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About the Art: Daksha Patel

We spoke to Daksha Patel about her new artwork Pani, which you can see for free in the Natural History Gallery.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, Artist Daksha Patel speaking at the opening her exhibition Pani
    Artist Daksha Patel speaking at the opening her exhibition Pani

What was the inspiration behind Pani?

The work is about water and our relationship with it. A significant part of the human body is comprised of water, and it is central to all ecosystems. Water is a symbol of purification in many South Asian cultures, and yet it is also contaminated and a source of pollution. Water moves across boundaries - geographical, political, economic and cultural - it is a highly contested resource.

Whilst looking at maps of ecosystems across South Asia, I began thinking about how water moves across boundaries - geographical, political, economic and cultural - and how it is a shared, and consequently a highly contested resource.

This simple molecule - H2O - is central to our biological selves and permeates ecosystems. It also permeates culture, and is implicated in all kinds of cultural and religious practices; for instance the concept of holy water is found in many different cultures.

In South Asian cultures, water is often a symbol of purification through the ritual act of cleansing the body. And yet water is also routinely contaminated and polluted causing immense harm to humans and to ecosystems.

The complex relationship that we have with water was the starting point for the work.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, Planning Pani
    Planning Pani

How did the Horniman influence Pani?

The Horniman is a really interesting Museum because it has such a diverse range of collections. As part of my research for this project, I visited the museum stores and looked at collections of South Asian water vessels and textiles. The shapes of the water pots, and the colours and patterns upon the textiles have all influenced the final work.

But also, the way in which the Museum becomes wonderfully animated as groups of school children move through it has influenced how I think about the work. I’m interested in how they will engage with it as they move through the space.

How did Pani develop from your initial thoughts to the display in the Natural History Gallery?

Ideas evolved and changed from my original proposal as I started testing and exploring materials.

I had initially imagined the map would be printed upon paper; the idea of printing it upon cloth and of using embroidery as a way of drawing into the map developed over time. This was influenced by the collections and a desire to make links between ecosystems and the cultures of the region.

Similarly I had originallyplanned uponmaking drawings with slip (a mixture of clay and water) upon ceramic water pots. I have used slip as a drawing material in past projects and was keen to develop this further. As I was researching the impact of water pollution upon the human body (for instance high levels of arsenic in water causes rashes and blisters upon the skin), I started to think about the pots as bodies. The idea of damaging the pots by cracking/distorting their surface evolved from that.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, Artist Daksha Patel making the pots
    Artist Daksha Patel making the pots

What do you want people to think about when they see Pani?

The artwork makes connections between different things, for instance between ecosystems, water pollution and cultural traditions, or handmade crafts practices and twenty first century digital mapping technologies, or mapping symbols, drawing and embroidery.

The central theme of water is addressed indirectly - I wanted to allow space for the imagination to make its own connections. Once a piece of artwork is completed and moves into the public realm outside the artist’s studio, it takes on its own life and meanings. Everyone brings their own interpretations; has their own way of looking at it.

  • About the Art: Daksha Patel, A close up of the map appearing in Pani
    A close up of the map appearing in Pani

You can see Pani in the Natural History Gallery from Saturday 20 May to Sunday 26 November 2017.  Entry to the Gallery is free.

The Horniman is grateful to Roseberys Fine Art Auctioneers for their generous support of this display.

Sponsors

Friends of the walrus

Visitor Host Vicky King spends a lot of time with the big guy. She gives us her unique insights on what people think of our walrus.

Working at the Horniman as a Visitor Host, I see countless children walk into the Natural History Gallery - eyes wide and transfixed while their jaw is ajar, one arm stretched out pointing, amazed and slowly saying, “Wallllrus!”

The walrus is everyone’s favourite celebrity at the Horniman, including mine. Growing up visiting the Horniman means it has a special place in my heart. Since working here and finding out more about the collections my appreciation for the Horniman has increased.

What is it about the walrus that makes it so loveable? It’s hardly something cute and familiar like a cat or dog. I’ve asked some of the visitors why they like the walrus to find out.

“Because it’s fat!” shouted one little boy on a school trip, “He was here for a long, long time.”

