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.

Darwin, dolphins and a ‘Monkeyana’

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The Museum is home to a vast collection of natural history specimens but is perhaps less well-known for its substantial art and object collection. This material became the focus of Charlie Baker and Imogen Stead, two of our summer interns, as they spent six weeks researching, organising and curating it for the Museum.

The range and amount of material was formidable: numerous prints, non-scientific objects, paintings, photographs and sculptures from across the Museum, all coming together into a single organised collection for the first time. Here, Charlie and Imo unearth just a small sample of some of the items they catalogued during their time at the Museum:

Nautilus Imperialis
This beautiful print shows a fossil of the Nautilus Imperialis. It is one of the largest prints the Museum holds: measuring 48cm x 43 cm, it’s too large for the scanner! It has a small pamphlet of text stuck to it, just visible in the picture, and we speculate that this may have been promotional material for James Sowerby’s Mineral Conchology of Great Britain, the first volume of which was published in 1812, the same year as this print.

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Nautilus Imperialis print

Plate 60 from The Animal Kingdom
This is a plate from Henry MacMurtrie’s translation of Georges Cuvier’s Le Règne Animal, showing a few species of the genus Delphinus, or Common Dolphins. The Museums has 32 plates from this book in the collection. The publication demonstrates the intellectual collaboration between countries and the international appeal of Cuvier’s famous work. In fact, the collections holds plates from the original French and two different English translations.

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Plate 60 from ‘Animal Kingdom‘ (Le Régne Animal) by Georges Cuvier, 1829

Slide cutter
This tool was found in a chest of drawers in the Hope Library at the Museum. It initially baffled us, but staff identified it as a slide cutting tool. The circular blade scores the glass, and the notches are used to carefully break off the piece of glass. When cataloguing and storing it, we discovered the blade is still sharp enough to cut through a sheet of paper!

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Slide cutter tool

Photo of Charles Darwin
This framed photo of the great Victorian scientist is one of 22 pieces of art hanging in the Museum’s Hope Library. What makes this copy of the photo special, however, is the caption beneath it: “I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me.”

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Photograph of Charles Darwin with his annotations

Monkeyana Cartoon
One of the most bizarre items we came across was this 1828 satirical cartoon about lawyers. The collection has eight ‘Monkeyana’ cartoons, all by Thomas Landseer.

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Monkeyana Cartoon by Thomas Landseer, 1828

On a dung beetle’s trail

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Thanks to the work of our Head of Life Collections Darren Mann, and the Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project team, the conservation status of the UK’s dung beetles, chafers, and stag beetles (Scarabaeoidea) is currently undergoing a comprehensive review.

Contributing to this effort, Jack Davies, one of our summer interns, has been on the trail of a species that has proven to be particularly rare in the UK…

Aphodius lividus
Aphodius lividus

I am on the hunt for Aphodius lividus, a dung beetle with a truly cosmopolitan distribution, being found across most of the globe, but which is rather rare in Britain. Since 1990 it has been recorded at only six sites, though historical accounts suggest it was more common in the past.

Most of these historic records are from the south east of England, particularly Kent and the London area, but there are several geographically isolated records from across England and Wales too. So might A. lividus, whilst being extremely local, actually be widespread across the UK?

During my time at the Museum I have been contributing to a comprehensive review of this species’ distribution by helping to verify these records. This has involved a thorough search of collections, journals and the Museum archives, a process which revealed that many of the recordings of A. lividus were almost certainly erroneous.

We were able to discount the only two Welsh records, as well as single records from Cheshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. Our reasons for doing so included a lack of supporting evidence, the unreliability of certain collectors, and the confirmed misidentifications of some specimens.

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Jack Davies working on a collection of Aphodius lividus

The number of known localities for A. lividus decreased further when we realised that three of the reported sites in Kent most probably all refer to the same location. This is a common problem in this type of research, due to the very broad locality names found on Victorian specimen labels.

So it has become clear that this incredibly scarce beetle is even rarer than we first thought. But it’s not all bad news for A. lividus; our research has uncovered reports from localities in Devon and Northumberland in the old literature, which we found to be trustworthy records.

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Map showing the distribution of the dung beetle Aphodius lividus in the UK

All the verified data from the project has been collated to produce this map of the distribution of A. lividus in the UK. Its very local distribution, and the very low number of recent records, confirm that this species should be classified as Vulnerable to Extinction in the UK.

Although it would be a shame to lose this species in Britain, we don’t believe it should be a priority for conservation efforts. Since Aphodius lividus has a strong preference for high temperatures, it’s likely that the UK is simply at the very edge of its range.  It is also a very abundant species in many areas around the world, and it contributes little in terms of ecosystem services in Britain compared to many of our other dung beetles.

So conservation should instead aim to preserve the dung beetle ecosystem as whole, which supports a huge number of species and also brings many benefits to agriculture.