The University of Manchester has broken up for the Easter holidays and so it must be the right time of year again for the 1st year field course in Comparative and Adaptive Biology. This year the staff and students were even more enthusiastic than usual to escape the unseasonably cold snow flurries of Manchester and head for sunny Mallorca. We’ve been braving the mosquitoes in the shrubberies to study how plants cope with the challenges of Mediterranean living and to see some interesting examples of plant endemism.
Last year I blogged about one of our days on the seashore, so I think this time I shall go more terrestrial and share some images from a site which is one of the staff favourites. Although there are other places to go and see Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) woodland, the Bronze Age talayotic site of Ses Paisses is pretty special. Excavated in the mid 20th century, the settlement is arranged around a central tower (or talaiot) and is now covered by a very nice woodland.
Under the shade of the oak trees we find black bryony (Tamus communis), butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and a hemi-parasitic plant Osyris alba which can produce it’s own sugars by photosynthesis but steals water and minerals from a host plant .
However, with all these rocks around there is always the chance that botanical lectures on the effects of light and shade can end up being disrupted by sudden acts of zoology….
With the days lengthening and the bleak Beowulf-like nights withering we can start to revel in getting home from work in glorious sunshine (/grey illumination) and wend our commuter way with the street lights still off. Returning to my theme of spring (and Ancient Egypt), I’m now intrigued by the new affectation in the heavens: the sun!
Our sun is about 4.6 billion years old, comprising of 99.86% of the solar system’s mass. Probably the starkest visual image we can experience, the sun has inspired civilizations over millennia, and continues to affect our notion of time, season and even our emotions.
With innovations such as Galton’s metrological maps and his sunshine record, humans have been able to map the sun and start to understand this gaseous body.
The sun is not always a dominant entity, images such as this Flaxman show the sun being commanded to set by the Goddess Juno. Here the sun is represented as Helios’ bedazzled chariot, whilst the Goddess, somewhat aloofly, dismisses him beyond the horizon.
Scurrying back in time, I think it is quite safe to say that the Ancient Egyptian’s religious fixation with the sun is well established and known (____), generally attributed to Ra, often represented as a falcon headed god with a sun disk radiating from behind his celestial brow. Most popular at the site of Heliopolis, Ra gradually assimilated the local sun-deity Atum, growing in popularity throughout the years, proving its most popular in the 5th century (roughly 2,500-2,000 BC). Despite these two sun-worshipees, it is the notorious Akhenaten (12th century BC) who really made this sun stuff serious.
After founding the city Akhet-Aten, devoted to the sun god, Akhenaten fervently continued to worship the sun disk (Aten), earning himself the title (posthumously) of the ‘heretic king’.
With arms upraised he and his family, in a rather Von Trapp type arrangement, raise their hands, basking in the suns glow (fingers crossed for this here!) Akhenaten tried to suppress the polytheistic faith of his predecessors, focusing the religious mind of the Ancient Egyptians to supplicating and celebrating the Sun as a God-Figure that provided life and light to the world.
So why this shift from supplication to commanding and analysis? Often archaeologists and Cultural Historians are encouraged to draw similarities between more contemporary and ancient minds, but here I see a stark difference. The 19th century scholar and artist represent the sun on page as a matter of numbers and statistics, or as a minor entity being ordered and controlled. But for Akhenaten, the sun was divine, the life force of the world.
Perhaps a point to muse on, personally, whilst I may not worship the sun, I would dearly love for it to appear for an interval greater than 20 minutes!
 I guess I am one of these
The Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department welcomes a wide array of visitors, from scientists coming to study our extensive insect collections to designers and artists exploring the diversity of shapes, colours or patterns of the many thousands of creepy-crawlies deposited here. Some time ago, the Entomology Department was visited by Ms Michelle Topping based at Mirabel Studios in Manchester. Michelle spent a day looking at and drawing various butterflies from our collection and here is her first result, the painting inspired by her visit.
Here is some information Michelle wrote about her own work:
My paintings explore the two worlds of reality and the virtual world of being online. The butterflies reflect a fragile impermanent beauty which can often be missed when attention has been stopped to the here and now. Most of my work involves portraits of people who have inspired me and others with certain characteristics and talents. It’s the word talent which interest me the most, as I like to explore the hard work and determination which hides behind it.
Michelle is based at Mirabel Studios in Manchester. They have an open studio on the 9th May. Everyone is welcome. For more information go online.
Museums are full of objects, but they are usually just as full – too full, often – of text. With a combination of object labels, introductory panels and interactive exhibits, a single display space can feature thousands of words.
