Monthly Archives: November 2013

The 100 year old seahorse

How do you celebrate the anniversary of something that has been preserved for a hundred years? It is most definitely not a ‘birth’day. A ‘deathday’ doesn’t really have that ‘celebratory’ ring to it. Perhaps an anniversary of the ‘preservation day’ sounds quite nice.

Today on the 29th November 2013, we celebrate the 100th year anniversary of this little seahorse’s preservation day. And worth celebrating too, for she has a lot to tell us through her gorgeous old jar.

100 years ago this little seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) was found. She may have been found dead, but as was the way 100 years ago, she was most probably collected. Mr R. S. Clark, a scientist at the Marine Biological Association, neatly wrote out a label and popped it, along with the seahorse, into a lovely ground glass jar full of spirit.

Preserved for 100 years, this spiny seahorse tells us more than we would think from its old glass jar.

Preserved for 100 years, this spiny seahorse tells us more than we would think from its old glass jar.

Why Clark preserved it in spirit is easy to understand when we look at other natural history collections. Most insects have a stainless steel pin pushed through their hard skeleton on the outside of their bodies (exoskeleton) and spend eternity pinned in drawers. This works well for these little critters as the external features are preserved.

All vertebrates (animals with a backbone) can have their flesh removed by being boiled, burried, or eaten by beetles leaving their skeleton to be stored in nice labelled boxes. Some vertebrates (namely mammals, birds and reptiles) can have their insides taken out and their skin pulled over a foam (or straw) mannequin which has a ‘life-like’ pose, known as a taxidermy mount. Alternatively, the skins of these animals can be treated and stored as they are, without being stuffed (called study skins). 

For those soft bodied creatures, or more delicate ones, preserving them in a fluid is the best way to keep them for the future. Pinning a sea cucumber wouldn’t really work, and stuffing a jellyfish would be very disappointing. Using a fluid (mainly ethanol or formaldehyde) preserves all parts of the organism, even the internal organs. It is used for preserving invertebrates (animals without a backbone), plants and even vertebrates too.

Mr Clark could have actually dried the seahorse to preserve it; many museum collections have dried specimens. This does preserve the external features, like pinning an insect. But the internal organs and tissue rot away. For me, dried seahorses loose a little bit of that magic. 

Seahorses are beautiful little fish with 54 different species around the world. They appear to be a relative newcomer to the seas, evolving from pipefish-like ancestors around 13 million years ago. It is well-known that the females will put her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, where he will look after the eggs until the young swim out.

Although they are really really bad swimmers, a recent study has shown that seahorses are actually masters of stealth. Their unique body shape lets them move through the water with out being noticed by the little marine animals it is trying to eat. Their snout slowly moves the water around its body, so it creates no ripples; and to a little animal that protects itself by detecting movement of ripples, the seahorse is invisible.

These enigmatic animals are very delicious food for many animals, including crabs, fish and penguins. They are a pretty easy meal because they are such terrible swimmers. But they face a bigger predator: man. It may not come as a huge surprise to find out that they are used in Chinese medicines, mainly to treat impotence. It appears to be a general them with Chinese ‘medicine’; men who cant get it up compensate by exterminating rare and exotic species. Humans can be a really stupid species sometimes.

It is also well known that these wonderful looking animals live exclusively in clear, turquoise tropical waters amongst colourful coral reefs.

Wrong.

When Mr Clark wrote the label 100 years ago, he wrote ‘Sound’; short-hand for Plymouth Sound. This little seahorse was collected from the waters around Plymouth!

In fact, there are two species of seahorses living along many parts of the coast of the UK; the Short Snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus) and the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus). They can be found along the south, south west and south east coast, as well as around Wales, northern Scotland, the North Sea, and north and south Ireland. These beautiful creatures like to live amongst the sea grasses, but also man made objects like marinas. Recent studies have shown that they are a lot more adaptable to changes in the local environment than we think!

It is amazing to think that she was swimming with her other seahorse kind in the sea grasses along the coast of Plymouth 100 years ago. What’s more amazing is to know that they still are today.

I raise my warm mug of milky tea to celebrate this anniversary of it’s preservation day. 100 years dead. She may have lost a little colour in her cheeks, but at 100 years dead, she is looking rather good.

The author celebrating the preservation day of this beautiful seahorse. (Cup of tea is out of camera shot).

The author celebrating the preservation day of this beautiful seahorse. (Cup of tea is out of camera shot).

Further Reading:

The British Seahorse Survey: [click here]

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Belemnites and battleships

On Sunday 7th November, the small historic town of Totnes in Devon stood still. Quietness floated down the steep Elizabethan high street, where the large crowd of locals stood. A trumpet softly played ‘The Last Post’, while a small flock of pigeons slapped their wings as they flew as one above us.

Remembrance Sunday is held on the closest Sunday to the 11th November; the date the First World War ended. It is a time to remember those who have given their lives for their country.

Often we are so busy we don’t actually get the time to stop and think. Everyday life is hectic: as hectic as we make it. This is what makes Remembrance Sunday special. For two minutes at 11am people stand in silence together and remember. The two minutes silence is held again on the 11th November. It allows people time to stop and think, and remember. Not only about those brave souls who fought in the First World War, but also the Second World War and all later conflicts.

I thought about all those millions of young soldiers who had given their lives; those wives who had lost a husband; those parents who lost a son; those children who lost a parent. I then thought about my grandparents. Both sets escaped the horrors of their home countries in Eastern Europe during the Second World War and travelled, on foot, to Britain. One set of my grandparents actually met each other while fleeing, and married in a beautiful little church in a small village in the Czech Republic. I thought about how I never asked them questions about their lives. I missed the only opportunity to share their memories and now they are lost forever. I then thought about an unknown soldier and a hand full of belemnites with a unique story.

