Category Archives: Natural History

Object of the Month – October 2020

New Zealand Kiwi

We’ve been busy over the last few weeks moving the bird taxidermy from a temporary home back to their usual store. October’s object of the month is a mounted kiwi skin, probably of a little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), the smallest of the five kiwi species.

A stuffed Little spotted kiwi sking, facing left, mounted on a 'naturalistic' base.

The little spotted kiwi in Saffron Walden Museum. © SWM

With strong, heavy legs and no wings, kiwis have evolved for life on the ground. They are nocturnal, dig burrows to nest in, and have stiff, hair-like outer feathers to withstand pushing through leaves and twigs. Unlike most birds they have keen hearing and a good sense of smell to help them find food, mostly earthworms and insects.

A page from a book with drawings showing the head, wing and strong feet of a kiwi.

Kiwis have ‘whiskers’ around their beak, stiff feathers and tiny wings, and strong feet for digging.
[Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions]

Kiwi numbers have plummeted since Europeans arrived in New Zealand, bringing rats, stoats, pigs, cats, dogs, trophy hunting and habitat destruction. Kiwis grow and reproduce slowly and only thrive today on protected reserves, with intensive work to remove these threats. The indigenous Maori regard the kiwi as a taonga (treasure), and actively protect the birds across 230,000 hectares of land, about the same area as the national government’s Department of Conservation. Altogether, an area of land bigger than Essex is managed for kiwi conservation.

Coloured map of New Zealand showing distribution of kiwis at present day and before European colonisation.

Light green, current location of kiwis; Dark green, location of kiwis before European colonisation; Dark grey, kiwis never known here. [© New Zealand Department of Conservation]

Map with numbers and letters showing locations of Little spotted kiwi populations across New Zealand.

Little spotted kiwi reserves – Predator-free islands: 1, Hen Island; 2, Tiritiri Matangi; 3. Red Mercury Island; 4, Motuihe Island; 5, Kapiti Island; 6, Long Island; 7, Anchor Island; 8, Chalky Island
Mainland: A, Shakespear Open Sanctuary; B, Cape Sanctuary; C, Zealandia.
Michal Klajban / CC BY-SA 4.0

See the little spotted kiwi and find out more about kiwi species in our Object of the Month display when the museum re-opens soon.

More information
New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) –  Facts about kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/facts/
New Zealand DoC – Little Spotted Kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/little-spotted-kiwi/
New Zealand DoC – Kiwi: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/
Science Learning Hub – Conserving our native kiwi: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2784-conserving-our-native-kiwi
WWF New Zealand – Kiwi: https://www.wwf.org.nz/what_we_do/species/kiwi/

References

Internet Archive Book Images. ‘Features of kiwis’ Transactions and proceedings of the New Zealand Institute (1870). Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions. Available from commons.wikimedia.org [Accessed 29.9.2020]

Michal Klajban. ‘Apteryx owenii – distribution map. CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0). Available from commons.wikimedia.org [Accessed 29.2.2020]

New Zealand Department of Conservation. Kiwi Recovery Plan Summary Document 2018-2028. New Zealand Government, 2018. Available from https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/docs-work/ [Accessed 29.9.2020]

Identification – flint, fossil sponge

Figure showing flint nodule from chalk

In Essex and south east England, almost every pebble on the beach and in gardens is flint. It’s a hard rock found in the Chalk, a soft, white, limestone layer that is up to 200m (600 ft) thick in north Essex and Cambridgeshire. In north west Essex, this chalk is between 90 million and 66 million years old and lies just below the soil, north of a line running from Stansted to Sudbury.

Diagram showing bedrock geology of Essex

Diagram showing the main bedrocks across a section of Essex. Chalk appears as the bedrock across northern Essex. Credit: reference 1.

Chalk started out as a thick mud on the floor of a tropical sea that covered most of Britain and north west Europe. This mud contained the remains of tiny sea creatures (plankton) which grew shells of calcium carbonate. When they died, these plankton and their shells fell to the sea floor to form a thick mud, which compacted into chalk over millions of years.