Yet almost all of this writing is anonymous; it is very rare to find any kind of label or exhibition authored by a member of museum staff. Instead the ‘voice of the museum’ is presented as objective truth. As those of us who work in museums are well aware, most displays – while they might represent a collective effort on the part of a number of people – are the result of a series of individual decisions. We choose the objects to display, choose where they go and choose what we say about them. We will almost certainly argue with each other about some of these decisions, but the end result will be presented as a single authoritative selection and voice. Often, a ‘house style’ is adopted for text, which – while it may well make displays clearer to understand – will also help to paper over differences of opinion or approach. Even the V&A’s excellent gallery text guidelines, which encourage museum staff to ‘bring in the human element’ and ‘write as you would speak’, stop short of suggesting that you should say who you are.
Added to this, almost all museums have galleries where the displays and interpretation haven’t changed for decades. All the staff know that these displays are out of date, that much of the information in them needs revision, but this will almost certainly not be clear to the public. There is no equivalent to the frontispiece in a book, or the documentary credits, which would tell the visitor who put the thing together and when.
This reluctance to author displays, to name the people who composed them, seems increasingly old fashioned. Particularly so in a university museum context, where authorship is paramount and where the tradition of academic freedom rests upon the belief that individuals should be free to express their opinions in order that they can be opened up to further debate. In a world where individual comment is increasingly ‘out there’, in blogs such as this one, and where co-curation with academic or community partners is increasingly common, it is surely time we started owning up to the fact that most museum text is someone’s personal opinion, albeit informed and evidenced in a variety of ways.
The stores and cupboards of UCL museums contain lots of objects with hand-written labels. Most of these date from a pre-computer age when it was only worth typing a label if was going on display. Handwriting personalises the information immediately, and if you work in the museum for any length of time you learn to recognise different individual styles, the traces of former curators, some of them now dead, reminding you of their passions and their personalities. There are probably all sorts of reasons why a wholesale return to handwritten labels would not be a good idea, but is it worth thinking about how we might, as museum staff, own up to authorship of exhibitions and displays?
We received some very exciting news – we have reached the final five shortlist of the award for the most inspiring museum at the museum wold’s equivalent of the Oscars – the Museums and Heritage Awards. The winner will be selected by public vote.
Often these nominations and shortlists are a result of a judging panel selecting between applications that museums have sent in themselves. This shortlist, however, was generated by the Guardian asking real members of the public to nominate which museum they think is a shining example within the sector for its ground-breaking approach to engaging with audiences and visitors. We couldn’t be happier!
That’s not true – we would be even happier if we actually won. Please please please vote for us with a single click here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/mar/21/museums-heritage-culture-pros-pick-vote
If, like me, you think that we are inspirers – that you like the way that all of our staff are so accessible when you visit; that you said “wow” when you visited the new Micrarium; that you enjoy our social media; that you think highly of our events programme; or simply that you approve of what we’ve done with our collections, then we would be hugely grateful if you could click and vote for us.
I love it when Specimen of the Week lands on an interesting date. The 1st April is known for a few things, most obviously it is April Fool’s Day. Perhaps less obviously, it is the 31st anniversary of the birth of one of our staff members. An internet search of the date introduced me to the world of housing benefit changes, the new tax year, an Easter egg hunt (which I subsequently signed up for) and the fact that if you want cheaper tickets to some music festival or other, you should have booked before today’s date. What it doesn’t mention however, not even by page 4 or 5, is an article on howler monkeys that was written with the help of information gleaned from several reference resources including an online encyclopedia of animals that to write the aforementioned article was accessed at 15:23 GMT on the 1st April 2009. That reference to the 1st April is shockingly lacking from more high profile spots in the search engine results. In a small and questionable effort to correct this oversight, this week’s Specimen of the Week is…
**The howler monkey**
1) Our specimen of a howler monkey has not been speciated beyond ‘howler monkey’, and there are reportedly at least ten to choose between. Therefore, I am going to pick one to tell you about, the one that I journeyed across land and sea to track in the wild. That species is the Guatemalan howler monkey. Guess where it is from? (Cough*Guatemala*cough). Although I did go to Guatemala, I actually finally tracked the elusive critters down in Belize, as this species is also found in Eastern Mexico, and all throughout Belize. My journey across Central America involved several overnight bus journeys sat packed between large Latin American men who could snore for the New World, making a local girl laugh until she cried at my attempts to hone the Nicaraguan accent, getting licked in the face by a full grown jaguar, eating the best pineapple I have ever tasted, oh and being the most scared I have ever been for my life, in my life. I have been held up at gun point, held up at knife point, charged by a rhino and dragged to the water’s edge by a crocodile, but never have I been more certain that I was going to die than the day I got to Belize. Buuuuuut that’s another story. This blog is about monkeys and when I finally found the howlers, they were worth every second of blood, sweat and abject terror.