“When I was little I was really scared of the walrus,” a little girl told me and also proudly said how she wasn’t scared anymore and liked him now.

Regular families to the Horniman always come to say hello to the walrus, but it’s not only children that are fond of him.

“I love that story that the Victorians over stuffed him,” a lady told me.

“I guess it’s that all the other animals are real representations of what they are but the walrus is just funny looking because it’s too big. Also walruses look a bit funny with their tusks,” one of our volunteers said while we chatted about the Museum.

This seems to be a popular theme adults like. I also love that one of our most popular exhibits is so popular because it's not actually correct.

A question we get asked a lot in the Natural History Gallery about everything is, “Is it real?”

Visitors particularly ask this about the walrus. People know it’s wrong but they can't always put their finger on why. When told the story of it being over stretched (because the people who stuffed it didn’t know what a walrus looked like) always gets a positive reaction.

For me one thing that really made me love the walrus was a story Jo Hatton our Keeper of Natural History told us while she gave a tour of the Gallery.

The walrus wasn’t always the focal point of the Natural History Gallery. You can see in photos of the museum years ago that we had much more larger animals on display including a polar bear.

However, the larger animals sold at auction in Deptford during the 1940s, and some ended up as amusements in Southend for people to have their photos taken with. The walrus was spared this fate probably because he’s so funny looking and no one wanted to buy him.

I think this story is so sweet, like The Ugly Duckling, but in the walrus' story he didn’t turn into a beautiful swan, people just learned to love him for being funny looking.

Why do you love the walrus?

Tell us online using #Horniman.

How to make an origami walrus

Coco Sato shows us how to recreate our star Natural History specimen in paper form. 

We recently had origami artist, Coco Sato, come into the Museum for one of our Big Wednesday events. 

Coco made some amazing giant origami animals with our visitors and had a pop-up installation in our Music Gallery. 

As an added extra for us, Coco showed us how to make an origami walrus, in honour of the big man himself.

It was modelled on the walrus in our Natural History Gallery. Here, you can see how Coco copied the walrus' shape and size into paper form. 

If you would like to make your own origami walrus, you can watch the following video where Coco goes through the whole process. 

All you need is a square of coloured paper and some scissors. 

If you do manage to master the skill, share your masterpieces with us on social media using #horniman.

Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the crime scene investigators of the animal world.

Two Sides to the Coin

It will probably surprise you to hear that the house fly is critically endangered. Just checking you're paying attention… no it won’t surprise you to hear that the house fly is actually thought to be the most common animal on the planet. But don’t let that make you think they’re not special in their own way; humans are also (seemingly) everywhere and we all have at least a few of those we think are pretty great. The house fly may be numerous, and irritating at picnics, and yes, they can carry many disease-causing pathogens including typhoid, cholera, and leprosy, but they have many upsides too.

  • Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica) , This housefly specimen on display in the Natural History Gallery is a model approximately 30 x life-size.
    This housefly specimen on display in the Natural History Gallery is a model approximately 30 x life-size.

The Scientist Fly

If CSI Miami was made into a cartoon with insect characters, it would seem reasonable for a mosquito to play a blood sucking lawyer. The house fly, on the other hand, would definitely be the cool-guy crime scene investigator. In the real world, the discipline of Forensic Entomology uses insects and the stages of their development to glean clues from fatal crime scenes that can aid legal investigations. If the body is found immediately after death, pathology-based methods are used. However, if the body isn’t found until a day or more later, insects are one of the most reliable indicators of many aspects of the crime.

The decomposition of a body can be split into five phases. Just in case you’re reading this over dinner, I shan’t use the precise medical terms, but they are as follows:

•    Could be sleeping (1-2 days)

•    Resembles a flotation device (2-6 days)

•    Nose peg required before approach (7-12 days)

•    Starting to become part of the environment (13-23 days)

•    Could be in a museum (24 days onwards)

Flies appear at a dead body very quickly. Some particularly well organised and highly motivated species detect the expiration and land within minutes. As different insects arrive at different stages (listed above), a forensic scientist can use a survey of the species present, and the point at which they are within their life cycle, to accurately establish how long ago the unfortunate person began sleeping with the fishes. In our insect cartoon, our humble house fly is never late to dinner. It likes to get there early in the event, and will land at the point the cadaver starts to resemble a flotation device. There is so much to talk about on this subject and it is extremely interesting, but I’m already going to run out of space so I shall leave it to you to investigate further.

