Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library


Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

22 June 2023

Wild British Library: Snails, Sponges and Oysters – finding fossils at the British Library

Alongside the Animals exhibition the British Library hosts a permanent show of animal fossils, hiding in plain sight. As you cross the Piazza on a visit to the Library you tread on limestone brought from the Hauteville region of the French Jura. This stone formed in the early Cretaceous period (145 and 100 million years ago - Ma) in a warm, shallow sea, teeming with life. The commonest fossils found here are spiral gastropods, similar in appearance to auger snails found today. These snails are filter feeders, living partly buried in the mud and capturing particles of food as they pass by in the sea water. Other animals such as soft bodied marine worms have left no fossils, nevertheless, we can see the tracks of their burrows as dark streaks in the stone.

A photograph of brown limestone, showing fossils of molluscs and worm trails
Hauteville limestone


Outside the door of the Knowledge Centre a group of coin sized discs reveal the branches of a sponge, sliced in cross section. Compare this to a modern sponge such as the Mermaid’s Glove and again we see how little some marine animals have changed over the millennia.

A picture of stone with circular fossilised sponge cross-sections, about the size of a 1p coin for scale
Fossilised sponges, with a penny coin for scale


Entering the front door of the Library, the floor is made of Portland stone, formed in the Jurassic period (150-145 Ma) in another warm tropical sea. Fossil shells, similar to oysters, are scattered among calcareous algal pellets which show as small white patches.

Portland stone with fossilised shells visible, and a penny for scale
Portland stone flooring, with a penny to show scale


Moving to the Upper Ground Floor, Portland stone is laid alongside dark Purbeck marble, crowded with the fossil remains of bivalve mussels that thrived in a muddy fresh water lagoon.

Marble showing mussel fossils, smaller than a penny
Mussel fossils in marble, with a penny for scale


If you would like to find out more about our fossils and stones see our report A Geology of the British Library. Building stone makes an easily accessible introduction to geology; explore further with London Pavement Geology.

Written by and all photographs taken by Richard Wakeford (Science Reference Specialist, Retired)


09 June 2023

Wild British Library: The ant and the three-cornered garlic

Summer has arrived but some spring flowers are still around in British Library’s St Pancras site’s Floor 3 Garden. This three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum L. 1753) is one of them [1,2]. It was prominent with its white flowers in May and covered half of the terrace’s wild area. Now, when its seeds are in the process of maturation, when its wilting leaves and stalks are lying on other plants and on the ground, they are less noticeable. However, they are worth finding. Something exciting is happening around the three-cornered garlic’s black seeds.

A white wild garlic flower hangs from a stem in close up
Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum L. 1753), 30-45 cm, in flower on 4 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri
Close-up view of a garlic stem showing its triangular cross-section
The triangular (slightly winged) structure and rather familiar smell of garlic or leek is easy to feel when you roll the stalk of the three-cornered garlic between your fingers. Its Latin name refers to these qualities. The first name, Allium, refers to the onion genus; the second name, its species name within the genus, triquetrum, Latin for triangular in cross-section. 2 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri


View of a bed of wild garlic plants with modern office buildings in the background
Three-cornered garlic covered half of the terrace’s wild area. 11 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri
A group of bell-shaped wild garlic flowers hanging from a stem
The wilting stalk and flowers are resting on other plants and the ground as the seeds are maturing. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan


The white shiny oil-containing cap-like appendage on the black seed of the three-cornered garlic, called the elaiosome indicates a mutually beneficial plant-animal relationship [3]: myrmecochory, seed dispersal by ants[4,5].

Both terms, elaiosome and myrmecochory are combinations of Greek words.

Elaiosome: oil-containing appendage on the seed that “attracts” ants.

έλαιον (elaion)  - oil, oily substance[6]

σώμα (soma) – body[7]

Myrmecochory: seed dispersal by ants; literally: dance or movement of ants.

μυρμηξ   μυρμηκος (myrmex, myrmekos) - ant, ants[8]

χoρεια  (choreia) - dance, choral dance with music and also movement of animals[9]

A head of garlic flowers showing white flowers, green closed fruit, and opened fruit with black seeds and white jelly
Under the white petals the bulky green fruit encapsulates black seeds with white appendages. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan
Close-up view of a green garlic fruit
Wrapped around white petals the translucent green bulky fruit reveals the black seeds inside. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan


A green garlic fruit, split open to show the black seeds and white jelly
Having opened the green bulky fruit one of the black seeds with shiny white appendage, the elaiosome, oil containing body, becomes visible. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan

Attracted by the elaiosome, ants pick up it up with the seed, which together are often larger than the ants’ body, carry it to their nest, eat and feed their young ants with the nutritious oily tissue of the elaiosome, and then dump the stripped seed away from their nest. 

