two swifts looking out from their nesting area

A Swift Return to Summer

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

Amidst reports during the last week of Swifts being sighted feeding over the nearby Farmoor reservoir, Museum staff have kept their eyes to the skies eagerly waiting to be the first to spot our resident birds returning to their breeding site in the nest boxes of our tower. A wet and windy weekend caused by a deep depression over Britain meant little opportunity to feed on their diet of small flies and other invertebrates that make up the aerial plankton they relish, and which normally drifts unseen above our heads in large numbers on still summer days.  The high winds would certainly also have made any attempt to land, for the first time in a whole year since they left their nest boxes and for the first time ever for those just reaching maturity, extremely precarious, and so it seems our Swifts headed farther afield, possibly back to continental Europe, for a few days to await better conditions.

swifts flying around the museum tower against a cloudy sky
Swifts flying around the Museum tower by Mark Garrett

However, this morning, the 5th of May and right on cue, we were treated to the first two Swifts performing a low, high speed fly-by of the tower. Having flown around 14,000 miles in the last year from the Museum’s tower to their winter feeding grounds in southern Africa and back again, the Swifts have arrived on exactly the day of their average time of arrival over the last couple of decades.  We know this because the Swifts in the tower are part of an ongoing study which is the longest running study of any bird colony in the world, started by David Lack in 1947, our Keeper of the Swifts, George Candelin still climbs the spiral stone stairs and ladders each week under red lights to carefully and quietly monitor each nest box throughout the breeding season an count and ring each chick noting down all sorts of other data as he does so from wind speeds to egg rejections, weights and even altercations between birds in boxes over rights to nest sites.  Whilst you can’t be involved in the weighing and ringing of the birds, we do offer the next best way of getting involved; our nest box webcams, which you can find on our ‘Swifts in the Tower’ page, allow you to watch all the action live as it happens from the arrival of the adults to the final fledging as the next generation takes wing for the first time. Hidden microphones will also allow you to hear as screaming parties bang their wings against the nest box covers in order to ascertain if they are occupied and the keening noises of begging chicks!  George’s stats and comments will also be downloaded to the Swift’s Diary each week enabling you to get a full picture of what’s happening across the colony’s 147 nest boxes as the season progresses.

Swifts have markedly declined in numbers over the last few decades, and their breeding season is one of the few times anyone has to measure population changes and you can get involved, too.  Check out if there is a Swift City project near you like Oxford Swift City @oxford_swift or @EdinburghSwifts to get directly involved in monitoring projects or just record your Swift sightings to the RSPB at their Swift Mapper site. All your observations give us a really good idea of how these enigmatic summer visitors are doing!

Update-in the half hour it has taken to write this blog post: the number of Swift’s flying around the tower is up to 5-and they’re screaming!

Summer is here!

Hedgehog Awareness Week

For Hedgehog Awareness Week, Zoology Collections Manager Mark Carnall and Museum Librarian and Archivist Danielle Czerkaszyn discuss these prickly and charming creatures.

The 2-8 May is Hedgehog Awareness Week, which give us an excuse, not that one were needed, to talk about these charismatic mammals. Although the West European hedgehog (or common hedgehog if you’re in Europe, these vernacular names get very confusing when geography and language is taken into account), Erinaceus europaeus, is probably the hedgehog that springs to mind to many of our readers, there are nearly twenty living species of hedgehog and many fossil species are known.

Hedgehog specimen at OUMNH

In terms of evolutionary relationships they share a family with the moonrat and the rather wonderful gynmures, distinctly un-hedgehog-like relatives.

Their characteristic spikes that run across the back of hedgehogs are modified hairs which are periodically replaced and each individual hedgehog has around 7000 spines at any one time, varying slightly with age and size. Behaviourally, they are competent climbers (and have a built in shock-absorbing coat should they fall) and surprisingly perhaps, all species are thought to be competent swimmers.

Although much loved across their native range, Erinaceus europaeus, is considered a pest species in New Zealand where it was deliberately introduced as a form of biological control, by acclimatisation societies and possible as pet animals. They have now spread to all but the highest parts of New Zealand threatening native species of birds, amphibians, reptiles and directly competing with native mammal species.

