Over the last few months, I have been working on cataloguing and rehousing the archival collection of William John Burchell (1781-1863). Burchell was an important early naturalist, explorer, ethnographer, and linguist who worked in South Africa and Brazil, contributing greatly to our understanding of the flora and fauna of these areas. He was also a highly talented artist!
Burchell amassed huge natural history collections and described many new species, but his work was not widely recognised in his lifetime. Although he received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1834, he felt neglected by the government and scientific community in Britain. Later on in his life, Burchell became something of a disillusioned and reclusive figure, strictly guarding access to his collections and publishing few of his own findings.
The first section of the Burchell collection that I tackled was his correspondence. I am happy to report that our wonderful volunteers – Lucian Ohanian, Mariateresa DeGiovanni, Naide Gedikli-Gorali and Robert Gue – have now finished digitising this material and we have made the scans available to all on Collections Online. Now that the digitisation of the Burchell correspondence is complete, we are able to more easily search his letters, and learn more about his motivations to conduct expeditions so far afield.
Burchell first left the British Isles in 1805 when he travelled to the island of Saint Helena. He moved to Cape Town in 1810 before beginning his expedition into the interior of South Africa in 1811. This epic journey covered 7000 kilometres, mainly through terrain unexplored by Europeans at the time. It lasted four years, with Burchell only returning to Britain in 1815.
What prompted him to undertake such an extraordinary expedition? In a letter home to his mother written on 29th May 1811, Burchell relates several potential motivations. Firstly, he describes his frustration with the East India Company (his employers in St Helena), and his desire for a new beginning: “I have been patient with the Company’s promises till it is become evident to everyone that I was only wasting my life living any longer in St Helena.” He goes on to stress his enthusiasm for scientific research, which may also have been a motivating factor behind his journey: “I have thought it best to give free indulgence to my inclination for research which I feel so natural to me, that I flatter myself it will be my best employment.” Finally, Burchell shows a more pecuniary motive when he notes, “I do not consider myself out of the way of making money, when I think of the value of what I shall be able to obtain in my journey.”
Burchell closes the letter very affectionately, suggesting he had a close relationship with his family. More than half of the letters in our collection written by Burchell are addressed to his parents or sisters. He ultimately left his specimens to his sister, Anna, who in 1865 donated his botanical specimens to Kew Gardens and his other specimens to Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with the archival collection following later.
No longer an underappreciated figure, Burchell is recognised as a pioneering and significant naturalist. Through preserving and reading our Burchell archive, we can continue to shed more light on his life and personality.
By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer
A few days ago, I was working from home when a delivery driver arrived with a strange parcel – a cardboard box stamped with the letters FRAGILE that seemed to be producing a peculiar, scratching sound. Tentatively, I opened the cardboard box and pulled out a plastic punnet filled with newspaper, old egg cartons, and… wait! Was that an antenna?
The parcel turned out to be a box of locusts, ordered by my housemate who uses them to feed her pet reptiles. I set the punnet down beside me and tried to continue with my morning’s work. But over the next few hours, the locusts grew increasingly restless, bouncing against the walls of their punnet like hot, microwaved popcorn. The sight and sound of the insects began to return memories of the infamous locust swarms of 2020 — one in a series of near-apocalyptic events that befell us that fateful year. Worryingly, climate change is set to make locust swarms increasingly common, with Sardinia currently facing its worst locust swarm in thirty years.1
Left: A poster for The Beginning of the End (1957) about a fictional invasion of giant, mutant locusts in Illinois. Right: A real-life locust swarm near Satrokala, Madagascar (2014).
