Archaeopteryx cast

Archaeopteryx cast

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales and Poet in Residence at the Museum of Zoology in Spring 2013, writes:

I am poet-in-residence in the Museum of Zoology for 10 precious days. In my first hour in the exhibition gallery I saw what is still my favourite treasure. It is the fossil of a bird, with a perfectly preserved impression made by its wing-feathers, like when you play ‘Making Angels’ in the snow, lying on your back and sweeping your arms to make wings. The Archaeopteryx is the earliest bird fossil, the size of the magpie that just left its impression in the snow on my lawn. The snow-shadow will melt. Stone has held the Archaeopteryx for millions of years, like a photograph of the Jurassic period. It makes me dizzy, just thinking about it.

Squid, Dibranchiata

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Julian Jacobs, Departmental Administrator for the Department of Zoology writes:

The specimen I would like to nominate is the little squid “dibranchiata”. I find this pale, ghostly creature quite fascinating for a number of reasons. Like all cephalopods it has an other-wordly quality. It can adapt its colouration, it has a highly developed nervous system and advanced eyes. It apparently behaves cooperatively and suggests intelligence. An alien life-form from another planet could hardly look more astonishing! And small as it may be, this creature cannot fail to make you think of its terrifying big cousins. Scaled-up, this small and delicate creature becomes a terror of the deep, a deadly hunter possessed of fearsome suckers ad beak, a match for Sperm Whales 1000m below the surface of the sea. Fictionalized portrayals in Moby Dick and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea may be exaggerated, but oddly enough their deep-water habitat has protected them from being properly filmed. So even in the age of Attenborough-style natural history filming, the squid whether large or small, retains a kind of mystery that prompts fear and wonder.

Gerenuk, Litocranius walleri

Gerenuk

Eva Bärmann, PhD student in the Department of Zoology 2008-2012, writes:

My favourite specimen in the museum is the mounted skeleton of the Gerenuk (Litocranius walleri, H.24085) in the lower gallery. It is the only Gerenuk skeleton that I have seen mounted in this position; and when I started my PhD on antelope evolution, looking at many different antelope skulls, I was very impressed by this specimen. It is a very good portrait of this peculiar species, as it captures the astonishing feeding behaviour of Gerenuks. These close relatives of Springbok feed on the leaves of acacia and other shrubs while standing on just their back legs. They don’t even have to hold on to the twigs with their forelegs for balance. This behaviour has influenced the evolution of the Gerenuk and its morphology to a great deal. Compared to a Springbok, it looks extremely elongate. Not only the legs and the neck are very long, also the back of the head looks as if someone had pulled it out. Gerenuks have a very long and narrow snout, perfect for picking fine leaves between the acacia thorns. This specialized diet has also influenced their teeth. Most antelopes feed predominantly on grass which is very abrasive, so the tooth crowns need to be high. Gerenuks have low tooth crowns, and for a long time this was thought to be a primitive feature. Now that we know that Springboks and Gazelles are very close relatives of Gerenuks, we can infer that it is the only known example where evolution reversed from high-crowned teeth to low-crowned teeth.

Galapagos Warbler Finch

Galapagos Warbler Finch

Warbler finch (top) and Medium Ground Finch (bottom) from the Galapagos Islands © University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Warbler finch (top) and Medium Ground Finch (bottom) from the Galapagos Islands
© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Nick Davies, Professor of Behavioural Ecology in the Department of Zoology, writes:

The highlight of the Museum’s collections for me is the warbler finch from the Galapagos Islands. In 1835, when Darwin collected specimens of the famous finches of the Galapagos during the voyage of the Beagle, he had no idea that they all belonged to one family of birds. He labelled those with large beaks as “grosbeaks or true finches”, those with pointed beaks as “orioles, or American blackbirds”, and he thought that the smallest of all, with a tiny thin bill, was a “wren”. On Darwin’s return to England, the ornithologist John Gould examined the anatomy of these birds and announced to Darwin’s astonishment that they were all finches, and closely related. We now know from analysis of their DNA that all fourteen species of Darwin’s finches have evolved from one common ancestor, that colonised the Galapagos from mainland South America some 2.3 million years ago. In Darwin’s day, many people accepted that selective breeding could produce distinctive varieties of a species, varieties of pigeon from a rock dove ancestor for example. But surely only a Creator could produce a new species. After all, no-one has ever bred a cuckoo from a pigeon! But here on the Galapagos, a finch ancestor has given rise to a bird that is so different that it appears just like a warbler. Not only is its bill warbler-like, it even flicks its wings, just like warblers do, to disturb its insect prey from the vegetation. This specimen thrills me as an example of the transforming power of natural selection.

