Tales from the Jurassic Coast

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Britain’s Jurassic Coast is a famous location for fossil hunters. Dorset’s Lyme Regis in particular was a collecting ground for two very important Victorian palaeontologists – Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857) and Mary Anning (1799-1847) – and the site yielded some of the earliest specimens of Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs.

Last weekend Channel 4’s Walking Through Time series focused on the Jurassic Coast and featured two members of staff from the Museum, Eliza Howlett and Hilary Ketchum from our Earth Collections. To coincide with the programme, Eliza here delves into the Museum’s Philpot archive to paint a picture of the relationship between Elizabeth Philpot, Mary Anning, and Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology, William Buckland.

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Elizabeth Philpot moved to Lyme Regis around 1805 with two of her three sisters, Mary and Margaret, where they soon became involved in fossil collecting and where they remained for life. At this time Lyme-born Mary Anning was still a young girl, but so began an affectionate relationship with the Philpot sisters which transcended any barriers of age, social origins or educational background.

Caption
A letter from Elizabeth Philpot to Mary Buckland dated 9 December 1833.

As the Philpots’ fossil collection grew it became known in the geological community. One familiar visitor was William Buckland, whose earliest published reference to the ‘Miss Philpots’ is in his 1829 paper on the pterosaur found at Lyme by Mary Anning.

In one letter to Buckland’s wife, Mary, dated 9 December 1833, Elizabeth Philpot enclosed a sketch of an ichthyosaur head that she had painted using ink from a fossil squid of the same age as the ichthyosaur, 200 million years old; this is pictured at the top of the article. The letter also contained a colourful description of Mary Anning’s escapades:

Yesterday [Mary Anning] had one of her miraculous escapes in going to the beach before sun rise and was nearly killed in passing over the bridge by the wheel of a cart which threw her down and crushed her against the wall. Fortunately the cart was stopped in time to allow of her being extricated from her most perilous situation and happily she is not prevented from pursuing her daily employment.

Next, it sends a reminder to William Buckland, a man well-known for forgetting things:

May I beg you to remind Dr. Buckland that he has borrowed from me some Plesiosaurus vertebre. As it is some time since I will mention that it is a section of a vertebre, one with the process, ten others, and a chain set in a box.

These letters from Elizabeth Philpot are now held by the Museum, along with the Philpot collection of around 400 fossils. Mostly from Lyme Regis, this collection includes more than 40 type specimens, the reference specimen for a new species, which is a remarkable total for any collector. A brief list of people known to have examined the collection is practically a roll call of the key figures in 19th-century palaeontology: William Buckland, William Conybeare, John Lindley and William Hutton, Richard Owen, James Sowerby, and (from Switzerland) Louis Agassiz.

But the collection was also made available to the ordinary people of Lyme, and the handwritten labels by Elizabeth Philpot sometimes included detailed explanations of what these extinct animals would have looked like. Both the letters and the specimens remain deeply evocative today, conjuring up visions of what it must have been like to call on these three remarkable sisters.

Because of the risk of light damage the material is not normally on display, but it can be viewed by appointment. Email library@oum.ox.ac.uk or earth@oum.ox.ac.uk for more information.

Dinosaur WLTM friendly new carers

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It’s not often that one of our residents flees the roost to take up home elsewhere: usually once you’re in the Museum that’s it, accessioned for life (or, more accurately, death). However, one of our former dinosaur aisle characters is now looking for a new home…

The four-metre long Utahraptor model has been with the Museum since 2000, during which time it escaped to take up temporary residence in Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford city centre as part of the award-winning Goes to Town project. This time, however, the Utahraptor will be leaving us for the last time as part of a reorganisation of the Museum’s offsite store, where the model is currently residing.

The Utahraptor model in Blackwell's bookshop as part of the Goes to Town project. Photo: Mike Peckett
The Utahraptor model in Blackwell’s bookshop as part of the Goes to Town project. Photo: Mike Peckett

But rather than just ditch this Cretaceous creature unceremoniously we’d like to offer it out to new keepers, ideally somewhere with a public space where the model can be enjoyed by others. So, fancy yourself as a dinosaur owner? If so, check out our selection form for details of what it takes to keep such a pet.

We’re asking people to make a case for the Utahraptor to move to their venue and we will donate the model free of charge to whoever is selected. The closing date for submissions is 5 August and the selected venue will be announced by 12 August. We need to deliver the model to its new home on or before 23 September.

