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  • Specimen of the Week 223: The Tasmanian wolf

    By Paolo W Viscardi, on 18 January 2016

    One of the most interesting things about zoology for me is the way in which skulls are sculpted by evolutionary and environmental forces. A particularly fascinating outcome of such processes is convergent evolution, which occurs when distantly related organisms live in a similar environment and have a similar mode of life, resulting in them looking and often behaving like each other. My favourite example of this phenomenon is shown by my Specimen of the Week…

    LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine skull [Grant Museum, UCL / Fred Langford-Edwards]

    LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine skull [Grant Museum, UCL / Fred Langford-Edwards]

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 220: The Fossil Sea Lily

    By Tannis Davidson, on 28 December 2015

    LDUCZ-S31 Encrinus liliiformis

    LDUCZ-S31 Encrinus liliiformis

    It is perhaps no surprise that during December, most of the specimens featured in this blog tend to have associations with wintery Christmastime animals. There has been a reindeer, a polar bear, a robin, an owl and (last week) a partridge – all of which have been highlighted to kindle the yuletide cheer.

    In a radical departure, here’s a specimen that has absolutely no connection to winter, snow or any December seasonal holiday. But does it bring joy? Yes. This is an amazing specimen. Would this be a great Christmas present? Absolutely. If you ever see one, keep me in mind.

    Here it is – the one you’ve been waiting for – this week’s Specimen of the Week is the…

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    Specimen of the Week 218: The Sugar Glider

    By Jack Ashby, on 14 December 2015

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Climbing up things can be challenging, be it hills, cliffs, trees or stairs. Climbing down, however is arguably far more difficult – your eyes are further from your hand-and foot-holds, your body is pointed in the wrong direction and gravity combines with momentum to pull you down faster than you’d like.

    Due* to the many drawbacks of climbing downwards, gliding has evolved many times in the animal kingdom – there are many species which have flaps of skin which form parachutes to slow their descent. Their names often contain the word “flying”, but true flight requires flapping wings. This post is not about flying lemurs, flying frogs, flying dragons, flying snakes, the four-winged dinosaur Microraptor, or even flying squirrels. This week’s Specimen of the Week is the far more accurately named… (more…)

    Happy 79th Thylacine Day: What they knew in 1896

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2015

    79 years ago today , on the night of 7th of September 1936, the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of the indoor part of its enclosure in a Tasmanian zoo. This followed a government-sponsored cull based on pressure from the farming lobby, who incorrectly blamed the thylacine for the failure of the sheep industry. Happy Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine as depicted in Wood's Illustrated History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Thylacine as depicted in J.G. Wood’s The Illustrated Natural History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Here at the Grant Museum, as holders of a significant collection of specimens, we like to commemorate Thylacine Day. Here you can read how we have commemorated previous Thylacine Days – including the story of their extinction, and how it’s being echoed today in the UK’s unscientific badger cull (which restarted last Friday).

    I recently bought book from 1894* – A Handbook to the Marsupialia and Monotremata – a species by species account of what was then known about those groups by Richard Lydekker. Lydekker was a significant figure at the Natural History Museum, London, and incidentally was born about 100m from us here at UCL. Here is what he had to say about thylacines: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 200: The dodo

    By Jack Ashby, on 10 August 2015

    Grant Museum dodo bones

    Grant Museum dodo bones LDUCZ-Y105

    200 weeks ago the Specimen of the Week was born, and here we are 198 specimens* later. For this auspicious occasion, I thought I should highlight one of the most important specimens in the Museum, both for historic reasons, and because it one of the things that visitors regularly ask about.

    Indeed, we know it is one of the most popular objects as it scores the highest in our “filth left on the glass by visitors scale”. We agree with our visitors’ assessment, and have included it in our Top Ten Objects trail.

    Possibly ranking as our most blogged about species, it’s about time that this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    The world’s rarest skeleton rides again… on four legs

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 July 2015

    Using cutting-edge technology, the world’s rarest skeleton – a South African extinct zebra called a quagga – has regained its missing hind limb.

    The quagga's missing fourth leg has been replicated through 3D printing.

    The quagga’s missing fourth leg has been replicated through 3D printing.

    After a brilliant year of fundraising and conservation work, we are nearing the end of a major project to restore 39 of our largest and most significant skeletons to their former glory. The main focus of the project, named Bone Idols: Protecting our Iconic Skeletons, has been our quagga – which is one of only seven quagga skeletons to survive globally. The Guardian gave the project a particularly positve write-up (read the comments if you want to see some of the more unexpected outcomes of media relations. *blushes*).

    The last living quagga died in 1883, having been hunted to extinction by farmers and skin-collectors. The Grant Museum specimen is the only one on display in the UK but the skeleton was incomplete – the right shoulder blade and one of its legs has long been missing, probably since World War II.

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    Specimen of the Week: Week 185

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 April 2015

    Scary-Monkey-Week-NineThis week I’m honouring a mammal that we can link to two significant factors in my life recently. First, it’s an Australian hopping marsupial, as are kangaroos. Our current Strange Creatures exhibition centres around Europe’s first painting of a roo – by George Stubbs. Secondly, I’ve been in Australia for the last few weeks doing fieldwork with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and my first task was to help test a mechanism for surveying this Critically Endangered mammal.

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

    Specimen of the Week: Week 170

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 January 2015

    Scary MonkeyA well known technique in making things desirable is to make them appear unattainable. You want it because you’ve been told you can’t have it. This week I’m employing this strategy to make you fall in love with a specimen. Obviously you can’t have any of our specimens as we’re an accredited museum avowed to care for our collections responsibly, which more or less rules out giving them to the public.

    Not only can you not have this week’s Specimen of the Week, you can’t even see it, and there isn’t much more unattainable than that. This isn’t because it’s invisible to the naked eye (though it is small), it’s because it isn’t here.

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

    Specimen of the Week: Week 153

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 September 2014

    Scary MonkeyAs a scientist, with Vulcan-like levelheadedness, my outlook on the natural world is totally free of emotion. My interactions with it are purely perfunctory, in order to amass and analyse cold data, motivated solely by the advancement of scientific understanding of solid facts. The world is only there to be databased. It is irrelevant whether facts are “interesting” or not, all that matters is if they are useful for detecting some larger pattern. Anyone who says otherwise is a panda-hugging sentimental fluff-monger…

    Wouldn’t it be weird if ecologists thought like that? On the one hand science is supposed to be independent of emotion, but on the other most of us are only in it because of our emotional attachment to the subject matter (animals and ecosystems).

    Normally on this blog I take the chance to rave about the animals that amaze and excite me. This week I’m going to highlight one that I utterly despise*.

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