Top 5 – Phil’s Fossils

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Next up to share his favourite five specimens from the Museum’s collection is Philip Hadland. Phil joined us a few months ago as an Earth Collections assistant and has already discovered some fascinating fossils in the stores.

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5 – Fossil crab from Folkestone

Necrocarcinus labeschii (Deslongschamps, 1835) from the Gault Clay. Scale in mm.
Necrocarcinus labeschii (Deslongschamps, 1835) from the Gault Clay

These Cretaceous crabs are interesting because of their similarity to modern Bubbler Crabs. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, Bubbler Crabs feed during low tides on microscopic creatures living between grains of sand, processing it into ‘sand balls’.

Natural cast of a footprint resembling the form of an ostrich foot from the Lower Greensand with ‘sand balls’. Approximately 250 mm long. Natural cast of a footprint resembling the form of an ostrich foot from the Lower Greensand with ‘sand balls’. Approximately 250 mm long.
Natural cast of a footprint resembling the form of an ostrich foot from the Lower Greensand with ‘sand balls’. Approximately 250 mm long.

In some cases, trace fossils very similar to the modern sand balls can also be found. Natural casts resembling ostrich footprints have been found alongside the ‘sand ball’ fossils.

Maybe the crabs were a food source for the mysterious animals that left the footprints?

4 – TV rock

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Ulexite (NaCaB5O6(OH)6•5(H2O)) (hydrated sodium calcium borate hydroxide), is a mineral with natural fibre optic properties. The fibres transmit light through internal reflection, which is the same way that fibre optics work. If a crystal of ulexite is cut correctly and placed on an image, that image will be projected to the other surface. For this reason it is also known as TV rock.

3 – Heteromorphic ammonites

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A tower shell shaped ammonite, Turrilites costatus (Lamarck, 1801)

Heteromorphic ammonites are extinct cephalopods, related to squid and cuttlefish. They are different from other ammonites with flat spirals; they coil in unusual ways. Some are shaped like paperclips and some resemble tower shells. They are a fascinating enigma and we can probably only guess how they lived. I suspect that at least some were mimicking other animals. Mimicry is often used by living animals to catch food or to avoid becoming prey themselves, so perhaps they sat motionless on the sea bed waiting to devour unsuspecting crustaceans, a popular prey of living cephalopods.

2 – Challenger Shark Tooth

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A fossil shark’s tooth collected on the Challenger expedition (1872-1876), dredged from the Pacific ocean, at a depth of 2350 fathoms, over 4 kilometers. The naturalist Henry Moseley (1844-1891) published notes on the expedition, describing numerous encounters with living sharks. The largest they encountered was Carcharodon rondelettii known today as as Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. In the notes he also states “The Challenger dredged in the Pacific Ocean in deep water numerous teeth of what must be an immensely large species of this genus”. In fact these were fossil teeth of the extinct giant shark Carcharocles megalodon. Awesome!

1 – Kirkdale Cave Mammal Fossils

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In 1821 labourers in a quarry at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, found a cave full of animal bones. Professor William Buckland of Oxford University visited the cave and recognised over 20 kinds of animal, including Elephant, Hippopotamus and Hyaena. These fossils were 120,000 years old! He thought that it was once a Hyaena den, as there were many hyaena bones in the cave. To prove his idea he gave an Ox bone to a Hyaena, which was travelling through Oxford in Mr Wombwell’s menagerie. The Hyaena produced gnaw marks identical to those on a comparable Bison shin bone from the cave. I think this was really clever. It may be the earliest example of experimental palaeontology.

Philip Hadland, Collections assistant (Earth)

Top 5 – Lepidoptera

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Our monthly staff meetings are a chance to catch up on what’s happening across the Museum. But recently it’s also been used as an opportunity to share some of the hidden gems in the Museum’s collection. Each month, one member of staff selects 5 of their personal favourite specimens to talk about. We thought that you might like to share this experience, so the Top 5 will be blogged here each month for you to enjoy.

With 2 million butterflies and moths in the Museum’s collection, choosing a top 5 is certainly a challenge. But Gina Allnatt is feeling brave…

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Gina working on a draw of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies)

I work on the Lepidoptera Project, which is a two-year project to database, catalogue, re-curate and photograph moths and butterflies in the Life collections. Because it’s such a large and amazing collection, I had trouble deciding what to choose for top five specimens. In fact, I almost wish it had been a top ten. But who knows…maybe there will be a part two to this at some point.

So here goes…

5 – Wallace’s Golden Birdwing (Ornithoptera croesus)

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This is a recent discovery and one we’re very excited about. We believe that this is the specimen, or one of the specimens, that Alfred Russel Wallace described so passionately in correspondence to his dealer Samuel Stevens.

The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause. –A.R. Wallace 1859, from Proceedings of the Entomological Society.

Observant Wallace fans may have noticed that it doesn’t have Wallace’s typical round labels. It was re-labelled when it was donated to the Museum in 1871. It seems that Hewitson, a wealthy collector, removed all the original labels when they came into his care – a nightmare for me when I’m trying to trace things!

4. Lampides carissima from the Challenger Expedition

Lampides carissima

One of our volunteers, Willow, was databasing a drawer of Lycaenidae and he asked me why there was one butterfly separate from the main group. He wanted to know what species it was so he could database it. So I picked up the specimen and I immediately saw “Challenger, July 1874”.

Arthur Gardiner Butler
Arthur Gardiner Butler

Entomologist Arthur Gardiner Butler, who then worked at the British Museum, produced a paper called “The Lepidoptera collected during the recent expedition of the H.M.S. Challenger,” which lists all the species of butterflies and moths collected on the expedition and where they were found. And there, in the paper, we have; “Jamides carissima, collected Tongatabu, July 1874″. This is the only Challenger specimen we have found so far in the Entomology collections, but there could well be more. We’ll see… challenger

3. Extinct Moths and Butterflies

Kona Giant Looper Moth
Kona Giant Looper Moth

The collection contains some extinct and critically endangered moths, all of which were endemic to particular islands around the world. Above you can see the Kona Giant Looper moth, which was endemic to Hawaii. Two males and one female collected by R.C.L Perkins. This was one of the world’s largest Geometrids. This shows how important historic collections are for reminding us what we have, what we’ve lost and what we need to look after.

2. Wallace’s Sun Moth

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This specimen came from the Brazilian orchid house of Alfred Russel Wallace. It’s a moth from the family Castniidae, or Sun Moths. When the moth was first found it caused a bit of confusion; Wallace was thrown by the insect’s moth-like appearance and clubbed antennae. Was it a moth or a butterfly? This reminds us that there are exceptions to every rule – when someone tells you butterflies have clubbed antennae and moths don’t, it’s not always true! Even Wallace got caught out sometimes.

1. World’s Oldest Pinned Insect

Bath WhiteBefore insects were preserved on pins, they were glued onto card or pressed in books, rather like a botanical specimen. This Bath White butterfly (Pontia daplidice) is the oldest known pinned insect and its label suggests is was collected in Cambridge by William Vernon, in 1702.

oldest_insect_on_a_pinBut research now suggests that Vernon was capturing Bath Whites as early as 1699, so the specimen could be even older than that. So it’s at least 313 years old this year and is still on its original pin!

To find out more about the Lepidoptera Project, follow us on Twitter @hopeulikemoths

Gina Allnatt, Curatorial assistant (Lepidoptera)