A black seed with a piece of white jelly attached, shown next to a toothed piece of white plastic
The elaiosome (white cap on the dark seed) is about the same size as one tooth of a recycled plastic table knife in the canteen. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan
A garlic seed shown next to a ruler for scale, with an inked line indicating its length of around 4mm
The seed and the elaiosome together are about 3-4 mm. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan, Andrea Deri
Title page of a book "Monographie der Europaeischen Myrmekochoren
Title page of Rutger Sernander’s (1906) monograph on European myrmecochory. [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]


Both ants and plants benefit from this movement of seeds. Ants profit from the nutritious seasonal food source; the three-cornered garlic is getting its seeds moved to new germinating grounds.

According to a recent study[10] over four percent of known plant species are myrmecochorous, that is, their seed dispersal is facilitated by ants. As an adaptive reproduction strategy myrmecochory appears to have evolved several times in phylogenetically unrelated plants.

Johan Rutger Sernander (1866-1944) [11], a Swedish botanist, published the first monograph on myrmecochory in 1906. The British Library holds a copy of this rare opus. Sernander’s comprehensive work is unique for his field experiments related to several European ant species’ preferences between various plants’ seeds and their elaiosome. The three-cornered garlic was included in the experiments and in the monograph’s splendid illustrations.

An image of a book page showing engravings of various types of flowers, fruit and seeds
Table I Fruits and seeds with elaiosomes of various plant species. 7-8 Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum) in Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]
Close-up engraved image of a garlic fruit and seed
Enlarged image: 7-8 Three-cornered garlic in Table I Fruits and seeds with elaiosomes of various plant species. Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]


Engraved cross-section of various plant tissues showing individual cells
Table 4 Cross-section of elaiosomes of various plant species under microscope. 135 (bottom-centre) Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum). Note the large oil containing cells. Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]

While the three-cornered garlic benefits from myrmecochory it also spreads by bulbs. Furthermore, milder winters due to unfolding climatic changes also facilitate the plant’s expansion. The three-cornered garlic, native to the Mediterranean[12,13] is spreading fast towards the north[14,15]. It is now considered an invasive species in the UK and “it is an offence under Schedule 9 [16] of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales to plant or otherwise cause to grow this species in the wild.”

While you can’t grow this species in the wild, you can eat it as much as you like[17]. Unlike ants that eat only the elaiosome, foraging people consume all parts, raw or cooked[18]. 

So, how did the three-cornered garlic find its home on the British Library’s Floor 3 terrace garden? This is an enigma. Certainly not by our gardeners’ intentional planting. Perhaps non-human gardeners, including ants and other animals?

A garlic plant shown growing against a braided wooden fence
Three-cornered garlic in Camley Street Natural Park, London, 11 May 2023 Photo: Andrea Deri


Having checked all other public green spaces around the British Library in St Pancras in May 2023, three-cornered garlic was not found in the neighbourhood. The nearest place where its blossom and whiff of garlic were impossible to miss was Camley Street Natural Park [19]. Perhaps a visit to Camley Street facilitated the seed dispersal to the British Library in a bit of soil stuck to a pair of shoes or claws? Perhaps other unintentional actions? Anyway, the introduction was successful. Compared to last year (2022), significantly more three-cornered garlic flowered in the British Library Floor 3 garden this year (2023).

Woodcut image showing an ant and a grasshopper conversing beneath a tree, in a landscape with towns and hills in the distance
Illustration of the ant and the grasshopper in winter from Aesop. ‘Fab. CXXI. The Ant and the Grashopper’. In The Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into English And a Print before Each Fable by Samuel Croxall, D.D. Late Archdeacon of Hereford, The tenth edition carefully revised, and Improved., London: Printed for W. Strahan, J, [and others], 1775. pages 205–206. [Digital Store 1568/8258.]


Many generations have grown up on Aesop’s (d: 564 BC) [20] tale and morals about the ant and the grasshopper.

Pen and ink cartoon showing three ants dancing in a line on their hindmost legs
Dancing ants inspired by myrmecochory by Matthew Waters, 23 May 2023.


I am curious, what counter-stories myrmecochory could inspire about the “dancing” gourmet ants?

Written by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer, British Library


Special thanks to Matthew Waters, Manuscript Cataloguer, British Library for drawing dancing ants to illustrate this blog post and inspire counter-stories of Aesop’s classic tale, and Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 for engaging in the exploration of wildlife around the British Library and sharing her photographs.

References [BL shelfmark]

All URLs accessed on 5 June 2023.

[1] Rose, Francis. The wild flower key: How to identify wild flowers, trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. Revised and Extended edition. London: Frederick Warne, 2006. pages 514-15 [YK.2007.a.20577]

[2] IPNI. ‘Allium Triquetrum in International Plant Name Index’, 2023.

