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  • Specimen of the Week: Week 156 (The Evolution of Life on Land)

    By Jack Ashby, on 6 October 2014

    Scary MonkeyIt’s the third birthday of the Specimen of the Week blogs, so this one is a special one, tackling one of the biggest events in global history (no exaggeration). It’s also the start of winter term at UCL, and that means that Grant Museum returns to doing the very thing our collections were first put together for – spending the day teaching students about life.

    This term every week we have a palaeobiology class where the students learn about vertebrate life from the beginning – looking at each group in turn as they evolve in the fossil record. That has inspired my choice of specimen this week.

    As an Australian mammal nerd, it’s often tempting to think that nothing interesting happened between the appearance of multi-cellular life a little over 500 million years ago, and 200 million years ago when the first platypus-ish things appeared*. However, sometimes it’s important to think about where it all began: the fishy animals without which there would be no you, no me, no internet cats, and no platypuses.

    This week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 140

    By Mark Carnall, on 16 June 2014

    Specimen of the Week: Week ThreeIt’s the 140th specimen of the week! That’s nearly three years of weekly Grant Museum specimen goodness! In order to celebrate this sort of milestone, and following on from Stacy’s worm theme, this week’s specimen is (probably) the oldest specimen in the Grant Museum. With a little further ado, representing deep time and a group of animals that despite their name aren’t particularly sexy, bordering on underwhelming (that’s the other blog series- Ed.). This week’s specimen of the week is…

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 122

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 10 February 2014

    It’s Valentine’s Day this week! I don’t subscribe to the modern idea that Valentine’s Day is a commercial farce designed to make you pay three times the price for one ‘romantic dinner’ out and 20 times the normal price for a rose of a specific colour. Well ok those are true, but Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to comprise either. Personally, I am REALLY hoping that this year someone loves me enough to get me membership to the British Arachnological Society for V-Day (link supplied in case you’re sufficiently moved, as it isn’t looking likely otherwise). But I’m not too sad as here at the Grant Museum I am surrounded by love. Such as in my choice of super lovey specimen this week! This Week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Fossils, climate change and the future of life on Earth

    By Dean W Veall, on 21 November 2013

    Each year we celebrate the birth of the man who was the first Professor to teach evolution in an English university, the man who gave an astonishing 200 lectures a year and the man who lent his name to the Museum, Robert Edmond Grant. November 11th saw the 220th year since his birth and in honour we held our 17th Annual Grant Lecture on Tuesday, with dinosaurs, climate change and the future of life on our planet, it was one not to miss but in case you did here are the highlights.

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    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…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Eighty-Seven

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 10 June 2013

    As with most people, I have a number of different passions. Be it, palaeontology/zoology, or films, or board games, or buying new socks, I enjoy a great many things and dedicate a serious amount of time to each. Most time of course goes to palaeontology/zoology, in so much as I am in fact paid to do that for a living (WAHOOOO). But sometimes I feel as though I may have been neglecting an area and get the urge to go back to the roots of a hobby and give it a little TLC. When I think back to the roots of palaeontology, being the single most continuous love in my life, I remember writing an essay ‘back in the day’ on a particular fossil animal, of which we have a fantastic reconstruction in the Museum. It sits nonchalantly and unassuming in a corner but when you hear a little about it, I think you’ll get the urge to make a special journey. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    In spod we trust

    By Jack Ashby, on 25 November 2011

    Today I would like to celebrate the spod. There are a couple of definitions for this term relating to over-users of online chat-rooms, but the spods I’m referring to here are those that Urban Dictionary defines as:

    “A derogatory term used to indicate someone with one of the following:
    1) A penchant for academic study, above and beyond the call of duty
    2) Higher than average intellectual capabilities
    See also swot, nerd, geek.
    “You’ve already done your history homework? Dude, you’re a spod!”
    “I hate that kid, he’s a bit of a spod!”

