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Behind the scenes

2 Posts tagged with the unicorn tag
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This week I came across links to several versions of a story out of Manchester claiming a university professor had photographed fairies. Before you ask, no, the articles weren't published on the 1st, so I could rule out an April Fool. And John Hyatt, the photographer who captured the tiny creatures on camera, swore to the Manchester Evening News that his images were 'genuine and have not been altered in any way'. He told the newspaper:

The message to people is to approach them with an open mind. There are stranger things in life than fairies, and life grows everywhere

 

Here at the Museum our scientists know better than most about the weird and wonderful creatures nature can throw up. But while even the most rational among us might want to believe in the fantastical, we are, after all, members of a world-class scientific institution, and it is our practice - our obligation - to examine claims of new species rigorously.

 

So I took the evidence to Erica McAlister, our resident expert in small flying things (or Diptera, to use the technical term), for a professional analysis of these photographs of what are being called the Rossendale Fairies.

 

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John Hyatt's photographs of what he believes are fairies, taken in Whitaker Park in Rossendale, Lancashire, and published by the Manchester Evening News. The creatures have been dubbed the Rossendale Fairies, in a nod to the famous story of the Cottingley Fairies, first photographed in 1917, and championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Prefacing her findings with a warning that 'I am basing all my fairy knowledge on Wikipedia, a publication that is not peer reviewed, and therefore some of what I present may be inaccurate', Erica said:

My first impression was they can’t be fairies as there is no wand. But that is like saying mosquitoes aren’t flies because they don’t look like your typical house fly, so I had to approach this more taxonomically.

 

Wiki states that: "Although in modern culture they are often depicted as young, sometimes winged, humanoids of small stature, (fairies) originally were depicted quite differently: tall, radiant, angelic beings or short, wizened trolls being two of the commonly mentioned forms. Diminutive fairies of one kind or another have been recorded for centuries, but occur alongside the human-sized beings; these have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child".

 

So within the modern, highly evolved fairies (that is incredibly fast evolution from their original body form to the present, but this may be because they are magical) small size is normal and the habitat description (occurring alongside humans) would fit their locality.

 

And to further help with morphological identification Wiki states: "Wings, while common in Victorian and later artwork of fairies, are very rare in the folklore; even very small fairies flew with magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds. Nowadays, fairies are often depicted with ordinary insect wings or butterfly wings".

 

It was that reference to insect wings that gave Erica the breakthrough she was after in her quest to identify the creatures in Hyatt's photographs.

Hmmm, maybe they are not fairies at all, but rather insects. Small swarming winged insects… Small swarming flies… Small swarming midges such as chironomids.

 

 

When one compares the behaviour, size and general morphology of a midge versus a fairy there are similarities (convergent evolution), but I think that I will throw my professional credentials on the line and plump with the former. These tiny midges form mating swarms where the males will ‘dance’ around trying to attract the opposite sex. They have delicate wings and long legs which dangle down.

 

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A classical depiction of a fairy, by 17th century artist Luis Ricardo Falero (left), and a chironomid, or non-biting midge, photographed by Glen Peterson (right).

 

So there we have it: one of the best minds in the study of small winged creatures has determined that these suspected fairies photographed by John Hyatt are in fact, most likely, midges. But Erica tempered her findings with the following statement:

There are many undescribed species on the planet and who knows what lies out there – we are still determining new species all the time, including large mammals. But as far as I know, no magical beings have turned up yet.

 

Personally, I’m holding out for a unicorn.

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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!