 [3] Jones, Richard. Ants: The Ultimate Social Insects. Vol. 11. British Wildlife Collection. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2022. [ELD.DS.666937]

[4] Morley, Wragge. Ants. Vol. 8. New Naturalist Monograph Series. London: Collins, 1953. [W.P.12018/5., W41/8118, (B) G 65 (F1)]

[5] Brian, M. V. Ants. The New Naturalist. London: Collins, 1977. [(B) G 61,
Document Supply 79/34771]

[6-9] Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones. A Greek - English Lexicon …  A New Edition Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones [and others] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. Page 527, 1749, 1154, 1998 [Open Access Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 483]

[10] Lengyel, Szabolcs, Aaron D. Gove, Andrew M. Latimer, Jonathan D. Majer, and Robert R. Dunn. ‘Convergent Evolution of Seed Dispersal by Ants, and Phylogeny and Biogeography in Flowering Plants: A Global Survey’. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 12, no. 1 (2010): 43–55. [6428.149200]

[11] Sernander, Rutger. Entwurf einer Monographie der europäischen Myrmekochoren ... Mit 11 Tafeln und 29 Textfiguren, etc. Stockholm, 1906. [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]

[12] Allium triquetrum L. | Plants of the World Online | Kew Science

[13] BSBI. ‘Definitions: Wild, Native or Alien?’, 2023.

[14] Taylor, I., and K.J. Walker. Three-Cornered Garlic Allium Triquetrum L.  in BSBI Online Plant Atlas 2020. Edited by P.A. Stroh, T.A. Humphrey, R.J. Burkmar, O.L. Pescott, D.B. Roy, and K.J. Walker. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Biological Records Centre, 2020.

[15] Botany in Scotland. ‘Plant of the Week, 27th March 2023 – Three-Cornered Garlic -Allium Triquetrum’. Botany in Scotland (blog), 27 March 2023.

[16] UK Government. ‘Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 You Are Here: UK Public General Acts1981 c. 69SCHEDULE 9’, 1981.

[17] Wild Food UK. ‘Three-Cornered Leek’, 2023.

[18] Samangooei, Mina. ‘Individuals Cultivating Edible Plants on Buildings in England’. Oxford Brookes University, 2016. [EThOS DRT 800185]

[19] Camley Street Natural Park | London Wildlife Trust (

[20] Aesop. ‘Fab. CXXI. The Ant and the Grashopper’. In The Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into English And a Print before Each Fable by Samuel Croxall, D.D. Late Archdeacon of Hereford, The tenth edition carefully revised, and Improved., London: Printed for W. Strahan, J, [and others], 1775. Pages 205–206. [Digital Store 1568/8258.]

27 April 2023

Wild British Library: A feather

What’s going on in the British Library at night? A creamy-brown mottled feather with a broken quill might shed light on some unexpected activities.

A feather

A feather was spotted on a sunny crisp lunch break walk on 15 February 2023. [Fig. 1, 2]

(a brown feather with a break near the end of the quill is shown next to a ruler to give scale, showing it to be around 10cm long)
Figure 1 Feather found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri


the underside of the same feather, showing lighter brown stripes
Figure 2 Feather (under side) found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri

The feather lay on the moss carpet of the second-floor terrace garden, behind the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and the pergola of the British Library (BL) St. Pancras site under a four-floor high wall [Fig. 3, 4]. The wall may hold the key to the enigmatic feather. [Fig. 5].

the feather, marked with a yellow dot, is seen on a garden plot covered with moss and larger plants
Figure 3 Feather in situ, see the yellow dot, found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London. Photo: Andrea Deri


the corner of the British Library terrace, showing a wooden pergola, wooden and metal chairs, and an abstract bronze sculpture
Figure 4 ‘Moss garden’ behind the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and the pergola of the British Library (BL) St. Pancras site under a four-floor high wall, London


the corner of the British Library terrace seen from further away, showing the high windowless brick wall of a taller section of the building at the end of it
Figure 5 High wall above the ‘moss garden’, The British Library St Pancras, London.

The shady moss-garden is one of the least exposed public green areas in the BL [Fig. 6].

a Google-branded satellite view of the British Library from above, showing the terrace at the rear of the building
Figure 6 ‘Moss-garden’, see the yellow dot, Google map (23 March 2023).

Compared with reliably identified woodcock feathers from a bird found dead in a private garden a couple of years ago, our feather showed striking similarities. But it was just hard to imagine what a woodcock would be doing on the BL Floor Two. Woodcocks are elusive nocturnal woodland birds with a preference for the area between forests and fields [1]

It’s a woodcock!

Having contacted the Angela Marmont Centre for the UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in London (AMC-NHM), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and experienced London-based naturalists, we got confirmation that the feather indeed belonged to a woodcock (Scolopax rusticola Linnaeus, 1758). [Fig. 7]

a painting of two woodcocks with a chick before a background of rushes
Figure 7 Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) with chick in J.A. Naumann 1902 Unsere Schnepfen.

It is an exciting thought that woodcocks might be around the British Library.

In addition to expert knowledge, we also received helpful resources: a reference image of woodcock feathers; link to Featherbase, a website where exhibits of feathers of a range of species can be studied, several blog posts, and recommendation of a book: Tracks and Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe [2]

But what would a woodcock be doing on the BL Floor Two?

