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

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

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

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

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

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

Documenting Cephalopods Part 2 The Anatomy of A Label

Welcome to part two of the driest museum blog series ever, getting into the nitty gritty of how we ‘document’ natural history specimens from start to finish. Last time around we’d set up our spreadsheet and set off to the stores to start recording information and observations about specimens. Unlike works on paper, machinery or archival documents natural history specimens don’t readily come with information embedded, inscribed or machine stamped into them to aid with identifying the who, how, what, where and when associated with specimens. They’re also incredibly inconvenient in that many don’t even have an easy place to write information on so a lot of specimen information is written on labels, on, attached to or otherwise associated with specimens.

Label information is really key to the information management of natural history specimens and alongside other pieces of documentation, provide sometimes, primary, often times secondary information evidence pertaining to what the thing is, how old it is, when and where it was collected as well as the internal museum information such as publications on the specimen, questions over the identity, anatomical labels, marks, scribbles and scrawls. As a golden rule and one I impress upon visiting researchers using the Oxford University Museum of Natural History zoology collections is never trust a label. As we will see in this instalment they can be outdated, inaccurate or just plain wrong.

Interested in museum documentation? Having trouble sleeping? Then read on. Continue reading