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Behind the scenes

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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Prefacing her findings with a warning that 'I am basing all my fairy knowledge on Wikipedia, a publication that is not peer reviewed, and therefore some of what I present may be inaccurate', Erica said: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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Do you know the difference between a cryptogamist and a cryptogramist? The MoD certainly didn't, at least not during World War II, and that's why it recruited former Museum scientist Geoffrey Tandy to work at Bletchley Park.

 

You see, a cryptogamist is an expert in non-flowering, spore-reproducing plants like seaweeds, mosses and ferns. That's what Tandy was. He worked at the Museum from 1926 until 1939 and was the first member of staff to specialise in algae.

 

However the MoD got his speciality confused with a cryptogramist, someone who deciphers messages written in code. And so Tandy - who had enlisted as a volunteer in the Royal Navy Reserves in 1939 - was sent to Bletchley, the centre of signals intelligence during the war. He was tasked with helping to crack the code of the German Naval Enigma machine.

 

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An Enigma machine, used by the Germans to send and receive encrypted military messages.

 

Lieutenant-Commander Tandy (codenamed 'Six') did his best to learn the skills for which he'd been mistakenly hired, but while he was no Alan Turing, he did still play a significant role in the breaking of the Enigma cipher and in turn, the defeat of the Germans.

 

You see, in 1941, a German U-boat was torpedoed and valuable items were salvaged by the allied forces. Among them were German procedural handbooks, navigational charts, and most vitally, bigram tables (or double-letter conversion tables).

 

The bigrams were used by the Germans to unscramble the coded messages sent via the Enigma. But, alas, the paper on which the bigrams were printed was sodden and the Bletchley lot feared the secrets were beyond recovery.

 

And that is where Geoffrey Tandy came to the rescue. With years of scientific experience preserving and preparing wet plant specimens, such as algae, as herbarium sheets, he knew exactly what to do to safely dry the precious paper.

 

A call to the Museum elicited a supply of the tools Tandy needed, and he was able to save the paper and its cryptic clues from soggy obscurity. And that's how a seaweed scientist helped win the war.

 

The cracking of the German Enigma machines at Bletchley Park is credited with considerably hastening the end of World War II.

 

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A specimen of marine algae, Kallymenia perforata, collected by Geoffrey Tandy. Preparing such specimens  provided Tandy with the experience required to preserve wet documents captured from the Germans during World War II.

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No description of fairylike perfection is too saccharine for the hummingbird. They live in a world of blossoms, sweet nectar, and the untainted freshness of everlasting spring

 

Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo

 

If I was forced to choose a favourite specimen or exhibit at the Museum, at best I could probably narrow it down to a top three. Among the group would definitely be the beautiful case of hummingbirds on display in the Birds gallery.

 

Standing over six feet tall and containing at least 100 of the tiny, shiny little birds, the case is typical of the Victorian-era exotic displays sought by natural history and curiosity collectors.

 

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One of my favourite Museum items: the hummingbird case in the Birds gallery, with close-up showing the shimmering plumage of the birds inside.

 

Unfortunately the origin of this magnificent case is not clear. Our best guess is that it came from collector William Bullock's personal museum, the contents of which was sold at auction in 1819.

 

In the document, 'A companion to Mr. Bullock's London Museum and Pantherion,' his hummingbird case is listed as 'the finest collection in Europe', and of the birds it is said that 'precious stones, polished by art, cannot be compared to these jewels of nature'.

 

But if you demand provenance with your hummingbirds, then look no further than our collection of John Gould cases. Gould was a gardener turned taxidermist, illustrator and publisher whose big break came when he was commissioned by King George IV to mount the monarch's pet giraffe.

 

Ever commercially minded, in 1851 Gould self-financed an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds to capitalise on the footfall of those attending the Great Exhibition. The birds were presented in 24 custom-built cases which revolved and were specially lit to show off the iridescence of the hummingbirds' feathers.

 

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A picture from the Illustrated London News showing Gould’s 1851 hummingbird exhibition.

 

Among the reported 75,000 people who attended during the run of the Great Exhibition were Charles Dickens, and also Queen Victoria who wrote in her diary:

It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little humming birds, their variety, and the extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.

 

After Gould's death, the Treasury provided a grant to the Museum to purchase his hummingbird cases, 3,800 unmounted hummingbird skins and 7,000 skins of other birds, which were divided between South Kensington and Tring.

 

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Three of Gould's 24 hummingbird cases purchased by the Museum.

