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Miniature Fossils Magnified

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.

The project was set up by Dr Stephen Stukins and Dr Giles Miller, senior curators of micropalaeontology, and Science Community Coordinator Margaret Gold.

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.

People-powered science

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.’

 

3rd expedition of the NHM Chalcids launched in ‘Magnified’

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:

The mysteries of the tinker bell wasp, one of smallest bugs ever discovered

Shots of a tinkerbella nana female taken under a microscope. From the top of its head to the bottom of its abdomen, the tinker bell wasp is 0.25 mm in length, about three times the width of the average human hair. (From the Journal of Hymenoptera Research)

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.

JS Noyes

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.

 

C. Waterhouse

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.

Fred Enock

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!

Three cheers for Visiteers!

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.

 

Explore the world of the wasps with our Curator Gavin Broad

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.

2nd expedition of the NHM Chalcids launched on ‘Magnified’

We’re pleased to launch our second batch of microscope slides featuring the parasitoid wasps called Chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. 

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that we have updated the Expedition title from ‘Killer Wasps’ to “Miniature Lives Magnified” and have made some small tweaks to the structure of the Workflow, and have also attempted to make our instructions and ‘Need more Help?’ text and examples more clear. Do drop us a note in the Talk forum if we can continue to make further improvements.

miniature-lives-magnified

The Background Story

As part of our effort to digitise the collections of the Natural History Museum London, we have been collaborating with the Notes from Nature team to explore the potential of crowdsourcing the transcription of our specimen labels. 

Our first pilot project was called The killer within: Wasps but not as you know them, and was launched in the newly-created ‘Magnified’ section on Notes from Nature on August 16th, 2016.

The purpose of this initial Expedition was to test the functionality of the platform, and the difficulty of the task for the community of volunteers.

Your response was stellar – over 600 people got involved in completing the first batch of 2,000+ slides  – a particular thank-you goes out to our 9 super-transcribers @maggiej , @reinheitscat , @dfreezor , @Sagaman , @HDumas , @RedBee , @stevenhm , @rgerman , and @Mikusan. The data-set that you have created for us is looking good. We are therefore launching our second batch of slides with confidence!

About the Chalcids

These microscope slides feature parasitoid wasps called Chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. 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.

We have 6286 microscope slides in the collection and are asking the crowdsourcing community to collect data about when and where the specimen was collected, who by, and what host species it was collected from, as well as some museum collection data.

Here’s an example:

example-slide

These microscope slides contain the smallest members of the Chalcidoidea Superfamily, which are unfortunately impossible to see in the images on Notes from Nature – we encourage you to take a peak at those that are large enough to pin – their variety and beauty is amazing!

lycisca-ogloblina-hedqvist-1961

Hundreds of Chalcidoidea species have been used in biological control programs to combat insect pest species that damage crops, this translates into millions of pounds of savings in the agricultural sector.  Digitisation of Museum specimens such as those in our Miniature Lives Magnified project will help unlock and preserve species and distribution data essential for carrying out research to develop such programs.”- Natalie Dale-Skey Curator, Entomology

 

 

First ‘Miniature Lives Magnified’ expedition complete

Yay! We have finished our first expedition of the parasitoid Chalcid wasps in Magnified, beating the ETC by 4 days! I reckon that Friday the 13th is a lucky day after all.

An especially big thank-you goes out to @maggiej , @reinheitscat , @dfreezor , @Sagaman , @HDumas , @RedBee , @stevenhm , @rgerman , and @Mikusan who have all been particularly prolific in helping us to transcribe these microscopic slide labels – but of course many more people than can be mentioned have also generously donated their time to us. We thank you ALL.

And we know it wasn’t easy.

Laurence and Natalie and I at the Natural History Museum in London have been taking a look at the data that you have transcribed for us, and we can see that it often wasn’t clear what the difference was between the Species or Genus name of the Chalcid itself, the host insect it was found on, and the host plant they were both found on. We’ve got some thoughts on how we might make that both easier and more clear, so please bear with us while we take a few days to prepare for the Chalcids #2 expedition.

If you have any suggestions for us on how to structure or explain the fields we are asking you to fill, and how to provide better examples, please do drop us a note in the Magnified section of Talk. It is hugely helpful to us to receive your feedback.

In the meantime, I leave you with this beautiful image of a ‘Fairyfly’ – one of the Chalcid wasp families.

mymaridae-fairy-fly-slide-mounted-stephanodes-elegans-1414690

Setting the world’s Natural History data free

For all of you who have been helping us transcribe all of these specimen labels, I thought you might enjoy hearing from my boss (Vince Smith, who leads the Informatics team) and our Head of Life Sciences (Ian Owen) at the Natural History Museum in London, in their talk about how digitising the Museum’s 80 million specimens will help scientists answer big questions about how human behaviour is affecting life on earth.  – See more at: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/our-work/digital-museum.html#sthash.sqMZkeaN.dpuf

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