Reindeer are not just for Christmas


By Emily Wiesendanger, Volunteer

If you’ve ever visited the Skeleton Parade in the Main Court of the Museum, you may have noticed that nestled between the Malayan tapir and the rhinoceros is the skeleton of a reindeer, or caribou if you are from North America.

Today, reindeer are found throughout the Arctic and Subarctic in places like Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Lapland (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). However, their range was not always so limited. During the Late Pleistocene – around 126,000 to 11,700 years ago – it would not have been unusual to see herds of reindeer roaming freely across most of Britain and western Europe. In fact, reindeer sub-fossils in the form of bones, teeth, and antlers have been found at a number of Oxfordshire sites including the excavations at Cassington and Sutton Courtenay, which are kept behind the scenes in the Museum’s extensive Paleontological Collections.

Studying these Ice Age reindeer can teach us as much about the future as they can about the past. Pleistocene reindeer were likely similar to their modern counterparts, which undertake large, bi-annual migrations between summer and winter grazing pastures. Looking at the movements of Ice Age populations of reindeer can therefore help us to understand how modern reindeer may respond to climactic and environmental changes in the future. This is possible because reindeer only come together in large herds at certain times of the year. During these seasonal aggregations, the herd is characterised by different combinations of ages and sexes. Therefore, by looking at the age and sex of the remains of reindeer present at a site, we can tell the time of year that they were left there — in particular, we can infer the sex of reindeer from their bones, their age from their teeth, and their age and sex from their antlers.

Modern reindeer are highly adapted to cold environments (-45 to +15°C) with two layers of fur (the tips of which turn white in the winter), short and furry ears and tails, and large feet to make walking on snow and digging for food much easier. Reindeer even make a clicking noise with their feet, produced by a tendon slipping over a bone, to help keep track of each other in blizzards or fog.

Unfortunately, it is extremely rare to find anything so complete as the reindeer in the skeleton parade. Instead, you are much more likely to find remains like the antler below, which was excavated from Sutton Courtenay. Despite being only a fragment, it is exactly this kind of sub-fossil that can help us to understand more about the movements of reindeer during the Late Pleistocene.

This left antler base and skull from a male reindeer found at Sutton Courtenay can be used to determine which season reindeer were present at the site.

Reindeer grow and shed a new pair of antlers every year, and this happens at different times of the year for males and females. If you can identify whether an antler is male or female, shed or unshed, you can also tell the season of death. The Sutton Courtenay antler featured above would have belonged to a male reindeer. At its base, we can see it is still clearly attached to some skull bone, and so is unshed. Because males only have their fully grown antlers between September and November, this particular reindeer must have been in the area around Sutton Courtenay during the autumn. It is by using similar deductions that we can also tell that Rudolph and his antlered friends would have actually all been females — by the 24th December, males have already shed their antlers, but females will keep them until the spring!

After studying thousands of these kinds of remains from all over Britain, we can start to build a picture of where reindeer were at different times of the year. It’s amazing to think that we can learn so much from simple skeletons. So, the next time you visit the skeleton parade, take a moment to think about the secrets they may be hiding.

Conservation in the Genomic Era


By Sotiria Boutsi, Intern

I am PhD student at Harper Adams University with MSc in Conservation Biology, currently doing a professional internship at the Museum of Natural History in the Public Engagement office. My PhD uses genomic data to study speciation in figs and fig wasps.

The year 1995 marked the first whole-genome sequencing for a free-living organism, the infectious bacterium Haemophilus influenza. Almost three decades later, biotechnological advances have made whole-genome sequencing possible for thousands of species across the tree of life, from ferns and roses, to insects, and – of course – humans. Ambitious projects, like the Earth BioGenome Project, aim to sequence the genomes of even more species, eventually building the complete genomic library of life. But do these advancements help us with conservation efforts? Or are the benefits of biotechnology limited to industrial and biomedical settings?

The value of genetic information is becoming increasingly apparent: from paternity tests and DNA traces in forensic investigations, to the characterization of genes related to common diseases, like cancer, we are becoming familiar with the idea that DNA can reveal more than meets the eye. This is especially the case for environmental DNA, or eDNA — DNA molecules found outside living organisms. Such DNA is often left behind in organic traces like tissue fragments and secretions. Practically, this means that water or air can host DNA from organisms that might be really hard to observe in nature for a variety of reasons — like being too small, too rare, or just too shy.

