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.

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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Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Jennifer Gallichan, Curator: Vertebrates/Mollusca, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Welcome to the October 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?

It is definitely worth visiting Beavers to Weavers: The Wonderful World of Animal Makers exhibition at Leeds City Museum as they have just won a Museums Change Lives award in the category of environmental sustainability. More than 48,000 people visited this exhibition last year, so if you’ve not yet been, it’s worth checking out. The exhibition has an environmental focus displaying beautiful objects made by animals. Discover how animals build homes, make armour or camouflage, craft tools and traps to catch food or change their appearances to attract each other. If you want to know more there is also a great blog about it.

After its recent stay in Great North Museum: Hancock, Dippy On Tour finally comes to National Museum Cardiff this month! This will be Dippy’s only sojourn in Wales, and so is a fantastic opportunity for many to see this iconic specimen. Croeso Dippy i Gymru! There are tonnes of related events programmed, you can dance around Dippy at our Silent disco, or find your inner calm at Dippy about Yoga, so well worth a visit.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – September

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the September edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

Where Should I Go?

A new exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, First Animals explores the evolution of the earliest animal life more than 500 million years ago. Highlights include 55 exceptionally-preserved fossils from the Chengjiang biota, on loan from Yunnan University and displayed outside of China for the very first time, and virtual reconstructions of the early Cambrian sea floor, made possible through close collaboration between researchers at the two universities. The exhibition is open until 24th February 2020.

How can we highlight the biggest issues threatening our planet today? It’s difficult with permanent displays, but not impossible. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery have addressed biodiversity loss and extinction in a unique way without new display cases. The natural science curators have covered endangered animals on display with a black veil. Standing out from the other animals, this has a huge visual impact on visitors. This innovative way of showing our impact on the planet was covered by The Guardian last month.

A chimpanzee on permanent display, covered with the black veil. © Bristol Culture

I recently visited As I Live and Breathe at the Horniman Museum, a very impactful exhibit about plastics. At the front of the natural history gallery, taxidermy animals were displayed as if they were dead, with thousands of pieces of black plastic erupting from their mouths, and a hedgehog dead in a fast food container. The message is clear: plastic pollution is killing our wildlife.

A powerful display at the Horniman museum. A dead fox with plastic erupting from it’s mouth. (Image by Jan Freedman)

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery recently were awarded a certificate of excellence by the Curry Fund. This amazing acknowledgment was for the engaging exhibition, Pliosaur! about the life of the almost complete Pliosaur specimen found at Westbury, Wiltshire. The exhibition, which received funding from The Curry Fund, took the visitor into the past to explore the world that this giant reptile lived in.

What Should I Read?

With many of us holding Pleistocene collections, a new book written by Dr Ross Barnett, The Missing Lynx, can help us understand them more. It looks at the lost mammals of Britain. Mammoths, sabre tooth cats, beavers, and more fill this prehistoric safari. It is full of life histories of the animals and their extinction, the history of their finds, and if they could be reintroduced into Britain. It’s a fascinating, and fun read, and highly recommended! Our very own Jack Ashby has just written a great review of it for our blog.

The Missing Lynx, the new book about Britain’s lost beasts. (Image Jan Freedman)

Where Should I Work?

The Royal Horticultural Society is looking for a horticultural taxonomist to join their horticultural taxonomy team at Wisley, working with one of the largest plant collections in the UK.

Job title: Horticultural taxonomist. Full time. £26,498 per annum. For more information, click here.

Kew Gardens is looking for a botanical horticulturalist to work with their tropical nurseries.

Job title: Botanical Horticulturist – decorative nursery. 1 year, fixed term. £18,590 per annum. For more information, click here.

Before You Go…

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 Jen an email at blog@natsca.org. Thanks!

The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.

A good title goes a long way, and based on that alone I was excited to receive a review copy of Ross Barnett’s new book through the post. I knew of Ross from Twitter – and I can heartily recommend following him for a whole host of natural history-related wonders, particularly around climate change, ancient mammal DNA and palaeontology. As a result, I was slightly surprised that he had written a book that I assumed – from the clever title – was about reintroducing the lynx to Britain.

That is, in fact, not what the book is about. Instead, it takes us species-by-species, chapter-by-chapter, through the incredible range of beasts that have disappeared from the British Isles in recent millennia (I should have paid more attention to the subtitle). We learn about the woolly mammoths and rhinos, the huge cave bears and their slightly smaller relatives, cave lions and cave hyenas, sabretooth cats, massive species of cattle and deer, as well as wolves, beavers and, yes, lynx. All of these stories are told in the voice of a person clearly fascinated and excited by the things he has been studying all his life, and with a dry sense of humour.

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Stories from Pressed Plant Books in the Botany Collections

Written by Katherine Slade, Curator: Botany (Lower Plants), Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW)

This article was first published as a blog for AC-NMW, 17 May 2019.

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

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