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Summer Lovin’: Why You Need a Pachyderm Paramour

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 23 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.

Myths in the Museum: The Dugong and the Mermaid

By Jen Datiles, on 21 July 2018

There’s a 2.7-meter-long skeleton of a big underwater creature in the Grant Museum of Zoology, right when you enter the main room. On my first Saturday shift as a PhD museum engager, a 7-year-old boy stopped to point and ask his mom what this monster was, and why it had hands. The mom glanced at the display label, read its name, DUGONG, and then stopped and looked at me — what on earth was this note about this animal starting the myth of mermaids? Was it for real?

The dugong skeleton making waves (Grant Museum, Z33)

As Rita Dal Martello has written on our blog before, dugongs and manatees both belong to the animal genus Sirenia, and share the common name ‘sea cow’. The mammary glands of females in the Sirenia genus are located on their upper bodies near their armpits, which are likely to have contributed to the reported ‘mermaid’ sightings of explorers and sailors. While manatees can be found in estuarine and fresh waters, dugongs are strictly marine mammals. They also possess a dolphin fluke-like tail. Dugongs are slimmer than their cousins, but this is relative — they still can grow to 3 meters in length and weigh up to a whopping 1000 kg! It’s not surprising, then, that sailors spotted these animals from their ship’s deck. And mistaking them for beautiful humanlike creatures is not entirely far-fetched… when one considers these men could have been at sea for years at a time and knew every tall tale of fantastical ocean creatures in the book.

The myth of humanlike water spirits has perpetuated over the centuries. The first depiction of a half human-half fish creature is thought to be of the Babylonian water god Oannes as far back as 5000 BCE. The ancient Greek sirens, which originally were described with human heads on birds’ bodies, have also often been portrayed with fishtails. Pliny the Elder dedicated an entire chapter of his 1st century book The Natural History to write on the forms of tritons and nereids, describing that “in them, the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales.” In the pacific island nation of Palau, where a 3,000-year-old cave drawing of dugongs was found, legends of young women transforming into sea creatures have been passed down over the years; the word dugong, in fact, derives from Malay for ‘lady of the sea’. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids near Haiti in 1493, and the English explorer Henry Hudson (namesake of New York’s Hudson River) gave a vivid description of the mermaid his crew apparently saw off the coast of Greenland in 1608:

“From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman’s,
as they say they saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her
skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behind of colour
blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the
tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell.”

An 1817 coloured engraving of mermaids. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Captain Hailborne at St. Johns Newfoundland, from Newe Welt und Americanische Historian by Ludwig Gottfried, 1655. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mermaid specimens held a particular grip on Western popular imagination. The hype began when several astonishingly realistic mermaid ‘specimens’ from Asia — primarily from Japan — made their way to Europe during Japan’s isolation policy under the Tokugawa shogunate. When this ended in 1854, these ningyo (which translates to ‘man-fish’), began to circulate as objects of good fortune, supernatural potency, and — perhaps above all — as a means to spark the curiosity of the public. Mermaids were sought after by collectors and showmen alike to draw crowds, as P.T. Barnum famously did with the ‘Feejee Mermaid’.

A Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. (Credit: Royal Academy)

The “mermaid” from the Horniman Museum. (Photo: Heini Schneebeli)

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), whose massive collection has been distributed over the years to various museums including our own Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, saw mermaids worth purchasing for their anthropological value; his two specimens are now housed in the Science Museum over in South Kensington, and in the Buxton Museum. Even the British Museum down the road boasts having its own mermaid. And these ‘Japanese mermaids’ continue to captivate our interest into the present day, not only out of curiosity but for science and conservation studies; researchers at the nearby Wellcome Collection recently investigated what two of these cleverly constructed specimens (long assumed to be a monkey head sewn to a fish body) are actually made of. The answer, it turns out, is stuffed papier-mache, wire, fish teeth, scales, carved bone and wood!

So next time you’re at the Grant Museum, take a look at the dugong skeleton. It may not look like it now, but just think of how this creature inspired sailors, shamans, and showmen to perpetuate myths of mermaids across the world, and over hundreds of years!

 

Not a mermaid. (Photo: Julien Willem)

Additional Reading:

Viscardi P, Hollinshead A, MacFarlane R, Moffatt J, 2014. Mermaids Uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography, (27): 98-116.

 

What is the relationship between frogs and fertility?

