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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Our Top Ten Blogs of 2019

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

2019 was an interesting year for me as I took on the role of NatSCA blog editor. It has been a great year and I have very much enjoyed reading all of the articles from our amazing contributors. To celebrate this, I wanted to bring together a list of our top ten most viewed blogs from 2019 in case you missed any of them.

Top scorers this year include a surprising number of botanical articles, with four of the ten written by our plant loving colleagues.

Strawberry fruits made from dressmaking beads coated in molten wax and attached to waxed wire stems. © Annette Townsend

Some of my personal favourites, although not top scorers, are actually two articles which we were kindly allowed to re-blog: Annette Townsend’s beautiful and mesmerising work in how to make a wild strawberry sculpture from honey bee wax, and John Wilson’s fantastic article about the orang-utan specimens sent to World Museum, Liverpool by Alfred Russell Wallace.

But, here are the top ten most read NatSCA blogs by your good selves…

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The Land of the Oran-utan

Written by John Wilson, Curator (Vertebrate Zoology), World Museum, Liverpool

This article was first published as a blog for National Museums Liverpool, 16 August 2019.

150 years ago Alfred Russel Wallace wrote about “the land of the orang-utan” and sent specimens to Liverpool.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature.

Although best known as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin, The Malay Archipelago firmly established Wallace as one of the greatest natural history explorers.

Title page of the first edition of The Malay Archipelago published in 1869, 150 years ago.

The Malay Archipelago is a vivid, first-person account of Wallace’s travels, studies and natural history collecting in Southeast Asia. During 8 years Wallace travelled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,000 specimens. Orangutans feature prominently in the book’s title, and chapter four is largely devoted to Wallace’s adventures with orangutans in Sarawak, Borneo.

Wallace wrote: “… one of my chief objects in coming to stay at Simunjon [a river in Sarawak] was to see the Orang-utan (or great man-like ape of Borneo) in his native haunts, to study his habitats, and obtain good specimens of the different varieties and species of both sexes, and of the adult and young animals. In all these objects I succeeded beyond my expectations, …”

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Beauty in the Eye of the Turtle Holder

Written by Becky Desjardins, Senior Preparator, Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Recently, we were cleaning up some mounted turtles and turtle shells destined to go in the new Live Science Hall. All of these came from Amsterdam Schipol airport, where they had been confiscated by customs agents.

© Becky Desjardins

When taking a closer look at these animals we noticed that none of these specimens had the normal glass eyes used in taxidermy. Instead they were made of other materials less commonly used for mounting animals.

Quite a few of the turtles had eyes made from shells. Some appear to be cowrie, but we could not identify them all, and a few other shells were painted black making them impossible to identify.

© Becky Desjardins

© Becky Desjardins

Then we came across one turtle with a glass eyes made from a marble. Funnily enough, they used a “cat’s eye” marble and the coloured core actually made the eye look quite lifelike.

© Becky Desjardins

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Brexit and the Customs Union: The Practical Impact on Museums

Written by Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Who knows where you are and when you are reading this and so this blog comes with a few provisos:

  • Really importantly this is NOT LEGAL ADVICE OR NOTICE. NatSCA has been asked to share information from Defra on this situation but if you need clarification please speak to Defra or a solicitor.
  • The information in this blog pertains to the movement of material between the UK and the EU, it does not apply to non-EU countries, or internal UK movement/material use.
  • The information in this blog is only relevant in the event of a so-called “no-deal Brexit”.
  • This blog was written in May 2019 and so any reference to “current” or “present” refers to this time.

© Leeds Museums and Galleries

With the UK in the EU, Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed species in Annexes B to D can be freely traded and moved within the EU. The main change, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, will be that you will need CITES permits to move CITES good between the UK and the EU for species listed in Annexes B to D.

Please click here for an up to date list of Annex B to D species.

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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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Rhino DNA database

Rhinoceros horn thefts have been a problem for a while, with several UK museums being amongst those targeted by thieves. If you haven’t hidden away your rhino horn yet you should do it now!

Despite the rather dire situation, it is heartening that in several cases the people responsible for thefts have later been arrested and convicted. It is also interesting to note that rhino horn is being intercepted and seized at airports and in Police raids.

Of course, a seized horn isn’t easy to return to its owner unless it has a unique identification – after all, rhino horns can look rather similar to each other. This is especially problematic when the material is seized in the destination country rather than the country from which it was taken.

To tackle this problem, the Wildlife DNA Forensics – Diagnostics & Molecular Biology Section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) have just started on a project to establish a DNA database for rhino horn in museums and zoos in Europe. This service is currently being offered for free to museums in the UK.

Rhino

The database will provide a mechanism for the identification of stolen rhino horn, which will make return of specimens possible and (perhaps more importantly) make it far easier to demonstrate whether seized material has been stolen as well as illegally traded/imported/exported. This would mean longer prison sentences for guilty parties – which may be a better deterrent than the paltry sentences sometimes handed out – and it would also help identify the chain of supply for rhino horn, which could play an important role in restricting the trade.

The database could also potentially contribute to other research on rhinos – perhaps about their past genetic diversity, which may contribute to a better understanding of their conservation requirements in the future.

In light of the obvious security concerns associated with rhino horn, NatSCA have been in touch with the representative for SASA who is heading up the project, Dr Lucy Webster.

Lucy has been very helpful in providing information about the project and addressing security concerns about the database. In her own words:

“We realise the sensitivity of the information you are providing. The information you submit with your samples will be held securely and transcribed into electronic format as part of the database. The database will be hosted on a government secure network, with access restricted to those directly involved in this project.

Some concerns have been raised regarding the security of this information in relation to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We have consulted with Scottish Government FOI unit and while we are obliged to consider all requests, the sensitive nature of the information means that we have good grounds for withholding detailed information (e.g. addresses of submitters).

Summary information, such as the total number of samples on the database or the total number of submitters, may have to be disclosed. We are very grateful for your involvement in this project. If you are interested in specific details about your samples (e.g. the species, or the sex of the animals) we will be able to provide these details once the DNA profiles are on the database.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the project does not ask for the specific storage location of any rhino material and there are no visits to museum sites by external parties involved in the data collection – the specimens are sampled by staff at the museum using the guidance provided below.

Obviously there are still considerations about getting involved in the project, since sampling involves drilling a 5mm hole in specimens (alas the surface sampling technique using a rubber that we saw at this year’s conference only provides enough data for species level analysis, not individual identification), but that has to be balanced against the potential benefits offered by the database.

Whether you send in your samples is a decision for you and your organisation, but if you would like more information you can contact a NatSCA committee member or get in touch with Lucy.

Sampling method guidance

Submitting samples for Rhino DNA database