The earliest known five-fingered foot

pentadactyl foot

Professor Jenny Clack, curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Museum, writes about exciting fossil finds from Scotland:

This tiny fossil is either the hand or the foot (we can’t yet tell which) of a tetrapod from the Early Carboniferous of Scotland, about 350 million years old. It shows the earliest known pentadactyl – five digited – construction so far found in the fossil record. Animals from the preceding Devonian period , about 360 million years old, and for which we know their hands or feet, had more than five digits. Until this specimen was found, the earliest pentadactyl hand came from rocks about 330 million years old. It was also from Scotland, where many Carboniferous tetrapods have come from in the past.

Our ‘foot’ is part of a collection of fossils that are helping to fill in a previously conspicuous gap in the fossil record, known as Romer’s Gap, between the end-Devonian and the middle of the Early Carboniferous, a time interval of about 20 million years. During this time, tetrapods became increasingly adapted for walking on land, but how and when were more or less unknown. Our new studies have found many more fossils to help fill this gap, in the Borders Region of Scotland and in northern England.

Visit our website to find out more about this exciting project: www.tetrapodworld.com.

Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus)

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Ten years ago, when I started my Museum career in Manchester Museum, I arrived at my desk one morning to find a friendly feathery green face staring at me. Bemused at what this strange taxidermied creature was I decided to do a little research.

What I was looking at was the world’s largest parrot, the Kakapo, also known as the Night Parrot. Flightless, bright green – almost embarassingly so – and native to New Zealand, the Kakapo is also one of the most endangered creatures on Earth. However, in its own way it has become a symbol of hope that, despite the damage we have done to our fellow inhabitants of this world, we are capable of change.

The Kakapo has suffered indirectly from human colonisation of New Zealand. Before humans arrived the only mammals in New Zealand were bats, but with our arrival came predatory mammals, especially cats and stoats. The Kakapo had evolved in an environment where it could afford to lose the ability to fly from danger, something which now made it extremely vulnerable.

Back in te 1830s another bird, the Great Auk, was thought to be extinct. The northern hemisphere’s equivalent of a penguin, the Great Auk had been found off the coast of Newfoundland, Iceland and even Scotland, but had been hunted to extinction – or so it was thought. In 1835 the world was given a second chance when a colony of nearly 50 Auks was discovered on a small island off the coast of Iceland. You would have thought that this would have been seen as a chance to preserve the species, but this was not to be. By 1844 the last Great Auk had been killed for, of all things, a collector of bird skins.

Some 130 years later and the world was beginning to think that the Kakapo too had been lost. But in 1977 an expedition to Stewart Island off the coast of New Zealand found a small population clinging on and at imminent risk of extinction by invasive cats. Instead of repeating the mistakes made with the Great Auk, some 65 birds were evacuated to predator-free islands. Since then a recovery programme has managed to increase the world’s Kakapo population to 124.

This may seem too few, and it is – Kakapo were once widespread across the whole of New Zealand – but they are difficult to breed. The good news is that through dedicated research, and the fact that Kakapo are very long lived (up to 80 years!) the numbers are slowly rising and plans are being made to expand their range in the future. Every six months or so I look up the Kakapo Recovery Programme and it’s been a delight to see the numbers slowly creep up over the last ten years.

The Museum has nine Kakapo skins and various bones, most of which came to the Museum at the end of the 19th Century. The Kakapo most visitors will have encountered is on display on the mezzanine level of the Museum and was donated by Baron von Hügel, the first Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology across the road.

So why is it one of my favourite animals in the Museum collection? Because it reminds me that the world has an almost limitless capacity to surprise. How was it that I had never heard of this slightly comical-looking, flightless, rotund but wonderful parrot? And what else will I discover and learn about the Museum’s collections?

Halicore dugong ear bones

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Jonathon Marten, collections volunteer at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

I’ve been volunteering at the museum for nearly two months now, helping to pack away the collections for safe transport and storage during the redevelopment. There’s a lot to do – there are millions of specimens in the museum, and only a fraction of those are out on display. There simply isn’t room to give everything the space it deserves!

One of the amazing privileges of the job is the fact that I get to see (and handle!) a lot of material that has been more or less untouched since it came into the collection, possibly hunderds of years ago. Some of the ways specimens were packaged up back then look archaic to us now, but every once in a while you stumble across a treasure.

I’ve seen wild horse bones and elephant teeth and a crabeater seal skull with a sea urchin living in its braincase, but this is probably my favourite specimen so far. While repacking a box of dugong bones I found a skull that had been damaged long ago. The right side and part of the base were broken away, exposing the tiny inner ear bones that are normally enclosed inside.

Whichever Victorian scientits had handled the skull before me had realised that these tiny bones were at risk of being lost. Rather than risk thism they placed them in a tiny burlap sack and tied them onto the intact zygomatic arch (cheek bone) on the left side of the skull. Ordinarily we would repackage something wrapped up in this kind of material, but the miniature sack of bones was such a wonderful window into the history of thes specimen that we decided to leave them exactly where they were – sealed inside a non-deteriorating ziplock bag, of course.

This gave me my first prope insight into how complex managing a museum collection must be. With such a diverse range of objects collected over such a long period of time, you are charged with more than just protecting the specimens themselves. Each one tells us a little bit about the practice of science through time. The history of a specimen could easily be as valuable to future generations as the specimen itself – we have to make sure we save the stories as well as the skeletons!

Okapi, Okapia johnstoni

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Roz Wade, Education Officer at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

The Museum of Zoology is a teaching museum, set up to teach our undergraduate students about animal form, diversity and evolution. One of the things visitors remember and comment on is the number of skeletons – in the lower gallery, our mammal displays are predominantly skeletons rather than stuffed animals. You can see so much from a skeleton about how the animals are put together and function that you can’t get from looking at a stuffed and mounted skin. And also there is something rather spooky about a room full of taxidermy that for some reason doesn’t apply to skeletons. It is not totally devoid of skins though, and the largest and probably best loved of them is the Okapi.

The Okapi is a fairly large herbivore related to giraffes. It is graceful in its shape, with elegant limbs and delicate features (apart from the rather large ears!). Its coat is a lovely warm brown colour with beautiful cream stripes on its legs. They live in the dense, humid forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo where, if seen (unlikely as they are pretty elusive creatures) they are either alone or in pairs or small family groups. Okapis are very secretive and only became known to science around 1900 – quite astonishing for such a large animal. Our specimen was registered in the Museum in 1912, so a pretty early example to be brought back to the UK. It was stuffed at the renowned London taxidermy firm Rowland Ward Ltd. But lately she has been looking a little tired – she has received so much love from visitors stroking her she has a bald patch on the side of her body. With the redevelopment we are now having to rethink where to display this interesting animal. We know how popular the Okapi is, and rightly so, but have to preserve it for the future. This is just one of the many things we have to think about with the redevelopment project. Getting the balance right between access to our fabulous collections and protecting them for future generations is so important to us. Watch this space for more stories we are finding about our specimens as we go through these exciting times!