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!

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
Artwork by @CatherineRRye

Drawn to Nature

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With lockdown and the long winter nights shuffling the nation’s emotions like a ham-fisted magician with a damp deck of cards, we have no doubt all suffered from a case of the winter blues at some point recently. While the Museum and its inspiring specimens have been closed to visitors we have tried out some new approaches to bring you the solace and creative inspiration that nature can provide.

events manager Laura is seen leaning over a lighting set-up that is shedding light on a table with specimens.
Events manager Laura hard at work on a lighting set-up for a Drawn to Nature live stream.

Drawn to Nature is a new series of online events designed to lift people’s spirits with a combined art and science activity. Originally planned as a wellbeing event to take place in the Museum, the online version was created in response to the last lockdown. We start each session with a short talk by a member of the Museum’s collections or research team, who share their passion for a selection of favourite specimens. The talk is followed by a chance for viewers to explore their creative sides by drawing the specimens, while learning more by about them through some Q&A.

It’s not an art lesson as such, but more a chance for people to find inspiration from some of the jewels of the natural world held in our collections. We hope it helps people to relax, find inspiration, immerse themselves in a creative activity, and learn a little natural history at the same time.

Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.

Our first session came from Life Collections manager Mark Carnall, who talked us through the natural history of Nautiloids, the fascinating shelled molluscs that are related to other cephalopods such as squid and octopus. Lit and arranged beautifully by our Events Manager Laura Ashby, their intricate chambered shells and 100 tentacles proved a challenging subject, but one that resulted in an array of wonderful artworks in a variety of styles and media shared on social media.

Following Mark’s talk, we explored some of the wonderful specimens from our entomology collections with our expert speaker Zoe Simmons, Head of Life Collections. Zoe picked out some of the most beautiful flies from our five million-plus insects. Using microscopes, specialist lighting, and careful placement, the specimens were a real hit and again followed by some inspired artworks posted online by attendees from across the world (‘best night of lockdown yet!’ enthused one attendee).

Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.

And there’s more to come. Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 10 March), Earth Collections Manager Dr Hilary Ketchum introduces the strange-looking carnivorous marine reptiles of the Jurassic – the plesiosaurs. We hope to bring you yet more of the inspirational well-being the natural world has to offer.

You can watch the Drawn to Nature streams online in the playlist on our YouTube channel:

To sign up for our next event, visit www.oumnh.ox.ac.uk/events

Top image: Artwork by @CatherineRRye

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.