The Museum is currently leading a major fundraising campaign to purchase, catalogue, conserve, and digitise an important collection of archive material related to the geologist William Buckland (1784-1856).
Buckland was an English theologian and one of the greatest geologists of his day, becoming Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology in 1818. When he died in 1856, papers related to his teaching and research, as well as around 4000 specimens, were given to the University. These were later transferred to the Museum when it opened in 1860, and the Buckland collection remains one of the greatest research resources in our collections.
Left: A bust of William Buckland in the Museum of Natural History. Right: A portrait of the young Buckland.
The Museum has recently been offered a unique opportunity to acquire another extremely important collection of archive material related to Buckland. Passed by descent to the current owners, this archive consists of just over 1000 items of correspondence, geological notes, works of art, and other family papers — including a substantial number of items relating to his wife Mary (née Morland) and their eldest son, the naturalist and author Francis (Frank) Buckland.
This ‘new’ material fits beautifully with the existing Buckland archive here, providing missing pieces of the jigsaw and helping to paint a more comprehensive picture of this extraordinary geological pioneer, and the work he did together with Mary. It also offers greater insight into the scientific thinking and institutions of early 19th-century England, and the scientific contributions made by other ‘invisible technicians’ such as quarrymen, collectors, preparators, and replicators, giving us a more accurate, balanced, and inclusive picture of natural history at the time.
The campaign is aiming to raise £557,000 to acquire, conserve, rehouse, and digitise the Buckland archive. We have been fortunate to secure funding from a range of funders towards our goal, and we are now within £75,000 of this target.
The Museum is the obvious home for the ‘new’ archive, given Buckland’s close connection to Oxford University, and our holdings of his specimens and archive. With your help, we will reunite these two archive collections in one place and ensure researchers and the public can utilise these scientifically, historically, and culturally important resources for years to come.
Over the last few months, I have been working on cataloguing and rehousing the archival collection of William John Burchell (1781-1863). Burchell was an important early naturalist, explorer, ethnographer, and linguist who worked in South Africa and Brazil, contributing greatly to our understanding of the flora and fauna of these areas. He was also a highly talented artist!
Burchell amassed huge natural history collections and described many new species, but his work was not widely recognised in his lifetime. Although he received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1834, he felt neglected by the government and scientific community in Britain. Later on in his life, Burchell became something of a disillusioned and reclusive figure, strictly guarding access to his collections and publishing few of his own findings.
The first section of the Burchell collection that I tackled was his correspondence. I am happy to report that our wonderful volunteers – Lucian Ohanian, Mariateresa DeGiovanni, Naide Gedikli-Gorali and Robert Gue – have now finished digitising this material and we have made the scans available to all on Collections Online. Now that the digitisation of the Burchell correspondence is complete, we are able to more easily search his letters, and learn more about his motivations to conduct expeditions so far afield.
Burchell first left the British Isles in 1805 when he travelled to the island of Saint Helena. He moved to Cape Town in 1810 before beginning his expedition into the interior of South Africa in 1811. This epic journey covered 7000 kilometres, mainly through terrain unexplored by Europeans at the time. It lasted four years, with Burchell only returning to Britain in 1815.
What prompted him to undertake such an extraordinary expedition? In a letter home to his mother written on 29th May 1811, Burchell relates several potential motivations. Firstly, he describes his frustration with the East India Company (his employers in St Helena), and his desire for a new beginning: “I have been patient with the Company’s promises till it is become evident to everyone that I was only wasting my life living any longer in St Helena.” He goes on to stress his enthusiasm for scientific research, which may also have been a motivating factor behind his journey: “I have thought it best to give free indulgence to my inclination for research which I feel so natural to me, that I flatter myself it will be my best employment.” Finally, Burchell shows a more pecuniary motive when he notes, “I do not consider myself out of the way of making money, when I think of the value of what I shall be able to obtain in my journey.”
