Drawn to life

A set of illustrated cartoons of the heads of eleven people with their names handwritten underneath

By Rachel Simpson

Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…

I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.

Barma Booties used on the rocks at Mistaken Point, and my first drawing of the series.

I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.

The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.

Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.

Annelid worms drawn with Tombow brush pens.

Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.

I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.

Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.

For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.

As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.

During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.

Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!

It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane – and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.

Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.

Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.

Two images of coloured drawings of extinct marine creatures side by side
Comparison between week 2, Luke Parry’s talk (left), and Week 9, Derek Briggs’ talk (right): What a difference 16 weeks of drawing practice makes!

The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.

To see more of Rachel’s illustrations visit www.rachelerinillustration.co.uk.

High-tech insect origami

By Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Research Fellow

Earwigs are fascinating creatures. Belonging to the order Dermaptera, these insects can be easily recognised by their rear pincers, which are used for hunting, defence, or mating. But perhaps the most striking feature of earwigs is usually hidden – most can fly with wings that are folded to become 15 times smaller than their original surface area, and tucked away under small leathery forewings.

With protected wings and fully mobile abdomens, these insects can wriggle into the soil and other narrow spaces while maintaining the ability to fly. This is a combination very few insects achieve.

I have been working on research led by Dr Kazuya Saito from Kyushu University in Japan, which presents a geometrical method to design earwig wing-inspired fans. These fans could be used in many practical applications, from daily use articles such as fans or umbrellas, to mechanical engineering or aerospace structures such as drone wings, antennae reflectors or energy-absorbing panels!

Dr Saito came to Oxford last year for a six-month research stay at Prof Zhong You’s lab, in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. He introduced me to biomimetics, an ever-growing field aiming to replicate nature for a wide range of applications.

Biological structures have been optimised by the pressures of natural selection over tens of millions of years, so there is much to learn from them. Dr Saito had previously worked on the wing folding of beetles, but now he wanted to tackle the insect group that folds its wings most compactly – the earwigs.

He was developing a design method and an associated software to re-create and customise the wing folding of the earwig hind wing, in order to use it in highly compact structures which can be efficiently transported and deployed. Earwigs were required!

Here at the Museum we provided access to our insect collections, including earwig specimens from different species having their hind wings pinned unfolded. These were useful to inform the geometrical method that Saito had been devising.

Dr Saito was also interested in learning about the evolution of earwigs and finding out when in deep time their characteristic crease pattern established. Some fossils of Jurassic earwigs show hints of possessing the same wing structure and folding pattern of their relatives today.

However, distant earwig relatives that lived about 280 million years ago during the Permian, the protelytropterans, possessed a different – yet related – wing shape and folding pattern. That provided the chance to test the potential and reliability of Saito’s geometrical method, as all earwigs have very similar wings due to their specialised function.

The geometrical method turned out to be successful at reconstructing the wing folding pattern of protelytropterans as well, revealing that both this extinct group and today’s earwigs have been constrained during evolution by the same geometrical rules that underpin the new geometrical design method devised by Dr Saito. In other words, the fossils were able to inform state-of-the-art applications: palaeontology is not only the science of the past, but can also be a science of the future!

We were also able to hypothesise intermediate extinct forms – somewhere between protelytropterans and living earwigs – assuming that earwigs evolved from a form closely resembling the protelytropterans.

As a collaboration between engineers and palaeobiologists, this research is a great example of the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach in science and technology. It also demonstrates how even a minute portion of the wealth of data held in natural history collections can be used for cutting-edge research, and why it is so important to keep preserving it for future generations.

Soon these earwig-inspired deployable structures might be inside your backpacks or used in satellites orbiting around the Earth. Nature continues to be our greatest source of inspiration.

Original paper:  Saito et al. (2020). Earwig fan designing: biomimetic and evolutionary biology applications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Stop, look, listen

By Sarah Lloyd, Head of Education, and William Sharpley, Youth Forum member

Connecting with the natural world around us is important for many reasons. It’s proven to help our mental health, it’s enjoyable and fascinating, and it gives us an insight into the rhythms and changes of the life that surrounds us. And during the pandemic lockdown this has taken on more significance than ever.

Over the past few months we have been keeping in touch with the Museum’s youth groups as part of our HOPE for the Future project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project is themed around the Museum’s British insect collection and our discussions with the youth groups have triggered a particular interest in the diversity of insects in our outdoor spaces.

Common Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). These beetles are often found basking in the sun on leaves and flowers in woodland margins. Image: William Sharpley.

