What the tide leaves behind

Winter is the season people love to hate. It’s dark when you leave the house in the morning, and it’s dark when you get back home. It’s wet. It’s cold. It’s often wet and cold. The landscape seems empty, dull, lifeless.

Look a little closer, and there is actually a lot to see. You could easily name a robin as soon as this inquisitive little bird comes into sight on a nearby branch. Other little birds maybe less familiar, but they are there too fleeting between branches. Trees may stand naked in woodlands and fields, yet they stand proud. And so they should, for a real beauty is exposed, normally hidden during other seasons: lichen. Attached to the bark is a remarkably large assortment of lichen species: flat crusty yellow ones, small green fury ones, and wavy lettuce ones. Natures very own henna tattoos.

In the summer, this beautiful lichen (Cladonia sp.) is normally hidden by the leaves on this tree.

In the summer, this beautiful lichen (Cladonia sp.) is normally hidden by the leaves on this tree. Just look how beautiful this is: like sugary crystals!

 

For most of us, when we build up the courage to step outside in the cold harshness of winter, we don’t stop to look at the trunk of a tree. We mutter an expletive at the cold or the wet (mostly at the cold and the wet), and do what we have to do quickly. No-one wants to be out in the cold longer than they need to be.

Nature is asleep and most people just want her to wake up. There is one place during winter which never really sleeps.

A trip to the beach is normally the thing to do in the summer. Us Brits go beach crazy at the slightest sign of a blue sky in the summer. Beaches are rammed with towels, wind breakers, and half naked people risking 10 years off their lives for a few weeks of a tanned body (which inevitably ends up as extremely painful sunburn – we always forget we have pretty fair skin).

In truth, beaches are best enjoyed during winter. Stepping out of the warm car, a fresh cold wind blasts your face for a minute. Your wellies are on, coat is zipped up, and you are ready. Your wellies make deeper footprints than your summer bare feet as you start to walk on the sand. Or if you walk onto the shingle, there is a loud crunch under your feet. After a moment, you don’t really notice the cold. What you do notice is the beach. The stillness. Silence: just the waves rushing in gently, and pulling out again. Apart from a few people scattered here and there, and a colony of sea gulls, the beach is yours.

Watching the waves roll in and wondering what animals are living in the cold sea water.

My eldest watching the waves roll in and wondering what animals are living in the cold sea water. He, and his little sister, enjoy the beach most at winter because there are no people, and it is theirs to explore.

 

It’s lovely to walk along an empty beach. What’s more, my little ones love it too. There’s more than just sand (or shingle) and water, and my little ones are fully aware. We always head to the where the water meets the sand/shingle (called the strandline) first, and then follow it to the end of the beach. We then sharply change direction, following the rocks to the top of the beach, before following the beach back to where we began. A nice circle walk on a beach. Sounds exciting? Oh, it really is. One walk and three surprisingly different areas to explore!

Splashing in the cold sea water is just one of the joys of walking along the strandline. We often run in together as the water is being sucked out, and play a little game of ‘chicken’ to see who stays the longest before the water gushes back in again. Often my two get a little too confident and I end up lifting them both up to save them from getting drenched – the waves don’t care who is in the way, and icy cold water sops over into my wellies.

To the untrained eye, the tide has left a lot of green smelly seaweed. My son, however, spots different types of seaweeds: red and green, and a thin branching, coraline one. He picks up barnacles, shells, and even a sea anemone and some jellyfish! His little sister watches him, and she starts to spot things too, a shiny mussel shell, a sponge, and a marine worm. Thier eyes pick out everything. Thier little fingers, red and cold, examines each new thing closely, eagerly asking questions, and enthusiastically telling each other. The receding tide leave a lot things on the beach, evidence of life hidden beneath the waves.

On one beach a year ago, we saw a hermit crab washed up, and the empty shell was just a few meters away. It may have been looking for a bigger shell, but Creb wasn’t moving anywhere. (My then 4 year old thought of the name Creb – perhaps because it sounded like Crab? Nothing to do with Clan of the Cave Bear!) With sea gulls around, we moved Creb to a safer rock pool area, and built a little shelter out of slate for protection.

The hermit crab ithout a shell. We built a little shelter for Creb to protect it against seagulls. I often wonder where Creb is today. Did he find a new shell...

The hermit crab ithout a shell. We built a little shelter for Creb to protect it against sea gulls. I often wonder where Creb is today. And I wonder if he ever did find a new shell…

At the end of our beach are cliffs. Undeterred by the cold, and without a break, here is where we explore next. This is a different place. Walking along the strand line we saw lots of wonderful things washed up, but they were all dead things. At the base of the cliffs, there are pools. Pools full of live to peer into. Humans have placed lots of large boulders, which helps (a little) to protect the cliffs from the never-ending onslaught of the sea. As the tide recedes, small pools of water were left between rocks and boulders, and with them so were some animals.