As it compacted, it squeezed out the seawater containing dissolved quartz, or silica (which comes from the skeletons of tiny sponges, a very simple animal).This silica was pushed out into gaps, cracks and burrows in the chalky mud to form nodules or layers of flint. These flints have a white outer layer (cortex), and are black inside. They can come in very complicated, bulging shapes, or with spikes, holes and cavities. Because of this, they can be easily confused with fossilised bones.

Figure showing flint nodule from chalk

An irregular flint nodule with a white cortex. Credit: reference 2.

Some flints do contain fossils, often urchins, or cockles or other small shellfish. Sometimes, the whole flint looks like fossil, and this may be because the silica that created it was forced into a hollow space in the hardening chalk which contained a sponge. Sponges are very simple animals which live on the sea floor. They still exist today, and the earliest known fossil sponges are  580 million years old.

The silica fills the gaps in the sponge’s skeleton and, over millions of years, the skeleton itself can dissolve away and be replaced by other minerals. This skeleton is a fossil, and the flint fills the spaces left by the soft parts of the animal after they rotted away.
Sponges are hollow tube or cone shapes and have no muscles, stomach, brain or nerves. They are filter feeders that catch bacteria and microscopic plants & animals from seawater that flows through tiny channels (pores) in their body.  Sponges are open at the top, and water currents flowing across the opening helps pull in water through the pores and remove it from the centre chamber, like wind blowing across a chimney.

Diagram showing water flow through a sponge's body

A simple diagram of a sponge’s body showing the pores in the sponge’s body, and the direction of water flow (blue arrows). Credit: reference 3.

Figure showing a living sponge

A living sponge, showing the typical hollow tube shape. Credit: reference 4.

The first sponge below is preserved in chalk and is a typical funnel shape. Some fossils may have a textured ring around the top, showing the rough pattern of the sponge’s surface and pores, like in the second photo.

Figure showing typical funnel shaped sponge

Fossil of a sponge (Ventriculites species) that lived in the Chalk sea. This sponge attached to the sediment with its branching roots. © SWM.

Figure showing rim imprint of a sponge's body in flint.

A flint nodule showing the imprint of the upper rim of a sponge’s body. Credit: reference 5

References

  1. Essex Bedrock, Essex Rock 1999. GeoEssex.org, retrieved 11:36, 24.4.2020
  2. © G Lucy. GeoEssex.org, retrieved 11:31, 24.4.2020
  3. Adapted from: Porifera_body_structures_01 By Philcha – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
  4. NOAA Photo Library reef3859 By Twilight Zone Expedition Team 2007, NOAA-OE. , Public Domain,
  5. Flint rim print. flint-paramoudra.com, retrieved 11:47, 24.4.2020

Identification – cattle hock bone

Photo of the calcaneus.

Cattle right-side calcaneus (heel bone)

The calcaneus in humans is the heel bone, and is the first point of contact with the floor when we walk. However, cattle are ‘nail-walkers’ – walking on the very tips of their toes with the rest of the foot held off the ground. This means the first joint from the ground on the hind leg is the ankle (hock), not the knee, which is why it bends in the opposite direction to our knee. The knee is further up the leg, almost hidden by the leg muscles, while the hip is very high up, just below the base of the tail.

Diagrom to show position of hock in cattle leg

The hock bone (calcaneus) is shown by no. 32 (bottom right). 31 shows the ankle joint and 30 shows the knuckles of the toes. 27 shows the knee joint (bottom middle). Image credit: reference 1.

The bovine foot has 15 bones, grouped into 7 tarsals (talus, calcaneus, and five others), 2 metatarsals (running from the tarsals to thethe two toes). These correspond to the 3rd and 4th metatarsals in human feet The big toe has the first metatarsal). The cow has 6 phalanges (three in each toe).
For comparison, humans have 26 foot bones, comprising 7 tarsals, 5 metatarsals (one leading to each toe) and 14 phalanges (two for the big toe and three for every other toe).

Diagrams showing skeletons of the cattle and human foot.

15-21 are the ankle bones, 23 and 24 are the metatarsals, and 26-28 show the three phalanges in each toe. The same bones are labelled in the human foot on the right. Image credits: references 2 and 3.

