Portrait of a Sensitive, Armoured Snout

Unraveling an ancient mystery

Picturing the world of the prehistoric is often likened to a jigsaw puzzle: one in which each new piece starts a whole new puzzle. Your pieces are scattered across all the museum stores in the world or weathering out of the ground. The quality is variable and some of the pieces are warped. In some cases we get lucky and find an immaculately preserved specimen, like the ones being uncovered in China, with evidence of soft tissue still preserved. In other cases, we must rely on osteological correlates in living animals to work out what’s going on.

Palaeontologist Mark Witton recently wrote a post
about a group of predatory dinosaurs called abelisaurs. These animals have a rough, cornified texture to their skulls. Living animals with a comparable bone texture usually have hardened, reinforced skin. Hippopotamus faces regularly endure blows from rival hippo teeth and, while scarring occurs, lasting damage is usually avoided. Some theropod dinosaurs* show bite scars on their faces which suggest that something similar was happening with these too. Hardened, armoured skin would be very useful here. However…

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We are used to thinking of armour in the mediaeval knight or Kevlar sense of the word. This is not quite how tough hide works in living animals and apparently not for extinct ones either.

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Neovenator salerii, showing neurovascular regions. Image property of Darren Naish, shown here with permission.

Enter Neovenator

A new paper, published today by Chris Tijani Barker and colleagues, point to a network of sensory canals in the snout of Neovenator salerii – an early Cretaceous allosauroid theropod. The type specimen, held at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, has all the hallmarks of abelisaur-style facial armour but also sensory features similar to those found in crocodiles.

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Crocodile facial tissue is both tough and sensitive, like a gauntlet that can read Braille.

It’s most intriguing because, in 2014, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues highlighted sensory pits in Spinosaurus as one of a suite of characteristics that demonstrate aquatic behaviour. That paper ricocheted around social media like a gunshot, with many critiques of the revised limb proportions of Spinosaurus

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New-look Spinosaurus. Image property of Natee Himmapaan, shown here with permission.

but very little attention was paid to the sensory pits – until now. Neovenator is a clearly terrestrial carnivore, built for land-based activity, yet it has these sensory features on its snout which allow the face to respond to subtle touch stimuli. The paper goes into other examples of animals that have such protective face coverings and delicate sense of touch: duck beaks to name but one. I shan’t steal the paper’s thunder by reciting them all here – it’s well worth a read if you’re curious. One of the paper’s contributors, Darren Naish, has also written up the discovery here.

Perhaps we will see another revision of the Spinosaurus material when the long-awaited monograph comes out, now that yet another feature has fallen into the “not necessarily aquatic” category, we can only wait and see. Regardless, Neovenator is an interesting specimen in its own right and I’m sure it has even more secrets to yield.

* I’m explicitly not naming that species: It already gets the lion’s share of press coverage and is mentioned in unrelated press articles, it’s about time it was ignored in related ones.

 

Curators of the Caribbean part II: Following in Dr A Broughton’s Footsteps

We started our first day of plant collecting early on the 28th September. Armed with data relating to the specimens collected by Broughton and the localities, we took a team of botanists with us into searing heat and high humidity to the top of a mountain and were very fortunate not to get into danger as there is plenty in the scrub. Land is reclaimed illegally for growing marijuana and producing charcoal so we had to be careful and often dogs are used to keep people away. This also meant that the habitat is much changed and so finding the necessary specimens to bring back was not always possible but we did manage to find some corresponding records.

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From left to right Dr Philip Rose, Patrick Lewis, Vicky Purewal, Rhian Rowson, Keron Campbell and Patrick Plummer (machete wielder, which was useful for cutting paths through the vegetation).

Prior to our expedition, Keron Campbell, botanist at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica drove us to the University of the West Indies. We met with Patrick Lewis the herbarium curator and Dr Phillip Rose, the botanical lecturer at the University. We were later joined by Patrick Plumber, the University technician. We visited the collection and learnt about the flora of Jamaica which consists of c.2,700 specimens of flowering plants and 600 ferns. The herbarium had mainly been collected in the late 1800s by renowned Irish botanist William H Harris (1860-1920) who was the former superintendent of gardens and plantations in Jamaica. He discovered a large number of species new to science. We were impressed that the 36,000 specimens were well cared for, re-mounted onto archival card and all strapped and not adhered with PVA, a practice the Jamaican botanists were not in favour of.img_1919

