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  • On the search for the Scaly-tailed possum: Wet and Wildlife

    By Jack Ashby, on 11 December 2014

    A scaly-tailed possum caught on a camera trap in AWC's Artesian Range. (C) Australian Wildlife Conservancy,

    A scaly-tailed possum caught on a camera trap
    in AWC’s Artesian Range.
    (C) Australian Wildlife Conservancy,

    Over the past few years I have been spending my spare time in a remote area of the Kimberley, on the northwest corner of Australia, helping a conservation NGO – the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) – to do ecological fieldwork. AWC are Australia’s largest private owner of land for conservation, and their mission is to manage it based on scientific research. In the northwest their big long-term projects involve determining the effects of cattle and different fire management practices on tropical savannah ecosystems. And in my most recent two trips I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the detection of super-scarce species in extremely remote pockets of rainforest and monsoonal woodland.

    A few years ago AWC acquired an amazing patch of the Kimberley called Artesian Range – monsoonal savannah criss-crossed with sandstone ranges, gorges of vine-thickets and rainforest pockets. I remember going through the first set of remote camera trap images that came back from Artestian in 2011 and being amazed at the species that were being detected.

    An endemic Kimberley rock rat being re-released

    An endemic Kimberley rock rat being re-released

    The haven from extinction

    It seems that Artesian Range is the only place in mainland Australia not to have suffered any mammal extinctions since European colonisation. A community of amazing endemics has clung on – scaly-tailed possums, golden-backed tree rats, monjons, golden bandicoots and Kimberley rock rats. When I was analyzing those camera trap images in 2011 I was a couple of hundred kilometres south of Artesian, on AWC Northwest’s main home sanctuary, Mornington. Artesian Range is in one of the least accessible parts of Australia, requiring a combination of propeller-plane, serious 4WD and helicopter to get to. As amazing as it was to see these species on the screen, I instantly knew I had to go and see them in the flesh. For me, the scaly-tailed possum had become the holy grail.
    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 165

    By Jack Ashby, on 8 December 2014

    Scary MonkeyWhen Specimen of the Week first arose from its fossil ancestors in the Early Blogocene, the niche it originally occupied was to shed light on the darkest corners of our stored collections.

    Over time, there has been some descent with modification. Specimen of the Week maintains its ancestral characters and still has the ability to show the world what museums have in their drawers; but it has also acquired some new adaptations where something amazing is revealed about well-known specimens. Some suspect sexual selection is at work.

    This week, a new mutation has arisen. Instead of lifting the lid on stories from the stores, this Specimen of the Week will shed light on glimpses of horror in a specimen’s database records. Time will tell whether this adaptation will become fixed in the Specimen of the Week population.

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Dismantling Reg the Rhino in Ten Easy Steps

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 November 2014

    On 10th November the Grant Museum team took on the giant task of dismantling the largest specimen in the Museum – our huge (hornless) one-horned rhino skeleton. This is one of the first steps in our massive conservation project Bone Idols: Protecting our Iconic Skeletons (click the link to read more about it and how you can support it).

    In this previous post I described the the history of this specimen and what conservation work will be done to this invaluable specimen. We also set a Twitter competition to #NameTheRhino – he shall now be known as Reg. Full details about that at the bottom.

    How to take apart a complicated massive skeleton, in ten easy steps.

    This was all coordinated by skeleton conservator Nigel Larkin.

    1)  Label every bone and photograph everything so Nigel knows where to put them when Reg gets rebuilt.

    2) Set up a time-lapse camera to record the whole thing:

    (more…)

    Grant Museum starts major project to preserve rarest skeleton in the world

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 November 2014

    This infant chimpanzee  skeleton will be conserved  as part of  Bone Idols

    This infant chimpanzee skeleton
    will be conserved as part of Bone Idols

    Something very exciting has started here at the Grant. We are undertaking a major project to protect 39 of our rarest and most significant skeletons, some which have been on display in the Museum for 180 years. To help achieve this, we launching our first ever public fundraising campaign – aiming to raise £15,000 to support the costs of this crucial work.

    Preserving the rarest skeleton in the world

    The specimens include the rarest skeleton in the world: the extinct quagga – an unusual half-striped zebra from South Africa. It is the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK, and no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. The project involves completely dismantling and chemically cleaning the irreplaceable skeleton, and then remounting it on a new skeleton-friendly frame in a more anatomically correct position. The work is intended to secure the long-term preservation of the specimens.

    Protecting the uncollectable

    The quagga will be the focus and most involved element of Bone Idols: Protecting our iconic skeletons, a major project of conservation across the Museum’s displays. Interventions will range from deep cleaning bones, repairing damaged elements and re-casing specimens through to remounting huge skeletons. (more…)

    Name our Rhino on the Run

    By Jack Ashby, on 6 November 2014

    The rhino in the Grant Museum - what's his name?

    The rhino in the Grant Museum – what’s his name?

    The largest single specimen in the Museum – our (hornless) Indian one-horned rhino – is about to go on holiday. He is going away for some serious conservation work. You might call it health tourism.

    The rhino entered the Museum as an un-mounted skeleton in 1910-11 when the University of London Loan Collection was disbanded. The Museum then paid £14 to have him, the seal, the bear and “a zebra” (possibly the quagga) mounted onto iron frames. Since then, the rhino has been on open display in the Museum, and the iron is slowly corroding.

