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Cerys Bradley: My Last Blog Post

Cerys MBradley14 June 2019

In April, I had my last shift at the UCL Art Museum . Last week I had my last shift in the Petrie Museum, next week will be my last shift ever at the Grant Museum. After nearly four and a half years, I’ve finally finished studying at UCL – I passed my PhD viva yesterday and am a few minor edits away from graduation.  As working as a student engager has been one of the best things about studying at UCL, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about some of my favourite moments on the job and the things I have learned because of this programme.

Let’s start with my favourite engagements. It was difficult to narrow down the list but I have chosen three, one from each museum. Before I tell you them, I would like to award a “highly commended” prize to the time I spent twenty minutes talking to two visitors in the Grant about how dead baby pigs are used in research in my department before finding out they were vegan. You can read more about the encounter here.

When I started working in the UCL Art Museum, I was incredibly apprehensive – I know nothing about art. My background is in mathematics and the staff in the museum kindly spent a lot of time searching through their catalogue to find related pieces I could talk about (to no avail). So I learned a few facts about Flaxman, the man whose works began the collection, and started offering to take visitors to the Flaxman gallery and the Housman room (a room that hosts several of UCL’s best pieces that should be on public display but are now hidden behind a key-card access only door).

On one of my shifts, a mother and daughter came to the museum. They had just moved to Reading from Pakistan and the daughter wasn’t getting on too well at school. She loved art class so her mum had brought her to London for the day to tour some art galleries. They were a little underwhelmed by our small print room (there wasn’t an exhibition on at the time) so I took them to the Flaxman gallery which displays casts and prototypes of some of the funerary monuments that Flaxman designed and sculpted. Flaxman worked during the British occupation of India and incorporated Indian burial iconography in his work. I learned this from the visitors who explained to me what the specific positions of the figures in the casts and their clothing signified about their lives. The visitors were excited to connect with the work and I learned a lot from them; it was an interaction which really demonstrated how positive the engagement programme could be.

UCL Flaxman Gallery and sculpture

The Flaxman Gallery at UCL

It is at the Grant Museum that I discovered the incredibleness of bats. Once again, I had to work hard with the staff at the museum to identify a way of connecting my research background with the collection. I started talking about the bats because a student in my department did her Master’s project about them. She is an environmental crime researcher (that encompasses both crimes committed against the environment and crimes committed by animals) and used her Master’s dissertation to investigate the destruction of bat habitats in the UK.

When on shift, I would hover by the bat specimens and use them to talk about my colleague’s research and, then, how we study crime in our department more generally. When I wasn’t talking to visitors I would idly google interesting facts about bats. They are now my favourite animals – I have two bat tattoos and a bat detector so I can determine the species of bats on Hampstead Heath.

One of my favourite facts to share with visitors is how much bats eat. Insectivore bats can eat up to 7 times their own body weight in insects in one night and fruit bats can eat up to twice their own body weight. I often tell this fact to children and ask them if they can imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit. On one occasion, I asked a small boy (whose favourite food was cherries) how much fruit that would be. He asked his mum how much he weighed and then carefully counted two times 22 kg on his fingers before answering, very sincerely, 44 kg. His parents were extremely proud.

This is my favourite bat in the Grant Museum, I think he looks like a mob boss doing a really big laugh

When I work in the Petrie Museum, I talk about two things: the pot burial and Amelia Edwards. Three if you count helping children find the pink pyramids hidden in the displays. I like talking about the pot burial because we know so little about it and it’s a brilliant object for explaining to children the mechanics and limitations of archaeology.

When children approach the object, I ask them if they were an archaeologist and they found a skeleton in a pot, what questions would they try to answer. They nearly always ask the same three questions: “who was this person?”, “how did they die?”, and “why are they in a pot?”. Then we try to answer the questions together. On one occasion a tiny child looked me dead in the eye and declared that the person had died when they were hit on the head and all their blood had run out down their face (this was acted out for emphasis). The small child then went and did some colouring and I have had nightmares ever since (not really).