2) Howlers are the largest monkeys throughout the whole of the Americas, and our Guatemalan species is one of the big Daddys within the howler brotherhood. The Guatemalan howler has beautiful, flowing, shampoo-advert-worthy black hair that is silky and dense. The only areas not covered by this covetable asset are the hands, feet, face and the underside of the very impressive, prehensile tail. Male Guatemalan howlers over the age of around four months have one other hairless area, uh hum, a very notably white scrotum which, given that they don’t sit with their legs crossed for much, or indeed any of the time, makes them easy to distinguish from the ladies. The howler’s tail, as with the spider monkeys that we got to know well before, can be used as a fifth limb for both grip and balance.
3) Howlers have a very impressive method of avoiding being renamed the ‘whispering monkey’ or the ‘sit-quietly-or-you’ll-never-hear-it monkey’. They emit a seriously-I-kid-you-not-louder-than-loud rasping bellow that is audible several kilometres away. This ear-splitting cacophony, that can be likened to the start up motor of a Spitfire Mk IX, serves to let other troops know who’s territory it is, attract mates (preferably ones that don’t mind being deafened), and to see off rival troops through intimidation. A sort of auditory ‘my horse is bigger than your horse’. As it were. The specimen that we have at the Grant Museum has the hyoid still in tact. This large pseudo-spherical bone is what allows the howlers to make their incredible signature howl as it acts like an amplifier. It also makes for an impressive skeletal addition to our collections.
4) A troop comprises one or two lucky adult males with a sprinkling of breeding females and whatever biological result this social situation has produced that year. Until they can establish a troop of their own, single gentlemen are known to form bachelor troops which will attempt to commandeer a troop of breeding females for themselves from someone else.
5) Howlers primarily chow down on leaves and fruit though when this gets boring, they will also nab a flower or insect to break up the daily grind. They are primarily active in both the morning and the evening, making them technically crespuscular individuals, however they are also often up for various shenanigans throughout the day as well. All sounds a bit energetic to me, I like my sleep. Although in fairness, many of these troops inhabit forests surrounding a number of Mayan archaeological sites, so with that level of sightseeing to be done everyday, maybe I can understand their eagerness to be out of bed.
guest blogger: Chris Webb
In recent history there are few contentious subjects that are as notorious as eugenics. There are not many areas of discussion that can illicit such heated debate. Indeed, even the simple task of blogging becomes a semantic minefield, my inclusion of the word ‘contentious’ above, inferring (erroneously) that there are two sides to ‘argue’. However, research into the concept of eugenics, its founding and articulation, is the focus of a new book by Dr Debbie Challis who asks ‘How much was archaeology founded on prejudice?’
On the 14 March The Petrie Museum hosted Dr Challis in conversation on her new book with Dr Carole Reeves (UCL Centre for the History of Medicine). The title: ‘The Archaeology of Race – The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie’, draws on archives and objects from the Petrie and Galton collections to explore application of racial theory in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The discussion focused on the awfully Victorian appetite for classification and improvement to physical typology through a process of applied biometrics. Their aim: To improve the general population through selective breeding. Race is quantified as a social construction. According to the sources, the Victorian upper classes were concerned about the growth of the under-classes and over-crowding. The fear was that this would lead to a degradation of the population.
It was Francis Galton who first formulated both the term and field in 1883, which drew on the work of Charles Darwin, his cousin. Indeed, UCL Special Collections and the Galton Collection hold many objects connected to Francis Galton’s life. His handprint, hand writing, travel journals, family photographs, statistics from his laboratory, a stuffed wallet, all combine to provide an illustration of his life. In 1886 Francis Galton commissioned Flinders Petrie to take photographs of different ‘racial types’ on monuments from Ancient Egypt, thus marking the connection between Galton, Petrie and UCL.
Drawing back to my above reference to the issues of semantics, the term eugenics is now associated with malevolence. The early 20th century adoptions of the principles first set down by Galton have linked the term forever with Nazi Germany, genocide and racially motivated hatred. Embryo screening for diseases and other more nefarious goals, such as designer babies, also raise their head in the discourse. The debate over nature versus nurture was a Galton original, and continues today. The issues and understanding that surrounds eugenics instil impassioned responses, the term holding severely negative connotations. This was made evident in our question and answer session at the end of the evening. The launch of ‘The Archaeology of Race – The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie’, initiates dialogue into these principles and its adoption by various political, social and historical groups. But more than this, it examines how much of Victorian archaeology was founded on discrimination, and the outlook shared by both Galton and Petrie.
