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!

teamdiscoverynight

 

 

Lab Updates February 2017

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It’s been an exciting few weeks for all of us here at Team Macrobird with February seeing the first paper from our project published in Nature. We’re thrilled to finally have this out in print after over two years of data collection, analysis and the hard work of citizen scientists from around the world. We’ve already received some wonderful feedback and mentions in publications from the New York Times to the Yorkshire Post. You can learn more about the paper and our findings in our recent blog post or view it in full here.Nature issueAlongside this, the first portion of our data has now been made available via the Natural History Museum’s Data Portal– a dedicated space to ensure the museum’s collections, research and associated data is accessible to everyone. Whilst our website markmybird.org provides a gallery of approaching 8,000 3D scans, the data portal provides more in-depth data for an initial 2,028 specimens, comprising raw scan data and multiple landmarks for each as well as an adjoining spreadsheet featuring sex, museum registration number and taxonomic details. By making this data freely available we hope that more questions regarding beak shape can be investigated and answered by researchers, students and anyone with an interest well into the future.

NHM Data Portal

We’ve also had a new research assistant join our team collecting data at the Natural History Museum at Tring- Michael Jardine will be helping photograph the plumage of the world’s birds for the next six months. So too, Yichen He began his PhD towards the end of last year, working with PI Gavin Thomas to characterise phenotypic data for MicroCT scans of zebra finches.

Data collection: 3D scanning & UV photography

Whilst our first paper explores bill shape at genus level, we are still aiming to build a far more comprehensive dataset of bill and plumage information- covering as many of the approximately 10,000 extant species of bird as possible. This means data collection will be continuing full force, using the Natural History Museum’s ornithology collections at Tring.

Scanning has been going ahead in small increments this month with a number of new world warblers, australian robins and ovenbird species soon to be added to our site. Next month however, we aim to have a new push to complete the Furnariidae- more on this later.

sulphur crested cockatooIn contrast, towards the end of this month we moved over to having two photography light tents in operation for the first time. Not only will this increase the number of specimens we are able to image but the new, second light tent will also allow us to photograph larger passerines and many of the non-passerine families we choose to focus on.

Even better, this month we reached a significant milestone- with 25% of all world bird species imaged. This equates to a whopping:

12265 specimens photographed: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
73590 photos taken: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen
22.68% of families
29.41% of genera
25.94% of species

MarkMyBird

Having only just celebrated the 1000th volunteer signing up to our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org last month, February has seen an amazing increase in new members with many first-time landmarkers contributing to our ongoing study through citizen science. We now have in excess of 1400 registered users with over 1000 bills landmarked this month alone, brilliant stuff!

great billed hermit

Landmarks placed along the beak edge of the Great-billed hermit (Phaethornis malaris), a species of hummingbird.

However, with scans for almost 80% of world bird species uploaded and ready to view on our website, the hard work isn’t over yet! If you’ve just heard about our project, have an interest in ornithology, are interested in the way historical museum specimens are used in modern science or are just curious to see what it involves to become a citizen scientist, head on over! We’ve even made a short video, showing the basics of landmarking a bill from beginning to end:

#BeakoftheWeek

Maui parrotbillOur twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek takes place every Wednesday- a chance to test your bird identifying skills against our 3D models. A favourite pick from this month was the Maui parrotbill (Pseudonestor xanthophrys), an unusual and misleading bill shape that really kept people guessing! Everyone is welcome to join in and a place on our leaderboard (as well as bragging rights) is up for grabs…

Other news

Macrobird post-doc Chris Cooney was lucky enough to undertake a research visit to the University of Chicago- spending time with Trevor Price and his lab group before scanning some hard-to-find species from the collections at the world famous Field Museum. You can read more about Chris’ American adventure here.

Finally, congratulations are in order for Will Wood and Louie Rombaut, both of whom undertook summer research projects last year as part of the University SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) scheme. Both Will and Louie spent time with us collecting data at the Natural History Museum in Tring and presented their findings at a recent open evening.

louie, will, chris