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Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, tells us all about our collared aracari, part of the foundation collection of the Horniman Museum.

Celebrity Status

In most museums, the collections are divided into categories. At the Horniman it is easy, we have Musical Instruments, Anthropology, Natural History, living collections and the Library and Archive. Within those departments are collections which are assigned, for example, by who, where, or perhaps when, they were collected.

The most exciting collections to the average person are probably those of famous people, such as Charles Darwin or Mary Anning. Taking this a step further, someone’s excitement over celebrity status can extend to personal association, such as a specimen that was collected where you grew up, or collected by someone who is from your village/city/country.

The Horniman Museum began as the private collection of Frederick Horniman, who passed away five years after the Museum opened on its current site in 1901. The specimens from his original collection are known as the Frederick Horniman Collection, and are of epic (niche) celebrity status. Not just for their age, but for the connection to Horniman and that they form the foundation of the legacy he left to us. This month’s specimen is one such treasure.

  • Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), This pair of collared aracari's are part of the foundation collection of the Horniman Museum which makes them fantastically exciting. Plus, they're beautiful as an added bonus.
    This pair of collared aracari's are part of the foundation collection of the Horniman Museum which makes them fantastically exciting. Plus, they're beautiful as an added bonus.

A Big Home

The collared aracari (ah-rah-sar-ree) (you’re on your own for collared) is also known as the spot breasted aracari. The preferred (natural) habitat is wet or moist forests, though in an ever changing world, the collared aracari also has a postal address in many fruit, cacao and coffee plantations. Well why not, it was there first.

The aracari is a non-migratory species and so live, breed, frolic, and grow old in their home range. This is referred to in the biz as ‘sedentary’. I know a few people who’d be marked as sedentary if they were in a natural history book.

The aracari may not go outside its range, but then it is huge; stretching from southern Mexico, throughout Central America, and down into northern Venezuela and Columbia. Having such a large range, in terms of a wild animal surviving in a world dominated by our anthropocentric attitude, is a good thing.

  • Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), I had the great pleasure of running into a collared aracari in Guatemala a few years ago. A convivial chap.− © Emma-Louise Nicholls, 2009
    I had the great pleasure of running into a collared aracari in Guatemala a few years ago. A convivial chap.

Trouble with the Neighbours

I applaud your observational skills if the aracari's bill led you to the (correct) conclusion that it is a member of the toucan family; Ramphastidae. As with all families that live too close together however, there are frequent problems. It seems odd for such a beautiful bird but if the aracari lapses in concentration for a moment and leaves its nest unguarded, the black mandibled toucan (see below) will sneak in and, can you believe it, eat the contents. Your family issues don’t seem so bad now huh.

  • Specimen of the Month: the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), Although taxonomically they're in the same family, the black mandibled toucan is big trouble for the collared aracari. − © Brian Ralphs, 2012
    Although taxonomically they're in the same family, the black mandibled toucan is big trouble for the collared aracari.

References

  • BirdLife International (2017).
  • del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. eds. (2002). Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 2 Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Barcelona, Lynx Edicions pp.127-128.
  • Horniman Museum.

Specimen of the Month: The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, tells us all about the cheetah.

‘Cat. With. Spots’

The image below is of the Horniman’s Accession Register in 1910, when the cheetah was first acquired by the Museum. It reads ‘Hunt.g leopard’. I have a Ph.D in sharks; I am definitely qualified to say that what we have is a cheetah, not a leopard. Wondering whether it could have been a mistake, I started digging into the original taxonomy* and common names of the cheetah and discovered something interesting…

Back in the day when the British were trying to colonise the world and India was temporarily renamed British India, cheetahs were kept in captivity as feline ‘hunting dogs’ by elite members of Indian society. So the hunting part of the name ‘hunting leopard’ makes sense but as Asia also has leopards why they mixed the common names is anyone’s invitation to research. As our cheetah arrived at the Horniman in 1910, when India was yet to kick the British out, I suppose it is reasonable that the specimen was recorded as ‘hunting leopard’ rather than ‘cheetah’, however confusing that was going to be for future Deputy Keepers of Natural History. Tsk.

