By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 14 March 2012
Partly because I love my job, and partly because my train is so darn unreliable, I get to the museum early. This morning was no different but as I snaked my way through the underground tunnels something was far from usual. My nose was suddenly filled with a disconcerting smell… smoke. A thin wisp of dark grey smoke was emanating from behind the museum doors. I flew up the stairs two at a time, shoved my key into the lock and wrenched opened the door. Coughing, I wrapped my scarf over my mouth and nose and went in.
The air was clear. Where was the smoke?
Hesitantly, I peered into the museum. THERE! A bright red flame leapt up as I grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran heroically to where it had been but all I found, staring up at me unblinking, was a black salamander with characteristic yellow spots; A fire salamander!
Much smaller than a 30 cm adult, this was a juvenile which should be living in freshwater until it was six months old at which point it metamorphose into a terrestrial adult. Adults live in forests across Europe, but what was it doing here in the UK? As I pondered the rather beautiful little creature suddenly, there was that smell again… smoke.
I looked up and saw a red glow reflecting in the glass, coming from behind a display case. I ran over with the fire extinguisher ready to let rip, but as soon as I turned the corner, the fire was gone. What the…?
On the floor at my feet lay a fire coral. Although inanimate, I withdrew on instinct, knowing they are covered in clusters of stinging cells. This coral was green, though other species can be yellow or cream. Fire coral feed on nutrients produced by algae living inside their tissues. In return for the on tap buffet, the coral provides the algae with both protection and sunlight access. Without that process, the polyps in this fire coral would have died.
Suddenly a splat SPLAT, splat SPLAT echoed around the museum. The coral forgotten, I edged toward where the sound had been. I waited, peering into the gloom and then… splat SPLAT; a great big fire-bellied toad landed at my feet, sending me reeling backwards. These toads like warm, moist environments. They are most active around 19˚ C, it was much colder than that in the museum. With a similar distribution to the fire salamander, it shouldn’t be inEngland, let alone out of water where it spends most of its life. Many individuals don’t even leave the water to hibernate.
But there are no marshes for miles? I thought to myself.
As intrigued as I was, its venomous skin put me off getting a closer look and I decided to leave it to its own devices and head back to the entrance to call my manager.
Just as I reached the front door and put down the fire extinguisher, a flurry of silver caught my eye. Wheeling on the spot, I caught a glimpse of another firey fiend. Firebrats. Several of them. Their excrement is damaging to many materials in the museum so, knowing that they lay up to 50 eggs at a time, I was determined they had to be evicted. I grabbed the dustpan and brush and tried to sweep them up but they can run so fast, both forwards and sideways, that they were hard to capture.
“It is too cold in here for you anyway” I told them.
They prefer hot, humid areas such as near hot water pipes. Seemingly unconvinced they made a final dash for it before I swooped down and bundled them into the dustpan and out of the window “HAH” I shouted, “I win”.
Having disposed of the naughty critters, I turned to find my manager staring at me with a raised eyebrow. The smell of smoke was long gone and neither hide nor hair could be found of the species I had encountered, which despite my best efforts at explaining what I’d seen, left me little by way of explanation. Well at least there wasn’t a real fire, except in my cheeks.