What’s on the van? – Oxford Dodo


L-IMG_1879It’s time for one of the stars of the Museum’s collection! One of our most famous specimens, the dodo even features on our logo.

This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Life Collections.

The Dodo of Mauritius was discovered in the late sixteenth century by Dutch sailors stopping on the island for water and fresh food supplies. Because of its inability to fly, the Dodo was considered a great exotic curiosity and a few of the birds were shipped to Europe, India and Japan. One of them ended up in London, in the Tradescant collection. This collection, widely known as the “Ark”, was assembled in the seventeenth century by gardeners to the royalty and aristocracy, father and son John Tradescant. The stuffed Dodo was displayed to the public and described in the Tradescants’ catalogue as “Dodar, from the island of Mauritius. It is not able to fly, being so big”.

After the death of the Tradescants, the “Ark” was presented by its new owner, Elias Ashmole, to the University of Oxford, and in 1683 placed in the newly built Ashmolean Museum. Over the years, the specimens suffered from damage inflicted by insect pests and too frequent handling by visitors, and by 1756 only the Dodo’s head and one of its feet remained.

In 1848 it was firmly established that the Dodo was a member of the pigeon order: Columbiformes. In 2002, with application of DNA analysis, the Oxford Dodo yielded even more information about its origin. We now know that several million years ago its ancestors arrived in Mauritius from the Nicobar Islands, off India. Finding no natural enemies in their new habitat, and no competition for food, the lineage evolved in size and gradually lost its ability to fly. But in the end its size was not enough protection to stop humans, and animals introduced by them, like pigs, rats and monkeys, from causing the Dodo’s extinction.

What's on the van?

Reports from the rafters

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The roof is what this is all about. Our beautiful canopy of 9,000 glass tiles has been admired since the Museum first opened, but has caused 153 years’ of worry by letting the rain drip through into the interior. The determination to clean and seal the roof is the whole reason for this year’s closure.

Stephen French high up in the roof
Stephen French high up in the roof

To get this job done effectively we needed a great team, so Beard Construction appointed Stephen French as Site Manager, drawing on his years of experience as a roof tiler. Despite all his experience Stephen has never worked on a project quite like this one before…

I caught up with Stephen for a chat about how he and his team are getting on. Stephen describes the Museum building as “completely individual”. But the opportunity to work in such a unique piece of architecture has certainly provided some challenges along the way.

All the glass tiles are being removed, cleaned, re-fitted and sealed with mastic to keep the water out. Below you can see some tiles back in place, held firmly by plastic struts, while the mastic dries.

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“There’s no manual for this job; we’ve had to work out what the original designers were thinking as we’ve gone along,” Stephen explained. “There’s no second chance with a project like this,” he adds. Indeed, once the scaffolding comes down and the Museum reopens we can’t get back up to the tiles without starting all over again.

Les Smith and Stuart Knapp
Les Smith and Stuart Knapp

It will come as no surprise that one of the biggest challenges facing the Beard team was the great British weather. The heat of the summer forced the guys to take regular breaks from the scorching temperatures; at one point, high up inside the glass roof, the thermometer read over 50°C! Then downpours of rain brought work to a complete stop because the mastic won’t adhere to the glass when it’s wet.

Jamie Bennett and Pete Hutt
Jamie Bennett and Pete Hutt

Stephen speaks very highly of his team. Usually there are around nine people working on site at any one time, and several of them have been involved since the first phase of the roof refurbishment back in 2011-12. There is a wide variety of skills needed for this project, so the staff includes roofers from Attley’s Roofing and specialist carpenters from RS Carpentry and Building Services. Some of the men even come down from Middlesborough each week to work in the Museum!

Despite the weather, the complicated roof design and the unique materials involved, Stephen is very positive about the whole project. He loves the building, and compares the roof to a dinosaur’s skeleton, going so far as to say “This is the kind of job that gets you up in the morning!” Up into the rafters indeed.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Photo credit: Mike Peckett

What’s on the van? – Silk Moth


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Kotaro Fujiyoshi, a work experience student from Merchant Taylors’ school in Middlesex. He is currently on placement in the Museum’s Hope Entomological Collections.

This picture is of a silk moth called Rothschildia jorulla, which was described as a new species to science by the Museum’s first Professor of Entomology, John Obadiah Westwood (1805 –1893). It was collected in Cuautla, Morelos, Mexico in 1853.

Moths of this kind belong to a group called silk moths, or saturniids. There are over 2000 species of saturniids, one of them the world’s largest moth, Attacus atlas. This group of moths are widely exploited across many cultures as sources of silk. Some species of the group are very well known, for example the silk worm (Bombyx mori), used by Chinese textile manufacturers from at least 5000 years ago. This Rothschildia is no exception, as its silk has been used for producing textiles in Mexico.

