“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.
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.