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  • Specimen of the Week 336: The Common Spotted Cuscus Skeleton

    By Christopher J Wearden, on 30 March 2018

    Good afternoon to all Specimen of the Week lovers. Before I get started with my inaugural blog I’ll take this opportunity to introduce myself. I’m Chris – museum enthusiast/cyclist/zoologist-in-training. I’m also the new Visitor Services Assistant at the Grant Museum. I’ve taken time over my first couple of weeks familiarising myself with the wonderful collections we have on display, and after careful consideration I’ve decided on a specimen that is very close to the heart of our museum manager. It’s the…

    Our common spotted cuscus skeleton. LDUCZ-Z75

    Our common spotted cuscus skeleton. LDUCZ-Z75

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 330: The taxidermy koala – The language of natural history

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 February 2018

    With generic terms like mankind and Homo sapiens (“wise man”), people of all genders are well aware that it is the masculine that has dominated the vocabulary of humanity. Not so in the animal kingdom.

    Across UCL Culture we are celebrating the centenary of some women first getting the vote in the UK in a number of different ways. In the run up to International Women’s Day, here on the blog our Specimens of the Week will be exploring themes like women in natural history, female specimens, and – in this case – the language of natural history. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a female attribute. Phascolarctos means "pouched bear". LDUCZ-Z65

    Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a characteristic that only females have. Their scientific name Phascolarctos means “pouched bear”. LDUCZ-Z65

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    Specimen of the Week 318: The newly recapitated bandicoot

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 November 2017

    This is embarassing. The sheer scale of natural history collections means that some objects are going to be wrongly identified, and the fact that generations of professionals have worked here over nearly two centuries means that there has been plenty of opportunity to get things wrong. I am embarrased because I utterly failed to spot that someone had attached the head of one animal onto the body of another. I am particularly embarassed because both animals involved fall within my particular area of zoological interest – Australian mammals.

    A chimeric skeleton of a woylie's skull on a bandicoot's body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

    A chimeric skeleton of a woylie’s skull on a bandicoot’s body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

    Allow me to introduce you to…. (more…)

    Happy 81st Thylacine Day: Thylacines were lucky to last as long as they did

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2017

    81 years ago today – the 7th September 1936 – the last known thylacine died, committing its species, indeed its entire family, to extinction.

    The last known living thylacine, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    It was locked out of the indoor section of its enclosure at a zoo in Hobart, and in the overnight chill of the Tasmanian winter it died of exposure. All that now remains of the then largest marsupial carnivore is in museums.

    In a sense it was lucky. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 306: The Bilby Skull

    By Jack Ashby, on 1 September 2017

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Australia is widely considered to be the extinction capital of the world. In the 230 years since European invasion, 29 of its 315 native land mammals have been driven to extinction, and by far the majority of those that do currently survive have suffered significant (and in many cases almost total) declines – they are now only found in a fraction of their former habitats.

    This is all very depressing, but as I write this I am undertaking fieldwork in a remote area of central South Australia, volunteering for an organisation who are trying to make things better. This week’s Specimen of the Week is one of the species they protect. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 283: The Eastern Quoll

    By Jack Ashby, on 17 March 2017

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Mongooses, ferrets, shrews, meerkats, otters, weasels and cats: These are animals that most people will be familiar with.

    Planigales, ningauis, kalutas, dunnarts, mulgaras and quolls: Not so much.

    Despite all being small mammals, strangely named, absurdly cute (the second set even more so than the first), objectively interesting in many ecological, behavioural and evolutionary ways, there seems to be a difference in the level of attention between these groups of animal. The latter are all Australian marsupials, and for undoubtedly complicated political, colonial and egotistical reasons embedded in the western psyche, they don’t get their fair share of the limelight*. This week’s Specimen of the Week is a tiny step in addressing that, with…

     

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    Specimen of the Week 242 – the Marsupial Lion

    By Jack Ashby, on 3 June 2016

    Thylacoleo skull cast LDUCZ-Z3167

    Thylacoleo skull cast LDUCZ-Z3167

    1) Large lion-shaped predators were living in Australia until around 50,000 years ago – lion-shaped, but not lions. This is because there were no wild cat species in Australia*, and up until 3-5000 years ago when the dingo arrived with Polynesian traders, all large Australian mammals were marsupials. One such beast was Thylacoleo carnifex, the “marsupial lion”. Alongside this big predator lived “marsupial rhinos” (diprotodons), giant kangaroos, giant echidnas, “marsupial tapirs” (Palorchestes) and giant wombats (Phascolonus). All in all, Australia used to have much bigger animals than it does now.

    2) It is believed that marsupial lions diverged from the branch of the marsupial tree that led to wombats and koalas. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 224: The Rock Wallaby Skull

    By Jack Ashby, on 25 January 2016

    Rock wallaby skull. LDUCZ-Z845

    Rock wallaby skull. LDUCZ-Z845

    The high octane pop-rock band The B52s are responsible for one of the world’s most aggressive earworms – Rock Lobster. A tune so catchy that it takes no heed of the taxonomic boundaries in which it was placed. The B52s were very clear that the song’s habitat is a beach, and the lobster was discovered when somebody looked under a dock in 1978. Nevertheless, whenever I am on fieldwork in Australia, the unforgettable (no matter how hard I try) chorus begs to be applied to every rock-dwelling lifeform I encounter, none of which are crustaceans. In the sandstone escarpments of northwest Australia there are plenty of zoological opportunities for the song to crop up: rock ringtail; rock pigeon; rock rat; rock monitor; rock dtella; rockhole frog; but most of all, this week’s Specimen of the Week…

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    Specimen of the Week 223: The Tasmanian wolf

    By Paolo W Viscardi, on 18 January 2016

    One of the most interesting things about zoology for me is the way in which skulls are sculpted by evolutionary and environmental forces. A particularly fascinating outcome of such processes is convergent evolution, which occurs when distantly related organisms live in a similar environment and have a similar mode of life, resulting in them looking and often behaving like each other. My favourite example of this phenomenon is shown by my Specimen of the Week…

    LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine skull [Grant Museum, UCL / Fred Langford-Edwards]

    LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine skull [Grant Museum, UCL / Fred Langford-Edwards]

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 218: The Sugar Glider

    By Jack Ashby, on 14 December 2015

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Climbing up things can be challenging, be it hills, cliffs, trees or stairs. Climbing down, however is arguably far more difficult – your eyes are further from your hand-and foot-holds, your body is pointed in the wrong direction and gravity combines with momentum to pull you down faster than you’d like.

    Due* to the many drawbacks of climbing downwards, gliding has evolved many times in the animal kingdom – there are many species which have flaps of skin which form parachutes to slow their descent. Their names often contain the word “flying”, but true flight requires flapping wings. This post is not about flying lemurs, flying frogs, flying dragons, flying snakes, the four-winged dinosaur Microraptor, or even flying squirrels. This week’s Specimen of the Week is the far more accurately named… (more…)