Belemnites are not the most exciting looking fossils in museum displays: there isn’t really much sexing up you can do to them. The hard pointy fossils can be found in their hundreds in some places in England. And museums can have more than a few dozen specimens behind the scenes. These little grey-brown, shiny pointy things are generally all that remains of an extinct squid like creature and not much to write home about.

 

Two lovely shiny large belemnites. Not too much to look at on their own.

Two lovely shiny large belemnites. Not too much to look at on their own.

Why do museums bother? Why do museums need so many of these dull looking fossils in their collections? They all look the same; surely one is identical to another? What’s the point; they are utterly uninspiring little things?

Unfortunately, these are familiar questions the natural history curator may hear from those who do not understand the importance of natural history collections. And not just about belemnites, but about taxidermy, insects, rocks, skeletons, fossils, and all other specimens.

The wonderfully enthusiastic answer would explain that belemnites are incredibly cool extinct squid-like creatures. Most of the time the only fossil we see is the ‘guard’; the hardest part that sits towards the back of the animal and helped it float (which is what you can see in the photo above). There were an enormous amount of species that darted around in the oceans when the dinosaurs were stomping around on the land. We know there were so many species as we can see the different size, girth and even curvature of the fossils. Each individual specimen adds important information about the distribution of these animals and the history of life on Earth.

Belemnites belonged to the group that includes squid, cuttlefish and octopus (called Cephalopods). How can we say with certainty that they belonged to this group? Well, very rarely the soft parts of the full creature is preserved. These beautiful, delicate fossils show us the anatomy of the animal in amazing detail, down to the suckers on the tentacles. 

Incredibly beautiful fossil of the belemnite Passaloteuthis bisulcata. The creature was so well preserved, we can see the detail on it's tentacles.  (Image from Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Passaloteuthis_bisulcata.JPG)

Incredibly beautiful fossil of the belemnite Passaloteuthis bisulcata. The creature was so well preserved, we can see the detail on it’s tentacles.
(Image from here)

 

They are pretty awesome fossils. From that one little smooth calcite fossil we know so much about them. What is even more fascinating, and sometimes forgotten, is the unknown person behind the specimens; the person who collected them, looked after them, and had their own story to tell.

A few years ago a hand full of small, smooth belemnites were donated to the museum. I had forgotten about them. Until I stopped to remember on that Sunday.

 

These 10 belemnites have an incredible tale to tell...

These 10 belemnites have an incredible tale to tell…

 

This small collection may add to our knowledge of the distribution of these creatures around the prehistoric world. There are even likely to be more than one species. But these fossils have a more recent history which adds a completely different dimension to these calcite rods. They were collected in 1944 where a young soldier, a Mr Shearman, was digging trenches in Saint-Lô, Northern France.

When I see these fossils, it immediately takes me back to a different world. Not one where these creatures were swimming through the warm water, escaping from the clutches of giant oceanic reptiles. A more recent, more terrifying world.

During the Second World War, the small town of Saint-Lô was occupied by Germans. The Allies mounted an invasion on a massive scale to take back German occupied Western Europe. Over 160,000 solders crossed the English Channel on the 6th June 1944. The Battle of Normandy had begun. Just over two months later, the Allies had over 3 million troops in France. To imagine such numbers is absolutely jaw-dropping. The immense scale, and unbelievable realism, in this real photo below is astounding. 

Battleships dropping off thousands of Allied troops on the shores of Normandy. An incredible photograph which show the unbelievable scale of the beach landings. (Image from Wiki: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/66/NormandySupply_edit.jpg)

Battleships dropping off thousands of Allied troops on the shores of Normandy. An incredible photograph which show the unbelievable scale of the beach landings. (Image from here)

This was an enormous operation. Soldiers from the UK, US and Canada along with Polish and French freedom-fighters spent over two months pushing the Germans south through France. Five days after Paris was liberated on 25th August 1944, the Germans retreated from France.

The Allies swept through cities and towns to free them from German occupancy. One of these towns, Saint-Lô, was severely bombed. The town was heavily occupied, so several air-strikes destroyed buildings and forced the Germans to leave.

The severley bombed town of Saint Lo. It was heavily occupied by Germans. Around teh twon trenches were dug to stop germans from rentering. (IMage from Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1984-043-03,_Frankreich,_St._L%C3%B4,_Zerst%C3%B6rungen.jpg)

The severley bombed town of Saint Lo. It was heavily occupied by Germans. Around the town trenches were dug to stop Germans from re-entering. (Image from here)

Around the town after the bombing, the platoons of Allies set up defences around the town to ensure it was kept out of German hands. It was here where one soldier digging a trench paused and picked out of the soft wet mud these 10 fossils. What made Mr Shearman pick these out while he was digging? What did he feel as he looked at the fossils, the first eyes to look upon them for 200 million years? What were his thoughts as he looked at these hard, smooth pointy stones? Who was Mr Shearman?

I don’t know. Perhaps I never will.  I do know that this one man stopped amidst the chaos and danger around him to pick up these fossils and put them in his pocket. These 10 little belemnites tell us of a time where young men and women saw unbelievable horrors while the world was in a terrifying state. The Battle of Normandy was one of many.

Memories, and history, are not passed down through genes. It is learnt and passed down by people. I regret not finding out more about my grandparents memories. They are now lost. My children will never know about their lives because I failed to ask them. Their children will never know. Ad infinitum. Ultimately they will be faded legends.

This soldier will not fade away. His 10 belemnites keep his story alive for others to remember the horrible events of the Second World War. He fought in the Battle of Normandy and survived. Something else survived with him, not just 10 fossils, but something that ensures his story is kept alive.

Every collection in a museum tells its own story about the individual collectors. And us museum curators make sure that these people, and their stories, are never forgotten.

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