Trophy Hunters

Antler collection at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology
Antler collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology

It may be an inconvenient truth in these conservation-focused times but we owe a debt of gratitude to the trophy hunters; the army officers and colonial-types who killed animals for sport and prestige. Without their considerable efforts, the vaults of natural history museums would be devoid of the skeletons and skins which form the bases of both exhibitions and many PhD and MSc. theses. Of course, were it not for the over-zealous efforts of hunters perhaps many charismatic animal species wouldn’t be so endangered now but let’s focus on the positives here…

Naturally, if you’re a hunter looking for a prize, bigger is usually better. It’s far more impressive to have a stag or bear’s head mounted on your wall than a hedgehog or shrew – although I would like to hear the embellished stories which might arise from tales of killing your first hedgehog! Similarly, if you are a taxidermist or museum collections manager in many ways it is easier to prepare and preserve large rather than small mammal specimens.

These collection trends are all well and good if you’re interested in the charismatic species. I, however, am studying the little shrewy-type things; hedgehogs, moles, shrews, golden moles and tenrecs – fascinating species but not prized possessions for your trophy case. Even in some of the world’s largest natural history museums it’s difficult to find intact skulls and skeletons of some of these creatures. Combined with the inherent delicate nature of these animals (some tenrecs’ limbs are tiny!) compiling a complete morphometric data set of the groups remains challenging.

Tenrec limbs with a pen for scale; teeny tiny tenrecs!
Tenrec limbs with a pen for scale; teeny tiny tenrecs!

For the museum collections of these little critters that do exist; I am eternally grateful to the progenitors of carefully handwritten labels accompanying the skulls and skeletons on which my PhD research depends. Adventurers such as Major Forsyth, G.K., Creighton, and C.J., Raxworthy who donated specimens from their tropical voyages deserve special thanks in any research which arises from their collective efforts. However, I am also grateful to the back-yard naturalists, the people who collected and preserved the seemingly ordinary, every-day species of common shrews and hedgehogs which are no less important to ecological and evolutionary research than their exotic counterparts. I benefitted greatly from their collective efforts during my recent trip to Chicago’s Field Museum.

Whether naturalists or trophy hunters, the individuals immortalised by museum specimen labels couldn’t possibly have envisaged all of the diverse future research which would be based on their prized collections. It’s an important reminder that, despite the inherent appeal of flagship species, the lesser-spotted or common-something-or-others are just as deserving of our attention and study. Even if you don’t have the equipment or inclination to start posting skeletal remains of common species to your local natural history museum, there are still plenty of ways of contributing to the study of “ordinary” wildlife. Don’t be dazzled by the allure of large-animal trophy hunting and remember that, when it comes to understanding the natural world, bigger is not always better.

Author:

Sive Finlay: sfinlay[at]tcd.ie

@SiveFinlay

Photo Credits

Sive Finlay

Night in the Research Museum

 

On Friday the 27th of September, as part of the Discover Research Night we opened the doors of the department to the public. We decided that since we have a museum full of some really cool stuff, we could use it to demonstrate some of the research in the department.

Cool stuff
Cool stuff

Since the research night had a mix of students, families and the generally curious we introduced each tour with some of the j-awesome teeth (I make no apologies for puns) to demonstrate the basics of ecology and evolution. So, with the help of Baleen, shark jaws, elephant molars and the jaw-dropping narwhal tusk we whetted the audience’s appetite to see just what evolution can do to modify a few teeth in order to match a particular ecology (okay I apologise for some of the puns).

j-awesome
j-awesome

We then used some of the more mobile museum specimens (although the pilot whale skull we brought up from the basement would argue against that) to set up a game of “guess that longevity” to help explain some up and coming NERD club research.

Upwardly mobile pilot whale
Upwardly mobile pilot whale
Guessing the age is bovining me crazy!
Guessing the age is bovining me crazy!

This worked really well and I think people became really engaged with the idea that there is so much variation in how long animals live, especially the sturgeon that can live over 150 years. It’s then an easy sell to explain the basis of our new paper which shows that species with lower external mortality (those that can avoid danger such as by flying) live longer than expected for their size (stay posted for more info on that soon!).

I'm really just a fuzzy bird when it comes to my age
I’m really just a fuzzy bird when it comes to my age

We finished up the tour by displaying some of our individual research such as some upcoming T.rex modelling (with added Jurassic Park music), a possible new bird species (and some spot the difference) and some obligatory lasers (one guy even came to ask if he could use the scanner for his golf clubs!?). It was also a great excuse to roll out those conference posters that are often treated like an Irish convertible that only gets a spin out once a summer!