  • Specimen of the Month: the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), This photocopy of the original Horniman Accession Register from 1910 shows the cheetah specimen listed as a Hunting leopard
    This photocopy of the original Horniman Accession Register from 1910 shows the cheetah specimen listed as a Hunting leopard

So many cheetahs, and so few

Scientists have proposed that the cheetah is split into five different subspecies. However, genetic analyses haven’t yet been used to confirm, or deny, their differences. One fairly confident split is between the Asiatic/Iranian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), and the African cheetah, which encompasses all four remaining, potential, subspecies:

Northwest African cheetah (A. j. hecki)

East African cheetah (A. j. fearsoni)

Southern African cheetah (A. j. jubatus)

Northeast African cheetah (A. j. soemmerringi)

(Apologies for the lack of catchy common names. Please feel free to write to the cheetah specialists of the world and demand they get on this immediately.)

Although the Asiatic and African cheetahs have had around 100,000 years to change their appearance and try something new, the two cheetah types still look pretty much identical. Pretty lazy for the fastest land mammal in the world. Just because I know you’re wondering, our specimen hails from South Africa. So until a rigorous genetic test is put in place, which subspecies it is will be anyone’s guess.

  • Specimen of the Month: the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Is this an Asiatic or an African cheetah? Who knows!
(Probably the photographer does, as it's likely he knew what country he was in when he took the picture...) 
− © Peter Chadwick
    Is this an Asiatic or an African cheetah? Who knows! (Probably the photographer does, as it's likely he knew what country he was in when he took the picture...)

Deadly in life after death

Cheetahs are excellent predators and so it seems fitting then that even in death, our cheetah could still cause serious harm. A few years ago our cheetah specimen was tested for harmful chemicals and traces of arsenic were found on the fur. The taxidermist who prepared the skin (pre-1910, which is when we acquired it) would have used arsenical soap to protect the specimen from pest damage. Arsenic was a common pesticide used in taxidermy from the 1800s up until quite recently when health and safety departments became more health and safety conscious and started testing things more rigorously. Our cheetah poses no threat whatsoever to the public in the gallery, but curators have to wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) when handling historic specimens.

  • Specimen of the Month: the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Our hunting leopard/cheetah is on display in the Natural History Gallery
    Our hunting leopard/cheetah is on display in the Natural History Gallery

*Acinonyx jubatus (see blog title) is the most recent and up to date taxonomic genus and species for the cheetah.

References

ARKive. Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

ARKive. Leopard (Panthera pardus)

Wilson, D. E. and Mittermeier, R. A. (2009). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 1. Carnivores. Barcelona, Lynx Edicions pp.154-156.

IUCN Red List. Acinonyx jubatus

IUCN Red List. Acinonyx jubatus ssp. hecki

IUCN Red List. Acinonyx jubatus ssp. venaticus.

Mammal Species of the World. Genus Acinonyx

Marte, F., Pé Quignot, A., and Von Endt, D. W. (2006). Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections: History, Detection, and Management. Collection Forum 21 (1-2) pp.143-150

The Badger at Burgh House

Hello, I’m Becky Lodge the Curator at Burgh House, an historic house with a local history museum, based in Hampstead.

We borrowed the Object in Focus taxidermy badger from the Horniman last year and the staff all became very fond of her. We have no natural history specimens in our own collection, and the badger is super cute.

The badger featured in an exhibition of picture postcards of Hampstead called 'Hello from Hampstead! Discovering a History through Postcards'.

Hampstead is a suburb of London that has been a popular visitor destination for centuries, especially for its vast and famous Heath. Not only is the Heath an incredible place to explore, it is host to a wonderful variety of plants and animals.

The badger helped us to show this, complementing our postcards beautifully.

Working with Sarah and the conservators from the Horniman on the loan was a really enjoyable experience. The whole process was so well managed, it was a delight for our small team. Thanks, Horniman Museum and Gardens!

Find out more about our Object in Focus loans project. 

Discover more from Burgh House on their website or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter

About the art: Jazmine Miles-Long

We chat to ethical taxidermist and artist, Jazmine Miles-Long, about her new display 'Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy'.

  • Woodcock, Woodcock detail − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Woodcock detail

Your new display takes its inspiration from the Horniman collection. What made you want to mirror an historic collection in this way?

