Many of us at the Museum are inspired creatively, as well as scientifically, by the wonders of the natural world. So it is always uplifting to see that the Museum building and its collections evoke similar feelings in our visitors. However, apart from the odd, sneaked peek over the shoulder of someone busily sketching a specimen or spandrel, it is rare that we get to enjoy the results of their inspiration, which is why it was so nice to receive the poem below from Tony Owen.
Tony emailed us to say that, whilst teaching on the Summer International Programmes at Hertford College in 2018 and 2019, he often visited the Museum and became aware of the colony of swifts that annually nests in the Museum tower. Tony read about their fascinating lives, watched their progress through the breeding season on our live nest box cams and Swifts Diary, and enjoyed seeing them screaming around the tower itself.
This led to the inspiration for Tony’s poem – The Swifts. In putting pen to paper, Tony joins many other poets who have found inspiration from these amazing birds, including Ted Hughes, Anne Stevenson and Wilfred Owen.
It was very kind of Tony to share his poetry with us so we thought we would share it with you in the hope that it may inspire your own creativity from nature.
For Hedgehog Awareness Week, Zoology Collections Manager Mark Carnall and Museum Librarian and Archivist Danielle Czerkaszyndiscuss these prickly and charming creatures.
The 2-8 May is Hedgehog Awareness Week, which give us an excuse, not that one were needed, to talk about these charismatic mammals. Although the West European hedgehog (or common hedgehog if you’re in Europe, these vernacular names get very confusing when geography and language is taken into account), Erinaceus europaeus, is probably the hedgehog that springs to mind to many of our readers, there are nearly twenty living species of hedgehog and many fossil species are known.
In terms of evolutionary relationships they share a family with the moonrat and the rather wonderful gynmures, distinctly un-hedgehog-like relatives.
Their characteristic spikes that run across the back of hedgehogs are modified hairs which are periodically replaced and each individual hedgehog has around 7000 spines at any one time, varying slightly with age and size. Behaviourally, they are competent climbers (and have a built in shock-absorbing coat should they fall) and surprisingly perhaps, all species are thought to be competent swimmers.
Although much loved across their native range, Erinaceus europaeus, is considered a pest species in New Zealand where it was deliberately introduced as a form of biological control, by acclimatisation societies and possible as pet animals. They have now spread to all but the highest parts of New Zealand threatening native species of birds, amphibians, reptiles and directly competing with native mammal species.
In 2020, Erinaceus europaeus was added to the Red List for British Mammals as vulnerable across the lists for Great Britain, England, Scotland and Wales informed by analysis of citizen science data although there remains some uncertainty about true population levels.
Unsurprisingly perhaps they are comparatively well represented in the collections at the Museum including specimens donated and prepared for the Museum from the 19th Century through to much more recent specimens acquired from road death animals for display. The specimen pictured above being one such relatively recent acquisition for display in the Museum’s display case on the animals featured in Alice in Wonderland.
We’ll leave you with one more hedgehog from the Museum’s library and archives. Hedgehogs unusual appearance initially led to some odd beliefs about why their quills existed. For example, in his book ‘The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents’ (1658) Edward Topsell wrote:
One of the most common questions about hedgehogs is how do they mate? The answer is of course, very carefully.
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.
Our current First Animals exhibition is extending its run until 1 September, and to mark the extension our Research Fellow Imran Rahman takes a look at how animal life in the ancient oceans was brought to life in our Cambrian Diver interactive installation.
One of the biggest challenges in developing the First Animals exhibition lay in visualising rare fossil specimens as ‘living’ organisms, transforming them from two-dimensional imprints in the rock into three-dimensional animated computer models.
Many of the specimens on display in First Animals were collected from sites of exceptionally well-preserved fossils called Lagerstätten. These deposits preserve the remains of soft-bodied organisms that are almost never seen in the fossil record; things such as comb jellies and worms, as well as soft tissues such as eyes, gills and muscles. Even so, most of these fossils are flattened and two-dimensional, which makes it very difficult to reconstruct what they looked like in life.
