C.95.G

Orca SkullCarl Chapman, Norfolk Cetacean Recorder writes:

Sat in the repository of the Museum of Zoology is a box. It’s not an unusual box, nor is it very large. It’s much like any of the many thousands of others in the building. In the box is a little lady. For the moment let’s call her C.95.G. Not a catchy name by any standards but it’s the only one she has ever had. Her providence unknown; all that is attributed to her is she heralded from the coast at Great Yarmouth over a century ago. Pretty she isn’t; but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Some months ago I acquired a book. Arthur H Patterson wrote ‘Notes of an East Coast Naturalist’ in 1904. The book was written by this amateur naturalist in a time when collecting was done with a gun rather than careful observation. On page 271 sandwiched between notes on Mole behaviour and observations on Toads is trapped a story; the story of our little lady.

Arthur Patterson was taking a walk along the quay at Great Yarmouth on the cold morning of the 14th November 1894 when he saw something that grabbed his interest; a seven foot 5 inch Grampus. A Grampus was a seafaring name formerly applied to any small whale or large dolphin. The Grampus was being exhibited by two quiet, well behaved fishermen that had dragged the carcass from Lowestoft after it had been caught offshore in a Herring drifters net. They were apparently doing good business from their impromptu exhibition. Cetaceans always carry an enigma that is difficult for the public to resist.

It was four days later Arthur Patterson purchased a similar Grampus on the fish wharf in Great Yarmouth. This animal was similar in every regard to the first, but two inches shorter. It could be said they were peas in a pod! Patterson took the Grampus by horse and cart to Norwich Museum where it arrived on the 20th and was inspected by Thomas Southwell a noted Naturalist of the day. Southwell’s description within the transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society accurately describe a very young female Orca. The cadaver was however deemed too abraded to be of use as an exhibit at the museum.

A telegram was sent to Dr S F Harmer at the University Museum of Cambridge and at his request the Orca was despatched to Cambridge. Dr Harmer found the teeth had not yet been cut but they could be plainly felt in the upper jaw and there was no solid food content in the stomach. This animal had not yet been weaned.

So the flesh was stripped and the bones crated and until this month that’s where our little lady lay.

Grampus has been incorporated into the nomenclature of Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus) and indeed until the description within the transactions was uncovered, given the small size of both animals, it was thought Pattersons’s notes could have referred to that species.

These records constitute the first (so far) occurrence of Orca for both Norfolk and Suffolk.

Thanks to Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at the University Museum of Zoology for allowing access to photograph C.95.G and to his kind and considerate staff for their attentions and help during my visit.

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Platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus

platypus 2

Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, writes:

From 1971 through to 1976 a team of four of us were working on the structure, function and evolution of the muscle protein myoglobin. Myoglobin, like the red pigment of blood, haemoglobin, reversibly binds oxygen. However, myoglobin is sited not in the blood, but in muscle, and it is able to store oxygen for use in muscular activity. As you might expect, it is particularly important in diving mammals (like whales and seals). In the early seventies, a three-dimensional structure for myoglobin had been determined, and a good deal was known about its functional aspects. We had the advantage that we had access to John Kendrew and especially Max Perutz (both Nobel prizewinners for their work on proteins) who had been involved in determining the structure by X-ray crystallography.

Our team of four was made up of two medical doctors and two zoologists. The two biochemical medics were Hermann Lehmann, then Professor of Clinical Biochemistry (and Head of the Medical Research Council Unit for Abnormal Haemoglobin – known universally as ‘the Abnormals’) and Alejo Romero-Herrera (now Alex Roher, naturalised in the US and working on Alzheimer’s Disease). The two zoologists were Ken Joysey, then Director of the University Museum of Zoology, and me; I was very much the baby of the group, both in age and achievements!

