Bringing the Dead Back to Life, with Paolo Viscardi

Paolo at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1

A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.

One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.

The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.

As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.

Margay

Margay. By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.

Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.

Charles Jamrach: Exotic Animal Collector

Charles-Jamrach-Shop

The week before last saw historian Elle Larsson speaking at PubSci. The talk centred around the exotic animal trade and, in particular, the life of Charles Jamrach: a trader of animal specimens – both living and dead.

Charles’ father was an entrepreneur from Hamburg who noticed that sailors were bringing back exotic animals in the hull of their ships and selling them. There was such huge interest in these peculiar beasts that sailors were able to retire from the profits. Jamrach Senior wanted a cut of the action. It soon became apparent that London was the hub of the exotic animal trade and Charles moved to London in 1840 to set up his business after the death of his father.

Charles began forming a network of contacts and runners between Liverpool, Marseilles, and Bordeaux. He was soon able to boast that he could get ‘any animal except a Koala’. The relationship between Koalas and gum trees had not been fully realised at this point and three unsuccessful attempts to secure one had resulted in failure. Jamrach was forced to concede this one shortcoming. Jamrach was buying between a shilling and five pounds, depending on the specimen. With the middle men involved it was no longer possible for a sailor to make his fortune selling exotic animals as the profit was split among too many people. Even Jamrach sometimes had to take a lower asking price for one of his animals than he had originally paid for it: He was certainly not guaranteed a better price later and the cost of keeping the animal in sellable condition was not cheap.

He sold living specimens to zoos and private collectors, dead specimens to museums. Whatever these groups turned down, the taxidermists picked up. In late Victorian London there was a fashion for furniture made from animal parts. People would choose an animal (often still alive) that they wanted turned into cutlery, a chair, or piano and the poor beast would be sent to the taxidermist for production. It is hard to imagine such a situation today, though the culinary world still has a “choose live product” remnant of these bygone days.

There’s one area in which Charles Jamrach reminds me of Archcancellor Ridcully, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – in the sense that they both did their bit for endangered species… by keeping them that way: in 1851 Jamrach acquired a quagga for the Zoological gardens. In 1883 the quagga was declared extinct in the wild.

The interest in unusual wildlife had a political motive in many cases: a zoo of the British Empire showcasing species from elsewhere was not just introducing the public to animals they had never heard of, it was showing the dominion that man had over the animal and the empire had over the animals’ home land. On one occasion a bengal tiger managed to back out of a poorly made transport crate and run off down the road – grabbing hold of a young boy. Jamrach managed to subdue the tiger with his truncheon but the boy’s parents still, understandably, sued. Jamrach was now famous: not only was he bringing back animals that represented empiric might, he now personally symbolised Britain beating down the tiger, symbol of rebellion against it.

Not everyone was a fan of Jamrach: awareness of animal welfare was in its infancy but this was the generation that saw it develop – the RSPCA was formed during the late Victorian era during Jamrach’s lifetime and he received a good deal of complaints abou the way his animals were treated. Complaints about Jamrach centred around the cramped transport conditions, stressed overcrowding of predators near their prey, and the malnourished states they reached London in. This was a time when the accepted wisdom for “reforming” a vicious and malnourished crocodile was to tie it down and force feed it. It is unclear whether Jamrach participated in this but he escaped criticism by dying in 1891 – the year that the practice was challenged. He left a vast sum of £7108 inheritance to his son: the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money.

To learn more about Elle Larsson’s research, visit the animal history museum – an online exhibition about the trade.

Science and Museums with Erica McAlister

It’s been a little quiet around here so today you’re getting two posts to make up for it. This afternoon we’re going to have a guest post by Plymouth Museum’s very own Jan Freedman but first let’s talk about bugs:

Erica McAlister visits the Grant Museum

Erica McAlister visits the Grant Museum

London’s Natural History Museum houses an impressive natural history collection. It has millions of specimens ranging from amoebae to blue whales. For Dr. Erica McAlister, an entomology specialist at the museum, the most important part of the collection are flies. Many of us relate to flies as a nuisance that needs to be swatted away from our sandwiches but, to Erica, they represent an amazing resource of information. Last month Erica agreed to come and talk to the good people of PubSci about her research.

There are two primary frontiers of insect research: new areas of investigation; and cleaning up the mess Walker left behind. We’re going to talk more about the new areas but I’m sure Erica would be happy to tell you about Walker’s legacy if you’re not already familiar with it.

New areas include a recent trip to the Ethiopian church forests. This is an interesting phenomenon – deforestation for farming has decimated the Ethiopian forests but, due to their reverence for the church buildings, the forests have been left unscathed in a radius around them. This may be the last hope for many of Ethiopa’s native species. Flies are a major contributor to pollination – three of the six top UK pollinators are flies. What Erica wanted to know was whether the speciation at the edges differed from the core. She went out there and, despite some regional obstacles such as children stealing pan traps, managed to recover a huge amount of data – which has since been published.

Another major area of investigation has been identifying fly larvae: we may have over 100 000 described species of fly but we only know 4% of their larvae. The importance of this cannot be stressed strongly enough: if you cannot tell apart a disease carrier from a pollinator you may be shooting yourself in the foot however you tackle them. Furthermore their presence at the developmental stages of a crime scene could drastically alter your prediction of how long ago the crime took place if you do not get the species right.

Flies are used as an arctic bio-indicator of climate change because certain species of chironomids (non-biting midges) are ctenothermic and can only exist in very specific temperature ranges. There now exists a ‘chironomid thermometer’ due to this phenomenon.

Suitcase ecology is another area of crime scene investigation. It was once believed that the age of a body couldn’t be as accurately determined if the body was stowed away in a suitcase because flies cannot get into and out of it. Further study has revealed a pattern of egg-laying on the zip, through which the larvae may pass when they hatch. This now gives us a better picture of the circumstances of the murder than ever before.

There are lots of fly behaviours that touch upon our daily lives in ways we don’t even appreciate and understanding these is essential to our continued way of life. For example the very fact that we have chocolate is wholly due to fly pollination. Without them, we wouldn’t have it. Furthermore we can use flies as a source of chemical research – fly venoms used for biological control, for example. We need them to tell us whether the climate is changing and to help us catch murderers but, more importantly, we need people like Erica who can make sense of their behaviour and present it in a way that makes us forget our instinctive “ugh, flies” reaction. There aren’t many people who would be prepared to trawl through cow pats and fetid carcasses in the name of science but somebody has to. When someone steps forward and shows enthusiasm for this we should wholeheartedly encourage it.


PubSci is a pet project of NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi. If you’re in London tomorrow evening I highly recommend you come along. We will be talking about the history of natural history collecting and trade with Elle Larsson, University of London postgrad. I am sure it will be terrific.