    This year, as part of a major project called Bone Idols: Preserving our Iconic Skeletons, 39 of our largest specimens are undergoing conservation treatment. Some need intensive cleaning to remove the damaging pollutants and particulates that have built up over up to 180 years on open display; some also need repairs to certain body parts. Some, like the rhino and quagga, need to be totally disassembled, cleaned, and then repositioned on new skeleton-friendly metal frames, with all his joints correctly matching up.

    All of this work will allow us to safe-guard our irreplaceable collection for the long-term future and continue to use it every day for teaching, research and public engagement.

    There are two exciting opportunities coming up as a result… (more…)

    Happy 78th Thylacine Day: Remember the little guys

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2014

    Today, in Australia, is National Threatened Species Day, but far more importantly. to Grant Museumers, it’s Thylacine Day. Both of these events commemorate the ludicrously avoidable death of the last known thylacine - modern times’ largest marsupial carnivore – on 7th September 1936. Today, for the first time, I am actually in Australia for 7th September, so in this year’s annual Thylacine Day post I’d like to explore what it is about Australian mammals that makes me go all nerdy – the shear diversity of tiny things, that on the whole people have no idea about. (For more on the thylacine, including why we celebate it so hard at the Grant, look through previous Thylacine Day posts on this blog).

    The area of zoology I am most passionate about is Australian mammals, and as a result I spend 8-10 weeks each year over here trapping animals for conservation NGOs and university research programmes. As far as I’m concerned, although there are just 378 mammal species in Australia, it’s the best fauna there is. You only have to go 50km and you might find a whole new set of mammals. Australia has a lot of things going for it, but I will shout you down if you argue that any of them outshine the wildlife and ecosystems. The thing is so few people here, or elsewhere, have ever heard of most of them. Sure, people know that kangaroos and wallabies exist – they are the national icon, but go into any business and ask what kind of wallaby is chewing on its lawn and you’ll probably get a blank response. There are 45 species of Australian kangaroo and wallaby (excluding bettongs and pottoroos). People’s lofts and gardens are pested by possums (nearly always one species – the brushtail), but there are 25 different kinds. Once you get beyond these, koalas, wombats, dingoes, platypuses, echidnas and “bandicoots” (11 species), the rest of the Australian mammalian fauna, I fear, goes largely unloved.

    I’m not whinging about the fact that people don’t see tiny mammals and instantly know what it is. I just want to take the time to give them a shout-out.
    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 147

    By Jack Ashby, on 4 August 2014

    Scary monkeyMuseums are full of mysteries (particularly when you are as cursed with historically challenging documentation, as many university museums are). For example, why do we have a plum in a jar? Why does our dugong only have seven neck vertebrae (it is one of the few mammal species that should have eight)? Why don’t we have a wolf, one of the world’s most widespread mammals? Who ate our Galapagos tortoise? Why do we only have the heart and rectum of a dwarf cassowary? Why is scary monkey (pictured) so scary?

    Not to mention, why did we put all those moles in that jar?

    After ten years of working here, I am confident that there is no greater mystery in the Grant Museum than this one: why would you stick a battery in a dead animal?

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Black rhino hunting permit- Why are conservationists supporting it?

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 17 January 2014

    Last Saturday, 11th January 2014, a permit to hunt a black rhino for sport was sold at a US auction for $350,000. Much of the general public was horrified, and the auction house and associated hunting club subsequently received letters and emails of protest ranging from polite through abusive, to actual death threats.

     

    I for one simply can not understand the mindset of someone who would want to kill such a magnificent animal, and for sport, and that makes it hard for me to see the idea as anything but barbaric. However, is there more to it? Is it really a topic with many more branches to be considered in order for an informed and level-headed decision to be made? The permit was to hunt a black rhino (Diceros bicornis), a species listed as endangered and with only around 5000 individuals left in the wild. It would seem on the surface, a terrible thing to do, and yet many conservationists and specialists believe it to not only be acceptable, but that it will in fact help rhino populations. (more…)

    Lighting up the Petrie Museum

    By Edmund Connolly, on 13 January 2014

    Guest blogger: Pia Edqvist

    As people might have realized, the Petrie Museum is currently closed throughout January and February. But why is the Museum closed? The Museum is currently undertaking essential lighting works; the whole museum is getting new lighting including; spot and overhead lights but also new lighting within the display cases. This means that the collection will be better lit and a more environmentally-friendly system will be installed which will also ensure greater conservation-protection for the collection. We are also hoping that the new lighting system will improve the visitor’s experience of the collection. Further enhancements of the display are also planned during this period such as to improve the mounting of objects.

    The Pottery being packed up

    The Pottery being packed up

    (more…)

    Life, Stilled

    By Mark Carnall, on 9 July 2013

    Conjure up in your mind, if you will, a natural history museum and you’ll probably be picturing skeletons, taxidermied animals and maybe specimens preserved in fluid. Recently, I spent some time with Rosina Down, the curator before the curator before me, having a look at some of the more unusual specimens we have here that were prepared on site at UCL in the 1980s.

    Freeze dried mouse

    Freeze dried mouse

    (more…)