The pot burial in the Petrie Museum

Every instance of talking to a child about the pot burial becomes a favourite engagement at the Petrie. I enjoy observing their curiosity and creativity. It is even more fun when they come to terms with the idea that we just don’t know the complete answer to some questions and so they get to make up their own stories.

I have worked three Saturdays a month nearly every month for the past three years and experienced hundreds of engagements with visitors of UCL’s museums. I have learned a lot about their lives and about the collections, I have grown more confident talking to strangers, I have gotten better at explaining scientific concepts and I have discovered a thousand ways to say, “I have absolutely no idea, let’s google it”.

This is my final blogpost, which is why it is long and overtly sentimental, but I wanted to sign off by saying thank you to the UCL Student Engager’s programme for the huge, positive impact it has had on my time here at UCL.

 

We’re Finalists for a Science Journalism Award!

Arendse ILund16 May 2019

We’re absolutely delighted to announce that we’re finalists for the Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) Dr Katharine Giles science blog award! The awards celebrate researchers who undertake science journalism and encourage reporting to improve science literacy in the UK. We’re especially proud as these are the top science journalism awards in the UK and Ireland.

This award was named after a fellow UCL researcher, who’s an inspiration to us all. Dr Katharine Giles was a research fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Measurement here at UCL where she worked on the interactions between sea ice cover, wind patterns, and ocean circulation. From the award announcement:

After consideration of two hundred and seventy entries, the judges have decided on the finalists in this year’s Association of British Science Writers’ Awards for Britain and Ireland. The winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on Tuesday 28 May 2019 in the Science Museum’s new Illuminate event space. The Awards are supported by Johnson & Johnson Innovation along with category support from the Royal Society, the Dr Katharine Giles Fund and NUJ/Stephen White Bequest.

Mico Tatalovic, chair of the judging panel and of the ABSW said: “We have had a near-record number of entries this year, and the standard has been excellent, as usual, which made judging them difficult but also enjoyable. It was great to see some new names – of both journalists and publications – on the shortlist, and several entries that were published in non-science publications. It’s been a privilege to be a part of these awards and see them go from strength to strength over the last few years. We hope to make them even bigger and better next year!”

Congratulations to all our blog writers this year: Arendse Lund, Cerys Bradley, Kyle Lee-Crossett, Josie Mills, Hannah Wills, Alexandra Bridarolli, Mark Kearney, Anna Pokorska, Hannah Page, Sarah Gibbs, Cerys Jones, Caz Thompson, and Jen Datiles. We’re excited to see where this goes and couldn’t have done this without the thousands of you who read this blog!

Question of the Week: How do dogs recognise other dogs?

Cerys RJones30 April 2019

From Great Danes and Dogue de Bordeauxs to miniature Dachshunds and Chihuahuas, man’s best friend comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, so how can they recognise fellow dogs even when they all look so different?

Dogs come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, featuring Jess the black Labrador, Jewell the miniature Dachshund, Percy the Bichon Frise, Luna the Dogue de Bordeaux, Scratch the Jack Russell Terrier, and Spud the mixed-breed. (Engager’s own photos)

The Kennel Club recognises 211 different breeds of dogs but with different coats and mixed-breeds, there are by no means 211 dog-shaped moulds. Despite this, your dog can decipher between a Bichon Frise and a lamb instantly. This is in part due to their impressive sense of smell which they use to smell the hormones secreted by other dogs. Not only do they have a large nose cavity, which contains a folded surface covered by the sensing organ that is up to 23 times larger than in humans, they also have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth for detecting smells [1]. This means dogs can smell up to 10,000 times better than humans [1].

Seven domestic dog skulls on display in the Grant Museum (Accession number: Z2909)

Dogs’ ability to recognise different chemicals through their sense of smell has been used by humans to sniff out drugs, explosives and even illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. But is this the only sense dogs rely on to recognise other canines? A study from 2013 tested nine dogs’ ability to correctly identify other dogs from pictures [2]. The dogs were shown two images: one of a dog (from a set of 3000 pictures of different breeds, including mixed-breeds) and one of a non-dog animal, which included cats, cows, rabbits, birds, reptiles and even humans. On command, the dog participant had to correctly distinguish between the images and place their paw on the picture of the dog. All nine dogs successfully chose the images of the dogs over the images of non-dogs the required 10 times out of 12. The study concluded that dogs could “form a visual category of “dog pattern”” ([2] page 647); however, it did not allow the researchers “to determine which dog morphotypes or which species were easier to discriminate” ([2] page 648). As the dogs were successful at distinguishing between dogs and other animals from photographs alone, it is clear that they don’t solely rely on a sense of smell.