Unlike their domesticated counterpart, the silkworm, this moth is very well adapted to a life in the wild. For example, its four translucent patches and two black eye-like spots on the wings can easily be mistaken for eyes. Birds looking for a meal would peck at these obvious vulnerabilities instead of the body, so that all the important organs and flight muscles of the moth are protected from a fatal blow.

Saturniids have reduced or completely dysfunctional proboscises (mouthparts) and do not feed. This means that they are very short-lived as adults, surviving for only about 2 to 3 weeks. They are able to survive these weeks without eating due to their energy stores: as caterpillars, they eat enough food to last them all the way from pupation to the end of their short few weeks as adults. After emergence, the males spend the majority of their remaining time fluttering about, looking for mates. Females emit sex pheromones, vital clues for the males, and the males smell their way to find their mates, using their comb-like antennae.

Saturniids are most diverse in the tropics and are often seen flying to house and street lights on relatively windless nights of warm seasons.

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The One Show

Amazon Dismorphia Wallace

Last week, members of our conservation team were presented with a wonderful opportunity to get out of the ‘Whale Tank’ and make their way to London to escort some very special specimens to the BBC.

The precious cargo consisted of newly-discovered Alfred Russel Wallace butterfly specimens that were uncovered in the Museum’s Life Collection by 17-year-old Athena Martin, a Nuffield Research Placements work experience student. This story featured on Thursday night’s edition of The One Show, where presenter Mike Dilger spoke about Athena’s project with the Museum and was able to show, on national television, the fruit of her hard work.

Papilio ulysses. Examples collected by Wallace are marked with a red dot.

Two cases of butterflies were used on the programme and contained specimens collected by Wallace during his exploration of the Malay Archipelago. The show focused in particular on Papilio ulysses, and it was a joy to witness Mike Dilger’s excitement at discovering Wallace’s handwritten collection labels.

Our specimens, which were shown alongside some wonderful footage of CT scans of a developing chrysalis, made for excellent viewing for anyone with an interest in Lepidoptera.

If you missed it the first time around please do have a look on the BBC iPlayer. The butterfly feature begins at about 15’40”.

Gemma Aboe with the drawers of Wallace specimens.
Gemma Aboe with the drawers of Wallace specimens.

We are very grateful for coverage on The One Show as it was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate, outside the Museum environment, the significance of natural history specimens, as well as highlight the important work of our conservators. It was also a thrill to be on set and watch the live show, so thanks a lot to the BBC for asking us along.

Nicola Crompton, Conservation intern
Gemma Aboe, Assistant conservator

What’s on the van? – Black-capped kingfisher


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Life Collections.

Kingfishers belong to a family Alcenidae where they are organised into 14 genera with 86 species. Most of them live in the tropics and only a small number of species venture into temperate zones as migrant breeders. Some species feed on forest-floor or air-borne insects, some prey on birds and reptiles and some, similar to our native species, on fish. Kingfishers living away from water, called the tree kingfishers, adopt a sit-and-wait strategy to catch their prey on the ground, whereas kingfishers living near lakes, rivers or streams, the so-called river kingfishers, deep-dive either from a perch or from hovering flight.

The kingfisher you see painted on the van is called the black-capped kingfisher, Latin name Halcyon pileata. It lives in tropical Asia, from India to China, Korea and Southeast Asia. This is a relatively big kingfisher whose length reaches about 28cm.

The black-capped kingfisher is a river kingfisher, found near coastal waters, especially in mangroves. It surveys the area from a high perch and hunts not only for insects but also for frogs and fish. As in other kingfishers, it has very good eyesight, enabling it to cope with reflections on the rippling surface and light refraction of the water, which makes the prey appear to be nearer the surface than it really is.

It makes its nest on the banks near water, with both sexes excavating the nest tunnel. A single clutch of 4-5 round white eggs is typical, with the female being mostly responsible for the incubation. The eggs hatch at daily intervals, resulting in a marked size difference between the chicks. Both parents are equally involved with feeding the brood.

This particular specimen of the black-capped kingfisher was collected in Bangladesh and, after being prepared by a taxidermist, was displayed in a glazed case for a number of years. It came to the Museum in 1963 as part of a large donation of bird skins presented by B.B. Osmaston.

What's on the van?

Whales making waves

Once in a Whale

Yesterday BBC Radio Oxford interviewed Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Sciences at OUMNH about our ‘Once in a Whale’ project. Do listen to the broadcast online, before it runs out in 6 days!                    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01fp8r2

Malcolm Boyden’s interview with Bethany lasts 14 minutes- select ‘1:06min’ to listen in on their chat about the whales, the museum renovation, Bethany’s experiences of being a conservator and more!

Project update
As we enter into the last 5 weeks on the whale conservation project, we are pressing ahead with re-articulating the skeletons with new screw fixings and stainless steel wire (- our hands end up looking like we had a fight with a sharp clawed cat).

We’ve also been meeting with professional riggers, who once the main scaffolding has been de-assembled, will raise the cetacean skeletons into their NEW positions- watch this space!

Our next…

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