Excavating amber

First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit IGME-UB.

By Dr Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, Research Fellow

Amber, or fossilised plant resin, is a unique material to learn about the history of life on Earth. Its incredible preservation and ability to capture life “in action” are well known thanks to the Jurassic Park saga, but fewer people know where amber is found, what it looks like in the field, and how it is gathered.

Cretaceous amber, about 130 to 70 million years old, is the oldest amber that provides abundant fossils, specifically insects and spiders. Ecosystems drastically changed during this period due to global greenhouse conditions and the diversification of flowering plants, among other factors. Amber from that time has been discovered in Lebanon, Spain, France, Myanmar, eastern United States, Canada, and northern Russia.

My research team and I carry out regular amber excavations in northern Spain, working in teams of six to ten people. The outcrops that we excavate are often located next to roads and highways because amber is typically uncovered during roadworks. Excavations take place during the summer or fall to try and minimise the risk of rain, and we usually embark on one field trip each year.

The goal is to recover as much amber as possible – usually a few kilograms – from the muddy and sandy sediments. These materials were transported downstream tens of million of years ago by heavy rain and river swellings from the forests where the resin was produced, before being finally deposited in near-shore areas.

Manual extraction of amber. Credit IGME-UB
Manual extraction of amber in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, northern Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

I find amber excavations quite romantic. In the field, amber has a dull appearance that makes it difficult to distinguish from rocks or woody remains. This is due to an opaque crust resulting from oxidation in the sediments and other processes.

This outer layer makes detecting potential fossils inside the amber highly unlikely while the excavation is ongoing. So, in the field we just gather as many amber pieces as possible, and hope for the best.

Only when amber is polished – or shows broken surfaces – does its distinct yellowish to reddish shine emerge, and any possible fossils within become evident. Some ambers are highly fossiliferous, while others are very poor in fossils.

Amber can be gathered by hand using regular tools such as hammers. However, the most efficient method to extract amber from soft sediments is with concrete mixers! This rather unsophisticated piece of equipment provides the best way to recover medium quantities of amber in the field.

We charge water and amber-bearing sediments into the mixer, and after stirring for a while amber floats to the top because it is less dense than muddy water. Then, the surface of the water containing the amber is poured into sieves, which separates even the tiniest pieces.

Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after washing
Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after having been “washed” from their sediment. First amber excavation in the La Manjoya outcrop, Asturias, northern Spain in 2017.

After fieldwork, many hours will be spent looking for fossils within the amber and preparing them. Gathering raw amber is just the first part of a process in unearthing the secrets held within – fragments of encapsulated time.

Top image: First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

Through the looking glass

With our Life, As We Know It redisplay project now underway, our Senior Archives and Library Assistant Danielle Czerkaszyn takes a behind-the-scenes look at how we captured the contents of the current displays for the Museum’s archive.

The archive here holds a unique collection of natural history books, journals and documents covering a wide range of subjects related to the Museum’s collections and research. It also contains papers and objects on the history of the building, providing an institutional memory of Oxford’s ‘University Museum’ since its foundation in 1860.

From an archive perspective it was really important to document the current layout of the cases, their specimens and text before they were removed from the court to make way for the new showcases in the first phase of our redisplay work.

The museum in late 2019

The displays as we know them – with exhibitions on the Oxfordshire dinosaurs, Alice in Wonderland, the Oxford Dodo, and more – were last changed in 2000. For the last 20 years visitors to the Museum would remember their first time being wowed by the Megalosaurus jaw – the world’s first scientifically-described dinosaur – or charmed by the Dodo made famous in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Adventures in Wonderland.

Although after 20 years it is time for a change, the stories and information in the displays are too good to be forgotten. So before anything was removed we began to build the archive for the future.

A display of the fossilised remains of Megalosaurus
The previous display on Megalosaurus: The First Dinosaur

The best way to capture all the information of the displays was through high resolution photography, but this was not as straightforward as we hoped.

