X Close

Researchers in Museums

Home

Engaging the public with research & collections

Menu

Archive for the 'UCL Collections' Category

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.

Incest in Nature

AlexandraBridarolli20 December 2018

This is the third segment in a series on incest; you can go back and read the previous segments on incest in ancient Egypt and incest in the Hapsburg family.

Firstly, did you know that despite the earliest forms of life emerging around 3.8 billion years ago, sex has only existed for 1.2 billion years? Before that, asexual reproduction was the only form of reproduction to evolve. When you think about it, this is the most extreme type of incest, reproducing yourself with …yourself, cloning yourself. Nowadays, most mammals tend to not engage in inbreeding. If they do, we have seen that incest can lead to depression inbreeding with offspring experiencing health problems. For this reason, scientists used to think that Nature might have weeded out incestuous behaviour through natural selection.

However, recent studies have actually shown that incestuous behaviour has not completely disappeared and that it is more common than generally thought. Some species are asexual or still breed with themselves in situations where there is no advantage to sex; others commit incest where there is no penalty to inbreeding. And guess where those incestuous species are mostly found? Islands and mountaintops. In these isolated places, it is difficult to find someone who does not fit somewhere in your family tree.

Incestuous species

  • Mongoose

Mongoose live in close-knit groups with a median size of 18 adults. Each group has both male and female dominant members, who do most of the breeding and reproducing—those on the periphery only reproduce occasionally. Most group members remain with their group for their entire lives. This close-knit living arrangement has led to a high incidence of incest. A study has found that 64% of newborn pups were the result of mating between members of the same natal group (Nichols, 2014). Father/daughter incest was documented eight times over the course of the study run over 16 years; no mating attempts between mother/son were reported. The researchers point out that females tend to have short lives and generally die before their sons are old enough to mate with them.

Yellow mongoose, Cynictis penicillata

 

  • Whiptail lizards

This one is with no doubt my favourite.

Some women might have dreamed of a world with no men. Whiptail lizards have done it. Females whiptail lizards are able to clone themselves. And this is not the only species with this capability. There are actually quite a few, 80 groups to be precise, which include amphibians, reptiles, and even fish. But the specificity of these female lizards is that though they don’t need to have sex to survive, they still display mating behaviours, meaning that females sometimes mount other females. Scientists think this behaviour is hormonally driven; high progesterone levels may cause females to mount others. But they probably don’t just bump cloacal regions for fun. Studies have shown that females who are mounted by another female are more fertile than those who go it alone, likely because the mounting behaviour promotes ovulation (Wade, 2013).

Mating behaviour among whiptail lizards: female lizard mounting another female.

 

  • Spotted salamanders

Among spotted salamanders, DNA analysis shows inbreeding at the level of first cousins, on average. Despite having hundreds of possible mates to choose from, females tended to fertilize their eggs with sperm from related males.

Spotted salamander

Interestingly, in some cases, the natural selection mentioned earlier seems to contradict other studies showing that for some animal or insects, inbreeding within first cousins or brother/sister gives better chance of survival to the offspring. Inbred ambrosia beetles, for example, fared no worse than outbred insects, and the eggs produced by brother-sister pairs are likelier to hatch than the eggs of unrelated pairs (Andersen 2012). Similarly, another study has found that for at least one fish species, fathers from brother-sister couples spent more time, on average, defending their caves and that both parents tended to pay more attention to their kids than unrelated couples.” How to explain this? The ecologist who supervised the study reports, “Couples which are full siblings are more cooperative in brood care. … [T]he males and females stay with the offspring for several weeks and guard them—they defend them—and there’s less aggression between full siblings.”

Stay tuned for next and final segment in a series on incest. We will talking about the practice of incest in modern societies: Modernization or cultural maintenance?

 References

Andersen, H., Jordal, B., Kambestad, M., & Kirkendall, L. (2012). Improbable but true: The invasive inbreeding ambrosia beetle Xylosandrus morigerus has generalist genotypes. Ecology and Evolution, 2(1), 247-257.

Nichols, H., Cant, M., Hoffman, J., & Sanderson, J. (2014). Evidence for frequent incest in a cooperatively breeding mammal. Biology Letters, 10(12), 20140898.

Wade, J., Huang, J., & Crewst, D. (1993). Hormonal Control of Sex Differences in the Brain, Behavior and Accessory Sex Structures of Whiptail Lizards ( Cnemidophorus Species. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 5(1), 81-93.