A great way to become more observant about the world around you is through photography. During a recent lockdown walk, Youth Forum member William Sharpley took out his camera and captured the beautiful images of insects you can see in this post. Looking at insects more closely made William curious about what he could find in his garden, where he noticed a colony of bees active around a compost bin.

The compost bin is in an old coal bunker. It gets very hot in the sunny weather. I have watched the bees going in and going out of here.

The compost bin in an old coal bunker provides a good habitat for a colony of Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum). Image: William Sharpley.

Noticing what animals are present, and learning to identify them, helps to build a picture of how the natural world may be changing.

Bees are a good case study. The image below is of a Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). Tree Bumblebees were first recorded in the UK in 2001, and since 2007 they have thrived in our increasing urban environments, with numbers and range rising dramatically. They are now a common sight in gardens, establishing colonies in enclosed spaces above ground. William’s old coal bunker compost heap is the perfect spot.

Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) like this one have increase in numbers and range dramatically in the UK over the past couple of decades. Image: William Sharpley.

By noticing new species around us we are reminded that populations of living things change over time. Some species, like the Tree Bumblebee, have become more common, while others, such as the Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus), are now much rarer than they once were.

Great yellow bumble bee (Bombus distinguendus). Image by Nick Owens.

Once we know what is around us we can turn our attention to patterns of behaviour. William went on to use his science skills to plan an investigation.

I will be trying to find out if bees are more active during the morning or in the afternoon. I will count the bees going in and out of the nest at different times during the day.

The Youth Forum conducted a similar study earlier in the spring, observing when female Hairy-footed Flower Bees and Honeybees were active and feeding on garden plants. They found that the Hairy-footed Flower Bees foraged mostly in the morning, and the Honeybees in the afternoon.

Feeding behaviour in bees is an interesting thing to study because it may be affected by some pesticides called neonicotinoids. Honeybees exposed to low levels of these pesticides spend less time feeding, and over a long period their reduced food intake causes a hive of bees to decline and become more susceptible to other pressures, such as disease, habitat destruction, or extreme weather.

Rather than relying on a handful of chemicals like neonicotinoids, farmers are now encouraged to use a range of methods to control pests. These include using natural predators – known as biological control – and organic methods.

From these relatively simple observations of the natural world we can gain important information about changing environments. And by sharing what we notice, and encouraging others to do the same, we are better able to understand environmental changes and we’ll feel more connected to nature as a bonus. So head out and start looking!

The Museum’s Youth Forum was established to connect with and learn from local young people. The group meet every month to take part in a programme of activities designed for and by the group.

Top image: Common mayfly (Ephemera Danica) by William Sharpley.

Swifts flying around the Museum tower

Flight and fight

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

Last week’s observations of the swift nest boxes in the Museum tower highlighted the drama the colony faces in the struggle for survival. This week’s survey made that struggle even more explicit…

Clambering through the darkened spaces of the Museum tower, lit faintly by the red lights that the swifts cannot see but which help give surveyors a dim view of the ladder rungs and observation platforms, I peered briefly into each nest box to count the birds and eggs.

In one box I came across a dead bird, alone and lying on its back. Carefully bagging up the body for later investigation I continued my count while pondering the cause of its death, the sadness relieved slightly with the discovery of new eggs in other boxes and the promise of new life to come.

The body of a dead swift found during the weekly survey of the colony of birds in the Museum tower

Screams and banging from birds prospecting for nest sites are a regular backdrop to each survey. Birds call and swoop past the boxes only inches from my ears, separated by just a few roof slates. The birds within scream back in answer. But on this occasion, half way down the tower, I became aware of particularly loud and persistent screams and banging, coming from within a box.

A quick peek inside revealed a hectic struggle between at least three swifts, wings drawn back, wrestling and rolling around, pecking and slashing at each other with their sharp claws. It was actually impossible to see if the fight involved three or four birds as the struggle filled every inch of the small box with wings, beaks, claws and feathers.

David Lack first documented these fights in his excellent book Swifts in a Tower. He proposed that they were the result of birds entering an already occupied box in the struggle to find a suitable nest site.

Swifts flying around the Museum tower
Swifts circle the tower prospecting for potential nest sites, screaming and banging to check which are occupied and which are vacant. Image: Gordon Bowdery

Sitting and anxiously listening beside the box, I recorded the fight lasting 15 minutes from the time I became aware of it. Lack documented ‘gladiatorial shows’ that lasted five and three quarter hours; they were painful to watch, he admitted, as the swifts have a surprisingly strong grip and claws capable of drawing blood, but rarely resulted in death.