The 18th century Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant started the description of woodcocks in his British Zoology (1776) [3] with discussion of their migration, as if it were their most important feature [Fig. 8, 9, 10]:

“These birds during summer are inhabitants of the Alps, of Norway, Sweden, Polish, Prussia, the march of Brandenburg, and the northern parts of Europe: they all retire from those countries the beginning of winter, as soon as the frost commence; which force them into milder climates, where the ground is open, and adapted to their manner of feeding.“ [3]

a brown leather book cover, showing a lighter-coloured abstract pattern on the leather and an engraved royal coat of arms with "G III R" above
Figure 8 Cover of Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology


a page of a book, with a faint sepia picture of two woodcocks forming a background to the text
Figure 9 First page of the Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) chapter in Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology page 365.


a black and white engraving of a woodcock on the bank of a pool
Figure 10 Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) in Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology page 364 Plate XV No. 178.

Pennant did not mention woodcocks in London.

Pennant’s book is part of the King’s Library collection in the British Library. The style of binding is called ‘Tree calf’; an acidic mixture is applied to the leather to create the effect.  The coat of arms could have been added at any time – as we learned from Philippa Marks and John Goldfinch, Curators of Bookbinding. Descriptions of the books and pamphlets in the King's Library (shelved in specific shelfmark ranges: 1.a.1 – 304.k.23 and C.1.a.1 – C.16.i.16) appear in Explore the British Library. Most volumes can be ordered into the Rare Books and Music Reading Room using Explore.

Late 19th century bird books, including the ‘London Birds and Beasts’ already made reference to woodcocks in London [4, 5, 6]:

“In the autumn and early winter woodcocks often drop in town [London] sometimes in most extraordinary places, the overhead wires being in many cases, no doubt, accountable for their appearance.” [5]

The 21st century ‘London Bird Atlas’ features high numbers of woodcock observations plotted on a London map [7].

Most woodcocks in London are winter visitors, arriving in Britain and Ireland between October- December from their breeding sites in the north including Scandinavia, Finland and Russia (from as far as Siberia) [8]. The Eurasian woodcocks’ migration routes and timing is explored by Woodcock Watch organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust by tagging individual birds.

Migration is a high-risk activity for these birds. In addition to being hunted in large numbers, they can be blown off-course and drowned during storms when crossing the sea. Woodcocks can also starve when they cannot replenish their energy if the soil freezes over and they cannot access their food: worms, soil-dwelling insects [Fig. 11].

a black and white engraving of two woodcocks digging in soil with their beaks
Figure 11 Hungry woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) feeding on earthworms in L. H. De Visme Shaw 1903 Snipe and woodcock. Page 193.

Their feeding habit is captured in the woodcock’s Romanian name: sitar (from the noun sită: colander, sieve). Sitar can be translated as ‘colander maker’. In this case, it refers to the birds making the ground look like a colander, full of holes, as they poke the soil in search of worms – explained Florin Feneru, Identification and Advisory Officer, at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum.

With the increase of tall buildings in London (and other cities), especially with glass windows that woodcocks might perceive as water bodies and fly directly towards them, the exhausted migrating birds can get disoriented and collide with walls when they fly over at night [9, 10]. Predation poses additional hazards: peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) have been spotted on live web camera attacking woodcocks during the peak migration time, November – December [11].


So, back to the question: How would a woodcock end up in an urban ‘hanging’ garden and disappear with only one broken feather left behind?

Most probably, this was a migrant woodcock, flying over the BL St Pancras site at night. The circumstances of the ill-fated flight are not known but two of several possible scenarios are described here: collision and predation by peregrine.


The unfortunate woodcock might have collided with the tall wall of the BL [Fig. 5] when it was flying over central London at night on its migration from the breeding sites in the north. After the collision, the bird might have dropped to the moss garden where a fox (Vulpes vulpes) found it, grabbed it, leaving one broken feather behind, then hurried away with its ‘take-away’.


A peregrine (Falco peregrinus) could have captured the woodcock and torn it apart while sitting on the high wall ledge above the moss garden. One of the broken feathers of the fast feast made its way down to the moss-carpet.

Both foxes and peregrines have been spotted around the BL St Pancras site. The break on the quill could not have happened by the impact of a fallen bird or its feather but more likely by active force.

When did the feather get separated from the bird?

The woodcock feather was found on 15 February 2023. But it is not known when the feather landed in the place where it was found, the time of the woodcock’s demise. As the majority of continental woodcocks leave the UK during late February and early March to breed [10, 12] the woodcock could have perished either in the autumn or an early homebound flight in the spring migration.

