NHM Placement Part 4- Zoology


Clare Valentine took us first to the Mollusca corridor

zoology corridor

zoology corridor

This part of the museum is the oldest part still being used for scientific purposes. The mollusc lab and library where Andrea Salvador was sorting Cowrie shells. 

soft at work


Molluscs are often preserved in two parts with the same accession number, the shell will be stored dry and the body will be stored in alcohol.

I met Kathie Way who studies molluscs and is interested in our mollusc collection in Leeds. We have one of the biggest outside London and some of the ones collected by Charles Hanley are type specimens.

We were then taken through the maze of the basement to the Large Vertebrate Store. (formerly known as Zoo Store 1) This room had been completely refurbished in the last couple of years, and I  volunteered with un packing and re-storage of the specimens.

so many fish


On the left you can see the giant tortoises, some of these were collected by Sir Walter Rothschild, whose collection forms the core of the Tring museum’s displays.

While we were in the store we met Ollie Crimmin, one of the fish curators and Chesca from the Angela Marmont Centre who were trying to identify a set of shark jaws that had been sent in.

The AMC is a department within the museum that works with customs and auction houses to ensure that what they are selling is legal, they also take enquiries from the general public and run the ID forums.

Ollie also showed us some fish skin specimens, not very good from a long term point of view, but these mounted skins were a quick and easy way to send lots of specimens to museum.

fish skins

fish skins

And finally Clare took us up mammal tower where the mammal skins, and smaller taxidermy are kept.

8 floors of mammalian fun

Mammal Towers

Cabinet of Canines

Drawer of Dog Skulls

via the buffalo room, which just has racks and racks of horns, and a freezer.

buffalo room

buffalo room

 and so the placement was over, but I will be back at the NHM in January.


NHM Placement Part 3 – Entomology

 Theresa Howard showed us the collections stored in the Cocoon and this gave us an overview of how the dry and slide entomology collections are kept. This photo shows four levels of protection for these pinned specimens.

cocoon, cabinet, drawer,unit tray

cocoon, cabinet, drawer,unit tray

These fleas were collected by Charles Rothschild and he described over 500 new species, his daughter Miriam became a world expert on fleas and catalogued the collection in a seven volume book.

and seesaws

Fleas on slides

We started the day with a tour of the Coleoptera (beetle) collection with Beulah Garner.  She showed us a recent acquisition of beetles from someone’s collection that was going to need re-curation.

you will be assimilated

recuration time

The beetle collection has not yet been moved to the Cocoon, but this room is noticeably less humid than the public galleries and the specimens are in neoprene sealed cabinets.

beetles all the way down

beetles all the way down

Beulah showed us some amazing historical specimens collected by Joseph Banks, and a drawer with a map of beetles collected by Darwin.  The red circles in the drawers means that it is a type specimen. The one pointed at has Banks’ handwriting on the label.  These specimens are not part of the main collection, but are kept separate due to their historical value.

collected by Joseph Banks

collected by Joseph Banks

Interestingly of all the beetles Darwin collected, none were described by him, they were all sent out to experts and then came straight back to the museum. Darwin’s expertise was barnacles.

We then got hands on, and sorted some specimens from Borneo that had been caught with a flight intercept trap.

We were looking for beetles and bugs (Hemiptera), these specimens are from a high biodiversity area and there are perhaps new species in here.

borneo tequila

a sorting tray

In the afternoon we met up with Dave Notton curator of Hymenoptera(bees and wasps) and spirit collection specialist.

He showed us around the Darwin Centre, where the spirit collection is kept, these collections are also in a temperature controlled environment, as it reduces evaporation of the alcohol.


The entomology specimens are generally double jarred in a glass tube, then stacked in a le parfait jar, traditional ground glass jars are preferred, but they are prohibitively expensive.


The alcohol used is 80% Industrial Methylated Spirits (IMS) this is a combination of methyl alcohol which is poisonous and ethyl alcohol. 100% Ethanol is also available but is much more expensive as you have to pay duty on it, because you could drink it if you really wanted to.

This picture illustrates the variety of jars used in the Arachnid collection, the yellow paint on the jars means that it contains a type specimen.

spiders on a road trip


Mammals can also be kept in spirit, but if the alcohol content gets too low, the bones will start to dissolve. (be warned Freshers)

The majority of entomology specimens are pinned. Unfortunately the historic techniques, cork, brass pins are not so good for long term preservation.

