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  • 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…)

    Do Dodo Bones Belong in a Museum?

    By Jack Ashby, on 14 November 2013

    This week the Daily Mail reported that two bones from a dodo were set to sell at auction for £30,000. This would be the first private sale of a dodo bone since 1934*. My first reaction was one of horror. Why is that?

    These are two main reasons why I might deplore this sale:
    1) It should be in a museum.
    2) We shouldn’t put a value on natural history objects.

    I’d like to explore why these might not be reasonable objections.

    It Should be in a Museum: For Science
    This is the reaction I got on Twitter when discussing this story, and it seems reasonable. Valuable natural history specimens that aren’t in museums are lost to science, as I have argued before when discussing Channel 4’s Four Rooms.

    But are these two bones – a femur and partial pelvis – valuable natural history specimens? I’m not convinced. (more…)

    The time to live life is now

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 7 November 2013

    As both of my parents worked in travel I guess whether you fall down in the camp of nature or on the side of nurture, eitherway I was probably destined to be a traveller myself. Although I was a late developer in this area, only travelling alone for the first time once at university, I have since clocked up 49 countries and have back of the envelope plans for well over fifty more. As a zoologist and conservationist seeing the natural world first hand is indescribable, though my background also makes me only too aware of the rapidity with which the planet is changing. I don’t just mean animals and the environment, people themselves are changing as well. It is not an uncommon site in Kenya to see Masai tribesmen in the bush wearing traditional red blankets and sandles, and herding goats whilst chatting away on their Nokia. But I feel privileged to have seen them and witnessed their lives and cultures even in this transitional state. In a few years they’ll be wearing GAP t.shirts and Nike trainers, tearing around the bush on quad bikes*. There is simply nothing like seeing mountain gorillas in the wild, being woken up in your sleeping bag by a giraffe munching leaves outside your tent, or being caught in the middle of a capuchin monkey turf war in the Amazon rainforest. (more…)

    The best natural history specimen in the world (did not get thrown on a fire)

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 September 2013

    Last week I saw something that had never occurred to me might be possible to see. Through the years I have learned a lot about this object – I knew where it was, I knew where it came from and I certainly know its place in the pantheon of the history of natural history. We even have a cast of it in the Grant Museum.

    If you had asked me what the best natural history object in the UK was, most days I would tell you it was this one. I had just assumed that seeing it wasn’t something that ever happened, even for people who run university zoology museums.

    The Grant Museum team an a sperm whale jaw at the OUMNH (they're closed for roof repairs)Last Wednesday the staff of the Grant Museum went on an expedition to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), which is closed for roof repairs until 2014. On a visit to the zoology section a cupboard was opened before us, it was filled with skulls, dried fish and a couple of boxes. As the history of this cupboard was explained – it was Tradescant’s Museum – the oldest in the country – it suddenly dawned on me what was in those boxes. And that we were going to see it.

    We were going to see the only soft tissue of a dodo anywhere in the world. (more…)

    Happy 77th Thylacine Day: Culls Against Science

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2013

    7th September is an incredibly important day in Australia. I’m not talking about the general election. It’s the day, in 1936, that the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of its cage in a zoo in Hobart. In Australia, this is marked by National Threatened Species Day. In the Grant Museum, it’s Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    Thylacines – the half stripy wolf-shaped marsupials – are a regular feature on this blog because we have a pretty amazing collection of them. Two years ago today I made the point that their deliberate extinction at the hands of a cull promoted by the farming lobby was being echoed by a proposed badger cull here in the UK. In this past month those proposals have become reality, and I’m returning to the story today. (more…)

    Happy 130th Quagga Day – Maybe more extinct than we thought

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 August 2013

    130 years ago today, 12th August 1883, the last ever quagga died.

    As custodians of one of the only quagga skeletons in existence, we consider it our responsibility to commemorate the tragic passing of this, the least stripy of the zebras.

    Given that we have marked quagga day annually, what can I tell you that regulars wont already know? Potentially, quite a lot – things that I’ve only found out today as I write. Before I get to that, for those who don’t come pre-quagga’ed:

  • Quaggas were a South African Zebra with a stripy front end and a brown back end.
  • Quagga skeletons are “the rarest skeletons in the world [1].
  • They were driven to extinction due to farmers killing them to stop them grazing the land they wanted for their livestock; and for their unusual pelts.
  • The last individual died in a zoo in Amsterdam, probably years after all of her wild relatives

  • This is our quagga:

    Image of the Grant Museum Quagga skeleton

    The Grant Museum quagga

    (more…)

    Book Worm… Rat Island by William Stolzenburg: A Review

    By Jack Ashby, on 31 July 2013

    Book Worm

    Book Worm – that’s Grant and a lugworm

    Book Worm is our occasional series for reviewing books. Today I bring you my thoughts on William Stolzenburg’s Rat Island published by Bloomsbury in 2011.

    When I was about 13 I read David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. His telling of the history of island biogeography through the prism of extinction was a great influence on my becoming a biologist. When I came across Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue I was thrilled to return to where Quammen left off.

    According to Stolzenburg, islands harbour 20% of terrestrial biodiversity on just 5% of the land (read Song of the Dodo to learn why). They also account for nearly half of the world’s critically endangered species. One of the main reasons is the damaged caused by introduced species, most notably rats. (more…)

    Extinction: Not the End of the World? at the Natural History Museum, a Review

    By Jack Ashby, on 14 February 2013

    We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

    Last week Curator Mark and I went to check out the new Extinction exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which tackles the often tackled but rarely dealt with topic of extinction.

    Extinction, as a subject, is a tricky one. Firstly, natural history museums are full of it. We love it. 99% of species that have ever lived are extinct. [non-avian] Dinosaurs are extinct. Mammoths are extinct. Dodos are extinct. It’s bread and butter stuff. So much so that if we try and focus on it too much, it could be hard to make it special. Secondly, whatever museums/conservation organisations/David Attenborough say about modern extinctions, nothing ever changes. (more…)

    Happy 76th Thylacine day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2012

    Another year has passed since the last known thylacine – one of the greatest icons of extinction – died of exposure. That makes 76 years today.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    We have celebrated the thylacine here at the Grant Museum for some time. We have some fantastic specimens – including one of the only fluid preserved adults (with the added bonus of having been dissected by Victorian evolutionary giant Thomas Henry Huxley), and skeleton from the early 1800s, which belonged to Grant himself. The only recent thylacine-based activity that happened at the Museum was for all our thylacine-geek colleagues to watch The Hunter together, a film about a bounty-hunter hired to collect the last individual for an evil bio-tech company. It was brilliant.

    Here on this blog we have told tales of thylacine apparitions, potentially new specimens, the lessons of extinction and the thylacine’s own story, which ended so tragically on 7th September 1936. On 2012’s thylacine day I’m going to spread the net a little further. (more…)