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Specimen of the Week 337: The Mussett Collection

By Nadine Gabriel, on 6 April 2018

To celebrate 100 years since some women were first given the right to vote in the UK, UCL are running a number of events and exhibitions. Here at the Grant Museum, our Specimen of the Week blogs have focused on women in natural history.

The Grant Museum is home to many sub-collections which were either donated by other museums and collections or by previous curators such as Ray Lankester, D. M. S. Watson and James Peter Hill [1]. This Specimen of the Week is about the Mussett Collection, which was collected and donated by Dr. Frances Mussett, a palaeontologist and researcher at UCL.

Who is Dr. Frances Mussett?

Mussett was part of a team of palaeontologists at UCL who worked on early mammals and collected thousands of fossils in the 1960s and 1970s. This team consisted of Mussett, Professor Kenneth Kermack, his wife Dr. Doris Kermack, Pat Lees and Jackie Papworth. In the 1960s, the team visited quarries in Wales and travelled to Glamorgan two to three times a year to study the fissures there. Les Middleton, a quarry worker who was interested in early mammals, would alert them to any new fissures and obtain the matrix for them before quarry blasting could destroy it [2]. In 1967, Mussett and the Kermacks were the first to name and formally describe Kuehneotherium praecursoris, an early mammal that lived 220-195 million years ago [3].

Over the years, Mussett has co-authored several papers on mammaliaform (mammal-like) animals, early mammals and Jurassic salamanders and frogs. In 1981, Mussett and K. Kermack attended the Second Symposium on Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems which was held in Poland. They presented a paper called “The Ear in Mammal-like Reptiles and Early Mammals” which was then published two years later in the Acta Palaeontologica Polonica journal [4].

In 2003, Borealestes mussetti was named after her due to her extensive participation in fossil excavation at Kirtlington in Oxfordshire. The fossils of this Jurassic mammaliaform consisted of isolated molars found in deposits at Kirtlington, and Watton Cliff in Dorset [5].

Her collection at the Grant

I first came across her specimens when I was auditing several boxes of fossils labelled “Mussett Material”. There are currently 201 Mussett Collection specimens on our database, and a few more boxes of material still need to be checked and accessioned. Thankfully, a lot of these specimens have details of where they were collected and even the day they were collected on – a massive relief for anyone who works with museum documentation. The specimens were collected between 1961 and 1994, and are mostly from the Isle of Wight.

There are lots of ichthyosaur fossils in this collection from around the UK. One highlight was a box of 51 centra (the central part of the vertebra) collected from Lyme Regis in Dorset. Each of these centra were numbered 4-64 which I assume corresponds to their position in the vertebral column.

Ichtyosaur centra

Ichthyosaur centra from Lyme Regis. Image on the right shows all 51 centra after being labelled, wrapped up and bagged. LDUCZ-X994

Other highlights include:

  1. Plesiosaur neural arches (the part of the vertebra through which the spinal cord passes). These were collected from Peterborough in Cambridgeshire
  2. My personal favourite: a plesiosaur humerus with bite marks on it, collected from Lyme Regis
  3. Ichthyosaur paddle bones in slate
  4. A well-preserved partial lobster fossil from Atherfield Point, Isle of Wight

A selection of Mussett Collection fossils. Left: plesiosaur neural arches, LDUCZ-X1009. Top right: plesiosaur humerus with teeth marks, LDUCZ-X1024. Middle right: Ichthyosaur paddle bones in slate, LDUCZ-X1014. Bottom right: lobster fossil, LDUCZ-H765

An extensive collection of Welsh Kuehneotherium sp. material was given to the Natural History Museum London when Mussett and K. Kermack retired from UCL [2]. Looking at our database, we do have teeth of Kuehneotherium praecursoris which was collected from Glamorgan in Wales in 1968, as well as Morganucodon sp. teeth and bones. It seem very likely that some of the early mammal fossils that she collected during her research ended up in our collection.

Very tiny early mammal fossils. Top: Kuehneotherium praecursoris teeth, LDUCZ-Z2072, Z2073, Z2074. Bottom left: a box of Morganucodon sp. teeth and bones. Bottom right: Morganocudon sp. limb bones, LDUCZ-Z2054

A lasting legacy

Mussett’s work was very extensive and greatly contributed to the study of early mammals. Her work and that of the team she belonged to was acknowledged in a textbook called “In the Shadow of the Dinosaurs: Early Mesozoic Tetrapods” by Nicholas Fraser and Hans-Dieter Sues (1994). The authors stated that “Dr. Doris Kermack, Patricia Lees and Frances Musett were part of the active UCL team that surveyed and studied the Welsh fissures and their early Mesozoic vertebrate assemblages for more than twenty years. They must take a large share of the credit for the results obtained.”

Nadine Gabriel is the Museum Intern at the Grant Museum of Zoology


[1] History of the Grant Museum, UCL Culture
[2] Gill, P.G., 2004. Kuehneotherium from the Mesozoic fissure fillings of South Wales (Doctoral dissertation, University of Bristol)
[3] 5. Kermack D. M., Kermack K. A. and Mussett F., 1968. The Welsh pantothere Kuehneotherium praecursoris. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 47(312), 407-423.
[4] Kielan-Jaworowska Z., 2013. In Pursuit of Early Mammals. Indiana University Press
[5] Borealestes, Wikipedia


2 Responses to “Specimen of the Week 337: The Mussett Collection”

  • 1
    Gina Douglas wrote on 2 May 2018:

    Thank you for reminding me about Frances Mussett and recognising her achievements in early tetrapod research. She was very much part of Kenneth Kermack’s team, with Doris, but it is nice to see her work acknowledged in its own right.

  • 2
    Priyantha Wijesinghe wrote on 26 November 2018:

    I got my B.Sc. in Zoology from UCL in 1983 and was privileged to have some legendary UCL figures as my teachers. I remember in particular taking Vertebrate Palaeontology which was taught by Professor Kenneth A. Kermack, assisted by Mrs. Frances Mussett for the lab. The famous Kermack, Mussett & Rigney (1981) paper on the skull of Morganucodon (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1096-3642.1981.tb01127.x) came out while I was at UCL but I guess we were rather too ignorant to understand the full significance of much of the research that was happening at UCL, even in the Zool Dept! I recall Prof. Kermack’s wife Dr. Doris M. Kermack (of Linnean Society fame) joining us on a field trip to Wales. Thank you very much Nadine Gabriel for this account of Frances Mussett and her work and her collection at UCL, a truly lovely tribute. If you can trace a portrait of Frances please add that to this page. Priyantha Wijesinghe (Dilrukshan P. Wijesinghe).

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