So, how do we determine which species left behind a sample of eDNA? The method of identifying a species based on its genomic sequence is called barcoding. A barcode is a short genomic sequence unique to a species of organism. Therefore, every time we encounter a barcode sequence, whether it is taken from a living animal or eDNA, we can associate it to the species which it belongs to.

When we have a mix of different species to identify, things become a bit more complicated. Sometimes we will pick up samples which represent an entire ecological community, and must sort through these using a process called meta-barcoding.

How does meta-barcoding work? Well, we want to be able to identify species based on the shortest possible species-specific sequence. Traditional laboratory methods for DNA amplification (PCR) are combined with DNA sequencing to read the DNA sequences found in any given water or air sample. Then, having a database of reference genomes for different species can serve as the identification key to link the sample sequences to the species they originated from.

Pinned insects can be found in the Upper Gallery of the Museum. There are currently 5 million insect specimens at the Museum, serving as a record of biodiversity at the time and space of collection. Museum collections are invaluable ways of monitoring biodiversity but rely on capturing live animals.

So, what does this mean for the future of ecology and conservation? Traditional monitoring of biodiversity can involve capturing and killing live animals. This is the case with insect specimens found in museums across the world. Although museum collections are irreplaceable as a record of the history of wild populations, regular monitoring of endangered species should rely on non-invasive methods, such as meta-barcoding of eDNA. Indeed, eDNA has been used to monitor biodiversity in aquatic systems for almost a decade. Monitoring terrestrial ecosystems through air samples is now also becoming possible, opening new possibilities for the future of conservation.

During March, the Museum delivered practical molecular workshops in our laboratory, reaching more than 200 Key Stage 5 students. Students have had the opportunity to learn about the use of eDNA in ecology, as well as get some hands-on experience in other molecular techniques. These include DNA extraction, PCR, the use of restriction enzymes, and gel electrophoresis.  The workshops were delivered by early-career researchers with practical experience in working in the laboratory, as well as Museum staff with a lot of experience in delivering teaching. Through the Museum’s workshops, which run regularly, the next generation of scientists is introduced not only to both human genetics, but also molecular tools used in ecological research, which without a doubt will become increasingly relevant for future conservationists.

Since 2009, the Museum runs practical workshops for Key Stage 5 students in the molecular laboratory at the Museum’s main facilities. Workshops started again this March, after the mandatory 2-year covid-19 break. Students can learn about and discuss the use of molecular techniques in biology by extracting their own DNA.  

We cannot conserve what we do not know. Monitoring biodiversity is the cornerstone of any conservation practice. Doing it efficiently, by making use of both traditional as well as molecular tools, can allow more accurate predictions for the future of biodiversity under the lens of anthropogenic change.

More Information:

British Insect Collections: HOPE for the Future is an ambitious project to protect and share the Museum of Natural History’s unique and irreplaceable British insect collection. Containing over one million specimens – including dozens of iconic species now considered extinct in the UK – it offers us an extraordinary window into the natural world and the ways it has changed over the last 200 years. The HOPE for the Future project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to National Lottery players.

Beyond Buckland


By Susan Newell

Susan Newell is a doctoral student researching the teaching collections of William Buckland, the first Professor of Geology at Oxford who taught from 1813 to 1849. She reminds us here about Buckland’s role 200 years ago in interpreting the important Pleistocene discoveries being celebrated this year, and the way that Mary Morland, a talented local naturalist, and many others, contributed to making this new knowledge.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of a great advance in our understanding of the geological past… a story which begins in the nineteenth century, with the discovery of a bone-filled cave in Kirkdale, Yorkshire. 

Uncovered by local quarrymen in 1821, the discovery of the Kirkdale cave and its contents of mysterious bone was the source of much intrigue. When news of the discovery reached William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University, he decided to travel up North to visit the site. However, by the time Buckland arrived at the cave, local collectors had scooped up most of its contents. Nonetheless, he was able to retrieve and examine some of the cave’s remaining material, which led him to an astonishing conclusion — Yorkshire must once have been home to hyaenas, elephants, hippopotamus and rhinoceros, and what was now known as the Kirkdale cave was once a hyaenas’ den.

W. B. Conybeare, lithograph, ‘The Hyaena’s Den at Kirkdale near Kirby Moorside in Yorkshire, discovered A.D. 1821’. Reproduced by kind permission of Christ Church, Oxford.
This light-hearted reconstruction of the hyaenas’ den shows Buckland illuminating the scene, in every sense. It is thought to be the first visual reconstruction of the pre-human past.

