Vulnerable until proven Least Concern?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes the global Red List of Threatened Species and provides the standard framework under which species are assessed under a number of categories; extinct, critically endangered, threatened etc. The red list categories are used globally, continentally and regionally and are assessed by expert groups and updated periodically. When you read about species being declared extinct or new reports on threatened biodiversity, many of the times that will be informed by data from the IUCN Red List or reflect a change in a species’ status on the/a list.

The information in the portal is referenced in national data books, museum and aquaria displays and the effort in compiling and reviewing this critical biodiversity data represents countless hours of work by thousands of contributors globally. It’s a model of international collaboration and the resource itself contains a rich amount of referenced information on a species by species basis useful for academic scientists, on the ground biologists and science communicators.

However, progress on updating the Red List across biodiversity is incredibly slow. Both in terms of the proportion of species which have been assessed but also the ongoing process of reviewing and updating information which even, with the best will in the world, will always lag behind the current status of these species in the world. At the time of writing, the headline figures on the portal are that 37,400 species are threatened with extinction, representing 28% of assessed species. Playing around with the numbers in the database, 134425 species have currently been assessed, 18752 are currently rated as Data Deficient (i.e. there isn’t enough information to make an evidenced assessment), 69149 are Least Concern (sort of the neutral position but can include species under declines of pressures regionally but not significant enough to warrant a negative status) and the rest of assessed species fall into categories of growing severity, the lowest being Near Threatened (7889) through to Extinct and Extinct in the Wild (900 and 79 species respectively). Although the numbers of assessed species seem encouragingly high, depending on what you take as an ‘upper limit’ for species diversity, only <1-<10% of species currently have an entry. At this rate, the task of assessing every species will never be complete, let alone the work needed to constantly review and update species’ statuses.

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A Molluscan History of Britain and Ireland

Warning, this one’s a long read! The received wisdom is that this is anathema to a modern reader but as the ents say…

I’ve been thinking a lot about maps recently. Specifically species distribution maps. Nowadays, at the click of a button you can bring up all kinds of mapped data that our predecessors would find nothing short of magical. Portals like GBIF, irecord (requires login) and NBN atlas represent some of the most impressive collaborative efforts to answer the simple biological question, where do you find different kinds of organisms. However number 1. They are incomplete. Many museum collections datasets are yet to be liberated, the literature needs to be endlessly combed through and I can only imagine the records and antiquated datasets that sit locked up in filing cabinets, on ageing PCs, floppy disks and yellowed print outs. However number 2. It will never be complete. Short of giving every blade of grass, tadpole, cormorant and hedgehog an GPS enabled anklet, our attempts are recording and documenting are ultimately in vain. There are vast swathes of organisms we don’t even know how to look for;- the tiny, cryptic, elusive, unloved and rare.

To me this is both humbling but also deeply worrying. How do we make any decisions about our interaction with the rest of organismal life if we don’t know all the facts? Human hubris in this area is also well documented. From disastrous deliberate introductions, accidental releases, biological control that goes wrong to the many, many ways in which organisms defy the rigid parameters we assume controls and restrains them, it would be fair to say our educated guesswork has been hit and miss to date. But a fear of the unknown has never been something to paralyse us for too long and this is where modelling and experimentation can incrementally fill in some of these gaps.

One thing that’s it’s taken me too long a time thinking about natural history to really appreciate is how, at least on land, our species has irrevocably interfered with (and not necessarily just ruined) everything, especially when it comes to Britain and Ireland. This (finally) brings me on to the molluscan history of Britain and Ireland, which is as much a geological and anthropological history as it is a molluscan one as I hope to elucidate below.

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Museum Research Visitor Profiles

Perhaps one of the least talked about audiences, within the museum sector, are research visitors. Here I don’t discriminate between what makes a researcher a researcher, it could be a titled world expert wanting to study objects, an enthusiastic budding biologist with some specimens to identify or an artist wanting to paint, sketch or draw museum specimens, and everything in between. Basically, all the behind the scenes visitors to museums as opposed to the tourists, day trippers, event attendees, school and university groups.