The current practice is to use polyethylene foam (aka plastazote) and acid free interchangeable unit trays. This makes lay out flexible and it is possible to remove a small group of specimens without disturbing the rest of the drawer.

super stingy wasps that want your jam

nicely curated wasps

NHM Placement Part 2 – Palaeontology

The next day we turned up at Palaeontology and got shown round the brachiopod and cephalopod collection by @ZEHughes.

Here is a drawer of well curated fossils

Very pretty

Very pretty

The main conservation problems for fossils are getting knocked about or dropped, and pyrite disease. Pyrite disease is when a fossil containing the mineral pyrite in it starts oxidizing (essential its rusts), this process will eventually destroy fossils.

In the photo these fossil have started to pyritise, but have been stabilised.

Pyrite mitigation strategy

Pyrite mitigation strategy

We got to see one of the most unusual fossils, a fossil of a soft bodied invertebrate, the silt was so fine details of the squids body are still visible.

Fossil squid

Fossil squid

We spent the rest of the morning helping Zoe by checking the contents of the drawers matched up with the information in the spreadsheets.

Claire Miles and Me hard at work

Claire Miles and Me hard at work

In the afternoon we took a tour of the fossil mammal store with Pip Brewer the curator of fossil mammals.

The first cupboard we looked at contained mammal remains from 65 – 2.5 millions years ago. 

Of course this brought up how to define a mammal when one is reaching back through evolution. The nocturnal Mamalliaformes existed in the Permian period, but mammals are generally counted from the Mesozoic when they became more diverse and took over many more ecological niches.

Most of the early specimens are only known from their teeth. Pip showed us a model of a tooth that a researcher had created from a 3D scan. It reminded me of a shrew’s tooth.

Taking casts from the skulls is a popular way of studying them, so to avoid this process damaging them, a master cast of a skull is made from fibreglass, and all other casts must be taken from this.

In the picture is the master cast of a creodont skull from Syria.


NHM Placement Part 1 -Botany

So in the summer I and my fellow trainee Claire Miles were on a week long placement at the Natural History Museum in London.

The aim was an introduction to the whole collection at the museum. This is a museum with 70 million specimens, so a week was certainly needed.

The collection is like a library of the natural world and the curators care for the collection so that researchers can use it efficiently, this means making sure labels have the correct information and registration number, and that this matches up with the information in the register, on the database and on the specimen itself.

NHM Curators do research, but this is usually only 5-10% of their annual work. Some of the researchers are based at the museum or at one of the London Universities, but the majority are visitors from all over the world.

Curation is not just about filing and archiving though, preservation and conservation of the specimens is also very important, having a series of specimens, where we know the location, the date collected and the species is very important and useful. Museum specimens are used to track changes in animal populations and to find new species, they allow us to piece together the past which will inform us about the future.

We met up with curator Jovita Yesilyurt who showed us the Imaging Lab, and the botany preparation lab.

Iron Botanist

Plant presses

The flowering plant collection is housed in the Cocoon, which is also home to a gallery which shows the work that goes behind the scenes at the museum.

This specimen was part of the Banks Collection and had been collected by either Joseph Banks or Daniel Solander on Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia in the 1770s. They were exploring the newly christened Endeavour River in what was to become Queensland and added these plants to their collection, and here they are almost 250 years later, still a piece of scientific data.

woah flashbacks

Collected by Hooker in the 1770s.

Whisking through the General Herbarium we saw where the plant specimens used to be kept.

wonder if he got any medals?

General Herbarium

Then to the Cryptogammic Library where the algae, moss, ferns and lichens are kept. Jovita showed us how the collections are not just used by scientists, but are also an inspiration for the Arts as seen on this Alexander McQueen dress.

looks like parma ham too

Alexander McQueen

We then moved on to look at the Lichen collection with Holger Thues, who is currently processing a massive backlog of lichen specimens with the help of volunteers.  

We also went to one of the rooms in the towers which contained the Lichen exsiccate collection.

really hard word to say :/

Lichen Books

These are books with samples created for collectors. sometimes these books contain type specimens, but the specimen may have been broken up to be put in more than one book, then the book may have a second edition also with specimens, a slight headache for curators…

a Satellite Store

a Satellite Store

We also saw some of Sowerby’s Fungi models that were made in the late 18th C out of pipe clay. They were restored in the 1880s as the colours had destabilised and were no longer accurate.

Sowerby's Mushrooms late 18th Century

Sowerby’s Mushrooms late 18th Century

Conservation- Arachnids

These spiders and scorpions are often used by schools and groups who come to visit the Discovery Centre, all that attention and moving of the drawer means the legs can drop off, and then someone has to glue them back on again. This time its my job.

