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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


666: Better when you know your devils

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 6 June 2011

Just after 6am this morning, on the 6th day of the 6th month, I received a panicked phone call from the security guard on night-watch at the museum. Evidently ‘strange noises’ had been coming from behind the locked doors and he had gone to check it out. Here is his statement…

Death's head hawkmoth bearing the emblem of death; the human skull“I heard some strange noises, really weird, that’s why I went to investigate. I cupped my hands around my eyes and peered through the glass of the museum door into the darkness beyond. I stood there motionless for a few seconds, listening to the silence. Thinking I’d been imagining things I turned away but then something made me freeze- a loud and manic fluttering started against the glass behind me. I turned slowly to see three small shadowy winged figures beating themselves against the glass from inside the museum. When I stepped towards them, they landed and froze, clutching the door frame with their tiny feet. Upon their backs they each bore the emblem of death; a human skull. I knew that Death’s Head Hawk Moths are only found in continental Europe and Asia so they couldn’t possibly be wild, but all specimens in the Grant Museum are dead. I mean, aren’t they? I stepped forward for a closer look but they rocketed up, and the largest one pushed air through its pharynx to emit a high pitch squeal.”

Japanese pancake devil fish- The number of suckers shows it to be a male“Undeterred by this weird encounter, and too curious for my own good, I pulled out my keys and entered the dark, gloomy museum. I walked between the shadowy cabinets each holding hundreds of pairs of eyes, all seemingly staring back at me. I unhooked the torch from my belt, cursing myself for not having turned the lights on. Suddenly I stepped on something slimy that squished beneath my boot and sent me flailing. Landing hard on my back, I rolled over and came face to face with a Japanese Devil Fish, a type of flattened octopus. At least it was a male, I could tell from the number of suckers; if it had been a female, it would have had up to 50 suckers on each arm which would have been way more scary. Either way, “What on earth is it doing here?” I asked myself aloud; they are only found off the coasts of California and Japan, nowhere near England, why was a live one sitting here on the museum floor? As Japanese devil fish (not fish at all) are abyssal creatures, i.e. they live in extremely deep water, the lack of pressure up here on the surface was making the animal look very ill indeed.”


Hellbender“It was too creepy, I picked myself up and decided to head back to the main door, to at the very least turn the lights on, or maybe even call for back up. The door was only about 10 m away and yet it seemed so far. My heart was racing and my palms were sweating so much by this point that I lost my grip on the torch and it dropped to the floor. A soft sound of thunder echoed around the room as it rolled beneath a cabinet. I got down on my hands and knees to fish it out but there in the gloom, half illuminated by the soft glow of the torch was an animal more frightening than any I had encountered so far. I snatched my hand back as a nearly metre long Hellbender stared back at me; its immense, amphibious, slime-covered body glimmering in the weak torch light. I had read that they only preyed upon fish and crayfish in their North American habitat, but as it stared at me, creepily drawing air in slowly through its mouth to its lungs instead of using its redundant gill slits, I didn’t want to find out first hand if that were true.”

“I couldn’t take any more, it was time to get out. I didn’t know how many more ‘devil’ species the museum had that could be brought to life by the strike of 6 o, clock on the 6th day of the 6th month, but I didn’t want to find out. I ran.”

Tasmanian devil“As I neared the front door of the museum, I was stopped dead. There, right in front of me, was a real live devil. And it was staring at me, teeth bared. I should have known. I should have seen it coming. The Tasmanian Devil. The males may only weigh around 8 kg when full grown, 6 kg for a female, but they have exceptionally strong jaws and an incredible bite force of over 553 N. I knew that this powerful animal could tear meat, crush bones and even bite through metal. The last remaining carnivorous marsupial in Australia, the Tasmanian devil has been known to take down small kangaroos, armed with those formidable jaws. I did the only thing I could- it may be ferocious but it’s small, I jumped over him as he snapped and I ran for the door.”

The security guard is spending the day at home, recovering from his shock. But what made him tell this story? Could it be true? If you come into the museum, can you find these creatures of The Omen? They are pictured above in their docile, inanimate forms. Also, he only stayed a few minutes, what other species with Omen-related names can you think of that may also have been lurking in the darkness of the museum? At 6pm this evening, the clock and calendar will once again align to make it 6/6/6. I’m glad I’m not on duty…

6 Responses to “666: Better when you know your devils”

  • 1
    Seb PW wrote on 6 June 2011:

    Well that’s one well educated security guard. I’m surprised he hasn’t got your job! And to recount all this all over the phone as he did is splendid. And your memory is exemplary. Or perhaps he’s been watching Night at the Museum whilst dozing off and had this vivid dream?

    Either way, makes for yet another charming tale to encourage visitors to the Museum. I’ll have to drop by soon myself to contemplate which orphan to adopt. Perhaps they will literally jump-out of the cabinet and attach themselves till I do.

  • 2
    ucfbeln wrote on 6 June 2011:

    He didn’t recount it over the phone, I came into work straight away to help calm him down. I recorded the subsequent interview as per procedure.

    Yes, all staff here at the Grant Museum of Zoology take pride in their knowledge of the collections. That way we can pass that knowledge on to our lovely guests

    P.S. Our capuchin monkey would never slap anybody, he’s very well behaved!

  • 3
    Seb PW wrote on 6 June 2011:

    Such dedicated staff at the Grant Museum of Zoology. An example to all. And such commendable diligence above and beyond the call of duty to your fellow colleages. You are surely the greatest treasure of the Grant for sure.

    Capuchin is very well behaved you say? Is he still an orphan? I hope not. They are such cute little guys and I’m sure he gets all the love and care he could possibly want in your lovely museum. But if they need someone to call theirs, I’ve plenty of loving going spare for the taking.

  • 4
    ucfbeln wrote on 7 June 2011:

    Well… funny you should ask!

    Whilst myself, Mark and Jack love all 67’000 animals at the Grant Museum of Zoology absolutely equally, you can imagine that making them all feel individually special can be pretty difficult at times, which is why we encourage adoptions.

    Our handsome capuchin skeleton is *not* in fact adopted currently, but would make an extra special addition to your life, I am sure. He is adorable! I can tell you some funny stories about the kind of behaviour he would have gotten up to in the rainforest in his youth, before he came to the Grant Museum to retire!

    In the meantime, to give you some background; he is a Cebus capucinus, commonly known as the white faced or white throated capuchin. Another white faced capuchin was made famous in the hit tv show ‘Friends’. It is most likely he originally lived in Central America, although it is possible he is from a string of small populations along the coastline of Columbia and Ecuador. The white faced capuchin is the only species to live outside of South America, making our skeleton extremely special!

    Let me know if you would like me to introduce you?!

  • 5
    ucfbeln wrote on 10 June 2011:

    Thanks for coming in to the museum, I think the Colugo is a very fine choice of adoptive animal- he looks very happy at the prospect of his blue adoption label! I’ll let you know when it is up so you can hopefully come back and visit him!

  • 6
    Seb PW wrote on 10 June 2011:

    Thank you so much. I’m very happy to have helped conserve the precious specimens at the Grant. The Colugo is very special and very cute. I’m very proud to be his adopted father. I look forward to visiting him very soon. I may take the chance to adopt a few other needy little guys too!

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