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A day at London’s Grant Museum of Zoology

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


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Some weeks months ago – my god, it was back in early May – John Conway and I made a special trip to London’s Grant Museum of Zoology. The Grant is a teaching college, part of University College London, and home to about 67000 zoological specimens. It’s a small museum and even the most zoologically obsessed visitor wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of hours there. But don’t let its small size put you off: it’s my favourite kind of museum – the sort stuffed full of specimens, many of which are rare or extremely rare.

Note the primate skeletons on the balcony...

For shame, I’d never visited before, despite having spent a lot of time in and around London. ‘Grant’ is Robert E. Grant (1793-1874), UCL’s influential Professor of Comparative Anatomy and the museum’s founder. Specimens owned and used by Thomas Huxley are also in the collection. Should you want to read more on its history, and on Grant, do check out UCL’s page here. Previously located in UCL’s Darwin Building, the Grant recently relocated to the Rockefeller Building on the corner of University and Gower Street, close to the main UCL quadrangle. Admission is free (but I’d say it’s good practise to be kind and leave a small donation). Please note that I have special permission to use the images you see here (many thanks to Emma-Louise Nicholls for setting this up).

In keeping with what I just said about the museum’s small size, it really is obvious that specimens have been crammed in to just about every available space. Look at the cabinets in the photos above and below – you can see that people have been really inventive and clever in how they’ve arranged the specimens. I’ve learnt from TV programmes about designing your own living space that architects and designers are really fond of huge, empty spaces, filled with air. Incredibly, this minimalist philosophy has even encroached into parts of the museum world – you know, the places where people go (and often pay) to see stuff, lots of stuff. I’m not into minimalism, especially not as goes museums, and the best ones are the Victorianesque collections where stuffed animals, skeletons and other specimens are closely arranged on shelves and in cabinets. Check out the cabinet shown below, containing skeletal and preserved reptile specimens – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the skeleton of a giant snake coiled around a branch like that. The snake’s skull is far off the right, positioned among other reptile specimens.

And having mentioned skulls, check out this composite…

A selection of neat Grant Museum skulls. Along the top, l to r: Gaboon viper, domestic pig, Thylacoleo replica. Bottom: Nile crocodile, Javan rhino.

Some of the things on exhibit are rather peculiar and perhaps entertaining, like this jar full of moles. Others are memorable because of their significance or rarity. The male Megaloceros specimen known affectionately as Elkie – said by some to be the biggest European example of his kind – is one of the stars. What looks at first glance like a domestic horse skeleton (and it was labelled simply as ‘zebra’ until Gentry (1975) reidentified it) is in fact that of a Quagga Equus quagga, one of only seven or nine (take your pick) in existence and the only one in England. While it’s (relatively) easy to find out all about the surviving 32 mounted quagga skins in existence (David Barnaby, for example, discusses all of them in his 1996 Quaggas and Other Zebras), there’s less information on the mounted skeletons. If you’re wondering, this isn’t the skeleton of the London Zoo quagga, famously photographed in 1870 (about 13 years before this animal’s official extinction). That skeleton is at Yale while its mounted skin is in Edinburgh. A peculiarity of the Grant’s quagga is that it’s three-legged. No-one really knows why, but it’s suspected that the missing leg was loaned to the Royal College of Surgeons and then lost during bombing in WWII. I had to identify a suspected quagga skull once. Turned out to be a domestic horse skull.

The Grant's Quagga skeleton. If you're wondering, the word 'quagga' (which used to be used for all zebras) is onomatopoeiac.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the idea that Quagga is conspecific with the extant Plain zebra – a decision, mostly reinforced by morphology and genetics, that requires Equus burchelli of traditional usage, and its various ‘subspecies’, to be regarded as forms of E. quagga, the name that has nomenclatural priority (Higuchi et al. 1984, 1987, Groves & Bell 2004). In fact the heavily striped, stripey-legged Plains zebras of central and eastern Africa could be interpreted as mere northern clinal forms of the more southerly, less stripey, white-legged quagga. Indeed some molecular studies have found E. quagga to be nested within a larger group of stripier zebras, all of which are traditionally identified as forms of E. burchelli (Leonard et al. 2005). However, some studies find E. burchelli and E. quagga to be as distinct as E. burchelli is from other zebras, like the Mountain zebra E. zebra (Klein & Cruz-Uribe 1999). This is another of those subjects I’ve been planning to write about for years on Tet Zoo – one day I’ll get round to it.

Here’s me with a collection of African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis skulls…

And here’s John with a large skull of an Asian water buffalo Bubalus arnee (and I believe that this is indeed a skull of the wild form, not the domesticated B. bubalis). At the time, I was particularly interested in water buffalo because of the little project I had going on concerning the ‘great Bubalus’ of ancient African rock-art.