We scramble over the jagged rocks, and spread out. Carefully we all start to look in the rock pools, and lift up rocks. Shrimp, almost translucent, zoom across the water. A crab scurries and squeezes itself under another nearby rock to hide. Hermit crabs vanish with alarming speed inside their shells. Cushion stars stay perfectly still on a rock we just lifted. Here, each little pool is full of life! It takes us a surprising amount of time to make our way up to the top of the beach: each rock pool is carefully explored with loud excited shouts when something is found (and both my little ones are careful to put the rocks back how they were).

 

My little (nearly) 3 year old daughter carefully lookign at a shore crab. (After this photo was taken, I got nipped. And it hurt!)

My little (nearly) 3 year old daughter carefully looking at a shore crab. (After this photo was taken, I went to put the crab back, and it nipped me, really hard. I may have let out a little high pitched shreik.)

 

We eventually reach the top of the beach, where a path runs parallel to the sea. We follow it back, along the sand, not on the path. Here we would be walking a foot or so deep in water if it was high tide. Fortunately it’s not. My toes are still numb from being soaked to save my children earlier. The walk back is calmer and we talk about what we have seen already, with our eyes to the ground. Sentences are cut off as someone spots something: a mermaids purse (the egg case of a nurse hound), a delicate sea urchin, a squid beak. Just a few examples of how amazingly rich the marine life here is: we didn’t see a squid, but we found a squid beak so we know they are swimming out there. Holding it in their cold little hands, they both look at it, and then out to the water. It is easy to imagine what they are thinking.

Colourful shells and polished stones are all picked up, and placed in pockets. Crab claws too. And there are lots of them. I explain that as the tide was going out to sea, sea gulls would have eaten a few unlucky crabs. My son points to the colony who are still there. He asks why two are bigger and darker than the others. I didn’t spot them earlier on, but he is right: two of the sea gulls are actually greater blacked back gull! I haven’t seen one before that day! These are a bigger species than your common gull and they are magnificent to see. (To view the world through a 5 year olds eyes is something we should all try – we would see everything differently, and see so much more.)

Winters on a beach are the best times on a beach. There are hardly any people and the beach is yours to explore. The tide exposes an otherwise hidden world that we can discover for ourselves. It is difficult to respect what you cannot see: with each visit we see something new, and our respect grows. Not only our respect for nature as adults, but my little ones respect grows too. I don’t want them to be Eco-warriors. But by being able to see and hold the varitey of creatures along the shore, they have a richer understanding of the world around them, and appreciate its beauty.

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Love your Lichen

“Daddy, look!” he calls from the top of the slope. “Sausage lichen!”

It is a rare cloudless blue sky in the middle of the summer just gone, and we are visiting a favourite spot on Dartmoor. Holding a small branch like it is the most fragile of porcelain sculptures, he runs carefully towards me. There is a subconscious skill in the way he runs down the slope, aware of everything around him: his precious cargo remains safe as he effortlessly dodges the most delicate purple violets, and zig-zags through young green ferns unravelling their bright green new fronds, cautious not to trample anything. Perhaps his senses are so astute not because he has super powers, but because he is aware of the natural world around him. He is four and a half years old, but he has an innate respect for nature. And it shines.

He approaches, holding out his prize. The small rugged looking branch is about as long as my forearm, but this is no ordinary piece of wood. And he knows it. Dangling down, is a soft looking, light green clump; as if an oddly coloured sheep has snagged its wool on the branch.

“And look Daddy, there. Lettuce lichen,” he says excitedly. His subtly creased brow lines reveal his familiar seriousness when he has discovered something he is proud of.

We talk about the wind-broken stick and the lichen that have made their home there. He is hungry and his curiosity needs feeding. His enquiring mind is churning out many questions so he can make sense of this odd thing he has discovered. This clump of an otherwise obscure growth on a broken twig gets us talking about Peter Rabbit, the beasts of the last Ice Age in the South West, and, perhaps surprisingly, leading us quite naturally onto Father Christmas.

The wonderously gorgeous sausage lichen

The wonderously gorgeous sausage lichen, Usnea articulata. Here it is blissfully blowing in the gentle summer breeze. Wonderful to spot one on a branch in a tree, and the branch is also home to many more lichen species.

And why shouldn’t it? Lichen is bizarrely wonderful. What makes lichen so funky is that it is not just one species but two, and sometimes three! In passing, it may seem like a flat, dull, lifeless, crusty thing on a surface, but it is in fact an incredibly complex system of two (or more) organisms living together for mutual gain. Lichen is the Han Solo and Chewbacca of the natural world (with Luke Skywalker occasionally hanging around). This incredible relationship is between single celled algae or cyanobacteria (or sometimes both) and filaments of fungus. It is a truly symbiotic relationship: the algae get the protection from the fungus, and the fungus feeds from algae’s photosynthetic food. With no need for roots to take up food, the fungus can grow almost anywhere from the tops of delicate leaves, to in-between paving stones beneath your feet. Lichen can grow in some of the most extreme environments on the planet from the hellishly hot environments at Yellowstone Park to the freezing, Hoth-like environments on Antarctica.

