What Is That Spiny Thing?

Written by Ranee Om Prakash, Senior Curator – General Herbarium IV, Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum (NHM) holds over 80 million specimens and every single specimen tells a story.

Amongst these 80 million objects, one such object is a specimen (Fig. 1) that the museum acquired from Mexico over 2 decades ago. This object excites curiosity amongst novices, students and the general public alike. Whenever anyone looks at this, the first thing they ask is what is that? A pineapple? A furry cat? Is it a sponge? The imaginations are limitless….

Fig. 1. Flower of Melocactus (© The Trustees, Natural History Museum, London)

This is the flower of Melocactus Link & Otto, also known as the Turk’s Cap Cactus or Melon Cactus. This is how it looks in the wild (Fig 2).

Fig. 2. Melocactus azureus in wild (picture by Pierre Braun, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35738382

As per the Plant List (2018), this genus has over 40 species. This plant is a native of the Caribbean Islands and is found from the Bahamas, Mexico to North East Brazil below.

Fig. 3. Distribution of Melocactus (source: http://www.plants of the worldonline.org link: http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:331763-2.)

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus named the first species as Cactus melocatus. However, this name was rejected and the correct name for this genus is now Melocactus.

The plant has a phylloclade (modified stem that functions as a leaf, aids in photosynthesis and helps to reduce the rate of transpiration) and is easily recognizable by a woolly, bristle-coated structure at the apex of the plant, containing a mass of areoles from which the small flowers grow. At first glance, the dried flower looks like a furry cat, some people even think of it as a pineapple due to its spines and hexagonal structures on the flower. The fruits of this plant are edible. The juice of the plant is used to quench thirst and the plant is also used for medicinal purposes across many parts of the World.

Whenever we get a chance to talk about this mystery specimen, we do. It has been displayed at various events at the museum such as the World’s Plants Fascination Day (celebrated in the month of May) and the Science Uncovered event in the month of September. It a well-known fact that people like to touch, feel and describe the object and increasingly over the years, museums have engaged with audiences in this way as object handling is an excellent way to learn and be inspired. There are several other collections behind the scenes which are equally inspiring, but this Melocactus is one of my favourite specimens. I wonder if there is an object or a specimen that has inspired you too?

If you would like to come and see this and other interesting collections, our department is open Monday- Friday 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. You can drop us an email to book an appointment.

I would like to end this article with a quote from the World Collections Report (2019):

The objects in museums’ collections tell stories about people, places, nature and thought. It is only possible to understand the world around us if we understand its past, both natural and man-made. The stories told by these objects, brought to life by study and display, help more easily to explore common themes and threads through history and relate those to the present day. Some of the most comprehensive and internationally important collections of natural history, ethnography, technology, art, literature and design are held by UK museums – and so these world collections tell world stories.

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to Jonathan Jackson – Photography Studio Manager at the Natural History Museum for kindly imaging the object.

NatSCA Digital Digest – March

Compiled by Jennifer Gallichan, Curator of Molluscs & Vertebrates at National Museum Cardiff.

Welcome to the March edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. If you have visited an exhibition/museum, have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Where Should I Visit?

Monsters Of The Deep opens on 20th March at the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall. Really curious to know what people think of this exhibition exploring centuries old myths of Krackens and Giant Sharks. I have also heard that there will be a Coelocanth on display for the first time in Cornwall!

Design For Life at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh explores the fascinating history of Comparative Anatomy and how integral it was to the beginnings of Surgeons’ Hall Museums. The exhibition will run until Easter 2020.

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Exeter Shell Collection Designated by Arts Council England

Written by Holly Morgenroth, Collections Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM).

On 30 January 2020 Arts Council England’s (ACE) awarded Designated status to the George Montagu collection of Molluscs at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM). Just 152 collections in the country hold the coveted Designation award, and only a few of these collections are Natural History. Tullie House’s natural science collection recently received this accolade. The Designation scheme is a mark of distinction awarded to the finest cultural collections housed in non-national museums, libraries and archives across England.