Hair curlers with a hunting dog on from the Petrie Museum (Accession number: UC8529)

Although varying highly in appearance, from the colour of their coat to the length of their snout, dogs use both their senses of smell and sight to identify others. Exactly which visual cues are required is still unknown. One thing we know for certain is, regardless of how they look, they’re all good dogs!

 

Bibliography

[1] Miklosi, A., (2018) “The Dog: A Natural History” Ivy Press, Brighton

[2] Autier-Derian, D., Deputte, B.L., Chalvet-Monfray, K., Coulon, M., and Mounier, L., (2013) “Visual discrimination of species in dogs (Canis familiaris)” Anim Cong, 16, pp 637-651.

Trippy Taxidermy and Severed Heads: The Best of the Grant Museum

Sarah MGibbs11 April 2019

For budgetary reasons, UCL Culture has recently decided to terminate the Student Engager programme, which has brought PhD students into the university’s museums to share their specialist knowledge and enable greater visitor access to collections.

As we wrap up the Researchers in Museums blog, Engagers will be sharing some of their favourite memories, and providing readers with a few final details about the museums’ amazing art works, artefacts, and specimens.

Sarah’s Top Specimens

“Half of my Head is in Havana”: The Negus Collection.

Actually, it’s in UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology. The Negus Collection is a group of bisected animal heads stored in clear Perspex containers. Have a gander at one side, and you’ll see an alligator in all his scaly glory. The other side? Well, that shows you what we might call his inner beauty. The Collection was originally assembled to study animal noses and throats. Photographs and digital models now make such preparations unnecessary. When the Grant Museum hosted a migration workshop featuring a bisected salmon head, visitors decided that the beady-eyed sushi staple should play the villain in an under-sea opera.

Crocodile (Crocodylidae; X1211)

Terrible Taxidermy: The Story of Frank

That’s what I’ve always called the Grant’s friendly pygmy orangutan. He’s an upbeat specimen, despite being a victim of some rather poor quality preparation. Taxidermists in the nineteenth century were often unfamiliar with the animals they preserved; the Horniman Museum is famous for its dramatically overstuffed walrus (no one told the taxidermist that this strange creature’s skin should lie in loose folds). Frank’s facial features are ill-defined, and his skin is splitting. It’s like he’s had both a facelift, and a few too many decades in a tanning booth. Plus, he’s an arsenic bomb. That’s right, folks. Frank is one of many early taxidermical specimens preserved using poisonous chemicals. He poses no danger unless he’s handled heavily without protective clothing. Nevertheless, don’t let those sweet brown eyes convince you to go in for a hug. At least he’s got one of those retro cool hairstyles, like the kids on Stranger Things.

Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus; Z490)

The Lonely Donkey

The Grant Museum has a donkey skeleton. You don’t really see this donkey, as everyone’s still a little disappointed he isn’t something else, namely, a zebra. As the Grant has always been a teaching collection, and as it also received massive transfers of specimens when London’s other university-based zoology museums closed, determining the identity and provenance of the over 60,000 collection items can sometimes be tricky. Records indicated that the Museum held two zebra skeletons. Then an expert came by to check. Turns out, it has one quagga (Amazing! Incredibly rare zebra sub-species! Only seven skeletons of the now-extinct animal in the world!) and one donkey (sigh). So, for want of display space, the sad little donkey (codename: Eeyore) gazes over the railing from the second floor. Look up next time you visit, and give him a wave.