For more blog posts see:
We have had a a new display installed in the Museum foyer this week. It was curated by the Manchester Museum’s Senior Youth Board and it reflects their interpretation of our Collecting Trees theme. Called ‘Northwest to Northwest; Forest to Metropolis’, this installation is inspired by the historic trade in red cedarwood from British Columbia to the Manchester via Canada Docks in Salford.
They have used this theme to make links between the Living Cultures and Zoology collections through wooden objects of Native American art and the animals represented therein. We’d love to hear what you think about it; if you’re visiting soon, please leave us a comment on our special postcards.
Given that we are enduring a slightly tepid spring, I figured it’d be nice to pretend we are in the middle of the whirl of new life, joy and bouncing lambs that spring promises to bring. In this series of 5 blogs I am going to attempt to dust the cobwebs off my English degree and evoke sounds, smells, tastes, touch and sights of what spring should be, mixed with an Ancient Egyptian garnish, just because, right now, the thought of 25+ degrees is the only thing keeping me from embracing this eternal winter and bunkering down to a Game of Thrones type existence.
The quintessential soundscape to spring is the merry twittering of birds, in England most commonly feature the blue tit, great tit or chaffinch.
Things would be a little more squawky and water based in the toasty warm Nile delta of the Late Period. Birds such as flamingos, vultures and ibises cavort in the waters of the Nile, uttering their shrill cries. Of the foremost, for me, the most resplendent and noteworthy is the ibis, a member of the wading bird family, with a host of different species within the Threskiornis family.
So important was this bird to the Ancient Egyptians killing a specimen would result in capital punishment (Herodotus, II; 65), this self-same reverence is reflected in the modern name: African Sacred Ibis, distinct for its rather snazzy monochrome plumage. More importantly, for Ancient Egyptians, was the connection between the Ibis and the god Thoth.
As a deity, Thoth was pretty important, the god of knowledge and writing, he was the main deity at the temples of Ashmunein. Asides from his calligraphic importance Thoth was of lunar importance, with the curved arc of his beak emulating a crescent moon.
This votive shows him in all his avian glory, seated, wearing wide tripartite wig, and atef-crown. During the Late Period (roughly 7th/6th century BC) from which this piece dates the Thoth cult grew in popularity due to the instatement of Ashmunein (aka Hermopolis) as the capital, culminating in offerings as vast as the 300 mummified ibises found at Hermopolis , dated to the Ptolemaic era (Clark, 1955).
In addition, the ibis is an essential manifestation of spring:
“at the beginning of spring winged serpents from Arabia fly towards Egypt, and the birds called ibises meet them at the entrance of this country and do not suffer the serpents to go by but kill them” (Herodotus, II: 75).
And here I think I tie back in to my original supposition, the ibis, whilst a symbol of the illustrious god, was also a vivid symbol of spring, protecting Egypt from the plague of ‘winged serpents’. So, if anyone sees an ibis winging its way overhead, it means spring is here and we can all be thankful for that!
 NB author wishes to let it be known I graduated with my BA only 2 years ago, I just dropped it down the back of my book case, hence cobwebbing
 NB don’t confuse with: ibex (a glorified goat), iris (bit of the eye), Isis (Egyptian deity)
 Promise this is the last footnote, I have to stress my zoology knowledge is based on an unhealthy level of David Attenborough fanaticism coupled with GCSE Biology, shall continue to talk about archaeology imminently.
If you are someone who is passionate about heritage, interested in health and wellbeing, and keen to volunteer in an innovative heritage-in-health project – we want to hear from you!
UCL Museums and Public Engagement is looking for a group of volunteers to take part in the Touching Heritage project, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The programme aims to widen participation in cultural activities by taking museum objects out to healthcare communities that would otherwise be excluded from museum activities. One-to-one and group sessions led by facilitators will focus on the cultural, social and natural diversity of the objects in relation to participants’ own health and wellbeing. The experience will be enhanced by touching and handling objects traditionally associated with health and wellbeing, and by discussing how the objects feel, what they are made of or whether they resonate in other ways with participants.
We are currently seeking volunteers to train as facilitators of museum object handling sessions, and then to co-ordinate object handling sessions in community care settings such as care homes, day centres and sheltered housing.
Commitment to the project will vary depending on your availability. Ideally, you will be available and willing to participate in a short training programme in April 2013, and be able to conduct sessions once or twice a week, until July 2013.
The training programme will teach you everything you need to know about facilitating object-handling sessions and will give you some valuable skills in running your own arts/heritage-in-health activities. The training is hands-on and practical and will be full of fun, educational and team-based activities. By the end of the program, you will be ready to conduct object-handling sessions in a range of healthcare settings and be part of an inclusive and supportive team, ready to take museums to people who don’t have access to them.
