Naturalis’ New Hall of Evolution

Written by Becky Desjardins, Senior Preparateur, Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

In 2019 Naturalis opened a new building with eight permanent exhibit halls. We are happy to announce that we have opened the ninth hall, Evolution. The exhibit designer, Marijke Besselink, told me that the concept for the hall was developed after she heard how visitors reacted to a stone that was in the former Naturalis prehistory exhibit. This stone came from Greenland and dates to 3.76 billion years ago. In this rock you can see layers that indicate the presence of oxygen that might have been produced by single celled organisms. It is one of the earliest signs of life on earth. One of the museum educators told Marijke how in the old exhibit, visitors were astonished that the rock was so old, and would touch it with awe. Now this centerpiece is in the front centre of the dark blue exhibit, and when a visitor touches the stone, it starts up a light and sound interaction which connects to other vitrines around the exhibit. This gives the visitor a feeling of connection, that everything on Earth is intertwined: we are all related.

© Henk Caspers

Around the stone we can find fossils from the Burgess Shale, a Canadian formation that includes more than 500-million-year-old ancestors of most modern animals. Marijke wanted to make it clear to the public what the animals preserved as fossils looked like as to the casual observer these small fossils sometimes look like a dark grey smudge! Projections help the fossil organisms manifest out of their slate beds and move across the vitrine and into an aquarium filled with creatures from the so-called Cambrian explosion. The aquarium, made with the Pepper’s Ghost technique, is one of the highlights of the hall. Besides being very cool looking, visitors see how these prehistoric animals moved, and see how similar they are to modern animals.

The other vitrines in the hall are different examples of organisms adapting to their environment, designed to show the visitor how evolution occurs. Marijke’s favourite display is the study skins of five Galapagos finches, where the different beak and body sizes show adaptation related to the different and variable island climates. For example, a finch with a large bill can eat seeds found on the ground of a forest, but those with a smaller bill can eat seeds from a cactus in a drier environment. Of course, Charles Darwin gets a mention here as well!

© Henk Caspers

Along the wall of the exhibit there is a mounted giraffe head, this is an example of random genetic mutation. The text encourages visitors to consider if having such a long neck is an advantage or a hindrance. A display about the shells of land snails shows how they become paler in colour in urban areas: the lighter colour reflecting more heat. A large display on the back of the hall shows how dinosaur evolution occurred and the changes as a result of two large extinction events: The Permian-Triassic the Cretaceous-Paleogene.

© Henk Caspers

There are also a few games, one where the player tries to match DNA and another where the player slides their arm in a box and can see an “x-ray” of their bones. The player then turns a dial at the top of the box and can see how their bones would look as they were differently evolved. How does your radius look as a fossil fish?

© Henk Caspers

My personal favourite vitrine is filled with a mounted chimpanzee and bananas. This vitrine reminds viewers that chimps are not our ancestors, but our cousins. We share 99% of our DNA with them, however, we also share 50% of the same DNA with a banana. We are related to a banana! This insight, that we are all connected, guides visitors to the idea that we need to take care of each other and everything in the natural world, because not treating the natural world well is equivalent to not taking care of ourselves.

This is truly an elegant and interesting exhibit hall, and Marijke and her team deserve lots of credit. If you are around Leiden, please stop by and visit! You too can see how your hand would look as a Tiktaalik flipper.

Book Review: A Historical Directory of Taxidermists.

Reviewed and written by Jazmine Miles Long, Taxidermist. https://www.jazminemileslong.com, Twitter: @TaxidermyLondon; Instagram: @Jazmine_miles_long

A Historical Directory of Taxidermists: Bird and Animal stuffers, Naturalists, Beast and Bird Preservers in Southwest England and Wales. Early 19th C to Mid-20th C.

A directory complied by Kelvin Boot
Published by MPM Publishing
2022
ISBN 978-1-7397161-0-3
Contact – kelvinbootbooks@gmail.com

This book is a must have for any researcher exploring the lives and work of taxidermists from Southwest England and Wales during the 19th and 20th Century. 140 pages in black and white including some images of taxidermists trade labels.

The book is a thorough directory of the taxidermists trading in the area at the time, the introduction cites how the directory was researched, exploring printed documents, not only naturalists publications but newspapers, trade directories and census records where taxidermists may have been mentioned or advertised. Exploring what the life of a taxidermist may have been like and how just like today it was the ‘celebrity’ taxidermists that would have been more likely to be written about.