And Peter Rabbit? Well, this is a nice little link. Peter Rabbit and friends were brought to life through the wonderful imagination and glorious illustrations of Beatrix Potter. Her fascination with wildlife didn’t stop with anthropomorphising rabbits, frogs and foxes. In incredible detail, Potter painted hundreds of elegant watercolours of fungi and lichen. She was fascinated with these botanical curiosities, and carried out countless experiments. She even questioned what lichens actually were. However, Potter wasn’t the first. Some 30 years before she pondered, a Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener spent several years looking at the relationship between fungus and algae to explain exactly what lichen is. His ideas about lichen being two separate organisms didn’t took root with the British circle, even when Potter tired to reignite Schwendeners’ ideas, producing her own unique experiments. Her results, and her views, were ignored. The botanical world in the mid-1890s was not ready for two organisms living as one. Nor was it ready for a woman to be explaining what lichens really were, backed by successful experiments.

Like sugar crystals, Cladonia is one of my favorite types of lichen.

Like sugar crystals, this species from the Genus Cladonia, glistens in the sunlight. This is one of my favorite types of lichen, making me extremely excited when I see it.

Little old lichen, inconspicuously alive and elegantly beautiful, is a lifeline for many animals. In harsh winters, the wonderfully shaggy musk ox and the elegant reindeer scrap lichen off the rocks for food with their strong front incisors. What’s more incredible is that, until relatively recently, these beasts were wondering the British landscape: while reindeer trundled along in their huge herds, woolly mammoths lolloped. Reindeer fossils have been found at cave sites across Britain. In the South West, of England, around 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, when the climate was much colder, reindeer were scraping lichen off rocks with wolves howling in the distance.

And of course, the link to Santa. While Father Christmas enjoys a mince pie and whisky, it is not to far a step to imagine Rudolf and chums enjoying a snack on the yellow, flat lichen that adorns our roof tiles. One simple, otherwise unassuming lichen can open up so many incredible doors into a plethora of fascinating areas.

One of the favourite stories my son loves is that some species were used to dye clothes in the past. There is a special ingredient added to lichen which was hand scrapped of the cold, hard granite on Dartmoor. The key is in the pee. (The ammonia in the unrine brings out the colour from the lichen). This has been used for hundreds of years all across Europe. A wonderful fact he shares with his little sister.

As we chat my son spots a small weevil moving through the sausage lichen. He holds his breath for what seems like an eternity, for fear of unleashing a terrible gale on this tiny creature. He watches it move each jointed leg incredibly slowly through what must seem like mangrove forests to this enigmatic little beetle. My little one notices everything: the odd, unsynchronised movement of the antennae, the comically disproportionate nose. His brow lines begin to crease again.

Not a weevil, but a beautiful ground beetle

Not a weevil, but a beautiful two banded long horn beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum). We were looking at some lichen, and spotted something moving in the corner of our eyes, and this stunning beetle scurried past. (Apologies for the blury photo, it was a fast little thing!)

Lichen is beautiful. I like to tweet photos of them to share that beauty (#LoveYourLichen). I am not a lichenologist (although with a cool name like that, I am sometimes tempted), but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty in these bizarrely wonderful organisms. If you think about it, you are not an anthropologist, but the latest news about new human fossil discoveries fills you with excitement and questions. What makes the magnificent BBC natural history programmes so mesmerising is seeing the diversity and splendour of life in so much detail in your living room.

Nature captures us so strongly because we all have a natural curiosity with the animals and plants of the world. David Attenborough recognised this, when he wrote “Every child in this world has an innate pleasure and delight and interest and curiosity in the natural world.” I would go a step further, and say every person in this world has that innate pleasure, delight, interest and curiosity.

That may seem like quite a bold statement. I know, because I have seen it so many times. The reaction of little ones and their parents is so similar when they see a real skeleton up close or come face to face with a pickled octopus. The only difference being the adults are more restrained. But talk to them about the creature, show it to them close, and that inner child comes out pretty quickly. Perhaps as adults our lives are filled with bills, chores, jobs, and other things, we often forget to stop and look at the world around us. Maybe everybody doesn’t like dinosaurs. Not everyone likes trees. There is something about nature that everybody does like.

Whilst looking at some lichen on a gorgeous oak tree, we spotted two lovely

Whilst looking at some lichen on a glorious oak tree, we spotted two lovely Black Arches moths (Lymantria monacha) resting on the comfy moss.

Lichen is one way of looking. You can choose anything really, trees, bees, flowers, or birds. I originally pointed out lichen to my little one because it was different: it is not always obviously there, but it is everywhere. It is also pretty weird. Step outside. Take a walk in your park, or local woods. Or just in your garden. Watch the autumn light shine on the vibrant colours of the leaves around you and look for lichen on rocks or the branches of trees. Lichen is one easy way to feed that curiosity in all of us. It is all around hanging on trees, or flat on the side of buildings. We see the lichen and its beautiful colours, with those stunning tiny cups to release its’ next generation.