You will be mentored and supported by the Outreach Co-ordinator in a team of volunteers, and you will gain skills in object handling processes and contribute to the Heritage in Healthcare research programme; learning about health and wellbeing in participatory cultural and heritage activities.
Please see the link to the job description, which has further information on how to apply. Please also have a look at the Touching Heritage blog.
For further enquiries, please contact:
Outreach Co-ordinator – Touching Heritage: Objects to Healthcare
020 7679 2211
We interrupt this normal service to bring a special PSA. This post is intended as a how-to for the global community of researchers who are looking for biological specimens in the UK to study.
Recently I went to the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) annual conference and with cuts to heritage and museums many of the talks were about how we make the most of natural history collections in the UK. Biological research is seen as one of the most important drivers and reasons for keeping and using natural history collections, however, in my opinion we do a relatively poor job at matching researchers to specimens and a certain portion of the research community can be forgiven for struggling to find material for research despite the wealth of resources we put out there supposedly designed to help them.
So if you work in a natural history museum, supervise Phd students or teach on a biological/geological course please pass a link to this article on and see if we can’t create more research opportunities that I suspect we currently miss.
1) FIND A NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
There are hundreds of them in this country but anecdotally, a lot of the researchers that we see here just think of museums that they know about. Hopefully that includes the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales and the National Museum of Scotland but rarely does it include smaller museums dotted around the country which hold approximately half of the nation’s collections. Unfortunately, and this is where we’re to blame a bit there isn’t a comprehensive list of them all in an easy to find place (this is something that NatSCA will be working on…). Even good old Wikipedia isn’t much help (spot the Grant Museum here) which probably says volumes about Museums engaging with the web. The Museums Association publishes a Museums and Galleries Yearbook but it would be remiss of me to ask that every researcher buy a copy and then plough through it trying to identify all the natural history collections. At the moment, my recommendation would be to contact the NatSCA mailing list. NatSCA is is the UK’s organisation for representing Natural Science Collections and associated museum staff, as such it represents a large number of natural history collections in the UK and the chances are high that the people on the list will be able to help you find specimens within the collection they look after or will be able to point you in the right direction, however….
2) BE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT
Most museum professionals are a friendly lot and making specimens accessible to researchers is part of what we’re here for. However, we won’t do your research for you and we’re not here to do your homework for you. The difference between “I’m interested in Primates” and “I want to see disarticulated postcranial skeletons of female wild caught green monkeys with a known collection date” may be the difference between receiving a swift reply either way or no reply at all.
3) GIVE PLENTY OF NOTICE. THE MORE THE BETTER!
You may think that museum staff spend the whole day idling about, occasionally dusting the skeletons, but the reality is that there’s always stuff going on from appointments with other researchers, school groups, teaching responsibilities, conference presentations, sometimes the skeletons do need to be dusted and the odd flood/fire/act of God takes curators and collections managers away from getting back to you about your research visit tomorrow because you’re visiting your Auntie in Glasgow and you’d like to pop in.
4) LOOK ONLINE
Okay so I’ve mentioned already that museums are pretty bad at putting their content online but believe it or not the sector has spent millions of pounds and person hours digitising collections for you! Yes you! We just forgot to tell you about it. If you’ve got a museum in mind it’s always worth checking to see if they have an online database for specimens you may wish to use. Here’s our database and here’s the online database for the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. There. Already you can access the collections from 50% of the zoological collections in London from the comfort of your armchair you lucky person. There are also a host of other online databases and networks that might help you to find specimens:
Cornucopia is an online database of information about more than 6,000 collections in the UK’s museums, galleries, archives and libraries that allows you to search collections by a number of different criteria. The data in it isn’t comprehensive but does allow some clever searching.
Culture Grid is a UK wide aggregator of Museum online database content. Currently around 100 UK institutions have their content syndicated to it but the list is always growing. It’s still very much a work in progress but it’s worth a punt.
Europeana contains the same data as Culture Grid but casts the net wider and represents a number of institutions from across Europe. Again the site is still a work in progress but it’s getting there.
Herbaria seem to be ahead of the game here, the excellent resource Index Herbariorum, is a guide to the 3,400 herbaria across the globe representing an estimated 350 million herbaria specimens. Herbaria United brings together information about herbaria in the UK and Ireland, hosts gazetteers and conveniently lists the online databases of individual herbaria.
The Global Biodiversity Information Facility is an excellent site that represents many of the larger natural history museums in the world. The user interface could be a little bit easier to navigate but once you find your way around you can search for instances or specimens, or occurrence records. Those green monkeys I mentioned earlier? We can see there’s 135 of them in the largest museum collections in the World. Again, you won’t find the Grant Museum and other smaller museums on here yet but it’s a starting point.