 

For a time, the cases were displayed on our Central Hall balcony, but as special collections librarian Paul Cooper explains, at one point they almost met a terribly unbefitting demise:

They were rescued them from being thrown into a skip in the 1970s. Presumably they were thought out of fashion, out of date, not needed... but the Library saved them when the Museum was going to get rid of them.

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A watercolour showing Gould's hummingbird cases on display in one of the Central Hall balconies (left), and a c. 1932 photograph showing a couple of cases precariously placed at the top of the Central Hall stairs where our giant sequoia now stands (right).

 

Six of the hummingbird cases now reside behind the scenes in the Rare Books Room in the Library at South Kensington and one other is in Walter Rothschild's library at Tring.

 

It is hard to believe that these cases of hummingbirds, which can excite such romantic infatuation, could ever be considered surplus to requirements. In the words of Gould himself (the brackets are mine):

The pleasure I experience each time I see (our) hummingbird (case) is as great at the present moment as when I first saw (it).

 

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Six of the hummingbird cases now resident in the Library's Rare Books Room.

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A day out at Tring

Posted by Amy Freeborn Mar 14, 2014

Last week I was lucky enough to escape my office in London for a day out at the Museum in Tring. Just 35 minutes after boarding a train at Euston, I arrived at Tring station and was picked up for the 2-mile drive to Walter Rothschild's former home.

 

Of course Tring wasn't just Walter's home: it was home to his extensive private collection of natural history specimens, as well as a menagerie of live animals including cassowaries, kangaroos, tortoises and zebras. Many of those animals - after they had died their natural deaths - went on to become specimens in the Museum, which his family bequeathed to the nation following Walter's death in 1937.

 

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Kangaroos in Tring Park in the early 1900s (left), and now on display in the Museum (right).

 

Today, the Museum retains its unique Victorian character, and many of the 4,000 specimens in the galleries are still arranged in the very particular way Walter had dictated during his life. It really is a museum of a museum.

 

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A gallery photographed in 1910 (top), and many of the same specimens displayed in much the same way more than 100 years later (bottom).

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During my day out at Tring I was treated to a guided behind the scenes tour of the specimen storage and preparation areas. From the spirit collection (which numbers around 17,000 jars; the oldest specimen being a Hawaiian honeycreeper collected by Captain Cook in 1772), to the room where flesh eating beetles clean up bird carcasses in readiness for storage in the skeleton collection (as can be seen on our YouTube channel here). I even got to take a peek into Walter's personal library, where the ironwork on the upper floor is modelled after the Eiffel Tower.

 

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Part of the spirit collection (top), and flesh eating beetles at work (bottom).

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The scientists and curators I met proudly informed me that Tring boasts the largest ornithological library in the world, and holds the second largest collections in the world of bird skins (750,000 pieces, which represents 95% of all known species) and bird eggs (around 300,000 clutches, which represents 52% of all known species). Oh, and its collection of 4,000 bird nests is housed in the longest run of roller rack in Europe (15m).

 

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Prepared bird skins in the drying rack. The skins are wrapped around cotton wool and a popsicle stick.

 

Out from behind the scenes and into the public galleries, Tring is a marvel. Walter's original floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted hardwood and iron cabinets are almost bursting with an overwhelming array of mounted specimens. And it is this sense of history, variety and eccentricity that make Tring such a special and wonderful place.

 

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I spent my formative years living by the beach, so the idea of being able to swim unhindered by lungs that need air to absorb oxygen was a fantastical one. Yes, I daydreamed about being a mermaid.

 

And, a few years ago, I discovered that mermaids were more than just an object of my imagination, or of myth and fairytale: they were real. Well, at least they were in the form of compound constructions for curiosity cabinets and travelling sideshows...

 

There are two types of 'mermaids' in natural history: the monkey fish and the 'jenny haniver':

 

As the name suggests, the monkey fish is comprised of the head and torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish, often with additional papier-mâché elements plus wood and wire for structure and support. The jenny haniver is constructed from a guitar fish (part of the Rhinobatidae family of rays) and has been fashioned since at least the 16th century, initially in the image of the lethal basilisk before (by way of dragon, devil and angel) taking on a more human form and being presented as a mermaid.

 

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The mermaid of myth and legend, as depicted by painter John William Waterhouse (left), and mermaids of "reality", aka monkey fish, belonging to the British Museum (top right, © The Trustees of the British Museum) and the Horniman Museum (bottom right).

 

 

Ollie Crimmen, the Museum's fish curator, who also has a bit of a soft spot for mermaids, says it's a shame we don't have a monkey fish at the Museum, but was keen to discuss with me the two jenny hanivers held in our stores:

I think when people look at these things with modern eyes they think "how can people believe it?"

