As you may have seen, the Museum was recently shortlisted as a finalist in this year’s Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year – very exciting news for us. To add to the honour we hosted renowned Magnum Photos photographer Martin Parr, who spent a good few hours photographing the Museum, in the court and behind the scenes, as part of the Museum of the Year campaign.
The photograph above was captured by Martin during one of our primary school sessions on dinosaurs: the children have their mitts on a fossilised dinosaur egg – just one of the real specimens used during the session.
Having a Magnum photographer visit the Museum for a photoshoot isn’t something that happens every day, so it was a real privilege to take Martin Parr around the building and watch the types of things that caught his eye.
I am a keen photographer myself, with an interest in the history of photography as a technical process and as an art form, so it was especially exciting to not only meet Martin and watch him work, but also to photograph the process myself too. You can see a few of those shots here.
Now it’s your chance. We’re inviting you to take photographs of the Museum and submit them to the Museum of the Year Photo Competition, with a chance to win a photography holiday in Berlin, photo gear and other prizes. Martin Parr will shortlist six photos, one for each of the six finalist museums, and the ultimate winner will be selected by a public vote.
So get snapping – with a posh camera or your phone; it doesn’t matter. Then either upload your pictures via the Art Fund website, or tweet or Instagram them using the #motyphoto hashtag and don’t forget to tag us in @morethanadodo.
The Museum has recently received specimens of the enigmatic deep-sea vent snail, Chrysomallon squamiferum, the scaly-foot snail. In this post, Dr Chong Chen explains why this species is so extraordinary.
This is no ordinary snail. First of all, it lives in deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean, more than 2,500 metres deep, just beside black smokers that are churning out superheated water exceeding 350°C. Second, it is the only known gastropod with a suit of scale armour. Thirdly, the scales as well as the shell are mineralised with iron sulfide. That’s right – these snails make a skeleton out of iron, and are the only animal so far known to do so.
Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in the Galápagos Rift as recently as 1977. This is just off the Galápagos Islands whose fauna famously inspired Charles Darwin in the development of his theory of natural selection. Vents are deep-sea ‘hot springs’ fuelled by geological activity; the hot erupting fluid is usually acidic and contains various metals, as well as hydrogen sulfide. This is what makes rotten eggs smell bad, and is toxic to most organisms. Some bacteria, however, are able to use it to produce energy in a process known as chemosynthesis.
Over geological timescales many remarkable organisms have adapted to live in these ‘toxic utopia’, and flourish by exploiting the energy produced by these bacteria. The scaly-foot snail has also harnessed the power of chemosynthesis, housing endosymbiotic bacteria – bacteria living inside another creature to mutual benefit – in an enlarged part of its gut. This produces the energy it needs. In another words – it has a food factory inside its body and doesn’t even need to feed! This is likely the reason it can grow to about 45mm in size, when most of its close relatives without endosymbionts are only 15mm or smaller.
Scaly-foot snails were first discovered in 2001, at the Kairei vent field in the Indian Ocean. Its discovery came as a great surprise as even among those animals specialised for living at vents, it was very, very strange. And cool. Although the shell of a snail is well-known to be modified into a great variety of forms, this is not the case with hard parts on the foot, and apart from an operculum (the ‘trap-door’ serving as a lid when the animal retracts to its shell) no other gastropods have other mineralised structures on the foot. Yet C. squamiferum has thousands of scales!
The shell, although not particularly exciting in form, isn’t exactly ordinary either as the outermost layer is made of iron sulfide. And so are the scales. So this entire animal is covered in iron compound, mainly pyrite (FeS2, or ‘Fool’s gold’) and greigite (Fe3S4). As greigite is magnetic, the animal actually sticks to magnets. The function of the scales is postulated to be either protection or detoxification but their true use remains a mystery.
So why blog about the ‘scaly-foot’ now, if it has already been known to science for more than a decade? Well, actually, despite numerous studies and publications on its strange biology this species has never been formally described and named, until now. A recent paper by Dr Chong Chen (Department of Zoology, University of Oxford) and colleagues finally gave it the scientific name you see here – Chrysomallon squamiferum.
The Museum received a set of five specimens as part of the description process, which will serve as key references for scientists who wish to study this extraordinary species in the future.
Here’s a video of the Longqi hydrothermal field featuring Chrysomallon squamiferum in their natural habitat:
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and at the Museum we make thousands of pictures: pictures to document, pictures to investigate, and pictures to wow. We use a lot of different imaging techniques too, from standard close-up photography to scanning electron microscopy, which reveals the most minute details.
To coincide with the final week of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition here, on Saturday 20 September we held a new adult workshop to give people some hands-on experience of some of these processes. Imaging Techniques in Modern Natural History gave participants the chance to get up close to some wonderful specimens and make their own images to take home.
I had planned to review the day here, but Rose Parkin, who took part in the workshops, very helpfully sent in her own write-up of the sessions. So here’s a special guest post from Rose, along with some pictures taken by people on the day.
By Rose Parkin
When I signed up for the digital imaging course I expected a fairly dry, tech-heavy day. Instead, the experience was really exciting. Not only did it provide hands-on experience of viewing and recording images with new technology, it also gave me a brief glimpse behind the scenes of my favourite museum.