  • Specimen of the Month: House Fly (Musca domestica) , Rather than including an image of flies on a cadaver, as would be appropriate for this point in the blog, I thought you would rather see our beautiful housefly robot from our current exhibition Robot Zoo. This fellow is 200 x life-size!
    Rather than including an image of flies on a cadaver, as would be appropriate for this point in the blog, I thought you would rather see our beautiful housefly robot from our current exhibition Robot Zoo. This fellow is 200 x life-size!

Flies or Armageddon

Entire ecosystems of wildlife live in urban areas because we produce so much rubbish. You just need a bank holiday to realise how much we rely on refuse collectors and their trash squishing trucks, when they haven’t been for a week it only takes a strong wind or a couple of foxes for the streets to look like Armageddon overnight.

Whilst bin boys and girls kindly collect our rubbish and hide it away where we can conveniently forget about how much food we ate over the weekend, it takes other much smaller members of the animal kingdom than humans to break it down. The housefly is amongst those that aid the decay of organic matter and with every fly that vomits onto the waste food in order to digest it, these insects elegantly ensure our food waste is re-harnessed by the natural circle of life. Thank you flies.

References

ARKive

http://www.arkive.org/house-fly/musca-domestica/

Bug Guide

http://bugguide.net/node/view/39559

(Muscidae) typically visit the remains during the bloated stage of decomposition (Joseph et al 2011).

PennState College of Agricultural Sciences

http://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/house-flies

The Forensics Library

http://aboutforensics.co.uk/forensic-entomology/

Specimen of the Month: Greater Horseshoe Bat

This month, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, takes a look at the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum). 

Pigeonholing

You often hear people talk of the Latin name for an animal to refer to the Genus and Species, such as Homo sapien for a human. However, many of these scientific names actually stem from Greek. The scientific name for the genus of the greater horseshoe bat is Rhinolophus. Rhino comes from Greek, and means nose. Lophus is also Greek, and means crest. If you take a look at the greater horseshoe bat in the image below, you’ll see the logic behind a scientific name which means ‘nose crest’. Another example is the rhinoceros, which happens to be both the common name and the scientific name for the Genus. The name rhinoceros stems from Greek and means ‘nose horn’. It’s all very logical.

When referring to the Genus and Species of an animal, the correct term is the ‘binomial name’, which is Latin (not Greek) for ‘two names’. This worked perfectly until we realised evolution had ruined everything by proliferating beyond Genus and Species, at which point we had to introduce a third name for these ‘Subspecies’. When referring to a Subspecies, the correct term is trinomial, which is Latin for ‘three names’. Subspecies tend to occur when two populations of the same species are separated for a significant period of time by some geographical boundary, and subsequently evolve different traits, yet remain so closely related that they’re still considered to be the same species. The greater horseshoe bat has several subspecies (currently thought to be six), only one of which occurs in the UK: Rhinolophus ferrumequinum ferrumequinum.

Scientists, such as myself, are very fond of such semantics. However I’m sure not everyone reading this will be so… let’s move on.

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Is that a moth I hear before me?

Whilst the binomial name for the greater horseshoe bat is very nice, the bat cares way more about its stomach, for which the nose crest comes in again. As with all Microchiropterans (Microbats), the greater horseshoe bat uses echolocation to find dinner. Echolocation is a system that does exactly what is says on the tin. A bat will emit a series of sounds from its voice box, which echo back when they hit an insect (or anything else), thus allowing the bat to locate it. The nose crest and impressive large satellite dish-esque ears evolved to make the bat extra proficient at picking up the sounds as they echo back in its direction. Beyond location, echolocation also lets the greater horseshoe bat know the size and shape of the object in front of it, meaning it knows, "moth - edible" and "brick wall - inedible".

