Specimen of the Week 340: The Gross, the Bad and the Ugly Part II
By Tannis M N Davidson, on 27 April 2018
Back by somewhat popular demand, this week’s Specimen of the Week says goodbye to another batch of fluid specimens which were beyond salvation. Last time the disposed specimens were equal parts sludge, rot and mould. This second batch of disposals also has plenty of murky fluid, active decay and rotting carcasses for your viewing displeasure as well as several less-queasy ‘phantom’ specimens that had already made their final journey into oblivion. Please join us to pay our respects to…
**The Gross, the Bad and the Ugly Part II**
During ongoing fluid conservation work during 2017, 28 additional specimens were identified by museum staff as being beyond repair due to extensive damage (mould, desiccation, deterioration or complete disintegration) and/or because they were in hazardous fluid and selected to be disposed as waste. These specimens had been in a poor state for many decades and most had initially entered the collection in this condition as part of bulk donations of material from various London university zoology departments which closed during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Only now, having resources to document the wet store historical backlog, the Museum is able to identify hazardous specimens in the store and ensure that we are not wasting storage resources on specimens that we can’t keep.
Disposal decisions are not taken lightly. Each specimen was scrutinised to assess whether it could be salvaged in a meaningful way for future teaching, public engagement or research use. None of the known taxa represented were unique in the collection nor had important known historical associations. Some were completely unidentifiable due to their state of decay. Any information from the labels was documented as part of the permanent record.
It’s a unfortunate museum reality that change happens – even inside a sealed jar. Over time, fluid evaporation is inevitable which can lead to a situational destabilisation within the jar environment causing mould growth, decay and subsequent deterioration. If the original fixing of the specimen (usually in formalin to prevent tissue decay) prior to its ‘pickling’ did not occur, deterioration following fluid evaporation happens rapidly.
While it is impossible to know the exact chain of events leading up to each specimen’s demise, we can interpret the forensic evidence to surmise a best-guess explanation…
In the case of G480 Hermione sp., the use of a Bakelite lid was undoubtedly a fatal decision which led to the demise of these bristle worm specimens. However fashionable it may be regarded (the world’s first synthetic plastic), Bakelite has no business in the fluid store room. Its tendency to shrink and crack when exposed to alcohol inevitably leads to evaporation, tissue break-down and (in the case of G480) a rotty-dry heap of bristles that should be attached to worms.
Another Bakelite-based tragedy to behold. Here the dragonflies were likely not fixed in formalin so when the lid failed and evaporation of the alcohol occurred, mould growth consumed what was left of the specimens leaving a blackened, toxic heap.
Ah, Salpa fusiformis! The common salp (a planktonic free-swimming marine invertebrate with a transparent barrel-shaped body) yet not looking so transparent here. According to the specimen record, this jar lid was sealed with pitch which, along with the black mould growth in the fluid, accounts for the dire state of affairs in the jar. The specimens were collected in Naples in 1909 and prepared in the field so therefore not fixed – just put in alcohol. This would account for the hastened mould growth while there was still some fluid in the jar creating the unpleasant sludge which determined the fate of these specimens.
In this tiny perspex pot, you can just make out the specimen (a small marine crustacean of the order Amphipoda) through the paraformaldehyde (white crystal precipitate product of fomaldehyde). Paraformaldehyde forms in formaldehyde solutions (the fluid is completely gone which indicates that this happened some time ago). Fun fact: paraformaldehyde can be depolymerized by dry heating and the resulting formaldehyde may be used as a fumigant or fungicide. Tricky business however as the crystals are carcinogenic and the resulting gas is flammable.
A lot of questions on notes attached to this specimen: is it NON3073? Are these turtles? Should it be disposed? One thing for sure is that it was ‘SMELLY’ as indicated. This aroma of this large jar (measuring approximately 70cm tall) had attempted to be contained with additional cling wrap as an olfactory precaution. Despite the masks that were worn during its disposal, I can confirm eye-watering and gut retching. Whatever was in this jar was still in the process of active decomposition creating a hazardous cocktail of rotting tissue, mouldy fluid and unknown preservative. Disposal? Yes.
Finally, the phantoms…these are the specimens which became so desiccated that they vanished. They were delicate invertebrates that dried and shrank into nothingness leaving their jars and labels as the only proof of their existence:
The next time you happen to be in a museum and worry about the fluid levels of preserved specimens, know that museums do undertake condition surveys to schedule the ongoing management and conservation work of topping up the fluid (to 80% Industrial methylated spirit) and re-jarring the specimens. Display specimens may be a bit down on their fluid, but because they were properly fixed in the first instance, they will not begin to decay or actively rot (if they had not been, you know what they would look like). And remember that despite the less-than-perfect-fluid-level appearance of many of the preserved specimens, it could be much, much worse.
Tannis Davidson is the Curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology