Discovery Night 2017

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discoverynightMarch saw the return of the University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Science and Engineering. For the fifth year running this included Discovery Night, a family outreach evening demonstrating current research within the departments of science, engineering and medicine through demonstrations, talks and hands-on activities. Our research group is usually based in two places- the university and the Natural History Museum in Tring- so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring ourselves and the various sides of our project together to take part in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences’ (APS) offerings.

Despite the publication of our first wide-ranging paper earlier this year, we are not yet finished with data collection. Our aim, to 3D scan the bill and photograph the plumage of as many of the world’s approx. 10,000 species of bird, is a huge undertaking so communicating the scale and scope of this work seemed an interesting approach to take  when sharing our research.

birdspecimensWhilst we aren’t able to remove the irreplaceable specimens we use everyday from museum collections, we are lucky enough to have a small selection of data-less bird skins for testing our methods and for outreach. Museum’s will generally only keep natural history specimens within their research collections if they are adequately labelled with associated information (such as taxonomy, locality, who collected it and when) that makes them useful for research and/or identifiable as historically significant. As such, material will occasionally be deemed unsuitable for these needs but ideal for alternative uses, such as inclusion within handling collections- where material is  set aside to be used in teaching activities.

studyskins2Museum collections are absolutely essential in our work and form an incredible archive for research, interest and education so it was only fitting they took pride of place in our display. Not only are they wonderful to look at up close, illustrating some key points in our study, but they also act as a brilliant starting point in explaining why these primarily historical resources can be such an important resource for the future.

Much of the last two years has been spent extracting  the data we need from these specimens to allow us to explore evolutionary diversity amongst species through 3D scanning and photography.

sarahscanningScanning bird beaks, whilst allowing us to generate incredibly detailed digital replicas, is a hugely varied undertaking- one that requires lots of practice to tackle the bristles, feathers, damaged keratin, hooks, casques, curves and glossy surfaces that we encounter every day working with specimens. We gave scanning demonstrations throughout the evening, showing the process of imaging a bill from a variety of angles to capture a full three-dimensional model. We were also given a run for our money by some particularly talented members of the public!

markmybirdGetting people involved with our research via the next stage of our work, landmarking, is another important point for us. To turn a detailed 3D model into data that we can compare and interpret across all species, we need to place key points on every single scan. This is a time-consuming but engaging task and one we want citizen scientists of all ages to be able to try. Our crowdsourcing site – markmybird.org – has so far seen an incredible input from interested people all over the world, but there is still plenty left to get involved with!

In recent months we’ve also been experimenting with 3D printing, attempting to create accurate physical models of the bills we image. After some trial and error and with the help of experienced staff within the APS department, we were aultimakerble to create models of a selection of bills- much better for handling and demonstrating than the real thing!

We were lucky enough to have the 3D printer in action throughout the evening, slowly but surely creating a model of a sturdy corvid bill. It’s been brilliant to see our digital models taking physical form once again, providing a visual tool for displaying the variety in the form and shape of bird bills. Each model of the size pictured below takes around four hours to print. A life-size replica of a shoebill beak, for example, would take upwards of 24hours!

3DprintedbillsAlongside these demonstrations of our work we also had bill-weirdness Top Trumps, a plumage identification computer game, videos showing our work based in the Natural History Museum’s collections and an opportunity to take your own ultraviolet plumage shots. It was great to speak with so many interested visitors (with so many brilliant questions) and have the chance to show what we’ve been up to- whether as visitors or demonstrators, hopefully we’ll be back next year!

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Science Uncovered 2016

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After having a great time showcasing our research last year, we were invited back to take part in the Natural History Museum’s offerings for European Researcher’s Night 2016.

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One of the best parts of our role as Research Assistants is the freedom to work with the museum’s collections everyday, moving across all taxa and, at times, preparation methods (study skins, spirit and skeleton specimens) as data collection requires. Without access to such incredible collections, wide-ranging studies such as ours simply wouldn’t be possible and the importance of highlighting the many uses of such diverse and well-maintained resources is becoming increasingly important. When they were collected, primarily during the heyday of Victorian exploration and collecting, nobody could have anticipated the ways in which these specimens would be used. Yet, by preserving them for future generations, this historical material can now be utilised in contemporary science projects, continuing to help us understand the evolving biodiversity of the planet.IMG_8576

There’s no better way to show this than with the real thing so we selected an array of study skins- exactly like those kept in the natural history museum’s ornithology research collections and used in our study- for people to explore up close. Alongside these were a selection of skulls from the museum’s handling collections, ranging from the large, stocky bill of the marabou stork and the curved, pointed bill of the kestrel to the filter feeding bill of a flamingo and the mud-probing bill of an ibis.

With our portable 3D scanner in tow, we were alsIMG_8578o able to give live scanning demonstrations with anyone welcome to have a go at creating their own 3D digital bill model- not as easy as it looks! By demonstrating how we move from a physical specimen to a detailed digital replica it becomes clear why this is only possible with study skins- it would be practically and logistically impossible to replicate this process with living birds in the field.

One of the great things about talking to the public about our research in particular is that anyone interested can actually become a citizen scientist and contribute to the study through the wonders of our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org. With over three-quarters of world bird species now uploaded, there are thousands of bills to explore up-close via our gallery as well as opportunities for anyone to have a go at landmarking our 3D scans, assisting with our analysis and helping answer key questions about avian evolution.

In addition to our stand, Principal Investigator Gavin Thomas gave a talk introducing our research and its reliance on ornithology collections. Situated in thIMG_8588e public galleries of the Natural History Museum at Tring- a Victorian zoological collection and display space donated to the NHM by its founder, Walter Rothschild- it was a great opportunity to highlight the value of largely unseen research collections and highlight the questions we are hoping to answer.

Alongside our offerings were demonstrations from expert taxidermists showing how museum specimens are preserved and the opportunity to see some of the manuscript treasures of the Natural History Museum being made available through the digitisation efforts of the amazing Biodiversity Heritage Library. There was also the opportunityscarlet rumped trogon drawing to talk to curators about contemporary museum issues: from a stand exploring the use of bird skins in helping identify material picked up by HM Customs, blocking aircraft engines or contaminating foods to discussions concerning how natural history museums deal with selecting (and declining) new acquisitions.

You can learn more about European Researcher’s Night here, the Natural History Museum at Tring here and us on our team website, twitter and crowdsourcing site!