Carnivore conservation

A new choose-your-own-adventure board game created by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology puts players centre-stage in a global carnivore conservation challenge. The educational game is launching a Kickstarter fundraising campaign today and here co-designer Dr Cedric Tan tells us all about it…

Have you ever wondered what it’s like being a conservation biologist? We have spent the past year creating and testing a brand new board game – The WildCRU Game: Global Carnivore Conservation – that reveals some of the challenges faced by conservationists, the animals themselves, and the indigenous people who live with them. We’re now looking to get the game out to schools and communities all across the world with a £40,000 Kickstarter funding campaign featuring lots of rewards and discounts for our backers.

The game has been co-designed by Jennifer Spencer and myself to appeal to non-scientists and people of different ages. Players work together cooperatively as WildCRU researchers to gather the resources to complete carnivore conservation projects across the globe.

Stories in the game are taken directly from the real experiences of the WildCRU team. Players must decide what to do in choose-your-own-adventure-style encounters to gather the equipment, personnel, and transport resources they need for their projects.

In developing this game, we chose six varied WildCRU projects including the Hwange Lion Research project, based in Zimbabwe, and the famous water vole study in the UK, to show players the breadth of WildCRU’s research.
– Co-designer Jennifer Spencer, WildCRU

Multiple choice research questions are also based on real WildCRU research; they reveal more about the environment of each project – the flora, herbivores, competitor carnivores, and study species of the study sites. With the additional pressure of Global Events, players will learn about how difficult wildlife conservation projects can be.

It has been great to see that the game appeals to both kids and adults. People have found it to be an immersive experience in which players experience the challenges of real people, real situations and real research. We also hope that the game will provide local families with the opportunity to learn about the wildlife around them, and how to live in harmony alongside it.

Through the game and our other education efforts we’re hoping to increase environmental awareness and to introduce a wide variety of people to the science and processes behind real-world conservation.

Images and video: Laurie Hedges (lauriehedges.com)

Kelp our corals!

Many people know about the importance of conserving coral reefs to protect marine biodiversity, but here at the museum we also need to conserve the corals that are in our collections. These specimens provide a valuable picture of the diversity of life in the ocean, and document changes seen over time, which is more important than ever. So it’s essential that our conservation team make sure these corals are in the best shape possible. Stefani Cavazos, an intern from UCL’s MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums, tells us how they’re going to do it.

As part of the ongoing effort to improve the museum’s collections storage we decided to give our soft corals and sponges a bit of TLC through some repacking and reorganisation.

This collection – a mix of old display material and specimens not formally accessioned to the museum collection – isn’t currently stored as well as it could be and there is a danger of breakages and damage. The specimens are packed in non-conservation grade materials, such as cardboard boxes, which are notorious for creating acidic gases that can damage delicate specimens.

The current housing of our soft coral and sponge collection

So a new project, Kelp our Corals, will focus on two areas of improvement.

First, we’ll remove all old packaging and repack using new bespoke storage boxes made from conservation grade materials. At the same time, specimens will be photographed, catalogued, and given accession numbers.

The goal is not only to rehouse the coral and sponge collection, but to also make it more accessible to the public for use in teaching and for research. We don’t have a lot of documentation for these corals, so hopefully the project will help us fill in some gaps: Where did these specimens come from? What can they tell us about life on a reef?

Large specimens are improperly laid on their sides with no protection from the environment and dust, causing weight stress on the specimen

Would you like to kelp, er, sorry – help? We are looking to recruit volunteers to help us with the work. We’re aiming to start in mid-February and finish by May this year. If you are interested in gaining some museum and conservation experience, or like to work with your hands, please do get in touch at volunteering@museums.ox.ac.uk.

Credit for image at top of post: USFWS/Jim Maragos via Creative Commons

Clean as a new pin

The spiky customer above has enjoyed a serious spruce-up from Stefani Cavazos, our current intern from UCL’s MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. Stefani tells us how she got this Spot-fin Porcupinefish looking shipshape, without receiving any serious injuries.

So far at the Museum I have been working on a range of specimens, from taxidermy and wet specimens to cleaning the whales, but my favourite project so far has been the conservation of this Spot-fin Porcupinefish from the displays. It is part of what is known as the Christ Church Collection, which came to the Museum in 1860. This makes the Porcupinefish at least 150 years old.

The specimen itself was covered in dust and all five of its fins were backed with deteriorating cardboard pieces. These were most likely attached to give some support during a previous restoration attempt. Unfortunately, cardboard is not a conservation grade material because over time it becomes acidic. Temperature and humidity changes in the Museum have caused it to bend forward, pulling the fins out of shape, so we felt it should be removed to prevent further damage.