Throughout history, locusts have been widely understood as symbols of maleficence and misfortune. One of the oldest written references to locusts is, of course, the Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt, in which locusts were sent as a punishment from God. Since then, these infamous insects have been featured in art, books, music, and films as harbingers of destruction. Americans of the mid-twentieth century were somewhat obsessed with giant locusts and grasshoppers which were featured everywhere from cartoons to postcards. 1957 saw the release of the movie The Beginning of the End – a schlocky Hollywood sci-fi tale about a swarm of giant, mutant locusts invading Illinois. The film’s principal Entomologist describes locusts as “deadly killer[s]”, both “intelligent and strong”. Real-life locusts are, indeed, very strong for their size, with back legs that can catapult them up to a metre from standing. This means that it would be feasible for the human-sized locusts in The Beginning of the End to jump as far as forty metres — a terrifying thought!2
While The Beginning of the End is ridiculous both in premise and execution, I can’t deny that I find the concept of giant locusts pretty nightmarish. Earlier in the week, I sent an email to the Life Collections team to enquire about the possibility of looking through our pinned locusts and snapping a few photos of the biggest and grisliest specimens. As I walked upstairs to entomology, I braced myself for an encounter with some fearsome insects. But what I found were a few drawers of modest-sized locusts that looked about as benign as garden grasshoppers. Many of them were even stuffed with wool; more like teddy bears than agents of Armageddon.
Left: Anacridium aegyptium or Egyptian Locust from the Collections at OUMNH. Right: Underside of a locust specimen showing cotton wool stuffing.
According to Collections Assistant Rob Douglas, stuffing large insect specimens with cotton wool used to be a common entomological practice. Insects with fatty insides, like locusts, must be gutted to ensure good preservation. Following the removal of the insects’ insides, cotton was often used to return their abdomens to their usual size and shape. Locusts’ ample fat stores contribute as much to their physical prowess as their powerful hind legs; sustaining them through migrations of up to 310 miles a day.3 Such migrations occur when locusts are exposed to a dry spell followed by wet weather, allowing for the sudden regrowth of vegetation. These conditions will cause locusts to switch their solitary lifestyles for gregariousness, coming together to chomp their way through crops and vegetation at a density of 80-160 million insects per square mile. A large migrating swarm of locusts has been estimated to need as many calories in a day as 1.5 million human males, explaining why even ordinary-sized locusts are capable of causing agricultural annihilation.4
If it weren’t for government and international interventions, the 2020 locust swarms in East Africa could have caused up to $8.5 billion in economic damages by the year-end.5 But locusts can do much worse. One of the most notorious locust swarms on record was that of the Rocky Mountain locust in the USA between 1874 and 1877. According to some accounts, the swarm caused damages to agriculture equivalent to $116 billion in today’s money, leaving behind piles of locust carcases up to six feet high.6
When it comes to protecting crops from locusts, prevention is better than cure. Likely locust outbreaks can be pre-empted by studying weather patterns and using satellite imagery to keep an eye on vegetation growth.7 Once a (potential) locust swarm has been identified, traditional methods of locust management involve the use of pesticides to wipe out the insects as soon as possible. Back in the 1950s, this meant dowsing locusts with DDT. But as the drawbacks of synthetic pesticides become increasingly apparent, chemical interventions are being replaced with the application of naturally occurring ‘pesticides’ like the fungus Metarhizium acridum.
Our understanding of locusts has come a long way since the release of The Beginning of the End. One of my favourite news stories of the past month was the announcement by a laboratory at Michigan State University that locusts have been successfully used to ‘sniff out’ mouth cancer.8 It turns out that locusts no longer just spell danger for humanity — they can smell danger for humanity too! These cancer-detecting locusts are, in my opinion, far more ‘sci-fi’ than the giant bugs imagined by scriptwriters of the 1950s, reminding us that, when it comes to science, the truth is often stranger than fiction. Reports like these demonstrate that scientific research has the power to transform our relationship with the pests that have tormented us for thousands of years.
By Hayleigh Jutson, HOPE Community Engagement Officer & GLAM Community Engagement Assistant and Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist
With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in the air, Hayleigh and Danielle reveal the royal connections that are integrated into the very fabric of the Museum, and reveal the surprising story behind our empty plinths.
Visitors walking around the Main Court of Oxford University Museum of Natural History will find themselves circled by the stony gazes of 19 life-sized stone statues. These sculptures of eminent scientists, philosophers, and engineers include likenesses of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Galileo, Linnaeus, and Isaac Newton. Alongside these men of science stands a statue of Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria. Although now slightly hidden behind the T-rex, Prince Albert’s statue was given pride of place in the main court, a lasting reminder of the Royal family’s contribution to the establishment of the Museum.