One of the first specimens we saw when entering the University was this one. Not such an impressive image I’m afraid but great to see. Patrick Lewis grew this specimen 4 years ago and it is yet to flower, but it is the endemic  Broughtonia sanguinea R.Br. This is the orchid believed to have been named after our own intrepid Dr Arthur Broughton. The R.Br. refers to the authority that named this specimen and this was Robert Brown, the very man responsible for Brownian motion and the scientific use of microscopes. Worryingly he has been quoted as referring to Broughton as a fellow Scot, however we know Broughton to have been brought up in England, and his father the Reverend Thomas Broughton moved to the parish of Bedminster, Bristol in 1744. His 5 siblings were English, but Broughton did study medicine in Edinburgh, so this could be the reason…we have gained a few more leads since being out here in Jamaica but our search for more information continues …

NatSCA Digital Digest

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Welcome to the August 2016 edition of the NatSCA Digital Digest: an oasis of calm in a raging tempest of olympics, Trump, brexit, austerity, and celebrity deaths.

News from the Blogospbere

Hannah Cornish has been writing about the often-overlooked gems of the museum collection: the slides. You can read it here.

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Image courtesy of the Oxford University Museum of Natural history

So Pokémon Go happened last month: the Smartphone game that has been an unintended boon for the museum world. Several curators have weighed in on the phenomenon; here is Jack Ashby’s take on it.
News from Nature

The organisation which used to call itself “Nature First” has just demonstrated why that name was no good. In a shock announcement last week, Natural England seems to be favouring the lives of human-reared pheasants over the lives of the wild buzzard. We have watched buzzard numbers slowly recover over the past thirty years, it would be dreadful to see all that progress lost now – and even worse if the hunters mistake other struggling raptors (the Hen Harrier, e.g.) for a buzzard. Here is the RSPB’s response.
News from the Museums

I’ve been doing some travelling lately. I visited the Natural History Museum in Doncaster. It’s a small but delightful museum which has struggled through some hard times, as so many have, but makes the most of what it has. Its collections are benefitting greatly from having a specialist curator right now – long may it continue.

A little closer to home: I visited the Natural History Museum’s new Colour and Vision exhibition, which is beautiful despite not mentioning the Tuatara anywhere. The exhibition looks at the evolution of the eye throughout nature and the beautiful ways in which nature tries to catch the visual attention of others. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend it.

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A montage of Trilobite sensory organs

Announcements

I am delighted to announce that Deputy Keeper of the Horniman Museum, co-blogger, and good friend Emma Louise Nicholls is engaged to be married! I wish her and her fiance every happiness for the future.

Micromuseum: The slide collection of J T Quekett

How many natural history collections contain drawers and drawers of unloved microscope slides? With a few notable exceptions, such as the Grant Museum Micrarium, museums often find slides difficult to display and use.

The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has a particularly large collection of 50,000 slides, making up more than half of all the objects in the collections here. Hardly any are on display in the Hunterian Museum. A closer look however, reveals that the RCS microscope slide collections are really something special. From William Osman Hill’s Yeti slides to William Hewson’s 240 year old microscope vials, the slide collection here is every bit as exciting and important as the other objects in the museums.

As Collections Assistant for the microscope slide collection most of my work over the last six months has been on the John Thomas Quekett collection. His name is not well known, but if you have heard of it that is probably because you have come across the society of microscopists named in his honour. The Quekett Microscopical Club (QMC) has generously funded a project to care for Quekett’s original slides.

John Thomas Quekett (1815 -1861) was a leading histologist and microscopist who was Richard Owen’s deputy at the Royal College of Surgeons.  Quekett took over as conservator of the Hunterian Museum in 1856 when Owen left for the British Museum to become the superintendent of the natural history department and oversee the building of what would become the Natural History Museum, London. Quekett was at the cutting edge of a revival of the popularity of the microscope in the Victorian period. He wrote A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Microscope which became a classic text for microscopists, and is known to have instructed Prince Albert in the use of his silver microscope. He was a fellow of the Linnaean Society and the Royal Society, and worked with famous scientists such as geologist Charles Lyell, palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, explorer David Livingstone, botanist Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin himself.

