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.
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.
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.
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.
Since we posted about ten-year-old Sarah’s amazing beetle discovery, we’ve had lots of queries as to why the insect needed to be caught and pinned. It’s a question we’re often asked, so here’s Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections at the Museum, to explain the value of ‘voucher specimens’.
The Museum’s collection houses over five million insect specimens, amassed over the past 300 years. This collection is, in effect, a biodiversity database, but unlike virtual databases, each data point has an associated ‘voucher specimen’ that was caught, pinned and labelled.
Although technical advances in digital macro-photography do reduce the need for some collecting, it is impossible to dissect an image to confirm an identification. So for many groups, even the best photograph in the world is inadequate for identification purposes.
Unlike plants and birds, many insects can only be identified with the aid of a microscope, to study tiny features that distinguish closely-related species. Some groups even require the dissection of minuscule genitalia to really tell them apart.
Entomologists take voucher specimens to enable this correct identification and these are later deposited in museum collections, making them available for further study in years to come. From an entomologist’s point of view, we believe we need to know what a species is, where it occurs and as much about it as possible, so we can inform biodiversity conservation.
The conservation assessment of UK insects by Natural England in their Species Status Reviews has only been possible with the data provided by entomologists, generated from collecting and identifying voucher specimens.
Entomologists follow a Code of Conduct for responsible collecting, which ensures they don’t remove too many species or damage the environment during their work .
There are numerous examples of the value and use of insect collections in contemporary science, including the discovery of previously unknown species in the UK and population genetics for butterfly conservation. Recently a species believed extinct in the UK was rediscovered. This was only made possible by checking the identification of several thousand museum specimens.
What is rare? Sarah’s False Darkling Beetle (Anisoxya fuscula) has been described as ‘rare’, but what does that mean in reality? For most invertebrates when we talk about a rare species we are not talking about a tiny number of individuals. This conservation status is based on their known distribution and the level of threat they face. A species can be rare if it is only found at one or two locations, but at those locations there may be many thousands of individuals.
The greatest threats to biodiversity are well known and include habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation and pollution, such as pesticides and light. Taking a small number of voucher specimens to confirm the identification of species has negligible impact on its population. But if we don’t know it’s there because we couldn’t identify it, then a housing development destroys its entire habitat… well you get the picture!
Actually, no, there’s no such thing as a fish. Let’s take a step back…
It all comes down to common ancestry. All life is related, and we can think of it in terms of a family tree (or ‘phylogeny’): Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael were all Jacksons. United not only by a collective inability to control their feet, but also by common descent – they are all their parent’s children*.
By tracing further and further back in MJs family tree we could define ever larger groups united by common ancestors, first cousins (grandparents), second cousins (great-grandparents), all the way to every human, every mammal, every animal, and eventually all life – we are family (ok, that was Sister Sledge, but you get the point).
In the case of the tree of life, species are at the tips of branches and their common ancestors are where branches meet. A true biological group consists of a common ancestor and all its descendants, and we can use characteristics common between two species to imply common descent. Siblings look a lot like each other because they have inherited much of their appearance via common ancestry (i.e. their parents). In a similar way, two closely related species will share lots of inherited characteristics.
However, things are not quite that simple. Wings of bats, birds and insects are not inherited from a common ancestor but independently evolved for the same purpose, in this case flight. To complicate things further, as species evolve they may lose features inherited from their ancestors that other descendants retain. Snakes have lost their limbs, but still sit in the same group as lizards. These problems can be overcome by looking at many characteristics at once, using genetic information to test predicted relationships, and adding fossils to the tree to track change or loss through time (as in snakes).
So, what about fish? ‘Fish’ is used to refer to pretty much anything that swims in water, but this lifestyle in animals like starfish (a relative of crinoids and sea urchins), jellyfish (a relative of corals) and cuttlefish (a relative of squid and octopus) evolved independently from more familiar fish like cod and carp. So, they’re not really ‘fish’ at all. With that in mind, how can we be fish? Well, the last common ancestor of, say, hagfish, salmon, shark and lungfish, is also the common ancestor of frogs, lizards, cats and us! All four-limbed animals with backbones descend from a fish-like ancestor. To complicate things further some have adapted to life back into the water and look much more like a ‘fish’ again, like dolphins, seals and the extinct ichthyosaur. Without a tree of life, we could not begin to unravel the evolutionary path that lead to all the diversity of life we see today.
You are closer to a chimp than a monkey, closer to a starfish than a snail, and closer to a mushroom than a tree. And, of course, there’s no such thing as a fish, but they still go well with chips.
*Joseph Jackson and Katherine Scruse had ten children, including the members of the Jackson 5, twenty-six grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.