In 2020, Erinaceus europaeus was added to the Red List for British Mammals as vulnerable across the lists for Great Britain, England, Scotland and Wales informed by analysis of citizen science data although there remains some uncertainty about true population levels.

Unsurprisingly perhaps they are comparatively well represented in the collections at the Museum including specimens donated and prepared for the Museum from the 19th Century through to much more recent specimens acquired from road death animals for display. The specimen pictured above being one such relatively recent acquisition for display in the Museum’s display case on the animals featured in Alice in Wonderland.

We’ll leave you with one more hedgehog from the Museum’s library and archives. Hedgehogs unusual appearance initially led to some odd beliefs about why their quills existed. For example, in his book ‘The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents’ (1658) Edward Topsell wrote:

“The hedgehog’s meat is apple, worms and grapes: when he findeth them upon the earth, he rolleth on them until he hath fylled up all his prickles, and then carrieth them home to his den.”

– Edward Topsell

One of the most common questions about hedgehogs is how do they mate? The answer is of course, very carefully.

The astounding story of the fake butterfly specimen Papilio ecclipsis – would you be fooled?

For April Fool’s Day, our Senior Collections Manager Darren Mann recounts the story of an elegantly fake butterfly – Papilio ecclipsis – asking whether it was a piece of scientific fraudulence or practical joke that went awry.

James Petiver, a 17th-century London apothecary, was renowned for having one of the largest natural history collections in the world. Petiver (1665-1718) published some of the first books on British insects and created common names for some of our butterflies.

Volume 3, Plate II of Jones Icones – the two lower images are of Papilio ecclipsis

On plate 10 of his Gazophylacium naturae et artis — an illustrated catalogue of British insects (1702) he figured a unique butterfly that “exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly were it not for those black Spots, and apparent blue Moons in the lower wings”. It was given to him by his late friend and butterfly collector William Charlton (1642-1702). This butterfly was later named Papilio ecclipsis by the father of taxonomy himself, Carl Linnaeus, in his 1763 work Centuria Insectorum Rariorum, and it became known as the Charlton Brimstone or the blue-eyed brimstone.

Petiver’s collection was purchased by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), who later donated his entire ‘cabinet of curiosity’ to the nation, becoming the foundation for the Natural History Museum, London, originally part of the British Museum. It was here that wine merchant and naturalist William Jones (1745-1818) examined and later figured Petiver’s specimen in his Icones, an unpublished masterpiece of some 1,500 watercolour images of butterflies.

Jones’ Icones, held in the Museum’s archive, is the subject of numerous articles and is still examined by butterfly specialists the world over. Many of the specimens figured by Jones are no longer in existence, being ravished by pests or lost over time, so all that remains of these butterflies are the painted images within.

A drawer of British butterflies from the cabinet of William Jones. The Common Brimstone butterfly is the fourth from the right on the top row

When visiting London, Danish entomologist Johann Christian Fabricius (1745-1808) studied the paintings that Jones made and described over 200 species of butterfly new to science. Fabricius also visited the British Museum where he examined Petiver’s specimen of ecclipsis. In Entomologia systematica (1793) Fabricius revealed the enigmatic ecclipsis to be no more than a painted and “artificially spotted” specimen of the Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni). So, the dark spots and blue eyes were merely artistic licence, but whose?

Iconotypes, published by Thames & Hudson, will be available from October 2021

Petiver’s specimen, seen by both Jones and Fabricus in the British Museum in the late 18th century, had mysteriously disappeared by the following century. It is said that when Dr. Gray (1748-1806), Keeper of National Curiosities at the Museum, heard of the deception he became so enraged that he “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces.”

It is still unclear whether this was an example of scientific fraud by Charlton, or if it was intended as a practical joke that went awry.

There remain two specimens of ecclipsis in the collection of the Linnean Society. Although it is uncertain who created these, it is believed that these replicas were made by none other than our very own William Jones, as he was one of the few who had the artistic skills to undertake such work. The forthcoming publication of Iconotypes, showing Jones’ Icones in all its splendour, will hopefully demonstrate how he had both the knowledge and the skill to recreate these fascinating fakes.