 

[But, in centuries past] when somebody went over the horizon in a ship they were more out of touch than astronauts are today. When they came back, if they came back, there was a huge expectation: "you must have seen something fantastic, you must have brought something back". There was a pressure to have seen marvellous things. It might sound mad to us, but it was the sheer pressure of the expectation of what you've seen once you'd gone over the horizon.

 

And those who had not been on the journey, who had not seen fantastic, foreign things, were willing to believe whatever was presented to them as fact. For how could they know any different without having ever seen it in the flesh themselves? Remember my mention in a previous blog about the 'legless bird of paradise'?

 

On the other hand, nature does come up with some very real, very strange creatures. Consider the platypus: when it was discovered in the 18th century many scientists had difficulty believing that its mix of reptilian and mammalian features could be genuine.

 

The Museum has one quite big jenny haniver which measures 54cm in height, and another 'more quaint, smaller one' that's much older, Ollie says. He's not sure of their origin, but suggests that Museum scientist Peter Dance 'maybe had a go' at making one.

 

The suggestion is not completely off the mark. In his book Animal Fakes and Frauds, Dance describes buying a jenny haniver in London's Soho around the 1960s or 70s. Perhaps this is the specimen now in our collection.

When I first began gathering material for this book, I found that jenny hanivers were still being made. I bought one in London. According to the proprietor of the shop in Soho, whence I obtained it, it was said to have come from the Gulf of Mexico. It was, he said, a very good selling line, and I know it did not take him long to sell the others he had.

 

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The Museum's large jenny haniver specimen, front (left) and back (right). It measures 54cm tall and 29cm across.


 

There is no definitive answer as to where the name jenny haniver originates, although many cite 'Anvers' (the French name for Antwerp), as a source, as it was on the coasts of Belgium and Holland that these mermaids were said to have been caught.

 

Dance's book also includes a passage from Australian ichthyologist Gilbert P Whitley describing how jenny hanivers are made:

...[by] taking a small dead ray, curling its side fins over its back, and twisting its tail into any required position, a piece of string is tied round the head behind the jaws to form a neck and the ray is dried in the sun. During the subsequent shrinkage, the jaws project to form a snout and a hitherto concealed arch of cartilage protrudes so as to resemble folded arms. The nostrils, situated a little above the jaws, are transformed into a pair of eyes, the olfactory laminae resembling eyelashes. The result of this simple process, preserved with a coat of varnish and perhaps ornamented with a few dabs of paint, is a jenny haniver, well calculated to excite wonder in anyone interested in marine curios.

 

What is presented as the face of the jenny haniver  is actually the underside of the guitar fish. The ray's real eyes (located on its upperside) are sometimes obscured by curled pectoral fins. Ollie says:

Some people think it's dark, but it's a part of cultural history, of natural history.

 

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Another jenny haniver specimen, which featured in the Museum's 2010 exhibition, The Deep.

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I received an email recently from one of my contacts in the Museum's library which simply said: 'Zoe Hughes has a doorstop with an interesting story'.

 

Intrigued, I fired off an email to fossil invertebrates (Brachiopods and Cephalopods) curator Zoe and made a date to meet her to talk about the doorstop. But we would soon discover that this was just the beginning of the story.

 

The item in question was a very heavy iron cast of a brachiopod, Spirifer striata, that had been found in the roof of a cave in Derbyshire by fossil collector William Gilbertson. From there the fossil came into the possession of Edmund Garwood, a professor of geology and mineralogy. The fossil was then cast in iron by a member of the Slade School of Art, part of University College London.

 

Before we go any further, let me briefly explain what a brachiopod is, because I didn't know before Zoe told me. A brachiopod is a sea-dwelling creature. Most anchor themselves to the ocean floor with a worm-like pedicle (or 'arm foot'; literally brachio = arm and poda = foot). Some cement themselves to stones and shells, others have spines which anchor them and some just rest on the ocean floor. Originally thought to be part of the mollusc family which includes mussels and clams, it was later discovered that brachiopods were their own phylum (the taxonomic rank below kingdom and above class). On the outside, brachiopoda resemble bivalve molluscs in that they're comprised of two shells (also known as valves), but inside, they're orientated top to bottom instead of left to right, and feed in a different way. Brachiopods are one of the oldest animals found in the fossil record, and were most abundant in the Paleozoic era, around 250-500 million years ago. There are 30,000 species of brachiopods described, but only around 385 of those occur today.