Search by collector on FENSCORE the rather odd sounding Federation For Natural Sciences Collections Research is now a very out of date online resource for finding the collections related to a geographical region, a particular person (e.g. collector) or a particular taxon. Again it’s not the kind of easy to use resource you’d expect in the 21st Century but if it’s a collection related to a person you are after this is still probably your best shot of finding it.
Between these resources, you have more information at your fingertips than Darwin ever had. There are many more out there created by individual institutions, subject specialist networks or research networks interested in specific taxonomic groups. If you know of any that would be good to put up here, let me know and I’d be happy to add them here.
5) BE PREPARED TO TRAVEL
It may be convenient and easier on your travel expenses to spend more time at a larger museum rather than traveling around but as I mentioned before there are vast amounts of objects in smaller collections and your sample set will be all the better for avoiding institutional collection and preparation biases. The National museums may hold large collections but I’m willing to wager that University museums have a better selection of osteological specimens for some vertebrate groups and many local authority museums will have a better selection of taxidermy specimens if its skin, fur and feathers you’re after. There are also a whole range of historic houses, charities and zoological parks and gardens that have significant holdings but you may not have thought to look in these places. Furthermore, I’d always recommend checking at your local museum as the eccentric individuals who founded many of them traveled the world collecting specimens you wouldn’t expect to find in the museum round the corner from you. It’s worth bearing in mind that most museums hold a high percentage of their collection in storage so just because there isn’t a natural history display in the galleries doesn’t mean there isn’t a warehouse full of specimens behind the scenes.
6) A NOTE ON DESTRUCTIVE SAMPLING
Some research may demand destructive sampling of specimens. Normally this isn’t something that natural history museums are fundamentally against and most have policies for undertaking it but your science has to be good and you have to demonstrate how your research will get out to the wider research community. When brokering a destructive sampling request you’ll probably have images of curators slowly shaking their head and padlocking their drawers in your mind. In our minds we have images of specimens with massive chunks taken out of them and no published works disseminating the results. Destructive sampling is always a risk, especially if your methodology is relatively untested, so you have to demonstrate why you need to take samples, how, where and when you’re going to publish them and why your work has significant impact. In addition, museums will ask you about non destructive sampling techniques as well so come prepared to demonstrate how your laser/scanner/bain-marie won’t irreversibly damage a specimen. On another note, blu-tack, plasticine and silly putty are not appropriate putties to be smearing all over specimens to hold them in place so you should expect to have it confiscated upon entry.
These six tips are just the starting point but hopefully it will help researchers to find the biological and geological specimens for use in research. The use of collections by the research community be it scientific or artistic is core to justifying the existing of many collections and at the heart of many museum’s founding doctrines. In short, it’s what we’re here for.
UPDATE 27/03/2013. A colleague from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent has alerted me to Natural Sciences Collections West Midlands website which is a neat summary of 11 natural science collections and museum services in the West Midlands. Check it out.
UPDATE 2 27/03/2013. Added information about the excellent Index Herbariorum which I must confess I hadn’t heard of before.
UPDATE 3 27/03/2013. Been alerted to The Linking Museum Collections by the Welsh Museum Federation by a colleague at National Museum Wales. This project looks set to link up natural science collections across Wales and make them more accessible to the public and researchers. One to watch.
UPDATE 4 27/03/2013. Reminded about Cornucopia (which I’d completely forgotten) and added information about Herbaria United.
March is nearly gone but there’s still time to squeeze in an Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month (UFFotM). Since last time I’ve been receiving some emails:
My Dear Beloved in Christ, Greetings to you and your family. I am Mrs. Lerien Namani” A widow to late ” Mr Martins Namani of Ivory Coast” I am 58 years old, my late Husband was a Director with the Construction Company here before his Sudden Death in this Country’s present political Crisis 2010, but before his death, he Deposited the Sum of¨$4.Million US dollars with one of the Bank here in Ivory Coast with my name and i am suffering from pancreatic cancer, My condition is really bad and it is quite obvious that I won’t live more than two months according to my doctors….[This carries on for quite a while]
I’ve also received an email about this month’s installment of UFFotM:
To Whom It May Concern
I HAVE BEEN REFRESHING YOUR WEBSITE SINCE 00:01 ON THE FIRST OF MARCH. WHERE IS THE NEXT FOSSIL FISH? [My Caps for emphasis]
Well it’s here now Joe! It’s not easy digging out underwhelming fossil fish you know. The collection is full of perfectly preserved internationally renowned, indeed celebrity, fossil fish that have been instrumental in changing the world we live in today. It’s getting harder to find a rough amongst all the diamonds. But I’ve done it. I’ve managed to find yet another fossil fish that’s bound to put a dampener on your day. Dare you go beyond the jump to find out more?