Originally, the two biochemists were interested in myoglobin because it might have been the clue to one form of muscular dystrophy, although, as it turned out, the problems are elsewhere – and that’s another story. The idea was that looking at the sequence of amino acids that make up the myoglobin of other mammals might give clues to what changes were ‘permissible’ in the protein and what changes were not. As comparative data accumulated, there was inevitably an evolutionary dimension to the work, and hence we two zoologists were recruited to look at this aspect. The attraction of including rather more exotic species was too good to resist: an Australian group had sequenced the myoglobin of the echidna (spiny anteater) but we hoped to determine the sequence of the duckbill platypus. There was a small problem in that we hadn’t got a platypus! However, the then president of The Royal Society, Lord Todd, was about to embark on an official trip to Australia.

You can guess the rest: when Lord Todd was asked what he might like as a memento of his trip, we had briefed him to ask for a fresh, dead platypus. Accordingly, he arrived back in Britain with a platypus that had suffered an accidental death, but was in very good condition. I took my dissecting instruments up to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where the laboratory was, and removed enough muscle for the biochemists to do the work. When I had finished looking inside the platypus (and fascinating it was, too) we stitched it up and freeze-dried it in the Museum, where it was put on exhibition. So there it is: a platypus with a pedigree.

Saving the Whale – for the next generation of museum visitors

In Part 2 of the tale of the Museum’s iconic Finback Whale, Nigel Larkin, natural history conservator (www.natural-history-conservation.com) writes:

It’s not every day that I get asked to consider taking on a specimen as big as a 70 foot-long articulated Finback Whale skeleton. For instance next week I’ll be cleaning, conserving and remounting a mole skeleton a few inches long, then a porpoise skeleton about 3 feet long. Last week I was conserving, repairing and remounting a five-foot long ichthyosaur skeleton and that was big enough (see: http://www.natural-history-conservation.com/norfolkichthyosaur.htm). Those are fairly normal weeks for me. But size, as they say, isn’t everything. There were also several other interesting aspects to the Finback Whale project. Not only is this particular whale skeleton apparently the largest example known of its species which is the second largest species of any animal alive on the planet today (second only to the Blue Whale) but it is an iconic landmark in Cambridge city centre and therefore was well loved and was on the regular tourist trail of quirky things you must see when in town (so it is of great local interest). The skeleton is also about 150 years old (therefore it is fragile) and the animal was a celebrity in its day (meaning it is historically important) as it made newspaper headlines around the country when thousands of people visited it when it was washed up on a beach in Sussex in 1865. In fact 40,000 people are estimated to have made the trip to view it on the beach during the first few days of its stranding – so many that a new railway station was specifically built as near to the beached animal as possible. For more information about the animal’s life and death, see: http://www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/collections.archives/collections/recent.vertebrates/finback.whale/

Larkinblog1

But not only is this one of the largest skeletons you’ll ever see (bigger than most dinosaurs!), and an icon of the city with historic associations, its current display situation was quite unique as well: for the last 17 years it had been hanging suspended outside Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology, enticing visitors in to see the rest of the collection (comprising about 4 million specimens). This did mean, however, that many generations of pigeons had bred, hatched, lived and died on and within the specimen. Open to the elements, some of the metalwork was rusty but the specimen looked sound, as well as impressively large.