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John Thomas Quekett (1815-1816). (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

 

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An octopus from the Quekett Microscope slide collection. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

 

Quekett was a pioneer in histology and microscopy, designing his own microscope and producing stunning histological preparations, especially injected specimens. Furthermore he put every natural object he could get his hands on onto a microscope slide. Animal, vegetable, mineral, everything. Tissue samples of every organ in the human body, a whole octopus, tiny flakes of silver, the exquisitely prepared respiratory system of a caterpillar. He prepared diatoms, ferns and coal, delicate sections of pterosaur bone, thylacine teeth and oak wood. There are even hair samples disturbingly labelled ‘vampyre’, although this probably refers to the bats rather than the undead.

He carefully labelled and catalogued his slides to produce a comprehensive natural history collection on a microscopic scale, and 12,000 of these slides remain today. It is not surprising that a recent review of the RCS collections concluded that the Quekett material is “one of the strongest representative collections of Victorian microscopy and scientific practice in general in the UK and possibly the world” (RCS Significance Review June 2015).

Given their age the slides are in relatively good condition, but there are some issues to contend with such as cracked glass, missing labels and leaking fluid. Since the 1880s microscope slides have been a standard size – 2.5cm x 7.5cm, but the Quekett collection predates this. His slides range in size from 1.8cm x 4.8cm up to a whopping 8.5cm x 20cm. Some of the slides are also very thick and all this makes storage difficult and any type of automated scanning nigh on impossible.

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Slices through the teeth of thylacines. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

The collection is obviously of interest to those working on the history of science and microscopy, but impressively the slides are still being used for scientific research, 170 years after Quekett made them. Preparations of harder materials such as fossils, bones and teeth have survived in excellent condition, enabling modern researchers to gather data from the collection. The image below was taken recently using reflected light fluorescence microscopy by a PhD student studying bone remodelling in mammal species.

Transverse section of the humerus of a mountain hare. Prepared by J T Quekett, photographed by Alessandro Felder, Royal Veterinary College. Image taken at 4x magnification using reflected light fluorescence microscopy

Transverse section of the humerus of a mountain hare. Prepared by J T Quekett, photographed by Alessandro Felder, Royal Veterinary College. Image taken at 4x magnification using reflected light fluorescence microscopy. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

With the upcoming RCS decant and new Hunterian Museum planned for 2020 there is an opportunity to bring this collection to prominence again. We plan to include Quekett’s story in the new exhibits and make his collection better known, better protected and more easily accessible online. At first glance an old microscope slide collection might not look like much, but if you investigate further you never know what you might find.

Written by Hannah Cornish

(Collections Assistant, Royal College of Surgeons)

For more information about J T Quekett see:

https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/library/blog/quekett-and-exploration

http://www.quekett.org/about/who/history

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Holly Morgenroth

Name: Holly Morgenroth

What is your role on the NatSCA committee? Treasurer

Job Title & Institution: Collections Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM)

Twitter username: @Comet_Moth_HM

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Tell us about your day job:

A bit of everything.

My specialism is natural history (I am a marine biologist by degree), so I am the first port of call for anything that is recently dead (biology) or long time dead (palaeontology) that isn’t human. I deal with public enquiries, write exhibitions, give talks and care for the collections.

As Collections Officer I manage a small team of Assistant Curators and oversee the collections management for all the collections, not just natural history. I help to write policies and funding bids, coordinate team projects and manage budgets. I also manage a few volunteers.

Are you working on any projects that you’re really excited by at the moment?

HMSChallenger.net – check it out!

What do you love most about working with natural science collections?

Dead things in jars. Spirit collections fascinate me.

I have a bit of a thing for glass – currently thinking of Blaschka models and contemporary artist Steffen Dam.

Occasionally coming across specimens from some of the early voyages  – Challenger, Lightning, Beagle, Blossom etc.

Puzzles – piecing together the stories behind the specimens.

What would your career be in an alternate universe without museums?

If my ears would let me dive and boats didn’t make me very sick, then a marine biologist. Otherwise a florist perhaps…

What is your favourite museum, and why? (It can be anywhere in the world, and doesn’t have to be natural science-related!)

Horniman – I love the aquarium, particularly the tank inspired by Victorian naturalist P. H. Gosse.

Gosse-inspired tank in the Horniman Museum & Gardens aquarium (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gosse-inspired tank in the Horniman Museum & Gardens aquarium (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life

On my first visit to a NatSCA conference I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was in for a treat. Initially planning to write only about Amgueddfa Cymru‘s ‘Museum in a House’ talk, I found myself drawing parallels between all three presentations in the morning’s second session (likely more by design than accident), as well as the new temporary exhibition at my current museum, the Museum of East Anglian Life.

