Last week I headed to London for the second time as part of my traineeship (the first being back in May). That first week was a general overview of the different departments at the museum, whereas this one was more specialised. I was originally hoping to work in the vertebrate palaeo department (since that is a love of mine and Hereford/Ludlow’s collections are negligible), but my traineeship is biological and I was unable to convince the powers that be that vertebrate palaeo is relevant.
My second choice was mammals (another area I am very interested in) and I arranged to visit the palaeo department in my own time instead. This ‘fell through’ so I am glad that I went to mammals: it was fantastic and the people I met were lovely and devoted a lot of time to letting me experience a working department in a natural history museum. They clearly appreciated someone offering their time to learn and help out as needed, and I hope they got as much from my being there as I did.
I met with Louise Tomsett, one of the mammal curators, on the Monday. Louise met me at the staff entrance and showed me the way to get to the mammal collections. Once there, I met a few people in the office who I would be spending some time with over the course of the week and then I was shown the collections.
Louise took her time to guide me through how the collections are arranged and where everything is. The skins are kept in one place, with the skulls and skeletons being kept elsewhere. The specimens are grouped taxonomically and by geographical location, with the types kept separate. One of the highlights of this initial tour was one of the first platypus specimens that had been sent back to the UK, and the one that was used to describe the species (after confounding naturalists here because of the odd assortment of features present in the animal). Here are some of the things I saw.
After my brief tour of the collection, Louise and I joined the rest of the team for tea and I was able to meet them properly. I was introduced to Laura who is involved in organising the Large Vertebrate Store (LVS). I joined Laura and her five volunteers after tea to help them with this massive job.
Loads of fishes
LVS used to be called Zoology Store Room 1 and held a lot of fish, reptile and mammal material, all dry (mainly mounted specimens). Some years ago volunteers helped to pack all this material up in boxes, making sure that everything was secure, wrapped and stable. Everything was taking to various locations for storage while their home was refurbished and improved, allowing it to serve a much better role in preserving the material within its walls. Now that the floor has been replaced with a hard-wearing, rounded-edged material (no corners for dirt to accumulate); the old, wooden cabinets have been replaced with metal, air-tight roller-racking storage; the walls have been painted white; the lighting improved; and environmental controls have been put in place to maintain the conditions and reduce fluctuations in temperature and humidity, the specimens can all come home.
This is a very big job. The first group that is being unpacked is fish and when I arrived in LVS there were over a dozen pallets of boxes, all containing mounted fish specimens to be unwrapped and organised. The pallets had been loaded according to the bay from which the specimens inside had been taken from, so I helped the volunteers find the pallets with boxes from bays 1 to 10. We then unloaded the pallets and carried the boxes to a particular place; an area per bay number. As we went, we were collapsing boxes, folding tissue paper, throwing out rubbish: to keep the area workable we had to keep on top of the mess unpacking specimens creates.
Once the boxes were all in the right place, we started to unpack them. This had to be done carefully since the specimens are fragile and irreplaceable. Luckily (and, I believe, uniquely) the fish are all specially numbered. Most specimens have a number written on their base or label which corresponds to their taxonomy. If in doubt, there is the ‘fish bible’ which was produced from the fish database which lists all genera alphabetically and shows the corresponding genus number. The unpacked fish were laid out in order, following this number system.
Over the next few days I helped out in LVS as and when I could. With the help of some volunteers we managed to get a lot done. There’s far more again to be done, but I like to think that I helped make a decent impact. Check it out.
Another project that I got involved in was pig-related. Roberto, one of the mammal curators, showed me what to do and then I helped two volunteers sort through drawers of South American pig skulls, checking that the labels were attached using the correct thread; that the mandibles were tied to the skulls with the appropriate material and knots (and that the mandibles and skulls matched); that the record card was written in pen and contained accurate information.
The mandibles have to be tied to the skull so that the two elements don’t become disassociated from one another, and the catalogue numbers on each have to match. Roberto, whilst instructing me, found a skull and mandible set that didn’t match. He wrote down the relevant information and we checked the accession registers. It turned out that someone had simply written the wrong number on one of the pieces. That was lucky: it could have been much more complicated. Here are some images of said oinkers.
