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Label Detective: Are Bacteria ‘Ordinary Animals?’

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 17 October 2017

A few weeks ago, the Grant Museum opened a new exhibit, The Museum of Ordinary Animals: boring beasts that changed the world. As a detective of the mundane myself, I am a huge fan. But I’m particularly curious about the ordinary animals we can’t see.

Rather than focusing on a specific artefact label, I answer the title question by visiting two places in the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition that help raise questions about how things are organised and labeled in zoology more broadly.

Case notes: Bacteria are everywhere. As I mentioned in my previous post, we have 160 major species of bacteria in our bodies alone, living and working together with our organ systems to do things like digest nutrients. This is also happens with other animals — consider the ordinary cow, eating grass. Scientist Scott F. Gilbert tells us that in reality, cows cannot eat grass. The cow’s genome doesn’t have the right proteins to digest grass. Instead, the cow chews grass and the bacteria living in its cut digest it. In that way, the bacteria ‘make the cow possible’.

IMG_1102

The Ordinary Cow, brought to you to by bacteria. Credit: Photo by author

Scientifically speaking, bacteria aren’t actually ‘animals’; they form their own domain of unicellular life. But, as with the cow, bacteria and animals are highly connected. Increasingly, scientists say that the study of bacteria is ‘fundamentally altering our understanding of animal biology’ and theories about the origin and evolution of animals.

But, before we get into that, let’s go back to Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin studied how different species of animals, like the pigeon, are related to each other, and how mapping their sexual reproduction shows how these species diversify and increase in complexity over time. This gets depicted as a tree, with the ancestors at the trunk and species diversifying over time into branches.

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Darwin’s Ordinary Tree of Pigeons. Photos by author

When scientists began to use electron microscopes in the mid-20th century, our ideas about what made up the ‘tree of life’ expanded. We could not only observe plants, animals, and fungi, but also protists (complex small things) and monera (not-so-complex small things). This was called the five kingdom model. Although many people still vaguely recollect this model from school, improved techniques in genetic research starting in the 1970s has transformed our picture of the ‘tree of life’.

It turns out we had given way too much importance to all the ordinary things we could see, when in fact most of the tree of life is microbes. The newer tree looks like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Now there are just three overarching domains of life: Bacteria, Eucarya (plants, animals, and fungi are just tiny twigs on this branch), and Archaea (another domain of unicellular life, but we’ll leave those for another day).

There’s a third transformation of the ‘tree of life’, and this one is my favourite. Since the 1990s, DNA technology and genomics have given us an even greater ability to ‘see’ the diversity of microbial life and how it relates to each other. The newest models of the tree look more like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This is a lot messier. Why? Unlike the very tiny branches of life (plants and animals) that we focused a lot of attention on early on in the study of evolution, most of life on earth doesn’t reproduce sexually. Instead, most microbes transfer genes ‘horizontally’ (non-sexually) across organisms, rather than ‘down’ a (sexual) genetic line. This creates links between the ‘branches’ of the tree, starting to make it look like….not a tree at all. As scientist Margaret McFall-Ngai puts it: ‘we now know that genetic material from bacteria sometimes ends up in the bodies of beetles, that of fungi in aphids, and that of humans in malaria protozoa. For bacteria, at least, such transfers are not the stuff of science fiction but of everyday evolution’.

Status: Are bacteria Ordinary Animals? We can conclusively say that bacteria are not animals. But, they are extremely ordinary, even if we can’t see them with the naked eye. In truth, they’re way more ordinary than we are.

 

 

Notes

As with the previous Label Detective entry, this post was deeply inspired by the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, an anthology of essays by zoologists, anthropologists, and other scholars who explore how environmental crisis has highlights the complex and surprising ways that life on earth is tied together. Scott F. Gilbert and Margaret McFall-Ngai, both cited above, contribute chapters.

What’s a monkey, what’s a primate?

By Catryn Williams, on 8 October 2017

I have something to admit. Before starting my PhD researching the primate gut microbiome, I didn’t completely know the difference between the terms “monkey” and “primate”. Perhaps this is somewhat forgivable given that I was primarily a microbiologist, but I remember still feeling a sort of sneaky shame in googling the differences after I read the project title, like it was something I should definitely know.

This is a monkey (a Gibraltar macaque). Licensed under CC0 3.0.

This is a monkey (a Gibraltar macaque). Licensed under CC0 3.0.

As it turns out, the rules of what’s what in the primate tree are pretty simple once you know them. The evolutionary history of primates can be traced back to between 63 – 74 million years ago (MYA), and as they stand today can be divided into two main branches, named Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini, which based on molecular studies are hypothesised to have branched away from each other around 64 MYA. Interestingly, the two groups are named after their noses, with Strepsirrhini meaning “wet-nosed” and Haplorrhini meaning “dry-nosed” and were called so by a French naturalist friend of Robert Grant, named Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

A simple primate evolutionary tree showing the major branchings. Strepsirrhini were formerly known colloquially as "prosimians", although this is an outdated term now. Licenced under CC0 1.0.