In ‘The Artist and the Dead Zoo’, Nigel Monaghan delivered a selection of somewhat lighthearted accounts of artists of all genres (modern and traditional, writers and musicians) who have used the natural history collections of the National Museum of Ireland as inspiration, as raw material for casts, and the galleries as backdrops and venues – the museum hosts recording slots for artists on Mondays. Suitably relaxed and open-minded to the benefits of establishing strong working relationships with artists, we were treated to Amgueddfa Cymru’s visual log of their ‘Museum in a House’ project in Roath, Cardiff.

Left: giant deer skull and antlers in the Museum of Ireland’s stores [1]. Right: artwork created using a cast of these antlers by artist Paul Gregg [2]

Conceived and designed as part of a local modern arts festival, the idea of deliberately displaying natural history items outside a museum context had unsettled me slightly, given the recent focus at my own museum to saturate an exhibition of historic art with rural life context, at once visual, audible and intellectual. No need to worry, though, as Jen Gallichan and Annette Townsend ably demonstrated great enthusiasm throughout the project, with a non-hierarchical team allowing for freedom of everyone’s ideas on design, content and installation, from volunteers to curators.

Displays from Amgueddfa Cymru’s ‘Museum in a House’. Left: an arthropod-covered snooker table. Middle: Two dung beetles fight over a vital resource. Right: garden windows bring to mind giant microscope slides [3]

This collaborative and fun approach yielded excellent results, and even some context drawn from popular art and culture of recent decades: suspended taxidermy harked back to the mid 20th century, while the family’s DVD collection was carefully arranged to highlight animal- and nature-related films such as Jurassic Park and Madagascar. The aim was to excite the local art world with a playful exhibition, and create new interest in natural history collections. In this they excelled, seeing 600 visitors in 10 hours, with many visitors returning later with friends and relatives. On-the-hoof creation of a ‘nature trail’ proved the value of freedom of ideas, added purpose to a visit and created another layer of engagement with the artistically-minded public.

Left: Flying taxidermy in the stairwell of the museum in a house [3]. Right: porcelain flying ducks in a 1950s living room display at the Museum of East Anglian Life [4]

Speaking immediately afterwards, Kay McCrann further strengthened the case for the role art (this time fine art) can play to increase awareness and popularity of natural history collections. William Jones’ 18th century taxonomic work ‘Icones’ and Jeff Gabel’s modern line drawings were front and centre. Gabel is known for drawing portraits of real and imagined subjects, while naturalists may have to draw specimens arranged in their mind’s eye to portray all pertinent features for taxonomic identification. Both Jones’ and Gabel’s works are confined using borders. These shared aspects of process and composition between modern artists and historic naturalists offer a handle for appreciators of fine art to begin to appreciate the value of natural history collections and connect to the natural world.

Left: ‘Praimus no. 1′ from William Jones’ ‘Icones’ [5]. Right: Jeff Gabel’s work ‘Art Historian Waiting…’ [6]

At the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL), 34 historic oil paintings, watercolours, and drawings rub shoulders with rarely-seen objects from the museum’s stores. Each item illustrates a facet of rural life in East Anglia during the last two centuries: horse shoes sit alongside a thatcher’s needle; a lady’s bonnet overlooks a model wagon; a shepherd’s smock stands sentinel over the whole. The artefacts emphasise a specific item or theme in each artwork, offering our reliable visitor base a gateway to the appreciation of the splendid art on offer, while a soundtrack of birdsong and traditional song, of water mills and farriers and farmyards transports the physical displays into their wider natural environment.

Left: a local shepherd’s smock. Middle: an assortment of MEAL’s objects. Right: A birdcage overlooks its corresponding painting [7]

At MEAL, interest in art arises when art is placed in the context of our collections and our 75-acre site, but it’s not a one-way street. Amgueddfa Cymru generated huge excitement and interest in the museum by removing specimens from a museum context, while at the National Museum of Ireland and in fine art research interest in natural history arises through its relationship with art organisations, the creative process and artists themselves.