Facilitating research visits is one of the hidden, often time consuming, yet brilliant parts of museum work. In larger museums it’s a endless troupe (troop, troop?) of visitors and enquiries that can take up half the working year. At smaller museums it may be a quieter flow of enquiring minds a year. I say this work is brilliant because this kind of self-directed access to museums is one of the best things about them and speaks from the heart of a function of museums. We hold this stuff and information about this stuff with a dash of expertise (although many researchers bring their own) for you to access. How can we help you? First-time visitors (although often the first of many) express gratitude and often surprise at the help they receive but, although it may be forgotten or not often shouted about, it’s a big part of what museums are here for and we record and report researchers. In part this use justifies museum’s existence and is an absolutely unique function of them.

In my experience, there is a smidge of snootines sometimes about curation/collections management as service provision, but it is rare. Many museum colleagues go to extraordinary lengths to help enquirers and visitors despite it not especially being the big shouty project work or generate numbers that can in anyway compete with the raw through-the-door numbers, the flawed but unshakeable yardstick that still carriers a lot of the weighting of museums comparative worth. For my money the fact that you should be able to book a visit to any museum, see objects from their collection for reference, study or sheer pleasure is a key part of what they are there for, baked into the ethos of many museum’s founding and a fundamental function of accessibility to human knowledge held for the wider good in theory without cost, discrimination or judgement.

Read on for One and Done-rs, Precocious Prodigies and Inside Cricketers…

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Collections Newspeak 5.0

Museum collections are boring. There we said it. They desperately need a makeover. The words and language associated with museum collections have the amazing power of making even the soggiest of lemon drizzle cakes dry up and desiccate like a cracker left in the desert. Recently, one Welsh Museum director’s head famously dropped off through sheer boredom at a collections committee during a particularly dry discussion of making sure the museum legally acquires new obj… christ, it nearly happened to me just now. You know the story. In a recent Museums Organisation survey on perspectives on collections an astonishing 78% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement I wish our collections staff would die so I could get on with my work.

These days, fussing about the meaning of language has never been less important or inconsequential and it’s something we can all get our teeth into without really having to change anything that we do or say or think. Everyone can and should have an opinion about second guessing what everyone else is trying to say, regardless of their qualification or need to. It is known. With this kind of meaningless change we can all get behind, firmly commit to and not have to do anything about in mind the following significant update to Collections Newspeak, CN 5.0, was made at the 67th (virtual) Congress of Collections Concordance Registry (CCCR). Please diligently expunge all retired terms and update with suggested new ones. This way we hope to dupe the museum sector into thinking collections and collections work is as exciting as [this decades buzzword concept] or even the perpetual self flagellation of everything the sector does in the hope that somebody, anybody notices us.

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Humans Do The Funniest Things

Something I’ve written about before but continues to surprise me when I encounter it, is that despite all the fancy software, listings of all the laborious statistical models, double blind tests and holy of all holies the untouchable power of peer review that is part and parcel of contemporary life sciences research you can still find, with relative ease, entrenched great chain of being philosophy that for me, completely torpedoes and sinks some of the merit of the research in question.

I’m not saying we can ever unhook ourselves from the delusion that we’re special wee beings amongst the rest of organismal life because we’ve got a chin, invented jazz, pot noodles and various other debatable accolades that propel us to the top of some pyramid or front of some queue but I do wish it wasn’t quite so explicit in the structure of degree courses, the language we use to talk about evolution, the way we frame interest in science stories and of course how we frame our relationship with the rest of the organismal life.

Read on, dear reader for the paradoxical platypus, concerned scientists who are earthworms and other lies we tell ourselves at night.

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Biodiversity Loss On Display

I originally wrote this way back in the alternate dimension of January 2020 and for reasons obvious and less obvious it never went out where I intended it to. I’ve found myself digging it out and sending it to others a few times since though so here’s me finally putting it out there, for ease of finding and sending on, more than anything else.

Public displays in museums are the thinnest veneers both in terms of the number and type of objects you encounter but also because very few museum colleagues get to work on exhibitions, very infrequently. Having said that, they are a very ‘loud’ veneer (mixed metaphors much) designed, as they are, to speak directly to a broad visitor group. I’ve recently been working on and thinking about large scale display changes in museums which come up fairly infrequently but present a lot of challenges, particularly when it comes to the natural world and especially looking at topics like biodiversity. How do you squeeze the vastness of the concept of biodiversity, a topic that is complex, important and flawed, into the finite volume of a display case for a diverse general visitor audience?

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First Marine Fish Declared Extinct. Mass extinction? What Mass Extinction?