A simple primate evolutionary tree showing the major branchings. Strepsirrhini were formerly known colloquially as “prosimians”, although this is an outdated term now. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

Strepsirrhini primates (unsurprisingly) tend to have wet noses, as well as a more pointed, almost dog-like snout rather than the flatter faces of their Haplorrhini cousins, and are thought to be most similar in appearance to the first primates. The clades that make up the Strepsirrhini primates are the lemurs of Madagascar, the lorises from South East Asia and India, and the pottos and galagos (or bushbabies) of Africa. Until recently, tarsiers were also thought to belong to Strepsirrhini, however now they’ve been moved to the sister clade of Haplorrhini.

A selection of strepsirrhines spanning the whole clade. Licenced under CC0 3.0

A selection of strepsirrhines spanning the clade. Licensed under CC0 3.0

If you’ve been wondering up to this point where the monkeys are, you need look no further than the Haplorrhines. In terms of number of species, this clade is almost entirely monkeys. The major two branches within this clade are between Catarrhini (meaning “down-nosed”), or Old World monkeys and apes found across Africa and Asia, and Platyrrhini (meaning “flat-nosed”), or New Wold monkeys found in Central and South America.

A map showing the distribution of monkeys across the globe, with Old World monkeys coloured in red and New World monkeys coloured in orange. Licenced under CC0 3.0

A map showing the distribution of monkeys across the globe, with Old World monkeys coloured in red and New World monkeys coloured in orange. Licensed under CC0 3.0

Within the catarrhines, the apes, or Hominoidea, comprise gibbons, orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and, of course, us. Apes are thought to have formed their own distinct clade from Old World monkeys (or Cercopithecoidea) around 29MYA, so if you wanted to get really technical, and you were the kind of person who happily accepts birds as being modern day dinosaurs, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that apes are actually monkeys too.

An orang-utan in Borneo, Malaysia. Licensed under CC0 3.0.

An orang-utan in Borneo, Malaysia. Licensed under CC0 3.0.

So, hopefully the next time you get stuck wondering whether the primate you’re looking at is a monkey or not, you’ll be a little more clued in.

 

Contemplating the Cat

By Arendse I Lund, on 28 September 2016

Arendse

by Arendse Lund

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, was once asked what surprised him most about his creation. His answer? “Kittens.” The feline statistics are both impressive and shocking: according to Friskies up to 15% of Internet traffic is cat related; cats get almost 4x the viral views as dogs on Buzzfeed. You don’t even need to seek out cat-related content during your daily Internet perusals; unless you have certain plug-ins, inevitably the cats come to you.

bisected cat

Dorso-ventrally bisected pregnant female. (Grant Museum, Z2969)

While cats seem to be the lingua franca of the web, the proliferation of cat gifs, memes, and photos is only magnifying a greater trend, one which continues offline as well. Children and adults alike ooh and aah over the Grant Museum’s display of bisected cats. Keen-eyed visitors may even spy with delight the embryonic kitten nestled in the womb of one of the specimens. There’s accessibility in the cats’ familiarity; this appeal extends to all ages if the toddler-height fingerprint smudges on the display cases are anything to go by. 

Egyptian cat stella

Cat underfoot? (Petrie Museum, UC14323)

Cats have fascinated diverse cultures for millennia. Linking cat lovers today with those three thousand years ago, the Petrie Museum has an entire display case dedicated to Ancient Egyptian cat statuettes and artefacts. Throughout the Egyptian dynasties, the felines were associated with several goddesses and revered in their own right for their ability to kill vermin—including cobras. Cats were also known to be mummified and buried after death. 

Much later, a similar fascination with cats can be found in an entirely different part of the world—medieval Europe. Illuminated manuscripts were the Internet of the times and cat references can be found scattered across those vellum pages. One early Irish monk wrote a poem in praise of his cat, Pangur Bán. From Robin Flower’s translation:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night…

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.

Cat erasure in manuscript

Green pigment has eaten through the parchment in the shape of a cat. (National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 28, f. 26r)

In Vatnsdœla saga, Thorolf Sledgehammer is the proud owner of twenty cats who defend him from attack. One might wonder if the writer had much knowledge of cats—rottweilers they are not. However fanciful that story was, cats served a useful function as pest control. A mid 13th-century Welsh manuscript containing the laws of Hywel Dda directs that payment be made if a cat is killed. Four pence should be paid to the owner if the cat is old enough to hunt mice; a kitten too young to open its eyes is only worth a single penny and one able to see but too young to hunt worth two pence.