Donkey (Equus asinus; Z233)

The Thylacine

Thylacine (nationalgeographic.com)

Like the quagga, the thylacine is a member of the dark fraternity of extinct animals. A canine-like marsupial, the last known “Tasmanian Tiger” died in 1936. Even more unfortunate is the reason for the species’ disappearance: a government bounty. The thylacine was officially designated a danger to livestock, but many scholars now argue that its extermination was part of a greater effort to undermine indigenous culture by destroying native wildlife. The Grant Museum has one of the few fluid preserved specimens in the world, but don’t expect a smile from our floating friend; the thylacine has been decapitated, possibly as part of the bounty process. One visitor who had just returned from Tasmania told me that Errol Flynn, a film star in the 1930s and 40s, grew up with thylacines in his backyard. I wonder if they liked to play fetch.

Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus; Z1653)

 

Come find your own favourites at UCL’s Grant Museum.

Summer Lovin’: Why You Need a Pachyderm Paramour

Sarah MGibbs23 July 2018

Here’s a special issue of Jungle-politan by our Senior Relationships Correspondent, Sarah Serengeti.

Hey there, Savannah Sisters. I don’t know about you, but when the temperature climbs, the first thing I think about (other than how to avoid crocodile attacks at ever-shrinking watering holes—those cheeky devils!) is summer love. But today’s confusing dating environment often leaves a girl with more questions than answers. Should you go Dutch on that leg of antelope? When is the right time to let him challenge your pack alpha? Is he really that buff, or is he just distending his salivary glands to impress you? Maybe you’re sold on the chimp’s personality. A man who can juggle? What’s not to like? Or perhaps you think the sloth would be your ideal “Netflix-and-Chill” partner. For some ladies, it’s the handyman—the industrious beaver has raised more than a few heart rates—while others live for the bad boy, lone-wolf wolf. But let me tell you from experience, he may hold your paw while you get that full moon tattoo, but he’ll have split long before the ink dries.

That’s why I’m pursuing a new type of man, one with a feature that just can’t be beat: a giant heart. That’s right, girls. This week’s column is dedicated to the African elephant, and let me assure you, the world’s largest land mammal is one of the few tall men whose parts are proportionate. Don’t believe me? Drop by UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, where the preserved heart below in on display.

Elephant Heart (Grant Museum, Z639)

Who doesn’t want a partner whose heart weighs in at a mighty 20 to 30 kilograms? That’s a titanic ticker! It’s ten times as heavy as that purse dog you lost when Nigel the Anaconda got peckish on Fireworks Night. And who better to comfort you in your chihuahua bereavement than someone who will save each of his thirty beats per minute for you? Not to mention that elephant societies are matriarchal. This man will not be threatened by a powerful woman. Career girls, rejoice!

But maybe you’re not convinced. To win you over to Party Pachyderm, Encyclopedia Britannica and I have collected a few more elephant facts that are going to knock your hoof warmers off. Read on for more delightful details about the Stud of the Serengeti.

1. Forgot the snacks on the counter? No problem! Your date has a handy dandy trunk, or proboscis, a hybrid upper lip and nose unique to members of Proboscidea, a group that used to count more than 160 species (including mastodons) as members. With a load capacity of 250 kg, your squeeze can grab the crisps, drinks, and even the kitchen table while you recline on the sofa.

Elephant Trunk (Photo: Eco Images. Britannica Images)

2. Need to fell a tree on your property during spring clean-up? Lucky for you, elephants have been used as draft animals in Asia for centuries. Your pachyderm partner can uproot and carry off that endangered heirloom chestnut before you’ve even had time to water the perennials.

3. Tired of waiting for the bathroom? Your elephant love will never keep you idling outside the loo on a busy morning. Mature elephants have only four permanent teeth. Brushing and flossing is complete before you can say “Tusk-Whitening Toothpaste.” Speaking of tusks, talk about some useful enlarged incisor teeth! In addition to protecting the trunk, tusks help elephants dig water holes, lift objects, gather food, and strip bark from trees. And you’ll never feel afraid in that dodgy biker bar with your elephant by your side, as tusks are also super useful for defense.

African Elephant Skull with two visible teeth. (Grant Museum, Z764)

4. Wondering if he’ll remember your anniversary? Well, ladies, the adage is true: an elephant never forgets. How else would groups manage seasonal migrations to food and water? If that elephant can remember the location of water sources along lengthy migration routes, he’ll never buy tickets for the footie on your nine-month anniversary and then try and fob you off with an Arsenal beer cozy.

