NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Dear Digital Digest-digesters, it has been an extremely busy month but there are just enough hours in the month to put out the April edition. Continue reading for a round up of all the things you need to know…

What Should I Read?

After much to-ing and fro-ing and panicking from various factions, it has been announced that “accredited museums and galleries will be granted an exemption in legislation… that bans the trade of elephant ivory in almost all circumstances”. This is great news for museums. Read the full story on the Museums Association website here.

There has been a lot of coverage of the dinosaur tracks found in Scotland, but if you missed it all, here’s what the BBC had to report. Both sauropod and theropod tracks are present and they’ve gotten everyone all excited.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is in the news for another year as another photographer falls foul of either not reading, or else ignoring, the rules. The anteater in one of the winning images has been investigated and concluded to be a taxidermy specimen. The image was therefore disqualified and the photographer told to er… get stuffed.

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Paradise, Problems, Perpetrators, and Positives

The Paradise

Far away in a tropical land, where few of us will ever visit, there lives a plethora of exotic and enigmatic animals that would be at home in a book on Victorian expeditions and grand discoveries. Scaly pangolins, pygmy elephants, and a species of small rhinoceros that is covered in brown fur represent a drop in the ocean of the immense biodiversity living in the beautiful natural habitats of Indonesia and Malaysia. I hope you are conjuring a heart-warming image in your mind of lush green rainforests; perhaps a huge orange cat with black stripes disappearing into the undergrowth as birds and monkeys join forces to belt out a warning chorus, letting everything nearby know of the tiger’s presence.

Now raze the trees, set fire to everything, destroy the animals, and in the ensuing barren wasteland grow acres and acres of plantations. All for an ingredient called palm oil.

The Problems

What is this magical substance that is worth wiping out entire species of plants and animals for? It’s an edible vegetable oil that is in everything from soap and toothpaste, to cookies and chocolate bars. Pick up a consumable in any supermarket and you’ll probably be holding palm oil. The substance is this omnipresent in the western world and yet 85% of the entire world’s supply of palm oil comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia alone. That should give you an idea of how much of these two Southeast Asian countries has been, and continues to be, burnt to the ground in order to produce palm oil. That biodiversity we spoke off before is hanging on by its finger tips in smaller and smaller… and smaller… pockets of forest.

World map showing countries affected by large-scale clearance of natural habitat for producing palm oil as of 2006 (FAO 20076, via Koh and Wilcove, 20087).

Further to the suffering of the natural world, in many areas, indigenous peoples are forced to abandon their forest homes and their traditional ways of life, in order for the land to be purposefully destroyed. Indonesia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. What happens to these displaced people? Many of them are forced into working on the plantations as slaves. This includes child slavery. I am sure you have heard of Conflict Diamonds? Conflict Palm Oil is just as inhumane.

If you need further persuasion that palm oil is bad news, the carbon pollution produced by palm oil plantations is a MAJOR player in the line-up of human induced villains that are hurtling our climate out of control. Climate change is a normal, natural phenomenon. What isn’t normal is the speed at which it is occurring due to human activity. It is changing so fast that animals and plants can’t keep up, they can’t evolve or adapt fast enough. So they’re choosing option B and going extinct instead.

In 2015, smog produced as a direct result of fires used in palm oil production was so thick in Sumatra, Indonesia, that it caused air pollution levels to spike in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. (NASA, 2015).

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

What Should I Read?

I was just thinking last week that social media has taken over the world as the most thing in existence, corporeal or not, when this article came out about how scientists should all be trained in its use; Social Media; More Scientists Needed. No hope of escape for any of us then. (I say on a social media platform).

Last Wednesday, sadly, New Walk Museum had items stolen from display; From Rhino horns to Egyptian jewels. Whilst the objects stolen last week weren’t of natural history origin, this article (if you can see it through the adverts) also reveals that rhino horn was stolen from there a few years ago. The huge rhino horn problem faced by museums, primarily in 2012, was largely curbed by museums removing all horn from display. An update on this situation was published on our website recently in Rhinos and Museums.

Finally, if you’re looking for something a little more breathing than the average museum specimen, Jack Ashby recently wrote about Australian wildlife in an article called Does an animal’s name affect whether people care about it?

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Rhinos and Museums

For over 2000 years, rhino horn has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat a variety of ailments including fever, headaches, and vomiting. It is typically ground or shaved and then dissolved in boiling water to drink. Rhino horn is solely comprised of keratin (as are your finger nails) with a structure more similar to a turtle’s beak or a horse’s hoof than the mass of compressed hair as it used to be thought. Keratin in really vast quantities may be able to detect some poisons, but absolutely not in a practical sense, and it certainly doesn’t have the ability to cure any of the vast number of illnesses listed in the ‘TCM handbook’.

Trade in modern rhino horn, and unworked antique pieces that predate the 1947 legislation, is illegal. Unfortunately the demand for horn is high and things like its legality don’t currently seem to be enough to deter the market. Poachers are turning to more sophisticated, and nefarious, techniques to obtain it.

Black rhino in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In South Africa, where the highest numbers of wild rhino live, poaching went from 13 deaths in 2007 and 83 in 2008, through 448 in 2011 and 668 in 2012, to a peak in 2014 where 1215 animals were killed for their horn. Since 2015 the number of rhinos killed per year has dropped slightly, largely due to an increase in security and protection in their range states, however the rate of slaughter is still alarming (1054 were poached in 2016 in South Africa alone) and conservationists fear the day that the number of deaths will outnumber the births, and the African rhinos will go into decline. Both African species are still trying to recover after intensive poaching during the 20th Century decimated their numbers, but are (were) recovering due to intensive conservation management. That is until the last decade and the current ‘poaching crisis’.

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Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Meet the NatSCA Committee – Lucie Mascord

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Ordinary Member

Name: Lucie Mascord

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the new Conservation Representative

Job title and institution: Conservator of Natural History, Lancashire Conservation Studios

Twitter username: @LuceGraham

Tell us about your day job: I am a specialist natural history conservator, working for a museums service and my own business. In both, I provide conservation services to the heritage and private sector. This is mainly in the North West – everywhere from Cumbria or to Cheshire, but my work has taken me all over the country which means I get to visit lots of new collections.

My role covers all scope of natural history collections but I specialise in bone, fluid preserved collections and taxidermy. My work is incredibly varied; as well as a conservator I am a preparator – preparing bone, skins, taxidermy and fluid preserved material. I can spend 200 hours plus conserving a single specimen, or carry out a whole collection survey in 72 hours! I also provide training to institutions in natural history collections care.

 

Visiting the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is?

Overall, I think it is about innate curiosity – the natural world is deeply fascinating and diverse. The reason natural history collections are popular with children is they are still in that stage of uninhibited curiosity.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

If you like a good nose, the second part of TetZoo’s Elephant Seal article has just been published, which you can read here. And here is a thoughtfully placed link to the first part in case you missed it and wanted to catch up.

For a fun bit of ‘history of natural history’, this article is all about the secret that the Natural History Museum’s blue whale has been hiding since the 1930s, unknown to anyone until it’s recent clean prior to the big unveiling next week. Those naughty conservators… chuckle.

Whilst some of this article raised my quizzical-shark-scientist’s-eyebrow, such as the scale bar for instance, researchers believe they have uncovered a big clue as to why the Megalodon went extinct. Definitely worth a read if, like everyone, you like sharks. Although this article came out in January, it is receiving media attention at the moment so I thought I’d treat you to it.

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