Myths in the Museum: Horseshoe Crabs, Blue Blood, and Modern Medicine

JenDatiles7 December 2018

This is the third segment in the Myths in the Museum series; you can go back and read about the dugong and mermaid, and the narwhal and unicorn.

 

With Halloween now behind us and the golden days of autumn getting shorter and shorter, a new time of year is fast coming upon us…one filled with tissues, stuffy noses, and general misery. Flu season.

Yes, it’s that time again, when the cold frost that heralds winter comes nipping at our toes at night to suck the warmth from our bodies like the vampire that it is. Feverishly we brew our teas, cling to those hankies and wrap ourselves in our best woollies and Jon Snow faux furs in an attempt to fend off illness. Yet we ourselves are guilty of our own vampiric methods in this War of the Wheezing. Our flu shots, and basically most drugs and medical injections today, are possible because we harvest another species’ blood: Horseshoe crab blood.

 

Still from the PBS Documentary Crash (Source: The Atlantic, 2014)

 

The horseshoe crab, Limulus Polyphemus, is actually more closely related to scorpions, spiders, and mites than to crabs. Its common name is obvious; its exoskeleton is a large shell shaped like—you guessed it—a horseshoe. These strange-looking creatures have 10 eyes distributed around the shell to help them navigate their way. Don’t be fooled by the tail that looks like a stinger; it serves as a rudder while swimming, and can help the crab reorient itself when it gets flipped over. The horseshoe crab is the only species within its family, Merostomata, which means “legs attached to mouth”. Take a look at the 6 pairs of appendages on its underside, and you’ll see why.

 

Horseshoe crabs, our ‘living fossils’ (Source: PBS)

 

The blood of horseshoe crabs produces limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), a protein that can detect the presence of endotoxins, bacteria, and other sources of contamination, which we use to render our medicines safe. This protein is found nowhere else on earth. It’s no wonder that this marvellous miracle protein would be found in the blood of horseshoe crabs; they’ve have remained virtually unchanged in the 450 million years they’ve existed. They’re literally living fossils, and yet another example of the strange mysteries of ocean life.

In the 1960s humans discovered the amazing LAL and soon after put it to use in pharmaceutical laboratories around the world. Horseshoe crabs were gathered from their native Atlantic habitats, taken to facilities, drained of up to 40% of their blood, and returned to the ocean. The problem, however, is that this method does little to track what happens to the crabs after they’ve returned to the wild, starved and injured. It is estimated that 50,000 die in the process each year; this, sadly, may be a gross underestimation.

 

Crabs collected from Delaware Bay, 1928 (Source: Delaware Public Archives)

 

Since the 1850s, Atlantic fishermen have harvested about 1.1-2 million horseshoe crabs annually to use as eel and fish bait. Once the medical industry got involved, however, horseshoe crab populations have drastically reduced, and by 2016 the species was added to the IUCN Red List.

A recent publication in June 2018 claims to have found a synthetic alternative to LAL; if true, this could mean a total turnaround for the species. And, possibly, humans may not have to rely on draining these ocean species’ blood and threaten their existence to protect ours.

 

Question of the Week: Why does the Kingfisher look blue?

Cerys RJones25 September 2018

The Common Kingfisher is one of Britain’s most colourful native birds and a personal favourite of mine. Despite the name, the Common Kingfisher isn’t actually all that common. I’ve only been lucky enough to see one in the wild and it was a brief encounter; I still vividly remember the bright blue flash of its feathers. Although these creatures are known for their striking colours, the blue feathers down the back of the Kingfisher are actually brown.

The bright blue colour you perceive is due to a phenomenon called structural colouration. Structural  colouration is seen throughout the animal kingdom and makes creatures appear much more colourful than they actually are. So while the coloured pigments in the kingfisher’s feathers are brown, you actually view them as a brilliant blue.


The brightly coloured Common Kingfisher (Image: Avijan saha)

Structural colouration, first described by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, is when the observed colour of an object is not due to the pigment but rather caused by some interference effects instead. The structure of the object itself causes a different colour to be perceived than what would typically be observed by the pigment. Structural colouration can result in iridescent colours – i.e. colours that are dependent on the viewing angle – or non-iridescent colours, when the colour remains constant regardless of the viewing angle. Examples of iridescent colours are the feathers of a peacock, which are also pigmented brown but appear blue due to the structural colouration, and the setea (or spines) of the sea mouse. The nanostructures of the setea of the sea mouse and peacock feathers are regular and so reflect the light in the same direction. This means that the bright colour is only perceived at a certain angle.