 

Now, back to the story. Upon the death of Professor Garwood in 1949, the cast iron brachiopod was given to Helen Muir-Wood, who had carried out post-graduate research on Palaeozoic brachiopod faunas with Garwood at University College London. Muir-Wood worked at the Museum (then the British Museum of Natural History) from 1922 until she retired from her role as curator of the Brachiopoda in 1961. She was the first woman to reach the rank of Deputy Keeper of Palaeontology at the Museum, and (as far as we know) the first to use the brachiopod cast as a doorstop. When she retired, she took the cast home with her to Findon, from where it was recovered after her death in 1968 by brachiopod curator Ellis Owen.

 

Owen was the custodian of the brachiopod cast until his retirement in 1983, at which time he passed it to Howard Brunton (another curator of the Brachiopoda) who wrote the label that sits in the box in which the cast is housed today, where it comes under the remit of Zoe Hughes.

 

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The cast iron brachiopod, formerly used as a doorstop.

 

 

And that brings the story back to the present day. At least it did at the point I first began writing this blog. But then a few days later I received a rather excited email from Zoe.

I've just found the actual specimen the cast was taken from! I never imagined that I would, as there's no specimen info with it. It was just a lucky find. I happened to open the particular drawer it was in on a tour this morning!

But that wasn't all, she said.

The brachiopod is part of the Davidson collection, which is a very important historical collection. Thomas Davidson wrote a series of monographs charting British brachiopods. And even more excitingly, this brachiopod is figured in one of the monographs. Plus we have Davidson's original notebooks with the initial notes and drawings he created to write the final monographs.

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The original brachiopod fossil from which the cast was made.

 

 

It really was an extraordinary and serendipitous find, which has added a new chapter to the 'doorstop with an interesting story'.

 

Both specimens - the original fossil and the cast - have now been officially registered in the Museum's digital database in recognition of their scientific, and artistic, merit (specimen number NHMUK PI B 321, to be precise), and housed together in our vast collection. It marks a satisfying conclusion to a tale that spans several generations of scientists and more than 120 years of Museum history.

 

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Thomas Davidson's sketches of the brachiopod fossil (left), and the illustrations that appeared in his book The Monography of British fossil Brachiopoda (right).

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In my ongoing quest to uncover the most fascinating and curious specimens and stories from behind the scenes at the Museum, I recently came across this lovely tale that I think epitomises the inquisitiveness, perseverance and patience that it takes to be a good scientist. Let me recount it for you:

 

In 1973 Dr Peter Whitehead, head of marine fishes at the Museum, began a personal quest that would soon take on international (and interdisciplinary) significance.

 

Whitehead, an expert in clupeids - herrings, anchovies and their numerous relatives - was attempting to track down the original painting of a fish called a piquitinga. The painting was used as the basis for a woodcut that accompanied a description of the species by the naturalist Georg Marcgraf in Historia naturalis Brasiliae in 1648. Marcgraf's brief Latin description and poor quality woodcut was then used by Carl Linnaeus and later taxonomists, who variously identified it as a herring or as an anchovy.

 

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The woodcut of piquitinga from Marcgraf's Historia naturalis Brasiliae (1648). Detail was lost from the original painting when the book illustrations were made.

 

 

Whitehead was determined to get to the bottom of the classification once and for all. He knew that Marcgraf's original paintings were part of a collection known as Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae given to Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, in 1652. The Elector's library formed the basis of the subsequent Royal Library, which later became the Prussian State Library in Berlin.

 

During the Second World War, allied bombing made Berlin unsafe, so hundreds of boxes of material were removed from the library and allegedly sent to a Benedictine monastery in Silesia called Grüssau. And that's where the trail went cold.

 

The materials were not returned to Berlin after the war, and the monastery (now known as Krzeszów) nor the major libraries in Poland knew anything of their whereabouts.

 

Whitehead admitted that 'the search took on something of an obsession'. Indeed, there are two bulging folders in the Museum's archives - known as the Grüssau file - filled with reams of correspondence relating to the matter.

 

During his years of detective work Whitehead discovered that as well as the natural history artworks he was looking for, the Prussian State Library had also held many important musical manuscripts by artists including Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Mendelssohn. These too were evacuated during the war and had not been seen since. He said:

For a year or more I was quite unaware that I had joined one of the biggest and hitherto more frustrating searches for treasures lost during the last war.

Whitehead called on the Polish Ministry of Culture to help, and despite an 'immediate search of all Polish libraries', nothing was found. Undeterred, he 'redoubled his efforts' and began contacting Polish libraries himself.

