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.

Uncovering ancient threads

By Dr. Frankie Dunn, Research Fellow

Some of the very oldest complex, macroscopic communities on Earth appear in the fossil record about 570 million years ago and record the presence of a group of organisms – the rangeomorphs – with an unfamiliar body plan that, at their ultimate extinction, was lost from life’s repertoire.

Rangeomorphs are characterised by a strange frondose branching anatomy, where large primary branches host smaller branches which themselves host smaller branches again. This arrangement appears to maximise the surface-area to volume ratio of the organism, rather like a lung or a gill would today.

The smallest known rangeomorphs are less than a centimetre in length, but they grew huge and the largest records indicate they could stand more than two metres tall. There is no evidence to suggest that rangeomorphs were able to move around, rather, they lived stuck to the sea floor in the deep ocean, far below the reach of light.

Despite this strange set of characters, there is growing consensus that rangeomorphs likely represent very ancient records of animal life. However, they lived at such a remote time in Earth’s history that they do not possess any direct living descendants. Given all this, it may not be a surprise to hear that we know relatively little about how these organisms made their living and came to dominate the ancient seafloors.

Fig A
The UNESCO world heritage site Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Canada, is one of the sites on which we find exceptionally preserved rangeomorph fossils. Photo: Alex Liu.

In order to better understand them, my co-author Alex Liu and I travelled to Newfoundland, Canada to explore the rocks which host these remarkable fossils and over the past few years we have made an unexpected discovery. We found that fine filamentous threads connect rangeomorph fronds of the same species, in some cases over many meters, though they are typically between two and 40 centimetres long.

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An undescribed rangeomorph fossil with filamentous connections at the base of the frond. We find that this species of rangeomorph can be connected to each other over meters! Photo: Alex Liu. 

It is possible that these filaments were involved in clonal reproduction, like strawberry plants today, but they may have had additional functions such as sharing nutrients or providing stability in strong ocean currents.

The discovery of the filaments means that we have to reconsider how we define an individual rangeomorph, and may help us understand how rangeomorphs (seemingly) rapidly colonised deep-sea environments. Either way, some reassessment of the palaeobiology of these unique organisms is certainly required!

More information:

  • Read the full research paper here.

 

Top image: Beothukis plumosa, a rangeomorph from Newfoundland showing the intricate branching anatomy of rangeomorphs. Photo: Alex Liu.

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.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?


These are some of the big questions asked in our current special exhibition, Settlers. It’s also the title of a new artwork by Ian Kirkpatrick that has just been commissioned by the Museum.

You may remember, back in July we put out a call for artists to respond to the main themes of the upcoming Settlers exhibition. We received an incredible response, with almost 100 proposals, so needless to say we were spoilt for choice! After several rounds of shortlisting, discussion and deliberation, we chose Ian Kirkpatrick, a Canadian artist now based in York.

Lit up for the Settlers exhibition launch.
Credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

We were excited by Ian’s bold iconography and references to the history of art and design, while using shapes and colours usually seen on contemporary street signage. His approach to the themes and issues around migration, genetics and settlement were innovative and brave. We also couldn’t wait to see how his work would look in our Victorian neo-Gothic building.

Ian working in his studio. Credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

Over a period of four months, Ian researched, planned and created his spectacular final piece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Here he explains a little about his artistic process:

 

Most of my projects begin with a period of research – often looking at historical events or interesting facts related to the brief. I often sketch out a very rough layout of the design in my notebook, then create the actual artwork directly onto the iPad or computer. Because I use vector-based software, I can easily rearrange or modify graphics – so the design is constantly shifting until the artwork is finished.

Ian Kirkpatrick’s final design. The two smaller panels (L and R) can be seen on display in the Settlers exhibition gallery.

Ian created a series of six panels that explores the social and natural causes behind human migration, both in ancient times and in the present day. It presents historical and modern peoples moving across a landscape in response to conflict, climate change and urbanisation, and remixes imagery from classical paintings alongside iconography from Great War postcards, Roman coins and the Bayeux Tapestry.

Ian, Peter Johnson and Adam Fisk installing the main panels of the artwork.

Of course, in a building like ours, the installation of such a large, bold piece of work would never be easy. Peter Johnson, the Museum’s Building Manager, came up with an ingenious solution to hold the panels into the arches, without damaging the masonry by drilling or glueing.

Pieces prepared in the workshop, to sit on the capitals and support the artwork

Hand-cut pieces of plywood were made to snugly fit round the capitals, so that the Dibond aluminium sheets don’t rest on the stone.

Credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

So, standing back and looking at the finished piece, looking resplendent in the winter sunshine and attracting the attention of hundreds of museum visitors, how does Ian feel?

The project was a lot of work – but it’s also been very satisfying to see it finally installed. Although the piece initially started as a comment on contemporary British settlement, it evolved into something that explored global migration throughout all of history.  Trying to find a way to tackle a theme that big, while still remaining visually coherent, is quite tricky!  But I was really pleased with the results and love seeing the finished piece housed within the magnificent neo-Gothic architecture of the Museum!

 

Seasonal sights

The Museum’s collections are on the move. For decades, a deconsecrated church has been used to house material from our Earth collections, but we now have a new and improved off-site space, and between now and the end of 2018 a huge project is underway to sort and shift these objects. You can find out more about all this in our Stories from the Stores article. 

Chantelle Dollimore, Move Project Assistant, recently emigrated from Australia and has been experiencing her first British autumn. Here she shares a glimpse of the natural encounters the collections move has offered so far.

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As the project team for the collections move settles into the daily hustle and bustle of work there are extraordinary things happening outside. Winter is coming; we have already wound our clocks back for that extra hour of sleep. Leading up to that time, creatures great and small have been preparing themselves for seasonal changes.

Autumn leaves litter the footpath to the store

Something truly blissful in an English autumn is the deciduous trees shedding their leaves as the days grow shorter and chillier. The crunching underfoot of hues of browns, reds, yellows and oranges adds charm as we make the rounds of our 19th-century church workspace.

A Red Kite soars above the Museum’s offsite collections store

Driving from the Museum to the off-site store, we’re likely to see at least one Red Kite. Less than 30 years ago Red Kites were nearly extinct, but through conservation efforts they have flourished in the Oxfordshire countryside. Their distinct calls and unique silhouette, with long narrow wings and forked tail, are a haunting yet beautiful addition to the skyline.

A Red Kite (Milvus milvus) on display in the Museum

The move project team have also been visited by a different ‘bird’ altogether; the ladybird! At this time of year, when you find one you will most likely see many more close by. When a ladybird finds the perfect place to hibernate for spring it excretes a pheromone to attract more to the area. For some, the perfect place seems to be inside the church itself!

(Lady)birds of a feather flock together

Grey Squirrels and deer are also making appearances throughout the day while we’re working. One cannot help but watch as the bushy tail of the squirrel peeks through the hedges as it forages for food and admire the deer as they stroll through the fields happily unaware of our activities some 50 metres away.

Although it’s great to admire the specimens on display in the Museum, I love that my job allows me to get out and about to appreciate the wildlife of the Oxfordshire countryside. There’s always something unexpected… like a butterfly choosing its resting place on some disassembled storage shelves.

A butterfly (Nymphalidae sp.) in torpor finds shelter from the impending cold

To keep up with all the move project action, follow the museum hashtag #storiesfromthestore on Twitter @morethanadodo.