Laser Scanning and Digital Modelling For our first session our small group was led through a maze of corridors by Sarah Joomun, the Documentation Officer, to the laser scanning lab. It sounded a bit futuristic, and it turned out that it looks that way too. Sarah popped a fossil onto a mount, clicked a few buttons and red lasers appeared, scanning the fossil’s surface while it rotated. After ten minutes the first 3D image of the fossil was produced – a beautiful net of triangles, which looked like a teleporting object in a science fiction film.
Sarah turned the fossil and scanned it again. The challenge was then to fit these two images together to make a complete 3D model. Amazingly, this technique enables other palaeontologists around the world to see and replicate, with the use of a 3D printer, the exact size and shape of a fossil without it ever leaving the museum.
Multi-plane Microscope Photography Our next session was upstairs, with artist-in-residence and photographer Katherine Child. Even though we were close to the main corridor of the museum it felt like a real working space, crammed full of equipment and insect specimens. Katherine had chosen the tiniest of insects for us to photograph with the multi-plane microscope. It looked like a small seed with some barely visible limb-like protrusions.
But under the microscope a wonderfully strange insect became visible, with the most bizarre appendages and bright orange legs. While the microscope already showed a great deal of detail the multi-plane photography captured an incredibly crisp image. The microscope takes large numbers of photos of the specimen, using different focal planes each time, then the focussed elements are all stacked together to produce a crystal clear photograph.
Once we’d chosen and photographed some other insects from the collection and poked around the room a bit (finding a disturbing collection of large pickled spiders), we were taken on a tour of the entomology department. Katherine led us through corridors of offices and labs, up to a stunning store room that felt almost church-like, with rows and rows of cabinets full of fascinating insects.
Scanning Electron Microscopy After lunch we had a laboratory session with museum director Paul Smith to look at sand under an electron microscope. Luckily, that was much more exciting than it sounds! The sand was taken from Dog’s Bay on the west coast of Ireland and is rich with a wide range of tiny fossilized organisms. Paul showed us how to carefully select individual microfossils from a tray using just a microscope and a paint brush.
We then viewed some of the microfossils using a scanning electron microscope. This allowed us to see an incredible level of detail. The microscope was so powerful that we could see hair holes in a fossil the size of a grain of sand.
DSLR Macrophotography My final session was a crash course in macrophotography. Held in the seminar room, the low lighting and floor-to-ceiling collection of specimens lent an almost eerie feeling to the set-up.
Once prepped, we were let loose on four separate camera setups. Being able to choose and shoot at our own pace made this feel like a really creative experience. The help given by professional photographer Keith Barnes and public engagement officer Scott Billings was perfect – very hands on but not patronizing (despite my lack of DSLR experience).
With this digital imaging course the museum has created a really exciting snapshot of the work that goes on behind the scenes, reinforcing the fact that this impressive place is much more than just an ordinary museum.
Last week, members of the Southern Branch of the Russell Society came to visit the Museum. They especially wanted to see some of the minerals in our collection that came from the South Coast of England. The Russell Society, in case you are wondering, runs lectures, museum visits and fieldtrips for people who enjoy finding out about minerals. It is named after Sir Arthur Russell, one of Britain’s most gifted amateur mineralogists. I’m a member and so is one of our volunteers, Jane Randle.
Now, Jane and I know the Russell Society folk are a very knowledgeable lot, so we put our heads together a devised a challenge for them. We got out from the stores a whole lot of interesting minerals from quarries, mines, beaches and cliff exposures all along the coast from Kent round to south Devon, and laid them out in a random way. Then came the fun bit; we took away all the labels!
The task was to work as a team and organise the minerals according to where they were found, from west to east. Easy? Well, that depends on how good you are at recognising the different kinds of minerals and where they come from.
One of the fun things about minerals is that each kind – calcite, quartz, gypsum, etc, – can look very different according to where it is found. Some are very easy to recognise but some are not. After much debate, looking at maps, and rearrangement of specimens came the moment of truth as Jane and I put the labels back with their specimens, and everyone could see whether or not they were right.
Our Russell Society folk certainly showed they know their local minerals! They recognised the little round masses of baryte crystals from the Isle of Sheppey, large transparent gypsum crystals from Battle, powdery white masses of aluminite from Newhaven, rare blue vivianite crystals from near Southampton, sparkling pointed crystals of calcite from Charmouth, branching crystals of real gold from near Torquay, and many more. Others did elude them, and came from surprising places. Our beautiful polished slices of fossil sponges, for example, came from pebbles collected on Brighton beach in the 19th century!
As you know, the Museum of Natural History is closed to the public throughout 2013 for restoration work on its leaky vaulted roof. Although our central galleries are thrown into shadow, there’s still plenty going on behind closed doors.
But if you’re missing your visits to the Museum, or have always wanted a peek behind the closed doors of our collections, now is your chance! On Saturday 24th August you can join one of our FREE behind-the-scenes tours as part of the national Hidden Treasures campaign
Expert staff from the museum’s collections will be your guides; see where fossils get fixed, explore the high-tech kit used to see inside minerals and even meet the oldest pinned insect in the world! I’ll be there on the day and would love to meet some “Darkened” followers. Don’t forget to book your places through our What’s On page.