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

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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

Cephalopod Watch:Weeds of the sea and the <Gene diet

Two bits of cephalopod stuff in the media last week, both of which raised the hackles but for different reasons relating to how the media (in this case mostly online) handles science reporting. I always find this kind of stuff interesting, doubly so since a really interesting talk at NatSCA 2015 Annual Conference where we heard from colleagues at the BBC and science programmers about how documentaries aren’t for those in the know. Both in terms or viewers and critical acclaim, the scientists may hate shoddy science but they aren’t the target audience. This shouldn’t give the media free rein to just report what they like but trying to squeeze complicated, limited and caveated findings into nice black and white narratives leads to more confusion. Things can only be bigger, smaller, disappearing, brand new, oldest, fastest, slowest etc. Biology, (un)fortunately, is rarely that simple.

The first of the bits of news last week was this paper, Global proliferation of cephalopods in Current Biology about estimating cephalopod populations Continue reading

Museum Visit: Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum London

Image of Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition

It’s only when I uploaded this image that I noticed the interesting (and probably expensive) sexy ceiling thing goin’ on there. Note the giant hexagons strewn about. This will be important later on.

Last week I visited Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum, London. I had high hopes for the exhibition as there’s a certain frustration at seeing the same Hollywood Animal exhibitions at natural history museums over and over again. It’s forgivable to think that museums were nothing but dinosaurs, mammoths and fossil humans (as interesting as they are). Did it live up to high (tide) expectations or was it going to be a wash out? READ ON TO FIND OUT NO MORE RUBBISH PUNS I PROMISE. Continue reading