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

Half of world’s museum specimens are wrongly labelled: The Excuses

Hot off the press this morning, the Telegraph reports that according to a new and unnamed paper in the journal Current Biology, half of world’s museum specimens are wrongly labelled. Now, I could dig out the original paper to see what the Oxford University and Royal Botanic Gardens colleagues actually said. I’m sure the estimations are vague and the researchers are ballparking the issue. I’m sure they didn’t conflate specimen labels with display labels as the Telegraph has. However, that headline is already out leading scores of people to throw their museum merchandise into the skip shaking their head “I trusted you museums, I trusted you”. So what’s needed isn’t clarification or explanation. What we need is excuses. STAT. Here are some off the shelf excuses for museum professionals who may be facing some tough questions this morning*.

    1. It’s the bloody botanists. The reported story is all about ginger and potatoes. It’s the botanists. They are letting the side down.
    2. It’s the bloody entomologists. Well over half of all natural history specimens are insects. So whichever way you look at it, entomologists are letting the side down.
    3. It’s the hippies. Bizarrely, the coverage claims that more than 50 percent of the world’s natural history specimens have been discovered since 1969. Firstly, I’m not even sure what that means. Is a specimen discovered when it is collected? In any case, it’s all those hippies in the 60s that messed things up. They are letting the side down.
    4. It’s the dyslexics. Unfortunately, for the Telegraph, in an article about specimens being mislabelled they’ve managed to incorrectly spell both Diplodocus and specimens. Even whilst making a joke about how the Natural History Museum is pretty sure that the dinosaur in Hintze Hall is dilpodocus (no italics, no capital). Yeah, it’s a dilpodocus, dilpy for short. Do spelling mistakes count? If they do then it’s the dyslexics, the dyslexics and human error are letting the side down.
    5. It’s the loss of subject specialist knowledge in a hard hit museum sector where we are losing expertise year on year. Best not mention this though. It’s depressing.
    6. It’s the bloody art historians and archaeologists. The headline doesn’t mention natural history museums so it’s probably the bloody art historians mislabelling paintings. Well there’s only a couple of hundred thousand of those, so it’s probably the bloody archaeologists too not labelling their pot fragments correctly. Art historians and archaeologists are letting the side down.
    7. We’re only half way there. When we started, none of them were correct. Give us another 300 years and we’ll finish the job.


There we go folks. If you’ve got any excuses to help out colleagues in our time of need, why don’t you leave them in the comments. Together we can weather this ‘scandal’.

UPDATE: 17/11/2015 Corrected for many, many doubly ironic typos for writing this up in haste.

*Who am I kidding?

Subject Specialist Knowledge

I’m freshly back from this year’s Museum Association conference with some thoughts to share. The reason why conferences are so great, and I’m fortunate that both UCL and Oxford University Museum of Natural History have supported conference attendance, is that the discussions, talks and networking can restore some of the fire in the belly that the day-to-day rat race can sometimes erode.

One of the worrying undercurrents of this year’s conference was that specialist knowledge in the workforce was perhaps not essential in a climate in which many museums are having to knuckle down and weather economic cuts. Curators are dead, we were told. Subject specialist knowledge was a tertiary concern over good managers and communicators. Collections were a dirty word throughout many sessions. Museum directors, consultants, leaders, policy makers and funding bodies intimated or explicitly saw collections and curators as emblematic of the boring museums of the past. In one session it seemed that to save museums, you should piece by piece replace them so they no longer were museums.

Obviously, some of these comments are presented here out of context but I do think with the soap box of a big conference some people have lost sight of the expertise and knowledge we have in our museums. Continue reading

The PhylaRap

Last week I was asked to do a Museums Showoff set and I’d been tweeting about a Phyla Rap I’d been writing on the bus to pass the time. Museums Showoff if you don’t know, is an open mic night for people who work in and love museums to shout about what they do. I decided that agreeing to do a set would prompt me to write a bit more of the Phyla Rap and perform it for the first time.

Combining the misogyny of popular music and the principles of Linnean taxonomy, it went down surprisingly well and hopefully some of the audience learned a little bit about taxonomy and animal groups off the beaten track. I reproduce it in full here, but bear in mind that a) This is a performance meant for a room full of people that had been drinking for some hours and b) Is supported by hilarious visuals which I haven’t reproduced all of here c) It’s about a third done so apologies if your favourite group isn’t in there.

So. Linnean taxonomy and animal phyla. Wrote a song about. Wanna hear it? Here it goes. Continue reading