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A Foot In The Door – Finding Collections Work As A Trailing Spouse In A Foreign Country

Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg.

I arrived in Luxembourg 8 years ago when my husband accepted a job offer here, not knowing much about the tiny country (“where exactly is Luxembourg?”), and with a new baby in tow.

I had become accustomed to the trailing expat spouse role, so I was happy for a new adventure, though the hardest part about moving, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language, is finding your niche in which you can carve out something of your own.

As a former Biology teacher, most of my previous museum experience was in science education, as a volunteer at the NHM in London, and the George C. Page museum (La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, and I was keen to get involved in the Luxembourg Natural History Museum in any way, shape or form. Something about being around the wonders of nature, whether outside or housed in a building, is inspiring to me and, surrounded by like-minded people, where I truly feel like I’m supposed to be.

Not speaking any of the official local languages however (Luxembourgish, German and French), I quickly found that it would be difficult to find work, even on a voluntary basis as I had before. I submitted my CV to the museum anyway, and endured a rather painful phone call in very bad schoolgirl French (mine, not theirs!), which, much to my amazement, led to one of the researchers contacting me for help proofreading his research papers, which were being published in English. That schoolgirl French came in useful after all!

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A Remarkable Collection Of Fossil Birds From The Eocene

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

In November 2021 National Museums Scotland acquired a remarkable collection of fossil bird skeletons dating from the Eocene, approximately 54.6-55 million years ago. The story of how this collection ended up in Edinburgh is a very long one and began more than 25 years ago. 

Please can you show me your collection of Eocene birds?” This was the question that greeted me when I first met a Mr Michael Daniels more than 25 years ago. Visiting the museum with his wife Pam and his daughter Caroline, who lived in Edinburgh, this meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship and long-term correspondence, which ended sadly in 2021. My answer was “Well I would love to show you our collection of Eocene birds, but we don’t have any.” Michael proceeded to tell me about his remarkable collection of several hundred skeletons and part skeletons that he had discovered in nodules of the London Clay, which had eroded out of the cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. In later years I visited Michael and Pam at their home and got to see the collection in its countless drawers and boxes in his study. I was astonished at the amazing variety of specimens of all shapes and sizes.  Many of the bones were minuscule, requiring great patience and skill to extract from the substrate.

Some of the many hundreds of fossil bird bones from Walton-on-the-Naze © National Museums Scotland

Michael Daniels was a passionate self-taught palaeontologist, who visited various fossil sites outside London and further afield in southern England from his home at Loughton near Epping Forest. He developed a more specialised interest in the Tertiary Eocene London Clay in the early 1970s, having been a founder member of the Tertiary Research Group in 1969. On retirement in 1985 he moved with his wife to Holland-on-Sea, so that he could pursue this interest at Walton-on-the-Naze.

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Extinct – A New Exhibition At The Manx Museum

Written by Laura McCoy, Curator of Natural History for Manx National Heritage.

Wednesday the 8th September saw the opening of the new temporary exhibition ‘Extinct’ at the Manx Museum on the Isle of Man, in partnership with Manx Wildlife Trust, which also coincided with the launch of the Red Data bird list published by Manx BirdLife. There are many species that have become locally extinct on the Isle of Man, particularly birds and plants, and this trend is not slowing down, with the Yellowhammer, once one of our most ubiquitous farmland birds, disappearing from our Island only in 2019. Some may ask how these absences impact our day-to-day lives, why this matters, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, the complexity and variety of our environment is what sustains us; if you knock out enough of the bricks the wall will come tumbling down. These disappearances are symptomatic of a grave state of affairs and islands are particularly sensitive to changes in management and climate. The more protected and supported our environment is, the better it is able to withstand and buffer us from the global shifts that are to come.

When Manx Wildlife Trust came to Manx National Heritage with the idea of this exhibition we were fully on board; learning about these stories of the Isle of Man’s countryside has been a journey, sometimes an upsetting one, but it has also been a call to arms. I had no idea that currently 29% of our current resident bird species, never mind the ones that are already gone, are red listed, and 41% are amber. An estimated forty five species of plant are extinct, seventy seven are red listed. We are still trying to compile what invertebrates and fungi we have, never mind assess what has been lost. 

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