Links and References
Salmon, M., Marren, P., Harley, B. (2001) The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors. University of California Press.
The Linnean Society https://www.linnean.org/
Vane-Wright, R. I. (2010) William Jones of Chelsea (1745–1818), and the need for a digital online ‘Icones’. Antenna. 34(1), 16–21

Excavating amber

First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit IGME-UB.

By Dr Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, Research Fellow

Amber, or fossilised plant resin, is a unique material to learn about the history of life on Earth. Its incredible preservation and ability to capture life “in action” are well known thanks to the Jurassic Park saga, but fewer people know where amber is found, what it looks like in the field, and how it is gathered.

Cretaceous amber, about 130 to 70 million years old, is the oldest amber that provides abundant fossils, specifically insects and spiders. Ecosystems drastically changed during this period due to global greenhouse conditions and the diversification of flowering plants, among other factors. Amber from that time has been discovered in Lebanon, Spain, France, Myanmar, eastern United States, Canada, and northern Russia.

My research team and I carry out regular amber excavations in northern Spain, working in teams of six to ten people. The outcrops that we excavate are often located next to roads and highways because amber is typically uncovered during roadworks. Excavations take place during the summer or fall to try and minimise the risk of rain, and we usually embark on one field trip each year.

The goal is to recover as much amber as possible – usually a few kilograms – from the muddy and sandy sediments. These materials were transported downstream tens of million of years ago by heavy rain and river swellings from the forests where the resin was produced, before being finally deposited in near-shore areas.

Manual extraction of amber. Credit IGME-UB
Manual extraction of amber in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, northern Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

I find amber excavations quite romantic. In the field, amber has a dull appearance that makes it difficult to distinguish from rocks or woody remains. This is due to an opaque crust resulting from oxidation in the sediments and other processes.

This outer layer makes detecting potential fossils inside the amber highly unlikely while the excavation is ongoing. So, in the field we just gather as many amber pieces as possible, and hope for the best.

Only when amber is polished – or shows broken surfaces – does its distinct yellowish to reddish shine emerge, and any possible fossils within become evident. Some ambers are highly fossiliferous, while others are very poor in fossils.

Amber can be gathered by hand using regular tools such as hammers. However, the most efficient method to extract amber from soft sediments is with concrete mixers! This rather unsophisticated piece of equipment provides the best way to recover medium quantities of amber in the field.

We charge water and amber-bearing sediments into the mixer, and after stirring for a while amber floats to the top because it is less dense than muddy water. Then, the surface of the water containing the amber is poured into sieves, which separates even the tiniest pieces.

Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after washing
Amber pieces recovered in a sieve after having been “washed” from their sediment. First amber excavation in the La Manjoya outcrop, Asturias, northern Spain in 2017.

After fieldwork, many hours will be spent looking for fossils within the amber and preparing them. Gathering raw amber is just the first part of a process in unearthing the secrets held within – fragments of encapsulated time.

Top image: First amber excavation in the El Soplao outcrop, Cantabria, N Spain in 2008. Credit: IGME/UB.

Oxford University Museum 1860

An ever-evolving museum

Oxford University Museum 1860

As we embark on our Life, As We Know It redisplay project – the first substantial changes to the permanent exhibits in more than 20 years – our Senior Archives and Library Assistant Danielle Czerkaszyn takes a look back at 160 years of an ever-evolving museum, in the first of a series of posts around the redisplay.

On 15 June 1860, Henry W. Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, wrote:

The Oxford Museum slowly approaches completion. The building will shortly sink into insignificance when compared to the contents it will display, and the minds it will mould.

The University Museum at Oxford, as the Museum was originally known, was established to bring together scientific teaching and collections from across the University under one roof. The doors opened in June 1860, and soon after several departments moved into the building – Geometry, Experimental Physics, Mineralogy, Geology, Zoology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Medicine.

