Prehistoric Pets

Pets are big business. Worldwide, there are around 470 million pet dogs, 379 million pet cats, 230 million pet birds, 65 million pet fish, 3 million pet reptiles, 1 million pet Guinea pigs, and quite a few others including insects and rats. People really do like pets. They are a part of the family. The dog that rests their head on your lap when you are sad. Or the cat that jumps up and curls itself up on your lap. They make us smile. They make us feel happy.

I do have a few pets. Two long haired Guinea pigs (Evie and Nibbles), which are cute but not so clever (but the little ones like them). And a corn snake, Syd, who is such a beautiful creature. We had stick insects some years ago, but they sadly passed away. Watching my little ones hold these tame animals is a wonderful thing to see. They are hypnotised by all the little details, from the tiny feet of the stick insects to the forked tongue of Syd. Pets can give younger ones a real sense of awe towards animals.

My gorgeous little corn snake, Syd.

With pets being so popular, there are of course many books about them. Handbooks to help owners look after their new family member. Books about cats. Books about breeds of dogs. All sorts of books. I’ve seen them in book shops, and never really taken to them. A book about cats? Cute but no thank you. Horses? Beautiful big creatures, but I’m happier seeing one in real life than pictures of one. But I guess there is a little something for everyone.

There’s a new book that does tickle my fancy. Prehistoric Pets by Dean Lomax and illustrated by Mike Love, is a nice little book about pets, but with a twist. Aimed at children, it focuses on 7 different common pets. With lovely illustrations, each section gives great fun facts about the pet, almost like a simple zoology lesson. Accompanying the featured pet are some of their modern relatives with more great short facts. And then each section has the winning page: it opens and you step into the past with pop up illustrations of a long extinct relative. It’s fun, interesting, and really nicely written in a non-jargon easy to read way.

As an adult, I really quite enjoyed it! I liked the fun facts: short and manageable and easy to remember. It was well laid out, with the text working nicely with the illustrations. I am of course, just a little bit older than the target audience for this book. While I enjoyed it, I thought a nice way to really test it would be to see what the actual readership thought. So, I asked my little ones to review it.

My 10 year old:

“Great.” (A boy of little words.)

I asked what he liked about it: “The extinct animals were really cool. And all the little facts about the modern and extinct animals.”

His favourite was the Titanoboa, the biggest snake to have ever existed!

I asked what he didn’t like about it: “Nothing. Except maybe it could have had more pets and prehistoric animals.”

My 7 year old:

“Really fun and interesting. I loved the giant Guinea pig! And I really liked the pictures.”

When I asked what she didn’t like about it, she said “Nothing”.

Quite a couple of nice, honest reviews, if a little short. My little ones are a bit of a way off writing full blown book reviews. But then again, sometimes less is more.

It’s a nice accessible book. Kids will really enjoy it, especially if they have pets of their own, because they can relate to it and learn more about their pets. One of the really great things about this book is that you digest the facts without even realising you are. It’s well written, and engaging!

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A glimpse at biodiversity

Four years ago I met with the designers for the new gallery spaces for the large redevelopment project for Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (rebranded as The Box, Plymouth). This was the beginning of what would become the new natural history gallery at The Box, and I was excited. It was an opportunity for this new natural history gallery to be bigger than anything we had done before with lots of specimens on display highlighting big, relevant stories for visitors.

We have over 100,000 insects in our natural history collections at The Box, and I was keen for this to be reflected in the new gallery. But I didn’t want a display of lots of things just for the sake of it. The display had to have relevance to visitors: it had to tell a story. The insects naturally led to focusing on taxonomy (how and why we classify animals and plants), biodiversity on our beautiful planet, and biodiversity loss due to climate change and habitat destruction.

Using this information, and perhaps a little over-enthusiasm on my part, the designers created a section dedicated to the insects. A lot of insects. They designed a booth, where visitors step inside and are surrounded by mini-beasts. The display is now finished, and looking glorious, with 4836 insects (including a few arachnids).