The significance of the feather: monitoring urban wildlife for wildlife-inclusive cities

Wildlife monitoring benefits from citizen science, also referred to as community science. The woodcock feather identification engaged both citizen scientists and professional ornithologists. The feather story generated a peer-reviewed observation, uploaded to iRecord, a UK citizen science biodiversity monitoring tool. iRecord feeds into the National Biodiversity Atlas, a source of evidence for decision making about the natural environment. We hope observations like our woodcock feather will ultimately contribute to evidence-based wildlife-inclusive urban development [13]

The collaboration of libraries, museums, conservation charities and citizen scientists presents a so far under-utilised approach to wildlife conservation. The quick and generous response to our feather query from AMC-NHM, RSPB, and London-based naturalists [Fig. 12] shows the professional strengths of UK wildlife monitoring and conservation networks. With growing urban development and increasing complexities of human-wildlife interactions, monitoring urban wildlife is ever more important [14].

a photograph of a woodcock crouching in short grass
Figure 12 Woodcock in Norfolk at night with flash, January 2023. Photo: Henry Wyn-Jones. Published with permission.

Starts with a walk

The British Library’s remarkable collections are widely known. Yet, the wonders of the Library’s wildlife habitats are under-appreciated. They are here to be discovered for their fabulous biodiversity in addition to provide us with beautiful background. It all starts with a curious walk. The walk becomes a journey of discovery. Curiosity connects wildlife, collections, and people.

Written by Andrea Deri and Greg Smith

We would like to thank to Florin Feneru, Identification and Advisory Officer, Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum, London; Hein van Grouw, Senior Curator, Bird Group, Dept. of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Tring; India James, Supporter Adviser, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK Headquarters The Lodge Sandy; Philippa Marks, Curator, Bookbindings, Western Heritage Collections, The British Library; John Goldfinch, former Curator, Printed Heritage Collections, Western Heritage Collections, The British Library ; Huw Rowlands, Map Processing Coordinator and Cataloguer, India Office Records Map Collection, The British Library; Henry Wyn-Jones, ecologist, ornithologist, wildlife photographer.

References, links and further readings [BL shelfmark]

[1] Davis, J., 2023. European woodcocks have the brightest feathers known to exist. Available at: <>.

[2] Brown, R., Ferguson, J., Lawrence, M. and Lees, D., 2021. Tracks & signs of the birds of Britain & Europe. Helm identification guides. London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Wildlife. page 511 [ELD.DS.659867]

[3] Pennant, T., 1776. British Zoology. London: Printed for Benj. White. page 365 [40.d.10-13]

[4] Dixon, C., 1909. The bird-life of London. London: Willam Heinemann. [7285.e.29]

[5] Tristram-Valentine, J.T., 1895. London Birds and Beasts. London. page 252 []

[6] Swann, H.K., 1893. The birds of London. London. page 103-104 [7285.b.5]

[6] Woodward, I.D., Arnold, R. and Smith, N., 2017. The London bird atlas. [London], Oxford: London Natural History Society?; John Beaufoy Publishing. page 168 [YKL.209.b.1828]

[7] RSPB, 2023. Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). [online] Available at: <>.

[8] RSPB, 2018. Danger low flying woodcock. Available at: <>.

[9] Hoodless, A.N., Heward, C.J. and Williams, O., 2020. Migration and movements of Woodcocks wintering in Britain and Ireland. British Birds, 113, pp.256–278.

[10] Davies, E. and Hendry, L., 2022. Peregrine falcons are the top birds in town. Available at: <>.

[11] Hoodless, A., 2002. Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). In: C. Wernham, ed. The migration atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland, Repr. 2008. London: T & A D Poyser. pp.319–322. [(B) GC 32]

[12] Kay, C.A.M., Rohnke, A.T., Sander, H.A., Stankowich, T., Fidino, M., Murray, M.H., Lewis, J.S., Taves, I., Lehrer, E.W., Zellmer, A.J., Schell, C.J. and Magle, S.B., 2022. Barriers to building wildlife-inclusive cities: Insights from the deliberations of urban ecologists, urban planners and landscape designers. People and Nature, [online] 4(1), pp.62–70.

[13] Gaston, K.J. and Evans, K.L., 2010. Urbanization and development. In: N. Maclean, ed. Silent summer: the state of wildlife in Britain and Ireland. Cambridge?; New York: Cambridge University Press.[YK.2010.a.19902]

Birdwatch Magazine [2092.507500]

Birdwatch Monthly [2092.507800]

Hoodless, A. N., 1994. Aspects of the ecology of the European woodcock (Scolopax rusticola L.) []

24 April 2023

Introducing the Wild British Library

The advertising banner for the British Library's Animals exhibition, showing various animals

Our current flagship exhibition on our St Pancras site is “Animals: Art, Science and Sound”, covering how the animals sharing our planet with us have been depicted, recorded and investigated by humans. It runs from 21st April to 28th August 2023.

Wildlife is widely represented in the British Library’s remarkable collections.

Yet, wildlife living around the British Library often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

Wild BL, a series of blog posts, will highlight a range of life forms that live and occasionally move around the British Library’s sites in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

The aim of the series is to inspire new approaches to the ways wildlife and people can thrive together in both cities and in the countryside.

Wild BL will feature what’s going on around the British Library at night and during the day in various wildlife habitats and highlight some of the resources about these wild activities in various British Library collections.

The blog posts are authored by British Library members of staff.  Each story reveals where wildlife can be encountered in public areas, so more people can notice and enjoy the presence of various fellow creatures living around the British Library.