The first two obstacles to good photographs are pretty obvious to anyone looking at the cases: glass causes huge amounts of glare; and each case has a big dividing line down the centre where the two sliding glass doors meet, cutting what should be a lovely seamless image into two halves.

To avoid glare and the solve the problem of the dividing line, our photographer Scott opened each individual side of the case, photographed two or three images of the display, and then stitched the separate photos together using Photoshop.

Each case was photographed in two or three segments
The segments were then stitched back together and adjusted for exposure and colour balance to create the final image

Another obstacle to taking good photographs of the displays came from the Museum itself. Some of our larger display furniture, such as the glass case for the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna or the huge T. rex plinth – got in the way of a nice straight shot. Because these items are so large and heavy they were impossible to move, so we had to improvise and do our best.

Capturing the displays before the current cases were removed allowed us to keep an archival record of their contents

Thankfully, we managed to get shots of all 24 displays before they were removed and so a record of each case now rests with the Museum’s archive. If anyone wants to know what the display cases in the court looked like from 2000 to 2020, they will now be able to look back at the images in the archive and recall the magic of the Oxford Dodo exhibit that perhaps first made them fall in love with the Museum.

Our new displays are now in development, and will include some beautiful presentations of the diversity of life, looking at the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment. These new exhibits will show how the biological processes of evolution combine with the geological processes of our dynamic Earth to give rise to the immense, interconnected variety of the natural world.

We look forward to telling you more about that here as the project progresses.

The Life, As We Know It redisplay project is supported by a generous grant from FCC Communities Foundation.

Close up of OUMNH-ZC-7483 Section of blue whale intestine with mysterious acanthocephalan parasites

Worms of Discovery

By Mark Carnall, Life Collections manager

The Museum’s zoology collections contain a dizzying diversity of animal specimens. It is a collection that would take multiple lifetimes to become familiar with, let alone expert in. So we benefit hugely from the expertise of visiting researchers – scientists, artists, geographers, historians – to name just a few of the types of people who can add valuable context and expand our knowledge about the specimens in our care.

Earlier this year, Dr Andrew McCarthy of Canterbury College (East Kent College Group) got in touch to ask about our material of Acanthocephala, an under-studied group of parasitic animals sometimes called the spiny-headed worms.

Although there are around 1,400 species of acanthocephalans, they are typically under-represented in museum collections. Dr McCarthy combed through the fluid-preserved and microscope slide collections here, examining acanthocephalan specimens for undescribed species, rare representatives and unknown parasitic associations.

Close up of OUMNH-ZC-7483 Section of blue whale intestine with mysterious acanthocephalan parasites
Close up of OUMNH-ZC-7483 Section of blue whale intestine with mysterious acanthocephalan parasites

One such specimen, catchily referenced OUMNH.ZC.7483, was of particular interest. It is a section of blue whale intestine packed with acanthocephalan adults, labelled ‘Echinorhynchus sp. “Discovery Investigations”’, and dated 13 March 1927. Drawing on his expert knowledge, Dr McCarthy spotted an unusual association here because the genus Echinorhynchus was not known to infect Blue Whales, meaning the specimen could represent a species to new science.

However, identifying different species of acanthocephalans cannot be done by eye alone, so Dr McCarthy requested to remove one of the mystery worms from the intestine and mount it on a slide to examine its detailed anatomy. When we receive a destructive sampling request like this it triggers an investigation of the specimens in question: we need to weigh up their condition, history, and significance against the proposed outcome of the research before we decide whether the permanent alteration of the specimen justifies the outcome.

Image of Oxford University Museum of Natural History zoology collections accession register entry for this specimen showing the donation of the specimen and collector information.
Image of Oxford University Museum of Natural History zoology collections accession register entry for this specimen showing the donation of the specimen and collector information.