The setea of the sea mouse appear red, green and blue to act as a warning to potential predators. The sea mice in the Grant Museum are some of my favourite specimens in the museum and are often unfortunately overlooked by visitors. Their interesting name likely derives from the fact that they look like drowned mice when washed up on shore, but their Latin name, Aphrodita, comes from the Ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, supposedly due to their resemblance to female anatomy…

The Sea Mouse specimen in the Grant Museum, G15 (Author’s own photo)

In contrast, the kingfisher’s feathers are an example of non-iridescent structural colouration. The blue stripe appears blue regardless of the angle of the viewer. This is because the structures are randomly oriented and so the reflections of the light are not angled in the same direction. The blue-and-yellow macaw similarly displays bright blue feathers that are due to non-iridescent structural coloration. These feathers also contain the brown-black pigment melanin that is present in those of the kingfisher.

Let that be a lesson that you can never trust your eyes – at least, not when it comes to structural colouration! Next time you visit the Grant Museum, look out for our kingfisher taxidermy specimen, the sea mice and any other brightly coloured creatures that may be cleverly appearing more colourful than their pigments might suggest!

To read more about this phenomenon, check out this paper.

Myths in the Museum: The Unicorn Horn of UCL

JenDatiles18 September 2018

It’s there, just across the main UCL campus on Gower Street. A mystical power of unknown proportions coveted by monarchs and conquerors of golden ages past. Quiet and unassuming, mounted on a museum cabinet crammed with jars of preserved worms and spiders bobbing about in 70% ethanol for eternity, this long, white, spiraled object that looks suspiciously like a wizard’s wand or sorcerer’s staff, sought after by the most powerful dynasties to walk the earth…

No, it’s not a unicorn horn. It’s the Grant Museum of Zoology’s narwhal tusk.

 

The Narwhal Tusk of UCL. (Grant Museum, Z2168)

 

Don’t feel bad for mistaking it for a unicorn horn, though. For centuries the Vikings harvested these tusks—which can be up to 10 feet long—from the ocean creatures off the arctic coast of Greenland and used, gifted, and traded them. They were brought to northern Europe via the major trade routes across the Atlantic linking Greenland and Iceland with the British Isles, Scandinavia, and ultimately the Baltic. Since the unicorn symbolized immortality, power, and protection against poison, narwhal tusks were rare and highly sought after to adorn royal objects in Europe and into Asia. They also served as magico-medical material in the cabinets of wealthy physics and apothecaries (whether their unicorn horn powder was ‘authentic’ is another story).

 

Five types of unicorn, described by Pierre Pomet in his 1694 natural history treatise. (Credit: New York Academy of Medicine)

 

Unicorns feature heavily in myths and tales as a symbol of both power and pure magic. (Screenshot from Disney/Walden’s Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; 2005)

 

La Dame à la licorne: À mon seul désir. The famous 16th-century Flemish tapestry, one of six in a series, depicting a noblewoman with her lion and unicorn. It now hangs in Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Perhaps the most famous example of European monarchies’ obsession with owning unicorn horn bling is the Danish throne in Rosenborg Castle. It was commissioned in 1662 to symbolize the ‘absolute monarch’, and was inspired by the throne of Solomon—so naturally its surface was almost entirely covered with precious ‘unicorn horn’. Narwhal tusks were procured by Danish traders, since during this time the Danish monarchs claimed Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

IMPOSING: Rosenborg Castle’s Coronation Throne, used for the Danish coronations between 1671-1840. (Credit: Danish Royal Collections)

So what are these ‘unicorns of the sea’? Narwhals, Monodon monoceros (Greek for ‘one-tooth’ ‘one-horn’) are mid-sized porpoises native to the arctic. Narwhals and beluga whales are the only members of the family Monodontidae, and our knowledge of their daily habits remains elusive. Though they usually don’t share a habitat, just this week a juvenile narwhal male was seen by Quebec researchers playing with a beluga pod over 1000 km south of its usual Arctic range, apparently adopted by its cousins!