    My aim is to dispel these derogatory connotations and praise them for their gumption, rejection of the norm and dedication to something that is important. I use here terms like geek and nerd to which I attach no negatives – and have to a great extent be “reclaimed” by people like myself, who do belong in these categories. Geek-chic is cool these days, as we all know, but I’m not actually talking about the fashion for being a geek-wannabe. Just dressing like what you think a geek dresses like doesn’t make you a geek. (more…)

    National Fossil Day 2011

    By Mark Carnall, on 12 October 2011

    As you all know, Wednesday is National Fossil Day in America, not that a national day is needed to wax lyrical about the brilliant things that are fossils of course. If we’re celebrating it doesn’t that make it International Fossil Day? In celebration of one of the better National Days I’ve decided to write about my favourite fossil at the Grant Museum.

    Although it is a zoology collection first and foremost, the collection does contain a number of fossil specimens and at one point was lauded by the Lancet in 1835 for being “almost the only comprehensive and accessible source of information in this subject in the English language” after Grant introduced ‘fossil zoology’ to courses at UCL. Presumably, this meant that at one point, the collection contained an excellent fossil series but they were presumably transferred to other institutions or lost because the current collection is a real mix and the fossil collection is on my “to curate properly” list. Big acquisitions in the 80s and 90s as well as the relatively liberal movement of material in between institutions in the past has meant that the fossil collection needs a large amount or sorting; the kind of slow, methodical and satisfying work that I often end up delegating to volunteers to do. In the past we have had some super star volunteers recruited form UCL Earth Sciences including a certain Emma-Louise Nicholls who documented the fossil fish collection and Debi Linton who went through our marine reptile collection, both of whom went on to hold posts at the Museum..

    Until our fossil collection is fully explored, identified, catalogued and added to our online database I’d like to highlight my favourite fossil specimen at the Grant Museum.

    Image of a fossil dragonfly from the Grant Museum of Zoology

    LDUCZ-L54 Protolindenia wittei

    My first role at the Grant Museum, despite being trained as a palaeobiologist was to document the entomology collection. Whilst in this role, I came across this lovely specimen of Protolindenia wittei from the Solnhofen Plattenkalk Lagerstätte (a Lagerstätte is a fossil deposit that shows extraordinary fossil preservation), a locality I was fortunate enough to excavate at during my undergraduate degree. The reason why I love this specimen so much is because it sums up why I decided to study palaeobiology.

    At a glance this beautiful fossil is easily identifiable as a flying insect despite being around 150 million years old. We are fortunate that this specimen even exists, the chances of this particular dragonfly dying and being preserved in such exquisite detail are astronomical.

    This insect already beat the odds by making it to an adult. As an egg it could have been eaten by a passing fish or washed away into waters that would have dissolved it or blown away to dry out on a riverank, never fulfilling its potential. As a nymph any number of creatures, amphibians, fish or other insects could have eaten our dragonfly. Even after it left the water and took to the air as an adult it could have been snapped up by a Jurassic predator (Archaeopteryx perhaps?) and perished. Upon death this insect could have been scavenged by ants, decomposed by bacteria or fungus or simply have fallen to pieces and been dispersed by the wind and rain.

    Soft tissue rarely preserves in the fossil record because in a number of minutes, once living tissue starts to degrade and decompose. The preservation of the fine wing veins seen in this specimen indicate to us that this dragonfly must have been sealed in a preserving environment very near to or even before the point of death. This organism defied chance by being preserved in such good condition in the first place but even rarer still has survived millions of years of Earth history. If this insect had been preserved at a different place the rock it was preserved in could have been exposed and weathered away, destroyed by volcanic activity, stretched or squeezed into an amorphous smear or subducted back into the core of the Earth through the movement of the tectonic plates. As if that wasn’t enough once fossilised it was then subsequently excavated in one piece, perhaps by a fossil hunter or quarryman and fortunately not destroyed by a pick axe, hammer or pneumatic drill or misplaced or destroyed after its discovery.

    You can see that the probability of that tiny egg hatching, the larva reaching adulthood and then being perfectly captured in the rock record, excavated and eventually ending up on display at the Grant Museum is statistically so slim as to be impossible. For me this is what makes every fossil, from the complete skeletons of dinosaurs through to a humble dragonfly, truly remarkable. That we know what we know about the history of Earth and the life on it from the scientific study of fossils really is working with miracles.