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  • Specimen of the Week 268: The carp – How things got fishy

    By Jack Ashby, on 2 December 2016

    This week in The Conversation I wrote that there is no biological definition of fish that doesn’t involve humans. However the group that most people recognise as the fishiest are the ray-finned fishes. They have fins supported by a series of fine flexible rods. It is the ray-fins that have gone on to be the dominant vertebrates in the seas, lakes and rivers: there are around 30,000 species. This makes them by far the most diverse vertebrate group, and I’d like to explore how that happened. Among them is this week’s Specimen of the Week:

    Common carp skeleton LDUCZ-V543

    Common carp skeleton LDUCZ-V543

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 267: The sea squirt

    By Jack Ashby, on 25 November 2016

    You can’t choose your family. This adage is undeniable when it comes to talking about our evolutionary history – we cannot choose to become unrelated to certain groups of animals. One of our closer relatives doesn’t look a lot like us. It is effectively a tough fluid-filled translucent bag sitting on the bottom of the sea, spending its time sucking in water and feeding on microscopic particles it finds there. This week’s specimen of the week is your cousin…

    Sea squirt (with three parastic bivalvles molluscs in it). LDUCZ-Q329

    Sea squirt (with three parastic bivalvles molluscs in it). LDUCZ-Q329

    (more…)

    Natural Creativity: Sex and Trickery opens at the Grant Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 18 October 2016

    ‘Natural Creativity: Sex and Trickery’ is our new exhibition – opening tomorrow 19th October –  at the Grant Museum. It explores the myriad of elaborate shapes, sizes and crafty behavioural tactics some animals have evolved in order to survive, reproduce and pass on their genes.

    Through intricate drawings by the artist Clara Lacy, ‘Natural Creativity’ asks the question, why is the natural world so colourful and varied? Lacy has drawn species with highly unusual sexual behaviours or mechanisms for determining sex. It is commonly assumed that animals are born either male or female then reproduce as adults, but things can get much more interesting. Some species change sex over their lifetime, become a grandmother before giving birth, or trick others into thinking they belong to the opposite sex.

    Ocellated wrasse (C) Clara Lacy.

    Ocellated wrasse (C) Clara Lacy.
    The ocellated wrasse has an unusual mating system – different males use different strategies in the attempt to pass on their genes. The genetics of these strategies is being researched at UCL. “Nesting males” are brightly coloured and work to court females, defend nests and care for their young. These males attract the most females, but other males have evolved different routes to mating success.
    Small males become “Sneakers”. They surreptitiously approach Nesting males and females while they are mating, and then release their own sperm into the water.
    Medium-sized “Satellite males” cooperate with a Nesting male, helping them chase Sneakers from the nest. This means that they are tolerated by Nesting males, and spawn while the Nesting male is mating.

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 260: the handy man

    By Will J Richard, on 7 October 2016

    Hello internet! Will Richard here, picking another favourite from the Grant Museum’s shelves. And this time I’ve chosen a close relative and probably the first ape to move beyond punching with rocks. It’s the…

    LDUCZ-Z2017 Homo habilis skull model

    LDUCZ-Z2017 Homo habilis skull model

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 259 : Bird of Paradise

    By Jack Ashby, on 30 September 2016

    Less bird-of paradise skeleton. LDUCZ-Y1696

    Less bird-of paradise skeleton. LDUCZ-Y1696

    If natural selection can be summarised as “survival of the fittest”, how is it that some animals have evolved features that seem to be rather unhelpful to their survival? Deer antlers, peacock tails and babirusa tusks do not help an animal to stay alive. Darwin asked a similar question in The Origin of Species, and also came up with an answer – sexual selection.

    Sexual selection is a sub-set of natural selection, where the driving force is not on the animal to survive, but instead to have the most descendants. It is the mechanism by which species evolve weapons that help them fight off rivals; ornaments that make them more attractive to the opposite sex; or behaviours that ensure sexual encounters result in more or fitter babies. One of the best examples of absurdly ornamented animals are male birds-of-paradise. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 208 (Four years!): The four-eyed opossum

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 October 2015

    Preserved four-eyed opossum.  LDUCZ-Z1596

    Preserved four-eyed opossum.
    LDUCZ-Z1596

    As those of you who can divide 208 by four – or have read this post’s title – will have realised, four years ago this week Specimen of the Week was born.

    The main aim of this series is to shed light on parts of the collection that you might not spot among the thousands of specimens in our dense displays. Occassionally we do want to give extra attention to a “hero” specimen, but by and large it’s the also-rans that get featured.

    Some might think that this honour should be reserved for animals at the lower end of the human-centred pecking order (fish and invertebrates, for instance), but there are many mammals that go unloved too. This one is no exception. It is so unloved that its Wikipedia page comprises of only five lines.

    This week I’m featuring the first animal that came to mind when I tried to think of something related to the blog’s age: Four.

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 190: The Platypus Tooth

    By Jack Ashby, on 1 June 2015

    A slide showing a fragment of platypus tooth from the Grant Museum Micrarium

    A slide showing a fragment of
    platypus tooth from the
    Grant Museum Micrarium

    I have to admit that when I first encountered this object I didn’t recognise what it was until I read the label, which is scratched into the glass slide that houses it. I don’t feel too bad about that as it is essentially microscopic, and very few people have ever seen one of these specimens. It is among the very smallest objects in the Museum.

    Unsurprisingly then, it is on display in the Micrarium – our place for tiny things. This beautiful back-lit cave showcases over 2000 of the 20,000 microscope slides in our care – it broke the mould for how museums display their slide collections.

    I first wrote about the species featured on this slide in my first ever Specimen of the Week, but that was taxidermy – a real A-Lister compared to the miniscule, obscure fragment I have selected here. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    (more…)

    18th Grant Lecturer: Anjali Goswami

    By Dean W Veall, on 14 November 2014

    Dr. Anjali Goswami out on field work

    Dr. Anjali Goswami out on field work

    Dean Veall here. On Tuesday this week Team Grant celebrated what would have been Robert Edmond Grant‘s 221st birthday in the a suitably zoological manner raising a glass of sparkling cider (non-alcoholic, of course!).  The formal celebration of Grant’s life and his contribution to science is coming up next Tuesday 18th November with our annual Grant Lecture, now in its 18th year. This year we are incredibly excited and pleased to welcome Dr. Anjali Goswami, Reader of Palaeobiology at UCL,  to give the lecture and the following is a bit of profile/preview of the her and her lecture.

    Anjali Goswami’s research revolves around the contrasts between the early evolution of placental mammals (e.g. humans, cats and whales) and marsupials (e.g. kangaroos, wombats, opossums).

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    Grant Museum Show’n’Tell: Soda Lakes

    By Dean W Veall, on 5 November 2014

    Dean Veall here. Over the last year I’ve been hosting our new lunch hour event series Show’ n ‘ Tell, with PhD students from across UCL sharing some of their amazing research and choosing just one object from our collection of 68,000 to tell the the assembled audience what they know about it. If you couldn’t make it to our last event, fear not, Irrum Ali from UCL Communications and Marketing came along and here’s what happened.

    (more…)