Lasers!
Lasers!

In the context of trying to engage the public with research I found it to be in complete contrast to my previous experiences as although we managed to get nearly 200 people into the department we really got the chance to explain face to face why what we do is interesting and cool (an easy task when holding a stuffed platypus) but then also explain some of the possible applications that might not be obvious (such as medical or ecological). It also allowed us to talk about the things that are interesting to the public themselves instead of continually telling them what they should be interested in.

All and all the night went great and I think everyone, including some of the specimens enjoyed the night!

Creepy cat does not like taxidermists
Creepy cat does not like taxidermists

Author and Photo Credits:

Kevin Healy: healyke[at]tcd.ie, @healyke

Prince Tom

 

Prince Tom at the TCD Zoology Museum
Prince Tom, star of the TCD Zoology Museum

There’s an international celebrity star of the Victorian age directly above my office. He’s lived there long enough to see his museum home gradually shrink around him to such an extent that he no longer fits out the door. He will spend the rest of his days eavesdropping on undergraduate lectures, seminar presentations and NERD club meetings. Prince Tom adds a flavour of exoticism and royal blue blood to our Zoology Museum’s collections.

Tom was an Indian elephant caught from the wild and presented as a gift from the ruler of Nepal to Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh. Along with a tortoise companion, Tom accompanied the Duke on his visit to New Zealand in 1870. He lived and worked with the sailors aboard H.M.S. Galatea, partaking in the manual work of hoisting sails and enjoying his daily crew rations of rum – the quantities of which were up scaled so they were befitting an animal of his size.

As one of the first elephantine visitors to the land of kiwis, Tom sparked quite a publicity stir in New Zealand. Tom’s decidedly non-teetotaller ways were of particular interest; one journalist remarked that Tom “indulged in alcoholic stimulants, of which a temperance advocate might say, he was far too fond”. Tom was also noted for his gentle ways; bending down to offer rides to his adoring public and happy to accept treats of buns, biscuits and lollies.

Upon his return from the colonies, Tom was loaded onto a train at Plymouth bound for London. While he was, by now, accustomed to maritime transport, confinement in a train carriage was an entirely different matter. Amidst his attempt to escape, Tom crushed the Royal Marine corporal who had been entrusted as his carer. Clearly health and safety practices of the Victorian era did not stretch to include protocols for the safe transport of slightly tipsy elephants.

Tom was relocated to Dublin Zoo in June 1872 where he quickly became a star attraction. He gave rides to children and was, for a time, effectively given free-reign of the zoo (just a touch different to how the elephants are looked after today!) Tom’s most famous trick was to buy his own snacks from the food stands. He learned to collect coins in his trunk and hand them over in exchange for his favourite treats.

A few close encounters when Tom broke loose and “endangered himself and others” put an end to his free reign at the zoo and he spent his last few years confined to his house and small yard. He died in 1882 aged roughly 15; evidently his years of heavy drinking and fondness for pastries were not conducive to prolonging his longevity. His body was transported by barge from the Zoo to Trinity College where he was dissected “with the aid of shears, ropes and pulleys”, how I would have loved to attend that anatomy lecture!

Tom’s skeleton has remained in our Zoology Museum ever since. His celebrity status continues long after his death as he is now one of the main attractions of our new museum guided tours which start today. So if you’re around Dublin, come along and meet Tom for yourself, hear stories about our other famous animals and learn about our extraordinary collections which date back to the voyages of Captain Cook in the late 18th century. You never know what unusual tales lurk behind our taxidermied and skeletal remains.

Author

Sive Finlay: sfinlay[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

Sive Finlay

The Evolution of Natural History Museums

I’ve been touring international natural history museums as part of my PhD research. The “behind the scenes” aspect of each museum is fairly unchanging; row upon row of cabinets with some very unusual objects lurking within – the taxidermic tastes of some people just leave you wondering… Aside from the obvious dissimilarities in size, the major difference between the museums I’ve visited is in the style of their public exhibits. Like any other industry, museum exhibition styles are subject to fashion trends which reflect society’s interests and inclinations at the time of the exhibit’s creation. Visiting collections in Dublin, London, Washington DC, New York and Harvard University is an interesting trip through the evolution of natural history museums.

A visit to Dublin’s Natural History Museum should be treated as an historical trip back to the golden age of Victorian interests in the natural world. The museum’s first floor gallery is typical of the “classical” approach to natural history collections; collect and stuff as many animals as possible and cram them together in display cases to be admired. Scientific information is often limited to just species names and any niggling doubts about taxidermic accuracy should be ignored (have a look at the Orang-utan’s less than life-like features on your next visit). I love this old style, not only because you never know what odd creatures are lurking around the corner but also for its testimony to the collecting frenzies of 19th century naturalists.

