Sir Charles Lyell’s historical fossils kept at London’s Natural History Museum accessible online

The Lyell Project team: First row, seated from left to right: Martha Richter (Principal Curator in Charge of Vertebrates), Consuelo Sendino (with white coat, curator of bryozoans holding a Lyell fossil gastropod from Canaries), Noel Morris (Scientific Associate of Invertebrates), Claire Mellish (Senior Curator of arthropods), Sandra Chapman (curator of reptiles) and Emma Bernard (curator of fishes, holding the lectotype of Cephalaspis lyelli). Second row, standing on from left to right: Jill Darrell (curator of cnidarians), Zoe Hughes (curator of brachiopods) and Kevin Webb (science photographer). Photo by Nelly Perez-Larvor.

More than 1,700 animal and plant specimens from the collection of eminent British geologist Sir Charles Lyell – known as the pioneer of modern geology – were organised, digitised and made openly accessible via the NHM Data Portal in a pilot project, led by Dr Consuelo Sendino, curator at the Department of Earth Sciences (Natural History Museum, London). They are described in a data paper published in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.

Curator of plants Peta Hayes (left) and curator of bryozoans Consuelo Sendino (right) looking at a Lyell fossil plant from Madeira in the collection area. Photo by Mark Lewis.

The records contain the data from the specimens’ labels (species name, geographical details, geological age and collection details), alongside high-resolution photographs, most of which were ‘stacked’ with the help of specialised software to re-create a 3D model.

Sir Charles Lyell’s fossil collection comprises a total of 1,735 specimens of fossil molluscs, filter-feeding moss animals and fish, as well as 51 more recent shells, including nine specimens originally collected by Charles Darwin from Tierra del Fuego or Galapagos, and later gifted to the geologist. The first specimen of the collection was deposited in distant 1846 by Charles Lyell himself, while the last one – in 1980 by one of his heirs.

With as much as 95% of the specimens having been found at the Macaronesian archipelagos of the Canaries and Madeira and dating to the Cenozoic era, the collection provides a key insight into the volcano formation and palaeontology of Macaronesia and the North Atlantic Ocean. By digitising the collection and making it easy to find and access for researchers from around the globe, the database is to serve as a stepping stone for studies in taxonomy, stratigraphy and volcanology at once.

Sites where the Earth Sciences’ Lyell Collection specimens originate.
“The display of this data virtually eliminates the need for specimen handling by researchers and will greatly speed up response time to collection enquiries,” explains Dr Sendino.

Furthermore, the pilot project and its workflow provide an invaluable example to future digitisation initiatives. In her data paper, Dr Sendino lists the limited resources she needed to complete the task in just over a year.

In terms of staff, the curator was joined by MSc student Teresa Máñez (University of Valencia, Spain) for six weeks while locating the specimens and collecting all the information about them; volunteer Jane Barnbrook, who re-boxed 1,500 specimens working one day per week for a year; NHM’s science photographer Kevin Webb and University of Lisbon’s researcher Carlos Góis-Marques, who imaged the specimens; and a research associate, who provided broad identification of the specimens, working one day per week for two months. Each of the curators for the collections, where the Lyell specimens were kept, helped Dr Sendino for less than a day. On the other hand, the additional costs comprised consumables such as plastazote, acid-free trays, archival pens, and archival paper for new labels.

“The success of this was due to advanced planning and resource tracking,” comments Dr Sendino.
“This is a good example of reduced cost for digitisation infrastructure creation maintaining a high public profile for digitisation,” she concludes.

 

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Original source:

Sendino C (2019) The Lyell Collection at the Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London (UK). Biodiversity Data Journal 7: e33504. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.7.e33504

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About NHM Data Portal:

Committed to open access and open science, the Natural History Museum (London, UK) has launched the Data Portal to make its research and collections datasets available online. It allows anyone to explore, download and reuse the data for their own research.

The portal’s main dataset consists of specimens from the Museum’s collection database, with 4,224,171 records from the Museum’s Palaeontology, Mineralogy, Botany, Entomology and Zoology collections.

Scientists discover over 450 fossilised millipedes in 100-million-year-old amber

Since the success of the Jurassic Park film series, it is widely known that insects from the Age of the Dinosaurs can be found exceptionally well preserved in amber, which is in fact fossilised tree resin.

Especially diverse is the animal fauna preserved in Cretaceous amber from Myanmar (Burma). Over the last few years, the almost 100-million-year-old amber has revealed some spectacular discoveries, including dinosaur feathers, a complete dinosaur tail, unknown groups of spiders and several long extinct groups of insects.

However, as few as three millipede species, preserved in Burmese amber, had been found prior to the study of Thomas Wesener and his PhD student Leif Moritz at the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig – Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity (ZFMK). Their research was recently published in the open-access journal Check List.

One of the newly discovered fossilised millipedes. Photo by Dr Thomas Wesener.