Now for the million-dollar question: what is the tusk, besides a magnet for power-crazy monarchs and mystical medicine hunters? The ‘horn’ or ‘tusk’ of a narwhal is actually… a tooth. Unlike many other debunked myths from the Middle Ages, the potency of this unicorn horn’s still relatively shrouded in mystery. For years scientists have debated and theorized about its actual use, from weapons to ‘joust’ for dominance with other males as part of mating rituals, to sensory tools to detect water temperature, pressure and salinity. It wasn’t until last year that drone footage captured footage of narwhals using their tusks to hunt codfish, suggesting the complicated nerve systems within these tusks may have stunning capabilities.

[above and below] Narwhals, narwhals, swimming in the ocean. (Credit: World Wildlife Fund)

So do unicorns exist? We’d have to say no. But until technology catches up to human curiosity and scientific research, these sea unicorns remain as elusive as the myth that surrounds their magical tusks.

 

Consanguinity and Incest in Ancient Egypt

AlexandraBridarolli16 August 2018

My curiosity was piqued during one of my turns at the Petrie Museum. Facing all these artefacts, traces of dynasties of pharaohs, I was suddenly reminded of the stories of incest and marriages between brother and sister which were common in ancient Egypt among the ruling class. More recently, the topic was brought up again by another visitor. I was then told about Akhenaton’s androgynous appearance that could have been a result of the incestuous practices of the time. This practice seems to be a common thing and these stories made me immediately think of the Greek and Roman gods and their intricate family-love relationships. With this thought came then one question: why would pharaohs marry their sister, mother and other relatives? To act as living gods? To preserve the purity of their blood?

Fig. 1: Limestone statuette of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Princess (Tell el Amarna). [Petrie museum, UC004]

Many others questions followed: If incest was accepted in ancient Egypt among the ruling class, was it tolerated by the whole population? What makes it unacceptable in Western countries today? Health? Morality? Are marriages among siblings and/or first cousins still allowed nowadays in some countries? And what are actually the risks of incestuous relations?

From ancient Egypt to the Habsburg family in Europe, throughout history cases of consanguinity — mainly among members of the ruling classes — are numerous. It is surprising that the practice continued for as long as it has when religious and civil laws started to forbid it and when the risks associated to this practice started to be known; from the 5th century BCE, Roman civil law already forbade couples from marrying if they were within four degrees of consanguinity (Bouchard 2010). From the half of the 9th century CE, the church even raised this limit to the seventh degree of consanguinity and the method of calculating degrees was also changed. More recently, modern philosophers and thinkers argued that the prohibition against incest was a universal phenomenon, the so-called incest taboo . But this theory seems contestable in view of the Egyptian case.

So why is it that incest was accepted and practised in ancient Egypt and more recently among members of the royal family such as the Habsburg (16th-18th century)? And how did science shed the lights on family relationships, incestuous practices and the diseases resulting from them?

Let’s first take the case of the 18th dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

Incest in Ancient Egypt: the case of the 18th Dynasty

There is an abundance of evidence showing that marriages or sexual relations between members of the “nuclear family“ (i.e. parents, children) were common among royalty or special classes of priests since they were the representatives of divine on Earth. They were often privileged to do what was forbidden to members of the ordinary family. During the Ptolemaic period (305 to 30 BCE) the practice was even used by King Ptolemy II as “a major theme of propaganda, stressing the nature of the couple, which could not be bound by ordinary rules of humanity” (Chauveau, M.).

Fig. 2: Alabaster sunken relief depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and daughter Meritaten. Early Aten cartouches on king’s arm and chest. From Amarna, Egypt. 18th Dynasty. [Petrie Museum, UC401]

But let’s go back to the 18th dynasty (1549/1550 BCE to 1292 BCE). In 2010, a team of Egyptian and German researchers analysed 11 mummies dated from the 18th dynasty which were closely related to Tutankhamun (Hawass, Zahi, et al.). The mummies were scanned and DNA extraction on bone tissues was carried out. The information they could get from these analyses enabled them to identify the mummies, determine the exact relationships between members of the royal family, and to speculate on possible illnesses and causes of death.

The results of the DNA analyses show that Tutankhamun was, beyond doubt, the child born from a first-degree brother-sister relationship between Akhenaten and Akhenaten’s sister (see Fig. 3). Moreover, the authors provided an answer to the androgynous appearance of Akhenaten. They actually showed that the feminized appearance exhibited by the art of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also seen to a lesser degree in the statues and reliefs of Tutankhamun) was not related to some form of gynecomastia or Marfan syndrome as suggested in the past. Neither Akhenaten nor Tutankhamun were likely to have displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique. The particular artistic representation of persons in the Amarna period is more probably related to the religious reforms of Akhenaten.