SPOILERS I hope you packed your inhaler because this month’s installment contains a world first exclusive for this series: the reverse side of a specimen.
This month’s fossil fish is this beautiful specimen of Loganellia scotica. Eye napkins ready? Feast your eyes on this:
Yes, using the powers of science, somebody has managed to identify that smear of dots to species level. If the label is to be believed these are dermal scales belonging to a species of Thelodont fish, Logonellia scotica. Thelodonts are a weird and wonderful group of extinct jawless fish that sadly went extinct in the Late Devonian in one of the big five mass extinction events. There is some debate as to how cogent the group is and whether the defining feature of this group, thelodont (meaning “nipple teeth”) scales, had evolved a number of different times in related groups. Quite how this specimens has been identified to species level is remarkable. I’ve popped the specimen under a microscope and even under twenty times magnification the dots still resemble dots and nothing like these elaborate scales that typify the group. As with January’s fossil fish I suspect that as this specimen has been identified on the principle that it is probably from a very common species at that site it was collected from. This specimen comes from Logan Water in Lesmahagow, Scotland, a site that is now protected due to irresponsible collecting. Better preserved specimens of this Silurian species from this site give us a better idea of what the whole animal would have looked like but you can get a sense of the speculative reconstruction of these animals from these search results.
I promised you a shot of the verso, I hope you’ve had enough time to steel yourself for it.
For those of you interested in how museums work this specimen is a prime, almost text book, example of how not to label a specimen. First of all the original identification, Thelodus, and number was written directly onto the surface of the specimen in permanent ink, so this specimen forever carries its old number and outdated classification. Somebody has then seen to have a go at a re-identification and written the new name across the back in large smeary blue ink which has been absorbed by the matrix making it almost impossible to read. Palaeobiologists of today look and learn. Look and learn.
Preservation For this fossil it’s a tough one to call. On the one hand we don’t have a great deal of the original animal preserved. It isn’t too hard to imagine that these scales fell off of a fish just after death and by chance ended up getting preserved. On the other hand it’s a pretty remarkable that these 400 million year old fish scales got preserved at all.
Research I’ll be honest. This particular specimen is next to useless for research. However, this species and other thelodont fish are of growing interest to the research community. Unlike virtually every UFFotM so far, there are a number of recent references mentioning Loganellia scotica. Fossils like this are useful in two very different contexts. The first of these is that thelodont fish scales may be key evidence in understanding how teeth first evolved in vertebrates. It has long been thought that teeth originated from scales but there are two conflicting hypotheses; the helpfully titled ‘outside-in’ and the ‘inside-out’ hypotheses. Did scales like this on the heads, lips and cheeks of some fish end up as teeth through a process of evolution or did teeth evolve from other kinds of denticles inside the mouth? Another question of esoteric interest is whether teeth evolved before jaws.
The other area where these fossils are useful for research is in Biostratigraphy. Fossils like the ones here are found abundantly in sequences in the rock record and their appearance and disappearance from a rock sequence give us important clues about the environment of the time. Additionally, by mapping sequences of fossils regionally, nationally and internationally we can work out the relative ages of chunks of the rock record and how they relate to sequences halfway across the globe. Most usefully this information can be used to point us to economically important or valuable resources (oil, coal, natural gas, valuable mineral deposits). Of more esoteric interest this information can help us model how the Earth and life have changed over time. It’s from fossils like this that we can piece together the jigsaw of rock sediments and age the rocks we find and I can flippantly and fairly confidently estimate that this humble fossil is 423-427 million years old from the place at which it was found. That’s pretty cool. Fossils of Loganellia are used in biostratigraphy in a number of countries with Silurian deposits.
In Society This specimen of Loganellia may be rather uninspiring to look at, barely more than a stain on the surface of a rock. They certainly won’t be appearing in a Harlem Shake video anytime soon, however, as fossils that may hold clues to how we ended up with teeth and as fossils that help us piece together the history of the Earth from the rock record they’re the fossils that are worked hard behind the scenes.
In Society 0
The past week or so has probably been the busiest period of teaching for me ever. I have been running practical teaching sessions in the museum for our zoology, biology, plant science and environmental science students, as well as teaching children of all ages from a large number of local schools.
Last week was particularly full on, as it was National Science Week and I also took animals out to schools in Cheshire and Lancashire, including Elton High School in Bury and Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford (pictured above). It was such a pleasure for me to deliver the sessions and I would very much like to thank Dave Thompson and Andy Sinnott for organising these two sessions in particular. Following my visit to Manor Park nursery, the older pupils from the school came to the museum for a special visit and animal session, which the children really seemed to enjoy.
