By Mark Carnall, on 3 January 2013
If you are reading this post then it is possible that you know of the Grant Museum and if you’ve visited then you’ve no doubt been impressed by our rather lovely articulated anaconda skeleton pictured here on the left. It’s a beautiful skeleton that grabs the attention and brings to mind questions like “How many ribs?” and “Who had the job of putting together what is surely one of the world’s most difficult jigsaws?”. It’s one of the specimens we list in our top ten objects you must see on a fleeting visit, it features in Kingdom in A Cabinet our guide to the Grant Museum and an image of this specimen was chosen for our postcard selection (available now from the Grant Museum).
Also, it umm, isn’t actually an anaconda…
A fact which other, lesser, museums might try to cover up or be very embarrassed about but we see this recent discovery as an opportunity to explain a bit about how zoology museums and science work. Plus, we are only mildly embarrassed about one of our highlight specimens on display being clearly misidentified for over 50 years.
This misidentification came to light when a member of the public spotted, literally in this case, that the image of this specimen before it was skeletonised over on the top ten object page clearly wasn’t spotted the way that anacondas are and that the skin patternation looked very much like an African rock python (Python sebae) rather than an anaconda (Eunectes murinus). This specimen is one of the few specimens that we have a good historical record of and I don’t think there’s a member of staff who hasn’t seen the photos of this specimen before preparation, however until now nobody has ever noticed that this alleged anaconda didn’t look very anaconda like with its clothes on. What I mean to say in modern parlance is that we’ve successfully crowd-sourced the identification of this particular specimen.
The current staff never sought to question the identification of this specimen so I tracked down some of our former staff to try to find out exactly when this specimen became an anaconda. This specimen came to UCL from London Zoo in the 1960s and we have photographs of it on the roof of the Medawar building before it was prepped. The picture above shows former museum curator Roy Mahoney and technicians John Ferguson, Ed Perry and Michael Lawrence sitting astride the specimen. In the end I contacted four generations of museum staff asking about the specimen, all of whom said that it had always been identified as an anaconda. Eventually I received an email from Roy Mahoney himself who remembered clearly that the specimen came from the London Zoo prosectorium identified as an anaconda and that the specimen in the photos is the skeleton that is now on display in the museum. There was a remote possibility that this photo doesn’t match the specimen but this was cleared up by Roy. I’ve now contacted the Curator of Herpetology at London Zoo to determine if this poor animal lived it’s whole life in London as an anaconda in African rock python clothing. Another possibility is that this specimen may be a weird hybrid, however, this seems unlikely as the patternation of the skin so closely resembles the python and the skull is clearly not an anaconda skull.
How has it happened that this specimen has been wrongly identified on display, used in teaching and used in research for so long under the wrong name? Well normally we treat every previous identification of specimens in the Grant Museum with a pinch of salt. Classifications of organisms are dynamic and so it is hard to keep on top of over 100 years of changing names for all 68,000 of our specimens. Some animals are constantly getting renamed, even the ubiquitous domestic cat has gone through four or five name changes in the last hundred years for example and I for one don’t have the time to run around relabeling every specimen every time a new name takes priority. Furthermore, there was a tendency in the 19th Century for gentlemen scientists to work from memory and understandably without the internet to quickly double check, a lot of spelling errors and other accidental errors creep into the labels- murina, murinae or murinatus instead of murinus for example. Such errors can mean that important specimens are overlooked. Another problem is that sometimes species, genera and even families can hover between two positions in a classification neither being in a majority consensus.
In this instance though none of these are appropriate solutions to account for our ‘anaconda’. There was a not-particularly-scientific trust in the received wisdom, a trust which is normally well founded, but unfortunately has resulted in us misleading our visitors. Mistakes do happen and rarely a month goes by without a discovery or rediscovery in a museum as the result of research and this happens at the Grant Museum too as our I Found This exhibition highlighted. Within science, re-identifications and changing theories are all part of the process within the dynamic discipline and rarely do museums lie on purpose. However, in today’s society with the rapid spread of information, correcting mistakes can be hard. In the past all we would have had to do was change the database entry, publications (feel free to pick up our now limited edition misprinted anaconda book and postcards) and label for this specimen. These days however our anaconda will be remain an anaconda in the far reaches of the internet that are beyond our control including Hungarian wikipedia, Flickr and blogs all over the web.