 

The breakthrough came in March 1977 with a 'matter-of-fact' letter from Jan Pirozynski at the Jagiellon Library in Krakow: 'I am very glad to be able to tell you that the problem of the lost manuscripts has been cleared up. I have been authorised to tell you that the manuscripts exist... I hope this will be satisfactory to you for this moment'. Understandably, Whitehead was 'absolutely delighted' to hear of the 'miracle'.

It was not until September 1979 that I was able to visit the Jagiellon Library. A trolley was wheeled in bearing seven large volumes. Lifting one of the Theatri, the librarian opened it at a marked page: "There!" he said with a flourish, "There is your piquitinga!" It was a magnificent oil painting and immediately resolved all doubts - it was the small herring Lile piquitinga.

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The oil painting of piquitinga from Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae, vol 1, p161. Remarkable for its realism, it immediately proved that Marcgraf's fish was the herring Lile piquitinga.

 

 

Also contained among the many boxes Whitehead was responsible for tracking down were original scores, in whole or in part, of Beethoven's 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies and his 3rd piano concerto; Mendelssohn's violin concerto and incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream; various Bach cantatas; and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and more than 90 other pieces which represented nearly a quarter of all his works known to survive in manuscript.

 

So that is where Brazilian fish and brilliant composers meet - in boxes in a Polish library, undiscovered for more than a generation.

That Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Beethoven's 9th and piquitinga should reappear after almost 40 years in wooden crates was unbelievable.

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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.

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I love a good war hero story: my great uncle was a flying ace in the Battle of Britain and I relished hearing about his feats of daring (... and will gladly recount them given the slightest prompting). However, my tale today is of the wartime exploits of Museum entomologist Graham Howarth. They might not be grand in the combat sense (though he was awarded a medal for saving a senior officer during the Blitz earlier in the war), but in the scientific and curatorial sense, they are as bold and heroic as any you will probably hear.

 

During WWII Howarth was enlisted for army service in Southeast Asia. He was stationed in Singapore and tasked with identifying the breeding grounds of malarial mosquito species and disrupting their habitat in the hope of eradicating the tropical disease. As a result of his work, Howarth says it was 'safe to say that Singapore was a malarial-free zone'. But, in February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese and Howarth was taken as a prisoner of war. He recalls:

'The war was over as far as I was concerned, but a new one, a much more insidious affair, was about to begin. A war against boredom, starvation, pestilence, and death.'

 

He was held prisoner for three years, first at Changi and then Jinsen, Korea. But, ever the entomologist, Howarth - known as 'The Prof' to his fellow captives - maintained his scientific curiosity by collecting insects. He says:

'(Collecting) gave me something to think about rather than the boredom of being confined to an area with a hell of a lot of other people, with nothing very much to do. We weren’t worked too hard. And as long as you exhibited a certain amount of respect for the guards, and didn’t stick your head above the parapet too often... Of course, with a butterfly net, I would tend to be a bit conspicuous, but I didn’t flaunt it, shall we say.'

 

He had fashioned a net from a piece of galvanised wire and some mosquito netting, and if he saw ’a butterfly or a living insect or a flying insect'  he would catch it, kill it, paper it and put it in an empty cigarette tin. His most important and remarkable find came in July 1944 when he spotted a caterpillar in the POW camp's garden.

'We had a flowering cherry in the garden, and on one occasion I looked up and there was a little caterpillar and I collected that. I didn’t recognise it, being something foreign to me. I found some more and I took them in and fed them on the cherry and bred them out. And (when I got home and properly identified them) it turned out to be a new species.

 

That's right: in between the forced labour and subsisting on meagre, weevil-infested rice rations as a prisoner of war, Graham Howarth discovered a never-before-documented moth.

'It was nice to discover a species new to science in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances.'

 

On his return to the Museum he described his discovery as Apatele cerasi, after Cerasus, the scientific name for the cherry on which the larvae fed.

 

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Apatele cerasi documented by Graham Howarth in the Proceedings and Transactions of The South London Entomological and Natural History Society 1949-50.

 

But, aside from finding the larvae, breeding it out, recognising it as something different and keeping his collection below the radar of the guards, it was the getting it all back to the Museum that was another feat in and of itself. By the time he was liberated, Howarth had amassed about 1,500 specimens and he had to beg kit bag space from his comrades to help bring it all home.

'(When I got back to the Museum) I set them and documented them, and they’re still there, 1,500 of them.'

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Part of the Graham Howarth POW collection, which fills 13 trays and includes 1,115 Rhopalocera, 347 Heteroera and nearly 100 specimens of other orders. And, of course, Apatele cerasi.

