‘Marvellous Molluscs’ – Increasing Accessibility, Improving Storage & Unlocking Research Potential At The University Of Aberdeen

Written by Hannah Clarke, Assistant Curator (Collections Access), University of Aberdeen.

In April 2021, The University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum, with support from NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award, undertook a year-long project to rehouse and improve the accessibility of the University’s mollusc collection.

The collection comprises approximately 2550, mostly British specimens, collected from the 1840s to the 1970s. The specimens were gifted to the museum by former students, academic staff, and amateur shell collectors, they also include several specimens from as far afield as the Pacific, Africa, China, Madagascar, America, and Canada.

The molluscs form part of the University’s extensive Zoology Collections, which are recognised as being of National Significance. As such, we are constantly striving to improve access to these collections, and the ‘Marvellous Molluscs’ Project aimed to do just that.

Assistant Curator, Hannah Clarke, identifying storage issues in specimen cupboards.

Having identified the collections both in storage and on display, a project plan was created that would tackle not only the rehousing, but also the documentation of the specimens on the museum database. The majority of specimens were poorly stored several layers deep in drawers, had outdated taxonomy, and lacked any database records or collections data.

In order to address the storage issues, we sourced several sizes of crystal boxes, which would protect the shells from further damage and stack neatly, should we need to maximise the storage space we had. This also meant that the specimen labels wouldn’t be separated from the specimens, could be kept inside the box, and the exterior of the boxes could be clearly labelled, making them easier to locate in the future.

Old storage methods inside the specimen drawers. Specimens inside poly bags, labels becoming detached, specimens stored in layers causing damage as the drawers are opened. This system also made specimens hard to locate.

Without a specialist in-house curator, we were very fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of staff members from the School of Biological Sciences at the University, who offered their time to help identify the trickier specimens and lent their support to the project as it progressed. A special mention must go to Dr Kara Layton, Lecturer in Marine Biology, and Eilidh Player, Laboratory Demonstrator, as well as several Post-Graduate Museum Studies Students, who offered their knowledge and enthusiasm to the cause. It certainly has been a steep learning curve for me, and I can’t thank them enough for their willingness to share and exchange their extensive knowledge!

In the first few months, we began to update the scientific names of the specimens, transcribe old labels and data into the database and identify specimens without labels or accession numbers.

In the meantime, our crystal box supplier unexpectedly ceased manufacturing, and cancelled our previously agreed order…

Luckily some of our specimens had original glass-lidded boxes, so we focused on re-using these where we could. Eventually, almost halfway through the project, the boxes arrived, and we were able to speed up the rehousing of those specimens which we already catalogued.

The Crystal boxes finally arrived… what a relief!

We faced a few further challenges along the way, the Covid Pandemic being the main one! This meant that we had limited access to the museum stores on campus, and a shortage of lorry drivers meant that delivery times for project materials were extended too.

We did however make some wonderful discoveries along the way, including a specimen of the rare ‘Crusty Nautilus’ Allonautilus scrobiculatus, found in a drawer labelled ‘miscellaneous’ (as is almost always the case when you re-discover something amazing)! It is now on display with several other interesting mollusc specimens in ‘The Gallery’ of the Sir Duncan Rice Library until June this year.

The Crusty Nautilus specimen, found in a drawer labelled ‘miscellaneous’.

We are now nearing the end of the project and have managed so far to rehouse and update over 600 database records.

Rehousing in appropriately sized boxes has created more space in the storage cabinets, and the labelling of the specimens with their current scientific names has made searching for the molluscs much easier both on the museum database and in the drawers themselves.

Newly rehoused molluscs in individual specimen boxes, with clear labelling.

As the project has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that the scale of the task at hand is much larger than we initially anticipated.

Although most specimens are labelled with original accession numbers which correspond to hard-copy registers, over 70% of the collection does not have a database record.

Therefore, the rehousing and cataloguing work will need to continue after the initial Project deadline of April 2022. Luckily, we have several keen university students willing to volunteer on the project, and as they say, ‘many hands make light work!’

The wonderful discoveries that have already been made, have further validated just how important this project is for widening access to future research of this rich and diverse collection. We can’t wait to see what we might uncover next!

New Mollusc Display in ‘The Gallery’ at the Sir Duncan Rice Library.

Stepping Into The Genomics Age: A DNA Bank at World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

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

From World Museum’s founding collection of study skins and taxidermy mounts bequeathed by the 13th Earl of Derby to the spirit-preserved amphibians collected by curator Malcolm Largen in the 1980s, World Museum’s Vertebrate Zoology collection has continued to expand and reflect the state-of-the-art in specimen preparation and storage.

As ethics around the sacrifice of animals for science have modernised, ‘traditional’ specimen types are no longer being prepared at the same rates, and growth of the collection has slowed abruptly. At the same time usage of the collection has diversified, including increases in requests for destructive sampling. In particular, the removal of small tissue samples, usually bird toe pad scrapes, is regularly requested for use in DNA extraction which produces a ‘pure’ DNA extract that can be used in a number of genomic investigations.

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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.

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CryoArks – Discover The UK’s First Zoological Biobank

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.

Sorting through lemur muscle samples at National Museums Scotland © National Museums Scotland

CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.

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Invertebrates In Vitro

Written by Paolo Viscardi, Curator of Zoology, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

I’m not sure why, but people really seem to love Blaschka models.

Beccaria tricolor [sic] Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland.

Beccaria tricolor [sic], Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland. Image by Paolo Viscardi, 2018

They are the subject of a surprisingly large number of enquiries at the National Museum of Ireland — Natural History (AKA the Dead Zoo), where I look after the zoology collections.

If you’ve not heard of the Blaschkas, they were a father and son company of lampworkers based in Dresden, who supplied museums and universities around the world with glass models for teaching and display. Between 1864 and 1890 they made mail-order models of invertebrates (alongside glass eyes and medical equipment), then from 1890 until 1936 they worked exclusively for Harvard University on the Ware collection of glass flowers.

glass_flowers_gift-bouquet

Bouquet of Blaschka glass flowers made in 1889, gifted to Elizabeth C. and Mary L. Ware. Now part of the Harvard Glass Flowers exhibit. Image by Bard Cadarn, 2018.

At the Dead Zoo we have a particularly large and comprehensive collection of the invertebrates, with around 590 models acquired in lots between 1874 and 1888. I say ‘around’, because many of the models are made up of multiple parts, with different developmental stages, enlargements and details that are classed as elements of the same model.

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