Size Matters: Pesticides in Large Mounted Vertebrate Specimens

Written by Becky Desjardins (Senior Museum Preparator & Conservator), Georgia Kay & Kim König (MSc students Museums & Collections – Leiden University; Naturalis Interns), Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Back in 2013, Naturalis conducted a research project about arsenic in the museums’ specimens. The goal was to determine if arsenic was spreading from the collection areas into staff and or public areas of the museum. We tested many specimens with an XRF but also tested the elevators, door handles, floors, shelves, keyboards, etc. From this testing we developed protocols about handling specimens and how we use the spaces in the collection. You can read all about that project over here.

What didn’t get tested were the large mounted vertebrates. Back in 2013 the Naturalis collections were spread over a number of warehouses around Leiden. Because these external buildings were considered depots only (meaning no offices/canteens in these spaces) there was less concern about arsenic contamination in non-collection areas. The large vertebrates were considered to be high risk specimens (so very toxic), and were handled as such, they never had their moment with the XRF.

Fast forward to 2021 and after a massive renovation to our main building, nearly all the collections are under one roof and we have time to do some conservation and restoration work. We identified 25 specimens in need of stabilization and restoration. These include: ocean sunfish, hippopotamus, a gavial/gharial, a few different types of buffalo, an elephant, and mounted Cetacea skins, among others. The majority of these specimens are between 100 and 200 years old. In anticipation of this restoration work, we wanted to find out just how much arsenic, lead and mercury these specimens contained. 

As was done in 2013, we used the XRF to look for arsenic, lead and mercury. Each specimen was tested in multiple places: eyes, ears, around the mouth, along the belly seam, any cracks in the skin, and the feet/hooves. Each of the specimens was tested in as few as 3 and as many as 9 places; as it is essential to test several areas because negative test results can be obtained, even if a specimen is contaminated. This time we recorded consistently high arsenic levels, which was not a surprise, what was a surprise was how much mercury and lead was found compared with 2013. Back then we’d found high levels of lead (higher than 600ppm) in only 5 of the 36 specimens that we tested, and the 2013 testing turned up no detectable levels of mercury in any of the tested specimens. What was going on?

In short, we think that size makes the difference, our testing indicates larger specimens received larger amounts of pesticides. Arsenic and mercury (mercury chloride) were used as pesticides in taxidermy throughout history until the 1980’s and there are records of many taxidermists liberally using toxic cocktails for preservation. Perhaps thicker skins, such as that of an elephant or hippopotamus received more pesticides than a sparrow hawk or blackbird (species tested in 2013) would have gotten.

The variation in high amounts of lead is not so easy to explain. Lead was used as lead paint on the soft parts of mounted animals and sometimes was used to model cartilage (in ears, for example) of mounted animals. In general we found if a specimen had a lot of lead, then it had a lot of lead everywhere. Perhaps hides of animals with sparse or no hair were painted with lead paint: for example, we did find more lead in the cape buffalo and ocean sunfish, and less in the zebu. This was different for the arsenic and mercury; which were mostly present in the soft tissue parts of the bodies: around the eyes, mouths, ears and genitals. However, it was unexpected that the arsenic was also very heavily present around the horns.

The next step is to create a protocol of how to handle these specimens when they are undergoing restoration. One of the challenges we are currently facing is that Naturalis does not have a dedicated work space for large restoration projects and we are trying to figure out where this work could be safely done. The specimens are in a depot but we are nervous about cross contaminating nearby specimens, however, due to their large size, just moving these objects out of the depot door is a challenge. One option would be purchasing a sort of party tent so that we can keep the dust contained. We welcome suggestions from readers who have experience in the area of large specimens/pesticides/restoration or want to join us in our biohazard party tent.

References

Contaminated Collections: Preservation, Access, and Use. Shepherdstown: Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, 2001.

Desjardins, Rebecca. (2016). Arsenic and pre-1970s museum specimens: using a hand-held XRF analyzer to determine the prevalence of arsenic at Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Collection Forum, 10.14351/2015.02.15.

Marte, Fernando, Amandine Péquignot, and David W. Von Endt. “Arsenic in taxidermy collections: history, detection, and management.” Collection Forum 21, no. 1-2 (2006), 143-150.

Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 2.

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

Abel Chapman’s time in southern Africa was only the first of many visits to the continent. His next trip, in 1904, was to a very different place – British East Africa. This was a colonial protectorate roughly equivalent to today’s Republic of Kenya. It had grown out of land leased by the British East Africa Company but was now firmly under British imperial control.