When we do spot it, we look closer. We might catch a shimmer of blue as an iridescent ground beetle moves nearby, or a blue tit singing on a nearby branch. The world around us is breathtakingly beautiful. The more we look, the more we see that beauty.

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Some kind of wonderful

I don’t normally read magazines in the doctor’s waiting room. After a lifetime of speaking like Mr Snuffleupagus with my permanently blocked nose, and more recently a three month head-pounding sinusitis infection, I checked in to get things sorted. But I was early. After memorising the information notices pinned to the wall, and the cute animation about vaccinations, I caved. I picked up a Grazia Magazine. I flicked through, hoping for a nice review of a sci-fi film. What I found was so much better. Hidden between pages of celebs doing something or another, was a wonderful article. A short but sweet article that would bring back memories of my youth lost in films. An article that had a much more powerful message than the rest of the 60 or so pages of nonsense.

Here I had discovered a wonderful article by Hadley Freeman – no relation, and no ‘d’ in her surname. The article was about films of the 80s and ten things we learnt growing up with them. As I read, I thought, ‘Yes, yes, yessss!!!’

Films were a big part of my life growing up. With favourites still close to my heart like Willow and Krull, these were magical adventures, but there were also many coming of age films for us teenagers, like Stand by Me and St Elmos’s Fire. (I later found out Hadley writes regularly about 80s films.)

One of the best movies, the wonderful adventure, Willow. I would actually say this was Val Kilmer's greatest role.

One of the best movies, the wonderful adventure Willow. I would actually say this was Val Kilmer’s greatest role. (Image Public Domain)

One of the points Hadley makes is the music: ‘Power ballads are essential.’ Yes. Yes, they are. From Rocky III’sEye of the Tiger’ to GhostbustersGhostbusters’ these classic songs added to the atmosphere of the films. Without them the film isn’t the same: just a sweaty man running up some steps; or in the case of Ghostbusters, some pretty unfit dudes running around a city like crazy people dressed like painters. Power ballads are wonderful.

But, as Hadley points out, sadly they are not real. No songs play out loud as I run for the train, or when I slowly walk to the podium to give my evening talk. In my head however, they do play. As I walk down the steps to the front of the lecture theatre, I should say The Karate Kid’sYou’re the Best’ is running through my head. Really, Some Kind of Wonderful’sFalling in love with you’ sings soothingly in my mind. Surely I am not alone when I say we all play our own little power ballads?

Oh Slimer. (Image from here)

Oh Slimer. (Image from here)

 

Watching films as I was growing up created a world where I was swept away: the fantastic creature features created excitement and adventure; sci-fi brought the great imagination where I could do that; and the teen films included a cast which they were not to dissimilar to me.  As a quiet, shy boy who liked his dinosaurs and mythical creatures, I found films were something I could relate to. Sometimes more than other children in my class.

There were a couple of points that really stood out for me in Hadley’s short piece. These were about science and women.

For us kids of the 80s, we can see through the fake nerd actor easily. The nerds in films today are as Hadley points out “good-looking guys wearing glasses” – it is forced and unnatural (and which is one of the main reasons I dislike The Big Bang Theory). Films in the 80s had real nerds. The Goonies, Revenge of the Nerds, and the classic brat pack movies, all had real nerds. They were average looking, likeable characters, and these guys were the heros. Growing up watching these films, so many kids could relate.

I wasn't going to include this clip, but how could a post about 80s movies not include Chunk's infamous 'Trufflee Shuffle'. Many have tried to do what Chunk does so well, but failed. Even today, the truffle shuffle is one of my favorite dance moves. (Image from here)

I wasn’t going to include this clip, but how could a post about 80s movies not include Chunk’s infamous ‘Truffle Shuffle’. Even today, the truffle shuffle is one of my favorite dance moves. (Image from here)

 

One of my favourite actors, Andrew McCarthy played the role in the brat pack genre, including St Elmo’s Fire, The Catholic Boys, Class, and the most wonderful film, Mannequin. He was the slightly geeky nice guy who ended up the hero. Today, sadly, the hero in teen movies is the handsome, muscularly one – a character only a small handful of teenagers can relate to, while the rest are made to feel as outsiders.

The films of the 80s had something else right too: science was cool. Back to the Future, Innerspace, Explorers and others had some really cool science that made the film. One of my favourite adventure films, The Explorers is where a group of teenagers make a spaceship based on information in their dreams. They travel into space and meet aliens – for children growing up, how cool is that! These were real adventures and made science what it is – fun and something that can potentially happen. Today, science in teen films isn’t seen as a cool thing. It is kept with the nerds, hidden while the film focuses on the ‘beautiful’ main characters.