Anyway, while I could whittle on ad infinitum about various of the tetrapod objects in the collection (I only meant to say “Look, a quagga” in the text above), I think that’ll do – hopefully this gives you some idea of what a neat little museum it is. If you live or work in London and haven’t visited, shame on you – it’s well worth a look, especially seeing as (in its new home at the Rockefeller Building) it’s only recently re-opened. Interactive iPad displays accompany several of the exhibits and there’s a regular programme of events. Do visit the Grant’s page here, and visit their excellent blog. Sign the visitor page and say you read about the museum here on Tet Zoo.

Having mentioned blogs,  a bit of house-keeping news: Tet Zoo ver 3 now has a blogroll! It’s on the homepage. I haven’t fully populated it yet and will do so in stages. Unfortunately, it’s a rolling blogroll, so only part of it is available at any one time.

Refs – -

Higuchi, R., Bowman, B., Freiberger, M., Ryder, O. A. & Wilson, A. C. 1984. DNA sequences from the quagga, and extinct member of the horse family. Nature 312, 282-284.

- ., Wrischnik, L. A., Oakes, E., George, M., Tong, B. & Wilson, A. C. 1987. Mitochondrial DNA of the extinct quagga: relatedness and extent of postmortem change. Journal of Molecular Evolution 25, 283-287.

Gentry, A.  W. 1975. A Quagga, Equus quagga (Mammalia, Equidae) at University College, London and a note on a supposed Quagga in The City Museum, Bristol. Bulletin of the British Museum Natural History (Zoology) 28, 12-26.

Groves, C. P. & Bell, C. H. 2004. New investigations on the taxonomy of the zebras genus Equus, subgenus Hippotigris. Mammalian Biology 69, 182-196.

Klein, R. G. & Cruz-Uribe, K. 1999. Craniometry of the genus Equus and the taxonomic affinities of the extinct South African quagga. South African Journal of Science 95, 81-86.

Leonard, J. A., Rohland, N., Glaberman, S., Fleischer, R. C., Caccone, A. & Hofreiter, M. 2005. A rapid loss of stripes: the evolutionary history of the extinct quagga. Biology Letters 1, 291-295.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

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





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  1. 1. DMA12 9:58 pm 08/17/2011

    There is a similar snake skeleton of Wonambi coiled around a Thylacoleo in Naracoorte Caves National Park in Australia. By the way thanks for the letter for my Eagle Scout Ceremony.

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  2. 2. Wazzawazzawoo 5:32 am 08/18/2011

    Is that a kiwi mounted in a penguin-like pose I spy in the third picture? I knew it was done way back when, but I didn’t know the specimens were still extant.

    Of course, it could just be a normally-mounted kiwi in a weird, upward-stretching pose, but I can’t for the life of me think why anyone familiar with the animal would depict it that way…

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  3. 3. subhumanfreak 5:43 am 08/18/2011

    Thanks for reminding me to go visit! I used to go there a lot when it was on Gower Street and wasn’t too impressed with the layout, but it looks much better now.

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  4. 4. BrianL 6:45 am 08/18/2011

    I absolutely agree that museums crowded and full of specimens like this are the best. I should really revisit London someday. For shame, I last visited it some 8 years ago as part of a school trip and, zoology-wise, I only had time to briefly visit the Natural History Museum…with an uninterested friend who wanted to get out as quickly as possible in tow. The horror! I didn’t get beyond the Mesozoic fossils and the fossil mammals, even.

    Anyhow, that domestic pig skull looks freaky. Does anyone know if there are good websites out there for seeing skulls of domestic animals? I find the bizarreness they often exhibit very interesting.

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  5. 5. MJ Simpson 7:43 am 08/18/2011

    Never heard of this place. Looks great.

    I’m trying to work out how a large ungulate makes a “quaga!” sound. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a zebra make a noise but one would assume it was something like either a horse’s neigh or a donkey’s eeyor.

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  6. 6. BilBy 7:47 am 08/18/2011

    Although ‘quagga’ really doesn’t look like it should be onomatapoeiac extant Plains Zebra make that really distinctive ‘kwa haaa, kwa haaa, kwa ha ha ha’ sound. I think some of the other southern African names for zebra reflect this too – isiXhosa is ‘iqwarhashe’ – ihashe is ‘horse’ in nguni languages like Zulu and Xhosa, and I think ‘iqwar-’ may be be onomatapoeiac. In Sotho/Tswana the name is ‘pitse ya naga’ – naga pronounced ‘naha’. Or I’m completely wrong – although semi-South African, my native language skills are limited to basics (and animal names).

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  7. 7. BilBy 7:49 am 08/18/2011

    Ooh timing! Hope that helps, @MJ Simpson!

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  8. 8. MikeTaylor 9:13 am 08/18/2011

    I STRONGLY endorse the recommendation of the Grant Museum, it is a truly beautiful space and absolutely packed with fascinating objects. I was fortunate enough to do the filming for the Brontomerus video there (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nxOr5GvFYQ), and could happily have spent the whole day there if I’d not had other appointments.

    BrianL wrote: “Anyhow, that domestic pig skull looks freaky. Does anyone know if there are good websites out there for seeing skulls of domestic animals? I find the bizarreness they often exhibit very interesting.”

