How to digitise natural history specimens

Digitisation in museums remains a hot trend. On paper, all we need to do is digitise specimens, stick ’em online et voila, everyone in the world has access to our beautiful specimens. Of course, it isn’t quite as straight forward as this but I won’t go over the issues with esoteric resource finding, digitisation vs visualisation and access to the Internet here, instead I’m going to focus on the difficulties of visualising natural history specimens. Unlike prints and paintings, most natural history specimens don’t really have an obvious ‘side’ to take an image of. Flat fossils, herbarium sheets and microscope slides are a bit more obvious but then it all falls apart when it comes to disarticulated skeletons, fluid preserved specimens, taxidermy, nests and even eggs.

This blog post is a guide to taking images of one particular kind of specimen relatively common in natural history museums, the shells of the curious ram’s horn squid, Spirula spirula. So-called because their internal shells are shaped like ram’s horns, the shells of this widespread marine species are found washed up on shorelines across the globe. It is the only living species in the order Spirulida. Little is known about the specifics of where these animals live, how they reproduce, feed and migrate but the shells of these specimens are common in museum collections. Here are the 12 contemporary ways you can visualise these characteristic shells. Continue reading

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The Pseudoscience of Octopuses From Space

One of the great joys of social media is people getting in touch to share things they think you might like, or know about or have a hot take on. This week a few people got in touch asking about alien octopuses from space. Without paying it too much attention I’d assumed that this news story from August 2015 had got reposted somewhere where scientist Clifton Ragdale made a perfectly innocuous statement quoting Martin Wells who compared the octopus to an alien (in some senses). Sadly, this juicy quote was just too good to pass up which lead to the story in the science and geek media cropping up again and again under various headlines pertaining to octopuses from space.

I was wrong, however, to assume this old story had popped back up again. This time around there’s a ‘serious’ paper “Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?” (Steele et al. 2018) in what appears to be a serious journal, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology making some frankly ridiculous and unscientific claims about octopuses and an extraterrestrial origin. I know I should leave it alone, to not even point more eyes in the direction of it but the fact that people are talking about it and at least a couple of serious-looking media outlets are fairly uncritically running the story Cosmos, the Express, means taking an in-depth look might be worthwhile. Continue reading

Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species: some thoughts

This week the Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species was launched. Here’s the blurb from the website:

GRIIS, hosted by ISPRA, has been developed with co-funding from the European Union through the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity within the framework of the Global Invasive Alien Species Information Partnership (GIASIPartnership). The GIASIPartnership has come together in order to assist Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and others, implement Article 8(h) and Target 9 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – “By 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated, and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment

The Guardian coverage ran with the subhead “New catalogue expected to stand alongside red list as an international means to fight extinction, by helping to stop biological invasions”.

Invasive and introduced species are one of the key threats to ecosystems, agriculture and aquaculture. Accidentally and deliberately introduced ‘alien’ species can have a huge effect on the places they are introduced into and they are extremely poorly monitored. We don’t so much know when they appear, we just notice when they are there or when they’ve become established. Invasive species can compete with natives, affect trophic systems, bring diseases and pathogens with them which can run riot in invaded ecosystems and if this wasn’t bad enough for nature there are a whole host of human impacts (which means we should care). The need for GRIIS is a burning one. There’s just one problem. GRIIS is currently not very good. Not very good at all. Continue reading