Get me outta this place!
“Get me outta this place!” – the Utahraptor is currently in the Museum’s offsite storage

At this point you probably want some Utahraptor facts to help with your decision, right? Well, here you go:

Utahraptor means ‘Utah’s predator’ and the animal is known from fragmentary fossils found only in Utah in the United States. There is just one known species, Utahraptor ostrommaysorum, which was alive in the early Cretaceous period, around 125 million years ago.

It is thought that like most dinosaurs of its type (dromaeosaurids) the Utahraptor was feathered, although no direct evidence has yet been found. The Museum’s model, made by Crawley Creatures, does not represent a feathered example of this species. It’s likely the beast was not bright orange too, but who knows?

We looking forward to reading your submissions…

www.bit.ly/utahraptor

For more information email communications@oum.ox.ac.uk.

Making Microsculpture

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Today we are excited to be opening our new special exhibition, Microsculpture: The Insect Photography of Levon Biss. You may well have already heard about Microsculpture, and have perhaps watched the video showing how Levon Biss made these incredible portraits of insects from the Museum’s collection.

As we open the show in the Museum’s main court we wanted to give a little more insight into the process that Dr James Hogan, an entomologist in our Life Collections, went through to select and describe the specimens for the project. So I put a few questions to James to explain the making of Microsculpture from his point of view.

James Hogan (right) selecting specimens with Levon Biss
James Hogan (right) selecting specimens with Levon Biss

There are 23 specimens on show in the exhibition: how did you choose these particular ones?
We wanted a wide variety of specimens that would all show some interesting surface detail. Some were also chosen for their spectacular colours, interesting shapes or strange appearance.

Splendid-necked Dung Beetle (Helictopleurus splendidicollis). From Madagascar. Length: 10 mm
Splendid-necked Dung Beetle (Helictopleurus splendidicollis) from
Madagascar. Length: 10 mm

But perhaps 95 per cent of the specimens we initially considered were rejected because we had some pretty strict criteria; very hairy specimens, which includes most bees, were out as the image processing was too difficult; the specimens had to be intact, so no broken antennae or legs.

Probably the biggest problem was finding specimens which were clean enough. Because Levon’s technique reveals so much detail, any dirt on the specimen is glaringly obvious. And the whole idea was to look at the surface structures, which are obviously very small and easily obscured by any dirt.

How did you prepare them for their close-ups?
All the specimens needed a bit of preparation work before being ready for Levon’s photography. First they needed to be remounted on the end of long pins to allow more clearance space for the lighting setup. Some of the specimens are very small and fragile and this is the stage where damage is most likely to occur.

After remounting, all the insects needed at least some degree of cleaning under the microscope. For this I used a range of fine paintbrushes; we also make our own tools from micro-pins bent into different points and hooks. Again, I had to be careful to not damage the specimens – easily done by over-enthusiastic cleaning!

Where do the specimens come from?
The specimens in the exhibition are from the Museum’s very large insect collection, stored behind the scenes in many different rooms. The insects in the show are from all over the world, from a back garden in England to a remote island near Antarctica. Some were collected over 150 years ago while others were collected very recently by Museum staff.

Of particular historical significance is the Tricolored Jewel Beetle (Belionota sumptuosa) which was collected by the Victorian naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, co-publisher of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin in 1858.

Tricolored Jewel Beetle (Belionota sumptuosa), collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in Seram Island, Indonesia. Length: 25 mm
Tricolored Jewel Beetle (Belionota sumptuosa), collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in Seram Island, Indonesia. Length: 25 mm

How big are the actual specimens in comparison with the photos?
The actual specimens are mostly pretty small, ranging from 6 mm to about 30 mm. Some of the larger printed photographs will be about a thousand times larger than the specimen!

Orchid Cuckoo Bee (Exaerete frontalis) from Brazil. Length: 26 mm
Orchid Cuckoo Bee (Exaerete frontalis) from Brazil. Length: 26 mm

What do you hope people will get out of the pictures in the exhibition?
To me insects are beautiful creatures and Levon has done an outstanding job of revealing this. I hope the photographs will spark people’s interest in insects and inspire more people to study them.

The photographs certainly pose some interesting questions, and reveal that there is so much we don’t know, particularly about the functions of all their strange and varied adaptations.

Is it valuable to showcase specimens from the collections in this way?
One of the most exciting parts of this exhibition for me was the opportunity to show part of the Museum’s collection which visitors don’t normally see.

The collection is used all the time by scientists, artists and educators, but unfortunately most of it is unsuitable for display because the specimens are so small. Levon’s ultra-high resolution photography has in a way solved this problem, allowing us to showcase some of these spectacular, but tiny and fragile creatures in all their beauty.