By Hannah B Page, on 10 July 2018

During my first few weeks as a student engager I began to notice the presence of frogs… everywhere. I saw them in various forms and objects in the Petrie Museum, and found frog and other amphibious specimens in the Grant Museum. The Surinam toad quickly became one of my favourite objects to show visitors—the female stores her eggs in her back, and they then burst through the skin when fertilised (Fig 1.). As you can imagine, when you tell people this, you get a mixed response. I took this all as a sign and decided I should do a bit of splashing around in the amphibian research pool and dedicate my first blog post to them.

Fig 1 Surinam Toad with emergent young (Grant Museum W332)

What became immediately obvious when I started to do some digging is just how common frogs are in cultural and religious belief systems. Frogs are used as characters in folk law and in fairy tales—just think of the frog prince in the Grimm stories—but I discovered that their use in religion and culture goes back much, much further. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians saw the frog as a symbol of fertility and life giving. This connection is obvious when you understand the importance these past civilisations gave to the rivers that flowed through their lands. The Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers are hailed as the facilitators of the fertile lands that made the development of the first major cities and the centralised hierarchical societies that lived there possible. So the frog, as a watery symbol of the life-giving waters, was then depicted in reliefs, sculpture and objects. One such object is a beautifully crafted, smooth limestone frog in the Petrie Museum (Fig. 2). In fact, frogs are such a strong and consistent symbol in ancient Egyptian culture that they are found depicted in important and specialist objects from the predynastic Naqada periods to the Roman period—some 4,500 years.

Fig 2 Limestone frog from Meroe in the (UCL Petrie Museum, UC.43984)

The Egyptians even depicted a goddess, Haqet, in the image of a frog. Unsurprisingly Haqet is the goddess of fertility and is often depicted either as a frog or in human form with the head of a frog. Amulets were then fashioned in the shape of frogs/Haqet, and were worn, providing fertility to the wearer.

Frogs have also been the subjects of art in other areas of the world as well, for example for the Moche culture of Peru (Fig. 3). The frog species found in the Amazon basin are the most numerous and some of the most deadly, including the poison dart frog who has enough deadly toxin to kill between ten and twenty grown people. Interestingly enough, in Moche society they were also associated with fertility and growth, but with their toxicity (and sometimes hallucinogenic quality), it is thought that their symbolic meaning stretches far beyond this interpretation.

Fig 3 Moche Frog stirrup spout bottle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.60.8)

However in Europe, frogs and toads haven’t always been seen in such a positive light. The prince in the frog prince was cursed and turned into a frog as punishment, and in the epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Satan as a toad poisoning Eve.

So, their social and symbolic importance is well recorded, but what about their biological history? For this I interrogated the case in the Grant Museum dedicated to them. Frogs and toads it seems started life in the Triassic period, some 240 million years ago. The museum even has a cast of an early German species (Palaeobatrachus) that lived around 130-5 million years ago. What is also striking about the frog is its wide native distribution across the globe, from Europe, to the Americas, Africa to Australasia. So it is unsurprising that these springy species have such an important and consistent cultural presence worldwide.

Finally in my research I discovered that the study of the relationship between human culture and amphibians even has a name: ethnoherpetology. Clearly we have a long and intimate history with our croaky friends.

So next time you’re close by, why not hop into the Grant or the Petrie Museum to see how many frogs you can find?

The Imperial Gentleman of China

By Carolyn Thompson, on 3 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 are sea sponges considered animals?

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 29 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?

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 10 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.

 

 

Of Gastropods and Glass: The Grant Museum’s Blaschka Models of Invertebrates

By Hannah L Wills, on 24 April 2018

This week it’s time for another of my favourite objects from the UCL museums, today from the collections of the Grant Museum of Zoology. Displayed in a case near the front of the museum is a collection of extraordinary objects. At first glance, these objects appear somewhat otherworldly; their lightly transparent and almost twinkling surfaces captured my attention from my very first visit. They are, of course, the Grant Museum’s collection of glass models of invertebrates, a collection that includes jellyfish, sea anemones, gastropods, and sea cucumbers, produced at the end of the nineteenth century by the Blaschkas, a renowned family of Czech jewellers.

Limax arborum (tree slug). Blaschka glass model of a white slug, (P202). Image credit: Grant Museum.