A quick tour around London’s natural history museum gives a flavour of the evolution of exhibition styles; from display cabinets similar to Dublin’s “dead zoo” approach through to the ultra-modern and interactive Darwin Centre where you can watch a real-life scientist at work behind a glass screen (maybe not so far removed from a zoo after all?) The human biology exhibits lie somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The interactive displays that allow you to re-live your time in the womb and explore how your senses work represent some of the earliest changes in exhibition planning; the move from passive presentation of natural objects to interactive attempts to inform and entertain museum visitors.  These changing attitudes are documented in Richard Fortey’s excellent book about life at London’s museum.

In different ways, the American museums I visited also mix old and new approaches to museum exhibits. The Smithsonian Institute seems to have a taste for dynamic and life-like taxidermy. They have a giraffe drinking from a waterhole, a leopard hanging out with its kill in a tree and lions in the middle of taking down a water buffalo.

IMG_0368

IMG_0369

IMG_0367They’re the same species as can be found in Dublin or London but their action-style poses certainly adds a bit more realism to the exhibits. You just have to wonder about what weird contortions and odd framing apparatus must have been used to preserve these animals in mid-action poses for ever more.

The American Museum of Natural History has a different approach to adding a touch of life to their dead zoo. Many of their species are displayed in dioramas; recessed windows frame scenes from Savannah, tropical rainforest, desert and woodland life. The AMNH also has a cleverly designed and beautifully displayed wing where visitors can walk the vertebrate tree of life. Feeling somewhat Dorothy-esque, you follow the vertebrate phylogeny laid out on the ground, stopping en-route to see fossil or skeletal examples from all the major lineages. Instead of going down the “pull a lever/ push a button/ touch a screen” route of exhibition interactivity, the AMNH has enlivened the traditional natural history style by displaying their species in an evolutionary or ecological context which is far more interesting and informative for the visitor. They are certainly lovely scenes to admire, though I do admit that I spent most of my time wondering what happens when everything comes to life at night

Although smaller in size, Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology combines all the exhibition styles of its big city museum counterparts. There are dead zoo-style cases of stuffed animals, ecological dioramas of species found in New England forests and high tech, interactive touch screens to explore the tree of life (a lovely tool but not completely up to date – because I’m pedantic I had to check how they classified tenrecs…) The added benefit of the MCZ is their inclusion of exhibits based on current and previous research of the museum and affiliated staff. They have specialised, themed exhibits based on their research expertise, I particularly loved the displays about the evolution of animal colouration and camouflage based on research from the Losos lab. Despite its limited size, the MCZ combines all major aspects of the evolution of museum exhibits; from static stuffed animals through to interactive attempts to inform visitors and clear links with active, current scientific research.

There’s clearly a huge variety in natural history museum exhibits and it’s interesting to see how each institution tackles the task of preserving their tradition while still continuing to keep a pace with the demand for new and more exciting exhibits. Our own TCD Zoology museum is no exception to this evolving museum trend as we prepare to welcome our first public visitors of the summer in just a few weeks’ time. I look forward to sharing some our own quirky museum stories; just how did our elephant, Prince Tom, fit in through the door?

Author

Sive Finlay: sfinlay[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

Sive Finlay

Hide and seek with a T-Rex in a drawer

Natalie Cooper and Sive Finlay already posted on this blog about the amazing old stuff you can find in a Natural History Museum (here and here). Palaeo collections are also special, I spent one week in the Smithsonian Institution Paleobiology collections to measure some Eocene American primate teeth and I was amazed by the quality of their collections. But the nice thing about Palaeo collections is that when you’re looking for a particular specimen, you always come across wonders you didn’t expect.

IMG_1197
Rows of drawers…
IMG_1199
…Containing loads of boxes…
USNM-299811
…Each one containing tiny fossils, like this Tinimomys molar.
IMG_1213
But it’s not just tiny primate teeth !
IMG_1216
Some random mammoth skull…
IMG_1218
…Can be found near paleo-shark teeth…
IMG_1221
…With some weird Helicoprion spiral teeth!
IMG_1211
Oh and yes, not to mention the dinosaurs such as this hadrosaurid skull…
IMG_1232
…Or this sauropod one.
IMG_1185
And I even found, hiding in a drawer… a T-Rex!

 

Author

Thomas Guillerme: guillert[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

Thomas Guillerme, with the kind permision of Michael K. Brett-Surman.

