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.

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...

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.

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.