Actinia equina (beadlet anemone). Blaschka model of a beadlet anemone. Red/orange body with white beadlets. The tentacles are transparent. On a black wooden base, under a glass dome, (C373). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

The Blaschka family

The models in the museum’s collection were produced by Leopold and his son Rudolph Blaschka in the late 1800s, and may have been ordered by E. Ray Lankester during his time at UCL as professor of zoology.[i] Leopold Blaschka was born in 1822 in Northern Bohemia (today part of Czechia), in Aicha, a village known for its glasswork and decorative crafts.[ii] The Blaschka family specialised in producing jewellery using a range of materials, including glass, metal, and semi-precious stones. During his career, Leopold developed an interest in natural history, and began producing and selling models of invertebrates in the mid-1860s. The models were created using glass, wire, glue and paint, and occasionally incorporated parts of once-living creatures, including snail shells (see below).[iii] Today, Blaschka invertebrate models can be found in museums all over the world. The Harvard Museum of Natural History also holds a collection of glass flowers created by the Blaschkas, commissioned by the university in 1890.[iv]

Arianta arbustorum (copse snail). Blaschka glass model, (P196). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

Why make specimens out of glass?

Passing the collection of models for the first time, a visitor to the Grant Museum could be forgiven for mistaking these models for specimens that were once alive. In light of the museum’s other displays, which feature real animals preserved using a variety of methods, one might wonder why artificial specimens, such as the Blaschka models, should be on display in a museum of natural history. While some creatures, such as mammals, birds, and fish, are easily preserved using methods of taxidermy, flowers and the softer bodies of invertebrates pose specific challenges in terms of their preservation. Putting these specimens into alcohol causes them to lose their shape and colour.[v] By creating models out of glass and other materials, it is possible to depict the vibrant colours and forms of the original specimens, allowing these creatures to be preserved and studied.

Art, Science, and ‘Jokes of Nature’

Former student engager Niall Sreenan has mused on the nature of the Blaschka models as artificial creations that occupy an ambiguous realm between nature and art.[vi] As a historian of science, I am fascinated by this interplay, particularly as it relates to the practice of natural history and the display of specimens. The relationship between art, nature, and science held great significance to the practice of natural history in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. As the historian Paula Findlen has noted, collectors of natural specimens in the Early Modern period were fascinated by the idea that Nature, as a creative force who produced all the objects and creatures in the world, sported or played in her work by producing ‘jokes of nature’.[vii] Such ‘jokes of nature’ incorporated instances where natural objects appeared to ‘mimic’ human artifice, as seen in unusual fossils, geometric crystals, or in stones which appeared to have pictures implanted within them.[viii] ‘Jokes of nature’ were connected to science through the idea that man might match nature using art. Artificial creations and human imitations of natural forms were thought to mimic these jokes in a way that was central to natural philosophers’ understanding of the world.[ix]

Though produced over a century later, the Blaschka glass models call to mind this ambiguous division between human artifice and natural object. As models of difficult-to-preserve specimens, they allow visitors to understand what these creatures look like. On the other hand, they draw attention to human ingenuity and skill in the way they artfully capture the look of organic specimens.

Sea cucumber (female). Blaschka glass model in a cylindrical specimen jar, (S73). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

The end of a craft

In 1895, Leopold Blaschka died. When his son retired in 1938 with no apprentices left at the firm, the Blaschka family business closed.[x] The skills used to produce the models died with the Blaschka family, and their work has not been repeated since.[xi] The models in the Grant Museum stand as a remarkable testament to unique craftsmanship and skills now lost.

Though models are no longer produced using the techniques once used by the Blaschka family, the relationship between art and natural history continues to fascinate contemporary artists. Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby has recently written about the ways in which artists explore and reference the methods of natural history, and the treatment of both living and preserved animal specimens on display.[xii] Exploring the intersection of natural history and art, whether in the creation of model specimens or in the interrogation of the practices of natural history, can prompt us to question the ways in which natural and man-made objects are encountered in museums, and the way we understand an object’s (and our own) relationship with the natural world.

 

 

References

[i] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[ii] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vi] Niall Sreenan, ‘”Strange Creatures” – Reflections – Part One’, 25 June 2015, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2015/06/25/strange-creatures-reflections-part-one/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vii] Paula Findlen, “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1990): 292-96.

[viii] Ibid., 297-98.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xi] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xii] Jack Ashby, ‘When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion’, 19 April 2018, https://natsca.blog/2018/04/19/when-art-recreates-the-workings-of-natural-history-it-can-stimulate-curiosity-and-emotion/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

I spy with my little eye… Micrarium Top 5

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 9 January 2018

Want a tour through the Grant Museum’s iconic display of the tiny creatures that populate our world? Well unfortunately, it’s much too small for that! However, here I’ll tell you about five of my favourite slides to be on the lookout for when you visit.

The Micrarium. Photo by author.