So next time you’re tearing your fur out waiting for a text from Mr. “You’re-such-a-pretty-prey-animal-you-make-me-want-to-go-vegan,” take a glance across the watering hole to that bulky bloke consuming his required 100 litres per day. You might just be looking at the elephant love of your life.

Question of the Week: Why are sea sponges considered animals?

Sarah MGibbs29 May 2018

By Sarah Gibbs

In that big comparative anatomy lecture hall in the sky, Robert Grant, founder of UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, must be smiling. This week’s featured question focuses on Grant’s favourite animal: the sea sponge. Grant’s work definitively proved that sponges are animals, not plants or simple celled organisms.

So, why is a sea sponge more closely related to a dog that a cactus? Read on to find out!

lue Barrel Sponge (Scientific American; Creative Commons Chris Coccaro)

The ever-sage Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that early naturalists classed sponges as plants because, you know, they lack organs, don’t move, and often have branches. Understandable, to be sure. In the eighteenth century, however, scientists began to notice animal characteristics of sponges, including the changes in diameter of their central cavity, and their creation of distinct water currents. Zoologists imagined that sponges occupied an isolated position in the animal kingdom, but molecular testing has since proved that sponges and more complex animals (like humans) developed from a common ancestor; sponges also possess many of the qualities biologists use to distinguish people from plants. For example, bodily composition: the elastic skeletons of sponges are made from collagen, the same protein found in human tendons and skin. Prevailing theories suggest that sponges are early animals which produced no subsequent evolutionary line.

The Venus Flower Basket Sponge (Scientific American; Creative Commons Ryan Somma)

The folks over at Scientific American note that sponges’ specialized cells differentiate them from multicellular protists, creatures which are not animals, plants, or fungus, and which form no tissues. It is the thinness of the sponge body and the fact that its cells are exposed to circulating water—which supplies food and oxygen, and removes waste—that make organs unnecessary. Sponges may have been the first multicellular animals. Multicellularity (which means that cells adhere to one another, communicate, are mutually dependent for survival, and specialize to perform different tasks) is the key to producing more complex organisms. Scientists speculate that sponges emerged, flexing their multicellular muscles*, at least 543 million years ago (*as sponges lack arms, they are sadly ineligible for body building contests). According to Scientific American, sponges were the first filter feeders, tiny Brita jugs of the sea** (**mixed metaphor alert).

So, sponges are in fact the original animal hipster; they were multicellular before it was cool. Let’s close with a few fun sponge facts.

Absorbing (!) Facts:

  1. Sponges can range in height from less than one centimeter to two metres tall.
  2. Most sponges are hermaphroditic (male and female cells exist in one animal) and reproduce sexually by releasing spermatozoan into the water current to be carried to other sponges, where they interact with eggs. Sponges can also reproduce asexually.
  3. Some deep-water sponges are carnivorous. Animals like the ping-pong tree sponge lie in wait for small crustaceans and other hapless sea dwellers to alight on their branches, the hook-like spicules on which prevent escape. Digestive cells migrate to the site of capture and the feast begins. Bet you’ll never look at a loofah the same way again.

 

Sources:

Frazer, Jennifer. “Sponges: The Original Animal House.” Scientific American, 17 Nov. 2011, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/sponges-the-original-animal-house/

Sarà, Michele. “Sponge.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica Academic, Britannica Digital Learning, https://academic-eb-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/levels/collegiate/article/sponge/110257

Question of the Week: Why do box jellyfish have eyes?

KyleLee-Crossett10 May 2018

If you meet me during one of my shifts as a PhD Student Engager in the Grant Museum, you’ll find me next to the Micrarium, facing a case packed full of jellyfish and their ghostly relatives. I’ve never had an interest in jellyfish before, but hours and hours of staring at them over the time I’ve been an Engager has inspired my admiration (as well as a previous blog post).