 

The Museum's Lepidoptera collection consists of around 10 million specimens stored over four floors and curated by 5 scientists. Butterfly curator Blanca Huertas says it is the largest collection in terms of time and geographical range, represents 65% of all known species and contains more type specimens than any other museum. You can discover more about the collections and how they are maintained in Alessandro Giusti's Curator of Lepidoptera blog.

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I had to smile when I read our news story about digitising our collections and the task of transcribing 'sometimes illegible' handwritten specimen labels. I smiled because bad handwriting was something the Museum actively sought to avoid in the pre-digital era. So much so that scientists were required to prove the quality of their penmanship when applying for a job here.

 

Clare Valentine, Head of Life Sciences Collections, says:

'We requested handwritten covering letters for curatorial posts until the late '90s for Zoology curators. Curators were also trained to "refine" their handwriting to produce legible labels for the collection to last in perpetuity and be completely understandable.'

 

Theresa Howard, Head of Entomological Collections, concurs:

'All applications used to have to be handwritten, not typed. We didn't get our first computers until the early '80s. However, even once computer generated documentation became the norm, the Entomology Department used to insist that all curatorial applicants hand write 10-20 specimen labels as part of their interview.'

 

Zoe Jay Adams, a Research Assistant in the Life Sciences Department, took the specimen label writing test when she was interviewed in 1993, and recalls:

'I was alarmed, because I don't have the neatest of handwriting.'

 

While contemporary specimen labels are written in a small but clear and tidy hand, old labels in our historic collections often feature the copperplate script preferred by Victorians, which can sometimes be difficult to read.

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Gordon Paterson, Museum zoologist and head of the iCollections project, says: 'Difficult is not nearly a suitable term for some of these labels!' (left). 'But on the brighter side there are examples of good, clear writing.' (right).

 

Lawrence Brooks, a database expert in the Zoology Department who is working on digitising the historic Mollusca collection, says that deciphering labels is 'equal parts luck and hard work'.

'Context is your friend. It helps narrow the field from “this could say absolutely anything at all” to “this is a species of mouse”, giving you somewhere to begin your search. Sometimes though, you’ll always be on a hiding to nothing. Like trying, for instance, to decipher the spelling of a colloquial place name for an oasis somewhere in northern Africa that has never been formally recorded. '

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Last week I went to a pub in south London and enjoyed a winter barbeque and a few glasses of beer. But it wasn't just any beer. It was beer brewed with hops grown in the Museum's own Wildlife Garden.

 

Back in spring, Greenwich craft brewery, Meantime, planted hundreds of hop plants all around the capital (from Royal parks to roof gardens and even on roundabouts) as part of its mission to make a 'true brew' of London.

 

The hop crops were harvested in September (actually, a little earlier in the Museum's case, as our regular sheep visitors took a fancy to our plants), and last week I was one of the first people to taste the result  of the 'crowd sourced' beer project at the launch of Hop City Porter.

 

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Meantime says Hop City Porter is 'a complex, dark malt porter that’s full of flavour and character, including hints of chocolate, coffee and caramel and a distinct hop freshness'. Me and my fellow drinkers agreed that it tasted pretty nice and found it, surprisingly for a dark beer, light and refreshing.

 

Hops are the female flower of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus, a perennial of the Cannabaceae family (which also includes cannabis) and are native in hedgerows, scrub and fen carr (woodland). The flowers are made up of papery, leaf-like bracts. At the base of their cone-like structure, underneath the bracts, are oily glands of lupulin. It is this glandular substance that is used in the brewing process.

 

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Hops is one of the basic ingredients in beer brewing, along with grain (barley and wheat), yeast, and water. The bitterness of hops balances the maltiness of the grain and also acts as a preservative.

Photograph © Radio Tonreg.

 

But it's not just barflies that benefit from hops. Our Wildlife Garden  grows hop plants in several locations (in the interests of a biodiverse habitat, not just bespoke beer projects) and they serve as an important food source for the comma butterfly. Plant lore-ist Roy Vickery says that hop plants can also be used as a sleep aid, and are said to bring good luck when hung in the house.

 

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The comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album, is so named for the little cresent, comma-like, marks on the underside of its wings.


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The sale of a Diplodocus skeleton for £400,000 at auction in West Sussex last week brought to my mind a little titbit about our own specimen. The Diplodocus in the Central Hall, affectionately known as Dippy, is a cast taken from the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii that was unearthed in Wyoming, USA in 1898.

 

When it was originally put on display in the Museum in 1905, the long tail drooped downwards and trailed along the floor.

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Dippy’s lavish unveiling ceremony, attended by 300 people, on Friday 12 May 1905.