I also spent some time with Roberto as he fulfilled the request of some researchers. They needed some fur samples from a few civets. They suggested that they come and use sticky tape to almost ‘wax’ the specimens; Roberto informed them that he would perform the sampling of fur, and that he’d use a slightly more professional and marginally less destructive method. In order to be consistent, Roberto sampled from a select number of specific areas on the specimens, as outlined by the researchers. Each tiny clump was put in a vial and labeled. It was interesting to watch and Roberto didn’t seem to mind answering all of my questions about the process, about research requests, sending material like this through the mail, etc. This is what the set-up looked like.
When I wasn’t unpacking fish in LVS I was taking part in other ongoing projects. One of these was with Susie who has a full-time but temporary job at the NHM sorting out some of the cabinets. She kindly let me help her sort through the water vole skins. As mentioned, they are sorted taxonomically and then by geographical location. The order in which the countries are organised is arbitrary but as long as the system is known and consistent then it’s not important.
Susie had produced a spreadsheet from the database; this listed the water vole species and the countries from which they originated in the correct order. With this list we went through the all the drawers, hand-picking the relevant specimens and then rearranging the drawers accordingly. As always there were some issues with labels and unidentified specimens, or specimens that either weren’t on the list but were in the drawer or vice versa. Susie kept these to one side and sorted them out after we had finished everything else. Eventually we had a lovely collection of European water voles all neatly arranged in the right order. Any researchers or visitors that need to see these specimens will have an easy time finding exactly what they’re looking for, and the space is being used sensibly. See?
After a few days of a mix of the above activities, Louise showed me around the collections in more detail. We had a brief general look around and then Louise asked if I had anything in mind that I’d like to see. I told her how much I liked foxes and she was more than happy to show me the vast array of foxes the NHM has from around the world. Louise has a specific interest and fascination in patterns in the animal kingdom. A good example of this is the variation in coat colour of some species that occur all over the world. Squirrels in Europe versus North America, for example, or: foxes.
I was lucky enough to get an insight into the colour variation of Vulpes vulpes by simply looking at cabinet after cabinet of skins. I have a few photos but nowhere near enough to get across how varied the colour can be in foxes. They always seem to retain the white tip of their brush and the black tips of their ears, though. They go from a sandy, gold colour to black, and everywhere in between.
After the foxes, Louise showed me the wildcat collection (again, as per my request). These elusive and beautiful cats are very rare in the UK now and, like most persecuted/endangered animals here, find sanctuary in the untamed wilds of the highlands of Scotland. This is probably another reason I like them so much. They are not common by any means, but in Europe they are more abundant than in the UK. Like foxes, they also exhibit coat colour and pattern variation across different countries.
Louise then showed me type specimens of the Falkland Islands Wolf (or “Warrah”), Dusicyon australis. This canid became extinct in the 19th Century and the specimens I saw were those collected by Darwin and used to describe the species. Darwin apparently warned that this canid was in danger of extinction. Of course, Darwin himself shot (or otherwise killed) at least two individuals. It’s a sad story and brings to mind a somewhat sinister aspect to old natural history collections. It’s all part of world of natural history museums, however. Have a look at these two members of a now extinct species.
Louise then took me to the Darwin Centre to see the dermestarium. I’d been before but not with one of the two people who are responsible for it. The dermestarium is a smelly and warm place, but nowhere as bad as one would imagine. This is what it’s for and here are some images.
My last task of the week was one of the most interesting and fun. A badger’s skull had just come back from the dermestarium and had some residual fleshy gunk on it. Louise asked me to clean it further. This is achieved using forceps (to pull and scrape) and a scalpel (for those tricky bits). The skull had been soaking overnight to soften the bits. I had a great time trying to get the skull all shiny and clean; it’s hard work though. Have a look and see what you think.
That’s the end of my week at the Natural History Museum in London. As I mentioned at the beginning, I had a fantastic time. The mammal team are helpful and interesting and, above all, willing to impart some of their knowledge on enthusiastic volunteers and trainees. It’s clear how much they value our help and it’s great that we can all help each other in this way.
I had such a good time and look forward to going back soon to say hi. I wonder if my badger skull has entered the collection yet…?