iSpot helps six-year-old spot new-to-Britain moth

Katie Robbins, a six-year-old living near Newbury, spotted an interesting moth on a windowsill. She and her Dad couldn’t identify what it was, so her Dad put a picture of it on iSpot, the nature identification website produced by the OU as part of the OPAL project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund.  (I’m leading the development of the iSpot website.)

Martin Harvey, one of the resident nature experts on iSpot, saw it and thought it was an exciting rare find, and got the identification confirmed by the Natural History Museum.

It turns out that the moth was the Euonymus Leaf-notcher, Pryeria sinica, and it had never been seen before in Britain.  It’s native to Asia, and has turned up in the last decade or so in North America as an invasive pest. Its larvae eat Euonymus shrubs (known variously as Spindle bushes, Spindles, and Burning bushes), which are widely planted in gardens. Martin Harvey’s blog post mentions that the Euonymus Leaf-notcher was observed in Spain last June, in the only other known sighting in Europe (so far!).

Furry Moth (Pryeria sinica)
Furry Moth (Pryeria sinica)

This is really exciting – according to press reports (I’ve not talked to her directly!) Katie and her family are “really excited”, and it’s a significant discovery.

You can see how the story unfolded on the ‘Furry Moth’ observation Katie’s Dad added to iSpot.

You can also see accounts of the story in the press  (thanks to Gemma Bessant in the OU press office!):

And the story will be appearing elsewhere – for example, listen out on Radio Five Live at 4.55pm to hear Martin Harvey himself!

(As a total aside, it is amusing to note the spin the different papers put on the story. For example, only the Mail mentions a potential ‘foreign invasion’, and only Newbury Today mentions which school Katie goes to.)

This discovery is exciting in itself.  But it’s also very significant in that it’s an example of amateurs making observations of interesting species, and those observations being positively identified and flagged up to the wider biodiversity community.  This isn’t the first time that’s ever happened, of course, but what iSpot aims to do is to make identifications like this easier, harnessing ‘citizen science’ to improve our monitoring of biodiversity, and also being a fun and interesting way for the general public who are a bit interested in the natural world to take part in a positive activity and learn a bit more.

This is great news for the project at an early stage in its development. We’re certainly hoping for more of these ‘big news’ observations, but more quietly, week in, week out, lots of people are using iSpot to make observations, getting help with identifying what they’ve seen,learning a bit more about the natural world, and contributing in a small way to science.  That’s also very good news.

Update: more coverage

Evolution Megalab launches

Today is the big launch day for one of my projects, the Evolution Megalab.

There’s an OU press release:

Snails, often the unloved blight of gardeners, are being put under the microscope with a new public science project being launched today (Monday 30 March) by The Open University. The Evolution MegaLab is a mass public research programme which is investigating how ordinary banded snails – found in back gardens, river banks and parks – have evolved over the last 40 years, by comparing data supplied by members of the public with a database of more than 8,000 historical records.

And a feature on Platform, the OU’s social site, including some videos featuring hot snail hunting action:

And some minor news outlets have picked up the story, including BBC News online, the Today programme, and some more substantial and trustworthy sources like John Naughton’s blog.

There’s been a lot of hard work gone in behind the scenes – mostly from other people, not me, I hasten to add – and the big credit should go to Richard Greenwood, our ace programmer, who even came in last night (i.e. Sunday) to fix a technical hitch which in crude terms amounted to persuading some people who had pulled the network plug out of the server that plugging it back in again would be a good idea.

One of the things I particularly like about this project is that you can get value out of it at lots of levels.  Young kids can have fun going out and spotting and counting up snails – the video above includes a 4-year-old.  At the other end of the scale, the clear phenotypic indications of the underlying genotype makes it a useful case study for population genetics in a third-level (i.e. third year undergraduate) course on Evolution.

Death of Peter Knight

My boss, colleague, and friend, Professor Peter Knight, Director of the Institute of Educational Technology, died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with him. He gave me huge amounts of support and encouragement. His public management style and mine were somewhat different, to say the least, but we worked very well and effectively together as complements. He taught me so much, and there was so much I had yet to learn from him that I never will now. I will miss him profoundly.

It’s hard to come to terms with, and we’re still somewhat in shock. A lot of my time this week has been spent managing the situation, as part of the senior management team in the Institute, and I expect it’ll stay that way for a while yet. I’ve been very struck by how supportive, professional and capable my colleagues are.