Image of the HMS Beagle

Darwin’s dockdown reading list

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant 

Yes, lockdown 3 is long but imagine being stuck on a boat for years on end with no TV, no internet and definitely no Netflix. Luckily, when Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831 he had access to a library of over 400 books on the ship. For Darwin Day, 12th February, we explored some of what Darwin read to help him pass the time…

Image of Young Darwin
Young Darwin by George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Darwin was following in the footsteps of earlier voyage naturalists, the Beagle library was well stocked with an excellent collection of books chronicling classic expeditions, such as James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean (although this book is a later account of Cook’s voyages). Not only did reading about these earlier voyages inspire Darwin to undertake his own, but these accounts gave him insight into life at sea as well as fascinating details of some of the faraway places he was expecting to visit.

James Cook’s voyages

Many of the Beagle library books were beautifully illustrated with woodcuts or engravings of animals. Georges Cuvier’s, The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization… (1827-35) had several volumes full of spectacular images covering mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, fossils, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids and insects. While Darwin may not have had all 16 volumes with him on the Beagle, as some were published while his voyage was in progress, the numerous volumes Darwin did have access to would have provided a wealth of information and detailed illustrations to aid in species identification.

Using the vivid descriptions and chart in Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814) Darwin was able to identify the colours of the natural world and accurately record the colours of the plants and animals he encountered on his voyage. This beautiful pocket-sized taxonomic guide provided a uniform standard for colours that other naturalists would have understood and was an indispensable tool for Darwin in his scientific observations.

The most important book for Darwin was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Darwin was gifted the first volume of the first edition by the Captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, as a welcoming present for joining the voyage. Darwin received the second and third volumes while in South America. In Principles, Lyell argued the earth is extremely old and the processes that changed the earth in the past are still at work today. Inspired by Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ proposal, this theory allowed for the longer time span Darwin believed necessary for evolution to occur.

Reading other books of exploration encouraged Darwin to chronicle his own voyage. His bestseller was published in 1839 as Darwin’s Journal of Researches. A revised 2nd edition was published in 1845 with a dedication to Charles Lyell and his “admirable Principles of Geology.”

To learn more about what Charles Darwin read on board the Beagle: http://darwin-online.org.uk/BeagleLibrary/Beagle_Library_Introduction.htm.

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.

The most insulting letter I ever had!

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, and Kiah Conroy, placement student from Oxford Brookes University

James Charles Dale (1791-1872) was a pioneering English naturalist who devoted most of his life to entomology. Dale’s specimen collection and archive represent a unique historical record of the insect fauna of Great Britain and everyday life in the 19th century. Originally housed in more than 30 cabinets in the Museum’s entomology department, the Dale collection contains many notable specimens, including the world’s oldest pinned insect and several species now extinct in Britain.

Dale was also a prolific writer and the Museum archive holds his notebooks, manuscripts and around 5,000 letters from over 250 correspondents. They form one of the most important historical legacies left by any British entomologist. The individual letters were numbered by Dale and tied into bundles relating to the correspondents. While the bundles were great from an organisational point of view; in terms of long term preservation and accessibility this wasn’t exactly ideal. We were lucky enough to have a placement student from Oxford Brookes University who helped facilitate the first stage of reorganising the letters and rehousing them to ensure their longevity. Kiah shares her experience of working in the archives:

During my placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was working in the Library and Archives department. The work I did whilst I was there consisted of helping sort through the letters of entomologist James Charles Dale. This was a huge opportunity for me because I had never worked with archival materials before and it was something I was hugely interested in. Some might say archiving letters can be boring, but sometimes you stumble across really interesting finds. For example, when I was working on the letters I found one that Dale had addressed as ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ This is fascinating because his letters gave an insight into the relationships he had with fellow entomologists.

James Charles Dale (1791-1872)

The letter Kiah describes was from Reverend Henry Burney, an amateur entomologist who corresponded with Dale between 1837 and 1847. Although the correspondence is one-sided since we only have Burney’s letters to Dale, it is clear the two had a falling out over money which Burney owed to Dale. As Kiah was rehousing the letters she noticed that the correspondence between Dale and Burney became increasingly tense.

Dale had a habit of annotating many of the letters he received and his annotations on Burney’s letters are curt and cold- he was clearly unimpressed that Burney took so long to pay him back- culminating in his final comment that this was ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ Oh, the drama of the 19th century!

Along with archiving the letters, I also learnt how to catalogue archive material to a high standard as well as learning how to put the James Charles Dale Letters into the museum’s collection management database Emu. This was the most challenging aspect for me, because I had no idea how intricate museum databases could be. Luckily, the whole Library and Archive team were very supportive and showed me the steps. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum and I am very grateful I was given the chance to work there.

Presenting… Christmas Island

By Eileen Westwig, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Life Collections.

About 320 km south of Java in the Indian Ocean lies Christmas Island. Although discovered and named on Christmas Day in 1643, the island remained unexplored until its first settlement in 1888, a development which had dire consequences for some of its native species.

Christmas Island is home to a variety of endemic animals such as rats, land crabs, butterflies and many birds. The accumulation of bird droppings over thousands of years made the island rich in phosphate, and the commercial potential of these deposits brought many expeditions to the island. With the ships’ cargo came black rats.

