Welcome everyone to the summer run of the MOOC, I hope you are all enjoying the course so far. As a facilitator I enjoy reading your comments and seeing what new elements you bring to the discussion – keep it up. I wanted to share with you my adventure out of the office last Tuesday. I had a great pleasure of working in the Molluscan Collection at the Natural History Museum in London, and the opportunity to look round the newly reopened Hintze Hall featuring ‘Hope’ the blue whale which is now suspended from the ceiling.
I have been working with limpets for many years now, see my blog post on my love of limpets and other days spent delving in the underground Molluscan Collection. This trip Rebecca and I spent the day working in the collection measuring historical samples from the British Isles. We were looking at Gibbula Cineraria and a species which has changed name in recent years, the Lined Top Shell which I have always known as Osilinus lineatus owing to genetic studies has been renamed Phorcus lineatus.
We managed to collect a good data from the collection but the hunt wasn’t going well at times, we had boxes of samples which bore no dates of collection or names of areas. Some labels simply stated ‘British?’ it’s soul destroying when we find inaccurately labelled samples. I tell our students repeatedly, write everything down in triplicate. Inside the bag, on the outside of the bag and on a separate bit of tracing paper, use a pencil not a pen!!! All manner of permanent marker pens are available but they shouldn’t be used for science.
The reason we use pencils and not pens, is that the humble pencil can always be trusted. It won’t let you down. A pencil mark will withstand water, time and alcohol! Some of the specimens we were examining are almost 200 years old. It is true that during the Apollo missions NASA spent a million pounds developing an anti-gravity pen and the Russian cosmonauts took a pencil! NASA sell them in the gift shop, I’m sure they have more than made their investment back in income by now.
As well as collecting data on the shells, we like to research the collectors as well. The same names and hand writing will crop up time and time again. Some scrawls are much easier to read than others. The labels are always on tiny bits of paper in minuscule handwriting. We were lucky enough to find in the drawer we were working on, a type specimen from Lowe. A type specimen is the very specimen that the description of that species is written about. It’s also the very first sample to be formally named and it will be stored in a red box. Richard Thomas Lowe (1802-1874) was an English scientist, botanist, Ichthyologist, malacologist and a clergyman. He formally classified and named a large number of species during his time. His samples to this day are beautifully labelled and contain a lot of ancillary information.
At lunch time we got to escape back above ground and enjoy the museum as visitors and scientists. Over the last few months it has been all change in the Hintze Hall, with Dippy the Dinosaur bidding farewell and the hall being shut for renovation and installation of Hope. It’s not the end for Dippy, he’s going on tour for the next two years! If you are able to see him I highly recommend it. Hope is a 13 year old Blue whale Balaenoptera musculus who got stranded in Wexford harbour, Ireland in 1891 and her skeleton was purchased by the museum and displayed in the Mammal hall in 1934.
Why is she called Hope? This whale is a symbol of hope, a powerful image to remind us all that humanity has the power to shape a sustainable future. The Blue Whale was almost hunted to extinction but numbers are slowly increasing thanks to the global hunting ban, but the species is still in danger from ship strikes and global warming.
If you are in the UK and have access to iplayer, the Horizon team created a wonderful documentary on the installation of Hope. It’s available online until the 17th of August.
If you get the chance to visit the museum in London, I highly recommend it. I will be visiting Dippy one more time when he is on tour.
I welcome Hope and the future marine biologists she inspires.