Blog readers are encouraged to share their observations in iRecord, a peer-reviewed biodiversity monitoring community-science initiative that connects individual sightings with the National Biodiversity Network. The National Biodiversity Network provides planners and policy makers with evidence for taking biodiversity into consideration in decisions.

By linking wildlife, collections and people, the blog contributes to the British Library’s activities in addressing the biodiversity and climate crises.

Written by Andrea Deri

23 March 2023

Announcing our first Environmentalist in Residence

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We’re proud to announce Juliana Gaertner, an accomplished climate researcher and campaigner, as our inaugural Environmentalist in Residence.

Juliana Gaertner_image BL
Juliana Gaertner

This position is a new initiative, aimed at supporting our growing commitment to climate action by bringing in experts to explore our archives and contribute to a better understanding of key environmental issues.

Juliana's tenure as Environmentalist in Residence at the Library will run until the end of May 2023. In her role, she will be contributing her expertise to ongoing projects and developing new initiatives that engage with our sound and textual archives to explore issues of global climate justice.

As part of her residency, Juliana will be engaging guest artist Hannah Kirmes-Daly. Hannah is an award-winning queer artist working on the intersection of art, journalism, and social justice politics. She holds an MA from the College of Fine Arts, Universität der Künste in Berlin.

Together, they will bring our archives to life and shine a light on the reality of climate change.

Hannah Kirmes-Daly_image
Hannah Kirmes-Daly

Committed to issues of global climate and environmental justice, Juliana has worked with communities, researchers, non-profits, and governments around the world to shape climate policy. Most recently, Juliana worked for international NGO Global Witness,  and advised the directors of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. She holds an MPhil in Geography and Environmental Policy from the University of Oxford.

19 July 2022

Gold - why is it so valuable?

Our current Gold exhibition explores the use of gold in books and documents around the world. This blogpost looks at gold from a scientific perspective, and why it has the properties that have caused it to be so valued throughout human history.

Gold is probably the first metal to be known to humans. Unlike other metals, which need to be extracted from their ores, gold exists in the environment as the metal itself, from tiny specks up to large nuggets. This is because it rarely reacts with other chemicals, which also explains why it does not tarnish in air like silver or rust like iron. The oldest gold items in the exhibition are two gold plaques, with shelfmarks Or 5340 A and Or 5340 B, with inscribed Buddhist scriptures in Pali. They were discovered buried at the base of a stupa in Maunggan in Myanmar and are dated to the 5th or 6th centuries CE.

Two strips of gold inscribed in Pali, with a ruler for comparison showing them to be around 25cm and 35cm long.
The Buddhist gold plaques

Because of its lack of corrosion, gold has been seen as mystically special, and used for objects of high prestige and to make coins. One notable object in our exhibition is the treaty between the rulers of the Indian city of Calicut (now Kozhikode) and the Dutch, which was inscribed into a two-metre-long strip of gold. Gold was used to symbolise the importance of the treaty but also for practical reasons, as a material that would not rot or decay in a tropical climate.

The reason why gold is so unreactive is because of the number of electrons in each atom. This is the same as the number of protons, and it is this which decides which element an atom is. Within atoms, electrons are arranged in layers called "shells", and gold is particularly unreactive as its outermost shell is full of electrons, which is a particularly stable state for an atom.

Unlike some atoms with full outermost shells, like helium and neon, gold can react with some other chemicals. This is because gold can lose one to three electrons if the reaction can release enough energy to strip them off - called "oxidation", and it can also share electrons with other atoms, without giving up any of its own.

The first material to be discovered by medieval alchemists which can react with gold is the famous aqua regia, Latin for "king's water". Despite the appetising-sounding name, this is very dangerous and you should not try this at home - it is a very corrosive mixture of concentrated hydrochloric acid and nitric acid in water. Because of the hydrochloric acid, the mixture contains chloride ions, which are chlorine atoms which have received an extra electron from the hydrogen atoms in the water. The chloride atoms can share their electrons with the gold atoms to create what are called complexes, and this makes it easier for the nitric acid, which is an oxidising agent, to strip electrons away from the gold atoms, creating gold chlorides which dissolve in the water. Gold compounds do have some uses, such as treating arthritis and in some kinds of traditional silver-based photography.
Fortunately aqua regia doesn't occur naturally, so our gold exhibits are perfectly safe.

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20th May 20 Sunday 2nd October 2022, and you can book tickets online to visit.

Supported by:

The logo of BullionVault shows an isometric gold cube inside a larger transparent cube.

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

13 May 2022

Healthy Cities - How do we make London happier and healthier after Covid-19?

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After longer than two years Covid-19 is still with us, and while we are doing our best to live with it, many questions remain about its long-term impacts. The negative impacts are all to evident in our daily lives, from the personal loss for those who have lost the loved ones, to long-term physical and mental health impacts, which we are still grappling to understand, the state of economy, the impact on educational outcomes for young people, the rise in poverty and so on. Yet, if there is a sunnier side of things, there is a hope that we have learned some important lessons that can help us improve the way in which our society and our cites work.