(The image above actually shows the front leg of a cow, with the wrist and not the ankle bones, but the other bones are generally the same.)

Photo of the calcaneus.

The original bone I was asked to ID. © Saffron Walden Museum.

In life, this cattle calcaneus is from the right hock and has the smooth side faces outward to the right, as in the photo above. The shaft of the bone is then pointing up and back, toward the tail of the animal, to form the distinctive point of the hock in the cow’s leg (no. 32 in the first diagram). The top of the bone  is the attachment point for the large muscles of the lower leg. These are the gastrocnemius and soleus, (the ‘calf muscles’ in humans).

Some of the more fragile edges of this calcaneus are missing, but you can still see the main features.

This photo is pretty much a close-up of the photo above, from the bottom end. © Saffron Walden Museum.

In the photo, the letter A shows a smooth articular surface for the 3rd and 4th metatarsals, and B is one of the articular surfaces with the talus. C is a dome-shaped articular surface for the lateral malleolus, a bone on the outer edge of the hock.  The roughened depression (D) in the centre of the plate is called the tarsal sinus, and is mirrored by a similar area on the talus. This cavity houses blood vessels, fat, nerves, and a series of ligaments which hold the tarsal bones together.
The talar shelf (E), is at the near end of the shaft, and helps support the talus bone which sits above it. There is also a groove (F) for the tendon of the flexor digitorum lateralis muscle, which bends the toes.

 The calf muscles which attach to the top of the bone help straighten the leg when walking and running, while the length of the bone acts as a lever to amplify their effect and increase make the movement more efficient This is especially important in animals such as cattle, whose ancestors and wild relatives migrate across continents and run to escape predators.

 – James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

 

References

1. Domestic_animals;_ _history_and_description_of_the_horse,_mule,_cattle,_sheep,_swine,_poultry,_and_farm_dogs,_(1858)_(14598393827)
By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14598393827/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/domesticanimalsh00alle/domesticanimalsh00alle#page/n51/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44520464

2. Cattle hock skeleton diagram © https://www.dcfirst.com/cow_skeletal_anatomy_poster.html Accessed 31.3.2020.

3. BruceBlaus. :Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 201”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. / CC BY 3.0

Object of the Month – February 2020

Snowy owl from front left angle. White breast plumage, with brown bars to sides and legs. Brown spotted plumage on wings. Mounted on a wooden post. Against a dark grey background.
Snowy owl from front left angle. White breast plumage, with brown bars to sides and legs. Brown spotted plumage on wings. Mounted on a wooden post. Against a dark grey background.

A female snowy owl in the Museum’s collections. Image: © Saffron Walden Museum.

Snowy Owl

A female snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus. Female snowy owls have spotted and striped plumage (above), while the male bird is almost pure white (below, left). Snowy owls live in the Arctic Circle where they hunt for food over tundra and upland moors. These impressive predators eat lemmings and other rodents, birds and rabbits, and only very rarely visit the far north of Britain. This mounted skin was donated to Saffron Walden Museum in 2003 for the Education collection. It has come out of the store for Museums at Night, exhibitions and teaching sessions.

A snowy owl from front angle. Pure white plumage of male, with a few dark spots visble on left wing. Against a pale background.

A male snowy owl. Image: Barry Kaufmann-Wright © Saffron Walden Museum.

An eagle owl from front left angle. Tawny under-plumage with patterns of dark brown and pale grey in bars and stripes. Vivid orange iris to eyes, and large horn-like feathers. Perched on a wooden post. Against a snowy backdrop.

An eagle owl. Image: Kamil. Corrections Piotr_J [CC BY-SA 3.0] (Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know?

All living things have a common name, like ‘snowy owl’, and a scientific name. The scientific name is a combination of two words which are only used for that species. Humans are Homo sapiens, and our extinct close relatives the Neanderthals are Homo neanderthalensis. We are different species in the same genus, Homo.
But scientific names can change. In 2004, the scientific name of the snowy owl was changed from Nyctea scandiaca to Bubo scandiacus, after years of research on their genetics and the shape of their bones. This showed that they were more closely related to horned owls and eagle owls (above, right), and should use the same genus name, Bubo.

