On the trail of the evolution of mammals

Woman sitting on top of a large, layered rock formation

Elsa Panciroli recently joined the Museum research team as an Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow. Elsa is a Scottish palaeontologist, whose studies focus on the early evolutionary origins of mammals, working extensively on fossils from the Isle of Skye. Here she tells us how her work will combine studies of mammal evolution with stunning new fossil finds from Scotland.

We are mammals. This means we share a common ancestor with creatures as different as hippos, opossums and platypuses. All of us are united in one taxonomic group by a suite of characteristics in our bodies, but principally, that we feed our young on milk. Every mammal from a baboon to a blue whale produces milk for their offspring, and this makes us unique among animals alive on Earth today.

Wareolestes rex is a Middle Jurassic mammal, illustrated here by Elsa Panciroli

But not all mammals bring their young up in the same way; raising a kitten is nothing like raising a kangaroo or a platypus. Kittens are born stumbling around with their eyes closed, while platypus babies are laid in eggs – yes eggs – and when they hatch they look like little scampi. Both are underdeveloped at birth or hatching, but that’s nothing compared to kangaroos. They leave the womb only millimetres in length, and wriggle their way like living jellybeans toward a teat in the marsupial pouch, where they latch on. Only after two months of milk-drinking are they able to hop for themselves and leave the pouch.

The different ways that mammals are born and grow is a huge area of scientific research. But there are still some major questions to answer about the evolution of these growth patterns. When did the ancestors of mammals stop laying eggs? Were they born defenceless, or able to fend for themselves? How quickly did they grow up and how long did they live?

The Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis) is a terrestrial mammal native to Africa and the Middle East

Over the next three years at the Museum, I’ll be looking for evidence in the fossil record to help us try and answer some of these questions. I’ll study living mammals to understand how they are born and grow, combining this information with data from some of the amazing fossils being found on the Isle of Skye. With collaborators in South Africa I’ll try and work out how the ancestors of mammals developed, and what this means for the bigger picture of the origin of mammals as a group.

Alongside my main research I hope to share lots of stories about our fossil past through the museum’s fantastic public engagement programme. I’m also very active on social media, and I write about science for online and in print publications. So if you see me on your next visit to the building, or find me online, feel free to ask about my research! I look forward to seeing you, and sharing more about the elusive and exciting origins of mammals – and ourselves.

Follow Elsa on Twitter at twitter.com/gssciencelady.

A stone statue of a bearded man, hands crossed at his front, shoulders draped in a cloak

Babylon: Natural Theology versus Scientific Naturalism

When the campaign to build the Museum was launched, science at Oxford was understood as natural theology. By the time the Museum opened in 1860, a new secular approach to science was on the rise.

In this last episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how the art and science of the Museum responded to the challenge posed by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, and the scientific naturalism that they epitomised. 

You can watch the whole series here.
(https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLxCYszldeUZGdD75meu90fvsH2Vjq54YE)

‘Chambers of the Ministering Priests’

The Museum was not originally simply a museum as we understand it today: It was an entire science faculty. In episode four of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how the museum’s overarching principle of design – that art should be used to teach science and to inspire generations of scientists – was put into practice in some of its less familiar but no less beautiful spaces. 

You can watch the whole series here.
(https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLxCYszldeUZGdD75meu90fvsH2Vjq54YE)

The Sanctuary of the Temple of Science

The central court of the Museum was described by one founder as ‘the sanctuary of the Temple of Science’. In the third episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how every detail of this unique space was carefully planned and crafted to form a comprehensive model of natural science. 

You can watch the whole series here.
(https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLxCYszldeUZGdD75meu90fvsH2Vjq54YE)

Black and white photo of a man carving the decorative archway of a window

‘God’s own Museum’

In the second episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we take a closer look at the decoration on the outside of the Museum building.

From the outset, Oxford University Museum wanted to teach the principles of natural history through art as well as science. The carvings around the windows of the façade, incorporating designs by John Ruskin and carved by the brilliant Irish stonemason and sculptor James O’Shea, revel in the vitality of nature, while the decorations round the main entrance remind us that, for the scientists in Victorian Oxford, natural history was the study of God’s creation.

You can watch the whole series here.
(https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLxCYszldeUZGdD75meu90fvsH2Vjq54YE)

Celebrating 160 years of the Museum

Temple of Science banner showing painted, decorative arched window

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a very unusual and troubled year, but it is also the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Museum, so we wanted to snatch a little breather from the difficulties of the pandemic, if possible, to take a positive look at the past and future of the Museum.

We have made a few special productions to mark this. Our new temporary exhibition – Truth to Nature – opens in the centre court on 18 October, and is accompanied by this online version for those who can’t make it to the Museum. The displays chart the philosophies and artistry underpinning the creation of the Museum in the mid-19th century and reflect on the role of natural history museums today, including the need for greater equity in science.

Taking a look at the unique and treasured building itself, this short film reveals some of the hidden secrets of the Museum’s architecture:

And finally, this week we have released a new five-part video podcast series looking in greater detail at the history of the Museum’s art and architecture, written and presented by John Holmes, Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at Birmingham University, who is also an Honorary Associate of the Museum.

We’ll be sharing an episode a week here and on our social media channels, but you can dive into the series here or watch Episode 1, Oxford’s Pre-Raphaelite Natural History Museum, below.