Medieval zoomorphic decorated 'Q' motif

It’s a dog-eat-cat-eat-mouse world out there. (Harley 3053, f.45v)

The common sight of cats slinking around monasteries may have made them familiar source material for illuminators working on the manuscripts. Perhaps the medieval version of a Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks cartoon segment, one illuminator drew a historiated initial depicting a dog catching a cat catching mice. Cats are a common sight in manuscripts where they find themselves in an abundance of absurd situations.

Cat licking bottom

A clean cat is a happy cat. (Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r)

In the 13th-century Book of Maccabees, an archer takes aim at a cat who is busy ensuring it’s clean absolutely everywhere. Cat owners are accustomed to this sight and, clearly, so was the illuminator. There are plenty more strikingly similar images of this theme found in medieval manuscripts. 

A cat playing with nun's spindle

A helping hand? (Stowe MS 17, f. 34r)

In another instance of cat behavior which hasn’t changed all that much, the 14th-century illuminator of the Maastricht Hours depicted a cat playing with a nun’s spindle. Cats were such a common sight and part of daily life that the Middle English Ancrene Wisse permitted anchoresses to own a cat but no other animal. In the 15th century, Exeter Cathedral had a resident mouser on the payroll who earned one penny per week; someone even cut a cat flap in the cathedral’s south tower door which can still be seen today.

Cat paw prints on manuscript

Dubrovnik State Archives, Lettere di Levante. (Photograph by Emir O. Filipović)

Not all cats are depicted positively though and some aren’t intended to be depicted at all. One fine furry fellow left its mark all over the Lettere di Levante from the Dubrovnik State Archives. Pet owners may sympathize—the pages of the manuscript accidentally recorded where an inky-pawed cat walked across it. 

Cat urinated on manuscript

An angry monk making his point. (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

However useful cats could be to have around, they could be disruptive as well. The blank half of the delineated page above, along with the manicules and cat sketch, was not initially planned in the 15th-century manuscript. What appears to have happened is that the scribe working on this left the manuscript out over night and came back to an unpleasant surprise. The scribe wrote an exasperated note in the margins: “Nothing is missing here, but one night a cat urinated on this. Cursed be the mischievous cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and similarly all the others too. And pay heed to not leave books open at night where cats can reach.” We would all do well to heed that advice.

As our ancestors were fascinated with cats, so are we. There’s something entrancing about the felines and that something has spoken to humans across cultures and time periods. While our medieval forebearers might have had to make do with sharing manuscripts rather than cat gifs, nowadays we can be endlessly entertained by the felines with a click of a mouse.

Thank goodness for that.

Japanese Performing Monkeys: Apes in Art & Culture

By Gemma Angel, on 8 October 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Apes in Art

For anyone interested in images of primates in the visual arts, Solly Zuckerman’s seminal book The Ape in Myth and Art is a must-read. Hidden in the back pages amidst the postscript is Ohara Koson’s print, Trained Monkey Looking at an Insect, somewhat inaccurately described as a “Chinese water colour of a monkey sniffing a flower, unknown artist.”  It is in fact a woodblock print of a trained Japanese macaque (a species better known for its preference for bathing in hot springs) looking at a bee, and can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.  Koson is one of the best known artists of the Japanese Shin Hanga or ‘new prints’ movement, and 257 of his prints are listed by the Hanga Gallery. But what of the ape subject who appears in this portrait?

Whilst the pink face is natural, the pink waistcoat certainly is not. As he is described as trained, it seems likely that Koson’s monkey is part of the tradition of Sarumawashi, or monkey dancing, which has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years. The concept is so ingrained in society that there exists a single noun, 猿回し, meaning ‘showman who trains performing monkeys’.

Apes in Museums

Whilst these performing monkeys were trained to mimic human behaviours on stage, Koson’s print depicts a tethered, costumed animal following its urge to be inquisitive – a natural, rather than trained, ‘human’ quality. Do we need to train monkeys to demonstrate human-like traits? As various primate species have been shown to use such complex behaviours as deceit and manipulation, as well as the ability to learn, play and communicate, I would say no. Yet, when exploring the representations of primates in UCL museums and collections, anthropomorphism arises as a clear theme. There are of course many examples of primate specimens, including baboons and macaques, mounted to reflect their natural behaviour in the Grant Museum of Zoology, but the presence of primates in UCL museums isn’t limited to the zoological collections. As well as the Art Museum’s trained macaque, at the Petrie Museum, there are figurines of baboons playing harps, drinking beer and even performing gymnastics.

From images of performing monkeys, to figurines depicting physical feats monkeys could never achieve, each museum contains objects invaluable to researchers interested in social attitudes towards primates. These objects provoke unexpected and interesting questions: for instance, why might Ancient Egyptians have decorated their homes with beer-drinking baboons? Look out for my next post to find out why…