Box jellyfish specimen at the Grant Museum, photo by author.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a number of visitors ask me about box jellyfish eyes, because it’s surprising to find out that something which often looks and moves like a floating plastic bag has eyes. And not just one or two eyes, but 24 in total. Their eyes are bundled into four structures called rhopalia, which sit around the bottom of its bell. Two of the eye types have the capability to form images, while the other two types help with swimming navigation, avoiding obstacles, and responding to light. Fun fact: Box jellyfish can regenerate their eye bundles (rhopalia) in as quickly as two weeks’ time.

On the specimen in the Grant Museum, you can only see two of it’s eyes because it’s been carefully bisected to reveal its internal anatomy.

Grant Museum specimen with eyes highlighted by author.

Like other jellies, box jellyfish have no brain, perceiving the world only through their nervous systems. Most jellyfish catch their prey without having either brains or eyes, just by floating transparently through the sea until prey run into their tentacles. So, our question should actually be: why do box jellyfish even need eyes?

There are at two main possibilities:

1)  Habitat: Unlike most jellies, which live on the open sea, box jellyfish tend to live in shallow water, which has many obstacles. Scientists have shown that box jellies near Puerto Rico can navigate around the dense mangrove swamps where they live, and also make sure that they don’t drift away to where there is less prey. Their upper lens eye can actually peer through the water’s surface to navigate from landmarks above the water, and perhaps celestial ones as well! Some scientists think these kinds of jellies actively hunt rather than passively encounter prey.

2) Reproduction: Among jellyfish, box jellies also have unusual mating practices, involving the precise transfer of sperm, which might involve the use of their complex eyes to identify mates.

Many things about jellyfish biology and behaviour are still a mystery to scientists, so keep a lookout for ongoing discoveries.

 

Bonus fact: box jellyfish also need to rest their eyes

Scientists have only recently discovered that jellyfish appear to sleep at night—an activity usually only associated with vertebrates. Some reasons why they might do this include is because of their reliance on vision for hunting (they don’t see well enough to hunt in the dark) or because they jellies simply need to take a break from the neural processing their eyes require.

 

 

A Fine Vintage: Grapes and Wine in Ancient Egypt

Hannah LWills20 March 2018

Some of the best conversations I have with visitors in the UCL museums start with the question ‘what’s that?’. A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about an object by a visitor to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, as we stood in front of a case containing an array of small objects. The artefact in question was an oval-shaped sculpture with a point at one end, covered on its surface with a pattern of bubble-like protrusions, made from the pale blue ceramic faience. The case contained a number of similarly shaped objects, and a fired clay mould bearing similar bubble-like impressions.

UC795 and UC800, sculptures found in Amarna, Dynasty 18 (1549 BC – 1292 BC). Image credit: Petrie Museum.

UC1700, fired clay mould used in producing faience sculptures similar to those pictured above. Amarna, Late Dynasty 18. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

 

After looking them up on the museum’s online catalogue, we discovered that these small objects were depictions of bunches of grapes, produced using moulds like the one displayed in the case. Grape bunches can be found in a variety of objects in the Petrie Museum, in small sculptures like the ones above, and as part of other artefacts. One of the museum’s faience bead necklaces, likely worn by Tutankhamen’s father and described in a recent blog post, features no less than 83 small bunches of grapes among its beads. Other objects in the museum’s catalogue include fragments of plaster featuring painted designs that incorporate bunches of grapes and vines, from the same location and time period as both the grape sculptures and the bead necklace. My favourite grape-related object is a painted limestone statuette of a monkey, depicted happily devouring an enormous bunch of grapes.

UC1957, reconstructed bead necklace made from faience. The necklace features 83 bunches of grapes, and a variety of other forms, including petals, dates, mandrakes and palm-leaves. Amarna, Late Dynasty 18. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

UC026, painted limestone statuette of a monkey eating a bunch of grapes. Amarna, period of Akhenaten. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

 

Grape clusters like the sculptures above have been found during excavations at a number of New Kingdom sites in Egypt.[i] It has been suggested that grapes were seen as a symbol of royalty, with painted depictions of the fruits often used to decorate royal thrones and garden shrines.[ii] Grapes and vines, and the process of winemaking, also appear on the walls of New Kingdom tombs.[iii] In ancient Egypt, it was mainly the upper classes and royal families who consumed wine. It was also used as an offering to the gods by pharaohs and priests, as seen in depictions in temples from the New Kingdom period up to Greco-Roman times.[iv] As Anna Garnett, curator of the Petrie Museum, has noted, wine was stored in pottery vessels, known as amphorae (pictured below), and was often labelled with the wine’s location of origin and year of production, just as producers do today.[v]