Two species of endemic rats, Maclear’s Rat (Rattus macleari) and the Bulldog Rat (Rattus nativitatis) went extinct within 20 years of settlement, despite having been previously very numerous on the island.

One of the skins of Maclear’s Rat (Rattus macleari) collected by H.E. Durham, and now held in the Life Collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Maclear’s Rat, seen at the top of the page in an illustration from an 1887 publication, was described as chestnut brown above, with a partly white, long tail. It was once the most numerous mammal on the island ‘occurring in swarms’. The Bulldog Rat had a much shorter tail and a layer of subcutaneous fat up to 2 centimetres thick, the function of which is unknown to this day.

The likely cause of their extinction was the introduction of diseases by the ship rats, to which the Christmas Island rodents had no immunity. The disappearance of the native rats also had a knock-on effect: the parasitic Christmas Island Flea (Xenopsylla nesiotes) depended on the rats as hosts, and so the fleas became extinct with the rats’ demise.

In 1901 Dr. Herbert E. Durham, a British parasitologist investigating the origins of beriberi disease, led an expedition to Christmas Island. During his visit he collected several specimens of Maclear’s Rat, but was unable to find any Bulldog Rats, despite a lengthy search and the offer of a reward. Two of the nine Maclear’s Rats Durham obtained showed abundant parasites, trypanosomes, in their blood.

Christmas Island possesses quite a number of peculiar species in its fauna, and it is regrettable that observations were not made before animals had been imported to this isolated station, as well as that my own notes are so incomplete.

Dr. Herbert E. Durham

Durham also found blood parasites in the native fruit bats (Pteropus melanotus) but noted that these were unlikely to have been introduced, instead were “an old standing native occurrence.” These bats still inhabit various islands in the Indian Ocean, including Christmas Island, where they are critically endangered.

Original letter by H.E. Durham offering his Christmas Island specimens to the Museum in 1938.

The Museum holds a range of material from Christmas Island, including six skins and three skulls of Rattus macleari, which were collected by H. E. Durham in 1901-02, and donated in 1938.

Visit the Museum’s Presenting… case between now and 6 March to see Christmas Island specimens from the collections.

From pin to paper

Katherine Child, image technician in the Museum’s Life collections, doesn’t just use photography to capture the beauty of specimens. She is also an artist and has been trying out innovative techniques for her paintings. You may remember her amazing moth illustrations created with deposits of verdigris on pinned insects and she’s now using that technique to explore Museum staff’s favourite insect specimens.

Verdigris is a green corrosion often found on old pins within entomology collections (as well as elsewhere, on things like statues and copper pipes). Last year, after learning that the substance was once used as a pigment, I decided to try and make my own paint.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where metal reacts with insect fats, or lipids.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur. While a beautiful shade of green, the substance is damaging in natural history collections, where it can actually develop inside specimens and if left, split them irreversibly. So as part of the conservation of the Hope Entomological Collections, verdigris is removed.

I started to collect up the substance as it was cleaned from specimens and after about three years (you only get a little bit per pin) I was ready to make my paint! After my first moth project, the only question was, what to paint next…?

Attelabid_small
Byctiscus populi or ‘The Attelabid that changed my life’, chosen by Zoë (collections manager) who said ‘I saw a pink version of this species in the Natural History Museum in London and that’s when I decided I wanted to study entomology’.

With an estimated 6 million insects and arachnids in the entomology collections, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. You can pull open any one of thousands of draws and find astonishing specimens. While I have favourites, my first inclinations as to what to paint still felt a little arbitrary. After mulling over various possibilities, I decided to get help!

Chosen by DPhil student Leonidas, Agalmatium bilobum is a little bug which lays its eggs on tree bark, then covers them with mud to protect them.

I asked my co-workers what their favourite insects were, then opened the question out to regular volunteers and visitors of the Life collections. I loved finding out why people chose the things they did. Answers varied from ‘It was the first spider I ever looked at under a microscope aged 12’ to ‘Because they’re cool’ to ‘Because they have an ingenious way of manipulating spiders!’

Nuctenea_small
One of arachnologist Russell’s favourite spiders: Nuctenea umbratica. Though common in the UK, umbratica is Latin for “living in the shadows”, and it often hides away during the day. The slight transparency of the paint lends itself to a spider’s glittering eyes.

 

Painting this live African Mantis Sphodromantis lineola (chosen by conservator Jackie) was made slightly more challenging by the fact that the subject thought Katherine’s pencil might be tasty.

Most of the subjects I painted were based on specimens from the Museum’s collections or specimens individuals had brought in from their own collections, but one favourite was a live African Mantis, housed in the department to help with education and outreach. When I began to draw her she was intrigued by the movement of my pencil and came to the front of the tank, to follow every mark I made with her intimidating gaze.

A detail from the final painting

Attelabid that...
Katherine’s fabulous finished painting, which will be framed and displayed in the Life collections department.

Though time consuming, the painting was loads of fun to research and do. It’s fantastic to be surrounded not only by extremely knowledgeable people, but also by people with a genuine passion for what they do and a love for the insects (and spiders) they study.

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.