Museums & Collections Blog
  •  
  •  
  • Categories

  •  
  • Tags

  •  
  • Archives

  • Eighty years extinct: today is Thylacine Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2016

    80 years ago today, on the 7th September 1936, the last known thylacine died. With it, an entire branch of the tree of life was cut off.

    The last living Thylacine in Beaumaris Zoo, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were the last surviving member of a family of wolf-like marsupials that once hunted across all of Australia – the mainland as well as Tasmania. Regular readers of this blog (particularly these annual Thylacine Day posts, which we celebrate in the Grant Museum every year) will be familiar with the thylacine’s story, so I won’t go into detail here.

    A very deliberate extinction

    In short, thylacines were accused by Tasmania’s powerful farming lobby of predating sheep, and thereby damaging one of the island state’s principal economies. As a result, in 1830, they established a bounty scheme to encourage people to exterminate them. This policy was later adopted by the government, who (under pressure from the farmers) opted to pay for the bounty scheme themselves from 1888 to 1909. Inevitably over those decades the world’s (then) largest surviving marsupial carnivore’s numbers plummeted. (more…)

    Skullpture at the Grant Museum opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 May 2016

    For our newest exhibition – Skullpture at the Grant Museum – twelve sculpture students from UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art have been invited to develop works in response to the Museum’s collections, science and history.

    The new artworks – which relate to death and decay, extinction, cloning, and animal behaviour – have been placed among the Museum’s own skeletons, skulls and specimens preserved in fluid. The exhibition engages with animal and human encounters and transforms the historic zoological museum in ways that will leave visitors questioning whether some of the installations are playful or serious.

    Dead as a Dodo © Will Spratley. A collection of rubber-chicken like dodo models, strung up as if in a butcher's window.

    Dead as a Dodo © Will Spratley. A collection of rubber-chicken like dodo models, strung up as if in a butcher’s window.

    (more…)

    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…)

    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…)

    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…)

    On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Grant Years

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 4 February 2014

    ‘The Twelve’

    The collection of specimens, known since 1997 as the Grant Museum of Zoology, was started in 1827 by Robert E. Grant. Grant was the first professor of zoology at UCL when it opened, then called the University of London, and he stayed in post until his death in 1874. The collections have seen a total of 13 academics in the lineage of collections care throughout the 187 year history of the Grant Museum, from Robert E. Grant himself, through to our current Curator Mark Carnall. In 1948, the role of chair and collections care evolved into separate lineages. The chair of zoology remained as such, but a role more dedicated to the care of the natural history specimens emerged as the first professional curator was employed, a title that was passed down through to the current post in charge of collections care. Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections.

    However, although the Museum now adheres to strict policies regarding our specimens, ‘back in the day’ the rules regarding such things as paperwork were a little more… lax. As such, although many specimens have been added by eminent academics such as Robert E. Grant, E. Ray Lankester, W. F. R. Weldon and D. M. S Watson (after who UCL’s science library is named), in many cases we simply don’t know which specimens they are. On one hand it is highly frustrating, but on the other hand, it makes it thrice as exciting when we come across one that can be directly attributed to one of the earlier members of ‘The Thirteen’.

    Over the next 13 weeks, this blog series will give a brief introduction to each of the 13 curators in the history of the Grant Museum. Each week a different curator will be looked at, in chronological order, and illustrated (where possible) with some of the specimens that can be traced back to each of them in the collections. So, let us start at the beginning with the big man himself…

    (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…)

    A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 January 2013

    Treasures is the new permanent exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which “displays 22 of the most extraordinary specimens that have ever been on show at the Museum”. I’d been excited about it since I first heard about it a couple of years ago.

    As we all know, the best side of most museums isn’t the one that faces the public, and that is definitely true of the NHM, which for obvious reasons can’t display all 70 million objects in its care, or indeed all of the brilliant scientific research it undertakes. I’ve been critical before of the NHM missing opportunities to display real objects in its exhibitions, and so a gallery dedicated to showing what everyone actually comes to museums to see is exactly what I want them to be doing.

    Being lucky enough to do the job I do means that I’m privileged in knowing quite a lot about what the NHM has behind the scenes. Before visiting, I made a list of what I thought the NHM’s treasures are, and ticked it off as I went around: (more…)