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

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

How many cephalopod species are there in the UK?

Museum visitors ask some of the most innocent yet challenging (and also some important) questions . Why do animals have tails? How do you know it is dead? Is it real? Does it fart? Some of these questions, have a difficult and convoluted answer and other questions like “which animals fart?” can never be comprehensively answered even with an army of fart recorders sent out to the oceans, deserts, forests and cities of the world. As a general rule, and if some clever sod hasn’t already coined it, let’s call it the Carnall Rule, the simpler the question about biology, the more difficult it is to answer. I’d also add the qualifier, the more difficult it is to answer in a way that’s understood by most people.

I love thinking about some of these questions and I love asking them too. These big questions cause us to take a step back, do a bit of research and more often than not, question the question. So with this questioning spirit in mind let’s try to answer the simple question (ut oh): How many cephalopod species are there in the UK? Continue reading

When is a giant octopus not a giant octopus?

A new story doing the rounds earlier this week reported on a ‘foolhardy’ dolphin that suffocated whilst trying to eat a giant octopus. You can read the story here at New Scientist. The story is based on a short note paper published in Marine Mammal Science and its one of those nice little papers that describes a rare behaviour to add to the anecdotal record of behaviour between cetaceans and cephalopods. The Marine Mammal Science paper goes into grim detail about how an octopuses arms and suckers can remain active up to an hour after the ‘head has died’ and in this instance the suckers were still firmly to the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin’s larynx, oesophagus and tongue during the autopsy.  The story was circulated fairly widely in the ‘science tabloid’ outlets and news websites however all is not as it seems.

Headline from the New Scientist reporting

Many stories lead with the headline about a giant octopus and some sort of judgement of the dolphin involved- greedy, foolhardy- but the reporting of this story is a nice example of when engineering a clickable headline and story is actually a bit misleading. At its worst we called say this was fake news. But this is exactly the kind of example I like to use when teaching students about the difficulties of striving for readability and accuracy as well as the wonderful complication of language especially when it comes to science. So when is a giant octopus not a giant octopus? Read on to find out. Continue reading

Which is larger, giant squid or the Moon?

Ha ha tricksy title! I mean giant squid as in multiple giant squid, Architeuthis dux not a single giant squid, which would be a very silly question indeed. I’ll explain how I got to this question first as it probably isn’t one that many people have contemplated.

Cartoon by Mark Carnall of a moon made of cephalopods

Calamari Moon by Mark Carnall (Own work) CC BY 2.0 but let me know if you do!

I’ve been reading the excellent book- The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis which gives a comprehensive account of the biology and mythology surrounding giant squid, Architeuthis dux and related species up to 1998. The book covers the earliest accounts of encounters of giant squid; an examination of tall tales about large cephalopod encounters; giant squid in literature and film; and a really nice history of giant squid models in museums. Despite being one of the largest living invertebrates, very little is still known about giant squid including how their arch-enemies, the not-so-small-themselves cetaceans, sperm whales, catch them.

In the dark depths of the ocean how do essentially blind, breath-holding, large sperm whales catch highly manoeuvrable, fast, super-sensed giant squid? How do they catch them with their weird toothed mandible especially considering that giant squid retrieved from sperm whale stomachs don’t have any bite marks? And what does any of this have to do with the Moon? Continue reading