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My Favorite Biology Finds in London’s Natural History Museum

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The exteriof of the Natural History Museum in London on the gray day I visited. This and all other photographs in this post were taken by me.

 

This past year, I made a pilgrimage that every natural history lover should, if possible, make. I visited the Natural History Museum in London, the house that Richard Owen built, the home of the first dinosaur bones ever discovered, the first Archaeopteryx fossil, and a first-edition copy of  “On the Origin of Species”. If you’re a reader of this blog, you should go.

But many readers both here in America or elsewhere may also find it beyond their means to get to London anytime soon. For that group, I want to present a few details and treasures that I personally observed and savored, and hope that you might too.

The Natural History Museum is both glorious and, in places, surprisingly frumpy. Its Victorian bones have aged with grace. Here is the neo-Romanesque entrance to the museum. It bears more than a little resemblance to the facade of St. Mark’s in Venice. Though some may find it busy, I loved this.

The Romanesque touches continue inside. Here’s the beautiful main hall.

The landing at the end of the hall, with Darwin Enthroned. The Cathedral of Science effect is perhaps nowhere stronger than this landing, and is particularly strengthened by the stain glass windows above.

Until a few years ago, visionary museum founder and not-very-nice-guy Richard Owen presided here. He and Darwin didn’t get along. In fact, Bill Bryson says in his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” that Owen is the only man Darwin was known to hate. I wonder how they would all feel about this recent development. I think I’m in favor of the swap.

A look back toward the entrance of the main hall. The Diplodicus trying to exit the museum with all these nice people is holding the tip of its tail at a rather jaunty angle.

This elegant relief panel of fish in stone was inside the Dinosaurs gallery. It feels like it could easily have come from an Egyptian Old Kingdom tomb.

This is the roof of the cafeteria/coffee shop.

Looking closer, you can see that instead of saints, the panels depict different plants.

As beautiful as it is, for a museum of the NHM’s caliber, I was surprised to see that some exhibits seem to be pushing 30. These parts of the museum are dated and sometimes a bit worse for the wear — hardly surprising when one sees the pounding that grade school-aged children subject exhibits to in every science museum on the planet (and which I personally observed here as well). From what I can tell, they are slowly remodeling the exhibits, and considering that admission is free (donations encouraged), I can’t fault them for taking their time about it. The exhibits that have been recently redone are splendid.

On to the bio-treats!

In the new and expertly designed Dinosaurs gallery, I encountered this fossilized skin of an Edmontosaurus from Wyoming. I’d seen fossilized dinosaur skin once before in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But the thrill never gets old. A living, breathing dinosaur who lived 67 million years ago had skin that looked just like this!

Here’s a different angle.

Below are the first true dinosaur bones *ever* found, by Mary and Gideon Mantell, a doctor in a rural southeastern England. Mary Mantell was the original finder, as described by Bill Bryson in the same book I mentioned earlier, “A Short History of Nearly Everything”:

In 1822, while [Gideon] was making a house call on a patient in rural Sussex, Mrs. Mantell went for a stroll down a nearby lane and in a pile of rubble that had been let to fill potholes she found a curious object — a curved brown stone, about the size of a small walnut. Knowing her husband’s interest in fossils, and thinking it might be one, she took it to him. Mantell could see at once it was a fossilized tooth, and after a little study, became certain that it was from an animal that was herbivorous, reptilian, extremely large — tens of feet long — and from the Cretaceous period. He was right on all counts, but these were bold conclusions since nothing like it had been seen before or even imagined.

And in this image may be the very stone Bryson described. Apologies for the poor image quality. The museum was about to close and I was in a hurry.

Mantell, unfortunately, would go on to be destroyed by the very same Richard Owen booted from the landing, hated by Darwin, and for whom we have to thank for the word “dinosaur” and the Natural History Museum itself. A prolific plagiarist and extinguisher of competitors’ careers, Owen also eventually appropriated the credit for the discovery of the animal these teeth belonged to, which Mantell had called “Iguanodon“. Mantell was, in fact, the first person to recognize a dinosaur, and realize its probable posture and dimensions, and it all started with these fossils.

Below is an icthyosaur in the museum’s world-famous marine reptile gallery, much of which is the work of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning. It is, in fact, the first one she ever found. The sign says the head was found by her brother Joseph in 1811, and the rest of the body by Mary in 1812 when she was 13. It was the first complete ichthyosaur fossil ever discovered. Anning spent the rest of her life collecting fossil marine reptiles from the treacherously steep seacliffs in Lyme Regis. She also found the first plesiosaur, which took her 10 tedious years to extract, and which is also on display in this gallery, I believe.

Icthyosaurs were a bit like mesozoic dolphins or whales. Although they were reptiles, not mammals, they too evolved from terrestrial animals that returned to the sea. The bone eye ring of fossil icthyosaurs never ceases to amaze me and give me the creeps (it reminds me of a skeksis), although in reconstructions of icthyosaurs’ living appearance, it’s not as noticeable.

This museum is not without Mystery and Humour. I did not drop a pound in the box, but I wish I had. Now I’ll never find out what happened.

