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.

Reading Archival Silences


By Chloe Williams, History Finalist at Oxford University and Museum Volunteer


“The professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is hoped that her retirement may be only temporary.” So ends the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s 1906 Annual Report, marking the near-complete departure of Maud Healey from the archival record.

Despite how little of her history has been preserved, it is clear that Maud Healey made significant contributions to the field of geology. After studying Natural Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall in 1900, Healey worked at the Museum as an assistant to Professor William Sollas from 1902–1906. Here, she catalogued thousands of specimens and produced three publications. These publications were at the centre of debates about standardising the geological nomenclature, and turning geology into a practical academic discipline that could sustain links across continents. However, Healey was continually marginalized on the basis of her gender. Closing the Geological Society of London’s discussion of one of her papers, “Prof. Sollas remarked that he had listened with great pleasure to the complimentary remarks on the work of the Authoress, and regretted that she was not present to defend before the Society her own position in the disputed matter of nomenclature.”[1] Predating the Society’s 1904 decision to admit women to meetings if introduced by fellows, Healey had been unable to attend the reading of her own paper.

Photo of the Geological Society of London centenary dinner in 1907, at which Maud Healey was present. Healey can be seen seated in the fourth row from the front, three chairs to the left. Of the 263 guests, 34 were women, 20 of whom were the wives or daughters of academics, and only 9, including Healey, were present ‘in their own right’. [2] Source: Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

Healey later worked with specimens collected by Henry Digges La Touche in colonial Burma (now Myanmar). While Healey worked with the identification of species, acknowledged by La Touche himself as ‘a more difficult lot to work at’ than similar specimens assigned to her male contemporaries, the physical collection and therefore its name and record is attributed to a male geologist. [3] She continued her work identifying La Touche’s collection of Burmese fossils after retiring from the Museum in 1906 and published a report about them in 1908. What happened to her afterwards is unclear. Tantalizing snippets like a 1910 marriage record might suggest that she turned to a life of domesticity, but whether Healey continued to engage with geology as a hobby remains uncertain.

It is almost unbelievable that a professional of Healey’s calibre could abandon the work in which she excelled. However, Healey lacked any familial connections to geology, and apparently did not marry into money, which would have made it difficult for her to retain access to organizations like the Geological Society of London. The diagnosis of ‘overwork’ mentioned in the Annual Report makes it possible that a medical professional could have discouraged her from engaging further in academia. Unfortunately, any diaries or letters which might have provided us with further clues were not deemed worthy of preservation.

Maud Healey on a dig site (location unknown). Image from the Archives at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Tracing Maud Healey’s history to 1910, it might seem as though we hit a depressing dead end. Healey is one of many nineteenth-century female geologists who participated in an international community in a range of roles including collecting, preserving samples, and actively producing knowledge. However, like many of her colleagues, her contributions are largely absent from the historical record. My research doesn’t aim to simply ‘rediscover’ these exemplary women after previously being ‘hidden’ from history, but instead considers how history itself is constructed from a material archive created along lines of gender and class. A subjectivity which surfaces only rarely in appended discussions to academic papers, and in spidery cursive on ancient fossils, Maud Healey ultimately suggests the need for women’s history to read archival silences as their own stories.

Works cited

[1] Healey, M. ‘Notes on Upper Jurassic Ammonites, with Special Reference to Specimens in the University Museum, Oxford: No. I’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 60, (1904), p.1-4.

[2] Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

[3] La Touche, H.D. Letter to Anna La Touche, 1 August 1907. La Touche Collection. MSS.Eur.C.258/77. Asian and African Studies Archive, The British Library, London, UK.

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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.

Snakeflies: Monsters in the Shadows of the Dinosaurs

Header Image: A reconstruction of a delta-estuarine environment in northern Spain during the Cretaceous, habitat of the studied amber snakeflies, by William Potter Herrera.

Post by William Potter Herrera, Undergraduate Student at Portsmouth University

About 105 million years ago, in what is now Cantabria, Spain, rich cycad and conifer forests flourished across a landscape of estuaries and weaving deltas, bordering the then subtropical North Atlantic. While marine crocodiles prowled the waterways and theropod dinosaurs stalked the fern clearings, another ferocious, albeit smaller, predator ruled. Snakeflies, or raphidiopterans, are still around today but their diversity and range is a fraction of what it was during the Mesozoic, the period when the dinosaurs reigned.

Left: Map of the world 105 million years ago, with ancient Cantabria highlighted. Author: William Potter Herrera, based on work from “The Planetary Habitability Laboratory” at UPR Arecibo. Right: An extant snakefly from OUMNH’s pinned collections.

Snakeflies get their name from their long ‘necks’ and ovipositors — the latter being a long, thin tube that females use to deposit eggs into the safety of crevices. Snakeflies are voracious predators, using their compact jaws to devour anything smaller than them. Their unusual necks allow them to pursue prey into tight spaces. No Cretaceous bug would have been safe from these monsters that existed in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Working in the shadow of the Museum’s very own dinosaur during a bursary project last summer, I got a very real experience of paleontological research. Insects might not be the first thing you think of when considering fossils, but the sheer diversity and beauty of preservation these organisms exhibit in the fossil record made them a delight to work on. Nowhere is this more true than in the remarkable amber of northern Spain. Under the supervision of Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, I examined, described and mapped out four specimens of amber which contained insects, our focus being on snakeflies. Through careful comparison with previous work, we discovered a new species of Necroraphidia, meaning “snakefly of the dead”. This genus was previously known from a specimen preserving no more than its characteristic wings, but the new specimen is nearly completely preserved, frozen in amber as if time itself stopped.

