NatSCA Digital Digest – January

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

Prolific author Darren Naish (of TetZoo) has pulled together a collection of exciting tetrapod-based scientific discoveries of 2018 in his latest article The Most Amazing TetZoo Themed Discoveries of 2018.

The government of New Zealand is under pressure to act on the trade of moa bones. This article is good food for thought re private sales of fossils; Moa for sale: trade in extinct birds’ bones threatens New Zealand’s history.

Of interest to many more of us than just curators, the top three most popular 2018 blogs posted on the Geological Curators’ Group website are:

1) Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now? an excellent and informative article on the menace of pyrite decay

2) Up Inside Historic Dinosaurs about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and

3) Contradictions, Conundrums and Lies which looks at the issues we face in museums!

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

You may or may not own/have heard of ‘Dinosaurs, How They Lived and Evolved‘ by Dr Darren Naish and Dr Paul Barrett, but either way the good news is there’s now a literally-just-released-second-edition, which is the most up to date a (printed) book can possibly be really. There is a lot of talk about it already but my tuppence is- I have a copy and it’s brilliant. That description fully extends to the captivating cover art by Bob Nicholls of Paleocreations, featuring a hungry Tianyulong (that’s a dinosaur, in case you weren’t sure).

I came across a charming article about getting children into natural sciences recently called ‘Kids and caterpillars: Fostering a child’s interest in nature by rearing Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) larvae‘. I’m not suggesting we all go out and start rearing leps, but in an age where human lives are ruled by technology, it’s a beautiful story and heart warming example of an intra-familial cross-generational citizen science project by an Assistant Curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and his son.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – November

What’s been Happening?

The 2017 GCG Conference in Dublin was a resounding success. Our resident blogger Emma-Louise Nicholls has been co-opted onto the GCG committee – well done Emma!. I was unfortunately unable to attend the conference but I’m hoping that someone who did will volunteer a write-up for us.

Museums everywhere have been going all spooky for Hallowe’en. The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill turned their monthly lates event into the Bloody Late, a tour-de-force of spooky music and blood-curdling tours.

The Tetrapod Zoology Convention doubled the turn-out of previous years – made possible in part due to the venue change from the London Wetland Centre (near Hammersmith) to The Venue (near Holborn). NatSCA member Heather’s talk on the History of Zoos was great, as was our patron Ben Garrod’s account of working with David Attenborough and other windows into the world of TV science communication. There were lots of other great talks besides, which we will mention as we go along. The palaeoart workshop this year was mural-themed and presented an interesting challenge to create multiple species to scale across geologic time. My animal was a Microraptor, which I drew in the foreground because it was so small. Other people had sauropods in the background and they were still so big they were escaping the paper in places. Several write-ups of this event have been made – you and find some of them here and here. If you want to be kept informed about next year’s TetZooCon, I encourage you to join the Facebook group – they already have all the speakers lined up for next year if it remains a one-day event. They might stretch it to two if there’s enough interest.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

If you like a good nose, the second part of TetZoo’s Elephant Seal article has just been published, which you can read here. And here is a thoughtfully placed link to the first part in case you missed it and wanted to catch up.

For a fun bit of ‘history of natural history’, this article is all about the secret that the Natural History Museum’s blue whale has been hiding since the 1930s, unknown to anyone until it’s recent clean prior to the big unveiling next week. Those naughty conservators… chuckle.

