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  • The earliest Strange Creatures: Europe’s first meetings with marsupials

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2015

    There is a popular British colonial narrative in which Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, as demonstrated by this Google autofill:

    Evidence that James Cook discovered Australia

    Evidence that James Cook indeed discovered Australia

    In reality, not even Cook thought this was true. Australia had been known by the French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch (hence its original European name “New Holland”, which Cook himself used) for at least two hundred years before Cook landed in the southeast of the country on his ship HMS Endeavour. Obviously Indigenous Australians and their neighbours also had been there for around 50,000 years.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

    Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals explores how newly discovered animals are communicated to the public back home. It is is centred around a painting that resulted from that voyage of Cook’s – a kangaroo by George Stubbs. This is the first painting of an Australian animal in Western art. As I wrote in the exhibition text:

    This painting helped begin Europe’s relationship with Australian wildlife. Commissioned by legendary naturalist Joseph Banks, painted by celebrated animal artist George Stubbs, and based on findings from Captain Cook’s famous voyage, this kangaroo truly captured the country’s imagination.

    Stubbs’ image became the archetype for representations of kangaroos for decades – reproduced and refigured prolifically. It may not be anatomically perfect, but this is how Britain came to know the kangaroo.

    It is an emblem of the age of exploration at the historical threshold of the European occupation of Australia. Nothing was ever the same again.

    Here I’d like to explore some of the meetings between Europeans and Australiasian marsupials that preceded Cook’s visit. (more…)

    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…)

    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 160

    By Jack Ashby, on 3 November 2014

    Scary MonkeyWe all know that in this world of competing stimuli, an animal really needs to work hard to get people interested, achieve celebrity status in the media, and ultimately realise the dream that all animals hold – to star their own bank, crisps or cereal advert.

    We trade in animal USPs every day… We talk about the biggest/smallest/rarest/fastest/ugliest/deadliest, and this is what gets aspiring animal stars into the And Finally… sections of the news.

    The A-Team of animal superlatives is well established, and so today I am acting (for a commission) to promote the under-promoted of the animal world. This Australian marvel has a long list of -est”s to its name.

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

    Specimen of the Week: Week 141

    By Jack Ashby, on 23 June 2014

    Specimen of the Week: Week Three Zoology is tribal. To the outside world natural historians present a united front: the geologist is my brother and the botanist my friend. But hidden within are genial rivalries. You might find that those noble folk studying the less sexy animal groups carry a certain disdain for the Hollywood animal fanciers. In palaeontology, fossil coral experts cry themselves to sleep at night when yet another dinosaur story makes the newspapers. In zoology, there is nothing more mainstream than primatology. As a mammal nerd I would certainly be considered on the mass-appeal end of the spectrum, but here I present an unfamous species lost in the shadow cast by a much-celebrated primate in a similar ecological niche. This weeks specimen of the week is…

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 118

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 13 January 2014

    This is the 500th post on the Museums and Collections blog! That is a lot of information we have researched, written and sent out into the ether for your pleasure. I hope you appreciate our efforts? Cropping up in many of the blogs by the Grant Museum is the jar of moles, who’s celebrity status is undeniable. It sits in full view of the adoring public as they rush through the door, having queued up outside the Museum waiting for us to open, in order to catch a glimpse of the sacred specimen. Hordes of people can be heard talking about it on a daily basis, and an internet search for ‘jar of moles’ brings up several pages referencing the Museum and our specimen. However last week, a lady came to speak to me at the Museum and said with an uneasy smile “That jar of moles is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen, it makes me feel sick”. At first I thought Clearly you haven’t seen the Surinam toad but then I thought Hah! How rare it is to have someone disapprove of this really quite bizarre spectacle of a specimen. How lovely! It got me thinking what else might be perceived as disgusting and as such, I arrived at this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Seventy

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 11 February 2013

    Scary Monkey The decision making for this week’s Specimen of the Week went along these lines:
    Emma: ‘Can I do another shark?’
    Manager: ‘No’
    Emma: ‘How about a dogfish?’
    Manager: ‘I’m not stupid’
    Emma: ‘What do you mean?’
    Manager: ‘Dogfish are a species of shark’
    Emma: ‘Well what do you suggest then?’
    Manager: ‘How about a marsupial?’
    Emma: ‘Fine. But I’m writing this conversation as the introduction so I still get to mention sharks’
    Manager: ‘I’ll edit it out’
    Emma: ‘Not if I publish it first, mwah hah haaaaaaaah’

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Sixty-Eight

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 28 January 2013

    Scary MonkeyThis week ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls, we are going to discover what makes shelf six in Vertebrate Case 17 tick. It is not the wombat skeleton that dominates the horizon, nor the 20 or so tiny brush-tailed possum babies that are oh so cute until you look closely and realise that disturbingly many of them are missing their head. It could be the marsupial moles which are so gosh darn pretty with their golden fur (not to be confused with the actual golden moles which are around the other side because yes, they are not related). Nope, it is in fact a jar containing a lovely creature that sits nonchalantly at the back, watching passers by with an air of ambivalence. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)