  • Greater horseshoe bat, Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Our Greater horseshoe bat came into the Museum in 1937 and is on display in the Natural History Gallery.

Trophy wall

Bats are overachievers and as a group claim many wildlife records. An obvious one is that they are the only mammals in the world capable of powered flight. There are other contenders, or should I say pretenders, to the Flying Mammal Throne. The vast majority come from Southeast Asia where being a small gravity-bound mammal appears to be a dangerous past time. These mammals have accomplished gliding, or directional falling at a slow-pace, as it would be called if bats had written the text book rather than humans. The sugar glider hands-down wins Most Gorgeous Thing Ever*, however it is still just a furry glorified glider. The only other animals to have achieved powered flight are birds (crown group dinosaurs) and pterosaurs (not dinosaurs at all).

Having done my research for this blog I can tell you no one seems to know how many species of bat there are for certain; estimates range from 1100 to 1300. However whichever end of the scale it actually is, they still win the award for being the Largest Group of Mammals in the World. Not only that, bats make up around a fifth of the world’s mammal species. Some countries will have more non-bat-mammal species than 80% and others will have less, according to the habitats they have available. However the UK, in case you were wondering, is spot on with the world average, i.e. 1 in every 5 mammal species in the UK is a bat.

My personal favourite is that one of their number claims the title Smallest Mammal in the World. The bumblebee bat just about reaches 3 cm in total length and weighs only 2 grams. This means I put the equal weight of two bats in my tea every morning, which makes me think I should start using sweetner.

Incredibly, this entire species was unknown to science until it was first described and given a binomial name (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) in 1974. It is only known to exist in 43 caves, split between Myanmar and Thailand, which means disturbance from over excited wildlife tourists is a problem that local wildlife groups are having to constantly monitor.

  • Indian flying fox, The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.
    The largest bats are called Megabats. These species, such as this Indian flying fox, have large eyes, small ears, and a fox-like face, making them look very different from the Microbats that echolocate.

* Sadly the pet trade has cottoned on to this but I could write an enormous blog on why you should NOT own one in captivity.

References

Museum Club wildlife photography

Children from Horniman Primary School come to our Museum once a week for an after-school Museum Club.

Last term they created their own photography inspired by our European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

The children wrote their own labels which explain why they chose the animal and how they decided to photograph it.

Their photographs show a talent for composition. A lot of time was taken to think about the characteristics of the animals they were photographing and how the animals act in their natural habitats. 

Here are a few examples of these artistic photographs. 

'Midsummer Night breeze!' by Maisie 

  • Midsummer Night breeze!, A baby rabbit is called a kit, a female rabbit is called a doe and a male is called a buck. I chose this animal because I want people see what would have happened when the sun goes down. It makes a beautiful contrast with the mouse and the bird. The background makes the animals stand out
, Maisie
    A baby rabbit is called a kit, a female rabbit is called a doe and a male is called a buck. I chose this animal because I want people see what would have happened when the sun goes down. It makes a beautiful contrast with the mouse and the bird. The background makes the animals stand out , Maisie

'ΜΑΎΡΟ ΚΑΙ Ξ†ΣΠΡΟ ΖΩΞ‰Σ' (black and white life) by Sophia

  • Black and White Life, I took this photo of a badger because of its large size and secretive way of living. The background shows the pattern of the badger's fur. Badgers are short-legged omnivores in the family mustelidae, which includes otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, Sophia
    I took this photo of a badger because of its large size and secretive way of living. The background shows the pattern of the badger's fur. Badgers are short-legged omnivores in the family mustelidae, which includes otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, Sophia

'Criaturas que Cazan' (hunting creatures) by Rosa and Angel

  • Criaturas que Cazan – hunting creatures, These animals circle in a fight for survival. The stoat, a wonderfully deft animal, edges away from the looming buzzard. We angled it so the elegant bird seems to look disdainfully down upon the lonely stoat, Rosa and Angel
    These animals circle in a fight for survival. The stoat, a wonderfully deft animal, edges away from the looming buzzard. We angled it so the elegant bird seems to look disdainfully down upon the lonely stoat, Rosa and Angel