Central to Buckland’s theories were some small white balls that he had found amongst the debris in the cave. Buckland sent these balls to William Wollaston, a celebrated chemist based in London, for analysis.  He also asked Wollaston to visit the zoo at Exeter Exchange in London and show the balls to the hyaena’s keeper there.  Together with the results from Wollaston’s chemical analyses, the keeper confirmed Buckland’s hypothesis — the balls were droppings from animals very similar to modern hyaenas. Meanwhile, the anatomist William Clift was able to identify the bones from the Kirkdale cave as belonging to other extinct species related to those found living in tropical countries today. Buckland concluded that the cave must have been a den for ancient hyaenas, who would drag parts of the dead animals they had found (or killed) inside and, after feeding on them, leave piles of bones and droppings behind.

In order to strengthen his theory, Buckland discussed the behaviour of hyaenas in the wild with army officers connected to Britain’s colonial expansion in India. These officers also sent Buckland fresh specimens captured by local people. When a travelling menagerie visited Oxford in 1822, Buckland took the opportunity to experiment; feeding bones to a hyaena and noting that the teeth marks matched those on the fossilised bones from the cave.

Buckland’s findings were something of a shock to his contemporaries. When lecturing, he employed several different methods to try and convince his audiences that his theories were true. This included presenting fossil specimens and bones from living species for comparison, and showing maps, diagrams and drawings. Mary Morland contributed some of these illustrations, including large drawings of living animals, and technical drawings of bones that were later engraved for use in Buckland’s publications. Mary’s Kirkdale drawings seem to have been the first that she produced for William before the couple married in 1825.

Fossil hyaena jaw in the Museum’s collection, possibly the one featured in the engraving alongside it. Engraving is by James Basire after a drawing by Mary Morland. Published in William Buckland’s article in the Royal Society’s journal (1822) on the Kirkdale cave discoveries. [1]

Buckland’s work on the Kirkdale cave was revolutionary, not least because he was the first to make a scientific study of a cache of bones of this type.  Although similar bones from ‘tropical’ species had previously been found in Northern Europe, people thought that they had been washed up by a catastrophic flood, believed by many to be the biblical Noah’s Flood.  Modern analysis has now allowed us to deduce that the bones date to an Interglacial period when Britain was joined to Europe and had a hot climate, about 120,000 years ago.  

Here at the Museum, Buckland’s collections and archives are as much of a treasure trove as the Kirkdale cave. It is through accessing these archives that we can learn about the surprising range of people who contributed to the emergence of new scientific knowledge from the Kirkland cave — quarrymen, collectors, zookeepers, chemists, anatomists, colonial officers in India, workers in India, and artists like Mary Morland. To find out more about the incredible legacy of the Kirkdale Cave, look out for ‘Kirkdale200 – Lost Beasts of the North’, a symposium organised by the Yorkshire Fossil Festival, 12th March 2022.

Mary Morland, watercolour and gouache, lecture illustration of a hippopotamus, signed ‘MM’.
Hippopotamus bones were found at Kirkdale cave in Yorkshire, but as there were no living hippos to be seen in Britain at the time, this drawing would have been a valuable teaching aid.

[1] William Buckland, ‘Account of an Assemblage of Fossil Teeth and Bones of Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Bear, Tiger, and Hyaena, and Sixteen Other Animals; Discovered in a Cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, in the Year 1821: With a Comparative View of Five Similar Caverns in Various Parts of England, and others on the Continent’, Phil. Trans., 2 (1815-30), 165-167.

Thanks for the Myrmories


By Jordan Wernyj – Deputy Visitor Services Manager

If you happen to encounter one of the 50+ ant types in Britain, observe their hurried activities and interactions with each other. One cannot help but compare the complex functioning of an ant society to our own, and consider its advanced societal structures in relation to humans. The way an ant colony organises itself is highly industrial and commanding, subdivided into castes including queens, males, and worker ants, the latter of which contribute to their colony through roles as diverse as tending to larvae, foraging, or attacking rival threats.

Having worked at the Museum of Natural History for a few months, my interactions with specimens and discussions with the entomology department have reignited an intrigue in myrmecology, the study of ants. This began with locating the ant case on the Upper Gallery on the south side of the Museum. You can find fantastic British insects on display, selected from our ginormous British Insect Collection. Specimens include Lasius fuliginosus (Jet Black Ant) and Formica saunguinea (Slave-Making Ant) —the latter aptly named given its tendency to attack ants from other colonies and force its victims to work for them.