 

Treasures of Natural History

Natural_History_Museum_London_Jan_2006

The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favourite places. The majesty and beauty of the building’s design is a fitting exterior to house the truly stunning collections within.

The new Treasures exhibition displays just 22 of the museum’s most prized possessions. It’s a special opportunity to see valued and varied treasures such as the type specimen of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx, Darwin’s pigeons and the Iguanodon teeth which sparked the discovery of the dinosaurs all lined up together. The stories behind the origin and significance of each of the treasures are fascinating.

Although not one of the most famous objects, the Emperor Penguin’s egg was my favourite item. The egg is beautiful in itself but its real value as a treasure lies in the story behind its collection. It is one of just 3 intact specimens which were collected by Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition between 1910 and 1913. In this centenary anniversary year, Scott’s quest to reach the South Pole remains one of the most inspiring examples of human endeavour. Before the age of GPS, insulated clothes or re-heatable “expedition food”, Scott’s crew ventured into the heart of the frozen continent.  As if striving to reach the pole wasn’t enough of a challenge in itself, the expedition also had the aim of collecting as much scientific data about Antarctica as possible. Their chief scientist Edward Wilson wanted to examine penguin embryos for evidence of an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. However, Wilson was part of the team who perished with Scott on their return journey from the Pole. The specialist embryologist who was going to study the eggs died in the First World War and by the time results from studying the eggs were published in 1934, the evolutionary recapitulation theory on which the egg-study was based was outdated.

The story behind this egg certainly puts the trials of modern scientific research into perspective. While the rate of new scientific discoveries shows no sign of slowing, delving into the finer details of the inner workings of the cell or the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria doesn’t hold quite the same level of physical adventure as that which was represented by Scott’s expedition. I’m not for one instant suggesting that I long for a more dangerous yet adventurous age or that modern fieldwork is not without its trials and difficulties. I just don’t know of any current research projects which can match Scott’s story in terms of raw human endeavour into the most unknown, dangerous and inhospitable conditions imaginable. It was a treat to see such a precious and fragile reminder of past scientific endeavour on display.

The treasures exhibition is a stunning collection of prized objects and should be treated as a site of pilgrimage for anyone even remotely interested in evolution or the natural world. Most of the specimens are unique but fortunately an example of one treasure, the Great Auk can be seen in the TCD Zoology museum. So that’s one ticked off the list for Trinity – though I’ve a feeling that it might take just a little while for us to match the rest of London’s collection …

Author

Sive Finlay: sfinlay[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Darwin’s insects, Dodo skeletons and macaques with braces

macaque braces

The Natural History museum in Dublin is one of my favourite places in the city. It has a very Victorian feel to it, none of this pandering to the X-box generation, just cabinet upon cabinet of mounted skins and skeletons revealing the diversity of nature. Some of the taxidermy is pretty hilarious and you can see the bullet holes in some of the skeletons, but that adds to the charm of the place!

I did a lot of museum based work during my PhD and absolutely loved using museum collections, so now I have my own students they all have museum collection aspects to their projects (whether they like it or not!). They will be using the collections in the Dublin museum, so today we had a tour behind the scenes of the museum, and a look at the storage areas with one of the curators Nigel Monaghan.

It was awesome! In the space of a few hours we saw insects collected by Darwin during his time on the HMS Beagle, a Dodo skeleton, a macaque skull with orthodontic braces (the original owner was apparently a dentist, though no-one is sure whether the macaque had braces in life or was just used for practice after it died), an entire room full of Irish elk crania and antlers, some wild Irish grass snakes (Ireland historically has no snakes of any kind), a DNA bank for every Cetacean stranded on the Irish coast, a huge selection of bird parts collected from birds that accidentally flew into lighthouses, and probably the funniest interpretation I’ve ever seen of what a guinea pig should look like.

As we went around, many of the things Nigel told us got me thinking about what an under used resource museum collections are. Certainly many people use the big collections in London, Paris, New York and Washington DC, but few of us would think to look in our local museums. For example, Nigel told us that a geneticist did a piece to camera in the museum recently and mentioned how wonderful it was that they had managed to extract Dodo DNA from a specimen in France. They seemed completely unaware of the fact that the Dublin museum has a beautiful Dodo skeleton in its collection. So my message is go out and use your local museum collections (or at least ask the curators if they have what you’re looking for)! They’re wonderful sources of information and inspiration, whether you’re a first year undergraduate student or a tenured professor. Right, now where did I put my calipers…

Author 

Natalie Cooper: ncooper[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

Natalie Cooper