However, the incestuous relationship between Akhenaten and his sister may have had other consequences. Pharaoh Tutankhamun suffered from congenital equinovarus deformity (also called ‘clubfoot’). The tomography scans of Tutankhamun’s mummy also revealed that the Pharaoh had a bone necrosis for quite a long time, which might have caused a walking disability. This was supported by the objects found next to his mummy. Did you know that 130 sticks and staves were found in its tomb?

Fig. 3: Genealogical tree showing the relationship between the tested mummies dating from the 18th dynasty (Source: Hawass, Zahi, et al.).

 

Fig. 4: Scans of Tutankhamun feet (Hawass, Zahi, et al.)

 

Incest and common people

This article on consanguinity and incestuous marriages could easily finish here. We learned that incest was practised in ancient Egypt for strategic reasons, in order to preserve the symbolism which associates the pharaoh to a living god. We also saw how science could help us in unravelling the true stories lying behind myths, speculations and rumours.

This could be almost perfect but the incest taboo is more complex than this. As observed by Paul John Frandsen, “in a society (such as ancient Egypt) where nuclear family incest is practised there is no discrepancy between what is licit among royalty and in the populace”. Indeed, contrary to what is often admitted incest was not only reserved to the ruling class. In Persia and ancient Egypt, incestuous relationships between members of non-royal nuclear families also existed (Frandsen P. J.). This shows that incestuous relationship in the nuclear family could be more than just propaganda and that other reasons might have motivated this practice. It has been argued that this was done for economic reasons as endogamy could have been a means to keep the estate undivided and/or avoiding paying bride price. However, these arguments have been dismissed. Up till now, there is thus no reasonable explanation for the lack of incest taboo in ancient Egypt and Persia.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll talk about incest in the Habsburg royal family and King Charles II of Spain (also called “the Bewitched”)!

 

References (and read more!)

Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Those of My Blood : Creating Noble Families in Medieval Francia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Chauveau, Michel.MmNm. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra : History and Society under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA, vol. 303, no. 7, 2010, pp. 638–647.

Frandsen, Paul John,MmNm. Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia : an Examination of the Evidence. Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009.

 

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.

What if Bob Dylan became Pharaoh of Egypt?

Sarah MGibbs28 June 2018

“For the times they are a’ changin’ ”

-Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (http://nostalgiacentral.com); bust of Akhenaten (http://www.crystalinks.com/akhenaten.html)

If I were to invent a new board game, I’d call it “Who are you now?” Players would have to imagine who historical figures would be if they were alive today. Alexander the Great? A corporate raider leading hostile takeovers and selling dismantled companies to the highest bidder. Christopher Columbus? The captain of the first mission to Mars. Jean Jacques Rousseau? Head of a yoga ashram and wellness retreat in the Cotswolds. And Akhenaten, the iconoclastic pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, artefacts from whose reign are on display at UCL’s Petrie Museum, would definitely be Bob Dylan.

At first glance, the son of Amenhotep III and the folk singer from Hibbing, Minnesota may not seem like brothers from other mothers. Fair enough. The two men’s lives are separated by nearly three thousand years, and many more thousand miles. But the careers of king and artist, both of whom defined the cultures of their respective periods, evince intriguing similarities.

Let’s consider some points of convergence, shall we?

1. Artistic Revolution
Bob Dylan’s breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 (bobdylan.com) and launched a folk revival which defined popular music for the remainder of the decade. After the dominance of Frank Sinatra-style crooners in the 1950s, Dylan’s productions—featuring simple arrangements and complex, poetic lyrics sung by a vocalist of limited range—were a complete departure from the musical mainstream.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (bobdylan.com)

Akhenaten likewise upset the artistic establishment. Have you ever tried to “walk like an Egyptian”? Traditional Egyptian reliefs employed multiple viewpoint perspective, a technique which presented the parts of the human body in the positions in which they appeared most attractive: head and legs in profile (feet staggered) while chest and torso faced the viewer . In contrast, the relief images produced during Akhenaten’s reign featured naturalistic representations of the body; positions and postures were relaxed, and round hips and bulging bellies were on full display.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Meritaten Worshipping the Sun-God, Aten (Petrie Museum UC401; alabaster relief)

 

2. Religious Upheaval
The perception of Dylan in the 1960s as a truth-telling artist of the people led his most devoted followers to view him as a prophet (one more-than-slightly deranged fan picked through his garbage in New York City looking for said “truth”). Surreal, dystopian songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” added to the effect.