Getting from those initial meetings four years ago to displaying 4836 specimens was no easy feat. The design was drawn, but the practicalities of getting the specimens in took a lot of planning, pinning, printing, and precision. What follows is how the display came to be, with a little bit of geeky background.

The new insect display in the natural history gallery at The Box. (Photo Jan Freedman)

The display was created with 31 panels of acrylic, with each panel having rods of different lengths that the specimens would be pinned to. The rods themselves needed to be placed into holes in the acrylic panels. This alone meant that specimens couldn’t be transferred from the insect drawers in the store room directly to the acrylic panels, because we needed to know where each hole was to be drilled into position on the panel. Getting the exact positions of the holes was essential, but it took time.

The best way to plan where the holes were to be drilled was to create exact templates of the acrylic panels, using Plasterzote (a nice inert foam museums use). Our exhibition fit out team supplied me with the exact measurements for each panel, along with numbers for each panel. The numbers showed me exactly which panel would go where in the display, so I could plan exactly where the butterflies would be, where the parasitic wasps would be, and so on.

The foam templates were cut, so I sketched of the layout of the where the different groups of insects, and I was almost ready. I just needed one more thing: a paper template of each panel. I needed to make sure our mount makers knew exactly where to drill the holes on the acrylic panels. The paper template was placed on top of the foam template, and the specimens were pinned into position.

It wasn’t as simple as putting the specimens on the template straight from the drawers. Best practice in museums is that any object or specimen taken from the store rooms has something we call a ‘removal slip’. This is generally an A7 sized carbon copy label that has the unique museum number, the location of the specimen in the collection, why it has been removed, where it is now, and the date it has been removed. This is so important for museums, so that we know where every single thing is at any one time. It’s a carbon copy so it is copied three times: one stays with the object, one goes in the store room where the specimen is normally sorted, and one goes in the curators files.

Sadly, an A7 label was pretty useless for insects. They are much too big to pin in the drawers, and would look slightly comical attached to the underside of a bee or a moth! So I had to print individual labels for each specimens. These were tiny: the labels that would go under the specimens to say which drawer the specimen had come from, was in font 4, and the label in the drawer to say where the specimen was, was in font 5. Each label had to be cut out with a scalpel, and attached to the specimen, or pinned in the drawer.

The labels cut out for the preparation of the panels. All typed in Word, then printed, then cut out with a scalpel. (Photo Jan Freedman)

The work began. It took around 4 months, with myself working on it full time, and some late nights, my amazing work placement student, Jess, helping out as much as she could, and another entomologist called in for three weeks of support. Each foam template was carefully planned and laid out. I wanted this display to have a more dynamic feel than the usual rows of insects you see in collections, so they were angled slightly differently from each other.

One of the smaller templates for the butterflies. (Photo Jan Freedman)

When a template was finished, the specimens had to be transferred onto a new piece of foam. What was left, was the paper template with small holes in. This was the best way for the mount makers to have the easiest method of drilling the exact positions into the acrylic, so that the correct length rod in place ready. As I transferred each specimen, I used my trusty Sharpie to push down where the hole was, and then write down the code for the correct rod length (A, B, C, D, or E). The paper template was labelled with the panel number, and sent to the mount makers.

One of the paper templates sent to the mount makers so they could drill holes in exactly the right place. All those letters told them which sized rod needed to go into each hole. (Photo Jan Freedman)

The specimens were then transferred back onto the foam template. We couldn’t just store the foam template until the specimens were transferred on to the acrylic panels, because insects are incredibly fragile, and there are lots of little pests that like to eat museum specimens. Each foam template had to be wrapped with plastic sheeting and sealed. Boxes to protect the specimens from the plastic sheets would have been expensive, so I used kabab sticks, which pierced the foam, and kept the plastic sheeting at a safe distance from the specimens. All 31 foam templates were stored safely until the acrylic panels were ready.

