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  • Happy 77th Thylacine Day: Culls Against Science

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2013

    7th September is an incredibly important day in Australia. I’m not talking about the general election. It’s the day, in 1936, that the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of its cage in a zoo in Hobart. In Australia, this is marked by National Threatened Species Day. In the Grant Museum, it’s Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    Thylacines – the half stripy wolf-shaped marsupials – are a regular feature on this blog because we have a pretty amazing collection of them. Two years ago today I made the point that their deliberate extinction at the hands of a cull promoted by the farming lobby was being echoed by a proposed badger cull here in the UK. In this past month those proposals have become reality, and I’m returning to the story today. (more…)

    A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 January 2013

    Treasures is the new permanent exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which “displays 22 of the most extraordinary specimens that have ever been on show at the Museum”. I’d been excited about it since I first heard about it a couple of years ago.

    As we all know, the best side of most museums isn’t the one that faces the public, and that is definitely true of the NHM, which for obvious reasons can’t display all 70 million objects in its care, or indeed all of the brilliant scientific research it undertakes. I’ve been critical before of the NHM missing opportunities to display real objects in its exhibitions, and so a gallery dedicated to showing what everyone actually comes to museums to see is exactly what I want them to be doing.

    Being lucky enough to do the job I do means that I’m privileged in knowing quite a lot about what the NHM has behind the scenes. Before visiting, I made a list of what I thought the NHM’s treasures are, and ticked it off as I went around: (more…)

    Model Translations: The B roll

    By Mark Carnall, on 12 December 2012

    My colleague Nick Booth has already introduced the Octagon Gallery that hopefully a lot of UCL staff and students have noticed on their way from one side of campus to another. In addition to the ‘big egg’ a number of objects from the Grant Museum can be seen on display (including another big egg, a model of an elephant bird egg) but as with most exhibitions there were a lot of objects that for one reason or another didn’t make the cut.

    A number of months ago one of the Mellon Fellow curators of the Model Translation exhibition, Antony Hudek, came by the museum and asked if we would loan one of our Blaschka glass models to the exhibition. I mustered my best impression of a dodgy second-hand car salesman and informed him that if it was models he wanted, we’ve got hundreds. We then spent the rest of the afternoon going through the model collections at the Grant Museum. Originally there were 30 or so objects on the long list which had to be whittled down for the exhibition. Here’s some of the objects that didn’t end up in the exhibition. (more…)

    Happy 76th Thylacine day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2012

    Another year has passed since the last known thylacine – one of the greatest icons of extinction – died of exposure. That makes 76 years today.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    We have celebrated the thylacine here at the Grant Museum for some time. We have some fantastic specimens – including one of the only fluid preserved adults (with the added bonus of having been dissected by Victorian evolutionary giant Thomas Henry Huxley), and skeleton from the early 1800s, which belonged to Grant himself. The only recent thylacine-based activity that happened at the Museum was for all our thylacine-geek colleagues to watch The Hunter together, a film about a bounty-hunter hired to collect the last individual for an evil bio-tech company. It was brilliant.

    Here on this blog we have told tales of thylacine apparitions, potentially new specimens, the lessons of extinction and the thylacine’s own story, which ended so tragically on 7th September 1936. On 2012’s thylacine day I’m going to spread the net a little further. (more…)

    Catching dingoes in the dead of night

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

    I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

    In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience. (more…)

    Finding and not finding the rarest museum specimens – Happy Australia Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 January 2012

    This is the tale of two non-discoveries. More accurately one non-discovery and one discovery of something not sought.

    I often dream of thylacines and I often dream of the Grant Museum, but only once have I dreamt of both together, and that was this week which is apt as it’s Australia Day today. On this occasion in bed I jumped sharply into consciousness as it occurred to me that a specimen labelled as a brushtail possum baby could in fact be a mis-labelled thylacine. Possums, though wonderful creatures in the wild, are the ubiquitous pest of Australian towns, playing a similar role to racoons in the US. Thylacines, on the other hand, are a much celebrated (at least by us) extinct marsupial carnivore – the difference in rarity of the two in museum collections is stark. I developed an image in my mind of the specimen in question and convinced myself that it had been mis-identified. The image in my mind was in fact a mental blurring of the famous pup at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the specimen at the Grant Museum, pictured here. (more…)

    Should we clone extinct animals?

    By Jack Ashby, on 8 December 2011

    Gone for Good display…is the latest question we are asking on our iPad displays. So far many living species have been cloned, for various reasons (just to see if we can and replacing lost pets being two of them. Resurrecting extinct species in this way has also been attempted, with very limited success. The question is, are they gone for good?

    The technology may soon exist to clone recently extinct animals using DNA from museum specimens, but usable and complete DNA sequences are hard to find. Should we try and bring back animals that humans have driven to extinction? What would you do with a handful of cloned individuals? Would the money be better spent on animals we still have? (more…)

    Why I like cryptozoologists – an UnConventional view

    By Jack Ashby, on 17 November 2011

    Big Foot crossing I am very fond of cryptozoologists. I’m not one myself, but I think they are great. I spent Saturday at the Fortean Times’ annual symposium, UnConvention 2011. This is a weekend of talks about all things paranormal, organised by the magazine Fortean Times (The World of Strange Phenomena), but cryptozoology is the reason I went. Well, the reason I went is because two dear friends of the Grant Museum were speaking and I rarely get to see them. One is Richard Freeman, Zoological Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (the world’s largest professional cryptozoological organisation) and the other is Brian Regal, an academic historian of science interested in the relationship between science and pseudo-science and the history of Big Foot.

    Cryptozoology, for those who don’t know, is the study of hidden animals, or cryptids. The bread and butter of it is animals unknown to science like yetis, sasquatch and Nessie; but also includes animals that are considered extinct, like thylacines; and animals beyond their normal ranges, like big cats on Dartmoor. (more…)

    Scientists let loose at the Natural History Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 September 2011

    Last night I was at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered event and these are some things I learnt*:

    • Female paper natuiluses have been known to leave their shells to climb into ones covered in glitter.
    • The NHM has the youngest skin prepratation of a thylacine.
    • Slipper limpets mate for life, and do so permanently sat on top of each other.
    • Black smokers are mostly made of metal (well, rich ores).
    • There probably aren’t any soft tissue samples of Stella’s sea cow.
    • A virus has been physically reconstitued from its genetic code in a lab.
    • Volcanic Kimberlites have brought diamonds to the surface at tens of kilometres an hour from the mantle.

    It was an absolutely fantastic night because it was a unique opportuntity (apart from the same night last year) for the Museum to turn itself inside out: to bring the thing that is best about our national natural history collection – the back of house scientists and collections – out into the galleries. (more…)

    Happy Thylacine Day: we haven’t learned – just look at the badgers

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2011

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    Picture this: an animal in a zoo dies of exposure one night because the door allowing it to return to the inside area of its enclosure was accidentally locked shut. It’s early Spring and southern Tasmania gets pretty cold – a wire and concrete cage is no place for a warm-blooded creature to be kept outside. Pretty awful, eh?

    Well that’s what happened to the last known thylacine 75 years ago today. The neglect itself would be shocking for any individual, let alone the sole known member of a species – the only remaining taxon in an entire family of animals. That day, a whole branch of the tree of life fell off. Well, in truth it was cut off. (more…)