Akhenaten actually did change Egypt’s religion. He was king. He could do that. Ushering in one of the first eras of monotheism in the ancient world, the Pharaoh replaced Egypt’s pantheon of gods with worship of the sun-god in his celestial “disk” form.

3. Name Changin’
A revolutionary needs an epic name. Robert Allen Zimmerman, son of a furniture store owner in small-town Minnesota, became Bob Dylan. And Amenhotep IV was reborn as Akhenaten; he incorporated the Egyptian word for “disk” (“Aten”) into his new moniker to honour his one-and-only god.

4. The City Founders
Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan retreated from public life. He went to Woodstock in upstate New York, and other artists followed, most notably The Band, whose debut album, Music from Big Pink, was written in Woodstock and features the classic song “The Weight.” George Harrison of The Beatles also found his way to Dylan’s idyll.

Admittedly, Akhenaten went a little bit bigger. In the sixth year of his reign, the King founded a new city in middle Egypt between the government and spiritual hubs of Memphis and Thebes. He called the city Akhet-Aten (today it is known as Tell el Amarna) and dedicated it to his god. The Collection at UCL’s Petrie Museum includes a number of reliefs and pottery fragments from the city.

Inlay from Wall Decoration at Tell el Amarna (Petrie Museum UC907)

While Dylan continues to endure, and to frustrate groups like the Nobel Prize Committee (he failed to show up to collect his honour), Akhenaten ruled for only seventeen years. After his death, Tell el Amarna was abandoned, and Egypt reverted to polytheism. The commune broke up. The flower children had to get office jobs. Some revolutions just don’t last.

“It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
-Bob Dylan

Promotional Poster for the film Don’t Look Back (www.gigsoupmusic.com)

My Imaginary Friends in the Petrie Museum

Cerys MBradley8 June 2018

In the Petrie Museum there is a rather spectacular display cabinet containing 8 of the Fayum Mummy Portraits from the museum’s collection. These are portraits of the deceased, painted on wooden boards and placed on the mummified remains of respected elders, dear friends, and loved ones. These objects in particular are from a collection of 146 such portraits that were found and taken by Flinders Petrie from the Hawara Cemetery in 1888. They are some of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection because of how beautifully preserved they are and how well they connect visitors to the people who we now study.

Fayum Portraits are a burial practice from the Graeco-Roman Period (c. 332 BC – 395 AD) that has been found in excavation sites across Ancient Egypt but particularly in the Faiyum Basin, which is just West of the Nile and South of Cairo. They are thought to have originated during the Roman occupation of Egypt and exist in a long tradition of preserving the image of the deceased upon their death. This tradition includes death masks that were used in the process of mummification in Ancient Egypt but also for references for sculptors in the Middle Ages and then later as an aid to identify unknown corpses. Roman Images were small impressions or masks of the deceased that were kept in the family home alongside inscriptions of their achievements. In Victorian England, death portraits were photographs taken the day after death and provided a memento mori for families to help them remember what their loved one looked like.

Mummy Portrait UC19609 (I tried to write an amusing caption for this image but couldn’t really see past the monobrow, which I imagine wasn’t as much of a talking point during their lifetime).

What I love about the Fayum portraits is how full of life they are. The subjects are painted with their eyes open and their faces full of personality. In much the same way, the subjects of Victorian death portraits were positioned as if playing or interacting with living family members. I think the Fayum portraits show that the desire to see someone you were close to alive again—and to remember them as they were before they passed—is one that transcends time period and culture creating a strong connection to the people who lived two and a half millennia ago.

When the museum is quiet, I like to look at the portraits and imagine the people they depict. I haven’t yet reached the point of actually talking to them, but I have constructed personalities, preferences, and opinions for each. Especially in the context of the Petrie Museum, where you are surrounded by objects held and used by people who lived in Ancient Egypt and Kush, I think you get a unique reminder that the contents of museums like this one were made by and for real people.

Mummy Portrait UC30081 giving you some serious side eye.

The displays in the Petrie Museum showcase many different aspects of everyday life, from small things like cooking and catching rats, to grander ideas of religion and law. As amazing as that is, I think the idea that you can actually look into the eyes of someone who lived in Ancient Egypt is one of the best experiences that a visit to the museum can give you.

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