reveal the natural world in more detail than ever before. From bacteria to bioacoustics, learn how microscopic details are helping us understand our future challenges.”
The event is free to attend, and is a wonderful chance to discover rare items from the Museum’s collections, meet hundreds of experts, and take part in interactive science stations, debates and behind-the-scenes tours. You can find out more about the event on the Museum Website.
The team will have a range of slides from our Collection that are being used in our The Killer Within Expedition, which focuses on a group of wasps called chalcids (pronounced ‘cal-sids’). These tiny wasps are parasitoids, meaning they lay their eggs inside other insects. When chalcid eggs hatch the emerging larvae eat the inside of their host. They then grow and pupate until mature enough to burst out as adults, finally killing the host.
Almost invisible to the naked eye the insects in this project inhabit a little known world we rarely notice, but their lifestyles have a huge impact on nature and our human lives. Whilst some insects are vital for pollinating our crops or providing food to higher levels of the food chain, the insects in this project are terrors, either as pests causing destruction to our crop plants through their feeding, or as parasitoids killing these pest species by hatching out of their bodies.
By helping us to transcribe some of the 6286 microscope slides we have in the collection, you are making data and information available to scientists worldwide that can help address some of the key environmental issues we are facing right now, such as sustainable agriculture, the impacts of climate change, and how diseases affect wildlife and humans.
All data transcribed by the expedition will be made freely available for anyone to use on the Museum’s open Data Portal (http://data.nhm.ac.uk).
Come meet the Notes from Nature team at Science Uncovered in the Birds Gallery (Green Zone) of the Natural History Museum:
We always appreciate all the hard work spent transcribing records on Notes from Nature, and we want to celebrate your accomplishments. As you gain expertise on Notes from Nature, you earn badges that are added to your “Transcriber’s Life” page (if you have a Zooniverse account — its so easy to get one, and totally worth the 20 seconds it takes to have it).
When we launched Notes from Nature, we had badges for SERNEC and Calbug. Since some you might not know all the badges available, and since, right now, we only show three on each “collection page”, I wanted to walk you through them all, especially because we just added some new ones! In particular, we added one new badge for SERNEC and CalBug, and three new badges for our Macrofungi project.
Now you can earn a “mature tree badge” for 1000 records transcribed.
Here are the three original Calbug badges (egg, catepillar, and butterfly), earned when you transcribe 1,25, and 100 records.
Now you can also get the “butterfly swarm badge” when you transcribe 500 records.
And introducing the new Macrofungi badges (spore, mycelium, and mushroom) for transcribing 1,25,and 100 records! Sweet!
We hope you want to earn all 13. I guess we do like and need those badges, and we hope you do too.
Notes from Nature is something of a departure for a Zooniverse project. Rather than a single organization asking for help with the exact same tasks, Notes from Nature is, like its subject matter, diverse. So we have labels of bugs, sheets of plants, fungal specimen labels, and ledgers of birds. And we have a lot – and I mean A LOT— of images that need transcription. Not only that, but each of those images are transcribed more than once—as mentioned in previous posts, right now each image gets 4 separate transcriptions.
All of this is preface to the main topic of this post – how do we measure “progress” with the tasks of transcribing all of this data. The science team on Notes from Nature has talked a lot about this, and a number of complexities related to making sure that the numbers are transparent to you, our volunteers. This post covers a fair amount about how to measure overall progress. We also know that there have been issues with transcription counts for individual volunteers. We believe that we have solved those issues, but we’ll cover those separately in another blog post.
So, here are two of the main issues we have been dealing with and some recent solutions that have been implemented across Notes from Nature:
Issue 1: Do we measure total number of transcriptions or total number of images that are “finished” (e.g. transcribed four times)?
Solution: We have decided to measure total transcriptions completed across all projects and within projects. This is a change from our previous strategy which had mixed and matched these different counts on different pages. We think the most obvious measure is overall effort put in, even if this means it is harder to know how many images have been done.
Issue 2: Should we even measure “completeness” within a project (e.g., Calbugs)? The reason this is an issue is that most projects on Notes From Nature have only posted a small subset of available images and there are many more “waiting in the wings”. We don’t want to say “hey, only a 1000 more images to transcribe” and then just a little later go “Oh! Just kidding, there are now 50000 more!” Our ultimate goal is to stage the many remaining images as smaller batches with compelling themes derived from their research or other societal values (e.g., all specimens from a particular national park or collected by an important historical figure). This will give us a chance to celebrate the success of completion more regularly. At the moment, we are seeking funding to do this.
Solution: We do want to show that progress is being made on the current batch of images on Notes from Nature, but we want to avoid any confusion if more images are made available once the current sets are close to be done. So we are showing a percentage that represents total number of transcriptions completed over the total number needed for a batch, but we link to this very blog post to explain why those may change. We are also providing some information on progress with the images themselves, and here we provide counts of “total images”, “active images”, “complete images”. Below is a definition of each of those terms:
active images – The number of images that are either in progress with being transcribed or waiting for transcription.
complete images – The number of images that have been independently transcribed four times