Top 10 Museum news stories 2014
The year brought fantastic new specimens and exhibitions to the Museum as our scientists revealed new insights into the natural world, from rivers of rubbish to 800,000-year-old human footprints.
The Museum welcomed 5.3 million visitors in 2014, marking the third year in a row the figures have topped five million.
Sir Michael Dixon, Director of the Museum says: ‘Our visitor numbers are a sign of the appetite which draws so many people to want to understand about our planet: its past, present and future.’
Here are the top 10 news stories on the Museum site in 2014.
First announced in November, our newest dinosaur fossil has actually been behind the scenes at the Museum for a year undergoing scientific study. After being scanned, photographed and measured in every direction, the world’s most complete Stegosaurus was finally unveiled to the public in December, in its new permanent home in the Earth Hall.
Another astonishingly complete specimen, Lyuba the baby mammoth made her way to the Museum in May for the temporary exhibition Mammoths: Ice Age Giants. The size of a large dog, Lyuba was only a month old when she died 42,000 years ago. Preserved frozen in mud, she still had her mother’s milk in her stomach.
In November, another well-preserved mammoth specimen was autopsied by a team including Museum palaeontologist Dr Tori Herridge, bringing the possibility of cloning ever closer.
A group of ancient footprints marked evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe, pushing the human occupation of Britain back to about 800,000 years ago. Analysis of the prints suggested a family group of five individuals, ranging from 0.9m (3ft) to more than 1.7m (5ft 7in) in height, walked across the mud together.
You can get almost anything from the natural world identified by our expert team, but two critters turn up on our forums more often than any others. Bee-flies are harmless but intriguing creatures that look like a cross between a bee and a large mosquito. False widow spiders are not entirely harmless, but are also not nearly as deadly as the press sometimes makes out.
The king discovered under a car park continued to reveal secrets this year, including details of his gory demise. Blows to the head and stab wounds inflicted after death were inferred from marks on his skeleton, providing an in-depth account of his fatal injuries.
Museum patron HRH the Duchess of Cambridge brought Prince George to visit our annual Sensational Butterflies exhibition for his official first birthday photo this year, taking in the colourful plants and insects that fill our temporary tropical house.
The impact of our ancestors interbreeding with Neanderthals was revealed early this year, with studies showing modern non-African people carry about two percent Neanderthal DNA in their genes. While this DNA benefitted our ancestors as they left Africa by giving them different hair and skin, it also appears to be associated with diseases such as diabetes, lupus and biliary cirrhosis.
While interbreeding between early humans and Neanderthals is thought to have been relatively rare, new research in August suggested the two groups overlapped in Europe for several thousand years.
Leafsnap, a photo-based identification app for UK tree species, was released by the Museum in the spring. Available free for iPhone, the app uses technology similar to facial recognition software to match a simple photo of a leaf to a database of 156 tree species. NB Nov 2019: The Leafsnap UK App has been retired from the Apple App Store.
Celebrating its 50th competition in 2014, Wildlife Photographer of the Year proved popular again this year. The top-prize-winning images of a resting pride of lions and a scorpion in the sun join a gallery of other category winners and finalists in an exhibition at the Museum until 30 August 2015.
Just below the surface, an unseen stream of plastic and other debris flows along the River Thames. The extent of the problem was revealed by Museum scientists and collaborators studying eels and invasive mitten crabs in the river. The nets they used trapped so much rubbish they decided to count and categorise it, finding more than 8,000 pieces of plastic in their equipment in a three-month period.
Following the revelation, the Museum ran a Plastic Awareness Weekend in January in collaboration with Thames21 and EcoTales.