A survey of British lichens at the Natural History Museum, London

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This was the first of two projects completed in the Cryptogamic Herbarium at the NHM, working with Curator of Lichens, Dr Holger Thüs.  With one of the largest lichen collections in the world at 400,000 specimens, and at least 10,000 type specimens, it was an unmissable opportunity to learn more about these fascinating organisms, about the historical and current curation of lichen collections, and to hone my skill at reading handwriting through the ages.

At the NHM the lichens are divided physically into British and Worldwide.   The survey provided data on:

  • The geographical distribution of British lichens in the collection
  • Collection and acquisition of the specimens as recorded on the specimen labels
  • The prevalence of the various methods of mounting and storage used.

Analysis of the data will allow a comparison of the geographical distribution of specimens in the collection with national databases to assess significance.  The depth and accuracy of information about the specimens already held on the NHM database can be reviewed and the information will help in planning resources needed for future collection management projects and digital databasing.

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The British lichen collection is stored in 7 walls of cabinets, some wooden, some metal.

A randomised sample of 100 store locations was generated, making sure there were no duplicates.

For a single species at each location, data was recorded for 2 sample specimens, one at the top left of the first sheet in the first folder and the second sample from the bottom right of the last sheet in the last folder.  In total, therefore, approximately 200 specimens were examined (some species only having one specimen).

Information  recorded for each specimen:     

  • Barcode number
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Barcoding specimens improves their accessibility by making information about them on the database searchable and linking them to other associated data or specimens.

Barcodes were added where missing.  Specimens had only been barcoded previously if they were particularly important eg type specimens, or culturally significant, or if they had been accessed for particular purposes such as research projects.

  • Species name on folder and on specimen label

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The species name on the folder is Acrocordia conoidea, but the name on the specimen label is the now superceded name of Verrucosa epipolea.

  • Vice-county number and name if present, and other locality information from which the vice-county might be identified
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Vice-counties were introduced in 1852 – this one looks as if it was possibly added to the label more recently.

Vice counties are divisions based on the ancient counties of Britain used for biological recording.  They are similarly sized geographical units which are independent of  local government reorganisations and allow data collected over long periods of time to be compared. 

Early collectors sometimes gave just the name of a house or wood.  Working out where they might be from provided some interesting historical detective work!

  • Collector, year of collection and herbarium owner

The earliest recorded sample was 1790 from the Herbarium of Rev Hugh Davies.  It was frustrating when the full date wasn’t given – does ’60 refer to 1760, 1860 or 1960?

  • Sheet information

Other information about how the lichens were mounted included whether the label was typed or handwritten.

A significant amount of data was recorded about the state of the storage of the specimen.

It was recorded whether the specimen was on a sheet marked as being on on permanent loan from Kew.  There is a permanent loan arrangement with Kew which means all (non-lichenised) fungal collections were transferred from the NHM to Kew with a reciprocal transfer of algae, lichens and bryophytes from Kew to the NHM.

Other questions were …

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…  is it glued directly to the sheet, as here, or in a packet glued to a sheet.

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If so do the ends of the packet fold under as here – and make the lichen vulnerable to damage when opened?

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… or with ends folded over on top, so the specimen is easily accessible.

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Best of all, is the specimen in a packet which is not glued to anything, but can be stored 4 packets to a folder, and easily accessed?

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Finally, how many collections are on the sheet? Not always an easy question to answer when there may be more than one ‘collection event’ under a single label.

When planning a review like this, its worth bearing in mind the time taken to:

  • Physically locate and transfer samples
  • Decipher handwriting, and revisit previous records when something becomes clear
  • Identify locations :  http://www.cucaera.co.uk/grp5/ is recommended as a tool for finding vice counties from a place name, grid reference or postcode.  It also provides a zoomable map with vice county boundaries clearly marked.

I’m very grateful to Dr Holger Thus for this opportunity.

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Boxing clever with migrating birds

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Yellow-crowned Amazon, Amazona ochrocephala.

The Natural History collection stores at Gallery Oldham are in the basement of an empty building which is to be redeveloped, which means the collection has to be moved elsewhere during the process (see previous post).  Part of the bird taxidermy collection has already been rehoused in new storage boxes.  My task on this placement project was to produce a more accurate estimate of storage requirements for the remaining approximately 450 specimens, so funding can be sought.

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Part of the current storage of bird taxidermy and on the left, examples of the boxes to be used.

In 1988* 849 specimens of 321 species were recorded in the collection. ‘These are mainly mounts, but also included are 30 study skins.  The collection contains at least 125 foreign species while about 83% of the species regularly breeding in Britain are represented.  At least 20% of the specimens originate from the Oldham area.’

Patricia Francis, the Exhibition and Collections Co-ordinator,  estimates the collection now contains about 1000 bird specimens including 40 – 50 assorted parrots, parakeets, cockatoos and hummingbirds which were obtained under sad circumstances when brought into the country in consignments  for the pet trade.

The birds had been largely physically stored in groupings outlined in The Kingfisher Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by John Gooders.

Patricia chose a box brand offering a useful range of dimensions, transparency, strength and ease of handling. They can be used on side or end to provide further options.  Appropriately labelled, these will provide not only for safe transfer, but also future storage of the collection.

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I was also asked to calculate storage allowing for the future mounting of unmounted specimens, which was a tricky requirement.

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What will be in the next box?  Many boxes had been sealed for a number of years.  This is a mixture of birds perched on twigs and unmounted birds.

The dimensions of each specimen or group were recorded in a spreadsheet, along with information on taxon, unique identification numbers, mount type and current location.

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The longest box dimension was 61 cm. Quite a few obviously weren’t going to fit!

Once all the information was entered, it was sorted, within the overall Gooder groupings, by family, genus and species so that birds could be allocated to boxes taxonomically.  Where necessary, grid diagrams were used to see what would fit where and a final report provided of the estimated numbers of boxes of different sizes and costings.

It was a useful experience in project planning and implementation – the project took 28 hours over 5 days (spread over a number of weeks).

I’m grateful to Patricia for this opportunity to work at Gallery Oldham and  to work with this amazing collection.

I’m looking forward to visiting the forthcoming Gone Fishing exhibition at Gallery Oldham in December, and seeing other aspects of the collections – particularly the 1930s Mallinson’s fish and chip range!

*Oldham Museum – The Natural History Collections: S. J. Hayhow (1988).

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