This black coral in the Invertebrates gallery was such a work of art I couldn’t help but photograph it. Black corals live largely in the tropics in deep water, and were named for their skeletons. Black corals may even be able to conduct photosynthesis more than a thousand feet down, a surprising finding I blogged about here. Surprisingly, the living animals — which grow out of their dark skeletons — are often brightly colored, but you wouldn’t guess it from this specimen.

I made a special trip to the Darwin Centre, the new hall spotlighting the specimens in the museum’s collections, the scientists who work there, and biodiversity in general. Personally, I think the exhibit designer would have done better to  focus more on presenting and telling stories about the specimens in the collections — about particular organisms themselves, what they can tell us, and the methods used to preserve them (and in the places the exhibit did this, it excelled) — and much less to museum scientists and their travel and funding travails. I might also have talked more about groups like microbes and fungi that are almost invisible in natural history museums due tothe difficulties in preserving and displaying them. But that’s me.

There were treats without question in the Darwin Centre as elsewhere.

The most obvious is the design of the facility. Though I’m not sure it’s to my taste, I have to admit it is different and interesting. The giant oblong structure has been nicknamed “The Cocoon”, although to me it looks more like a giant egg from which Mothra, Lady Gaga, or similar might hatch.

Looking up . . .

This little interactive display was my favorite part of the whole exhibit.

It allowed the viewer to flip through herbarium pages far too delicate for us to touch, and animated and annotated the pages. The plants might grow out of their glued-on paper pots, or butterflies and beetles might come to life wander across the page. The annotations in this image reveal that these pages belonged to the Rev. Adam Buddle, a naturalist from ca. 1660 to 1715. While he was alive, the note said, naturalists did not distinguish between studying plants and insects, so they were simply mounted together on the same page. Today they might not even be stored in the same building.

On the left page are red algae. The one on the lower left is Chondrus crispus, the source of the chemical carrageenan used to thicken and stabilize foods like ice cream today. This is technology in museum display at its best — it grants access to materials we otherwise could not see or interact with, and explains and embellishes them in an enlightening, artistic, and even whimsical way. A++ on this one.

This is part of one of the duller parts of the exhibit, where the process of writing a scientific paper is described. However, I must say I was amused by its cheerful recounting of the soul-crushing (though essential) process of peer review. That caption in the video on the helpfully explains, “They might say your paper was not original enough, or that the introduction was too long.”

I did enjoy this case displaying a slice of the science life: essentials for the field. It’s chock full of delicious, humorous, and authentic-feeling detail. Although, scientists: How many of you have actually taken the likes of “War and Peace” into the field with you? I’m guessing actual field reading lean a lot more “Game of Thrones”.

Note, most particularly, the delightfully named “She-Wee”.

Products of this type go by many entertaining names (other brands are called “Lady J” or “GoGirl”) but the exhibit notes it can be an indispensible help to female scientists in cold climates. I’ve heard female rock climbers strapped into harnesses for hours love these too.

In the From the Beginning gallery, which recounts the history of life on Earth, I found this beautiful little lacy bryozoan-studded fossil. I love the cameo-esque contrast between the creamy fossils and their red rock matrix. Its tag identified it as Chasmotopora furcata, and said it was about 465 million years old and came from Estonia. In spite of their plant-like appearance, bryozoans are animals like, but not closely related to, coral. They’ve called Earth home for a really long time. I wrote more about bryozoans here.

Nearby I found this glass sponge fossil. Notice how the lighting greatly enhances the fossil’s details — a wonderful touch. Glass sponges are bizarre animals that consist of a giant fused web of cytoplasm supported by variously shaped microscopic rods called spicules. They’re made of glass-like silica, from which the group takes its name.  This particular genus — Hydnoceras — is known for looking like it’s wearing plaid, although in reality, it’s tweed. Or a fractal-like matrix of silica spicules. One of those two.  I wrote previously about glass sponges here.

I saved the best for last. This is a cross-section of a tree fern trunk from Germany, estimated to be 290 to 258 million years old. The descriptive label said the spaghetti-like structures are part of the plant’s plumbing, used to move water, minerals, and food up and down its trunk. Since the vasculature of modern plants is usually symmetrical and kaleidoscopic, I find this structure amazing. It’s hard for me to visualize what it looked like in real life, or even how it might have worked. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess they were bark beetle larva burrows.

Or a bunch of Ebola viruses squashed onto a sunset by Seurat. One of those two.

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ.
Nature Blog Network
Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Christopher Taylor 7:49 pm 01/21/2014

    Until a few years ago, visionary museum founder and not-very-nice-guy Richard Owen presided here… I think I’m in favor of the swap.

    I’m not a fan. Owen was the driver behind the museum’s foundation, and its first superintendent. Without Richard Owen, the Natural History Museum in its current form probably wouldn’t exist. He may have been a deeply unpleasant individual, he may have been on the wrong side of history for the theory of evolution (though not as wrong as commonly portrayed), but he certainly deserves credit for this.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 9:01 pm 01/21/2014

    And I think that opinion is completely reasonable! I could go back and forth on this myself. Perhaps Owen and Darwin could alternate years on the landing. : )

    Link to this

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