 

I learned from Professor Richard Fortey that this placement was not popular with staff:

Unscrupulous visitors would occasionally steal that last vertebra from the end of the tail. There was even a box of 'spares' to make good the work of thieves so that the full backbone was restored by the time the doors opened the following day.

It wasn't until 1993, as scientific understanding of dinosaur biology improved, that Dippy's tail was repositioned to curve above visitors heads, which is how it is seen today.

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Dippy’s tail was remounted after research showed that the tails of these dinosaurs did not drag along the ground, as had been assumed for many years. It was found that they stuck out straight behind the animal and were held clear of the ground.

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Anyone who has met me in person can vouch for the fact that I am a fan of amethyst. Almost all my jewellery contains a purple stone of some size or shade. So I was particularly interested when I heard the intriguing tale about this gem from our collection, and thought it doubly fitting that I should launch my Specimen of the Month series with it.

 

From ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, and all through the ages to 21st Century new-age spiritualists, humans have long ascribed gemstones with particular properties. For example, amethyst is said to bring calmness and clarity, boost intuition, and be linked to those born in the month of February. It's even claimed the purple quartz helps combat the effects of drunkenness.

 

But one of the many amethysts on display at the Museum is reputedly associated with something altogether less calm, and entirely more sinister. This item, on show in The Vault gallery and often referred to as the purple sapphire, is cursed! Its previous owner, Edward Heron-Allen - a polymath who practised law and palmistry and was an expert on violins and Persian literature - claimed the amethyst was 'trebly cursed' and 'stained with blood and dishonour'.

 

Heron-Allen says: 'I had it bound round with a double headed snake that had been a finger ring of Heydon the Astrologer, looped up with Zodiacal plaques and neutralized between Heydon’s magic Tau and two amethyst scaraboei of Queen Hatasu’s period, brought from Der el-Bahari (Thebes).'

 

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The cursed amethyst: faceted, oval, (3.5 x 2.5cm) mounted in a silver ring in the form of a snake, decorated with zodiacal plaques and with two hinged pendants, one of which bears two scarabs of amethystine quartz, the other a T in silver, engraved.

 

The amethyst was donated to the Museum by Heron-Allen's daughter in January 1944, along with a letter (see the full text further below) written by Edward warning against anyone handling it. Heron-Allen writes that the stone 'was looted from the treasure of the Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855 and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it he was unfortunate'.

 

After Colonel Ferris's death the amethyst was passed to his son, then to Heron-Allen, who in turn passed it onto various friends, upon which it reportedly inflicted a trail of suicides, apparitions, disasters and failed careers. Eventually it came back to Heron-Allen, who packed it in seven boxes and deposited it in a bank safe, enclosing his warning letter, and instructing that the amethyst not 'see the light again' until 33 years after his death. (His daughter waited less than 12 months to present it to the Museum!)

 

But, unfortunately for all you horror and conspiracy fans out there, the cursed amethyst story is, apparently, more tall tale than treacherous truth. I have been assured by one of our Museum mineral curators who has dealt with the amethyst that there is 'no clear suggestion of any truth in it'; that is, at least as far as Edward Heron-Allen is concerned. In fact, what is most likely is that Heron-Allen fabricated the legend to give credence to a short story he wrote in 1921 under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called The Purple Sapphire.

 

But that's not to say the whole thing is a sham. Over the years several people, while researching their family genealogy, have contacted the Museum to say that they have discovered strong similarities to some of the elements of misfortune recounted by Heron-Allen in his letter. Most interestingly, these families all had some connection with places that Heron-Allen knew, especially Lewes, Sussex.

 

The conclusion that our Museum scientists have come to, is this: Edward Heron-Allen may have met an aged ex-army Colonel or General either in the course of his work in London, or in some gentleman’s club in Lewes, and heard tales of army life in India, and decided that these would make a good story. Then, years later when he wrote the story, he had the amulet created to make his tale plausible, but perhaps couldn't afford or wasn't able to obtain a large sapphire, so made do with an amethyst.

 

Of course we can never really know the full story, and as such, I feel compelled to sign off this blog with the final six words from The Purple Sapphire book: “And then I wonder many things"...

 

To – Whomsoever shall be the future possessor of this Amethyst. These lines are addressed in mourning before he, or she, shall assume the responsibility of owning it.

 

This stone is trebly accursed and is stained with blood, and the dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it.  It was looted from the treasure of the Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855 and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it he was unfortunate, and lost both health and money. His son who had it after his death, suffered the most persistent ill-fortune till I accepted the stone from him in 1890. He had given it once to a friend, but the friend shortly afterwards committed suicide and left it back to him by will.