The pieces I have chosen from the Horniman's collection all have their own eccentricities, even though they are not the most beautiful and striking works that I could have picked. I wanted to show some of the objects from the collection that would not necessarily have the chance to be put on public display as others within the collection do outshine them. I wanted to show that each piece of taxidermy has a history and charm that should be appreciated.

By creating replicas of the works, I wanted to focus attention on the details of the objects, from the decisions made by the taxidermists, to the labels added over time by museums. 

Through the use of white cases and delicate porcelain, I have created ghostly monuments of the originals. Silhouetting my own specimens to commemorate their beauty and fragility in life and now as objects representing their species.

  • Ceramic case, Building the ceramics into the case − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Building the ceramics into the case

What do you want people to think when they see these artworks side by side?

I want them to be drawn into the makers behind the works and notice the taxidermy throughout the museum. Seeing the works as intricately crafted objects rather than simply preserved dead animals.

Taxidermy is such an unknown craft that I think it is often misunderstood. Through this exhibition, I hope to challenge perceptions and present the many skills taxidermists need to create work.

  • Woodcock, Painting the woodcock's leg − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Painting the woodcock's leg

I hope to portray taxidermy as a heartfelt art form that shows compassion for the natural world and its importance as an evolving craft still used today.

I only work with animals that have died from natural causes or as the result of road casualties. And although many pieces within historical museum collections would have been hunted, it does not mean we should dismiss these objects as they are useful educational tools that speak of a different time and are part of our cultural heritage.

  •  Rabbit, Horniman and Jazmine's rabbits next to each other. − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Horniman and Jazmine's rabbits next to each other.

How did you decide which pieces to include in this exhibition?

When taxidermy is donated to a museum, information such as the name of the taxidermist, the collector and time and mode of death of the animal is not always recorded. So over time the story behind the work is often lost. This lack of information creates an air of mystery behind the work and this influenced my decision in choosing these five specimens. For instance, the magpie has obviously been lovingly made, in the groundwork of the piece even false rocks have been sculpted out of paper. But there is no information about the artefact apart from that is was presented to The Horniman in 1961. And so the story behind this magpie and its creator is most probably lost forever.

For instance, the magpie has obviously been lovingly made, in the groundwork of the piece even false rocks have been sculpted out of paper. But there is no information about the artefact apart from that is was presented to The Horniman in 1961. And so the story behind this magpie and its creator is most probably lost forever.

  • Magpie, Magpie in process − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Magpie in process

What is your favourite piece of taxidermy from our collection?

I love all of the work in the collection by Edward Hart, his ability to create such vast scenes in small cases and his attention to detail is astonishing. My favourite is probably the two European Robins in a winter scene. The case is as picturesque as a christmas card, but it has a sinister twist. One of the robins is singing or possibly calling a warning, as the other looks inside of the brick bird trap that he is perched upon. The story within the case pulls you into a seemingly quaint scenario, either the robins know what this trap is or everything is about to go wrong.

  • Robins, Two robins from Edward Hart's collection at the Horniman− ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Two robins from Edward Hart's collection at the Horniman

See Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy on display in our Natural History Gallery until 1 May 2017.

Specimen of the Month: an un-iconic icon, the robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking at the robin, and its associations with Christmas, for her Specimen of the Month series.

'Robins are well known to be one of the traditional cover models of Christmas card multipacks. An icon of Christmas in the UK, the robin is only meant to appear when the festive lights are up, The Grinch is on TV, and the shops become a hostile habitat visited only by the brave, followed a week later by the disorganised.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*
    The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*

But robins live in the UK throughout the year. Why then do we associate them with Christmas? There are a number of theories…

According to the RSPB, robins spend December roaming around the neighbourhood, looking for a mate to settle down with in the New Year, a resolution that’s mirrored by many humans. This extra movement around Christmas time, and presumably, the extra effort they put into showing off their musical talents, simply makes them more visible to the untrained human passer-by.

Following on from this line of reasoning, robins are also more ‘in your face’ around Christmas because they are one of the only birds that don’t suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder** and thus continue their cheery singing even though the clocks have gone back and going to the toilet in the middle of the night is a race against frostbite.

In the winter, robins are also one of the earliest to start singing in the morning and one of the last to stop singing at night. They sound like neighbours from hell.