This is my set up. I’m working in the education room on the same table as the conservation volunteers, they are cleaning a glass chandelier.

yay scorpions

arachnid conservation

On the right you can see the pH neutral glue that is used for mending insects, next to that a packet of insect pins.  In the middle is my plastazote stage containing cocktail sticks for applying the glue, underneath is a diagram of the contents of the drawers, so I don’t put things in the wrong place and at the front are some entomology forceps. On the left is a microscope for fiddly bits.

legs everywhere!

matching legs to bodies

In this picture you can see the sorted legs, plus behind, some ootheca (egg sacs).

 One has been opened and the spiderlings preservered. These ootheca are made of spider silk.

top banana

spider and ootheca (eggsac)

The spider and ootheca are real, the banana is painted. 


sticking a scorpion back together

This drawer contains arachnids that have arrived in the UK by accident.  Most arachnids are preserved in spirit, but these dry specimens are intended for outreach and education rather than for researchers.

Osteomancy II – One in the Database is Worth Two in a Box

It’s hard to resist a box marked ‘unknown skull’. Opening and unwrapping the skull showed that it a pretty large bird, the beak being the major giveaway.

The skull emerges

The skull emerges

With no data on the skull I couldn’t tell where it had come from, which would have  helped narrow down what it was.

The roundness of the cranium and the large, generalised beak immediately rounded it down to just five species; the large ratites, and the lack of casque/helmet to just four .

a few bits missing unfortunately

a few bits missing unfortunately

I looked in our osteology collection for a rhea skull, an ostrich skull, and an emu skull to compare it to.

We only have a rhea skull in the collection so I first compared it to that.

the Rhea is on the left

the Rhea is on the left

To compare it to the other skulls I used The Bird Skull Collection

Judging by the size, and the general characteristics I concluded that the skull is from an ostrich.

I then wrote it a label, and had it accessioned so I could enter it on the database.

Ostrich in TMS

Ostrich in TMS

Conservation – The Wolverine \\\ ///

My first taste of natural history conservation was when I started work on a wolverine skeleton, which had already been partially cleaned. The skeleton used to be articulated on a stand for display, but now the forelegs have been taken off  for easier storage in a cardboard box.


The Set Up

 Gulo Gulo (Linnaeus,1758),  are mustelids, like badgers  and weasels, they live in the Boreal forests of  North America and Northern Europe, they are incredibly powerful, looking somewhat like little bears.  They are opportunistic feeders, and can take down a large deer if the deer is hampered by deep snow, they will scavenge the kills of other animals  and the females hunt small mammals when they are rearing their kits. If they kill more than they can eat they will cache it and come back later. They mark these caches with the typically mustelid scent glands.

After some digging in filing cabinets and  reading though old reports I found that; ‘as opportunities not unfrequently occur of obtaining objects of interest and value, by purchase  only, the curators have thus secured several highly important specimens’ this was from 1865 and the Wolverine (Glutton)  was one of these specimens.

all the specimens are fine

Emma the conservator at Leeds showed me how to set up the steam cleaner, which gets right into the bone and drives out the deeply engrained dirt, this is currently considered the best method to clean bones.

purple gloves!

Once a good head of steam had built up in the machine, I  donned the kit; lab coat, goggles, ear defenders and, of course gloves. All my senses impaired I sat down and started on a fore limb, it is definitely satisfying to see the dirt blasted off the bone, although I was probably breathing in wolverine dirt.



so clean


Cleaning the feet of the wolverine was quite a fiddly task, but revealed that there was a lot of tendons, and even a toe pad still left on the foot. This is interesting for biologists, but a conservators nightmare as it will attract pests.

hope i look this good at 150

149 yo claw

Working up the foreleg again, I noticed that the scapula has some irregular bone material that suggests that the wolverine had been injured or had an infection and the wound had healed.

ew cancelleous

what happened?

After lunch and a refill of the water chamber I was ready to tackle the ribs and skull. I did the skull first, noting that  the sutures on the nasal bones were visible which also points to it being a younger animal, as in mustelids all the sutures on the skull fuse and are not visible in adult specimens.

aww baby wolverino

note sutures

Once I finished the ribs, which were very fiddly, yet didn’t seem to get much cleaner, I laid the whole skeleton out to dry on top of the freezer.  (this freezer is empty, but the conservator won’t let me fill it with specimens)


If you want to see high res versions of the pictures, let me know in the comments.