Museum researchers are studying the taxonomy, systematics and biodiversity of different groups of invertebrates.
About our role: What is an invertebrate you say? Great question! An invertebrate is any animal without a spine. Think of insects, worms, jellyfish and you’re crossing over into our territory. We spend our days outside searching for these animals.
At the Natural History Museum, we’re a diverse group, bringing together expertise from a wide range of areas. The sampling team collects invertebrates found on the land and in water while the lab team processes samples to sequence DNA barcodes – meanwhile magicians in the background keep everything running smoothly like a functional Wizard of Oz. Broadly our day-to-day work can be split into three categories: collection, identification and DNA barcoding.
This is the fun bit, before anything else can happen we need to get outside and get searching. To find these mini beasts, we look under (and inside!) fallen tree branches, sweep nets through the air, sample from boats and much more. Different animals are found in different habitats which takes us all over the UK. This summer we’re heading to an island in Scotland in search of marine invertebrates – watch this space!
One of the most important aspects of our jobs is getting the right identification for each species – making sure that flea really is the type of flea you say it is. This is where taxonomy comes in, the system of classifying species in biology. Each species has a different name and that name is invariably written in Latin. At the NHM we are lucky enough to have experts in many different groups, some specialise in wasps (Hymenoptera), others in beetles (Coleoptera). All specialise in accuracy which is a good thing as often something as small as the placement of a leg hair is used to tell two species apart.
Once we have worn ourselves out in the field we return to the office and the real work begins… at least this is what the lab team would have you believe! Our offices are a little different to the ones you might encounter in the usual workplace. Sure, we have computers and desks but we also have lab space and a lot of dry ice and liquid nitrogen. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide which is a chilly -78°C! Liquid nitrogen is even colder at -196°C. It is critical that samples remain cold throughout the project in order to preserve DNA for DNA barcoding and whole genome sequencing.
Our lab team process the samples to sequence DNA barcodes. A DNA barcode is a short sequence of DNA which can be used to differentiate between different species. As the Natural History Museum is the main barcoding hub of the project this means we receive all kinds of samples, from plants to dung beetles!
Photos of our equipment:
Liquid nitrogen tanks at NHM containing samples frozen at -196°C
Dry shippers are filled with liquid nitrogen, creating a portable freezer for use during fieldwork
Boxes of samples are placed in these metal racks
Samples on dry ice at -78°C
Photos of our workplace/work:
The Natural History Museum, from the wildlife garden
Freshwater invertebrate collections