  • Specimen of the Month blog category, Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain
    Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain

An entirely different theory is that the association comes from the first postmen in the UK, who used to wear bright red waistcoats. They were, for obvious reasons of visual association, therefore nicknamed 'Robins'. Whilst the festive season is certainly a busy time for these robin-people, surely it’s not the only time of year in which they were employed? Personally, I find this association somewhat tenuous. However if you’d like a challenge, I will happily eat my blog if sufficient evidence is produced to support this claim.

Maybe the question should really be, would they be better off representing a different holiday? Unlike Father Christmas who is categorically absent for the rest of the year (supermarket shelves in October aside), the robin clearly raises its family with a staycation mentality. They may remind you of a time when everyone is obliged to be happy to see their extended family, and be nicer to fellow commuters, but the robin is an aggressive bird that when required transforms into a small, vicious, wing-ed nightmare that will fight other robins to the death if needs be. Call me a traditionalist, but that’s not very Christmas spirit-y. So in short, next time you’re selecting Christmas cards, perhaps you should go for the snowman.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain
    The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain

*This diorama is just masquerading as a beautiful Christmas scene. If you look closer, the bricks the robin is standing on are actually a Victorian sparrow trap. If the robin went for the seed inside, the little stick would budge and BAM. Lights out Christmas robin.

**It is unknown if SAD affects any avian species.'

References

ARKive. (No date). Robin (Erithacus rubecula).

Horniman Museum and Gardens. (No date). Zoology: Edward Hart Collection

RSPB. (No date). Birds and Wildlife: Robin.

RSPB. (2009). Birds and Wildlife: Ask an Expert.

Specimen of the Month: The Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking into the world of the Aye-Aye for her Specimen of the Month series.

A Law unto its Own

The Madagascan Aye-aye is not like the other kids in the playground. Whilst it’s most closely related to lemurs, it’s the only surviving species within its entire scientific family (Daubentoniidae). Awww, sad face.

A curious looking creature, it has the body of a lemur, the ears of a huge bat, the tail of an Ikea toilet brush and the teeth of a well-flossed beaver.

The Aye-aye first became known to western science in the late 1700s, but other than working out which end was the front, scientists didn’t seem to know what to make of it. The first formal description had the Aye-aye classed as a rodent based on the continually growing teeth. Via a brief sojourn into the squirrel family in 1790, it finally arrived in the primate sector in 1850.

  • Sonnerat's Aye-aye, Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!
    Earliest known illustration of an Aye-aye, in the first published account (Sonnerat, 1780). No offense to Sonnerat, but this isn't a remarkable likeness!

Portent of Evil

People across the world are inclined to be suspicious of things that look weird, act strangely, or smell funny. Unfortunately for the Aye-aye, it probably does all three. With its dark wiry fur, ginormous eyes, tarantula-like hands (see below), and secretive nature, the Aye-aye was awarded the title ‘Portent of Evil’ early on by the people of Madagascar, and has been persecuted ever since. In a delightful letter (in an historic context sort of a way) written by Sonnerat, he described the difficulty this caused him in obtaining a specimen:

“I am told that the Aye-aye is an object of veneration at Madagascar, and that if any native touches one, he is sure to die within the year; hence the difficulty of obtaining a specimen. I overcame this scruple by a reward of £10.”

We all know the pre-Brexit pound was worth a whole lot more than it is today, so it is little wonder this was enough to sway a local to ‘dance with the devil’, as it were.

  • Tarantula hand, 'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...
    'Is this a spider which I see before me?' The hand of an Aye-aye looks suspiciously like a tarantula to me...

The Walking Dead

After the first formal description was published in 1782, no other western scientist saw hide nor hair of an Aye-aye for the next 70 years. One would clearly lose every time at hide-n-seek with an Aye-aye. As a consequence, it was rumoured that either the Aye-aye had gone extinct, or that the whole thing had been a hoax all along.

In 1844, De Castelle travelled to Madagascar and was successful in not only seeing another Aye-aye but in capturing a live animal. As we western scientists liked to do ‘back in the day’, he caught it, bundled it into a crate, and shipped it off to Europe. Inevitably, the poor thing expired en route.