Ground floor plan 1866
Ground floor plan of the University Museum in 1866

When the University Museum opened, it was not simply a museum; each department got a lecture room, offices, work rooms and laboratories, as well as use of the library and display areas. According to Acland, a key figure in the Museum’s foundation, in 1860 the outer south aisle of the main court featured mineralogical specimens and chemical substances, while the inner aisle exhibited Oxfordshire dinosaurs.

Acland’s detailed descriptions of the central aisle highlighted zoological specimens with twelve parallel cases of taxidermy birds, four side cases of taxidermy animals, including animals on top of the cases, and six table cases down the centre showing shells, crabs, insects, corals and sponges, starfish and urchins. The inner north aisle presented reptiles and fish, while the outer aisle introduced the Ashmolean‘s zoology specimens, as well as anatomical and physiological collections.

The Museum in 1890
The Museum court in 1890

Although members of the public were welcome in the Museum from the start, the departments which inhabited the building were more concerned with teaching space, research facilities and the storage of their specimens than the needs of visitors. As a result, most of the early displays and cases were arranged in a systematic manner that focused on space-saving practicalities and communicating scientific knowledge, rather than aesthetics.

Geology specimens on the walls
Geology specimens displayed on shelves on the walls

Early Dodo display case
An early display focused around the Museum’s famous dodo specimen

Tracing through old annual reports it is clear that cases in the main court have been almost constantly refreshed and updated, with displays highlighting new specimens and changes to scientific understanding, or through practical improvements to lighting, electricity points and environmental monitoring. Nonetheless, the overall layout of the cases remained the same until the early 1980s.

The Museum court, unknown date
The Museum court, unknown date

From the early 1990s a focus on public engagement began to increase. Longer opening hours were introduced and displays were redesigned to link to both undergraduate teaching as well as the National Curriculum. Temporary exhibitions also regularly featured in the main court to increase the variety of specimens on display.

The Museum court in 1994
The Museum court in 1994

Megalosaurus temporary exhibition
A temporary exhibition about the Megalosaurus dinosaur in the 1990s

The turn of the millennium marked the start of a major project to update the main court displays. The central cases were reconfigured and a new set of introductory cases installed, including many themes familiar to visitors in recent years, such as exhibits on the Oxfordshire dinosaurs, Alice in Wonderland, and the Oxford Dodo.

T. rex makes its presence known

These showcases were complemented by the addition of an imposing cast of ‘Stan’ the Tyrannosaurus rex in the centre aisle, positioned behind the historic Iguanodon cast. The changes were well received and attendance in the month of July 2000 was the highest ever recorded. The Museum also introduced live insects for the first time in 2000, with Upper Gallery tanks containing Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, South American Burrowing Cockroaches, a variety of stick insects, and some large tarantulas.

The project completed in late 2005 when the displays on Evolution, the History of Life, and Invertebrate Biodiversity were installed. Touchable specimens were also given their own permanent display area, allowing visitors the opportunity to physically interact with natural history material. These and other public engagement activities were recognised when the Museum won The Guardian newspaper’s Family Friendly Museum of the Year Award for 2005.

People around a table of touchable taxidermy specimens
New tables of touchable specimens were introduced for visitors in the 2000s.

The last substantial update to the fabric of the building took place in 2013, when the Museum closed for a year to fix the leaks in the glass roof. Taking advantage of the closure, a major piece of conservation work was undertaken on the seven whale specimens suspended from the roof. Having been on display for over 100 years, the whales were in need of considerable TLC.

A conservation team worked on the whale skeletons during the Museum’s closure for roof repairs in 2013.

Today, new and exciting changes are afoot as we embark on the first major changes to our permanent displays in almost 20 years. New high-end showcases will present displays under the concept of Life, As We Know It – beautiful presentations of the diversity of life, and the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment. The new exhibits will look at how the biological processes of evolution combine with the geological processes of our dynamic Earth to give rise to the immense, interconnected variety of the natural world.

Looking back across the decades we can see that the Museum is never static, but instead constantly changing and adapting, shifting from its foundation as a Victorian centre of academia to the accessible and engaging space we know and love today.

The Life, As We Know It redisplay project is supported by a generous gift from FCC Communities Environment.