Slave-making Ant and Jet Black Ant on display in the Museum

Outside of the Museum, a viral video of a group of ants following each other in a circle led me to the even more surprising discovery that ants can mistakenly cause their own demise. The name of this circular march is an ‘ant mill’ which, rather morbidly, is a circle of death. Ants use pheromones to communicate with and organise each other during normal behaviour. However, these chemical trails can be lost, which for worker or army ants that leave the colony to forage or attack, it is a prominent risk. Ants follow one another, and if the leading ant loses the trail and begins to follow an ant behind, a rotational spiral motion occurs. Sadly, an ant mill can cause tragic consequences, with either the ants picking up the trail back to the colony, or continuing in the rotation until they die of exhaustion.

Having expressed curiosity in myrmecology, an entomologist at the Museum provided me with a fascinating book Tales of the Ant World by Edward O. Wilson. Wilson’s enlightening work within myrmecology and ecology gave him the nickname ‘Dr. Ant’. Wilson, highlighting his scholarship on the ant species Camponotus femoratus – one of the most aggressive in the world.

These intriguing invertebrates are located within the depths of the Amazon rainforest and are largely arboreal, territorial, and scary! Nonetheless, the intrepid Wilson decided to test out the ants’ offensive tactics. A mere brush up against an inhabited tree would provoke swarming formations, snapping mandibles and, if the pain wasn’t already discomforting enough, a release of formic acid. Edward Osbourne Wilson sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2021, while I was halfway through reading this book. It is a fascinating work that not only informs the reader of ant facts, but tells the most interesting story of a myrmecologist’s life and his discovery of ant species.

Lungfish, lithographs and libel

By Mark Carnall, Collections Manager

In addition to the many thousands of biological specimens that can be found at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, we also possess a variety of objects that originate from historical versions of the Museum’s displays. These include models, casts, and illustrations of various kinds, used to represent organisms that were otherwise difficult to preserve and display.

That any of these exhibition materials survive at all is down to pure happenstance and luck. At the time when they were removed from display, these artefacts would have just been seen as outdated ‘display furniture’ and all but destined to have been thrown away. One surviving piece of ex-display material, which catches my eye almost daily as it sits in my office, is a rather large pair of illustrations showing a South American and a West African lungfish mounted on a black backing board.

Mounted illustrations of West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens (top) and South American lungfish, Lepidosiren paradox (bottom). The board they are mounted on measures 93cm across.

By pure coincidence, I recently came across lithograph reproductions of these illustrations in an 1895 publication by E. Ray Lankester. Had these fish not have been my office-mates, I might not have paid the lithographs in the paper much attention, nor recognised their significance. 

E. Ray Lankester was a noted Zoologist who studied at Oxford University and was the holder of the Linacre Chair. He was also heavily involved in adding to the collections and displays here at OUMNH. His 1895 paper – a smash hit I’m sure we all remember – was titled On the Lepidosiren of Paraguay, and on the external characters of Lepidosiren and Protopterus, and sought to add more reliable evidence on the appearances of lungfishes. 

Lungfishes were of particular interest to scientists at the end of the nineteenth century. Though seemingly related, the different species of lungfish caused no small amount of head-scratching, given that they were found in freshwater ecosystems as far apart as Australia, Africa, and South America. As their name suggests, they are fish but also air-breathing, and the fact that they possess lungs also marked them for scientific interest at the time.

Comparison of Bayzand’s original drawing of Protopterus annectens (top) and screen-capture of the published figure (bottom). You’ll no doubt agree with Lankester that the changes to the scales are egregious and vexing. 

Interestingly (well, interesting to me!) is that Lankester adds an extensive note in the paper about the illustration of the specimens, explaining that he is unhappy with how Bayzand’s original drawings have been modified in the process of transforming them into lithographs for publication. According to Lankester, these modifications introduced inaccuracies. In particular, he complained that the lithographer had made it look like the lungfishes were covered in scales, and stresses that “[a]s a matter of fact, no scales at all[,] or parts of scales[,] are visible on the surface” of the lungfish. Instead, he makes clear that in real life (or, in this case, in preserved life) the scales of the fish are overlaid with soft tissue. Comparing the figure in the paper with the illustrations in my office confirms that the lithographer had, indeed, inaccurately reproduced the original drawings.