Storing the templates safely until they were ready to go onto the acrylic panels. (Photo Jan Freedman)

The acrylic panels for display had the holes drilled in them, and the rods of different lengths were pushed in the exact positions as laid out on the paper templates. They were ready. In a very specific order, Jess and I transferred the specimens from the foam templates onto the acrylic panels. Working closely with the mount maker, James, we very carefully placed and screwed into positon on large corian plinths. The plinths were very carefully moved into position in the case.

Very, very carefully moving the acrylic panel into the case to be attached to the plinth. (Photo Jess Viney)

In retrospect, drilling the panels onto big plinths which then had to be moved wasn’t the best solution. A frame could have been built close to the glass, and the panels could have been attached directly, reducing any risk to the specimens. Moving the large plinths wasn’t easy, but working slowly, and very carefully, James and I positioned them without any damage to the collections.

How do we know there are exactly 4836 specimens? This is the other part of working to best practice standards. Every specimen or object in a museum has a unique number. This number tells us what it is, where it was from, when it was collected, who collected it, and sometimes even more data. This is what makes museum collections around the world such a valuable resource for researchers. All this information is held on a database for the museum, which allows quick and easy access to the data. As each specimen was placed onto the foam template, each individual number was recorded on as spreadsheet, so that the museum database can be updated with where that specimen is. Doing this means that if someone is looking for a certain species, and the specimen is on display, we know exactly where it is. As each specimen was recorded on the spreadsheet, I could count how many were on display: a whooping 4836 specimens!

Transferring the specimens from a template onto the acrylic panel.

This beautiful display highlights several different things. By looking at so many different insects, visitors can learn about taxonomy: how and why scientists classify life on our planet. It also shows the incredible biodiversity of life from this ‘small’ selection of insects. Every single little creature that you see on display has a unique role in the environment, and if even the littlest species disappears, that has a big knock-on effect to other plants and animals. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate due to climate change and habitat destruction. We see this with big, sexy animals like elephants or orang-utans. But hundreds of thousands of insects are at risk of extinction each year. I hope that by seeing such a huge variety of insects, visitors will see their beauty and how each individual species is so important to a healthy ecosystem.


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Chirstmas Butterflies

Christmas Eve. We are at a friends house for our annual traditional gathering. The cinnamon and cloves from my warm mulled wine fill my nostrils. The soft voice of Michael Buble plays in the background, while the children and their friends are running round with more energy than I can imagine possible at half-six in the evening. I take a break from the several conversations happening at once so my head can have a breather. With my three and a half year chromic sinusitis my head struggles to focus when more than one people are talking at the same time. It throbs. I can’t focus on who is saying what. Sometimes it feels antisocial to break away for a moment, but at the same time a few minutes of silence helps stop the piercing stabbing pain above my left eye.

It is here when I spot it. By the ancient thick stone windowsill sits a butterfly. A beautiful, if a little battered looking, tortoise shell butterfly. A butterfly here on Christmas Eve!

A wonderful sight on Christmas Eve! The gorgeous tortoise shell butterfly I spotted!!

I always thought that butterflies died before the winter. What was it doing here: Waiting out the winter in the warm artificial heat? The life-span of a butterfly is around two to three months – not enough time to ride out the harsh winter months. There were no flowers in the house for it to feed on. It was an enigma. An exciting, elegant enigma.

So I started to read around, and I discovered something that I never knew before. I was shocked. What I had believed for 37 years turned out to be completely wrong.

Here’s what I knew. All insects, like butterflies, laid their eggs before the autumn where they would lay waiting until the first heat of spring told them it was time to hatch. The hungry caterpillars would greedily eat more than their body weight in fresh new foliage, plumping up, before wrapping themselves inside a claustrophobically tight cocoon. Inside, away from the light, away from the outside world, they change. Genes switch on transforming what was a caterpillar into a butterfly. A caterpillar and a butterfly: the same individual that looks like two completely different species. After delicately emerging from their little home in the summer, the adults would feed on nectar and find a mate to make more eggs, where the eggs would wait for spring once more. And so the cycle continues.