James Lumbard

Museum of East Anglian Life

 

References

1. NMING:F7768
Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach, 1799)
Skull with antlers, complete, of male giant deer; Jamestown, Co. Tipperary.
Gift: Major Purefoy Poe in 1946 (accession NMINH:1946.14)
O’Rourke 1970, fig. 37 (p. 110). O’Rourke, J. (1970) The fauna of Ireland: an introduction to the land vertebrates. Mercier Press, Cork.
Reynolds 1929, fig. 11 c, p. 29. Reynolds, S.H. (1929) The Pleistocene giant deer. Palaeontographical Society [Monographs] 81 (371): 1-62
2.‘Ancient Ecology Pavilion’ at St. Mary’s CBS. Image copyright Paul Gregg, 2016. Image available from: http://paulgreggstudio.com/stmary.php
3.‘What’s In Store At No. 32?’, Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, 2015. J Gallicgan, pers. comm, May 2016
4.‘Home Close’, Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk. Image copyright James Lumbard, 2016
5.‘Praimus’, no. 1, Icones Volume 1, William Jones, 1783. Image available from: http://www.jonesicones.com
6.‘Art Historian waiting…’ #22 of 50, 2nd Series. Jeff Gabel, 2004. Image available from: http://stolperer.blogspot.co.uk
7.‘Life through the Eyes of East Anglian Artists’, The Day Collection and Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk. Image copyright James Lumbard, 2016

NatSCA 2016: Inspiring Connections to the Natural World

Why NatSCA?

Joining NatSCA, for me, means being part of a group that makes me feel at home. By that I mean, being with others who view nature (living or dead) from a different perspective, and will look at something with a keen interest regardless of its condition – decomposing, or completely expired (like the barn resident below).

Skeleton from a barn (2016). Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Skeleton from a barn (2016). Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Membership of NatSCA also means being part of a support network, closing gaps we feel are limiting in terms of knowledge and skills. No one person can be an expert in everything, and sharing our experience with fellow colleagues helps us to look after and protect the collections we manage for future generations.

Why the NatSCA 2016 Conference?

This year’s conference was my first. The subject ‘How museums inspire our connection to the natural world’ was one everyone could relate to at any age or stage in life. It presented the opportunity to connect with like-minded colleagues sharing their experiences in live presentations, poster contributions, and from trade stands.

Taxidermy insides: rat form by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Taxidermy insides: rat form by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Taxidermy in progress: half-finished pigeon by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Taxidermy in progress: half-finished pigeon by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Selected Conference Highlights (for me):

Jennifer Gallichan and Annette Townsend’s ‘Museum in a House: Collections out of context’ contributed an inspirational presentation demonstrating the benefits of enabling practitioners to offer fun, creative and uniquely energising engagements with the public by utilising community support and unique venues.

Tom Hartman’s presentation on ‘Engaging with objects and images: using zoology specimens for outreach and education’ emphasised that having the freedom and opportunity to use collections without restriction, or organisational expectation, can support the development of ideas that better inspire and engage its users.

Sarah Wade’s presentation, ‘The Art of Craftivism in Museums’ demonstrated that problems such as pollution, poaching and extinction can be presented in an approachable and inspired way in tandem with showcasing beautiful ethical artwork (who would believe a Sainsbury’s plastic bag could be so stunning?).

Jazmine Miles-Long’s presentation, ‘How taxidermy can inspire us to view collections in a different light’ reminds us all that, whatever material we have in our collection, we should be fearless in our use of it and derive inspiration by connecting with it in many different ways. I was certainly engaged by the materials demonstrated for taxidermy mounts.

Chris Orgil, Adam S. Smith and Sheila Wrights’s poster, ‘Engaging the Public with Taxidermy Restoration at Wollaton Hall’ provided an illustrative snapshot of how sharing the processes involved in the restoration and colour correction of specimens can provide new forms of public engagements, and so inspire exhibitions and inventive collections’ learning spaces.

Creativity

A creative approach can help present controversial or sensitive topics with impact, yet greater subtlety. It can be used to deconstruct perceptions and create interpretive dialogues about nature between communities, and strengthen peoples’ connections with nature – in ways that suit them and meet their needs. Making room for a connection sometimes means moving out of a comfort zone, but If we retain curiosity we open our minds and so can inspire others.

Free-styling

What I appreciated most was that to inspire connections to nature means we must not control the experience of our visitors. Connecting to nature is not simply about transferring facts and figures.

We should aim to be less prescriptive about the limits of our offers to audiences to enable more artistic, inventive and playful engagements to take place.

As custodians of collections, we need to respond to our public. This means being open to alternative ideas, new ways of thinking, and exploring engagements utilising all our senses.

 

I am very grateful to NatSCA for supporting my attendance at this year’s conference.

Sarah Scarlet-Farr

University of St. Andrews