When the noise died down, I gently lifted the cloth blind to take another look. Only two birds remained, both looking exhausted and fiercely gripping each other’s feet, one lying under the other. A quick flurry and the upper bird disengaged and jumped from the nest box entrance.

Cover of 2018 edition of Swifts in a Tower by David Lack
Cover of the 2018 edition of Swifts in a Tower by David Lack

Lack also mentions in his book that it is usually the bird underneath in these struggles that is the winner and I was relieved when the remaining bird picked itself up and returned to the two eggs, which had somehow remained in the nest, settled on top of them and preened itself. This suggested that the nest’s original occupant had won, driving off an intruder.

The screaming and banging outside the boxes is a check for a screamed response from within. It reveals whether a box is already occupied or empty, before the bird risks entry. Presumably, the fight I witnessed was the result of a bird not hearing a response or perceiving it as coming from another box.

The drama of the fight illustrates the incredible importance of nest sites and the fidelity the swifts have to them after a year on the wing. Nest sites are at a premium and swifts are almost totally dependent on nesting in old buildings as there are so few forests with suitably old, cavity filled trees remaining.

Once a nest is occupied the owners will fight furiously to defend it and David Lack did record occasional incidents of birds fighting to the death. So perhaps this was the cause of the dead bird I had found lying on its back, but that will have to wait for a later examination.

Meanwhile keep an eye on our nest box; you never know what drama may play out next…

It is important to record nest sites and, if you can, put up nest boxes. RSPB’s Oxford Swift City project, which the Museum and Oxford City Council were involved in, annually surveys and records nesting sites so that development in these areas is restricted during the breeding season and developers must include plans to protect and provide new nest sites when repairs to property or new building takes place. If you would like to help with the work of conserving one of the most dramatic annual migrants to our shores visit the RSPB site.

Robin

The dawn chorus

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With the noises of the hectic morning commute temporarily silenced, it has never been a better spring to enjoy the sounds of the dawn chorus. If you are able to get out early it’s a great way to reduce some of the stresses of lockdown. But if you can’t, or would rather have a lie-in, here we bring a little of the dawn chorus to you.

The video above shows the beautiful grounds of Harcourt Arboretum, a site a few miles outside Oxford that is part of Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums. The chirruping, tweeting soundtrack was recorded at the start of the pandemic lockdown, and is an excerpt from 50 minutes of uninterrupted dawn chorus which you can listen to in full here (recommended background while WFH!):

The enveloping sound of the dawn chorus is an ensemble piece, but who are the individual players? To hone your birdsong identification skills and practice picking out individual songs of some common British birds, Andy Gosler at the Edward Grey Institute for Ornithology has put together this beautiful resource.

So now we’re in the zone, let’s find out a little more about the dawn chorus and how it’s made.

A sense of dawn
Why are so many birds singing at dawn and not at another time of day? There are several good reasons which may explain this.

At dawn, there are fewer other environmental noises cluttering the airwaves and the air density and temperature allow sound to travel further. Many migrant birds arrive in the UK overnight and early morning, and those that are ready to breed begin looking for mates and territories early in the day. So singing at this time stakes a clear claim to new arrivals and announces that the territory is already taken.

For insectivorous birds and those that use sight to find food, dawn is the least profitable time to search. Insects are more dormant in colder temperatures and food less easy to spot in dawn’s lower light levels and early morning mists. It’s a better use of time and energy to sing!

But why spring? What triggers birds to start singing? It clearly makes sense to breed at this time of year when there is a steady supply of food, as insect population growth coincides with the re-growth of the plants that feed many insects.

But the real trigger is day length. Increased light boost hormones in birds that spark incredible physiological changes. Unlike humans, birds have an amazing ability to reduce and increase the size of various organs according to their use, carefully regulating the amount of energy expended by those organs.

Robin
The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Britain’s national bird, is one of the many voices contributing to the dawn chorus. Image: Scott Billings

Shifting sounds
As hormone levels increase, not only do birds’ sexual organs increase in size ready for the breeding season, but the part of their brains dedicated to sound processing and sensitivity also increases, meaning that birds’ hearing abilities fluctuate throughout the year.

Imagine not being able to recognise what people were saying or who was talking in winter, then suddenly being able to pick out every minute difference in tone, volume and timbre in spring! When you listen to the cacophony that is the dawn chorus, this is exactly what each bird is doing – recognising each individual and its territorial and breeding condition – and many birds show less acuity for this outside the breeding season.

