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Chalcids to the Rescue!

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!

tachardiaephagus-somervilli-mahdihassan-1923

Tachardiaephagus somervilli (Mahdihassan, 1923) – Specimen of the species to be released on Xmas island for biological control of invasive yellow crazy ants. 

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.

killer-within

 

 

Hot off the Press – Three new species of Parasitoid Wasps

A huge thank-you to everyone who has been helping us transcribe the Parasitoid Wasp “Killer Within”  specimen labels, in the ‘Miniature Lives Magnified’ section – they can sometimes be quite tricky, but you are doing work that will aid many future discoveries. This first set of slides is now 84% complete, and it would be awesome to finish those before the end of the year, if anyone is up for a final push!

genaemirum-phacochoerus-head-news-1

But in the meantime, we’d like to share some exciting research with you, that Dr Gavin Broad, Principal Curator of Hymenoptera at the Natural History Museum has just co-authored. Together with his collaborator Dr Simon van Noort, Curator of Entomology at Iziko South African Museum, they have identified three new species of parasitoid wasps  – two of which were laying undescribed in our own collections!!

All three species belong to the genus Genaemirum, which is found across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. The finds bring the total number of species in the genus to eight – and offer more clues to the genus’ biology, which is poorly understood.

Deadly dinner guests

Parasitoid wasps lay their eggs in or on a host animal, eventually killing it when the larvae hatch and eat their host. This lifestyle has seen some parasitoid wasp species used as pest control, particularly if the hosts cause destruction to economically important crops.

Their fatal effect on the host also distinguishes parasitoids from parasites, which live off a host but don’t usually kill them.

‘Until now, we knew almost nothing about the biology of Genaemirum species,’ says Dr Gavin Broad, Principal Curator of Hymenoptera at the Museum, and a co-author of the research. ‘They were first described in 1936, but since then we’ve only been able to guess at the hosts that they parasitise.’

However, one of these three new species, G. phagocossorum, was reared from a log infested by the cossid moth Coryphodema tristis.

‘This suggests that members of the Genaemirum genus live on wood-boring moths – something that was suggested, but never confirmed, as long ago as 1967,’ says Dr Broad.

‘It’s exciting to think that these specimens could finally help us answer that 80-year-old question.’

Warthog wasp

It’s not just the mystery of its host species that has made Genaemirum an interesting genus to study.

‘They have the most extraordinary head structures,’ says Dr Broad. ‘Gerd Heinrich, who originally described the genus, characterised them as “monstrous”.

‘In fact, one of the species we found in the Museum’s collections has the most extreme head I’ve ever seen.

‘It has massively expanded genae, or “cheeks”, a long lower face and horns above the antennae. We named it G. phacochoerus, after the genus name for the warthog, because of its striking appearance.’

Still digging

This unusual head shape lends weight to the suggestion that the genus parasitises wood borers, according to Dr Broad.

‘It looks like the female’s head has developed into a shovel shape,’ he explains. ‘This could help her shovel her way through piles of frass – the waste produced by the moth larvae as they bore through the wood – to get to a host for her eggs.’

The hunt for answers isn’t finished yet, however. The research, a collaboration with Dr Simon van Noort, Curator of Entomology at Iziko South African Museum, is part of ongoing efforts to document African parasitoid wasps in the family Ichneumonidae.

‘If we had a male G. phacochoerus specimen to compare to the female, that would tell us even more,’ says Dr Broad. ‘The shape of its head could support or refute the wood-borer host theory, since males don’t need to access a host.’

‘But for now, we’re one step closer to understanding these strange species.’

Read the full news story on the Natural History Museum website: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/science-news/2016/december/monstrous-wasps-could-reveal-their-species-secrets.html

New Expedition Group: Miniature Lives Magnified

Welcome to Miniature Lives Magnified!

Here at the Natural History Museum, London, we are so excited to bring you a brand new expedition group focusing on the transcription of microscope slides.

We have taken images of 100,000 microscope slides of a variety of insects, many of which are invisible to the naked eye.  We’ll be releasing the images of these insects in small batches.

Stethynium triclavatum LT

Our first expedition is called ‘The Killer Within: Wasps but not as you know them’ and focuses on a group of tiny wasps called Chalcids, pronounced ‘kal-cids’.  Just millimetres in length these wasps are parasitoids; they lay their eggs inside other insects and the emerging larvae eat their host inside out, growing and pupating until they are mature enough to burst out as adults.  

But the gruesome killing habits of Chalcids have an advantageous role in our food production systems.  Many of the host species of Chalcids are plant pests that have devastating impacts on agricultural and so Chalcids are used commercially as a biological control agent.

Perilampus aeneus Rossius 1790 - Perilampidae

Perilampus aeneus

Being sooooo tiny Chalcids are really hard to study, which means there are huge gaps in our knowledge about their ecology and behaviour.  We want to start unlocking some of that knowledge from our collections, which is why we have brought the slides to you the Notes from Nature community.

To get stuck into our first batch of microscope slides visit the ‘Magnified’ group, indicated by the microscope icon.