River Pheonix (left) and Ethan Hawke (right) have just used a computer programme to create a bubble. A programme sent to them in their dreams, and a bubble that they can control. Ecxplorers is such a great film. (Image from here)

River Pheonix (left) and Ethan Hawke (right) have just used a computer programme to create a bubble. A programme sent to them in their dreams, and a bubble that they can control. Explorers is such a great film. (Image from here)

Andy in The Goonies, Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, and my first on screen crush, the beautiful Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful, girls in 80s films were simply beautiful. They were not plastered in makeup, or wearing unnaturally skimpy outfits: they were normal. And that is what made them more beautiful. These women were strong minded, confident, dressed how they wanted to dress and were themselves. For me growing up, this gave me a real view of what was beautiful. Not this nonsense of the Nuts generation, or the princess who has all the money. No. Real beauty is more than that. It is someone who is kind, funny, knows who they are, confident and is, well, just themselves.

The things I learnt from fantastic 80s films: nerds and science are cool. And women are beautiful, strong and intelligent. It is a sad fact that these two, incredibly important, messages are missing from teen films today.

One of the greatest coming of age, brat pack movies, St Elmo's Fire.

One of the greatest coming of age, brat pack movies, St Elmo’s Fire. (Public Domain)

 

 

 

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I saw Jurassic World

With the release of Jurassic World there were a plethora of reviews about the scientific accuracy of the dinosaurs. Palaeontologists on Twitter and Facebook wrote blog posts about how none of the dinosaurs had feathers, and how the big screen movie folk are ignoring the cool science. Rightly so too. Wonderful dinosaur fossils have been found with feathers and fuzz beautifully preserved. And more are turning up each year. The dinosaurs were truly a magnificent group of animals. And still are: you can see avian dinosaurs eating on your bird table.

However, I don’t read reviews before seeing a film because I like to know as little as possible before seeing it to keep the excitement, suspense and thrill that a film is supposed to be for. I don’t like spoilers – if I inadvertently see one, I end up watching the film waiting to spot the spoiler, and that spoils the film for me.  And as a person who doesn’t feel too comfortable sat in a cinema jam packed with other people, I waited a little bit to see Jurassic World.

And it was bloody awesome.

We all know that the ‘Velociraptors’ are not real Velociraptors and are most likely Deinonychus (Velociraptor is an easier name to pronounce, and shortening it to ‘raptors’ sounds pretty cool). We know that the majority of the dinosaurs in all four films are actually from the Cretaceous Period (145-66 million years ago) and not from the Jurassic Period (200-145 million years ago). (Cretaceous Park doesn’t have the same ring to it.) From the very first Jurassic Park film way back in 1993, we know mosquitoes preserved in amber do not preserve dinosaur DNA (let alone Mosasaur DNA!). And, yes, we all know that many avian dinosaurs, and even some non-avian, such as Sinosauropterxy, sported fuzzy downs and colourful feathers.

A gorgeous fossil of microraptor (Image D. Hone, from here)

A gorgeous fossil of Microraptor gui. This beautiful fossil also has feathers preserved. (Image D. Hone, from here)

Do these factual inaccuracies actually matter?

I don’t think so.

Jurassic World is not a documentary. It is a film. And actually it is probably best described as a monster movie, with some dinosaur-like monsters. (Actually, the Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and the Apatosaurus were pretty cool dinosaurs, and very realistic). I don’t think it really matters that the Velociraptors’ didn’t have feathers, or they made up a completely new dinosaur. And here’s why, with a little help from a recent visit to a local theme park.

A few weeks ago I went on a ride called Dino Jeeps. Here, in a blatant rip off from Jurassic Park (even down to their logos), the visitors would sit in a jeep that automatically drove round through ‘jungles’ and model dinosaurs for around 67 seconds before ending at the beginning again. A very quick ride into the past.

Dino Jeeps. The only ride where you sit for 67 seconds, and

Dino Jeeps. The only ride where you sit for 67 seconds, and take a tour of some of the most wonderfully bad dinosaur models ever built. Notice the little logo on the back of the jeep? Looks familiar.

Should it matter that there were two Smilodon skulls on this trip, or that there was an ammonite just laying around in the middle of the forest? I guess it should, but in reality, my little 4 and a half year old loved the dinosaur models (which must have been made in the 1960s). We wrode the Dino Jeep three times. When we got home, full of excitement, we sat down and read one of his many dinosaur encyclopaedias, which had feathered dinosaurs and more realistic poses. We spent a good hour going through the book and talking about the dinosaurs, where they lived and what they ate.

My little 4 and 1/2 year old loving the giant Utaraptor, and doing a pretty good Chris Pratt impression (after copying his daddy!).

My little 4 and 1/2 year old loving the giant Utaraptor, and doing a pretty good Chris Pratt impression at taming the raptor.