To help exhibition visitors visualise the animals in a living environment we worked closely with Martin Lisec and his team at Mighty Fossils to create a set of detailed computer models of a key set of animals. We have worked with Martin before on the video of a Jurassic sea inhabited by plesiosaurs and other marine animals for our Out of the Deep display. That was very successful, but our idea for First Animals was even more ambitious: to create a unique interactive installation called the Cambrian Diver.
The material focused on the Chengjiang animals from the Cambrian of Yunnan province, China, which provides the most complete record of an early Cambrian marine community, from approximately 518 million years ago. Using fossil evidence of the organisms thought to have lived at the time we selected 12 species that were representative of the diversity of the Chengjiang biota.
The first phase was collecting as many materials as possible to be able to create 3D models. As usual, we started with rough models, where we set basic dimensions, shapes and proportions of body parts. Once approved, we moved to very detailed models for the animations, artworks and textures for less detailed models to be used within the interactive application. – Martin Lisec, Mighty Fossils
To provide two-dimensional templates for Mighty Fossils to work from we scoured the scientific literature for the most recent accurate reconstructions available for each of the species.
The predatory arthropod Amplectobelua symbrachiata is a good example. We drew heavily upon a 2017 paper by Dr Peiyun Cong and colleagues, which included a very detailed reconstruction of the head region. This reconstruction shows that the underside of the head of Amplectobelua consisted of a rod-shaped plate, a mouth made up of two rows of plates, and three pairs of flaps with spiny appendages, all details that are included in our 3D model.
Colour and texture were another consideration. To inform these we looked at living species that are thought to have similar modes of life today. For Amplectobelua, a free-swimming predator, we examined the colouration of modern marine predators such as sharks. Many sharks have countershading, with a darker upper side of the body and a lighter underside, which acts as camouflage, hiding them from potential prey.
We reconstructed our Amplectobelua model with similar countershading camouflage, with blue and red colouration inspired by the peacock mantis shrimp, a brightly coloured predatory arthropod that lives in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The next vital step was establishing how the animals moved and interacted with one another. This is a major challenge because in many cases there are no modern equivalents for these extinct early animals. For Amplectobelua we inferred that the flaps on the sides of the body were used for swimming, with the tail fan helping to stabilize the animal as it moved through the water. This agrees with previous interpretations of swimming in closely related animals such as Anomalocaris.
The models were built and textured by Mighty Fossils using the 3D gaming engine Unity. The video below is an accelerated sequence showing how the elements of the model are layered together.
The finished, animated and annotated Amplectobelua model is shown below, and can be zoomed and rotated. All the models generated by Mighty Fossils for the First Animals exhibition are gathered in a collection on our Sketchfab page.
Once animated models of all 12 species were created we placed them in a realistic marine environment. Study of the rocks preserving the Chengjiang fossils suggests these animals lived in a relatively shallow, well-lit sea, perhaps 50 metres deep and characterised by a flat, muddy seafloor. A continuous shower of organic particles is thought to have filled the water column, as in modern oceans.
Based on present-day marine ecosystems, we infer that the number of immobile suspension feeders would have been much greater than the number of predators. As a result, we included multiple individuals of the suspension feeders Cotyledion, Saetaspongiaand Xianguangia, which were tightly grouped together, but only a small number of the active predators Amplectobelua and Onychodictyon.
The final step involved setting up a camera and user interface to allow visitors to discover the various animals in our interactive environment. For this we worked with creative digital consultancy Fish in a Bottle to identify eight locations, each focused on a different animal.
As the video above shows, users can navigate between locations by touching an icon on the screen, and when the Cambrian Diver sub arrives at a location information about the animal, its mode of life and its closest living relatives is presented on-screen. A physical joystick allows users a 360-degree rotation to look around the scene, and explore the ancient watery world.