It wouldn’t be until 1862 that someone would manage to convince an Aye-aye to stay alive for the duration of the journey to England. Although both a male and a female boarded the boat, only the stronger sex survived and the female was subsequently taken to London Zoo where, as of 12th August 1862, she became the first live Aye-aye seen on public display. She even featured in the Illustrated London News in 1862. Due to its incredibly elusive nature, the Aye-aye was again declared extinct in the wild in 1933, until it was re-re-discovered in 1957.

By the way… well-taken photographs of living Aye-ayes will prove that they are actually adorable!

  • Our Aye-aye, Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery
    Our Aye-aye specimen was purchased for the Horniman on 24th August 1922, and is on display on the balcony in the Natural History Gallery

References

ARKive. (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Bartlett, A. (1862). Observations of the living aye-aye in the Zoological Gardens. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 30 (1) pp.222-223

Brehm, A. B. (1896). The Animals of the World. Brehm’s Life of Animals. Chicago, A. N. Marquis & Company. pp.73-74

EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered). (No date). Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).

Mittermeier, R. A., Rylands, A. B. Wilson, D. E. eds. (2013). Handbook of the Mammals of the World. 3 Primates. Lynx Edicions pp.952

Natural History Museum. (No date). Joseph Wolf (1820-1899). Drawing overview: The Aye-aye.

Owen, R. (1863). Monograph on the Aye-aye; Chiromys Madagascariensis, Cuvier. London, Taylor and Francis pp. 1-72

Sonnerat, P. (1780). Voyage aux indes orientales et a la chine. Vol IV

Unknown. (6th September 1862). The Aye-aye. The Illustrated London News. pp.256

Birds: myth, lore & legend

As Halloween approaches, we explore the myths and legends surrounding some of the birds in our Natural History collection.

Humans have always seen birds as having mysterious and magical powers. Maybe because their colours, songs and the way they fly can be so beautiful and intriguing.

We've been speaking to Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor, authors of Birds: myth, lore & legend to look at three of the most magical birds, and the different qualities and beliefs humans have associated with them.

Raven

  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Raven on display in the Natural History Gallery
    Raven on display in the Natural History Gallery

For many people in Britain, their first encounters with ravens are at the Tower of London. It is said that if ravens ever fly away from the Tower the crown will fall. Folklore says that wild ravens have always lived at the Tower, and fed on the bodies of those executed as enemies of the Crown.

Ravens pop up in mythology and legend all over the world. The god Odin, from Norse mythology, was accompanied by a pair of ravens called Huginn and Muninn. The birds, representing reflection/thought and memory, flew over the world each morning and on their return would settle on the god’s shoulders and whisper to him all that they had seen. Thanks to this Odin became renowned as the wisest of the gods. Norse sailors exploring the northern seas also used ravens but as navigators, sending them out from ships in search of land.

In the Bible, Noah first sends out a raven to look for dry land. It is when the raven does not return that he sends out a dove.

In North American folklore, the raven is seen as both creator and amoral prankster, and as such are often a central figure in Native American and Inuit creation stories.

Magpie

  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Magpie from our Handling Collection
    Magpie from our Handling Collection

In Britain, the magpie is the bearer of both good and bad luck – depending on how many are seen. Many are familiar with this old rhymes, differing according to region:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a wedding, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for Heaven, nine for Hell,

And ten for the Devil’s own sell [self].

In ancient Rome, the magpie was associated with magic and fortune telling, while in Scandinavia some witches rode magpies or turned into them. In Germany, the bird was considered a bird of the underworld and in Scotland it was said that magpies had a drop of the devil’s blood on their tongues.

Outside of Europe, the magpie has a much more positive image. In Native American legends, the magpie was considered a friend of hunter-gatherer tribes. In Korea, the magpie is thought to bring good news and in China it is a symbol of happiness, foretelling and good fortune.

Owl

  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Snowy owl on display in our Natural History Collection
    Snowy owl on display in our Natural History Collection

Across the world, few birds are as culturally symbolic – and contradictory – as owls. The sights and sound of an owl was linked to death in ancient Egypt and desolation in the Bible. In ancient Rome, owls were said to have predicted the passing of several Caesars. Fear and dread of the birds is similarly deep-rooted in Native American, African and several Asian cultures.