And do let us know what you think of the project in the ‘Magnified Help’ talk group.

We hope you enjoy the slides and we’ll see you in Talk.

Best wishes from Jade and the Natural History Museum team.

Macrofungi Added to Notes from Nature!

The Notes from Nature team is excited to announce the addition of content from the Macrofungi Collection Consortium!  This collection is a partnership of 35 institutions across the U.S that collectively will digitize about 1.5 million specimens that have been collected the past 150 years.  Macrofungi are important to humans in many ways – many people like to eat them, but some species are also deadly poisonous.  Macrofungi are also key to the health of our forests – indeed, most forest trees could not survive if their roots did not form a relationship with a macrofungus (called mycorrhizae) that helps tree roots absorb water and minerals from the soil.  Macrofungi are also an important source of food for forest animals and they serve as homes for many soil insects and other small organisms that are also part of a healthy forest ecosystem. Many macrofungi are very beautiful, and are the subject of nature photographers.  Their pigments may be used for dyeing wool or cotton, and for paper-making. Macrofungi are important religious symbols in some cultures.  Recently it has been discovered that macrofungi can play a role in the cleanup of environmental disasters.  Through a process called “mycoremediation” macrofungi are able to break down or remove contaminants such as pesticides and fuel oils.

The Macrofungi Collection comprises mushrooms and related fungi.  After collection, specimens of macrofungi are dried on a vegetable dehydrator or similar type of dryer, and then are placed in a box or packet with a specimen label that gives the name of the fungus, when, where, and and by whom the specimen was collected.  Because macrofungi are often very short-lived, documenting their occurrence with specimens is critically important for knowing which macrofungi grow where.

To help scientists answer the many remaining questions about these foundational organisms, they need access to data from collections.  Our project is to digitize these specimens and make the data available in a standardized, searchable form through the MycoPortal.

Although macrofungi (mushrooms and mushroom-like organisms) are not plants, they are still stored as dried specimens in herbaria.  The dried mushroom (which often looks nothing like the fresh mushroom!) is stored in a box or paper packet and is accompanied by a label that that gives the name of mushroom, where it was collected, when, and by whom.

You can contribute to a better understanding about these environmentally critical organisms by helping to transcribe data from the specimen labels into a structured format.   The folks who are capturing the images of these specimens have already recorded the name of the fungus,  so what we need your help with is transcribing the collection locality and date, as well as the collector’s name and number.

If you want to learn more about macrofungi, there are many sources of information.  Online, Encyclopedia of Life, which is also linked to the macrofungi collections in Notes from Nature, is a reference for images and descriptions of many of these fungi.  Mushroom Observer is a site where citizen scientists and professional mycologists meet to discuss macrofungi of interest.  There are also many clubs around the country where participants go on mushroom collecting trips, host lectures for members and teach the general public about these organisms.  You can learn about clubs in your area through the North American Mycological Association website.

Seeking participants for December hackathon!

iDigBio and Zooniverse’s Notes from Nature Project are pleased to invite you to participate in a hackathon to further enable public participation in online transcription of biodiversity specimen labels.  The event will occur from December 16-20, 2013, at iDigBio in Gainesville, FL, though you may choose to participate in a subset of the days based upon the schedule.   We are especially looking for participation from the most enthusiastic and committed citizen science transcribers!  This is a great opportunity to have a direct influence on expanding this tool in the directions you would like to see it go.

The hackathon will produce new functionality and interoperability for Zooniverse’s Notes from Nature  and similar transcription tools.  There are four areas of development that will be progressively addressed throughout the week.

  1. Linking images registered to the iDigBio Cloud with transcription tools in order to alleviate storage issues.  (Monday)
  2. Transcription QA/QC and the reconciliation of replicate transcriptions.  (Remainder of week)
  3. Integration of OCR into the transcription workflow.  (Remainder of week)
  4. New UI features and novel incentive approaches for public engagement.  (Remainder of week)

There will be opportunities to narrow the focus in each category of activity in a teleconference tentatively scheduled for early in the week of November 25 (and also at the TDWG meeting and the iDigBio Summit, if you are attending either of those events).

If you are interested, please get in touch with Austin Mast (amast@bio.fsu.edu) by Wednesday, Nov 1.  iDigBio has budgeted some funds to support travel costs.

With best regards,

Austin and Rob Guralnick (UC-Boulder), co-organizers

On television!

Check-out a recent feature on Notes from Nature on the local NBC29 news station in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Two billion specimens!

http://www.nbc29.com/story/23757819/uva-researchers-seek-publics-help-classifying-species

A new milestone!

The Notes from Nature team is proud to report reaching the new milestone of 300,000 transcriptions completed!  This has been made possible by the generous and committed efforts of nearly 4,000 citizen scientists from around the globe.  We look forward to continuing the project and sharing more biological collections with you in the near future.  Thank you citizen scientists!

To continue growing and expanding, we are interested in your feedback.  What excites you the most from Notes from Nature so far?  How would you like to see it evolve?  Leave a comment and let us know!

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