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to contribute to the many superb activities being organised by Emma Lewis and my university colleagues from our Widening Participation Department for National Science and Engineering week 2013, after I was invited to present a special guest lecture. All in all we had a total of 857 young people visit as part of the initiative!
The last lesson I ran at the museum was on Friday, where I taught our undergraduate students whilst also using the live animal’s from our collection. Being able to incorporate the use of the live specimens really brings these sessions to life and this particular lesson focuses on adaptation in reptiles and amphibians, as well as how to develop and use dichotomous keys.
I would like to say a very big thanks to all the colleagues and demonstrators who helped me deliver the sessions, you were all stars! I very much hope that the session was useful and enjoyed by the many students who attended and would be very grateful for any feedback from the students I have taught over the past couple of weeks so as to further improve what is being offered. Below are some photos taken during the sessions which I thought you might like to see, and please follow this link if you would like to see more photos from the past 4 year’s Undergraduate Teaching.
Although the many activities and sessions over the past few weeks have kept me extremely busy, I feel so lucky to be able to share my subject and interest with others. Seeing the eyes of children light up when they hear about and see such wonderful creatures is a treasure to behold – and what a wonderful reward that is for me. Thank you to all who have made it possible for me to have such opportunities, I really appreciate it.
Click to view slideshow.
Okay okay so this coming Sunday it will have officially been two months since the Chinese New Year. However, as part of my ongoing quest to become a god, I have chosen to give myself the ability to bend man’s two most treacherous enemies to my will; time, and money. Ergo, I can write a blog about the animal that is the focus of this year’s Chinese New Year, despite it officially having been on the 31st January, and when today is the 25th March. So there. The animal group chosen by the Chinese calendar is a broad one so I have narrowed it down to one species. My favourite species. Well what better way is there to choose? It is my favourite for good reason after all. This week’s specimen of the week is…
**The Gaboon Viper**
1) The Gaboon is an incredible snake that hangs out in tropical rainforests and other environments with lots of moisture, in both eastern and western Central Africa. Subsaharan Africa is my most favourite place on Earth (or perhaps it comes in at a close second to Disneyland), so that is score one in the ‘favourite snake’ stakes. That is snake stakes, not snake steaks, which I do not advocate.
2) The Gaboon viper has two large horns located between the nostrils. I say large, what I mean is large for a snake. Given that snakes don’t tend to have horns. I like horny things, like rhinos, so that is score two. The Gaboon viper can grow up to 130 cm in total length and is seriously pretty (score three). (I am a girl after all). I don’t mean pretty as in lots of colours like a rainbow, but the skin pattern is really striking. Imagine a rainbow… in sepia. The head is peculiarly triangular with large, silver or yellowy irises in the eyes.
3) The outstanding colour pattern means it can camouflage itself amongst leaf litter and gives it cover for when it wants to ambush prey. The Gaboon viper feeds primarily on rodents, though will take any small mammal that erringly presents itself, plus birds and amphibians. The Gaboon viper usually inhabits dark areas of the forest, near to, or on, the forest floor. It belongs to a nocturnal group of snakes that hunts both in the evening (so technically it is also crepuscular), and during the night.
4) The Gaboon viper is a venomous snake (score four) and the fangs in some of the sixteen species reach a length of 5.5 cm, making them the longest of any venomous snake in the world (score five and six, because that is just cool). It is however quite a docile snake, in comparison with other species, and so bites to humans are relatively rare. The stocky build makes it rather sluggish and so upon hearing an approaching human, the Gaboon viper will more likely stay put, rather than run- (slide? slither?) away for defense. The most common cause of a bite therefore, is when a human accidentally startles one and it reacts with a ‘sink teeth in first, ask questions later’ approach. The venom of a Gaboon viper is extremely harmful to a human, and in some cases has been fatal.
5) Now if I whisper a secret, you won’t tell anyone, correct? Partly because it is not nice to gossip, but mostly because this secret would be extremely embarrassing for the Gaboon viper if word got out. Ok, I trust you. Well, the truth is that the Gaboon viper has such serious fang-age going on because it needs to inject a huge quantity of venom. The venom glands are so large in fact, that each bite produces the largest quantities of venom of any venomous snake (score seven). However, the reason for that, and this is the embarrassing part, is that for all his impressive stats, the Gaboon viper’s venom is total rubbish. It’s weaker than an elephant with the legs of a stick insect and therefore it requires a large volume of venom to be effective. But I warn you, those venom sacs are more than sufficient to compensate, and thus, effective it is. So don’t mess. And don’t gossip.