Pioneering naturalist George Montagu (1753-1815)

George Montagu was the first person to collect and name British molluscs in a truly scientific manner. The shells were not just attractive curios. His work revolutionised the study of molluscs and his collection at RAMM is Britain’s most intact and taxonomically-important, early 19th-century collection of British shells (1800-1816). Today it is an essential resource for taxonomic research.

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The Power of People and Collections in the Climate Emergency

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum and Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth (formerly Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery).

Museums are most powerful when they connect real objects and research with real people. Natural science objects elicit deep emotional responses to the climate emergency; they help people to care and when done right, empower action.

This message is central to the NatSCA conference this year:

Changing the World: Environmental Breakdown, Decolonisation and Natural Science Collections

We’d love to hear your experience in a talk at the conference, the deadline for submissions is the 7th February.

Natural science collections are unique records of past biodiversity and climate across Britain, and the world, and are essential for climate change research taking place in museums every day. They allow access to historical information about millions of different species, providing an incredible amount of detail. They show how plants and animals have responded to past climate change, they show long-term population trends, and they show what we have lost.

These are all stories essential to bring clear factual science to an emotionally-charged debate. Research on these collections has directly shaped conservation work and climate change mitigation. In short, natural science collections are a powerful way to help save the world and give people hope for a better future.

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Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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Diminished Scales – The Plight of The Pangolin and The Role of Museums

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

To explain grace requires a curious hand’ wrote Marianne Moore, in her 1938 poem, The Pangolin. Moore first learned about pangolins at college in biology class and remained fascinated by them for the rest of her life. Curiosity was what first drew me to pangolins, too. Not just about their curious, clawed hands – when I first encountered a stuffed pangolin at the Great North Museum, its whole appearance was like nothing I’d ever seen. A small quadruped, clad in precisely overlapping rows of jagged scales, like steel plating welded onto a badger. A huge tail at one end, a tapering snout at the other. It was an animal that suggested a host of comparisons – a pinecone, an artichoke, a dinosaur. What on earth was it? I decided to investigate.

I soon learned it was a Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temnickii), one of eight species of pangolin that make up the family Manidae. Pangolins are the only scaled mammals and are found in tropical Africa and Asia. Most species live nocturnal, solitary lives. They’re notable for all sorts of reasons. The Ground Pangolin can walk on its back legs, like a tiny T-rex in a suit of armour. The Black-bellied Pangolin has a tail so long it has more bones than any other mammal.

Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) at SVW Rescue Centre, Vietnam. When threatened pangolins curl into a defensive ball. This animal was found wedged beneath a seat on a bus travelling from Laos to Hanoi and rescued by SVW staff (© Dan Gordon)

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Provenance, Provenance, Provenance

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey.

When all is quiet, the crowds have long-gone home and the lights have been dimmed, the back rooms come alive for the curators who have long finished their official hours. For it is the time for tracking down rogue specimens, delving into the past or anticipating the future. What I am trying to say is that it is the time for research and the inevitable Miss Marple style adventures to be discovered when finding details to add to the current knowledge of a historic specimen. I say current because invariably details will have been lost or not even deemed worthy to have been recorded on labels, or written in a language so obscure as to not be recognised by the modern eye.

Perhaps lost details are just a phenomenon of the botanical world, but I suspect not, and I will explain what I am alluding to above using just a couple of examples of specimens made by a single collector, John Forbes, who undertook a voyage from 1822 until his death in 1823, almost 200 years ago.

John Forbes was one of the Horticultural Society of London’s (now the Royal Horticultural Society) early plant collectors. Head-hunted from the Liverpool Botanical Garden for his horticultural skills, he was employed to travel to Southern Africa to bring back plants to introduce to British gardens. He sailed with Captain Owen on the HMS Leven, a voyage tasked with making a survey of the east coast of Africa, visiting (in the following order): Madeira, Tenerife, Santa Cruz, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, Mozambique (Forbes is noted as the second botanist to collect there (Exell & Hayes: 130)), Madagascar, Comoros, Mozambique, South Africa and finally Mozambique (where Forbes died, 16th August 1823).

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