The point being that it really doesn’t matter that the dinosaurs on Dino Jeeps (or in Jurassic World) were not exactly accurate. Children (and adults) having watched any Jurassic Park film and wanting to know more about dinosaurs will look up more information when they get home. They will do an internet search on Velociraptor and learn that they were about the size of chickens covered with feathers. They will find out that Tyrannosaurus rex was from the Cretaceous, not the Jurassic.  The truth is, these films inspire the audience to find out more, and in some cases may inspire future palaeontologists.

I always envy reading Stephen Jay Gould reminiscing about how that trip to the museum to see the dinosaur fossil inspired him to work in palaeontology. Or the great Brian Seitek who spent his childhood visiting museums many, many times, feeding his love for these ancient reptiles, inspiring him to write extremely successfully about them for a living (not to mention his fabulous book My Beloved Brontosaurus).

For little old me, there were no trips to museums. But there were monster movies. I remember vividly the first monster movie I ever saw, The Land That Time Forgot. I was 8 years old and transfixed. Everything else faded away as dinosaurs, pterosaurs and Neanderthals took me to another world. What an incredible film, and this one film inspired my love of prehistoric animals. The dinosaurs were awful. You could see the string on the pterosaur. But it didn’t matter. After watching that film, I sought out books about dinosaurs, books aabout ancient humans and animals around their time and collected toys. I was hooked. A new and incredible world was opened up to me. I watched more; King KongOne Million Years BC, The Valley of Gwangi and more … each one adding to my fascination with these incredible creatures. And now I work in a museum. Not with dinosaurs, alas. But with Woolly Mammoths, Woolly Rhinoceros, Cave Bears, Hyenas and other cool Pleistocene beasts worthy of their own Hollywood Blockbuster.

Jurassic World had excitment, some suspense, a small amount of wit, a very cool baddy creature, even cooler goody creatures and a few nods to the very first Jurassic Park film. As a documentary, it was rubbish. As a film it was brilliant! And no doubt it will inspire many to buy toys, and do a little extra reading when they get home. The film may not be scientificlly true, but it will get people talking about dinosaurs. Not only dinosaurs, but pterosaurs, marine reptiles, genetics, ethics, and the possibilities of science.

I saw Jurassic World. And it really was awesome!

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Museum Twitterati

Twitter is a wonderful virtual world. It allows us follow our colleagues from all over the world and keep up to date with what they are up to. We are able to interact, make new contacts, and even develop new projects all over invisible connections bouncing up and down and around the planet. Many of the people on Twitter I have never met in real life but seeing what they are up to, and chatting about Clan of the Cave Bear or this fossil, it is like you really do know them.

For some of us in the museum world, we may meet once a year at an annual conference. For many others, Twitter is what keeps us together. We can quickly tag someone in a tweet who may be able to help, or may be interested, and the contact is instantaneous. We can even build up links with people outside of our main fields of expertise. There is a wonderful museum community on Twitter. And it is growing.

What a wonderful world we live in today.

I was very honoured to be nomiated along with 4 other wonderful museum folk, for #TwitteratiChallenge by Katie Hobbs in Brighton. (This is a few weeks late, and I can only blame it on sinusitis, which was a real headache.) #TwitteratiChallenge has been slightly re-jigged to #MuseumTwitterati and the aim is to nominate 5 people in museum folk who then nomiate 5 more, and so on. The hashtag is pretty cool, because it highlights more people in that field who you can follow.

It is actually pretty difficult to nomiate people for this. I interact daily with many museum curators, with a number of regulars who are friends. Knowing many UK museum curators myself, and knowing that many UK curators know many UK curators, I am nominating five American museum curators. Some you may know, some maybe not. But they are worth following, because of the interesting things they get up to, and they are awesome!

Here are my nomiated Museum folk for #MuseumTwitterati.

– Julia (I dont know your surname!!) (@Julesinspace) is curently finishing her PhD in biological anthropology, whilst also working in museum education. Plus she also does a pretty cool blog on how to create bird study skins🙂

– Roger Arnold (@roger_arnold) works at the Newark Museum with the arts of global Africa.

– Bailee DesRocher (@Museum_Monster) is a development coordinator, science educator, volunteer fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum of LA County. Bailee does some wonderful illustrations too!

– Andrew Farke (@AndyFarke) works at the Alf Museum, California,and carried out research with dinosaur fossils! He also does his own home brewing!

– Carrie Eaton (@carrieeaton) is a curator at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum and tweets about her fantastic collections!

Rules:

  1. You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life (ex-colleagues are fine, it’s a small sector and we’d run out of people in no time otherwise).
  2. You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge or #MuseumTwitterati (sorry Jan Freedman)
  3. Copy and paste the ‘Rules’ and ‘What to do’ information into your own blog post and be sure to cite @TeacherToolkit since they came up with the idea.