The Micrarium’s floor-to-ceiling lightboxes illuminate 2323 microscope slides featuring insects, sea creatures, and more, with another 252 lantern slides underneath. While this sounds like a lot of slides, it’s only around 10% of what the museum holds. Natural history museums often find it difficult to display their slide collections, but the diminutive creatures often featured on them make up most of our planet’s biodiversity.

I start most of my conversations with visitors during Student Engager shifts here – the Micrarium provides a clear illustration of my PhD research about how challenging aspects of diversity (of all kinds) are integrated into existing collections. It’s also an ideal place within the museum to try to pause people in the flow of their visit – it’s hard to resist stopping to snap a selfie or two.

Selfie by author.

The soft glow of the Micrarium’s backlit walls often draws people into the space without realising the enormity (or tininess!) of what they’re looking at. Over time, I’ve cultivated a number of favourites that I point out  in order to share the variety, strangeness, and poetry of the individual slides.

Small and mighty

‘Stomatopoda “Erichtheus” larva’. Photo by author.

I was attracted to this slide because at first I thought it looked like a little flying squirrel. In actuality, it’s the larvae of a mantis shrimp.

The mantis shrimp is an incredible animal. To start, they have the most complex eyes of any animal, seeing a spectrum of colour ten times richer than our own. Its two ‘raptorial’ appendages can strike prey with an amount of force and speed, causing the water around them to boil and producing shockwaves and light that stun, smash and generally decimate their prey.

For more, check out this comic by The Oatmeal that illustrates just how impressive mantis shrimp are.

‘and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog’

‘Eye of beetle’. Photo by author.

This is one of my favourite labels in the collection – was a zoologist also dabbling in witchcraft ingredients?  Probably not. But, I’d love to know what the slide was originally used for.

The slide itself also looks unusual due to its decorative paper wrapping. These wrappings were common to slides from the mid-19th century, which were produced and sold by slide preparers for others to study.

Many of the slides in the Micrarium were for teaching students who could check out slides like library books. So, perhaps it illustrated some general principles about beetle eyes rather than being used for specialist research.

Cat and Mouse

Fetal cat head (L). Embryonic mouse head (R). Photo by author.

One of the secrets of the Micrarium is that there are bits of larger animals hidden among all of the tiny ones. I like how the mice look surprisingly cheerful, all things considered. Bonus: see if you can also find the fetal cat paws!

Seeing stars

‘OPHIUROIDEA Amphiura elegens’. Photo by author.

This is a young brittle star, which in the largest species can have arms extending out to 60cm. Brittle stars are a distinct group from starfish; most tend to live in much deeper depths than starfish venture. They also move much faster than starfish, and their scientific name ‘Ophiuroidea’, refers to the slithery, snake-like way their arms move.

This slide can be found at child height, and it’s nice to show kids something they’re likely to recognise.

And finally:

Have you seen the bees’ tongue?

‘Apis (Latin for bee) tongue’ Photo by author.

Showing visitors this slide of the bee’s tongue almost always elicits surprise and fascination. Surprise at the seemingly strange choice to look at just the tongue of something so small and fascination at how complex it is.

We don’t normally think of insects having something so animal-sounding as a tongue (more like stabby spear bits to sting or bite us with!). But, bee tongues are sensitive and impressive tools: scientists have observed bee tongues rapidly evolving alongside climate change.

Good luck finding these…or your own Top 5! Share any of your favourites in the comments.

The Grant Museum blog did a similar post five years ago when the Micrarium opened. These don’t overalp with my Top 5 (which is easy to avoid when there are 2323 slides), so you should also check that out.

Question of the Week: What’s this Museum For?

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, whilst engaging in the Grant Museum, I started talking to some secondary school students on a group visit to the museum. During their visit, the students had been asked to think about a number of questions, one of which was “what is the purpose of this museum?” When asked by some of the students, I started by telling them a little about the history of the museum, why the collection had been assembled, and how visitors and members of UCL use the museum today. As we continued chatting, I started to think about the question in more detail. How did visitors experience the role of museums in the past? How do museums themselves understand their role in today’s world? What could museums be in the future? It was only during our discussion that I realised quite how big this question was, and it is one I have continued to think about since.

What are UCL museums for?