Congratulations Team Dodo!

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A year ago we came up with a crazy idea. We would take our famous Dodo out on the road, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, calling in at 24 different museums and galleries along the way… and we would get all this up and running just 3 weeks after the initial spark of inspiration. We called it the Dodo Roadshow and an incredible journey across the country began.

The Dodo's journey begins...
The Dodo’s adventure begins…

Last night, team Dodo Roadshow was given a hearty pat on the back at the Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence 2016, walking away with not one, but two awards! We were delighted to be awarded the prize for ‘Project on a Limited Budget’, but there was an extra surprise at the end of the night when the Museum scooped up the top accolade ‘Best of the Best’!

On awarding the accolade for the Project on a Limited Budget, comedian Marcus Brigstocke described the Roadshow as:

A clever, fun and engaging idea, completed in a very short period of time, which celebrated new conversations and partnerships across the country.

Marcus Brigstocke awards the prize for 'Project on a Limited Budget'.
Marcus Brigstocke awards the prize for ‘Project on a Limited Budget’.

If you missed the adventures last summer, why not explore all of the places, people and museum objects that the Dodo visited along the way.

Traces from space

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by Sancia van der Meij, Research Fellow

To understand how modern species evolved, we often turn to the fossil record, but this can be very difficult when the animal you would like to study is small and fragile. For example, the coral-dwelling crab family Cryptochiridae has more than 50 species today and occurs worldwide on coral reefs. These small crabs are less than 1 cm in size and have the unique ability to create little homes,or dwellings, in stony corals. This ability makes them an interesting study object to learn more about how different species cohabitate on reefs.

Modern cryptochirid crab in its coral home

Modern cryptochirid crab in its coral home

Unfortunately no fossils are known for these crabs; their size and thin carapace (shell) means they probably didn’t fossilise well. But together with colleagues from the United States, I’ve found crab dwellings in fossil corals for the very first time. The corals are several million years old and come from Florida and Cuba. Although we still don’t have fossils of the actual crabs, the holes, which are a type of trace fossil, are very valuable evidence.

Three dwellings on a fossil coral from the lower-middle Pleistocene. Found in Palm Beach County, Florida. A close-up of one pit can be seen at the top of this post.
Three dwellings on a fossil coral from the lower-middle Pleistocene, found in Palm Beach County, Florida. A close-up of one pit can be seen at the top of this post.

To sci-fi fans, the dwellings have an extra significance. The shape of the entrance is very similar to the shape of the spaceship in the American science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, so the scientific name of the trace fossils is Galacticus duerri.

We’ve published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports on the first fossil evidence of these crabs.

The ancient ‘Kite Runner’

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An ancient creature which carried its young like tiny, swirling kites is the latest discovery by researchers at the Museum, working with Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Leicester University, and Imperial College London.

Found in a deposit of rocks known as the Herefordshire Lagerstätte, which preserves ancient remains with superb detail, the 430 million year old fossil shows that the marine animal carried its young in kite-like capsules tethered to the parent’s body, earning it the moniker “Kite Runner” after the 2003 novel by Khalid Hosseini.

The small creature has been officially named Aquilonifer spinosus, from “aquila”, meaning eagle or kite, and “fer” which means carry. It grew to just over a centimeter long, not including the tail spines, and there is only one known fossil of the animal.

Kite runner. Anterior oblique.The arthropod Aquilonifer spinosus
Reconstruction of Aquilonifer spinosus

Modern crustaceans employ a variety of strategies to protect their eggs and embryos from predators — attaching them to limbs, holding them under a carapace, or enclosing them within a special pouch until they are old enough to be released — but this example is unique. We know of nothing alive today which attaches the young by threads to its upper surface; perhaps this strategy was less successful and became extinct.

Kite runner. Two young in capsules of the arthropod Aquilonifer spinosus
Two capsules of juveniles tethered to the parent’s body

Aquilonifer spinosus lived on the seafloor during the Silurian period, with a variety of other animals including sponges, brachiopods, worms, snails and other mollusks, a sea spider, a horse-shoe crab, various shrimp-like creatures, and a sea-star.

The researchers were able to describe Aquilonifer spinosus in detail thanks to a virtual reconstruction. They reconstructed the animal and the attached juveniles by stacking digital images of fossil surfaces that were revealed by grinding away the fossil in exceptionally thin increments. You can see this animation here:

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Natural Environmental Research Council, the John Fell Oxford University Press Fund, and the Leverhulme Trust supported the research.