What to do:

  1. Within 7 days of being nominated you must write your own blogpost identifying the top-5 museologists that you regularly go to for ideas, support and challenge. Share this on Twitter using the hashtag #MuseumTwitterati and tag them in – they are thus nominated.
  2. If you do not have your own blog, write your list by hand or on a computer, take a photo/screenshot and upload it to Twitter, tagging the people mentioned (yes, you can do that) and using the hashtag #MuseumTwitterati – they are thus nominated.

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That belongs in a museum!

Somewhere off the Portuguese coast, rain pours down hard. Lightening flashes in the background. He lifts his bloodied face and smiles. He is surounded by four bad guys, held back and beaten. Even when the historical gold cross is taken from his bag, he still believes. He knows that object should be in a museum, and has no quarms is saying it, despite his predicament. Those words, “that belongs in a museum”, spoken with passion by Indiana Jones, are inscribed above every museum curators door. Well, they should be. Too often do we see things sold to private collectors, and I have even seen specimens on eBay. More often than not there is nothing we can do but watch as unique objects go off to the highest bidder.

Yep. That's me. Just telling that lady who asked about the auction house what she should really do with it. (From here.)

He  stood his ground for what he belived in. Damn it Indy, you are so right. (From here)

 

Sometimes there may be something we are able to do. Or at least try.

Recently I saw a large collection go to a University. Not a University Museum – they live by the same rules as other museums. University Museums have curators, catalogues of collections, databases, and do some real cool things with their specimens. This collection went to a University teaching collection.

This is a shame, because those specimens, with their own little stories will be used just for teaching – and this is a pretty limited audience. Only the students and a handful of lecturers will see the collections. Some universities do an open day once a year, and bring out some of their teaching collections (I have helped out with some over the years and they often bring out the same specimens, so the rest are kept in behind closed doors). Anyone wanting to carry out any research on the collections needs to know the collections are there – and these will be the university lecturers and a few select students. Even if there is research carried out on them, perhaps a dozen people may read the scientific paper.

I have nothing against University teaching collections – in fact they are excellent at giving the students a chance to see real specimens instead of images on a presentation.

The good, the bad and the ugly

I emailed around to museums to see if there were any experiences with University teaching collections they wouldn’t mind sharing. I heard back from a dozen colleagues with a mixture of good and bad experiences. One University transferred their dinosaur footprint collection to a museum, which was fully documented and included lots of additional data and has subsequently been researched on. A museum took on a University’s entire herbarium collection (over 10,000 specimens) and rescued a Diptera collection which was being badly attacked by pests: both collections had good data. One University Museum holds the teaching collections from three Universities with about 80% information associated with the specimens (one of the collections was from a University with a University Museum!?!).

There are also some not-so-great examples. Some teaching collections were taken by another museum which had very little data associated with them, and were in very poor condition – any old documentation was chaotic and curators are still attempting to identify specimens over 30 years later. Another teaching collection has some fantastic skeletal and taxidermy specimens from all over the world, but no data with them at all, and are very badly eaten. Some years ago a museum took an entire geology teaching collection which had very little data with the specimens at all: the museum spent a long time with volunteers and members of the Russell Society on identifying them, eventually keeping just a fraction of the collection.

An amazing collection of primate skulls, including several of the same species. Lots of potential use with these specimens. But, they have no information with them, and no one knows they are there.

An amazing collection of primate skulls, including several of the same species. Lots of potential use with these specimens. But, they have no information with them, and no one knows they are there.

 

An enormous herbaria collection was almost disposed of but quickly taken in by a museum. It held teaching specimens, PhD research specimens as well as individuals own collections. This took years of volunteers who knew botany to go through and assess the material. Lots had little or no information with them, but the collection did hold some really rare and unique specimens. Just to think that they were almost thrown in the bin.

Some very ugly examples were also brought to life by colleagues. A University disposed of their geological collections with very poor data, and are now with a private individual. In the 1980s another University closed its Geology department, and skipped their teaching collections and students were told that they could take specimens from the skip. A few years ago a University skipped their entire teaching collections only for museum curators to hear about it after it was too late. The loss of unique and potentially important specimens must have been huge.

 

Just one drawer of several from a University teaching collection. The moths have been eaten and completely destroyed.

Just one drawer of several from a University teaching collection. The moths have been eaten and completely destroyed.

 

Hmmm. So there seems to be a few problems with University teaching collections:

– information with the specimens is lost, or not kept.

– the specimens are not cared for and get eaten/damaged/lost.

These are just a few examples. Not all University teaching collections are poorly looked after. There are however enough examples to warrant a little concern.

 

That belongs in a museum.

Of course specimens should be offered/donated to a museum first. Collections with information with them should be held in a relevant public institution so they can be accessed by anyone. The collections get cared for, and one hundred times the use!  Donating to a relevant museum strengthens their collections by filling gaps, adding unique stories, and encouraging more researchers, artists, school groups, and public through new displays. This also makes it easier to identify where to go if you were looking for specific things from a certain area. Someone wanting to look at bat specimens from Devon would not go to a museum in Newcastle.

