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The Natural History Museum’s Digital Collections Programme

Crowdsourcing our data in 2017

The Digital Collections Programme at the Natural History Museum in London

The Digital Collections Programme has run two crowdsourcing projects on Notes from Nature in 2017. We wanted to say a massive thank-you to the 2,000+ volunteers who together have helped us to capture data from over 15,000 specimens this year. You have made a significant contribution to Science.

1) collage for blog

Crowdsourcing our data in 2017

We can digitally image individual microscope slides at a rate of up to 1000 slides per day, but we still need help with capturing the label information on each slide. Transcription is an essential part of our digitisation process.

By reading the labels and typing information such as the collection date and location into the relevant data fields, our digital volunteers make it possible for us to release this data freely and openly on the Museum’s Data Portal. This data is available worldwide for researchers to study and explore.

Over the past year we showcased our crowdsourcing projects at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, Science Uncovered 2017 and the global WeDigBio transcription event. We have also hosted 14 Visiteering Days, in which over 120 people took part. Anyone interested in taking part in our one-day Visiteering programme to support the Museum’s work can register online here.

The Killer Within: Wasps, but not as you know them

Fairy fly

Fairyflies average at only 0.5 to 1.0 mm long

Our first crowdsourcing project within the Digital Collections Programme consisted of 6,285 microscope slides containing tiny parasitoid wasps called chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. Chalcids are the natural enemies of many insect pest species that damage our food crops, and are therefore used commercially as biological control agents.

Thanks to the help of over 1,300 digital volunteers for the Museum, the scientific information contained on these microscope slide labels have now been fully transcribed and are currently being processed for publication on the Data Portal.

From this data we learned that John S. Noyes, formerly of the Natural History Museum and developer of the Universal  Chalcidoidea Database, was our most active collector, that the majority of the specimens were collected in the 1980s and that the UK is the most prominently represented country in this collection.

Recently, we have been digitising the Museum’s parasitic louse slide collection – consisting of 70,667 slides at present. For each specimen, the whole slide has been imaged in to capture both the specimen and the labels.

From this collection we have isolated two subsets of louse specimens for two different crowdsourcing projects, each of which trialled a new platform for the transcription effort: lice from marsupial mammals – ‘Boopidae of Australasia’, hosted on DigiVol, and Lice of the Open Oceans, hosted on the Zooniverse.

 

Miniature Fossils Magnified: The smallest shells in the ocean

world oceans day

Foraminifera can help us learn how our ocean has changed over 500 million years

Our Miniature Fossils Magnified project features a collection of ~ 3,000 microscopic fossils, called foraminifera (or forams for short), embedded in slices of rock. The Museum has a strong tradition of foraminifera research dating back to the late 1800s, and the foraminifera collection – with approximately 250,000 slides – is one of the the most extensive in the world.

Foraminifera are microscopic single-celled organisms with shells (called tests), found in both modern and ancient marine environments. They either live on the sea bottom (benthic) or float in the upper water column (planktonic).

The 600+ digital volunteers have been helping to transcribe this label data so far and enabling research that can help us learn how our environment, climate and ocean have changed over 500 million years.

This project is almost complete, and with your help, we can start processing all of this data in the new year. As we process this data we look forward to sharing this data with you, and telling you of the scientific research that has thus been made possible.

If you have a few minutes to donate over the coming days, do join us on Notes from Nature to help finish off the Miniature Fossils Magnified Project. In the new year there will be new projects to join, and more outcomes to report.

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A brief summer break for the microscopic Foraminifera

A big thank-you to everyone who has helped us transcribe the first two batches of 2,071 foram slides. We are currently preparing the third and final batch, which will go live on Notes from Nature in September. Please share any suggestions with us on how we can improve the workflow and tutorials!

In the meantime, we thought you might like this piece on the Natural History Museum website about how much we can learn from these microscopic fossils:

Oceans under the microscope: mapping the future with fossils

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/oceans-under-the-microscope.html

Coral fossils dating back to the Palaeozoic Era (about 541 to 252 million years ago). Different types of corals have thrived at different times in the past. Ancestors of living corals first appear in the fossil record about 245 million years ago, after a mass extinction at the end of the Permian Period (252 million years ago) wiped out all Palaeozoic corals.

It’s clearly #FossilFriday at NfN, as the Trilobites are joined by Foraminifera!

A big thanks to everyone who helped us to classify our first test batch of  slides featuring rock slices with microscopic fossils in  Miniature Fossils Magnified. 

We are thrilled to be joining the Trilobites over in the Fossil section by bringing you a second batch of  Foraminifera in the Magnified section of Notes from Nature.

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.

Some images of larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) taken by Antonino Briguglio, a recent SYNTHESYS-funded visitor to our collections. The images represent specimens roughly the size of a small fingerprint.

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.

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