Whilst some of this article raised my quizzical-shark-scientist’s-eyebrow, such as the scale bar for instance, researchers believe they have uncovered a big clue as to why the Megalodon went extinct. Definitely worth a read if, like everyone, you like sharks. Although this article came out in January, it is receiving media attention at the moment so I thought I’d treat you to it.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – May


What a month we’ve had! The Conference at Cambridge on the 20th to 21st April was a roaring success. Over 100 museum delegates gathered together beneath the mantle of a Finback whale skeleton, to swap notes and revive old connections. Many heated exchanges were had over issues ranging from fungi to frocked wolves. No museum-based conference is complete without a tour of the stores – big thanks once again to the Zoology Museum for having us. We got a sneak-preview of the new gallery space too and, while I can’t post pictures of that, I can tell you that you have to go and see it when they open. Highlights for me included an elephant from Sri Lanka with links to Stanley Kubrik, and a Diorama of a beach with added surprises for future conservators. Continue reading

Tetrapod Zoology Conference – Part One


Tetzoocon is the brainchild of Darren Naish and John Conway. The first of its kind, Tetzoocon specialises in the earliest four-footed vertebrates and all of their descendents – no mean feat considering most specialisations limit themselves to subgroups of these, such as amphibians or birds, and even then the subject is enormous.

The conference was held in the London Wetland Centre near Hammersmith. A beautiful oasis of nature in a desert of buildings and airport traffic.

We’ll talk about the venue in more detail later but first: the talks.

Darren Naish

Darren opened the day with a talk on speculative zoology: a subject which covers future evolution, intermediary species of known clades, extrasolar evolution, and purely imagined beasts living within earth’s existing ecological niches. Of these, only one has testable predictive power (the intermediary specimens between known clades) and in time will be either borne out or disregarded. Needless to say that natural history collections do and will continue to play a large role in this thought experiment.

There is a long tradition of humans imagining new creatures dating back thousands of years but it has really erupted in the last few decades – from the massively influential books of Dougal Dixon to the gross box-office smash Avatar.

There is a new book out from the makers of All Yesterdays which explores speculative zoology in more detail.

Mark Witton

Renowned pterosaur palaeontologist and palaeoartist Mark Witton was next with a look at how azhdarchids have been portrayed in art since their discovery. The image of azhdarchids was all over the place for a long time – a lot of what we ‘knew’ about them appearance-wise was based on previous speculation until these beautiful pterosaurs were methodically examined and a coherent picture of what one looked like started to emerge. Today if you look at a lot of modern palaeoart you can see the family connection in the group, which is a good indicator that the artist is on the right tracks. Again the natural history collection is employed here to help artists be more accurate in their portrayal of living species. What else can I say about Mark’s talk that won’t divulge as-yet unpublished information? I’ll say this: if you’re at all interested in Mesozoic ecosystems you will attend Flugsaurier2015 and hopefully Mark’s research will be published by then. If you can’t tell already I’m really excited by this news item!

Paolo Viscardi

NatSCA‘s new chair Paolo Viscardi gave us the latest on mermaid specimen research: the latest news being of course that they are fabricated – often badly. Contrary to the claims of certain unscrupulous documentary makers this is all we have by way of mermaid evidence: a bunch of assorted fake specimens. There are no mystery hominid skulls with sonar adaptations or any ichnofossils of any kind to suggest that we have ever shared our planet with an ape more aquatic than a chimp.

There have been times when an animal has been thought to be a rumour/fake and then a verifiable specimen turns up. That’s the crucial factor and a vital role played by natural science collections in separating hearsay and conjecture from fact. When we talk about a new species we start with a type specimen and base comparisons of subsequent specimens against the type. With mermaids we have numerous cultural ‘eyewitness’ accounts, not all of which agree on the description. The Western image typified by films like Splash and the Little Mermaid do not describe the same animal as the Eastern description, such as the Japanese Ningyo or Gyojin – nor do they match European sailor’s eye-witness accounts which effectively resemble a manatee with a human neck and fake specimens have been made by starting with a dead manatee and working from there.

With all these fake specimens hanging about, Paolo has started sorting them into types of man-made species – a biologist’s solution to the problem of cataloging anthropological artefacts. They’re fascinating from the perspective of human history even if they aren’t a new addition to the animal kingdom.

There was way too much interesting stuff to tackle it all in a single post. Tune in later this week for part two of Tetzoocon.