'Awesome Elster' (awesome magpie) by Lucian

  • Awesome Elster – awesome magpie, I love the Magpie because he has a cute face.  I think he has a serious expression.  The feathers of a magpie are very soft.  Its feet are very small.  I angled it so it's looking you in the eye
, Lucian
    I love the Magpie because he has a cute face. I think he has a serious expression. The feathers of a magpie are very soft. Its feet are very small. I angled it so it's looking you in the eye , Lucian

'The Bird with Blue' by Livvy 

  • The Bird With Blue,  I was looking for an animal, then this one stood out like a shining star. I thought that it would look nice on a blue background. Blue jays are sometimes known to eat eggs or nestlings, and it is this practice that has tarnished their reputation
, Livvy
    I was looking for an animal, then this one stood out like a shining star. I thought that it would look nice on a blue background. Blue jays are sometimes known to eat eggs or nestlings, and it is this practice that has tarnished their reputation , Livvy

'The Semi-Darkness' by Caity

  • The Semi-Darkness , I chose to photograph the mongoose because it is interesting how it looks like a meerkat.  I like how pretty the fur is. I think the animal goes well with the background. I hope you like it too, Caity
    I chose to photograph the mongoose because it is interesting how it looks like a meerkat. I like how pretty the fur is. I think the animal goes well with the background. I hope you like it too, Caity

We had the Museum Club's photographs specially printed and they are now on display in our Education Centre.

Find out more about school sessions at the Horniman

A Calm Visit to the Horniman

Want to find a quite and peaceful spot in our Museum? Engage Volunteer, Anahita Harding, has just the ticket. Here, she tells us her favourite calm spots and the best times to visit them. 

'Sometimes the Museum can feel quite busy and hectic but for those in the know, there are some places that are a bit quieter where you can get find some peace.

The Gardens are a lovely place to go when a quiet spot is needed but on a rainy day this isn’t always ideal. If you ever need a quiet spot to think and be calm, here are some indoor spaces I like to go to during my breaks.

Nature Base

If you want to see the harvest mice, come to the Nature Base in the morning, as this is the best time to see them running and climbing! The harvest mice are crepuscular, which means that they are most active in the mornings and in the evenings.

The quietest time tends to be in the morning when the Museum has just opened but the Nature Base can get busy during other times of the day.

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, The harvest mice in the Nature Base are best seen in the morning.
    The harvest mice in the Nature Base are best seen in the morning.

The Natural History Gallery balcony

The Natural History Gallery balcony has a variety of cases with interesting specimens in them. There is also a nice space here to read stories and books. A grand clock is near the staircase, and it gently chimes every fifteen minutes. It is called the Apostle Clock and was made during the 19th century in Germany.

Usually, the balcony is very quiet and is a nice space to learn while watching everyone in the gallery below. There is also a good view of the walrus!

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, The apostle clock is on the Natural History Gallery balcony
    The apostle clock is on the Natural History Gallery balcony

The Aquarium

Have you seen the jellyfish in the Aquarium? As you enter the Aquarium you will see a space lit up with a calming blue light, and jellyfish gently moving through their tank. It is lovely to watch them move. Above, you will see a large turtle hanging from the ceiling, can you find it? This is one of my favourite spots, and I hope you enjoy it too.'

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, Watching the jellyfish can be very calming
    Watching the jellyfish can be very calming

The Museum is at it's quietest after 2.30pm on weekdays during term time. 

Share your favourite peaceful spots from the Museum and Gardens with us using #horniman.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman

Specimen of the Month: The Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, gets to know the enigmatic Platypus. 

Our Venomous Piece of the Past

We have a number of platypodes (or platypuses if you prefer, but never platypi), however, this one is part of the original Frederick Horniman Collection. That enigmatic accolade means it must have been acquired by our illustrious founder, and prior to the Museum opening in 1906. So in modern social media speak, it’s well old.