Detail from facsimile reproduction of a wall mural in the tomb of Nakht at Thebes, ca. 1425–1350 BC, Dynasty 18. This fragment depicts the process of wine making. Norman de Garis Davies (1865–1941), Nakht and Family Fishing and Fowling, Tomb of Nakht, tempera on paper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

UC32931, shard of an amphora featuring the text ‘Year 17, sweet wine of the domain of Sehetep-A[ten]’, Amarna, Late Dynasty 18. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

 

Maria Rosa Gausch Jané, a leading expert on wine and viticulture in ancient Egypt, has suggested that grapes were seen as a symbol of resurrection, and may also have been thought to play a role in the transfiguration process undertaken by kings as part of the journey into the afterlife.[vi] Supplies of red and white wine have been found in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, symbolically positioned to aid in the various stages of the king’s transition to the afterlife.[vii]

Grapes had great significance in ancient Egyptian culture, in terms of their cultivation, consumption, and symbolism. Next time you visit the Petrie Museum, see how many references to grapes and wine you can spot!

 

References

[i] ‘Faience grapes from Amarna’, collections database, Y Ganoflan Eifftaidd / Egypt Centre, Swansea,  http://www.egypt.swan.ac.uk/the-collection-2/the-collection/w344a/ [Accessed 18 Mar 2018].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Maria Rosa Guasch Jané, ‘The Meaning of Wine in Egyptian Tombs: The Three Amphorae from Tutankhamun’s Burial Chamber’, Antiquity 85 (2011): 851-858, p. 855.

[v] Anna E Garnett, ‘Curating the Petrie Museum: Three Object Stories’, 26 Jul 2017, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2017/07/26/curating-the-petrie-museum-three-object-stories/#more-51323 [Accessed 18 Mar 2018].

[vi] Jané, ‘The Meaning of Wine’, pp. 855-856.

[vii] Ibid, p. 857.

Question of the Week: Why Do Wombats Poop Cubes?

Arendse ILund14 February 2018

 

A wombat waddling along (Image: © Jack Ashby)

With pudgy little legs and a determined waddle, wombats are amongst Australia’s cutest marsupials. I mean, have you ever seen a wombatlet (not the technical term, unfortunately) sneeze? There’s lots to love about wombats—including their cube-shaped poop.

Wombat faeces—not a snack treat (Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

This odd wombat feature has sparked a lot of gleeful speculation. The prevailing thought is that these six-sided excrements are caused by a combination of the digestion time, the shape of the large intestine, and the dryness of the resulting fecal matter.

Wombats have a slow digestive system—it takes up to 2.5 weeks for food eaten to make its way down the alimentary canal, through the stomach, small intestine, and finally out the anus as fecal matter. (On the scale of animal defecation time, wombats aren’t even in the running. One snake was recorded as “holding it” for 420 days.)

A common wombat, or Vombatus ursinus, skull with large teeth for masticating grasses and roots, and a skeleton with large front claws for digging (Images: Grant Museum of Zoology, Z68 and Z67)

After being processed by the stomach, the digested matter transverses the large intestine, which is a long tube-like organ with ridged sides. These ridges may help to break the matter into compact sections. Since the final part of the intestine is much smoother, these cubed sections retain their shape all the way to the anus.

A wombat’s long digestive time means that this matter becomes condensed and, ultimately, dry as the nutrients are extracted. Wombats have some of the driest faeces amongst mammals and, it turns out, it’s a handy evolutionary trait. Wombats use their droppings to mark territory; with a propensity to defecate on logs and other elevated objects, cubes won’t roll off, unlike cylindrical droppings. As wombats drop between 80 and 100 scats a day, it would be a pain if they, well, scattered.

