And the Winner is…

Well, there were two fantastic projects that we wanted to give the NatSCA Bill Pettit Memorial Award to this year. Here are the details:

Saving the World’s Rarest Skeleton

The specimen of the quagga at the Grant Museum.

The specimen of the quagga at the Grant Museum.

In 2014-15 the Grant Museum will undertake a major project in remedial conservation to disarticulate, clean and remount its skeleton of the extinct quagga. It is the only articulated quagga in the UK, and can be considered the rarest skeleton in the world. The work is intended to secure the long-term preservation of the specimen – that no subsequent work would be necessary in the future.

The quagga would be the focus – and most involved element – of a major project of conservation of 39 large specimens, many of which have been on open display for over a century without any treatment. Interventions will range from cleaning (in the majority of cases) to remounting (quagga and dugong).

As much of the conservation as possible will be performed in the public eye in the gallery, shedding light on a crucial element of museum work which gets little public attention.

Curation of Discovery deep-sea samples at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton

The Discovery Collections are an internationally important historical collection of deep-sea marine invertebrate and fish specimens. The first samples were collected in the Southern Ocean by RRS Discovery, the ship used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott for his first Antarctic expedition in 1901. The collections are closed to the public, yet specimens are displayed and used at a variety of public engagement events (e.g. festivals, open days, school visits) by a wide spectrum of people.

This application is to support the engagement of a temporary staff member to assist in the curation and cataloguing of three large collections of deep-sea samples held in the Discovery Collections. These are the result of three major research programs: the Crozet Island collection (a 42-day cruise in 2006 on the RRS Discovery), the ECOMAR collection (a 4-year project studying the fauna of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge) and the Arabian Sea Collections (5 month-long research cruises 2002-2003). The samples are in urgent need of care and attention to ensure their future use by the scientific community.

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award

A big congratulations to the winners. If you would like to know more about the Bill Pettit Memorial Award, you can find out on our Awards and Bursaries page or read more about previous year’s winners here.

Night at the Museum, Uni Week

“Every night all the specimens in the museum come alive and instantly drown in industrial methylated spirits or silently scream without flesh”

Mark Carnall, Grant Museum.

Most people’s experiences of museums after dark differ to Ben Stiller’s. Mine last night was no exception. I visited the Natural History Museum, London, to see what science’s next generation are doing with our natural science collections.

It didn’t take long to wade past the cultural historians and robot musicians to find a relevant stand:

The University of Leicester

These guys have been studying the process of organic decay. Their stand, titled “Rotten Fish and Fossils – Resolving the Riddle of our Earliest Vertebrate Ancestors”, showcased photographs of a series of exquisitely preserved fossils – many from the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. I was shown a 300 million year old relative of the lamprey who stared lifelessly back at me from deep time. His modern counterpart lay equally lifeless in a nearby vacuum bag.

As part of their research, the team have been deliberately decaying various modern vertebrates in an attempt to better understand the process. One thing their team found was that the order in which structures decayed seemed to be a reverse mirror of the order in which they evolved. The implication: if you don’t identify how far along something is in the rotting process, its evolutionary relationships could very easily be misdiagnosed. You can read more about this on their site. This includes citations of published material (£).

The University of Cardiff

Project Splatter is a relatively new endeavour to track the location, variation, and frequency of road kills around the UK. Roadkills are a daily occurrence and form an important part of the corvid and fox diet. The University of Cardiff are asking for your help using social media to crowd source the data.

Most of the time all they want is the species, location, and date but, if it’s a bird of prey or an otter, they need the carcass too. As we know all too well from the DDT egg shell research, if there’s toxins in the environment it’s the top predators who get the most concentrated dose. Here’s the best part: after they have finished analysing the specimens, their remains are sent to the National Museum, Scotland to contribute to their natural science collection. With around 200 otter fatalities on the road per year, the NMS is fast becoming the best place to go for otter variation studies.

You can help out via Twitter, Facebook. They even have an Android app.

Middlesex University

Andrew Greenhargh has been playing with some fun toys involving biomechanics. While his current research is predominantly aimed at humans, the technology has been used to analyse obstacle avoidance techniques in running guineafowl during his stint at the Royal Veterinary College.

Andrew was squeamish until he met John Hutchinson: one elephant dissection later and he was a new man. One thing I learned talking to Andrew is that, when you have to euthanise a sick elephant, it is important to do it in front of the remaining elephants and give them time to grieve. They are very emotional and social animals. If you don’t do this, the other elephants can often become violent. He also talked about the keepers sitting vigil with the deceased elephant: despite recent tabloid stories to the contrary, most zoos care deeply for the animals in their care.

That’s all for my round-up of natural science university research. I did take a look at the other stands ad am happy to talk about what those institutions are up to. If you missed it and want to know more, do ask.