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UCL students identify mystery specimens in the Grant Museum

By Jack Ashby, on 2 February 2016

Mystery specimen displayHave you ever seen something in a museum and suspect that the curators have got it wrong? If so, I hope you haven’t been too shy to let the museum know. Speaking for the Grant Musuem at least, we love it when visitors add to our knowledge of the collection, and we don’t ask for “expert” credentials before hearing an opinion. Indeed, a 11 year boy spotted that a specimen labelled “marine iguana” was in fact a tuatara (a lizard-shaped reptile from New Zealand (that is in fact not a lizard)). And couple of years back, a visitor noticed that our famous anaconda skeleton was in fact an African rock python. Some museums might be embarrassed by the idea that some of their objects have been mis-identified, but not us.

In fact every year we give our UCL bioscience students the chance to challenge our identification as part of the fantastic “Vertebrate Life and Evolution” module. We have just created a display of “mystery specimens” identified by these students.

Solving the mystery

Each student is given a genuine mystery object from the museum, and we tell them nothing about it. It might be an entire skull or one scute from a turtle’s shell – the students are asked to identify this specimen as closely as possible to species level and, using the wider collections and supporting research, write about how that species fits in its taxonomic group, its evolutionary history, and what the specimen’s interesting features tells us about the animal’s life. The results are then written up in the form of a journal article.

They spend a lot of time comparing their object to other specimens in the Museum (only 7% of which are on display). This means that if you visit in Winter Term, you may hear a request like “can I see all your skunks?”. It’s a fantastic opportunity to work with specimens from behind the scenes, which for some reason always seem more magical than the ones we’ve chosen to display.

Why are they mysteries?

All the objects are mysteries to the students (because we don’t tell them what they are) but in reality they vary in their mysteriousness. Many of them have only been previously identified by museum staff to a certain level, like “deer femur”, while others may go as far as genus level (like “Panthera” for the big cats), but the species hasn’t been identified*. For these, we are very much hoping that the students will be able to go further and add some more detail to the identification, which is crucial as (by-and-large) objects are only useful for research if we know what they are.

Other specimens are given to the students because although they have already been identified to species level, we think they are particularly interesting and challenging (basically, because they’re cool). But still in these cases we get a number of instances of students identifying them as something else.

How we might get it wrong

When a student comes up with something that’s different to information on our catalogue, we investigate which interpretation is correct and we update our records accordingly. There are plenty of reasons why a museum may have got it wrong, not least that taxonomic terms for groups and species can change, or that species get split and their labels are out of date.  There’s also the point about how far a museum has tried to be specific about identification (see footnote).

And sometimes people in museums are just mistaken, or labels get switched between specimens. A rule of thumb is don’t trust the label. You have no idea who wrote it, when or why.

One of the students' label, for a giant otter shrew skull

One of the students’ labels, for a giant otter shrew skull

Taking it public

This course has been running for a few years, but this year we also experimented with the idea of how to communicate this type of research to a public audience – each student gave a 10 minute presentation in Museum during public opening hours. Despite a lot of nerves the students did a great job and it went so well we asked the students to write up museum labels discussing their objects for inclusion in a display; these labels are now on display in the Grant Museum (until Easter) so please drop by and visit! You can read one of the students’ takes on the process, and how she identified a giant golden mole on this blog post.

One of the students' label, for a bullfrog skull

One of the students’ label, for a bullfrog skull

Object-based learning

UCL Museums have done a lot of research into the value of learning with objects for students’ understanding of topics, and have proven it to be more effective than traditional lectures. As such, the Grant Museum is used nearly every day in term time, across a huge number of courses, from biology to the history of art.

To read more about the Vertebrate Life and Evolution module, read what course organiser Prof Helen Chatterjee has to say on the UCL Teaching and Learning Portal.

*I should say that the reason that the specimen hadn’t been identified fully by museum staff may not be related to our ability to do so, but just that we haven’t got to it yet. A huge amount of our collection has never been documented, which means we focus on processing objects that aren’t on our database yet, rather than going back and adding information to specimens that had been partially added previously. One day… one day…

Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

[UPDATE 22/02/16 – the link to the post about the golden mole skull identification was added]

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