The Grant Museum, in a similar way to both the Petrie and Art Museums, was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. Named after Robert Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at UCL, the collection was originally assembled in order to teach students. Today, the museum is the last surviving university zoological museum in London, and is still used as a teaching resource, alongside being a public museum. As well as finding classes of biology and zoology students in the museum, you’re also likely to encounter artists, historians and students from a variety of other disciplines, using the museum as a place to get inspiration and to encounter new ideas. Alongside their roles as spaces for teaching and learning, UCL museums are also places for conversation, comedy, film screenings and interactive workshops — a whole host of activities that might not have taken place when these museums were first created. As student engagers, we are part of this process, bringing our own research, from a variety of disciplines not all naturally associated with the content of each of the museums, into the museum space.

 

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

 

What was the role of museums in the past?

Taking a look at the seventeenth and eighteenth-century roots of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London, it is possible to see how markedly the role and function of the museum has changed over time. These museums were originally only open to elite visitors. The 1697 statues of the Ashmolean Museum required that ‘Every Person’ wishing to see the museum pay ‘Six Pence… for the Space of One Hour’.[i] In its early days, the British Museum was only open to the public on weekdays at restricted times, effectively excluding anyone except the leisured upper classes from attending.[ii]

Another feature of these early museums was the ubiquity of the sense of touch within the visitor experience, as revealed in contemporary visitor accounts. The role of these early museums was to serve as a place for learning about objects and the world through sensory experience, something that, although present in museum activities including handling workshops, tactile displays, and projects such as ‘Heritage in Hospitals’, is not typically associated with the modern visitor experience. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1784), a distinguished German collector, recorded his visit to Oxford in 1710, and his handling of a range of museum specimens. Of his interactions with a Turkish goat specimen, Uffenbach wrote, ‘it is very large, yellowish-white, with… crinkled hair… as soft as silk’.[iii] As Constance Classen has argued, the early museum experience resembled that of the private ‘house tour’, where the museum keeper, assuming the role of the ‘gracious host’, was expected to offer objects up to be touched, with the elite visitor showing polite and learned interest by handling the proffered objects.[iv]

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature – a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

 

How do museums think about their function today?

In understanding how museums think about their role in the present, it can be useful to examine the kind of language museums employ when describing visitor experiences. The British Museum regularly publishes exhibition evaluation reports on its website, detailing visitor attendance, identity, motivation and experience. These reports are fascinating, particularly in the way they classify different visitor types and motivations for visiting a museum. Visitor motivations are broken down into four categories: ‘Spiritual’, ‘Emotional’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Social’, with each connected to a different type of museum function.[v]

Those who are driven by spiritual motivations are described as seeing the museum as a Church — a place ‘to escape and recharge, food for the soul’. Those motivated by emotion are understood as searching for ‘Ambience, deep sensory and intellectual experience’, the role of the museum being described as akin to that of a spa. For the intellectually motivated, the museum’s role is conceptualised as that of an archive, a place to develop knowledge and conduct a ‘journey of discovery’. For social visitors, the museum is an attraction, an ‘enjoyable place to spend time’ where facilitates, services and welcoming staff improve the experience. Visitors are by no means homogenous, their unique needs and expectations varying between every visit they make, as the Museum’s surveys point out. Nevertheless, the language of these motivations reveals how museum professionals and evaluation experts envisage the role of the modern museum, a place which serves multiple functions in line with what a visitor might expect to gain from the time they spend there.

What will the museum of the future be like?

In an article published in Frieze magazine a couple of years ago, Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, invited a group of curators to share their visions on the future of museums. Responses ranged from the notion of the museum as a ‘necessary sanctuary for the freedom of ideas’, to more dystopian fears of increased corporate funding and the museum as a ‘business’.[vi] These ways of approaching the role of the museum are by no means exclusive; there are countless other ways that museums have been used, can be used, and may be used in the future. My thinking after the conversation I had in the Grant Museum focussed on my own research and experience with museums, but this is a discussion that can and should be had by everyone — those who work in museums, those who go to museums, and those who might never have visited a museum before.

 

What do you think a museum is for? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or come and find us in the UCL museums and carry on the discussion!

 

References:

[i] R. F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.

[ii] Fiona Candlin has written on the class politics of early museums, in “Museums, Modernity and the Class Politics of Touching Objects,” in Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, ed. Helen Chatterjee, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

[iii] Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach, Oxford in 1710: From the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, trans. W. H. Quarrell and W. J. C. Quarrell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1928), 28.

[iv] Constance Classen, “Touch in the Museum,” in The Book of Touch, ed. Constance Classen (Oxford Berg, 2005), 275.

[v] For this post I took a look at ‘More than mummies A summative report of Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum May 2016’, Appendix A: Understanding motivations, 27.

[vi] Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?” Frieze 175, (2015), accessed online.

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.

Picture1

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.