The Spot-fin Porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix) before conservation treatment (left images), and close ups of the cardboard backings on the left pectoral fin (right images), where staining and bending are visible. The red arrow indicates where the paper has separated from the fin, and how thin the fins are.

The first step in the treatment was to clean the surface of the Porcupinefish using warm water and a cotton swab. This allowed me to get into the nooks and crannies of the body whilst (mostly) avoiding being poked by its spines. Next, the cardboard backings were softened with water vapor, causing them to break apart so they could be removed easily using tweezers and a scalpel blade.

Conservation can feel like detective work since we often uncover interesting information about specimens as we work on them. In this case, as we removed the cardboard pieces, we found writing on the underside. It appears to be from a shoe box! Though unexpected, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Preparators in the past used whatever materials were available to them at the time.

(Left) The cardboard was carefully removed from the caudal (tail) fin. (Right) The cardboard once removed from the fin, it appears to be from a shoe label.

After detaching the cardboard from all the fins, the remaining ink and adhesive residues were removed using a 50/50 alcohol and water mixture applied with a cotton swab. The edges of the fins were then coated with two thin layers of an acrylic adhesive to prevent any further breakage and to offer some support to the weakest areas. Cleaned, and free of damaging materials, this Porcupinefish is now ready to go back on display!

Photos of the Spot-fin Porcupinefish after treatment was completed. Without the cardboard backings, the fins are somewhat translucent.
Stefani takes her finished work out to one of our regular Spotlight Specimen sessions, giving visitors the chance to get a closer look and ask questions.

Seasonal sights

The Museum’s collections are on the move. For decades, a deconsecrated church has been used to house material from our Earth collections, but we now have a new and improved off-site space, and between now and the end of 2018 a huge project is underway to sort and shift these objects. You can find out more about all this in our Stories from the Stores article. 

Chantelle Dollimore, Move Project Assistant, recently emigrated from Australia and has been experiencing her first British autumn. Here she shares a glimpse of the natural encounters the collections move has offered so far.

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As the project team for the collections move settles into the daily hustle and bustle of work there are extraordinary things happening outside. Winter is coming; we have already wound our clocks back for that extra hour of sleep. Leading up to that time, creatures great and small have been preparing themselves for seasonal changes.

Autumn leaves litter the footpath to the store

Something truly blissful in an English autumn is the deciduous trees shedding their leaves as the days grow shorter and chillier. The crunching underfoot of hues of browns, reds, yellows and oranges adds charm as we make the rounds of our 19th-century church workspace.

A Red Kite soars above the Museum’s offsite collections store

Driving from the Museum to the off-site store, we’re likely to see at least one Red Kite. Less than 30 years ago Red Kites were nearly extinct, but through conservation efforts they have flourished in the Oxfordshire countryside. Their distinct calls and unique silhouette, with long narrow wings and forked tail, are a haunting yet beautiful addition to the skyline.

A Red Kite (Milvus milvus) on display in the Museum

The move project team have also been visited by a different ‘bird’ altogether; the ladybird! At this time of year, when you find one you will most likely see many more close by. When a ladybird finds the perfect place to hibernate for spring it excretes a pheromone to attract more to the area. For some, the perfect place seems to be inside the church itself!

(Lady)birds of a feather flock together

Grey Squirrels and deer are also making appearances throughout the day while we’re working. One cannot help but watch as the bushy tail of the squirrel peeks through the hedges as it forages for food and admire the deer as they stroll through the fields happily unaware of our activities some 50 metres away.

Although it’s great to admire the specimens on display in the Museum, I love that my job allows me to get out and about to appreciate the wildlife of the Oxfordshire countryside. There’s always something unexpected… like a butterfly choosing its resting place on some disassembled storage shelves.

A butterfly (Nymphalidae sp.) in torpor finds shelter from the impending cold

To keep up with all the move project action, follow the museum hashtag #storiesfromthestore on Twitter @morethanadodo.

High time for a check up

by Bethany Palumbo, life collections conservator

This month marks three years since the completion of our ‘Once in a Whale’ project. The initial conservation undertaken in 2013 focused on the cleaning and stabilisation of five whale skeletons, which had hung from the roof of the Museum for over 100 years.