Burchell closes the letter very affectionately, suggesting he had a close relationship with his family. More than half of the letters in our collection written by Burchell are addressed to his parents or sisters. He ultimately left his specimens to his sister, Anna, who in 1865 donated his botanical specimens to Kew Gardens and his other specimens to Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with the archival collection following later.
No longer an underappreciated figure, Burchell is recognised as a pioneering and significant naturalist. Through preserving and reading our Burchell archive, we can continue to shed more light on his life and personality.
By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer
A few days ago, I was working from home when a delivery driver arrived with a strange parcel – a cardboard box stamped with the letters FRAGILE that seemed to be producing a peculiar, scratching sound. Tentatively, I opened the cardboard box and pulled out a plastic punnet filled with newspaper, old egg cartons, and… wait! Was that an antenna?
The parcel turned out to be a box of locusts, ordered by my housemate who uses them to feed her pet reptiles. I set the punnet down beside me and tried to continue with my morning’s work. But over the next few hours, the locusts grew increasingly restless, bouncing against the walls of their punnet like hot, microwaved popcorn. The sight and sound of the insects began to return memories of the infamous locust swarms of 2020 — one in a series of near-apocalyptic events that befell us that fateful year. Worryingly, climate change is set to make locust swarms increasingly common, with Sardinia currently facing its worst locust swarm in thirty years.1
Left: A poster for The Beginning of the End (1957) about a fictional invasion of giant, mutant locusts in Illinois. Right: A real-life locust swarm near Satrokala, Madagascar (2014).
Throughout history, locusts have been widely understood as symbols of maleficence and misfortune. One of the oldest written references to locusts is, of course, the Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt, in which locusts were sent as a punishment from God. Since then, these infamous insects have been featured in art, books, music, and films as harbingers of destruction. Americans of the mid-twentieth century were somewhat obsessed with giant locusts and grasshoppers which were featured everywhere from cartoons to postcards. 1957 saw the release of the movie The Beginning of the End – a schlocky Hollywood sci-fi tale about a swarm of giant, mutant locusts invading Illinois. The film’s principal Entomologist describes locusts as “deadly killer[s]”, both “intelligent and strong”. Real-life locusts are, indeed, very strong for their size, with back legs that can catapult them up to a metre from standing. This means that it would be feasible for the human-sized locusts in The Beginning of the End to jump as far as forty metres — a terrifying thought!2
While The Beginning of the End is ridiculous both in premise and execution, I can’t deny that I find the concept of giant locusts pretty nightmarish. Earlier in the week, I sent an email to the Life Collections team to enquire about the possibility of looking through our pinned locusts and snapping a few photos of the biggest and grisliest specimens. As I walked upstairs to entomology, I braced myself for an encounter with some fearsome insects. But what I found were a few drawers of modest-sized locusts that looked about as benign as garden grasshoppers. Many of them were even stuffed with wool; more like teddy bears than agents of Armageddon.
Left: Anacridium aegyptium or Egyptian Locust from the Collections at OUMNH. Right: Underside of a locust specimen showing cotton wool stuffing.
According to Collections Assistant Rob Douglas, stuffing large insect specimens with cotton wool used to be a common entomological practice. Insects with fatty insides, like locusts, must be gutted to ensure good preservation. Following the removal of the insects’ insides, cotton was often used to return their abdomens to their usual size and shape. Locusts’ ample fat stores contribute as much to their physical prowess as their powerful hind legs; sustaining them through migrations of up to 310 miles a day.3 Such migrations occur when locusts are exposed to a dry spell followed by wet weather, allowing for the sudden regrowth of vegetation. These conditions will cause locusts to switch their solitary lifestyles for gregariousness, coming together to chomp their way through crops and vegetation at a density of 80-160 million insects per square mile. A large migrating swarm of locusts has been estimated to need as many calories in a day as 1.5 million human males, explaining why even ordinary-sized locusts are capable of causing agricultural annihilation.4
If it weren’t for government and international interventions, the 2020 locust swarms in East Africa could have caused up to $8.5 billion in economic damages by the year-end.5 But locusts can do much worse. One of the most notorious locust swarms on record was that of the Rocky Mountain locust in the USA between 1874 and 1877. According to some accounts, the swarm caused damages to agriculture equivalent to $116 billion in today’s money, leaving behind piles of locust carcases up to six feet high.6
When it comes to protecting crops from locusts, prevention is better than cure. Likely locust outbreaks can be pre-empted by studying weather patterns and using satellite imagery to keep an eye on vegetation growth.7 Once a (potential) locust swarm has been identified, traditional methods of locust management involve the use of pesticides to wipe out the insects as soon as possible. Back in the 1950s, this meant dowsing locusts with DDT. But as the drawbacks of synthetic pesticides become increasingly apparent, chemical interventions are being replaced with the application of naturally occurring ‘pesticides’ like the fungus Metarhizium acridum.
