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!
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.’
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.’
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
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:
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.
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.
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.