Constructed between 1855-1860, the main structure of the Museum of Natural History was built using funds from Oxford University. However, the University only provided enough money to construct the shell of the building. All additional decorations – the stone carvings, pillars, and statues both outside and in – were to be funded by public donations and private subscriptions. To decorate the new building, Oxford’s scientists, along with the architects Deane and Woodward, invited Pre-Raphaelite artists to come up with designs that would represent nature in the fabric of the building.
A key element of the Museum’s decoration involved the commissioning of a series of portrait statues of ‘the great Founders and Improvers of Natural Knowledge.’ These effigies were meant to represent a range of scientific fields of study, and act as inspiration to researchers, students, and other visitors to the Museum. The University came up with a list of six ancient Greek mathematicians and natural philosophers and eleven modern scientists to be included in the Gallery. Funded by private subscription, donors could provide a statue of one of these ‘Founders and Improvers’ for £70 (equivalent to ~£8000 in today’s money).
Prince Albert, a great supporter of the arts and sciences, convinced Queen Victoria to fund the first five statues of modern scientists, costing £350 in total. The first statue that Queen Victoria commissioned and paid for was of the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon — remembered as one of the fathers of the ‘scientific method’. His statue was carved by Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. The remaining four statues that Queen Victoria paid for – of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, and Hans Christian Ørsted – were to be sculpted by Alexander Munro. However, Munro was only able to complete three of these. After the University of Oxford repeatedly failed to fulfil Munro’s request for a likeness of Ørsted, the statue of the Danish physicist went unfinished. Not wanting to waste the money that had been gifted by Queen Victoria, the Museum decided to arrange for a plaster cast to be made of a pre-existing statue of Ørsted, which was sent over from Denmark in 1855.
It was hoped that Queen Victoria’s generous donation would encourage other wealthy individuals to fund the remaining statues. Initially, the plan worked. However, as time went on, donors began to favour British men of science rather than the University’s original list of international candidates. As a result, funding for many of the statues on the University’s list never materialised, and those plinths remain vacant to this day.
Even if the commissioning of the Museum’s sculptures didn’t go entirely to plan, there is no doubt that Prince Albert made an important contribution to the construction of the Museum. Fittingly, he is also commemorated amongst the Museum’s sculptures. Carved by Thomas Woolner, Albert’s statue sits behind the tail of the T-rex skeleton in the Main Court. It was presented to the Museum by the citizens of Oxford in April 1864, and remains a tribute to a champion of the arts and sciences, and one of the Museum’s earliest and most influential supporters.
In September 2021, the Museum initiated its first “Specimen Showdown” on Twitter and Instagram, where followers could vote on their favourite specimens from our collections. Over the course of the month, followers narrowed down their favourite among 32 specimens from four collections: The Library Legends, The Bygone Beasts, The Rock Stars, and The Birds and The Beetles. The final showdown was between the Connemara Column (found in the Main Court of the Museum) and the Pulgas Vestidas from the Library and Archives. In a nail-biting race, the Pulgas Vestidas narrowly beat the column with 53.9% of the vote.
But what are Pulgas Vestidas? And why are they so popular?
Dressed fleas, you say?
The delicate art of dressing fleas in tiny costumes, known as ‘Pulgas Vestidas’ in Spanish, flourished in Mexico for over two centuries. It is believed that the craft began in Mexican convents where nuns would fashion tiny pieces of clothing onto dead fleas. An important point to note is that the fleas themselves were not actually dressed — instead, they formed the heads of the figures. The individual fleas were set in matchboxes and decorated with elaborate human costumes, hats, shoes, and accessories. Sometimes the fleas were set in whole scenes, often as married couples in miniature dioramas of everyday life. The bride and groom sets were the most popular, with the bride sporting a long veil and the groom in his best suit. The nuns would then sell the fleas for a small amount of money to passing tourists. The trade was later picked up by the local villagers and Pulgas Vestidas were widely sold to tourists visiting Mexico in the early twentieth century.
Dressed fleas were popular with tourists until the 1930s when the art declined in popularity. An increasing awareness of hygiene meant that fleas were rapidly regarded as unhealthy. Many dressed fleas were consigned to the bin, and Pulgas Vestidas became a lost art as tourists’ tastes for memorabilia changed. Examples of these tiny curiosities are now rare collectors’ items.
