For the past ten years, European Researcher’s Night has opened the doors of science institutions to the public. After just over a year of data collection and approaching half of all bird species scanned, this year’s Science Uncovered event at the Natural History Museum at Tring presented a great opportunity for us to showcase our research and get the public involved.
Our stand was located in the museum’s amazing Victorian galleries, surrounded by Walter Rothschild’s zoological collection. Alongside talks from curators and researchers, we were joined by an array of stalls exhibiting content from taxidermy demonstrations and careers in biology to the history of Australian birds told through beautiful manuscripts, artwork and specimens.
We decided to showcase our investigation of bird bill variation and evolution through the stages of our research- from museum specimen to 3D scan and from the landmarking of these scans to analysis. It was particularly important for us to highlight the immense value of the Natural History Museum’s ornithological collections to our work. Without this incredible resource, housed at Tring, our broad-ranging survey of bird bills would not be possible. We used a selection of bird skulls from the museum’s handling collection and data-less bird skins (used for trialling our photography and scanning methods) to display a sample of bill diversity and highlight the variety of functions they serve.
We also demonstrated how we are able to generate 3D images from these specimens using our scanners, as well as letting members of the public try their hand at this essential part of our data collection process. This allowed us to discuss some of the inherent difficulties we have had to overcome in 3D scanning something as diverse as bird bills- from the sheer variety in volume and shape to the difficulties caused by feathers and bristles. It was also ideal in showing how the highly detailed images created through this process reveal so much more than traditional bill measurements.
With our crowdsourcing site Mark My Bird launched earlier the same week, perhaps most important was the chance to discuss how the public can now participate in this research. All the scans we generate need to undergo a process called landmarking- selecting a series of key points on each 3D scan. This needs repeating multiple times across all 10,000 species of bird we are aiming to image- a fascinating but extremely time consuming task! This is where the assistance of citizen science comes in: by signing up to our site, anyone can view these amazing scans up close using our simple 3D interface and actually landmark bills. This will provide data that will directly contribute to our analysis and help us answer key questions about avian evolutionary diversity. Once our findings have been published, these scans will remain available to everyone- whether for general interest or further research- via the Natural History Museum’s DataPortal.
We had lots of interested future landmarkers sign up on the night and it was a brilliant opportunity to talk about our research. Many thanks to the Natural History Museum for letting us get involved and for everyone who came to our stand with interesting questions and such thoughtful feedback.
If you didn’t make it along to the event but would like to learn more about our project (or jump straight in and have a go at bill landmarking) you can do so on our crowdsourcing website, Mark My Bird: https://www.markmybird.org/
If you would like to learn more about European Researchers’ Night and the Natural History Museum’s involvement, check out the following link: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/science-uncovered-2015.html