Indian Elephant, Elephas maximus

Indian Elephant

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Stuart Turner, Museum Assistant, writes about one of the largest specimens in the museum’s stores, pictured here in this archival photograph of the old Museum of Zoology (which was opened in 1865, but replaced by the modern building that now houses the museum in 1965).  The Indian Elephant is the large skeleton on the left, the skeleton on the right belonging to the African Elephant currently on display in the lower gallery.

This Indian Elephant specimen in the Museum was in life a Rogue male elephant which unfortunately had to be destroyed as it was a menace to people in Sri Lanka back in 1881!

The animal was shot by a member of the civil service there and the following is an extract from his notebook: “The Yatiantota Tusker, a notorious and proscribed rogue elephant (bull), that had done much damage to life and property. It was shot 6th February 1881 at Yakkela Kele (“forest of the devil’s stream”), near Malalpola, eight miles from Ruanwela, in the Kegalle district, Western Province, Ceylon.  Height, 9 feet ; tusks 4 feet 11 ½ inches, and 4 feet 10 inches outside curve—weight, 75lbs.”

We only have casts of the 75lbs (34 kg) tusks which were going to be carved out of wood until they decided that moulds made out of plaster of paris would be more accurate likeness. The real tusks did become available in 1904 but the £200 asking price was deemed too expensive at the time!

The elephant came to the Museum of Zoology by way of donation (It was registered in 1882) after being prepared and packed by the taxidermist of the Colombo Museum.

This elephant is still a struggle to handle in death due to its large weight and size (it takes two people just to move its skull) –It would be a terrifying prospect to have the elephant fleshed out and attacking as just the bones alone are an awesome weight.

I had to design, source and put together some new storage racking for the elephant to be housed in, unfortunately the best choice (industrial pallet racking normally used in warehouses) was only available in a garish colour combination of orange and blue which is very different to the beige of the rest of the roller racking! The maximum weight capacity of the racking that I choose for the elephant is actually a bit overkill as I did not want it to fail under load and cause the elephant to go rogue again by falling off the racking and injuring somebody nearby!

Jerdon’s Courser

Jerdon’s Courser

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Prof Rhys Green of the Ecology and Conservation Science Research Group in the University of Cambridge Department of Zoology writes:

A remarkable and poignant specimen held in the Museum is the preserved skin of a Jerdon’s courser, a bird shot in southern India in the mid-19th Century. The species was discovered then by British naturalists, recorded a few times in the second half of the century and not seen again for over 80 years .  During this time, a tombstone was erected to the species’ memory in an exhibition area at the Bronx Zoo because it was assumed to be extinct.  In 1986 it was rediscovered living in one small area of scrub jungle in central Andhra Pradesh.  In the 2000s an Indian PhD student working with me found the species several other sites nearby.  To do this he used strips of powdery soil laid on the ground which take the imprint of footprints of any animal which runs across. Measurements of the toes of the Cambridge specimen, and others elsewhere, helped to establish the method for identifying the species leaving the footprints.  However, in the mid2000s clearing of scrub jungle for an irrigation canal and by people who moved into the area after being displaced by the construction of a reservoir in another valley, removed or disturbed much of the species’ known habitat.  There have been no confirmed records of it since 2009.   It is a beautifully adapted animal which hides away under a thorn bush by day and runs around on its long legs in the scrub jungle at night  hunting termites and other tiny insects on the ground in open glades where just enough light penetrates for its huge eyes to detect prey.  I wonder how it  achieves this amazing feat.  It may now already be too late for anyone ever to find out.

Eurypterus remipes – a Sea Scorpion

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Prof Michael Akam, Head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and former Director of the Museum of Zoology, writes:

The Eurypterids, or Sea Scorpions, were the most terrifying group of arthropods that ever lived, roaming the Paleozoic seas from about 460-255 million years ago.    The fossil specimens that we have in the Museum are quite small, 15-20cm,  but the largest specimens were truly fearsome predators – up to 2.5m long, with single claws of more than 80cm.  Our specimens come from New York State, an area famed for them.  Indeed, sea scorpions are the State Fossil of New York.

I visited one of the fossil quarries myself.  We contacted the owner, who invited us to visit his workshop.  It looks like any other small farmstead in upstate New York, nestled in the hills.  His barn, though, is full not of hay and horses, but rock saws and air drills, for preparing these most wonderful fossils, which he displays all over his house (and on the internet too, at http://langsfossils.com/eurypterids.htm)

I’m no palaeontologist, but even so, he took us up to the quarry behind the house, handed us a hammer and chisel, and invited us to split some of the blocks of shale he had excavated the previous year, and left for the frost to weaken.   The eurypterids are so abundant in this rock, that almost every split yielded a fossil or two.