Yet in ancient Greece, subverting this trend, the Little Owl represented or accompanied Athene, the goddess of wisdom. The owl is also presented as a wise character in popular fiction, like Hedwig in Harry Potter or Archimedes in The Once and Future King, even when they are actually less smart, like Owl in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Owls are often associated with magic. An owl can fly without sounds, find its prey in near total darkness and rotate its head almost a full circle. Human attempts to harness this otherworldliness in magic is widespread. In Japan, owl images were used to guard against famine and epidemics, while in central Asia, owl-feather amulets were worn to ward off evil spirits. For some Native American tribes, wearing owl feathers signified bravery and brought good fortune. European owls were often the familiars of witches and wizards, such as Merlin's companion in the Arthurian legends and Harry Potter.

You can visit the raven and owls in our Natural History Gallery.

You can see our magpie in the Hands on Base.

How to make felt animals

One of our Volunteers, Genevieve, has been inspired by the Horniman collections to make her own animals. Her tiny harvest mouse has stolen our hearts. Find out how she went about making them look realistic. 

'Being part of the engage volunteer team, I have been able to encourage children to look more carefully at animals though the handling collection. I’ve also helped them learn by asking them questions and encouraging them to feel and experience the animal. I have seen the wonder and excitement at being able to touch the soft fur of a wild rabbit and the hard sharp teeth of a lion amongst other treasures.

I have also been learning myself about the animals in the Natural History Gallery and the Nature Base. From day one of my Volunteering, I fell in love with the live harvest mice in the Nature Base and rushed home to try and make one of my own.

  • Felt harvest mouse, The inspiration for this felt creation is the harvest mouse in the Horniman Nature Base
    The inspiration for this felt creation is the harvest mouse in the Horniman Nature Base

I learnt about their prehensile tails which curl around the straw or grass they live in. They make spherical nests which they weave out of dry grass. The lucky Horniman mice have a fantastic home with a couple of tennis balls to hide in, which you can see in their glass case.

I made my own mouse using a wire, felting wool and even some bits of an old brush for whiskers. I wanted him to look like the taxidermy examples in the Museum so I mounted him on some pieces of wheat!

  • Felt harvest mouse, By attaching the felt mouse to straw it makes it look like it is in its natural habitat
    By attaching the felt mouse to straw it makes it look like it is in its natural habitat

One of my favourite animals is the gecko. This is a picture of a family pet, a leopard geko, which I tried to copy.

  • leopard gecko, The pet family leopard gecko
    The pet family leopard gecko

I started with a frame made out of wire to get the general shape of the animal. Then, I wrapped it up with string to make a “bind” just as a taxidermist does. Wool is then wrapped around to build up the body then the process of needle felting helps to add details and definition to the limbs. The needle felting needle has tiny notches along it to help tangle and mesh the wool fibres together.

  • How to make felt animals, A wire 'skeleton' lies at the heart of the animal and is covered in felt
    A wire 'skeleton' lies at the heart of the animal and is covered in felt

I used glass beads as eyes. I tried to get all the spot patterns to match the photograph of the real gecko. I also used the exhibits in the gallery to check to see that I had the gecko leg shapes correct and found out about a gecko which can fly!

  • Felt geko, The finished felt geko
    The finished felt geko

  • Felt polar bear, Another felt creation - a polar bear
    Another felt creation - a polar bear

I have just been given a full fleece of Jacob’s sheep wool and will try to copy some of the skills of the nomadic people by wet felting the wool to make some slippers for winter! You can see some Inuit socks on the Horniman website which are made by wet felting. This fabric is still made into objects such as hats, clothing, tents, bags and rugs.'

  • Felt elephant, A felt elephant with a lovely long trunk
    A felt elephant with a lovely long trunk

The Horniman Harvest Mice

If you visit the Nature Base today you might be able to spot some of our tiny residents – the harvest mice.

  • The Horniman Harvest Mice, The Horniman Harvest Mice eating some seeds
    The Horniman Harvest Mice eating some seeds

We have had harvest mice at the Horniman since 2009 and at the moment we have five of these furry creatures living with us.

Harvest mice are fascinating animals as they are very small – between five and seven centimetres long. The male mice are a grey colour, but when the females are having their babies they will turn a beautiful russet brown colour. The female mice are very territorial and mate for life with their partners. At the Horniman we only keep male harvest mice.