So, when I was asked to assess the specimen’s condition and to provide some ideas as to how it might be safely dismantled, cleaned and temporarily stored for the duration of the current refurbishment project before re-mounting in the new foyer, was I daunted? Well, no. I love a challenge. And it wasn’t going to be a particularly novel task. It’s fair to say that I don’t normally have to remove quite such large amounts of bird droppings from the skeletons I usually work on, but the processes required for the project as a whole would just be scaled-up versions of many other projects I had undertaken over the years. In fact it would be very similar to a project I had organised in 2009, when responsible for excavating and lifting a fragile 6,000 year old whale skeleton almost identical in size but buried in sandy sediments in Abu Dhabi (you can read about that expedition here: http://www.natural-history-conservation.com/adwhaleskull.htm). Many of the techniques used in that project would clearly come in useful.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the state of the bones, and assess their supporting metalwork and all the baleen hanging from the skull (the baleen is the keratinous material in the mouth that the animal used to filter-feed when alive).Larkinblog2They had to be studied and their status recorded in some detail as the condition of all of these elements would determine exactly how I would tackle the project. This enabled me to devise an appropriate plan of action for cleaning the bones, the baleen and the metalwork, and to make a written and photographic record of every element (as we will have to put it all back together again in a few years!). I also had to plan how to label and dismantle it all and pack it away for storage for a few years. Access to the bones was going to be a problem, as many of them were a couple of metres or more in the air, and the pigeon droppings were actually quite a significant biohazard risk. But appropriate scaffolding and scaffolding towers could be sourced and we devised risk assessments for every possible activity and took appropriate precautions. One of the main elements of the assessment phase was to figure out exactly what tools and materials we would need and in what quantities. I also had to work out how long it would all take and ultimately how much it would probably cost so that funding could be allocated appropriately.

Larkinblog4

Work started in September 2013. After recording exactly how the skeleton was put together on the supporting metalwork, every single bone was cleaned very carefully before being removed, using brushes and a vacuum cleaner to remove as much dirt and pigeon faeces as possible (whilst wearing disposable gloves, dust masks and goggles. It was photographed and labelled with its individual bone number and its orientation before being removed from the metalwork. All the metalwork was photographed and labelled as well. Only then was the bone very carefully removed and the next stage of cleaning undertaken. The bones were swabbed with Synperonic A7 (a special detergent used in museums) diluted with water, one small area at a time, and patted dry with lint-free paper towels.  Then to clean the detergent off this small area would be swabbed with water, dried, then swabbed with water and dried again. All metalwork was removed and cleaned with a spinning wire brush, then painted with ‘direct to rust’ metal paint.

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Larkinblog5The bones were packed way in standard museum ‘archival media’ (inert storage products that last for decades and don’t damage the specimens by giving off harmful chemicals) such as acid-free tissue paper and Plastazote foam. We had to build bespoke wooden crates for the baleen to be stored in and make large shelving units for the largest bones to be stored on (the ribs alone are about 6 feet long).

In the end we undertook the whole project just within the time I judged it might take (about 60 person days) and well within budget (I’m not going to tell you). And not a single item was damaged in the process, despite the bones being very fragile, large and awkward, despite a single element of the metal supporting structure weighing about 170 kilos (we used pulleys to lower it) and despite having to move the skull and lower jaw which weighed a ton and half. This latter task was even more difficult than you might initially think: the 5 metre-long skull and lower jaw (like all the bones) were hanging from the ceiling and we had to transfer the weight carefully, slowly and evenly so that it was supported from below instead, yet the skull was extremely brittle as well as astonishingly heavy. We built a rigid, strong, supportive and protective metal cage around it so that we could manoeuvre it from its original position and into a nearby purpose-built shed with a crane.

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 Matt Lowe, the Museum’s very efficient Collections Manager, has written a blog of how the project went from his perspective. You can read it here: http://camunivmuseums.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/a-whales-tail/

None of this could have been achieved safely or within time or budget without help from the multi-talented Phil Rye, the ever-resourceful Matt Lowe and a bunch of brilliant and amazingly stoical volunteers, particularly Ilanith Pongolini.Cleaning and packing up this iconic specimen was just the start of a truly gargantuan project. This might be a particularly large and problematic individual skeleton, but it is just one of many museum objects with special needs: another 4 million specimens will be assessed, cleaned, recorded and packed over the next year, ready to be moved in to their new stores (you can see some examples below). A small army of staff and volunteers are beavering away behind the scenes every day. The museum may be closed for a couple of years but it is a hive of activity. To read more about the project or watch videos, select from the following:

The Zoology Museum project in the news:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-26179805

http://www.youtube.com/embed/D9TC4ythCpo?rel

Working on other whale skeletons in the Zoology Museum:

http://www.natural-history-conservation.com/whalingatheight.htm

Something else a little awkward to clean and pack: A stuffed orang-utan sitting in a fragile nest of twigs leaves:

http://www.natural-history-conservation.com/orangutan.htm

Finback Whale, Balaenoptera physalus

whale

In Part 1 of the tale of the Museum’s iconic Finback Whale, Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, writes of his experiences installing this enormous skeleton above the Museum’s entrance:

The history of what has come to be known as ‘The Cambridge Whale’ has been dealt with in detail in a number of articles over recent years, and there is a number of web sites that catalogue various aspects of its history and biology. In this short account I give a small personal perspective of a period when the whale was, inevitably, an obsession for me (and we all know what happened to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab).

As I write, the whale is not visible. Now, it takes quite an effort to hide such an object, and it is a tribute to the efforts of the current Collections Manager, Matt Lowe, and the conservator, Nigel Larkin, who was specially commissioned for the task, that it has been dismantled and put into storage on site, to await its (doubtless triumphant) redisplay in a new position in 2016.

As a brief recap for those new to the saga, the whale came ashore dead at Pevensey, in East Sussex, in November 1865. After a period of viewing, both in situ and on tour, the prepared skeleton was bought for the University Museum of Zoology by public subscription. The supporting iron framework was made especially in the University workshops (well, surprisingly, you can’t buy these things off the shelf) and was used to display the skeleton in the old University Museum of Zoology.

A Photos Old Museum - Museum with Clark bust

The old Museum was a wooden building (that by the time of its demolition in 1965 had developed some heroic leaks) and the whale was mounted on pillars that stood on the floor of the Museum. Consequently, one of the major problems to be solved in the remounting was that its new home allowed only for hanging from above. The New Museum was finished in 1970, but it was not until 1997 that the skeleton was revealed again to visitors. It rapidly became a familiar Cambridge landmark, suspended over the glazed entrance foyer to the New Museum.

That straightforward and unemotional description of events hides, of course, a very great deal of the story. At various times the movement,  transport, cleaning and conservation of the skeleton has involved a large cast of people. On an early, foggy, morning for example, when the crane we had hired lifted the skull as far as it could, it took a team of 20 only partly convinced recruits from the Department of Zoology bodily to lift the skull and carry it up steps to close to its final position for reassembly. This was after Ann Charlton, on the Museum staff, had cleaned the skull (at times using a toothbrush to cover what must have seemed like acres of bone). But the reassembly mostly fell to three of us: Ray Symonds, Michael (‘Mick’) Ashby, and myself. We are now, all three, retired. Ray and Mick brought high levels of all sorts of skills to the job, and I brought – well, a lot of optimism.

Things did not always go smoothly. At one point, when the completed skeleton was hanging from a series of nylon ropes, there was a major fire on the floor above. I came screaming in fully expecting that the ropes would have melted in the heat, and the shattered skeleton would be waiting for me on the bricks below. The fire brigade had, however, very sensibly damped down the ropes and the skeleton, so no damage had been done. The firemen were very amused at my concerns that the skeleton had got so wet: ‘but it’s a whale’, they reasoned, ‘it must be used to it’.

Then there was the matter of the chain hoists, for example. These were crucial to the rehang, because they enabled us to transfer the skeleton from those nylon ropes to the steel cables, made one by one, precisely to size, by the ever obliging Mackays (who contributed other elements of metal work for the project). The trouble was that chain hoists for hire were in rather short supply locally. Eventually we had just one left to obtain and it was found in a local scrap yard that was guarded by two large dogs who had regarded the heaped chains as something to aim at. It was that or nothing, so pre-preparation involved some liberal use of disinfectants before the hoist could be safely deployed. We agreed that these little things were sent to try us.