Our understanding of locusts has come a long way since the release of The Beginning of the End. One of my favourite news stories of the past month was the announcement by a laboratory at Michigan State University that locusts have been successfully used to ‘sniff out’ mouth cancer.8 It turns out that locusts no longer just spell danger for humanity — they can smell danger for humanity too! These cancer-detecting locusts are, in my opinion, far more ‘sci-fi’ than the giant bugs imagined by scriptwriters of the 1950s, reminding us that, when it comes to science, the truth is often stranger than fiction. Reports like these demonstrate that scientific research has the power to transform our relationship with the pests that have tormented us for thousands of years.
In September 2021, the Museum initiated its first “Specimen Showdown” on Twitter and Instagram, where followers could vote on their favourite specimens from our collections. Over the course of the month, followers narrowed down their favourite among 32 specimens from four collections: The Library Legends, The Bygone Beasts, The Rock Stars, and The Birds and The Beetles. The final showdown was between the Connemara Column (found in the Main Court of the Museum) and the Pulgas Vestidas from the Library and Archives. In a nail-biting race, the Pulgas Vestidas narrowly beat the column with 53.9% of the vote.
But what are Pulgas Vestidas? And why are they so popular?
Dressed fleas, you say?
The delicate art of dressing fleas in tiny costumes, known as ‘Pulgas Vestidas’ in Spanish, flourished in Mexico for over two centuries. It is believed that the craft began in Mexican convents where nuns would fashion tiny pieces of clothing onto dead fleas. An important point to note is that the fleas themselves were not actually dressed — instead, they formed the heads of the figures. The individual fleas were set in matchboxes and decorated with elaborate human costumes, hats, shoes, and accessories. Sometimes the fleas were set in whole scenes, often as married couples in miniature dioramas of everyday life. The bride and groom sets were the most popular, with the bride sporting a long veil and the groom in his best suit. The nuns would then sell the fleas for a small amount of money to passing tourists. The trade was later picked up by the local villagers and Pulgas Vestidas were widely sold to tourists visiting Mexico in the early twentieth century.
Dressed fleas were popular with tourists until the 1930s when the art declined in popularity. An increasing awareness of hygiene meant that fleas were rapidly regarded as unhealthy. Many dressed fleas were consigned to the bin, and Pulgas Vestidas became a lost art as tourists’ tastes for memorabilia changed. Examples of these tiny curiosities are now rare collectors’ items.
Pulgas Vestidas at Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Museum’s dressed fleas were collected in 1911 by American archaeologist and anthropologist Zeila M. M. Nuttall who specialised in Mexican history and culture. She sent the dressed fleas to her brother, bacteriologist George H.F. Nuttall. George formally donated a collection of 50 Ixodidae (ticks) to the Museum, and it is likely he also gifted the dressed fleas at the same time. The dressed fleas would have been considered more of a Victorian novelty, and so were not formally recorded or accessioned into our collections.
