Dick and Dom and Darwin

13 February 2014

CBBC presenters visit the Museum's tank room to discuss barnacle penises, Darwin's octopus and his pet tortoise.

Popular children's TV presenters Dick and Dom filmed an episode of BBC science series Absolute Genius recently with two of the Museum's Invertebrates curators.

Darwin Day

The episode of the children's series, which looks at geniuses whose ideas shaped our world, focuses on Darwin. Today, 12 February, is the anniversary of Darwin's birthday. He was born in 1809. 

Museum Mollusc curator Jon Ablett, who is currently working on a project cataloguing squid beaks for the Museum collection, discussed Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection with the comedy duo. 

He also showed them an octopus thought to have been collected by Darwin on his famous voyage aboard the Beagle to the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic Ocean in 1832. 

The Beagle's Captain Fitzroy described Darwin as 'overwhelmed' when he first saw the octopus. 'A child with a new toy could not have been more delighted', Fitzroy said.

Darwin was particularly fascinated that the octopus could change colour and squirt dark ink. He wrote about the octopus in his diary, Journal of Charles Darwin Naturalist to the Beagle, in 1839.

Jon Ablett and giant squid

Mollusc curator Jon Ablett looking at a tentacle belonging to the giant squid in the Museum's tank room.

Snails, slugs, no puppy dog tails

Ablett also presented Dick and Dom with a tortoise supposedly kept as a pet by Darwin, and a selection of live snails to explain the shared characteristics between squid, octopuses, snails and slugs. 

Although octopuses, like slugs, are groups of animals that have lost or reduced the size of their shells over time, they belong to the same group as snails, the molluscs, which have a shell on the outside of their bodies, and squid that have a shell on the inside, called a pen or feather.

Museum crustacea curator Miranda Lowe also talked about Darwin's barnacles. She explained that Darwin’s inspiration for the study of all the known barnacles began when he found one he named 'Mr Arthrobalanus’ (later named Cryptophialus minutus) during his expedition on the Beagle.

Ten years after its discovery, in 1846, Darwin embarked on an eight-year study of barnacles reproduction and classification. These studies are thought to have further influenced his ideas on animals having common ancestry. 

Absolute genius anatomy

Ms Lowe also shared the fact that because barnacles are permanently bound to whatever rock they once latched onto, they have evolved the longest penises of any creature for their size to be able to mate with their neighbours - up to eight times their body length.

Watch the film of the giant squid being prepared for storage in the Museum's spirit collection.

The programme is due to be aired on 5 March. Find programme information on the CBBC Absolute Genius page.