Eurypterids belong to the large group of arthropods called chelicerates – a group characterised by having pincers rather than antennae as their front limbs.  Spiders and scorpions are the most familiar living chelicerates, but these land animals are only distantly related to the sea scorpions.  The closest living relatives of the sea scorpions are probably the horseshoe crabs – another ancient group of wonderful arthropods, and the only marine chelicerates to survive to the present day.

Wolverine, Gulo gulo

Wolverine, Gulo gulo

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Russell Stebbings, Senior Museum Technician, writes:

Some people yearn to travel to northern latitudes to catch sight of the Aurora Borealis, herds of reindeer or even a wild polar bear. I would travel in hope of seeing my choice of animal, which inhabits the boreal forests which girdle the southern reaches of the arctic tundra. Its range extends from Alaska, across Canada, the northern U.S. and Scandinavia to the Taiga forests of Siberia.

The Wolverine (Gulo gulo) is a carnivore of the family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, badgers and otters. It is the largest land-dwelling member of the family, and somewhat resembles a small bear, with a blunter, rounder face than a European badger. Its fur is thick, fine and brown, sometimes with a blonde saddle-margin around the sides. They have strong, clawed paws, which are large enough to allow them to travel easily over soft snow even though they may weigh up to around 20 kilograms. They are solitary and have a large home range. For males this may be of more than 600 square kilometres, typically with a male territory overlapping that of several females.

Their young are born in Natal Dens, which are built into banks of snow. The changing climate is driving the population further northwards as available sites to the south become less dependable.

Wolverine will also attack and fight bears and wolves, sometimes severely mauling the latter, whilst attempting to drive them off a kill. They seem fearless in this pursuit, attacking larger and more numerous opponents with dogged determination. They also hunt for themselves and sometimes cache their kills against leaner times, storing carcases and dismembered limbs in trees, which they can climb with ease.

Wolverines have several enemies, including both black and brown bear, polar bear, wolves and man. Traditionally their fur has been used in clothing, including to line the edges of the hoods of parkas, as it is both resistant to freezing up and can be easily cleaned of ice. Wolverines are also a menace to trap lines as they are voracious scavengers, attacking animals much larger than themselves that may be caught in a snare or gin trap. Trappers therefore have another reason to persecute them. Furthermore, other humans in conflict with the Wolverine include those dependent upon herds of reindeer, as in Scandinavia or Russia, upon which the Wolverine may prey.

They are inquisitive and energetic, constantly roaming their vast territories. They are capable of jogging or running up to 30 kilometres per day and can do this repeatedly. They can be playful, enjoying sliding and skiing in snow and on icy surfaces.

In choosing to focus on the Wolverine, I was struck by the skeleton on display in the Museum, which appears unassuming, even slight and fragile by comparison with the fearsome character and toughness of the living animal.

There are Wolverines in captivity and whilst I would dearly love to see one in the flesh, I shall wait until I can travel to see them in the snow-bound forests of the North.

Osteolepis macrolepidotus, a fossil fish from Scotland

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Osteolepis macrolepidotus. Head is to the left of the image.
© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Roz Wade, Education and Outreach Officer for the Museum of Zoology, writes:

I was lucky enough to study Natural Sciences here at Cambridge, specializing in Zoology. Having the museum’s collections to learn from is the most amazing resource for a student. Being able to see the animals, explore how they are put together, getting the light-bulb moment of understanding of “ahhh that’s what that structure is”… I don’t think you can get that from a text book. Nothing beats looking in detail at the animals themselves.

When I was in the third year of my degree I did a research project with Professor Jenny Clack, the Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology here in the Museum. She showed me this fossil fish over 380 million years old, from the Middle Old Red Sandstone of Scotland, and I was hooked on palaeontology. But fossils of that age are not rare. In fact, fish fossils from the Middle Old Red Sandstone of Scotland are not particularly rare. What is special about this fossil is what is preserved.

At first glance, this fossil looks like a jumble of scales, with no clear bones in the head and not even any fins preserved. But take a close look at the head and you can see that, although there are few recognisable bones there, what is preserved is something much more astonishing. What we can see here is the natural cast of the back part of the brain cavity and inner ear. Look closely at the lump of sediment in the middle of the head and you can see nerve canals branching off it. On either side are the beautifully preserved infills of the semicircular canals of the inner ear. These are the balance organs, and are surprisingly similar to the semicircular canals inside your inner ear that are telling you which way up you are. This is a very ancient sensory system – ears evolved first for balance, not hearing, and semicircular canals are seen in all vertebrates. The physics of the inner ear means that you can tell something about the sensitivity of these organs by looking at their proportions. So not only is it amazing these structures are preserved at all, you can also say something (albeit with many assumptions to cover aspects of the system not preserved) about what these creatures, which went extinct hundreds of millions of years ago, may have sensed.