Harvest mice are natural climbers as they are the only mouse in the world to have a prehensile tail, which means it has adapted to be able to grasp or hold objects. The harvest mice use their tails to climb up tall stems of wheat, grasses and reeds. They live in hedgerows and fields, and are often found near water.

The harvest mice make a distinctive nest for their babies that they build above the ground attached to tall grasses, stems and small branches. They weave together grass to make a hollow circular shape where they live with their young for two to three weeks until they are weaned. 

They don’t hibernate and are most often seen in the morning and in the evening. Harvest mice eat a mixture of things including seeds, berries and sometimes insects. They love to eat fallen seed from the fields where they live but they won’t ever burrow for their food – they only pick their food from the surface of the ground.

Visit the harvest mice in our Nature Base.

Life after death: about ethical taxidermy

Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy’ is currently on display in our Natural History Gallery. Here, ethical taxidermist and artist, Jazmine Miles-Long, tells us about the process of taxidermy.

  • About ethical taxidermy, Jazmine Miles-Long painting a taxidermy stoat ,  Ali Graham
    Jazmine Miles-Long painting a taxidermy stoat ,  Ali Graham

How do you create taxidermy?

Taxidermy involves a lot of processes and skills. The first thing that must be done is to collect all of the details about the specimen – how, when and where it died. There are many laws to protect wildlife in the UK that taxidermists must adhere to. So it is important to check if the species you are working with needs specific legal paperwork.

Then comes the skinning, which I think many presume will be very messy but it’s not that bad. Underneath the skin is a membrane that acts like a second skin keeping the body together in one piece. Working carefully between these layers means the skin can be simply peeled away. If all goes well not much blood is actually present. If I am working on a mammal, the skin must be pickled and tanned in a similar process to leather. Whereas with birds, all of the fat must be cleaned away from the feather tracts where the quills poke through on the inside of the skin.

Then the form replacing the muscular structure of the animal has to be created using measurements taken from the actual animal's body to recreate the same shape and size. Taxidermists use a variety of materials to make this form, I use carved balsa wood for birds and a bind-up for the mammals. A bind-up is made by wrapping wood-wool (fine, soft wood-shavings, typically used as a packing material) tightly around wire using cotton thread to hold the structure together. In both birds and mammals the skull is cleaned and used within the head. Some of the wing and leg bones are kept attached to the bird skin with all the flesh cleaned away.

The skin is then mounted onto the form, the facial expression is sculpted under the skin often with clay and the eyes are made from glass or acrylic. Once the piece has dried, any skin not covered by fur or feathers loses its colour turning a dark yellow or grey. Such as around the eyes, within ears, on pads of the feet of mammals and legs and bills of birds. Finally the last stage is to paint these areas using acrylic paints. 

See a video of this process below. Please be aware that this video shows scenes of animals being skinned and flesh being removed from bones.

How long will an artwork take to complete from start to finish?

It depends on the size and type of the animal. For instance larger mammals take longer as there is simply more body to build and skin to sew, also a longer time is needed to pickle a larger skin and for the piece to then dry once finished. On the other hand a smaller specimen such as a tiny bird, needs a far more delicate approach working slowly so not to rip the skin. I would work on a larger mammal over the period of a month while the skin pickles and dries. And although I can complete a small bird in one day, I prefer to break up the stages over a few days so I can take my time and get the piece right. Alongside making the taxidermy I create the cases and groundwork to accompany them and often will be working on several pieces at once.

Do you have to know a lot about zoology and natural history?

To be a good taxidermist you must have a keen love of animals and the natural world to understand the way they live and move. I did not study Zoology or Natural History but have always been fascinated by nature and learnt a lot through physically making taxidermy. I have discovered so much about the individuality of species through working closely with the animals in a way I’m not sure I could have from a distance.

How did you get into Taxidermy as a career?

When I finished university in 2007 I wanted to work in museum conservation and so volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. While I was there my focus turned to the taxidermy and I decided to give it go with the help of the museum's Curator. After that I wanted to be a taxidermist and spent the years that followed practicing and learning about the craft. I now work with the Booth Museum often and am grateful that they helped point me in the direction I have taken. Museums are amazing places that can truly inspire.

'Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy' is on display from 22 October 2016 to 1 May 2017.

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