I was rather miffed with myself to have completely missed an important but sad conservation biology milestone back in March this year when the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species was updated to list the smooth handfish Sympterichthys unipennis as officially extinct. The milestone got a bit of coverage in the news but given the nature of news cycles these days it’s sort of understandable that a database updating to declare an obscure and not especially photogenic animal extinct, a fish no less, got a bit buried. But why was this particular bit of news such a landmark? The listing of Sympterichthys unipennis as extinct by the IUCN is the first marine bony fish to be declared extinct in modern times. Now, that needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a bit of weaselling there to turn it into a more notable fact but given how we’re inundated with information – about biodiversity loss, changes we should all be making to benefit nature – how is it only now that the first (marine, modern etc. etc.) fish is being declared extinct? Have scientists been alarmist all this time? One extinct fish out of the tens of thousands of living species doesn’t seem too bad, does it? Surely you’d expect more if we are in the midsts of the sixth mass extinction?

Let’s unpick what this status change means and delve into a topic that genuinely keeps me up at night: how do we know a species is extinct? Hopefully this will help clarify why this is an important milestone and why it absolutely doesn’t mean that worrying claims about biodiversity loss are overly cautious or unwarranted. Continue reading

Worms of Discovery

Museums serve a wide range of research visitors and a lot of the working day can just be trying to schedule them all in! However, with rare exception, we get a lot out of the exchange and I managed to find the time to write up a few recent visits including this one about one of the more obscure major groups of animals.

More Than A Dodo

By Mark Carnall, Life Collections manager

The Museum’s zoology collections contain a dizzying diversity of animal specimens. It is a collection that would take multiple lifetimes to become familiar with, let alone expert in. So we benefit hugely from the expertise of visiting researchers – scientists, artists, geographers, historians – to name just a few of the types of people who can add valuable context and expand our knowledge about the specimens in our care.

Earlier this year, Dr Andrew McCarthy of Canterbury College (East Kent College Group) got in touch to ask about our material of Acanthocephala, an under-studied group of parasitic animals sometimes called the spiny-headed worms.

Although there are around 1,400 species of acanthocephalans, they are typically under-represented in museum collections. Dr McCarthy combed through the fluid-preserved and microscope slide collections here, examining acanthocephalan specimens for undescribed species, rare representatives and unknown parasitic associations.

Close up of OUMNH-ZC-7483 Section of blue whale intestine with mysterious acanthocephalan parasites Close up…

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Museums and… Good Exhibitions

Another blogpost shamefully recycled from Twitter, here’s the thread if you wanted to check out the thoughts as they were. I spend a lot of time thinking about exhibitions and they’re kind of a silly format for doing any kind of communication I think. There’s something quite quaint about the notion of “We want to say something important so we’ve put some things in boxes with labels and if you don’t come and see it in this specific time period, well you missed experiencing it as it was intended”. Of course there’s online versions of exhibitions and some museums create excellent catalogues but it’s a thing you have to see or it’s gone! The upside to an exhibition as a form of media is it’s hanging in there as an authored and authoritative medium whereas other modes of communication have all but disappeared inside themselves trying to compete with the likes of spotify, social media, bloggers, infinite hours of free video online etc. that’s all but killed off the music industry, printed news, the book industry and TV respectively. In the BIG SCARE QUOTES post-truth era p’raps there’s a value in being so… so analog.

Inspired by the always slick Wellcome Collections going as far as to publish their inclusive design guidelines alongside their online version of the exhibition and creating a lot of noise around their new ‘permanent exhibitions’ that largely eschew the modern penchant for exhibition gimmickry (museums without objects, objects covered up, exhibitions of light or coloured fog or post-it notes or…)  I tried to put my thoughts about the best kinds of museum exhibitions in my humble opinion. Continue reading

Museums and… Museum Studies Degrees

It’s been a funny week in museums. First of all Museum professionals are reportedly murdering each other over the new definition of museums and then this tweet about crediting museum curators in the press kicked off a days worth of slightly warm exchanges about who deserves credit for exhibitions. It would seem that the museum sector is struggling a bit with fundamental definitions so what better time to dust off a 2013 blogpost I wrote whilst at UCL on Will a museum studies degree help you get a job in a museum? Originally posted here all images (c) UCL.

This post is a bit inside baseball, but then so is the metaphor inside baseball.

We get asked the above question at the Grant Museum frequently by aspiring museum professionals and volunteers and it’s a question that isn’t simply answered. I can’t say that my view on whether it helps or not is the definitive view but as an employer (sadly not as often as we’d like to be) here’s my personal thoughts on whether or not it helps. Continue reading