By Jack Ashby, on 12 August 2012
Since I was employed at the Grant Museum I have been looking for ways to celebrate what we call “Quagga Day”. Last year on the blog I described the lack of publicity that quaggas get and I heartily recommend you read what I said.
Also read it if you want to know more about what quaggas were, beyond the fact that they were a not-very-stripy-zebra. We never tire of telling people that we have the rarest skeleton in the world in the Grant Museum – and it is our quagga – but regular readers would probably tire of us explaining what they were and what we think about them.
This year we can celebrate in almost two ways:
1) Our quagga skeleton now has it’s very own website where you can learn all about it.
Almost 2) I thought I had discoverd a new specimen of quagga (which would rock the zoological world to its very core), but later discovered I hadn’t. Here’s what happened…
It was a lonely day in the storeroom, as it often is, and I picked up another box of bones. Inside were four foot bones of something horsey (that is to say four bones of the foot, not bones that were four feet long). I read the words scrawled in ink on the bone: “Zebra (Equus quagga). L Metatarsal. Quagga – extinct”. Oh how my heart raced. I’ve made and not made some exciting extinct discoveries in our store rooms (see here for the “not made”s) and this would be a big one. There are only 36 examples of quagga specimens anywhere in the world – seven of which are skeletons (including ours) and 3 of which are foot bones. One more would be, as I say, world-rocking.
My first thought, after “Whoop I’ve found a quagga”, was that our skeleton is missing it’s left leg, and previous curators have spent a lot of time looking for it in other museums. It would be a bit embarrassing if it had been in our store all along.
My second thought was to process the scrawl written below the label: “Olduvai“. Oh how my heart dropped – Olduvai is a famous fossil site in Tanzania, and quaggas lived in South Africa. I had not found a quagga, I had found another curatorial mishap.
Our zebras have a history of mis-identification. For years we thought we had two, until one was promoted to a quagga and one was demoted to a donkey in the 1970s. I realised what had happened here. There were two sets of hand-writing on the metatarsal.
The first said…
…which would lead most to conclude it was a quagga. This must have been what the person with the second set of handwriting did when they wrote…
Quagga – extinct
What Curator #2 didn’t know when they scribbled on the bones of what they assumed was a priceless extinct specimen, I assume, is that Equus quagga is the widely accepted scientific name of the Plains or Common Zebra, and that extinct quaggas are a sub-species of these – Equus quagga quagga, and that Olduvai was outside their historic distribution.
Looking closely at the scribble on the navicular (which Curator #2 obviously didn’t do as “Quagga EXTINCT 1860s” is also written here) it’s possible to make out a blurred “E. Q. Boehmi” in Curator #1′s hand. This is one of the names of Grant’s Zebra (now Equus burchelli boehmi), which does live in Tanzania. And before you ask, no it’s not the same Grant.
So that would be one more for the list of Crimes Against Curators, started by my colleague Rachael Sparks in Archaeology – writing incorrect information on bone which a) damages the specimen and b) unnecessarily raises my heart rate.
Join me and the Grant Museum team, if you will, in raising a glass to those we have lost (well, lost sounds a bit passive – those that we drove to extinction). Happy Quagga Day.