Sound location also improves. Humans have relatively large, wide heads and this allows us to judge the direction a sound is coming from by detecting the slight differences heard by each ear. With their tiny heads, birds cannot do this when their heads are still, so they move their heads around a lot to help locate sounds.

You might be thinking that with such sensitive hearing birds would be in danger of going deaf during a raucous dawn chorus. But they have another adaptive trick up their sleeves. Inside the inner ears are tiny cilia, or hairs, that detect the vibrations of sound. In mammals, these hairs gradually diminish over time and don’t grow back, but birds have the ability regrow cilia throughout their lives!

Hidden music
Birds are also able to process birdsong much more quickly and fully than we can, hearing things that our brains are just too slow to cope with. Whilst we may love the musicality of the dawn chorus, we are actually missing many of the individual notes.

A verdant scene at Harcourt Arboretum

Sonograms of bird songs show that where humans often hear just a couple of notes there may be several more emitted at rapid speed.

How do they do it? We sing by passing air over flaps of skin in our sound-producing organ, the larynx, a bit like blowing over a piece of grass trapped between your thumbs. But birds have separately evolved another and more impressive way of singing. They don’t just have one organ to produce song, they have two – called syrinx.

Syrinx are more like drum skins that can be tightened or loosened by muscles as sound passes over them. They can be operated independently or together enabling a single bird to sing a chord of several notes at the same time in harmony with itself!

Time to tune in to the dawn chorus and marvel at the complex, beautiful phenomenon of birdsong…

Chris Jarvis cleaning the nest box in the Museum Tower Room

A swift return

Chris Jarvis cleaning the nest box in the Museum Tower Room

by Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

‘Look! They’re back! Look!’
This line from Ted Hughes’ excellent poem Swifts shares the excitement generated every year by the arrival of one of the most iconic summer visitors to Britain…. and I’m pleased to announce that they’re here!

Each year at the Museum we eagerly look forward to the swifts returning from their epic migration to southern Africa and back to our tower. Here they will land for the first time in a year, to nest after a 14,000 mile journey on the wing.

Necks of Museum staff are strained as each of us develops a twitcher’s twitch, heads snapping upwards at every bird flying overhead. We all hope to be the first to see a swift returning to the buzz the tower, scoping out the possible nesting opportunities, some no doubt remembering past sites from summers gone by.

Video courtesy Oxford Swift City

With the Museum currently closed due to the global pandemic, this year most staff will be craning their necks to the sky at home, perhaps wondering if any swifts they spot are ‘our’ Museum swifts, or some of the many others that colonise the roof spaces and nest boxes of Oxford and its surrounding towns each year.

Chris cleaning the swifts’ nest boxes with a feather duster

The swifts at the Museum are part of what is probably the longest-running continuous study of any bird colony in the world, started by David Lack in 1948. Because so little is known about these protected and declining populations of birds, every bit of data matters.

Although the Museum’s Swift Warden, George Candelin, is currently unable to reach the Museum during the lockdown, we agreed that it was an essential part of our role as a conservation and research institution to continue the study that has helped us to understand what little we do know about these enigmatic visitors.

Even before the swifts arrive there is a lot to do. With George’s expert guidance, in the last week of April we climbed the winding stone staircase and then the ladders to the very top of the tower to prepare for the swifts’ arrival.

Each of the nest boxes is thoroughly cleaned and their entrance holes dusted to make sure they are free of cobwebs or other obstructions. We then replace the shallow nests used to entice nesting activity. Swifts cannot land to collect nesting material and so have to collect suitable airborne material while on the wing. Their nests are often scanty, basic affairs made of a few stray feathers and other random bits of material they have found blowing about in the wind, so they seem to appreciate a helping hand.

Each of the 80 nest boxes has to be carefully cleaned before the swifts return from Africa

Each of the man-made nests comprises a shallow ring of soft feathers. This is removed from the nest box at the end of each breeding season, frozen to kill off any resident feather lice or other pests, then thawed and gently replaced.

Finally the Swift Cams are put in position and checked, ready to beam intimate shots of life in the tower directly into your home. Now you can follow the breeding season of these fascinating but hard to observe birds from the comfort of your sofa!

All this was completed just in time as, on leaving the Museum, one lucky staff member glanced upwards to see the first swift of the season glide across the sky above the tower. Perhaps a visitor travelling further north to breed, just passing through, or perhaps an early arrival feeding up and replenishing itself before starting its nesting, checking its old nest site is still there and reminding us, as Ted Hughes continued in his poem, that…

They’ve made it again,

Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s

Still waking refreshed, our summer’s

Still all to come —