We got through largely without injury. The ‘largely’ there does, however, hide a few Minor Incidents. The reassembly was carried out behind a boarding screen (this was in part so that I was not visible looking pathetically at the work thus far, and all too obviously wondering how on earth we were going to do the next bit). Two large doors had been made for access (like everything else to do with the project, they just had to be large). When the moment came to pull up the central steel beam we used a rope and block and tackle that had been in the Museum since around the time of Nelson: it broke. The three of us took off with the broken end and burst backwards through the wooden door like cowboys in a bar room brawl. Words were said about how you couldn’t rely on things to last these days.

It really was blood, sweat and tears. Mostly the first two, at least in public. In fact there was a supremely emotional moment for me. On the day that all the hoarding came down and the completed skeleton was exposed to view for the first time in so many years, I was walking off the site to go home – exhausted, but very pleased and happy. As I came out through the narrow archway onto Downing Street, I looked back under the arch – and there it was! Even more satisfying was the elderly gentleman with two shopping bags coming down the street on the opposite side of the road. He must have done the trip a thousand times. As he drew level with the archway he glanced sideways and back. And then he did a double take, put the bags down on the pavement and stared. Yes, I thought: we’ve done it.

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!

Giraffe Skull, Giraffa camelopardalis

Giraffe Skull, Giraffa camelopardalis

Dr Phil Cox, former PhD student at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

No visitor to the Museum can fail to notice the mounted giraffe skeleton on display in the lower gallery, towering over the other mammal skeletons. It is great to be able to stand next to the giraffe to get a feel for just how tall these creatures actually are. However, because of its height, it is difficult to get a good look at the giraffe’s skull. Therefore, the specimen I have chosen is not the mounted skeleton, but the adult male giraffe skull in the nearby cabinet that is conveniently displayed at (human) eye-level. From this perspective it is much easier to see just how large and impressive the giraffe skull is. I can also confirm that it is extremely heavy. As part of my PhD, which was an investigation into the bone structure in and around the eye-socket in mammals, I wanted to examine and measure the giraffe skull. It required two people (Ray Symonds, the collections manager at the time, and myself) to lift it off the shelf and on to a nearby table. It is the weight of the skull and the length of the neck that enable male giraffes (bulls) to use their heads as club-like weapons during duels known as ‘necking’. Such contests occur between male giraffes in order to establish dominance, and involve the bulls swinging their necks and trying to hit each other with their ossicones (the horn-like structures on the top of the head). Having experienced the weight of this specimen first-hand, I was not surprised to find out that a well-placed blow from the head can knock a fully-grown bull completely off-balance.

Morganucodon – lower jaw of an early mammal

Eo D61 Morganucodon (=Eozostrodon) watsoni 

From Pontalun quarry, near Bridgend, Glamorgan.

© Pam Gill

Photograph of specimen Eo D61 Morganucodon (=Eozostrodon) watsoni
© Dr Pam Gill

Reconstruction of the lower jaw of Morganucodon.  © Pam Gill

Reconstruction of the lower jaw of Morganucodon.
© Pam Gill

Dr Pam Gill of the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, writes:

This specimen is part of the lower jaw of one of our very first mammal ancestors. It lived in the Early Jurassic, 200 million years ago, at the same time as some of the earliest dinosaurs.  Morganucodon (=Eozostrodon) was a tiny shrew sized mammal and it lived on a small limestone island in what is now Glamorgan, along with another early mammal Kuehneotherium. Hundreds of bones of these creatures accumulated in small subsurface caves, and have now been exposed by quarrying.

I have chosen this specimen of Morganucodon as it is one that was used to make a complete reconstruction of the lower jaw. Because the bones were broken when they were swept into the caves and there are no complete jaws preserved. This fossil is only a few millimeters long and is of the back end of the jaw, showing the strong jaw joint and the final molar tooth.