There is no doubt that London has become livelier in the recent months, but we know that it is not quite like it used to be. On the other hand, many would say that there are many things that we do not want to be the way they used to be – just consider the return to daily commute on the crowded tube trains!

This Sunday, we are welcoming the Med Fest to the British Library, to celebrate all things medical, but also to discuss how London can become happier and healthier place after Covid-19. We will discuss how past pandemics have shaped the London we know, how the city's health coped during COVID-19 and how we can prepare for the next pandemic. We will also look at the real-life examples of how communities have become healthier and improved their lives.

To help us engage with these urgent questions affecting us all, we will be welcoming the following speakers:

  • Dame Carol Black, Chair of the British Library and the UK Government's high-level policy adviser on health and work, and the misuse of illegal drugs
  • Kieron Boyle, Chief Executive at Impact on Urban Health, and Chief Executive of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation
  • Martin Gorsky, Professor of History at the Centre for History in Public Health, The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
  • Rita Issa, GP and planetary health academic, London’s Sustainable City Public Sector Changemaker 2022
  • Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, and Policy Director at NHS Confederation
  • Ashley McKimm, Director of Innovation at the British Medical Journal, and Editor-in-Chief, BMJ Innovations
  • Audrey de Nazelle, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London
  • Richard Watson, Futurist-in-Residence, Entrepreneurship Centre at Judge Business School, Cambridge University
  • Kirsten Watters, Director of Public Health at London Borough of Camden

Everyone is welcome. Join us by signing up here for your free place.

23 November 2021

Climate change resources at the British Library

The British Library main building in St Pancras, seen over a hedge with a small tree to the left
(Photograph by Tony Antoniou)

The COP26 conference in Glasgow has ended, but the real work of reducing carbon emissions must now begin. The science staff and the British Library Green Network have created a collection guide now available on our website, which includes key items to provide information on the problems and potential solutions.

The guide includes books, journals and online databases that you can only access within the British Library if you have a Reader Pass, but there are also many links to trustworthy websites that contain a wealth of information on climate change, the Earth's climate, and the wider issues.

We will be keeping it up to date so that it will continue to be useful into the future.

17 November 2021

Bloodletting and leeches, not so ancient.

Hippocrates (c. 460 BC - 377 BC), the ancient Greek physician, was the first to apply humorism to medicine. In ancient medicine, “humor” refers to a fluid or semifluid substance. According to Hippocrates, the body was made up of four humors; blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. Moreover, that health and disease occurred naturally when these humors were imbalanced, either in deficiency or excess. Thus, if someone was unwell, it was a product of imbalance in their body. To cure a patient of an illness, the excess of the relevant humor had to be removed. A common treatment was bloodletting and the instrument used…leeches. Leeches were used for a wide range of ailments including headaches, gout, bruising, and brain disorders among others.



A decorated initial from an illuminated manuscript, showing two people in medieval clothing. One is cutting the arm of the other so that their blood runs down into a bowl.


Although by modern standards, most people would squirm at the thought of leeches sucking their blood and deem this tradition completely archaic, the use of leeches for medical purposes has not become wholly obsolete in the 21st century.

The medical leech is known as hirudo medicinalis. Leeches have remarkable properties that make them useful medical tools. They improve blood flow in areas with poor blood circulation. Their saliva contains anticoagulants preventing clotting, and as they suck they reduce tension and remove blood clots. Leeches release a natural antiseptic as they bite, therefore preventing infection. Due to these properties, the medical leech has had a revival and is now farmed in the UK to aid treatment.

Medical leeches are used for microsurgery, and reconstructive and plastic surgery.  In the case of plastic surgery, when tissue is reattached, blood clots can form as blood can get congested. Leeches are used to remove this tension and reduce clotting. Microsurgery is surgery that requires an operating microscope. One of the main purposes of microsurgery is to transplant tissue from one part of the body to another and to reattach amputated parts in what is known as free flap surgery. A major part of this process is repairing small blood vessels. Leeches have become a valuable tool for microsurgery recovery, salvaging surgically irreparable venous insufficiency occurring after free flap procedures. The leech can help the blood flow in small blood vessels and prevent tissue from dying.

Tracing the history of medicine can be full of surprises, especially when treatments date as far back as ancient Greece. No wonder Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine.


References and further reading:

  • NHS, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, Plastic Surgery Department, Leech Therapy.
  • Royal College of Surgeons of England, Why you should love a leech: bloodletting to microsurgery, 2018.
  • NHS, Oxford University Hospitals, Leech Therapy.
  • Green, P. A.|Shafritz, A. B. (2010). Medicinal Leech Use in Microsurgery. The Journal of Hand Surgery., 35(6), 1019-1021. Shelfmark: 4996.620000
  • Soucacos, P. N.|Beris, A. E.|Malizos, K. N.|Kabani, C. T. (1994). The use of medicinal leeches, Hirudo medicinalis, to restore venous circulation in trauma and reconstructive microsurgery. International Angiology., 13(3), 251. Shelfmark: 4535.770000
  • Bloodletting zodiac man

16 November 2021

A time for action, not words

Although the dialogues and negotiations of COP26 might be yesterday’s news, the climate crisis is not. The threat remains, and we now face the hard and urgent work of reducing emissions, but also ensuring we can cope with the changes at our doorstep.

