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Behind the scenes

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For all those who missed out on tickets to our sold-out Night Safari with MasterCard last night, I managed to sneak in so I could get the low-down for you on the science fact behind some well-known tales of fear and fiction.

 

In our annual Halloween instalment of the popular after hours Museum tour and lecture series, scientists revealed the truth behind popular stories of body-snatchers, man-eaters and mythological monsters.

 

Upon arrival attendees were broken into three groups: cyclops, kraken and zombies, which corresponded to the topics of the lectures we were about to hear.

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It was nice to see three of my fellow cyclops group members, Martin, Genevieve and Deboarh, embracing the Halloween spirit.

 

First up my group met Gavin Broad, curator of Hymenoptera, who told us about the flesh-eating, mind-controlling habits of parasitoid wasps.

 

These wasps lay their eggs on or in the bodies of other insects, which are then eaten alive by the baby wasps as they grow. In some cases, the incubating wasps are even able to exert a kind of mind control over their host. In a zombie-like state, the hapless creature will actually lash out at anything that comes too close, in an attempt to protect the parasitoid wasps that are clinging to its body and sucking it dry.

 

If your Halloween hangover can handle it, take a look at this video of a couple of wasps that, having used their host plant hopper for all it's worth, make a break for it.

 

 

Next up Karolyn Shindler gave us a whirlwind lesson in ancient mythology and the real-life beasts that inspired legends such as the cyclops, griffin and unicorn.

 

The one-eyed, sheep-rearing, man-eating giant of Homer's Odyssey-fame? He was imagined from the bones of miniature elephants found in caves on Cyprus. In a phenomenon known as island dwarfism, over time the large elephants (which probably swam from mainland Europe) shrank down to about the size of pigs.

 

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Marble head of the cyclops Polyphemos, and a dwarf elephant skull.

In a time before science, it's not hard to understand how people thought the nasal passage from which the elephant's trunk protrudes was actually a massive single eye cavity.

 

The gold-guarding griffin of lore? That one is the result of Protoceratops bones found in the gold-rich Gobi desert. The sheep-sized herbivorous dinosaur, with its parrot-like beak and large head, is quite similar to depictions of the mythical creature that had the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

 

And the benevolent horned horse? Well, in Europe it most likely derives from the narwhal horns collected by mariners and sold at port markets, and in Asia, it's attributed to an ancient rhinoceros from the Pleistocene era.

 

Finally, we heard from Jon Ablett, curator of Mollusca. He explained that the tales of kraken, the legendary sea monsters so large that they could bring down whole ships, are - and here's the scary bit - real!

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Pierre Dénys de Montfort's Poulpe Colossal (1810) and Jon Ablett with a pice of colossal squid arm.

Kraken, or giant and colossal squid as they're known in the real world, can grow to around 14 and 18 metres respectively. Their arms and tentacles are covered in saw-tooth-ringed suckers and hooks that help them snare prey.

 

The evening proved that, like they say, sometimes the scientific truth really is as scary, fascinating and strange as storybook fiction!