Although most of OUMNH’s dressed fleas reside behind-the-scenes, one example is on public display in the Upper Gallery of the Main Court. Sporting tiny clothes and a backpack, the flea is just visible with the help of a magnifying glass. Clearly, this one was born to flea wild.
OUMNH’s Pulgas Vestidas are definitely among the more unusual items in the Museum’s collections, and they were clearly head and shoulders above other specimens in the September Specimen Showdown competition, despite being no more than 5mm tall! Pulgas Vestidas may be small, but they certainly are mighty.
I’ll Flea There
The dressed fleas will be on display, with a flea-tastic craft, for the Museum’s free evening event ‘Late Night: A Buzz in the Air‘ on 27 May from 7-10pm.
Nature is wonderfully imperfect, and the data that we can gather from it is even further from perfection. Fossil localities, even those providing exceptionally well-preserved fossils, are inaccurate records of the past. Fossils can form from a variety of matter including organisms, their remains, or even traces of their activity. Yet not all of the material that can get fossilised at a particular site actually will. Among other factors, biases in the fossil record result from the nature of the materials responsible for fossilisation – usually sediments which are in the process of turning into rocks. In most cases, fossil localities offer us only a single ‘window of preservation’ – a skewed geological record of the ancient ecosystem that once existed there.
In 2012, a rich vertebrate bone bed was documented at the Ariño site in Teruel, Spain. Since then, researchers have unearthed more than 10,000 individual fossil bones, from which they have discovered new species of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles. Plant fossils were also found, including pollen grains and amber, which is fossilised resin. Although amber was known to occur in this locality, this sort of material had remained unstudied… until recently.
Over the summer of 2019, I joined my colleagues to carry out amber excavations in the Ariño site – an open-pit coal mine that has an almost lunar appearance due to the dark carbonate-rich mudstone rocks and the total lack of vegetation. The scorching heat during a very hot summer was a bit maddening, but I did try to enjoy my yearly dose of sun before returning to the UK!
Resin pieces can be transported significant distances by runoff water before depositing on their final burial location, where they slowly transform into amber. However, we found amber pieces that had not moved from their original place of production. These large, round-shaped pieces preserved delicate surface patterns that would have been polished away even by the slightest transport. The resin that produced these amber pieces was formed by the roots of the resin-producing trees, and resembles sub-fossil resin my colleagues found in modern forests from New Zealand.
The small amber pieces from Ariño contain an unusual abundance of fossils. These pieces come from resin produced by the branches and trunk of the resin-producing trees. From the almost one kilogram of amber we excavated, we identified a total of 166 fossils. These include diverse insects such as lacewings, beetles, or wasps, and arachnids such as spiders and mites. Even a mammal hair strand was found!1
We now know that the Ariño site provides two complementary windows of preservation — a bone bed preserving a rich variety of vertebrate animals, and amber with abundant inclusions. Aside from Ariño, only three localities that preserve both dinosaur bone beds and fossiliferous amber have been reported in Western France, Western Canada, and North Central United States. However, in these cases, either the bone bed or the amber have offered a much more modest abundance and diversity of fossils. Some of the fossils from these localities also show signs of significant transport, which means that the organisms could have inhabited different, distant areas even though they fossilised together. This makes Ariño unique because it offers two valuable ‘windows of preservation’ from the same ecosystem.
Thanks to all this evidence and other data, we have been able to reconstruct an ancient terrestrial ecosystem – a 110-million-year-old coastal swamp – with unprecedented detail and accuracy.2 The inherent incompleteness of the fossil record will always remain a headache for palaeontologists… but localities like Ariño make the data that we can recover from the past a bit more complete.
1Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Enrique Peñalver, Eduardo Barrón, Luis Alcalá, Jordi Pérez-Cano, Carles Martín-Closas et al. “Dinosaur bonebed amber from an original swamp forest soil.” Elife 10 (2021): e72477.
2Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Xavier Delclòs, Mónica M. Solórzano-Kraemer, Luis Alcalá, and Enrique Peñalver. “Cretaceous amniote integuments recorded through a taphonomic process unique to resins.” Scientific reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1-12.
