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Dinosaurs, crocodiles and sharks – oh my!

Our new Deputy Keeper of Natural History Emma-Louise Nicholls is obsessed with “big, toothy predators.” We spoke to her to find out how her obsession started and what she has discovered along the way…

What first got you interested in Natural History?

I have been fascinated with fossils since I was about five. My Uncle is really into science fiction and monster movies and we watched them together when I was growing up, so my love of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties was probably originally his influence. But it was something I was serious about from a young age. I grew up in a small village called Oving and set up the Oving Dinosaur Museum in my bedroom. I charged my family 20p per person to come in and anyone who came to the house was obliged to visit the Museum.

When I was about ten, I sent an Ammonite I had found to Tring Museum for identification and when they wrote back the envelope was addressed to ‘The Oving Dinosaur Museum, C/O Emma Nicholls’. That’s proof it was a real museum.

How did you get started in your field?

I started with an MSci in Geology at the University of Birmingham, as in my day, that was the degree with the most palaeontology in it. My Masters’ dissertation focused on sharks, which I thought was fantastic. Next I pursued an MSc in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol studying fossil and modern crocodilians. Basically, I love big, toothy predators.

After that I embarked on a Palaeobiology PhD at University College London looking at 'Patterns in the Palaeoecology of Modern and Cretaceous Chondrichthyan Faunas'.

Urm…

Essentially, I looked at patterns in cohabiting groups of sharks and rays.

It’s very hard to study prehistoric sharks and rays as their skeleton is completely cartilaginous meaning it doesn’t fossilise well, annoyingly, so most often palaeontologists only find their teeth. For my PhD I dug up and identified over 14,000 fossil teeth. Along with every known modern shark and ray, the fossil species were segregated into groups based on tooth type and predation technique, which was a novel approach in shark and ray ecological studies.

I then searched for patterns in cohabiting groups and not only confirmed that patterns do exist, but the results also showed that these patterns have remained constant over millions of years even when species within groups have gone extinct. This is something that no one had done before and I was really pleased with myself!

What bought you to the Horniman Museum and Gardens?

With a background like mine you can either go into academia or work in a museum, but it was an easy decision for me as I have wanted to work in a museum since the dawn of (my) time! While I was doing my various degrees I was always volunteering at at least one museum. I worked at museums such as Lapworth Museum of Geology, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, and the Natural History Museum.

I’ve also worked abroad. I had the opportunity to work on a shark exhibition at the Florida Museum of Natural History in the States, and was a shark scientist on a field trip in Kuwait with the Shark Conservation Society. Both were absolutely fantastic.

In my professional life, I spent three years at the Grant Museum of Zoology as Curatorial Assistant before going on to the British Museum where I was Curator of Science and Nature for a brand new museum being built in the UAE called Zayed National Museum. I was responsible for all natural sciences content of the Museum, and was Lead Curator for three of the eight galleries. Building a brand new museum is an incredible opportunity and a curator’s dream!

However, when the Deputy Keeper of Natural History post opened up at the Horniman I jumped at the chance as it’s a museum I have always wanted to work at.

What are you looking forward to doing at the Horniman?

The job, the Museum and the collections are incredible.

I am working on collating all of our shark material across the different departments. It isn’t just palaeontology and the Natural History collections that have shark and ray specimens here, the Aquarium has some live ones and the Anthropology collections have material too, such a sword lined with shark teeth. Ouch.

I will be going through the Bennett collection, which is around 175,000 fossil specimens. The information we have about the collection has been developed by a few different sources over the years so I will have to do some Sherlock Holmes-style thinking to piece it all together and get it accessioned so that it can become available publicly.

I love coming across specimens in the collections that make me go WOW. Specimens of species that have a special meaning for me, such as the Triceratops rib I found in the Study Collection Centre, make me go wide-eyed and waggy-tailed. Ankylosaurus is my favourite dinosaur but Triceratops is a special dinosaur from my childhood.

In the future I would like to publish on the collections and become a leading authority in the currently poorly known Bennett and Wyatt fossil collections. I plan to use the Museum’s collections combined with social media to raise the public profile of sharks and make everyone love them.

Secretly I also dream of discovering a new species in the historic collections. Very rare… but it has happened!

Thanks Emma! You can follow Emma on Twitter @ColPercyFawcett.