The Uganda railway, a huge feat of engineering, had been completed just three years before Chapman’s visit. This now allowed trains to travel the 800km (500 miles) between Mombasa on the east coast and the African Great Lakes. The British now had the means to extend their influence right across East Africa, disrupting the slave routes and simultaneously opening up the land to the missionaries, settlers, tourists and game hunters that were now pouring in. It was in this rapidly changing environment that Chapman strove to find the longed for wilderness that had eluded him in Transvaal, and test his skills as a sportsman, before that land too vanished under the settler’s plough.

Figure 1. An undated photo of the Uganda Railway near Mombasa (http:/www.jaduland.de, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 1.

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

In the museum’s basement is a room filled with heads. Row after row of them stare out from metal racks, glassy eyed and bristling with every kind of horn and antler. Visitors to this room are sometimes awestruck at the breadth of species on display. The Kudu, its head crowned by spiralling horns like giant corkscrews. A tiny Klipspringer with horns like shiny black thorns. The huge Eland, its vast head armed with massive horns like tank shells. A parliament of Africa’s fantastic beasts, all in this small storeroom. These are hunting trophies from the Abel Chapman collection. When he died in 1929 they were taken down from the walls of his Northumberland home, and gifted to the museum.


Figure 1. A rack of game trophies from the Chapman collection in the Great North Museum resource centre (Copyright Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

In light of the current conversation about museums and colonialism, and the insightful work of Lowe and Das on the subject of Natural History collections in this context, I thought I’d try to learn more about the history of the great North Museum’s African collections, and my attention was caught on the horns of Chapman’s trophies. The more I’ve learned about their story, the more I’ve come to feel that trophy heads, some of the most recognisable Natural History objects, are great examples of the way that colonialism has both helped to shape naturalism, museum collections and even our ideas about wildlife conservation.

The story of our collection begins in 1851 when Abel Chapman was born into a wealthy Sunderland brewing family. Educated at the elite Rugby School, he joined the family firm as a young man and embarked on a successful business career. Chapman was intelligent and adventurous, making expeditions to places like Canada, Scandinavia and the Arctic. In detailed notebooks filled with deft pencil sketches he documented the things he heard, saw and shot, and used these to write a whole series of books. He built a reputation as a ‘hunter naturalist’ passionate about combining field sports with game preservation, and as well as amassing a horde of trophies, he became an influential figure in the emerging field of wildlife conservation.

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We Brought Our Electric Ray Specimens Into The Lab…What Happened Next Will Shock You!

Written by Claire Smith, Project Officer at the Cole Museum of Zoology.

If you’ve been following the Cole Museum of Zoology on Twitter, you’ll know that the museum is closed at the moment – not only because of the COVID-19 lockdown, but also because we’re preparing our collections for their move into a brand new Life Sciences building. While the new museum may not be ready to open until 2021, we have plenty of work to do behind the scenes in the meantime.

Along with a team of staff and volunteers, I work on the fluid-preserved collections at the Cole Museum. As well as the ongoing task of keeping all of the wet specimens in good condition, we’re also putting some into safe storage, and getting others ready to go out on display. As part of my fluid-preservation Twitter, I share weekly threads about the kinds of tasks that the team takes on.

When specimens come into the lab needing work, we identify them from an abridged version of the museum’s catalogue. This gives us basic information such as the specimen’s accession number, its species, and what kind of fluid it’s preserved in. The majority of the Cole Museum’s specimens are fairly new, by museum standards – they’re mostly around 60 to 100 years old. Many of them have been re-sealed, re-mounted or been housed in new jars during this time, but every now and then we come across one which appears untouched. Continue reading

Time To Figure Out Where Specimens Are Really From

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

In 2020 the Vertebrate Zoology collection at World Museum took a step towards ‘FAIR’ data sharing and began adding datasets of specimen records to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). There is always a trade-off between releasing datasets as soon as possible and ensuring they contain the most precise and reliable data possible. We’ve taken the view that through releasing these datasets, and encouraging their use, a positive feedback loop will incrementally improve data quality. That said, due to restrictions on other activities, one side effect of the Covid pandemic has been a little more time for in-house provenance research.

Banded Broadbill – Eurylaimus javanicus Horsfield, 1821 [accession number: NML 31.12.14.56a]. Collected at ‘Kao Nawng’, Surat Thani, Thailand on 1913-07-21 © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

One collection I’ve focussed on during this time is that of prolific collecting duo, Herbert Christopher Robinson and Cecil Boden Kloss, which came to World Museum from the Federated Malay States Museums (FMSM) in 1914. Robinson, a former assistant at the Liverpool Museums, directed the FMSM from 1908 until 1926; Boden Kloss was the colleague ‘to whom he was much attached’. It seems that the FMSM specimens arrived in Liverpool without any additional documentation, so the collection locality information in our database (at National Museums Liverpool we use Mimsy XG) must have originally been transcribed from specimen labels with ‘place collected’ presumed to be Malaysia. Continue reading