This particular investigation began to yield a much richer story than the Museum’s label suggested. It turned out that the specimen was collected by Sir Alister C. Hardy who was serving as zoologist on RRS Discovery’s scientific voyage to the Antarctic. Fortunately, Discovery’s scientific findings were meticulously documented and published by many libraries of the world, including the fantastic Biodiversity Heritage Library where it was easy to find the report mentioning acanthocephalans collected during the voyage.

Alongside descriptions of acanthocephalans from seals, dolphins and icefish there is no mention of Echinorhynchus sp. from Blue Whales, though there are a few references to another genus, Bolbosoma, collected from Blue Whales on seven occasions: a single individual of Bolbosoma hamiltoni, so obviously not this specimen, and six occurrences of Bolbosoma brevicolle from the intestines of Blue Whales from South Africa and South Georgia.

These specimens and others reported in the Discovery reports. Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library

Piecing together the evidence, the association with Hardy, the dates, and the descriptions of RRS Discovery’s acanthocephalans, it seems likely that our specimen is one of the six samples of Bolbosoma brevicolle and not Echinorhynchus at all. So in this instance we decided not to grant destructive sampling as the likelihood of identifying a new species seemed much lower when all the information was brought together.

Although sampling wasn’t granted, Dr McCarthy was delighted that his initial research request had prompted the discovery of some important historical connections to the humble specimen, and the new identification seemed to fit.

We still weren’t sure when or why this specimen was mislabelled some time between the Discovery reports and its donation to the Museum in 1949, so Dr McCarthy conducted some further investigations. He found out that Echinorhynchus was the original name combination for Bolbosoma brevicolle, and that H. A. Baylis, a parasitologist and author of Discovery reports, had links with the University of Oxford.

This story is just one example of how visiting researchers enrich knowledge and information about our collections, and it illustrates nicely why our work with broader research communities is so important.

On the trail of the Piltdown hoax

The latest display in our single-case Presenting… series takes a look at the famous Piltdown Man hoax, and Life Collections manager Mark Carnall tells us how the display came about…

Visiting researchers to the zoology collections at the Museum often give us an excuse to dig deeper into our own material, and one such recent enquiry led me into the intriguing story of the Piltdown Man hoax.

Professor Andrew Shortland from Cranfield University contacted us to enquire about the Piltdown Man material in our collections, as part of research for a book on hoaxes and forgeries in anthropology that he is writing with Professor Patrick Degryse of KU Leuven.

I knew we had some Piltdown material here thanks to this page written by Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, but I hadn’t had an excuse to investigate any further. The enquiry was also timely as we’d just transferred a collection of palaeoanthropology casts, models and reconstructions from our Earth collections to bring our human collections into one place. I knew from our move project team that there was some Piltdown material awaiting processing – perfect.

For those who don’t know the Piltdown Man story, a short history is in order. In the early 20th century, amateur fossil hunter Charles Dawson brought a collection of human remains excavated from gravel pits in Sussex to the attention of Arthur Smith Woodward, then Keeper of Geology at the British Museum (Natural History). Woodward and Dawson collected further material and presented the remains as those of Eoanthropus dawsoni (‘Dawson’s dawn man’), an important fossil human from Britain.

Group portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined. Back row (from left): F. O. Barlow, G. Elliot Smith, Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward. Front row: A. S. Underwood, Arthur Keith, W. P. Pycraft, and E. Ray Lankester. Charles Darwin looks on from a portrait on the wall. Image via Wikipedia.
R.F. Damon-produced endocast and associated label recording the presentation of this specimen to the Museum by Arthur Smith Woodward

The discovery looked set to put Britain on the map when it came to evidence of human evolution, but suspicions were quickly raised about the authenticity of the material. Such was the skill of the forgery – meticulous breaking, abrading and staining of various archaeological and historic specimens – that it wasn’t until dating techniques, chemical analyses and some experimental palaeoanthropology in 1953 that the hoax was conclusively put to bed.