Pulgas Vestidas at Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Museum’s dressed fleas were collected in 1911 by American archaeologist and anthropologist Zeila M. M. Nuttall who specialised in Mexican history and culture. She sent the dressed fleas to her brother, bacteriologist George H.F. Nuttall. George formally donated a collection of 50 Ixodidae (ticks) to the Museum, and it is likely he also gifted the dressed fleas at the same time. The dressed fleas would have been considered more of a Victorian novelty, and so were not formally recorded or accessioned into our collections.
Although most of OUMNH’s dressed fleas reside behind-the-scenes, one example is on public display in the Upper Gallery of the Main Court. Sporting tiny clothes and a backpack, the flea is just visible with the help of a magnifying glass. Clearly, this one was born to flea wild.
OUMNH’s Pulgas Vestidas are definitely among the more unusual items in the Museum’s collections, and they were clearly head and shoulders above other specimens in the September Specimen Showdown competition, despite being no more than 5mm tall! Pulgas Vestidas may be small, but they certainly are mighty.
I’ll Flea There
The dressed fleas will be on display, with a flea-tastic craft, for the Museum’s free evening event ‘Late Night: A Buzz in the Air‘ on 27 May from 7-10pm.
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.
For most of our history, humans have been observational creatures. Studying the natural world has been an essential tool for survival, a form of entertainment, and has provided the backbone for various legends and myths. Yet modern humans are rapidly losing practice when it comes to environmental observation. As more and more of us relocate to busy urban environments, we find ourselves with little to no time to spend outdoors. Knowledge of the natural world is rapidly becoming the purview of professionals — but it doesn’t have to be this way…
Community science is a term that describes scientific research activities conducted by amateurs, often involving observation or simple computational tasks. Many citizen science projects target schools or families, but everyone is a welcome participant. The purpose of such projects, which run all around the world, is to encourage non-professionals to get involved in science in a fun, voluntary manner, while also collecting data that are valuable for scientific research.
One of the most common forms of community science is biodiversity monitoring. Biodiversity monitoring projects invite people with various levels of expertise to record observations of different species in their local area, and upload evidence like photographs and sound recordings to a user-friendly database. In doing so, they also provide important monitoring data to scientists, like information about the date and location of wildlife sightings.
There are a variety of mobile apps and online platforms for reporting observations, with some specialising in particular groups of organisms like plants or birds. From the raw data that is uploaded to these platforms, species can be identified through a range of different methods:
Automatic identification from uploaded evidence – often using techniques like image/sound analysis or machine learning
Community feedback – multiple users can view uploaded evidence and make suggestions about which species have been recorded
Direct use of users’ own suggestions – for users who are more experienced with species identification
But are these data actually used by scientists? Although individual contributions to community science projects may seem to be of minor importance, when considered collectively they act as extremely valuable records. Having distribution data for species can help us understand their habitat preferences, and also enable us to monitor invasive organisms. Moreover, long-term data can inform us about species’ responses to changes in their environments, whether that is habitat alteration or climate change. Science is driven by the accumulation of data, and citizen science projects can provide just that.
In addition to the benefits to the scientific field, community science projects can also be of huge value to their participants. Firstly, engaging in such activities can help us re-establish our relationship with the wildlife in our immediate environment — we might finally learn to identify common species in our local area, or discover new species that we never realised were so close by. It is surprising how many species we can even find in our own gardens! Moreover, community science events, like biodiversity-monitoring “BioBlitzes”, encourage people from different backgrounds to work together, strengthening local communities and encouraging environmental protection.
Oxford University is currently running the community science project “Oxford Plan Bee“, focusing on solitary bees. The project is creating a network of bee hotels: small boxes with branches and wooden cavities where harmless, solitary bees can rest. The hotels are spread throughout the city, and locals are invited to observe the bee hotels, take photos, and send in their findings.
Overall, community science is as much about being an active participant in the community as it is about doing science. These projects are a celebration of both collective contributions and individual growth. More than anything, they are a chance to pause and notice the little things that keep our planet running.
Want to get involved? Here is a selection of my favourite citizen science projects…
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.
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.
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.