    I was amazed when I found out how much pig skulls vary. My first experience of them was the one I cleaned myself:
    http://svpow.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/things-to-make-and-do-part-1-pig-skull-off-topic/
    and when I saw photos of others I couldn’t believe they were the same species. Very salutory.

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  9. 9. David Marjanović 2:57 pm 08/18/2011

    (I only meant to say “Look, a quagga” in the text above)

    :-D :-D :-D

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  10. 10. Allen Hazen 4:43 pm 08/18/2011

    Re: Open spaces v. specimens. One of my pet peeves is the way a number of big museums — AMNH, Smithsonian Natural History — seem to have reduced the number of actual specimens on view since my childhood (1950s/1960s): both had full whale skeletons on display when I was at school. Newer exhibits are possibly more entertaining, but not as good if one wants to teach oneself anatomy!

    Re: Blogroll. The Blogroll at Tetrapodzoology Ver. 2 still works (and has an all-visible-at-once, classified by subject, format). Pity Scientific American doesn’t let you import it holus bolus to the new site.

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  11. 11. John Scanlon FCD 1:04 pm 08/19/2011

    DMA12, the snake skeleton at the Wonambi Centre in Naracoorte (an image is easily found, e.g. at Wikipedia) is a mock-up rather than a replica, and looks best from a distance. The Thylacoleo it’s wrapped around is cast or modelled from bones found disarticulated, which was the best that could be done before the first complete skeleton was found on the Nullarbor in 2002. The snake was constructed by John Barrie using casts of a fairly small number of vertebrae from different body regions, i.e. multiple copies of each bone, from the most complete known fossil skeleton (which he discovered). The skull was modelled pretty roughly (and inaccurately, as it happens), and the rib cage was constructed efficiently by sawing and filing a PVC drain pipe. Quite clever really.

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  12. 12. James Robins 7:00 pm 08/20/2011

    Darren, can I also point your fans to the Booth museum in Brighton – OK I was a student there in the distant 60′s – but has always had that same sensation of specimens stuffed in where there was space for them…and the most helpful staff imaginable. J

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  13. 13. Stevo Darkly 12:02 am 08/21/2011

    @ #5 = MJ Simpson: I’ve heard zebras make various barking calls — they actually sound a lot more like dogs than like domestic horses. On this YouTube video clip, you can hear some of those calls, include the one that sounds like, “Quagga!” (Actually, to me, it sounds more like, “Hwa-ha! Hwa-ha!”) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ct6lFX0YVMc&feature=related

    – Stevo Darkly

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  14. 14. Therizinosaurus 5:25 am 08/21/2011

    That mole jar reminds me of the shrew jar I used to have since my cats would kill so many of them. Of course it was full of rainwater instead of alcohol, which made it less permanent but I’d say more interesting…

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  15. 15. pilsator 8:58 am 08/22/2011

    That Gaboon viper skull is seriously freaky. Didn’t know that it (and probably other vipers) had non-venomous-fang teeth that elongate. Would love to read about this topic (or related ones) on Tet Zoo one day, Darren!

    @BilBy:
    [i]In Sotho/Tswana the name is ‘pitse ya naga’ – naga pronounced ‘naha’.[/i]
    Ah, that’s why Oromë’s horse is called Nahar. ;)

    Although I know less than nothing about Sotho or Tswana, I think that just as much vowels are onomatopoeia’s strong side, consonants aren’t. Pronouncing the *g* sound as an H or a very weak G wouldn’t make that much of a difference to me (or I’m just not dedicated enough to such stuff). I just think about bird sounds written down in text…

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  16. 16. pilsator 8:59 am 08/22/2011

    ^ Ah, HTML tag fail. At least I know now.

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  17. 17. BilBy 11:55 am 08/22/2011

    @pilsator – that’s the way it is pronounced. Having a G or an H is just the orthography. I think it is pronounced not significantly differently between any of the languages making up that group (Sotho, Tswana, Sepedi), just spelled slightly differently. David Marjanovic would undoubtedly know more. After all, ‘quagga’ is from an Afrikaans word (kwagga) taken from a Khoi-San language and would be pronounced ‘kwaha’ with a hard-ish ‘h’. As for Orome – well, Tolkien WAS born in Bloemfontein, S. Africa :)
    I have just visited the old TetZoo site – there’s almost more new comments there than here :( I’ll repeat my request for a ‘latest comments’ sidebar on this site, but I’m not sure how much say Darren has in the design of the page.

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  18. 18. David Marjanović 5:21 am 08/23/2011

    David Marjanovic would undoubtedly know more.

    Not so much me as Wikipedia. G is pronounced [x] in Afrikaans, and this convention is used to spell languages such as Sesotho. In all these languages, this sound is distinguished from [h], as it is in German.

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  19. 19. Jashby 4:06 am 08/27/2011

    Thanks for a great write-up Darren. Glad you enjoyed yourself.
    Wazzawazzawoo that is a kiwi, but it’s not actually mounted or taxidermied – it’s a study skin perched up on a plastic rod, so while it does look a bit like it’s been put into a penguin position, it’s not by design.
    Jack at the Grant Museum

    Link to this

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