Eo D61 and other specimens were taken to the synchrotron in Zurich for high resolution CT scanning to make 3D reconstructions.  Three specimens were digitally “stitched together” (see the image above) to make a complete jaw, with Eo D61 as the posterior end. Biomechanical models were made from the reconstructions of Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium and showed that Morganucodon could eat hard food such as beetles, but Kuehneotherium could only slice up soft food like moths. So even the very first mammals had evolved to eat different diets so that they were not competing for food.

Giant Ground Sloth

Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium americanum, a visitor’s perspective

©University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

©University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Rhys Price, visitor to the Museum of zoology, writes:

I am  HUGE “fan” of zoology and palaeontology, and have been since I was very young. At the moment I am particularly interested in the extinct megafauna of South America, 1 million years ago, especially the Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium.

To put it briefly, to have seen a specimen of this fascinating animal was unforgettable, as well as a Smilodon (sabre-toothed cat) skull, some Glyptodon (giant armadillo) bones and a Toxodon skull.

These are just a few of many collections in the museum that have inspired me to study zoology, and palaeontology, as a hobby, and possibly a career later on.

Giant Golden Mole, Chrysospalax trevelyani

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Nick Crumpton, a PhD student at the museum, writes of one of his favourite animals, the Giant Golden Mole:

Let’s imagine you’re walking through the grasslands of South Africa and have decided to find some shade under the trees of a nearby forest. Although you might assume that the most interesting animals could be slithering through the trees above you or silently evading you behind the tree trunks, it’s the ground beneath your feet that I want you to concentrate on. Perhaps, after a while, you’re luck and see the leaf litter tremble a little. Then, suddenly, a shiny, furry, eyeless face pops up. Say hello to Chrysospalax trevelyani, the Giant Golden Mole.

But why is a mole so interesting? Well, because it’s not really a mole at all. Although scientists thought for years that golden moles were closely related to talpids (the group that includes true moles like those you find in the UK), shrews and hedgehogs, recent genetic and anatomical analyses have shown without a shadow of a doubt that Chrysospalax trevelyani and the 20 other species of golden mole share a more recent common ancestor with aardvarks, manatees, sengis and elephants than with any other type of mammal.

This is a striking case of convergent evolution where two types of animals that aren’t closely related have found themselves evolving similar adaptations. When we see how alike the lifestyles of golden moles and talpids are, this makes sense. If an animal lives underground, natural selection favours certain ‘traits’: a streamlined shape to ease moving through sand or soil; very large hands to push sediment out of the way; and strong arms with which to propel itself. We also see a decrease in the size of their eyes as vision is less important underground.

When you get down to the precise anatomical differences between talpids and golden moles, you do start to see differences. For instance, the golden moles’ eyes are completely covered by skin and fur whereas some true moles still open their relatively ‘normal’ – albeit very small – eyes. They also have different digging techniques.

Both have evolved aspects of their bodies that the other would love. For instance, talpids are the only mammals on Earth to have their noses covered in special touch-sensitive pads called Eimer’s organs, which enable them to feel the world around them better than we can with our fingertips. But some golden moles have incredibly large ear bones making them far more sensitive to vibrations as they move through the earth listening out for prey. Very recent research has also shown that golden moles have evolved a coat of hairs that lest sand and soil run straight off them, making them silky smooth so they can tunnel through the ground incredibly easily. A rather accidental byproduct of this special coat means that it also makes the mammals iridescent. But, as they’re completely blind, they can’t appreciate how attractive it makes them look.

Although little is known about golden moles in comparison to their Northern hemisphere counterparts, we do know that their habitats are fragmenting, catrs and dogs are adept at catching them and that 12 species of golden moles across Africa are now classified from ‘vulnerable’ ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So the next time you come to the museum, point out the Giant Golden Mole and explain to your friends how it evolved from the same ancestor as elephants did. Perhaps if people know more about these shiny, super-hearing, insect-munching tunnelers they might live a little more securely in their subterranean homes.