We don’t know what the platypus looked like when it was first acquired by the Museum; it could have been either a skin or a taxidermy mount. Either way, at some time in the past the platypus was ‘re-set’ (wording on record card), by the taxidermist Charles Thorpe, into the swimming position that you can see in the image below. The price for this exquisite demonstration of skill was £0 d7 s6. For those who didn’t suffer through the confusing period of decimalisation, £0 d7 s6 means zero pounds, seven pennies, and six shillings, the value of that price today is around £10 (an exact figure is impossible to calculate on the basis we don’t know what year the work was carried out).

  • Specimen of the Month: The Platypus, Our platypus is over 100 years old, and was given a make-over sometime in the early to mid-1900s
    Our platypus is over 100 years old, and was given a make-over sometime in the early to mid-1900s

We know the specimen is a male as it has a sharp spike, called a spur, on the rear of each thigh. Platypodes* are one of the few mammals that are venomous, and the small amount of venom that can be injected through one of these spurs is potent enough to kill mammals many times their size. I was told by a friend who works in a zoo in Australia that their colleague was once spurred in the arm. Apparently, it was so painful he was pleading with the doctors for his arm to be amputated, ouch! During the mating season the amount of venom a male produces increases, which presumably means one of the main purposes of evolving such potent venom is to fend off rival males and get a girlfriend. In more anthropogenic cases, recent research suggests platypus venom could be used in a treatment for Type 2 diabetes. For which they have frisky platypuses to thank I guess.

They Don’t Have Teeth

Platypodes don’t have teeth in the traditional sense. Their fossil ancestors had teeth but the modern platypus decided the sound of growing their own enamel was reason for concern, and produced coarse keratin pads instead. A mouth full of hair** sounds disgusting, and it only seems to work ‘fairly well’ to boot, as according to a number of sources, platypodes will also scoop up coarse gravel to aid mastication. Perhaps they should have planned it out better before embarking on their otherwise admirable attempt to avoid expensive dental bills.

Platypodes are bottom feeders (legit term), which means animals that feed off of the substrate in aquatic environments. In the case of the platypus, it lives in rivers and uses the receptors in its bill to pick up the electrical signals given off by their prey, which are normally found in the form of insects, insect larvae, worms and shellfish.

  • Specimen of the Month: The Platypus, As platypodes don't have teeth, the keeper was in no danger of being bitten.− © Adrian Good
    As platypodes don't have teeth, the keeper was in no danger of being bitten.

They Do Have Teeth

Platypodes don’t have teeth… I wasn’t lying before. However, platypodes are monotremes which means they lay eggs. One of only two mammals to do so, the other being the echidna. As with more traditional egg breaking youngsters like those belonging to birds and many reptiles, for example, the tiny egg-bound platypus has to break its way out of the egg. For this, its ancestry provided it with an egg-tooth on the top of its bill. This tooth is only a temporary facial addition that, once the baby platypus has broken free of its yolky home, will normally be shed within the next two days. The egg-tooth is not a real tooth as ours are, but a sharp, tooth-shaped structure made of keratin, around 0.3 mm high. That may seem ridiculously small but a freshly hatched platypus is only around the size of a kidney bean so any larger and it would probably get neck ache.

  • Specimen of the Month: The Platypus, These line drawings show the development of the platypus from the day of hatching to five days post-hatching. The egg-tooth can be seen in the first two columns of sketches. The protuberance on the bill in the two right-hand columns represent the caruncle, or fleshy nub, left behind by the egg-tooth. , Image from Manger et al., 1998
    These line drawings show the development of the platypus from the day of hatching to five days post-hatching. The egg-tooth can be seen in the first two columns of sketches. The protuberance on the bill in the two right-hand columns represent the caruncle, or fleshy nub, left behind by the egg-tooth. , Image from Manger et al., 1998

* The more I say it, the more you’ll get used to it
** Keratin is the protein that makes up your hair and fingernails

References

ARKive
Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Live Science
Platypus Facts 

Manger, P. R., Hall, L. S., and Pettigrew, J. D. (1998). The development of the external features of the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 353 pp.1115-1125

National Geographic
Platypus 

Project Britain
Old English Money 

Tosatto, D., and Zool, W. S. (2016). Feeding and digestive mechanisms of Obdurodon dicksonii and its implications for the modern Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Unpublished. pp.1-12

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

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