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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…)

    UCL and Bright Club at the Green Man Festival

    By Meg J Dobson, on 2 September 2014

    10 UCL researchers, 2 Public Engagement staff members, one Welsh festival. What could go wrong?

    Armed with wet wipes, cereal bars and boxed wine, the ‘fun bus’ set off from UCL one Thursday afternoon, destination: the Green Man festival in Brecon, Wales, to present two performances of Bright Club*in the Omni tent of Einstein’s Garden**. The cheery smiles and getting-to- know-each-other chat faded to an apprehensive (maybe even regretful?) silence as we left the sunny skies of London behind and proceeded to drive into what was essentially a massive rain cloud. Rain drummed, nay pounded, the car and all we could see were dark threatening clouds on all sides. Putting up tents was going to be great fun in this.

    Image of the Omni tent at the Green Man festival

    The Omni tent where Bright Club was performed

    (more…)

    Flinders Petrie: An Adventure in Transcription

    By Rachael Sparks, on 3 September 2013

    What could be nicer than to spend your day off measuring things with a stick?

    What could be nicer than to spend your day off measuring things with a stick?

    Flinders Petrie began his autobiography by warning that “The affairs of a private person are seldom pertinent to the interests of others” [1]Fortunately for both us and his publisher this proved no impediment, and Petrie went on to write about himself, his thoughts and his life’s work at great length.

    Petrie was a prolific writer, both in the public and private arena, and we are not short of material to help us learn about his life. But not everything he wrote was wordy. I’d like to introduce you today to a more unexpected side of his penmanship: his personal appointment diaries. (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…)

    Would zoologists survive an apocalypse?

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 May 2013

    Could knowledge of this water-holding burrowing frog save your life?

    Could knowledge of this water-holding burrowing frog save your life in the desert?

    It is a well known fact – based on on numerous scientifically accurate feature films – that in the event of the end of the world some people will survive the initial devastation only to find themselves barely surviving in some post-apocalyptic hell. Here I’m exploring whether zoologists would fare better than the average survivor. If the answer is yes, perhaps university biology admissions tutors can add a slide to their recruitment presentations to highlight this additional benefit in what is already the best subject in the world.

    I spent this weekend on a survivalist course deep in the Dorset wilderness for an old friend’s stag do. As kids, along with his two brothers, we had spent our time building shelters in the woods, making fires, distilling mud, firing bows and arrows and generally acting as if the world had already been taken over by luminous slime mould from the future. As teens and students (and occasionally still) we spent our holidays walking in the mountains and not really engaging much with humanity. Wildlife and wild-living have stuck with us all: the stag is now an ecologist, I run a zoology museum (and spend a couple of months a year living in a tent in outback Australia) and his brothers are biology and geography teachers. As a result we are all pretty cocky when it comes to hanging around in woodland areas. This weekend’s course made us all question our ability to actually survive.

    Should a virus/aliens/a powerful strain of concrete decay/zombies/frozen dinosaurs/Simon Cowell/nuclear war cause us to abandon human dwellings, shelter, water and food are the priorities. Would my academic and professional experiences as a zoologist make me Dennis Quaid? (more…)

    How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist

    By Mark Carnall, on 18 September 2012

    This post is something of a PSA to address a pet peeve of mine, the general confusion in the media about the difference between scientists working in biology and archaeology. Here’s a recent example of ‘archaeologists’ puzzling over Paleocene mammal remains. Puzzle they may because they’re literally 50 million years out of their depth. I doubt this post will really change anything and archaeologists will be digging up dinosaurs in press releases and science articles for many years to come particularly seeing as others have already covered this annoying and lazy habit that journalists, presumably covering the science desk vacation period, can’t seem to shake.

    So, as you might expect a joke to go, what is the difference between an archaeologist and palaeontologist? (more…)

    Animal record breaking

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 June 2012

    So far I’ve been very good at not linking activities at the Grant Museum to the Olympics. While I’m out here on ecological fieldwork in the remote northwest savannahs of northwest Australia, The Games have been very far from my mind. However, the phrase “new record” has been bandied about quite a lot here this month, and now I find myself writing a post that has nothing to do with the Olympics, but I’ve now already mentioned them three times. I appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of making a spurious link – something that everyone seems to be doing these days. Apologies.

    I’m currently working with a small team of ecologists catching animals on wildlife sanctuaries and cattle stations to monitor the effects of cattle and fire management on the ecosystem. This year we’ve caught a fair few animals in areas in which they’ve never been seen before. The excitement of being part of these new records is definitely personally valuable, but I’ve also been thinking about how these single pieces of data are potentially more valuable than all of the other single animals we catch.

    (more…)

    Catching dingoes in the dead of night

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

    I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

    In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience. (more…)

    Buried on Campus has opened

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 April 2012

    Excavation in the QuadTwo years ago rumours spread quickly around UCL that builders working in the Main Quad on Gower Street had discovered human bones while they were digging an access trench. Lots of human bones. As would be expected, theories abound as to what the story behind such a discovery might be.

    The police were immediately involved, and they consulted UCL’s own expert forensic anatomist, Dr Wendy Birch, and established that no foul play had taken place, and the remains were not of police interest. Since then, Dr Birch and her colleagues have been researching the remains and trying to piece together (often literally – many of the bones were highly fragmented) what they are and why they were buried.

    This is the topic of the Grant Museum’s new exhibition, Buried on Campus, co-curated by Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, our immediate Rockefeller Building neighbours in the UCL Anatomy Lab. (more…)