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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.

 

The Imperial Gentleman of China

CarolynThompson3 July 2018

I am a primatologist; that is, a scientist who studies the behaviour, abundance and conservation status of monkeys, lemurs and apes. My specialty area and the focus of my PhD research here at University College London, is the plight of the gibbons, the smallest of the apes.

The Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). Photograph taken on Carolyn Thompson’s recent field trip to China. (Photo credit: Carolyn Thompson)

Gibbons are often forgotten in the shadow of their great cousins — the orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — receiving less funding, as well as research and media attention. This is very unfortunate seeing as 19 of the 20 species are on the brink of extinction. The Hainan gibbon, for example, is the world’s rarest primate with a mere 26 individuals making up their entire global population.

I am always thrilled therefore to see media articles raising some much needed gibbon awareness, even if the news story doesn’t always paint us humans in the best light.

In 2004, one of my supervisors from the Zoological Society of London, stumbled across a gibbon skull inside a tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. The skull is believed to be ca. 2,200-2,300 years old and the potential property of Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who is famous for his striking terracotta army. Inside this ancient tomb was a whole menagerie of other animal skeletons including a crane, bear and a leopard — yet another example of human-animal relationships that have dated back millennia.

The skull of Junzi imperialis. (Photo credit: Samuel Turvey).

Although this exciting discovery could tell us a lot about our evolutionary shared ancestry with gibbon species, there are still many unanswered questions. We are unsure if the skull, now said to belong to Junzi imperalis (meaning the ‘imperial man of virtue’ due to the strong historical relationship between humans and gibbons in Chinese culture) is in fact a new species and where it came from. There are strong indicators, however, suggesting that this potentially new species of gibbon could be the first ape to have vanished off the face of the earth due to human pressures. Now extinct, we need to look at our current impact on the planet to ensure we don’t do the same with our other cousins.

Part of my PhD research examines the relationship between humans and animals, especially amongst local communities found in gibbon habitat regions. This intrigue, along with my love of mingling with the public, led me to my new role as a Student Engager in the UCL museums. For example, the Ancient Egyptians also had a strong connection with animals which I hope to explore over the coming months in the UCL Petrie Museum, and the Grant Museum of Zoology also has a couple of gibbon skeletons hanging around. Come and see for yourself!

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming blogs on Twitter: @gibbonresearch and @ResearchEngager

Question of the Week:

Why can’t I touch museum objects?

StacyHackner19 August 2015

DSC_0745By Stacy Hackner

For humans, touch is an important way to gain information about an object. We can tell if something is soft or hard, heavy or light, smooth or rough or fluffy, pliable, sharp, irregular. During my masters class on human dentition, I learned to identify teeth by touch to get around visual biases. We spent a significant amount of time touching objects in our environment, so we tend to get angry when museums tell us not to touch the objects.

I understand the desire to touch a piece of history. There’s a feeling of authenticity you get from holding something made by ancient people, and a sense of disappointment if you’re told the artifact is actually a replica. A British Museum visitor commented that “It was just lovely to know that you could pick something up that was authentic. It was just lovely to put your hands on something.” Another said “You do think sometimes when you’re looking in the cases, sometimes I’d like to pick that up and really look closely.”[i]

Even with “no touching” signs, museum visitors continue to touch things. Sometimes it’s by accident and sometimes they get a sneaky look on their faces, knowing they’re ignoring the signs; most often, they don’t realize what they’re doing is damaging the object.

Passive conservation of an object involves creating a stable environment so that the object can continue its “life” undisturbed. Sudden changes in humidity, temperature, and light can degrade the object. Touching it introduces dirt and oils from your skin onto its surface – the same way you’d leave fingerprints at a crime scene. Additionally, the oils can then attract dirt to linger, and acidic oils can also degrade metallic surfaces.

Yes, museum professionals handle objects for research purposes. However, we attempt to handle them as little as possible with clean hands and wear gloves when appropriate. This difference between museum staff and the public is also one of quantity: it’s ok if one person does it occasionally, but if everyone touches it on every visit, the grime adds up. In 2009, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford introduced a “touchometer” that counts how many people have touched an object made of various materials. As you can see in the image below, after nearly 8 million touches, the left half of the object is severely degraded. The stone (centre) has developed a patina, the metal (bottom) has become shiny, and the cloth (left) has entirely worn away. (Also, people have scratched the frame.)

The Ashmolean's Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman.

The Ashmolean’s Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman, the Ashmolean’s Head of Conservation.

If you walk through the British Museum’s gallery of Egyptian statuary, you can clearly see the areas on artifacts that people like to touch – the corners and public-facing edges of sarcophaguses are darker than the wall-facing edges, and anything round and protruding tends to have a sheen that takes years of painstaking work to remove (hands, feet, and breasts of statues at human height are particularly vulnerable).

Schoolchildren touch a sarcophagus. Credit: Sebastian Meyer for The Telegraph.

The Grant Museum has specific objects that can be handled, and UCL Museums have object-based learning programs to introduce students and specific groups to handling museum objects. [ii] Many other museums have touch tables or touch sessions where you can feel the weight of hand axes or porcupine quills. Don’t despair if you’re asked not to touch something in a museum – we’re not angry, we just want to make sure they’re preserved for future museum visitors to enjoy.

 

Sources

[i] Touching History: An evaluation of Hands On desks at The British Museum. 2008. Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre.

[ii] UCL Museums Touch & Wellbeing; Object-Based Learning

Conservation Advice – Handling Museum Objects. 2015. Southeast Museums.