How can we meet the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 whilst simultaneously addressing climate change, impoverished soils, mass extinctions and unsustainable pollution?
On 20th October, Oxford University Museum of Natural History hosted The Great Debate – an anniversary celebration of the Museum’s Great Debate in 1860, on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. During this special event, the panel and audience (both in-person and live-streamed) discussed issues, opportunities and tensions relating to the future of food production. By the end of the evening, it was clear that we won’t be able to rely on ‘quick fixes’. Instead, we will need a whole-scale revolution at multiple levels: in our fields, on our plates, and in our attitudes.
Lord John Krebs (Chair) – Former chairman of the Natural Environment Research Committee and Adaptation to Climate Change Committee
Helen Browning – Chief Executive of the Soil Association
Professor Sir Charles Godfray – Director of the Oxford Martin School
Stuart Roberts – Deputy President of the National Farmers Union (NFU)
In our fields
With global food demand estimated to increase by 35% to 56% between 2010 and 2050, it is unquestionable that we will need to keep producing more food. Although the prospect seems daunting, Helen Browning outlined the potential of new technologies to boost yields, including hydroponics and vertical farming; robots that can perform crop care and harvesting; and genetic technologies such as gene editing. However, she warned that the UK is currently ‘way off the pace’, and would remain so until there is more investment in farmer-led research, innovation and knowledge-sharing opportunities.
As Stuart Roberts pointed out, there are also significant opportunities to boost production simply by addressing inefficiencies and yield gaps. For instance, according to the NFU, if all the 270 million+ dairy animals worldwide were as efficient as UK dairy cows, we would only need 76 million to produce the same amount of milk. New market models, such as direct-to-consumer and digital technologies (e.g. blockchain), could also help reduce the 15% of food that the WWF estimate is wasted even before it leaves the farm.
But will increased production come at the expense of damaging natural ecosystems? The new UK Agricultural Act aims to avoid this by providing farmers with a financial incentive to preserve ‘public goods’ including air quality, biodiversity, soil health, and flood mitigation. Sir Charles foresaw that the Agricultural Act will result in a ‘patchwork’ of different farming systems across the UK, each tailored to their locality, with some being highly productive and others more dedicated to public services.
On our plates
Extensive research indicates that achieving net-zero carbon emissions will require a global reduction in meat consumption and a shift towards plant-based diets. But as Stuart noted, presenting consumers with only the extremes of a carnivorous diet and a vegan lifestyle is not helping this transition. Instead of focusing on binary choices, we should be more concerned with improving the meat we do eat. As consumers, we need to stop seeing food as a cheap, mass-produced commodity, and be prepared to pay a price that will compensate for the development of production systems that are more in harmony with nature. Helen agreed that only by paying more for food can we allow farmers to escape the stranglehold of contracts that pressure them to produce as much as possible, regardless of the environmental cost. However, as Stuart pointed out, to avoid higher prices leading to food poverty, it will be necessary to tackle income poverty first. To this end, he cited Food Foundation research which reveals that the poorest 10% of households would have to spend 76% of their disposable income to meet current diet recommendations.
In our minds
Farmers are critical actors in the global response to climate change, but all too often they are portrayed as villains. Stereotypes regularly cast farmers as chemical lovers who rip up hedgerows and mistreat animals. Instead, we need to recognise and celebrate the farmers who are trying to be part of the solution, including those embracing regenerative farming methods such as pasture cropping, agroforestry, no-till farming and undersowing. Overall, if we want more farmers to become innovators, we need to support them – and as consumers, we can make that choice every time we shop.
Dr Caroline Wood works as a Communications Officer for Oxford Population Health, a department at Oxford University that specialises in global health studies. She is also a freelance science writer, focusing on sustainability, food science and packaging issues. When she is not writing, she enjoys visiting museums (including OUMNH obviously!), hillwalking and painting (badly).