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In his ground-breaking book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin set out the theory that small anomalies, or tiny variations, between individuals can give one or the other a competitive advantage. Generation after generation those tiny advantages are passed down, or selected, until the species eventually changes.

 

Of course not all anomalies offer an advantage. And it is that aspect of nature at the Museum that I am here to give you a glimpse behind the scenes of today.

 

In the last row of one of the Museum's many specimen store rooms, in a section that houses the Comparative Anatomy collection, is a cabinet in the far corner labelled 'miscellaneous'. As the name suggests, it contains various types of specimens from different sources, but they all have one thing in common. That is: they're all a little bit different, a bit strange, anomalous. It truly is a cabinet of curiosities.

 

Let me introduce you to a few of the stars of the shelves:

 

cojoined-340x500.jpgPerhaps the most beautiful specimen is the co-joined duck foetus with two bodies and one head, necks arched out, almost forming a heart shape. Its bones are highlighted red by a process called Alizarin staining.

 

 

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These two malformed piglets - the one on the left came to the Museum around 1899, the one on the right originates from China circa 1903 - both feature a 'fleshy protuberance', or additional nostril, above their snout.


 

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Two cats for you now. The newborn kitten above is what's known as agnathous, or 'without jaws'; although in this case, without face is probably more appropriate.

And below we have the legs of a four-week old kitten that is polydactylous, or has more than the normal number of digits. Its six-toed foot is shown.

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Here we have a five-week-old chicken with three legs and four feet.

Of course its not impossible for a fowl to live with an additional appendage or two. Remember Stumpy the four-legged duck?


 

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And finally we have this small viper with two heads, found in Aberystwyth, Wales.

 

 

And here's an additional little titbit for you: did you know that the Museum cares for the national eye collection? Well, we do. The bisected specimens were given to us by the London Ophthalmic Hospital before it closed in 1988.

 

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A little while ago my department (having recently moved into a new office) had a "get to know you" afternoon tea with the members of the other offices on our floor of the building.

 

Over warm drinks and homemade cakes a few of us did some team building through paper craft, courtesy of educational resources brought over by visiting Japanese colleagues. I made a water flea, Daphnia sp. In Japan, the activity is used to show children that the tiny planktonic crustacean they can view flat on a microscope slide is actually a 3-dimensional creature.

 

About a week after that afternoon tea I was out visiting the micrarium at Grant Museum of Zoology, and from the hundreds of back-lit slides of microscopic organisms on show, I spotted a water flea!

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My paper craft water flea (L), and the water flea slide in the Grant Museum micrarium (R).

 

Then (in a nod to the rule of three principle) while reading Richard Fortey's book Dry Store Room No. 1, I came across this little snippet about the naming of species. The passage resonated with me, as well as being interesting in its own right, so I thought I would share it with you:

A whole dictionary of gods, goddesses, nymphs and satyrs has been recruited to label the natural world.


Daphne is a flowering shrub, Daphnia is a water flea; Daphne herself was a water nymph pursued by Apollo, who changed into a bay laurel tree.

 

The bay itself is Laurus nobilis, "noble" because the aromatic leaves were used to crown the brows of heroes.

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Daphne mezereum, from Carl Lindman's Bilder ur Nordens Flora (Pictures of Northern Flora), 1905 (L), and Apollo and Daphne by Antonio Pollaiuolo, painted in the late 1400s (R).

 

So that is how a flower is like a water flea - they are both named after the Greek nymph, or naiad, Daphne, thanks to the nomenclature convention of taking species names from Latin and Greek classics.