In turned out that the Piltdown ‘remains’ were a mix of medieval bone, an orangutan jaw, and chimpanzee teeth maltreated to look like an evolutionary intermediate between humans and other apes.

For 40 years or so the hoax refused to go away and numerous casts, models and reconstructions of Piltdown Man were made, sold, exchanged and gifted to museums and universities. These included casts of the original material as well as reconstructions of the skull and even reconstructions of the endocast – a cast of the inside of the skull.

The Museum has a selection of this material, but as Professor Shortland examined the collections, two specimens stood out.

The first is an R. F. Damon-produced endocast presented to the Museum by Arthur Smith Woodward himself. Smith Woodward was known as an expert on fossil fish but published widely on zoological topics. As a scientist of some repute there’s been long-standing speculation about his role in the hoax. Was he wholly duped by Dawson, or was he in on the hoax from the beginning? If it’s the former, then the presentation of this endocast shows Smith Woodward disseminating research he presumably took some pride in. If it’s the latter, perhaps it was a way of cementing the hoax as legitimate by spreading specimens far and wide.

Joseph Weiner’s experimental fake created by modifying an orangutan jaw, alongside a cast of the Piltdown jaw

The second significant specimen is a worked orangutan jaw produced by Joseph Weiner, one of the three authors who debunked the hoax in a 1953 Nature paper titled The Solution of The Piltdown Problem. Weiner modified the orangutan jaw to replicate the original hoax specimen. Thanks to Professor Shortland’s knowledge of the hoax, he sent through a copy of Weiner’s book on the Piltdown Man where this exact specimen is pictured.

The Piltdown Man hoax wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last hoax, fake or forgery in the history of science, but it remains one of the most well-known and stands as a warning of the dangers of hubris in the discovery and description of the natural world.

The Weiner jaw and Damon endocast will be on display alongside other Piltdown Man material in our Presenting… case from 9 January to 8 March 2020.

Mammoth tusks and cocktail sticks

By Pete Brown, Move Project Assistant

As part of the Museum of Natural History Move Project Team I have helped move and repackage tens of thousands of specimens since 2017, removing boxes filled at any time over the last 150 years from their old storage location in a deconsecrated church building near Oxford.

At our new facility we have been documenting and repacking the contents in new, clean containers and placing them in environmentally stable, safe warehouses specially adapted for museum storage.

Some objects are trickier to store than others. Things that are long, heavy, curvy and fragile are tricky. Mammoth tusks are long, heavy, curvy, and fragile. This means:

  1. They’re not going to fit in a normal box.
  2. They’re going to be difficult to move around.
  3. That beautiful curve will mean that all the weight of the tusk may be bearing down on just two small contact points where the tusk meets the storage surface.
  4. Because those points are fragile, they’re likely to get damaged.
A lot of weight can rest on small areas of the tusk, putting strain on the specimen and potentially causing damage

The tusk in this article is a prime example. The area nearest the camera in the photo above provided just a tiny point of contact with the floor and was very loose, almost to the point of detaching. It needed to be repaired, and stored in such a way that it wouldn’t get damaged again.

Pete Brown carries out delicate conservation work on the mammoth tusk

I filled some of the missing areas around the fragile area with an easily removable fine acrylic putty to prevent further movement and loss of the original material. A cotton tape sling helped to suspend the fragment in place during the work.

Thick plastazote provided a sturdy, slightly yielding bed for the tusk to lie on in storage, but to prevent the tusk from getting damaged again more needed be done to reduce the pressure on the points of contact.

The dark grey foam material, plastazote, is often used as a cushioned support for museum objects

I cut depressions into the plastazote where the tusk naturally lay to increase the total surface area supporting the weight of the tusk, and fixed plastazote wedges and supports in place with cocktail sticks to again increase the contact area and prevent movement. Cotton fabric ties, fed through slits in the plastazote, also helped to guard against unwanted movement.