The happy coincidence of me finding Lankester’s paper led me to several important revelations. Firstly, we now know that Bayzand’s original drawings of the lungfish can still be found here at OUMNH. Secondly, we can surmise that, at some point in the past, these drawings were displayed in the Museum’s galleries. We can also corroborate that the original illustrations are different to the published versions, meaning that, if we are to believe Lancaster, they are also more accurate than those in the publication. Finally, we now know that two of the Museum’s specimens were cited with extra biographical information in Lankester’s paper.

Sadly, these exciting findings mean that my office mates will probably have to be relocated and take up residence in the Museum’s archives alongside their subject matter…

Priceless and Primordial

Cataloguing the Brasier Collection

In 2021, the Museum was grateful to host PhD students Sarah Skeels and Euan Furness on research internships. Together, Sarah and Euan made a significant contribution to the cataloguing of the Brasier Collection — a remarkable assembly of fossils and rocks donated to the Museum by the late Professor Martin Brasier. Here, Sarah and Euan recount their experiences inventorying this priceless collection of early lifeforms.

Sarah Skeels is a DPhil Student in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

My short internship at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History came at a transitional point in my research career, starting a few days after submitting my PhD thesis. By training, I am a Zoologist, and my PhD thesis is on the electrosensing abilities of weakly electric fish. However, I have had an interest in Palaeontology for a long time, having studied Geology as part of my undergraduate degree. As such, the internship provided me with a unique opportunity to reflect on a subject I had studied many years before, whilst also developing new academic research skills.

The goal of my internship was to improve the inventory of the microfossils held in The Brasier Collection and to photograph some of these specimens, all in the hopes of increasing the utility of the collection to students, researchers, and hobbyists alike.

Obtusoconus, a fossilised mollusc from Iran, is less than 0.5mm in width. The specimen has been gold-coated in preparation for scanning electron microscopy. Brasier Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
A collection of Siphogonuchites, small shelly fossil organisms, found in Mongolia. Brasier Collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The Brasier Collection is rich in microfossils — small fossils that can only properly be inspected with either a light or electron microscope. Those stored in the Collection represent the fragmentary remains of a diverse array of animal groups that lived in the Cambrian, an important period in the Earth’s history when animal life diversified hugely, giving rise to many of the modern phyla that we know and love. The microfossils I examined came from a number of localities across the globe, including Maidiping in China and Valiabad in Iran. The specimens are exquisite in detail, which makes it difficult to believe that they are hundreds of millions of years old.

These fossils are of huge importance, helping us to understand the emergence of early animal life, and its evolution into all of the wonderful forms that exist today. The fossils are also useful because they can serve as markers of the age of different rock forms. By helping to improve the way these specimens are catalogued, I like to think that I am contributing to the preservation of Professor Brasier’s legacy. The whole experience was incredibly rewarding, and I can’t wait to see what new discoveries are made by those who study this unique set of fossils.

Euan Furness is a PhD student at Imperial College London

Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a range of objects on display to the public, but a lot of the curatorial work of the Museum goes on behind the scenes, conserving and managing objects that never come into public view. Collection specimens often don’t look like much, but they can be the most valuable objects to researchers within and outside the Museum. While there are a few visually striking pieces in the Brasier Collection, the humble appearance of most of the Brasier specimens belies their importance.

Left: A photo of Professor Brasier (bottom right) and friends, found in the Collection. Middle: Euan cataloguing in the Hooke basement. Right: An unusually well-preserved archaeocyathid (extinct sponge) from the Cambrian of Australia. Photo by Euan Furness.

The Brasier Collection came to the Museum in bits and pieces from the Oxford University Department of Earth Sciences, with the last of the specimens arriving in September 2021. The Museum therefore needed to determine exactly what they had received before they could decide how to make the best use of it. This meant searching through boxes and drawers behind the scenes and pulling together as much information as possible about the new objects: dates and locations of collection, identity, geological context, and the like. Only then could the more interesting specimens be integrated with the existing collections in the drawers of the Museum’s Palaeozoic Room.

Owing to Professor Brasier’s research interests, the addition of the Brasier Collection to the Museum’s catalogue more than doubled the volume of Precambrian material in its drawers. With that in mind, it was finally time for the Precambrian to be given a set of cabinets to call its own. This seems only fair, given that the Precambrian was not only a fascinating period in the Earth’s history but also the longest!

Having sorted through the new Brasier Collection at length, I think it’s not unreasonable to hope that the unique array of objects it adds to the Museum’s collections will facilitate a great deal of research in the future. For that, we must thank Martin for his generosity.