The eggs hatching, the big juicy caterpillars munching, and the butterfly emerging is all right. That’s the life-cycle of a butterfly. We all know that. It’s the timings I got wrong. Here’s the amazing thing. Some insects (like stick insects) do lay eggs which are in a state of suspension over winter, activating when the sun is higher in spring time. I thought all insects did this. But, not all of them do lay eggs patiently waiting under a leaf or a log over winter. Many insects lay eggs in spring. Which means that there are butterflies are around over winter.

A butterfly laying eggs under a leaf. The new leaves on this branch are just beginning to grow – the butterfly is laying the eggs in spring! (Image Public Domain)

Where are they? What do they feed on? I thought they only lived for a few months?

I discovered that some adult butterflies hibernate during the winter. Hibernate. Not strictly hibernating like a bear, but they are able to shut their bodies down in a kind of suspended animation. Tortoise shells, red admirals, peacock butterflies and others will find cold places towards the end of autumn, shut down their bodies and sleep until the warmness of spring awakens them again. They can sleep for months until this natural alarm clock stirs them from their slumber.

Of course like many of us, I have seen the incredible footage of millions of Monarch butterflies clinging to trees in Mexico where they literally freeze over winter until spring comes. Monarch butterflies hibernate. I knew that many years ago. I didn’t think that butterflies hibernated even though I saw the Monarch butterflies. I didn’t even make the connection when I saw that tortoise shell butterfly on Christmas Eve. I thought this gorgeous insect was living in the house, finding warmth in the cold darkness of winter.

Dozens of Monarch Butterflies wintering in Pismo State Beach, California. (Photo Steve Corey Public Domain)

It was like something clicked. Something I had long thought was the way things were wasn’t at all. It turns out lots of different insects have different ways of coping with the bitterness of the winter months. Some insects, like adult bees and ladybirds, will huddle together during the colder months: a mass of bodies providing warmth. Others, like ants, will live deeper in their underground homes, escaping the harshness of the cold soil above. Some, like adult stink bugs, will actually invade homes to escape the chilly outside. Some insects have even developed an antifreeze by producing glycerol that lowers the freezing temperature for their bodies. And many butterflies will find a nice tree and hang there, shutting their bodies down until spring comes again. And of course, I found out that butterflies, like tortoise shells, red admirals and others, will find a nice, safe cold place indoors.

Many sheltered places these butterflies find are houses, sheds, and garages. They will shut off everything until the warmth triggers their bodies to awaken again. The trouble is that many of these places are unnaturally heated. The alarm clock has set off too early. And this can be disastrous. Because they are awake, and their life span is so short, they will die either in the house, or outside long before the spring comes. (You can help if you see one fluttering around in your house during winter. Carefully get the butterfly in a tub with air holes (without touching the wings) and move it to a cold part of the house, or rehome it in the shed. Here it will close its body down, and go back to sleep again until the natural time to wake up.)

I’m not a superstitious or religious person (are the two the same?). I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. (Although for some reason I find horror films with ghosts much more tense and terrifying than monsters or serial killers. They actually make the hairs on my neck stand up and send a horrific shiver all the way down my spine. I know they are not real, but they genuinely scare the pants off me.) There is a little romantic side to this little meander. In folklores of old, many people believed that butterflies carried the souls of people who had passed away. Some people even believed that seeing a butterfly at Christmas was the spirit of a recently deceased loved one visiting.

I smiled a little when I read those folklore tales. My mum passed away unexpectedly just after new years day last year. Even after a year it is still a shock. Today it is still not real. How can someone who has been an important part in your life suddenly just not be there anymore?

I’ve never seen a butterfly in a house ever before. I doubt it was her soul visiting. Knowing her, it is much more likely she was chuckling and telling me to get back to enjoying the mulled wine. I know that’s obviously not true, but it’s nice to imagine it. One thing I do know, is that I will not look at tortoise shell butterflies the same ever again. In a way, now her spirit kind of does live on in them: I see these glorious butterflies often in the summer, and now I shall always see them with the thought of a wonderful woman who was taken away from us much too early.

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