Cocktail sticks: not just for cheese and pineapple

The repaired end of the tusk is now only supporting a fraction of the weight it used to, and once the tusk and the plastazote bed are placed into their new custom-made crate it will be ready for long-term, safe, damage-free storage!

The end of the tusk after treatment

To keep up with all the move project action, follow the museum hashtag #storiesfromthestore on Twitter @morethanadodo.

 

Temporarily misplaced

When I started work on the Lyell project in July of this year, I was very keen to know more about the history of the collection, both before and after it arrived at the museum. Collections often arrive at the Museum with associated material such as catalogues, letters or notebooks and after they arrive any activity related to the collection should be documented.

The first step in investigating the history of the collection was to find out what was in the Museum’s records. I began by looking at the donors database; this recorded the date that the Lyell collection arrived (1903) and the donor, Sir Leonard Lyell, Charles Lyell’s nephew. There was a little more information in the donors card index, which mentioned the fact that the collection came in two parts, the bulk of the collection in 1903 and then additional Italian specimens in 1907. The Collections Manager, Eliza Howlett, also directed me to the annual reports of the Museum for 1903 and 1907, which noted the two donations, and to the Earth Collections Lyell file, but this started in the 1960s and was entirely related to the use of the collection.

I wondered if there was a book of acquisitions that recorded the information that went into the annual reports. A colleague had vague memories of some early donation books, so I decided to go on a hunt to see if that would yield more information. I checked many shelves, climbing up ladders and peering into boxes all over the Museum. My search eventually narrowed down to a cupboard full of folders taken from a former curator’s office. The donor book was there (and interestingly included library books as well as fossils) but it started in 1929 so it didn’t cover the years that I was interested in. I delved further into the pile and noticed that a tattered box file was labelled “Lyell Collection” among other things. Bingo!

Or so I thought. After carefully searching through the box, there was nothing Lyell related at all. There was quite a bit of space, so clearly something had been removed. I kept on searching, roping in various colleagues to help me think of new possibilities, which involved more ladders and delving into cupboards that hadn’t been disturbed for years. I found some interesting things but nothing on Lyell and I started to think that whatever had been in the file was already in our Lyell folder.

Then one day, a month or so later, I came in to work to find a mysterious cardboard box on my chair. Inside was some old notepaper, photocopies of most of the 1980-1990s catalogues, and a marble bound notebook with “Lyell Collection” on the front. It was the missing piece! It took me a while to work out where it came from but it turned out that one of our Honorary Associates had found it on the top of a filing cabinet while looking for something else.

Photograph of original Lyell Collection catalogue
Original Lyell Collection catalogue

It was fascinating to read. Inside was a complete, drawer by drawer listing of the species and localities of specimens from the collection. There were references to the places in which they were published, and references for further information as the cataloguer worked out where the localities were and how the stratigraphy fitted together.

The book contained two sets of handwriting. it became clear that this was a document created after the collection was presented to the Museum, as we identified the first set as that of Maud Healey, who worked as Assistant to Professor W.J. Sollas, Keeper of the University Museum, between 1902 and 1906. We know that she did a lot of cataloguing and arranged displays, and the 1903 annual report gratefully notes how the “work of reorganization of the fossils of the Museum Collection … has … progressed … at a much more rapid rate during this year, a result entirely due to the devoted efforts of Miss Healey.”

It seems Miss Healey may have pushed herself too hard; the 1906 annual report notes that the ” Professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is to be hoped that her retirement may be only temporary. ”

We haven’t yet identified the second set of handwriting, but the owner recorded the specimens that arrived after 1907, when Miss Healey had left. We suspect that it belongs to a C.H. Dunham or Durham, whose name is written on the book along with the date December 1907, but research so far hasn’t come up with any more information. If anyone reading this recognises the name or can suggest anywhere to look, we would love to hear from you!