The skeletons were lowered into a special conservation space, where the team were able to work up close with the specimens. As well as the cleaning, they improved incorrect skeletal anatomy, replacing old corroded wiring with new stainless steel. For final display, the specimens were put into size order and rigged using new steel wiring, with the larger specimens being lifted higher into the roof space to make them a more prominent display than previously. You can read all about the project on our blog, Once in a Whale.

Three years on, our conservation team felt it was a good time to check on the specimens to see how they’re coping, post-treatment, in the fluctuating museum environment.

Conservation intern Stefani Cavazos works on high to clean the Beaked Whale

It’s been wonderful to see the whales on display and their new position looks very impressive. However, when the time came for making this recent conservation assessment, the new height was greater than any of our ladders could reach. Specialist scaffolding was brought in to allow the conservators to access the specimens. Starting at the highest level, with our Beaked Whale, cleaning was completed using a vacuum and soft brush for delicate areas. This removed a thick layer of dust and particulate debris: especially satisfying work!

Dust gathered on the Beaked Whale fin

With cleaning complete, visual assessments could then be undertaken. These showed that while the specimens were still very stable, a few areas of bone have continued to deteriorate, visible in cracking and flaking of the surface. In other areas, the fatty secretions which we previously removed using ammonia had once again started to emerge. We had expected to see this though, because, in life these whales’ bodies contained a lot of fat, deep within the bones and this is notoriously impossible to completely remove.

Lubricant stain seen on a vertebra

It was also observed that the lubrication used on the new rigging bolts had melted and dripped down the wires. You can see in the photo above how this has become drawn into the vertebrae of the Orca and Common Dolphin, staining them yellow. While no conservation treatment was undertaken due to time restrictions, thorough photography was performed to document these changes and once time permits this can be carried out.

This shows how conservation work, especially with natural history specimens, is a gradual, ongoing process. With frequent check-ups and specialist attention, these whales will be able to continue their life as our beautiful display specimens.

Paint it green

In the process of researching or conserving old pinned insects, it’s common to find a green deposit clustered around the pin. This is known as verdigris and is a natural patina created when the metal oxidizes over time. Katherine Child is Image Technician in the Museum’s Life collections and takes photos of insects for researchers, students, artists and publications. She is also an artist in her own right, so when she witnessed verdigris being removed during a conservation project, she came up with an inspired idea.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where the metal and the insect fats, or lipids, react.

A few years ago I read a book called Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, by Victoria Finlay, and was interested to learn that verdigris was once used as a pigment. Verdigris, which I now know translates from French as ‘Green of Greece’, is a word that’s been in my vocabulary since I was small.  I loved its rich bright blue-green colour, which is often seen on old copper piping or copper statues.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur.

L: Three years’ worth of verdigris, ground and ready to make into paint.
R: A second attempt at mixing the paint, this time using linseed oil.

As early as 5thcentury AD, it was used in paint-making, and until the late 19th century it was the most vibrant green pigment available. But it was unstable – Leonardo da Vinci warned that it ‘vanishes into thin air if not varnished quickly.’ These days synthetic pigments provide a more constant alternative.

Despite its past uses, verdigris is a big problem in pinned insect collections. Nowadays stainless steel pins are used, but pins containing copper still remain in old collections and these react with air and insect fats. The more fatty the insect, the more verdigris tends to form and, if left, it can damage a specimen irreparably.

Comprising around five million or so insects, the Hope Entomological Collections here in the Museum take quite a bit of looking after. A few years ago a project to catalogue and conserve many of its butterfly and moth specimens was undertaken and the removal of verdigris and repining of insects was part of this.

With paint-making in mind, I asked that the beautiful, but problematic, substance be saved.  About three years on I finally got around to using the pigment, which I had also been adding to while photographing the collections.

I chose a variety of differently shaped moths to paint (most of the verdigris came from moths, so moths seemed the most apt subject). To narrow my options further I went for green moths. Some of the specimens I chose had verdigris on their pin, so I was able to take pigment and use it to paint the very specimens from which it came!

Katherine tested out the newly made verdigris paint in her sketchbook.

After a first failed attempt to make watercolour paint (during which pigment and water remained stubbornly separate due to the greasy insect fats still present), I tried again, this time using linseed oil to make oil paint – and it worked! Traditionally a flat bottomed tool called a muller was used to press pigment into the water or oil. Not having one of these, I used the flat end of a pestle and a mortar which did the trick.

A Miscellany of Moths, the finished verdigris painting.

The paint went surprisingly far and, following on from the 14 green moths, I plan to use up the remainder to paint beetles.

Katherine’s Miscellany of Moths painting can be seen on display in the Museum’s Community Case until 18th October.