This project was significantly bigger than the Out of the Deep work we had done previously with the Museum, mainly because of the complicated approval procedure needed for 20 individual 3D models. Along with three large illustrations, two animations and the interactive application this was a big workload! Fortunately, we managed to finish the whole project on time for the opening of the exhibition. – Martin Lisec
Three years ago, one of the Museum’s key strategic aims was to introduce a unified collections management system (CMS) for the scientific collections. Combining data from all the museum collections will allow people to search across all these collections and will also be of enormous benefit in managing activities such as loans, exhibitions, conservation, object entry and exit and movement control, as well as integrating digital imagery.
The CMS chosen was KE EMu, which works very well for natural history collections, particularly in the way that it deals with taxonomy (the classification of organisms). Migration of data and original cataloguing is now well underway, with records for minerals, butterflies and moths and archives all in the new system. The Lyell digitisation will act as a pilot project for the migration of palaeontological data.
The biggest challenge with moving all our collections data to a single system will be to standardise data structures and terminology across the collections, for example taxonomy, localities, people and organisations, and bibliographic references. In this blog post we are going to focus on taxonomy, which is key to the understanding of the palaeontology, zoology and entomology collections.
All the collections databases record the genus and species where these can be identified. The higher taxonomy, e.g. kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, has been recorded less consistently. At present, the palaeontology collections use an all-purpose field called Taxonomic Group. This is a mixture of phyla, classes, subclasses, orders and a few other groups, chosen because they were regarded as the most useful search terms.
As a consequence, to find all the molluscs in a database you would need 14 separate search terms (Scaphopoda, Amphineura, Monoplacophora, Gastropoda, Nautiloidea, Ammonoidea, Coleoidea, Cephalopoda (other), Bivalvia, Rostroconchia, Tentaculitida, Cornulitida, Hyolitha, and Mollusca (other)). What KE EMu will offer is a structured way of searching taxonomy at multiple levels, for example simply searching for Mollusca, rather than multiple terms.
Our approach to standardising the taxonomic data has been to build a new hierarchy across the collections, starting at phylum level. Most terms for palaeontology and zoology mapped very easily, but the process raised some interesting questions such as how we deal with the fossils that were previously bundled in the ‘Vendazoa’. Our answer will probably be to class these specimens as incertae sedis and reclassify them if and when the question of their affinities is resolved.
The next step will be to construct the lower levels of the hierarchy down to order level, for example Phylum Mollusca, Class Bivalvia, Order Pectinida. The resources required to determine the family for all our specimens mean that we will need to address this on a project by project basis. For now we are starting to fill in the family and order for all our Lyell material using a combination of the Paleobiology Database and the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. A more specific site that has been particularly useful for Lyell is the Virtual Scientific Collection of French Tertiary Fossils. Gastropods and bivalves make up over 90% of the Lyell Collection, and by the end of the project we hope to have constructed a usable hierarchy down to family level for both these groups. This will involve close work with the Life Collections staff, as we are unlikely to find many reference works that take into account both recent and fossil specimens.
Just over a hundred years ago the Museum acquired a collection of fossils from renowned 19th-century geologist Charles Lyell. Lyell is famous for his book Principles of Geology which provided a foundation for the modern study of the science of geology. On the new blog we will be documenting the digitisation of this collection.
Just over a hundred years ago there was great excitement amongst the staff at Oxford University Museum when they acquired the Charles Lyell Collection of Tertiary molluscs. In his 1903 Annual Report the Professor of Geology, W.J. Sollas, described it as one of the most noteworthy events in the Geological Department that year.
The collection contains over 16,000 fossil specimens, mostly molluscs (bivalves, gastropods and scaphopods) but also shark teeth and other vertebrate remains. Although some of the specimens are on display in the museum, few people were aware that we had the collection. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the collection was fully catalogued, and it has never been included in the Museum’s main collections databases.
Over the next 18 months we are planning to digitize the collection and create links to our archival material and Lyell’s publications. We want to make the collection…