 

According to Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, “Another thing to note about wombat poo is that since wombats have backwards-facing pouches, larger wombatlets end up spending a lot of time with their faces in poo. It has been suggested that this is an important way that they gain helpful gut bacteria that they need to digest the wombat diet of tough Australian grasses.”

If you want to see fake wombat faeces in action, Robyn Lawrence created a video demonstrating a wombat’s digestive system. She uses Jell-O to illustrate the forming and squeezing of the food into cube shapes, which then passes unchanged through the colon and out the fake anus.

So no, the wombat rectum isn’t square.

———

Further Reading:

Menkhorst, P. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Triggs, Barbara. The Wombat: Common Wombats in Australia. University of New South Wales Press, 2002.

What do Kids ask Scientists?

CitlaliHelenes Gonzalez26 January 2018

Science is exciting, science is fascinating, and with science you never get bored — this is what I want to communicate to children when I give talks about my research. As I work with brains, lasers and 3D printing, that’s easy enough. When I talk about neuroscience and what I do in the lab as a PhD student, kids are always interested even if the younger ones don’t even know what a brain does. When I show them pictures of my research (see below), which involves working with brain cells and dissecting brains, there’s always an eww sound — because the brain is “slimy”.

 

 

 

 

 

A pig’s brain, which — according to kids — is gross because it’s slimy. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

 

 

 

 

The same brain cut into pieces. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

After my talk, with just a couple of minutes left and a lot of hands raised, I get a lightning round of questions. They range from all aspects of life, not just science as they assume that scientists know everything about everything in the universe. This would be cool, but it’s definitely not the case. Anyhow, I always have a blast answering their unique questions, so I’ve decided to share a couple of my favourites and some of the trickier ones here. Here is a taster of them, followed by my inner dialogue (ID) and what I actually answered (A). As you will see, my inner dialogue can be quite different from the answer, which just shows how difficult it can be to answer unexpected questions. Remember, as I always tell the kids, there are no stupid questions.

 

Q: Can you make little animals?

ID: Other than little humans in my uterus, no.

A: Scientist are trying to make organs in the lab by growing cells in a specific way, but we can’t grow a full animal yet.

 

Q: Why do you die?

ID: Because our bodies can’t cope with so much wisdom.

A: It’s a big scientific question, trying to answer why we age and ultimately die. Our bodies grow older and our cells don’t regenerate as much as they used to, but ultimately we don’t know exactly why this happens.

 

Q: How much do you make?

ID: Not enough.

A: Enough.

 

Q: Is it true that when you die your heart explodes?

ID: Yes, if you die in an explosion.

A: No, when you die your heart just stops beating.

 

Q: Can we even get to fully understand the brain if it’s always evolving?

Now, this one really impressed me because: 1) she knows about evolution and understands that not only we as a species evolved but we are still evolving and so are our brains; 2) she knows that we don’t know everything about the brain; and 3) it’s just a really interesting question coming from a 10-year-old!

ID: Wow, yeah that’s true, can we?

A: That’s a very good question. Yes, we don’t know fully how the brain works but there are breakthroughs in science every day and new tools and techniques will allow us to one day fully understand the brain, even if it’s still evolving.

 

Q: My friend told me that he saw a ghost and… (After a long story about his friend seeing a ghost, the teacher was a little fed up with his not very scientific question and the rest of the class was giggling).

ID: I’m also giggling.

A: Just because your friend said so that doesn’t mean it’s real. You have to question him and ask him to show you evidence of what he claims is true. Remember to always question everything and look for evidence.

 

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

ID: How resilient I can be when facing relentless adversity, demonstrated by how my numerous failed experiments and negative results have broken my spirit yet have not killed my wandering scientific mind. Oh, wait, you mean like in science?

A: How cool neurons look down a microscope.

 

Q: Why do you like gross stuff?

ID: What are you talking about? Brains are not gross, they’re amazing!

A: What are you talking about? Brains are not gross, they’re amazing!

 

Q: How old is the universe?

ID: Oh god, try to remember, you know this.

A: Around 14 billion years.

Q: How much is that?

A: A lot!

 

So there you have it: kids and their questions. I wish to thank the schools that invited us PhD students, as well as the children for listening to me and asking such stimulating questions. Keep your curiosity alive!