50 Natural History Museum Exhibitions

After us. Life after the Anthropocene.
Altruistic animals. The zoology of selfishness.
Animal Additives. The zoology of household products.
Anthropodenial. Are Animals Human?
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Arses and Elbows. Anatomy for Beginners.
Back from the Dead? The Science Fact and Fiction of De-extinction.
Bats are not Bugs.
Better off Dead? The Ethics of Eradication.
Blue boobs and other unlikely evolutionary tropes in science fiction.
It Came From The Bottom of A Shoe. Invasive species and how we help spread them.
Can’t see the forest or the trees. What happened to England’s nature?
Chimaeras: The Evolutions of Symbiosis
Collecting the Dead. Where did all these specimens come from?
The Conservation Lottery. Which species should we save?
Cute and Fluffy. Subjectivity and study species.
Dinosaurs in the Garden. The confusing language of science.
The Death of Natural History.
Faeces, Droppings & Turds. The biology of shit.
Fakes, Fibs and Forgeries. Damaging Dishonesty in Science.
From Nature to the Plate. Where your food comes from.
GREED! The organisms we’re eating into extinction.
Going, going, gone. 100 species that slipped through our fingers.
How to kill a cow. Where do you think burgers come from?
Killer Cities. Pathologies of modern civilisation.
Lost! Mishaps and accidents in science research.
Microbiota: the other organisms that make up you.
Mincer vs. Machine Gun. The hunting we’re okay with vs the hunting we’re not.
Mind the Gaps. What we don’t know about natural history.
Murmurs, Swarms and Schools. When animals amass!
Needle in a haystack. The organisms only seen once.
No Cure Without Kill. Animals that die for science.
The Paradox of Sustainable Living. Does individual action make a difference?
Pushing up the daisies: the biology of death.
Preggers: The Biology of Birthing.
Race: Construct, Cultures, Genes.
Ravaged, Sick and Toxic. Environmental lessons from the ‘developed world’.
Right vs Correct. Morality in conservation biology.
Saved for exploitation. What makes a species worth saving?
Sick as a parrot? Disease in other animals.
SPERM. The anatomy of fertilisation.
Subhuman, the history of animal rights.
Subspecies, the politics of biological taxonomy.
Trash Planet. The search for untouched nature.
Toxic Wasteland? Our children’s inheritance.
Unloved! The importance of small, unattractive and obscure animals.
What is an animal and why does it matter?
Whoops! The ten biggest cock-ups in biology and their legacy today.
Whose nature is it anyway? The geopolitics of biodiversity.
The World on a Plate, the natural history of your supermarket.

Documenting Cephalopods Part 3 Labels, labels, labels

Still with me? This series is a step by step approach to the process of documenting natural history museum specimens in a cathartic attempt to explain the process to those who may wonder what museum curators do (some of the time) and in answer to the question, why isn’t your collection digitised yet? I’ve chosen Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s cephalopod collection to start with as a small subset of the zoology collections and one of the less well known parts of the collection. Part 1 looked at how we make a start from almost scratch. Part 2 dissected a ‘typical museum’ label and dipped a toe into some of the problems interpreting specimen labels. In this part, I’ve now added all the specimens I could find onto a spreadsheet and will start piecing together some of the overarching information currently entombed in data labels, apocryphal accounts of the collection and written documents.

Natural history specimens can come with a wide range of labels associated with them. Some are obviously recent museum labels that are easy to interpret but over the centuries multiple labels will have been glued, stitched or extremely loosely attached to specimens as they move from collectors to vendors to researchers and to other museums. Some of these labels are the only remnant of information which gives us an insight into a specimen’s history, information which has otherwise been lost. Without this history, important specimens can be overlooked and the use potential of specimens diminished because researchers often refer to collections based on their age and where they were collected.

Now let’s look at the range of labels found with specimens and begin to piece together what they may mean. Continue reading

Is the vampire squid an octopus or a squid?

Here’s another simple but difficult question that came up this week on Twitter prompted by cephapodologist @Thomas_Clements reaction to a tweet put out by the team behind the E/V Nautilus deep sea rover twitter account which used a popular science fact about vampire squid which read as such:

Did you see it?! We had an extended visit with a Vampyroteuthis infernalis (literally meaning “vampire squid from hell”). Neither a squid nor octopus, this fierce-sounding cephalopod actually fishes for marine snow using two retractable filaments and mucus-covered suckers!

Now, as you may have gathered from the title of this post, the bit I’m interested in is the ‘fact’ about vampire squid being neither an octopus or a squid. It’s a common enough fact you can find out and about in the edutainment and sci-comm resources and there’s something about the trope of telling people that a name we’ve just told them doesn’t mean what it is commonly assumed to which science communicators love. Whether or not ‘not facts’ help with engagement or learning I remain to be convinced.

Thomas, who surely knows his nidamental glands from his accessory nidamental glands, quoted the tweet stating that vampire squid are in fact octopuses. At this point I got involved too possibly disagreeing with him, although even with 280 characters discussions went around in circles. So. Once and for all. Are vampire squid octopuses, squid or neither and can we change the flipping name in any case? Because like starfish vs sea stars it’s a waste of valuable attention time telling people what something isn’t rather than what it is. Continue reading

Elsewhere in the blogosphere update October

Greetings cintanians? Cinctanonians? Tannins? It’s time for the if-I-do-an-update-I-don’t-feel-like-I’ve-been-neglecting-my-own-blog update. It’s been a busy couple of months on all fronts but pretty much all of my writing energy has been sapped by other commitments.

Here’s some of the stuff that I’ve been up to AROUND THE WEB, including some stuff you may have missed here, all handily packed into a blog post, for your viewing pleasure. Continue reading