Having identified over 450 millipedes preserved in the Burmese amber, the scientists confirmed species representing as many as 13 out of the 16 main orders walking the Earth today. The oldest known fossils for half of these orders were found within the studied amber.

The researchers conducted their analysis with the help of micro-computed tomography (micro-CT). This scanning technology uses omni-directional X-rays to create a 3D image of the specimen, which can then be virtually removed from the amber and digitally examined.

The studied amber is mostly borrowed from private collections, including the largest European one, held by Patrick Müller from Käshofen. There are thought to be many additional, scientifically important specimens, perhaps even thousands of them, currently inaccessible in private collections in China.

Over the next few years, the newly discovered specimens will be carefully described and compared to extant species in order to identify what morphological changes have occurred in the last 100 million years and pinpoint the speciation events in the millipede Tree of Life. As a result, science will be finally looking at solving long-standing mysteries, such as whether the local millipede diversity in the southern Alps of Italy or on the island of Madagascar is the result of evolutionary processes which have taken place one, ten or more than 100-million years ago.

According to the scientists, most of the Cretaceous millipedes found in the amber do not differ significantly from the species found in Southeast Asia nowadays, which is an indication of the old age of the extant millipede lineages.

On the other hand, the diversity of the different orders seems to have changed drastically. For example, during the Age of the Dinosaurs, the group Colobognatha – millipedes characterised by their unusual elongated heads which have evolved to suck in liquid food – used to be very common. In contrast, with over 12,000 millipede species living today, there are only 500 colobognaths.

Another curious finding was the discovery of freshly hatched, eight-legged juveniles, which indicated that the animals lived and reproduced in the resin-producing trees.

“Even before the arachnids and insects, and far ahead of the first vertebrates, the leaf litter-eating millipedes were the first animals to leave their mark on land more than 400-million-years ago,” explain the scientists. “These early millipedes differed quite strongly from the ones living today – they would often be much larger and many had very large eyes.”

The larger species in the genus Arthropleura, for example, would grow up to 2 m (6.5 ft) long and 50-80 cm (2-3 ft) wide – the largest arthropods to have ever crawled on Earth. Why these giants became extinct and those other orders survived remains unknown, partly because only a handful of usually badly preserved fossils from the whole Mesozoic era (252-66-million years ago) has been retrieved. Similarly, although it had long been suspected that the 16 modern millipede orders must be very old, a fossil record to support this assumption was missing.

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Original source:

Wesener T, Moritz L (2018) Checklist of the Myriapoda in Cretaceous Burmese amber and a correction of the Myriapoda identified by Zhang (2017). Check List 14(6): 1131-1140. https://doi.org/10.15560/14.6.1131

The ‘Star dust’ wasp is a new extinct species named after David Bowie’s alter ego

During her study on fossil insects of the order Hymenoptera at China’s Capitol Normal University, student Longfeng Li visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, carrying two unidentified wasp specimens that were exceptionally well-preserved in Burmese amber. This type of fossilized tree resin is known for the quality of the fossil specimens which can be preserved inside it. Being 100 million years old, they provide an incredible view into the past.

The subsequent analysis of the specimens revealed that both represent species new to science. Furthermore, one of the wasps showed such amazing similarities to a modern group of wasps that it was placed in a currently existing genus, Archaeoteleiawhich has long been considered as an ancient lineage. The species are described in a study published in the open access Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

However, Archaeoteleia has changed since the times when the ancient wasp got stuck on fresh tree resin. The authors note that “a novice might not recognize the characters that unite the fossil with extant species”. For instance, the modern wasp species of the genus show visibly longer antennal segments and a different number of teeth on the mandible when compared to the fossil. In turn, the description of the new extinct species enhances the knowledge about living species by highlighting anatomical structures shared by all species within the genus.

This fossil wasp with living relatives received quite a curious name, Archaeoteleia astropulvis. The species name, astropulvis, translates from Latin to ‘star dust’. The discoverers chose the name to refer to both “the ancient source of the atoms that form our planet and its inhabitants”, as well as to commemorate the late David Bowie’s alter ego – Ziggy Stardust.

Unlike the Star dust wasp, the second new species belongs to a genus (Proteroscelio) known exclusively from Cretaceous fossils. Likewise, it is a tiny insect, measuring less than 2mm in length. It also plays an important role in taxonomy by expanding the anatomical diversity known from this extinct genus.

10388_Proteroscelio nexus

The authors conclude that their discovery, especially the Star dust wasp and its placement in an extant genus, where it is the only fossil species, “exemplifies the importance of understanding the extant fauna of a taxon to interpret fossils”.

“Such union of fossil and extant morphologies is especially illuminating and requires examination of both kinds of specimens,” they add.

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Original source:

Talamas EJ, Johnson NF, Buffington ML, Dong R (2016) Archaeoteleia Masner in the Cretaceous and a new species of Proteroscelio Brues (Hymenoptera, Platygastroidea). In: Talamas EJ, Buffington ML (Eds) Advances in the Systematics of Platygastroidea. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 56: 241-261. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.56.10388