The group that is often said to be the biggest users of teh collections are researchers. While it is true all museums have researchers using the unique, histoical collections, there is more. So much more that we should be shouting about! Collections are used for much more than research. There are probably many more examples of uses, but I will just share some of my own: I have artists each year coming in and taking inspiration from the collections; I bring specimens out and give talks about the local collections to local community groups; I have been out with local specimens to talk to elderly people suffering from dementia; I set up practical sessions using collections for undergraduate students to get up close and see real specimens. I bring bugs, fossils and skeletons out to schools inspiring hundreds of children every year; I have brought out the collections and their stories to people in shopping centres, the local hospital, the university and other places around the city. Museum collections not only are for active research, they have an even greater role in society: they are actively inspiring.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

 

What can be done?

Unfortunatley, the worst things about University teaching collections is the lack of any information with specimens, and the poor condition they are kept in. I have worked closely with three Universities, and I know that teaching colelctions are built up by individuals who are particularly interested in that area. They generally don’t record where specimens were from or when they were colelcted, because for teaching taxonomy this information isn’t needed. When the lecturer retires, or departments closed, then Unviersities get rid of these teaching collections. And if we are fortunate enough, a museum may get wind and rescue the collection from the skip. The difference with a museum is that a curator can carry on from their predecesor. In a University, if that lecturer leaves, there is no one to take over their teaching collection.

The teaching collections are often in such bad condition that musuems have had a difficult time checking what the specimens actually are. Bluntly put, I think the specimens are better off in a museum in the first place. They can be cared for and used much more. I have used collections for teaching University students. Why not have the ‘teaching collections’ in a museum and Universities use them through the museum?

Unfortunately there is no law saying that they should be offered to museums first. Maybe museums need to talk more to universities to offer advice on how to look after their teaching collections. I have written a report for one teaching collection offering advice on safe storage, and ways of finding out the historical information about the specimens. I am working closely with another University to help digitise and care for their herbaria collection. Two other museums I know encourage undergraduates to donate their finds from their dissertation projects and how to record information correctly. These examples help build relationships between the museum to the University.

Today many University departments are closing because there is less demand for degrees in plant sciences or zoology. As they close, the teaching collections with them are thrown out. Perhaps teaching collections would be better housed in a museum in the first place.

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The flamboyant cast

Another Bad Cast for your pleasure. Here we have a pretty small cast of a trilobite. You can just make out the outline of this specimen.

Just. But it is a trilobite.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

Unfortunately, as is a recurring theme with these bad casts, this specimen does not convey the true flamboyance of this type of trilobite. It is a cast from the extravagant trilobite family Thysanopeltid. Species in this family of these extinct arthropods are noted for their big gabella (which is the bulging bit in the centre of the head). They also have very elaborate pygidiums (the ‘tail’ segment): almost as long as the main body in some species.

A beautifully preserved (Image from here)

A beautifully preserved Scabriscutellum sp. from Morocco. Note the very elongated tail section (towards the left of the image). (Image from here)

As with all trilobites, they lived in the marine environment. With their large eyes, and relatively flat, streamlined bodies, these unusual trilobites likely lived in the shallow coastal areas where there was light. Staying close to the sandy or muddy floor, they would have scurried along feeding on the tiny organisms in the water as they went.

These were creatures of the Devonian. From around 410 to 358 million years ago, several species from this family were swimming in the warm seas. From Morrocco, North America, and South England, this was a successful family.

The land was slowly being colonised by plants in the Devonian, with some primitive insects scuttling through these alien forests. The seas were different: they were rich, full of diverse life.  With giant armoured fish longer than me, coral reefs, and hundreds of different types of trilobites, this was a world owned by the marine creatures. Stepping barefoot into shallow Devononian waters, you would feel the tickle of trilobites running furiously over your feet, while others swimming would accidently bump into your legs. It was a wonderful world.

Towards the end of the Devonian the fossil record shows that there was a huge extinction event, with numerous families of trilobites, ammonites, corals, and some land animals vanishing forever. Around 22% of families had gone, and 75% of species. The causes may have been due to a meteorite impact, or the changing atmosphere due to the spread of the land plants. It was, and still is, a very fragile planet where slight changes have extremely dramatic effects.

Around half of the bad casts at the museum are trilobites. I get why. Plymouth is on very hard, tough limestone. What fossils have survived 400 million years of crushing, burial, heat and uplift, are fragments of corals or sea shells. When the museum opened, like all museums, they wanted to represent life past and present. Without real fossils to purchase, casts were the next best thing. Apparently.

Did they have to be so bad? We will never know why someone, 100 years ago, spent many shillings on so many bad casts. What is worse for this particular cast, is that species from this wonderful family, Thysanopeltid, have been found in Newton Abbot. Rocks, which are only 40 minutes away. 40 minutes away. Instead of looking for the real thing, we have ended up with this bad cast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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