Left: William Potter Herrera examines a snakefly preserved in amber. Right: Necroraphidia arcuata, a snakefly species from El Soplao amber (Cantabria, Spain). The arrow points to a fragment of burnt plant matter (extracted from Pérez-de la Fuente et al., 2012. Zookeys 204).

The story of how the snakeflies ended up in the amber is as fascinating as the creatures themselves. Amber begins its life as tree resin — a highly sticky, viscous fluid extruded by conifers in response to trauma. Insects and other small arthropods are frequently trapped in it, either being caught by it as it flows downwards, or simply flying into it. Because larger insects are more likely to free themselves there is a bias in the fossil record towards smaller organisms. In northern Spain, however, the amber is remarkably rich in insects and also tiny fragments of burnt plant matter, indications that the insects might have become entombed during, or in the aftermath of, raging wildfires that drove them into a disoriented frenzy.

It was studying these charred fragments that inspired my dissertation on fossil charcoal — and that was one of just many benefits I gained from this bursary. It cannot be overstated how brilliant the opportunity to dedicate six weeks to study in a Museum was; exploring behind the scenes and talking to world experts in every field. The confidence gained from being entrusted to conduct this research so independently at such an early stage of my career will serve me going forward. The work was not easy but the support I received was brilliant. Even now, months later, as we work together to finalise our manuscript, I am inspired by the dedication and belief that Ricardo and the whole staff at the OUMNH have shown in me.

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.

Reconstructing the Cretaceous with Bones and Amber

A double window into the past

Post by Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Deputy Head of Research

Nature is wonderfully imperfect, and the data that we can gather from it is even further from perfection. Fossil localities, even those providing exceptionally well-preserved fossils, are inaccurate records of the past. Fossils can form from a variety of matter including organisms, their remains, or even traces of their activity. Yet not all of the material that can get fossilised at a particular site actually will. Among other factors, biases in the fossil record result from the nature of the materials responsible for fossilisation – usually sediments which are in the process of turning into rocks. In most cases, fossil localities offer us only a single ‘window of preservation’ – a skewed geological record of the ancient ecosystem that once existed there.

In 2012, a rich vertebrate bone bed was documented at the Ariño site in Teruel, Spain. Since then, researchers have unearthed more than 10,000 individual fossil bones, from which they have discovered new species of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles. Plant fossils were also found, including pollen grains and amber, which is fossilised resin. Although amber was known to occur in this locality, this sort of material had remained unstudied… until recently.

Over the summer of 2019, I joined my colleagues to carry out amber excavations in the Ariño site – an open-pit coal mine that has an almost lunar appearance due to the dark carbonate-rich mudstone rocks and the total lack of vegetation. The scorching heat during a very hot summer was a bit maddening, but I did try to enjoy my yearly dose of sun before returning to the UK!

Resin pieces can be transported significant distances by runoff water before depositing on their final burial location, where they slowly transform into amber. However, we found amber pieces that had not moved from their original place of production. These large, round-shaped pieces preserved delicate surface patterns that would have been polished away even by the slightest transport. The resin that produced these amber pieces was formed by the roots of the resin-producing trees, and resembles sub-fossil resin my colleagues found in modern forests from New Zealand.

Large amber piece produced by roots (left) and assemblage of smaller amber pieces (right) from Ariño (Teurel, Spain).
Large amber piece produced by roots (left) and assemblage of smaller amber pieces (right) from Ariño (Teurel, Spain).

The small amber pieces from Ariño contain an unusual abundance of fossils. These pieces come from resin produced by the branches and trunk of the resin-producing trees. From the almost one kilogram of amber we excavated, we identified a total of 166 fossils. These include diverse insects such as lacewings, beetles, or wasps, and arachnids such as spiders and mites. Even a mammal hair strand was found!1

We now know that the Ariño site provides two complementary windows of preservation — a bone bed preserving a rich variety of vertebrate animals, and amber with abundant inclusions. Aside from Ariño, only three localities that preserve both dinosaur bone beds and fossiliferous amber have been reported in Western France, Western Canada, and North Central United States. However, in these cases, either the bone bed or the amber have offered a much more modest abundance and diversity of fossils. Some of the fossils from these localities also show signs of significant transport, which means that the organisms could have inhabited different, distant areas even though they fossilised together. This makes Ariño unique because it offers two valuable ‘windows of preservation’ from the same ecosystem.

Thanks to all this evidence and other data, we have been able to reconstruct an ancient terrestrial ecosystem – a 110-million-year-old coastal swamp – with unprecedented detail and accuracy.2 The inherent incompleteness of the fossil record will always remain a headache for palaeontologists… but localities like Ariño make the data that we can recover from the past a bit more complete.

Reconstruction of the coastal swamp forest of Ariño, in the Iberian Peninsula, from 110 million years ago. Author: José Antonio Peñas. Source: Álvarez-Parra et al. 2021.
Reconstruction of the coastal swamp forest of Ariño, in the Iberian Peninsula, from 110 million years ago. Author: José Antonio Peñas. Source: Álvarez-Parra et al. 2021.

If you want to learn more about amber excavations, check out this post on Excavating Amber.

1Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Enrique Peñalver, Eduardo Barrón, Luis Alcalá, Jordi Pérez-Cano, Carles Martín-Closas et al. “Dinosaur bonebed amber from an original swamp forest soil.” Elife 10 (2021): e72477.

2Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Xavier Delclòs, Mónica M. Solórzano-Kraemer, Luis Alcalá, and Enrique Peñalver. “Cretaceous amniote integuments recorded through a taphonomic process unique to resins.” Scientific reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1-12.