Even if there is some good news to be had (subject to the deforestation and methane agreements being implemented, as well as the promised finance materialising and reaching those who most need it), we are still not on the path to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C, which Johan Rockström, the director for the Postsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, described as a planetary boundary, with every fraction of a degree above it being dangerous.

Emma's photo blog 2
Climate change protests in Glasgow during COP26, photo taken by Dr. Emma Jenkins

It was alarming to hear the voices of the communities already deeply affected by climate change, with the abiding image of Tuvalu’s foreign minister giving his speech knee-deep in water, and the powerful words of the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, amongst many others. Yet, despite the clearly existential threats already affecting millions of people, the key changes such as phasing out of fossil fuels have still not been achieved.

So, where do we go from here?

Greta's tweet
One of Greta Thunberg's tweets after COP26

Climate activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot think that what happens next depends on mobilising enough people to make change happen. Nigel Topping, the UN High-Level Climate Champion, emphasises that keeping 1.5 alive requires ‘the dynamism of the non-state actor agenda in driving the ambition loop for accelerated government action’.

We cannot leave our future in the hands of high-level negotiations happening behind closed doors - it is down to all of us to work together to come up with solutions and drive change. And this needs to happen now.

Whether we manage to limit warming to 1.5C or not, climate change is happening, and as well as mitigation, we also need to look at adaptation. So, what will this look like in different places nearest to us?

Are you a Londoner suffering due to increased air pollution? Does this means that you see the new Ultra Emission Zone (ULEZ) as a part of the solution? Or do you live in a UK coastal community affected by flooding and coastal erosion? Perhaps you work in a rural community, and are worried about the increased risks of drought and flooding, and the changes that climate change will bring to rural economy?

What role do all the different stakeholders in your community play as we negotiate the issues ahead of us - from government to business, from landowners to citizens? And, who is responsible for driving adaptation and building resilience?

At the British Library, we have brought together representatives from these stakeholder groups in three special events to help us explore these issues affecting British landscapes and communities.

Our first panel, to be held on 22 November, will discuss the issues arising in the coastal communities. Chaired by Sally Brown, a coastal geomorphologist from Bournemouth University, the panel will bring together –

  • Alan Frampton - Strategy & Policy Manger for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management from the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council
  • Lance Martin - a former member of the Grenadier Guards who is constantly battling coastal erosion endangering his house in Hemsby, on the Norfolk Coast
  • Gustav Milne - an archaeologist who worked for the Museum of London on Thames-side sites since 1973 and has looked at significant coastal change in Essex over the last century
  • Chris Skinner - a visiting researcher at the Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull, working on models to predict how landscapes and flood risk might change due to climate change
  • Claire Tancell - a marine ecologist, who was a member of British Antarctic Survey marine expedition and of the prize-winning Natural England team specifying Marine Protected Areas around the UK coast.

Our second panel, on 24 November, will consider countryside issues and will be chaired by Rick Stafford, a conservationist from Bournemouth University, and the lead author of the recent British Ecological Society report into Nature-Based Solutions. The panel will include –

  • Matthew Doggett - a partner and tenant on a 950 acre, mainly arable, family farm at Barley in North Hertfordshire
  • Jane Findlay - a Landscape Architect, the founding director of Fira and President of the Landscape Institute
  • Emma Hankinson - an ecologist and conservationist, with over 20 years’ experience in nature conservation, currently working as a Project Manager at Rewilding Coombeshead
  • Nicki Whitehouse - a Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Science at the University of Glasgow and Professor of Human-Environment Systems at the University of Plymouth, working on understanding complex relationships between humans, climate, landscapes and ecosystems.

Our third panel, on 26 November, will be focusing on climate change in urban environments. The panel will be chaired by Hannah Fluck, Head of Environmental Research at Historic England, and the panelists will be –

  • Neil Macdonald - a geographer from the University of Liverpool, working on understanding how floods, droughts and storms impact local communities and how they respond and adapt. Neil is the lead researcher on the current UKRI funded Building Climate Resilience Programme
  • Nadja Yang - a DPhil researcher in Systems Engineering at the University of Oxford, where she conducts research on the urban bioeconomy, a concept to help cities become more sustainable and productive in terms of their biological resources
  • Wei Yang - President of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2021 and Global Planners Network’s representative at UN Habitat Professional Forum, as well as a founder of Wei Yang & Partners, an award-winning master planning firm in London. She is a lead figure in researching, promoting, and implementing green and low-carbon development and 21st Century Garden City approaches worldwide.

Sign up to join us for one or more of the above discussions.

Organised in collaboration with the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at the Bournemouth University