 

From the moment I had it, misfortunes attacked me until I had it bound round with a double headed snake that had been a finger ring of Heydon the Astrologer, looped up with Zodiacal plaques and neutralized between Heydon’s magic Tau and two amethyst scaraboei of Queen Hatasu’s period, brought from Der el-Bahari (Thebes). It remained thus quietly until 1902, though not only I, but my wife, Professor Ross, W.H.Rider, and Mrs Hadden, frequently saw in my library the Hindu Yoga, who haunts the stone trying to get it back. He sits on his heels in a corner of the room, digging in the floor with his hands, as of searching for it.

 

In 1902, under protest I gave it to a friend, who was thereupon overwhelmed with every possible disaster. On my return from Egypt in 1903 I found she had returned it to me, and after another great misfortune had fallen on me I threw it into the Regent’s Canal. Three months afterwards it was bought back to me by a Wardour St. dealer who had bought if from a dredger. Then I gave it to a friend who was a singer, at her earnest wish. The next time she tried to sing, her voice was dead and she has never sung since.

 

I feel that it is exerting a baleful influence over my new born daughter so I am now packing it in seven boxes and depositing it at my bankers, with directions that it is not to see the light again until I have been dead thirty three years. Whoever shall open it, shall first read this warning, and then do so as he pleases with the Jewel. My advice to him or her is to cast it into the sea. I am forbidden by the Rosicrucian Oath to do this, or I would have done it long ago.

 

(Signed) Edward Heron-Allen

October 1904

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Last night I was one of the lucky few with a ticket to perhaps the most sought-after event in the Museum's calendar so far this year: Sir David Attenborough's lecture about Alfred Russel Wallace and their shared passion for birds of paradise.

 

It was the 10th and final event in our Wallace100 lecture series and came on the 100th anniversary of the death of Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin.

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Sir David Attenborough celebrates the life of Alfred Russel Wallace and his passion for birds of paradise.

 

Sir David's lecture focused on Wallace's expedition to the Malay Archipelago in 1854-1862. It was during this time, while suffering from a fit of malarial fever, that Wallace independently conceived his theory of evolution. But the driving force behind the trip, Sir David explained, had been Wallace's ambition to see birds of paradise first hand:

 

He was driven by passion. Birds of paradise were his great obsession.

 

Wallace became the first European ever to see the magical displays of the birds of paradise. He called it 'the most beautiful of all the beautiful living forms that adorn the Earth', and being Wallace, and being down to earth, he also wrote 'the flesh is only to be eaten in necessity. It is dry and tasteless'.

 

He was fascinated by what he saw and it became my ambition to see it also.

 

During his eight-year Malay expedition, Wallace observed five different species of birds of paradise, more than any other European at the time. He said he considered the standardwing bird of paradise 'the greatest discovery I have yet made'.

 

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The standardwing bird of paradise, identified by Wallace in 1858 and named Semioptera wallacii in his honour.
Coloured lithograph by John and Elizabeth Gould, 1840-1848.

 

Sir David Attenborough: 'Is there a more elegant cravat in shape or colour worn by any bird? I doubt it'

 

Wallace's book documenting his travels, The Malay Archipelago, published in two volumes in 1869, included the first accurate illustrations of birds of paradise.

 

In a time before Wallace, Sir David explained, birds of paradise had been thought to have no legs. According to the Papuans who traded them with neighbouring islands (and in turn European explorers) the birds spent their lives floating high in the sky, feeding on dew. That's how they got their name - they were birds of the gods, birds of paradise. It was only when they died that they fell to earth and could be collected.

 

The truth was that, because the birds were prized for their colourful and elaborate plumage, their legs were considered unimportant and were simply cut off. A legacy of the legless mythology survives to this day, thanks to the rules of species classification. When Carl Linnaeus first described the greater bird of paradise in 1758 for inclusion in his System Naturae, he gave it the official name Paradisaea apoda, which translates as legless bird of paradise.

 

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Paradisaea apoda, the legless bird of paradise

 

Sir David closed the lecture by praising Wallace as 'a great scientist, a great man and a tough traveller beyond compare' and read a passage from The Malay Archipelago which he said he 'agreed with every syllable of':

'I thought of the long ages of the past during which the successive generations of these things of beauty had run their course. Year by year being born and living and dying amid these dark gloomy woods with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness, to all appearances such a wanton waste of beauty. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man, many of them have no relation to him, their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone.'

Alfred Russel Wallace
The Malay Archipelago

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