You can see the snowy owl as Object of the Month until 29th February.

Object of the Month – October 2019

This case is arranged to show which butterflies live in the Saffron Walden area today (left), and which are extinct (right).

These butterflies died off mainly because of changing land use in the 19th & 20th centuries. Butterflies such as the Adonis blue (1) and chalk-hill blue (2) prefer large areas of chalk wildflower meadow, grazed by sheep and cattle. However, much of this land was converted to crop farming in the 1800s and these specialist insects died off. Other changes, such as the end of coppicing in woodlands, removed the open wooded habitat that butterflies such as the grizzled skipper (3) thrive in.

Species like the purple emperor (4) and white admiral (5) feed on the sugary waste products from aphids (honeydew). Pollution from coal burning may have contributed to these butterflies’ extinction as the toxins could dissolve into the honeydew on the leaf surface.

However, 2019 has been a very good year for some impressive larger butterflies too, with lots of painted ladies (6) arriving in Britain from the Mediterranean as they migrate north. Protected roadside verges in Uttlesford also provide good chalk grassland habitat for species such as the small copper (7).

There is also some very good news for three ‘extinct’ species (green boxes in main image). The purple emperor (4) returned to Uttlesford about two years ago and has been seen in Shadwell Wood and Rowney Wood, two local Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserves. The silver-washed fritillary (8) was first seen again about five years ago and is now known from Shadwell Wood, Rowney Wood and Hatfield Forest. The marbled white (9) has also been spotted at Harrison Sayer and Noakes Grove nature reserves and along some protected roadside verges over the last two years. The return of these three species in protected areas of countryside and special habitats show just how important effective conservation efforts are in supporting our native wildlife.

You can learn more about how humans have affected local environments and wildlife, for bad and for good, in the Take Away the Walls exhibition until 3 November.
Find out how you can help local wildlife groups on the Discovery Centre noticeboard next to the stick insects, and in the Take Away the Walls exhibition.

 

 

Object of the Month – June 2019

Did You Know?

The ‘cabbage white’ butterfly is actually two closely related species – the large white (Pieris brassicae) and the small white (Pieris rapae). Apart from the size difference, the large white has darker black wing spots, and a dark black band at the front of its wings. Both lay their eggs on cabbages in gardens, allotments and farms, as it is the preferred food of their caterpillars. The large white takes the outer leaves, while the small white prefers the soft inner leaves. The adult (imago) of both species often feeds on nectar from buddleia flowers.

Cabbage white butterflies “Insects Injurious to Vegetables”. SAFWM : 118007. © Saffron Walden Museum

The display has a male and female of each species, with the male at the top and female below. There is also a caterpillar of the large white butterfly, which is yellow and hairy, with black bumps on its skin. The small white’s caterpillar is pale green and hairless with a narrow yellow stripe on either side. The cabbage leaf in the box has some caterpillar feeding damage.

Caterpillar of the small white. CC BY-SA 3.0, Harald Süpfle.

Chrysalis of the small white. CC BY-SA 2.5, James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster.

Life cycle

These butterflies have two ‘broods’ per year, and three in a good year. In the spring, butterflies which survived the winter as a chrysalis emerge as adults in April and May. They lay eggs in May and June (spring brood), which hatch into caterpillars in June and July. The caterpillars feed and grow quickly, and shed their skin 4 times as they grow. After about a month, the caterpillar finds a sheltered spot to transform into a butterfly in a process called metamorphosis. The caterpillar spins a pad of silk against the surface of its shelter, and sheds it skin again to reveal a hard skin (chrysalis), which has a small hook to keep it attached to the silk.

Adults emerge from the chrysalis about two weeks later, in July and August. They then lay eggs which develop into caterpillars through September and form chrysalises into October. The caterpillars go through a very slow metamorphosis to survive the winter, and emerge as adults the following April and May to start the process again.

Butterfly survival

On the right of the leaf are some cocoons and adults of a parasitic wasp which lays its eggs inside the caterpillars. After hatching, the wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar and eventually kill it, helping to control cabbage white numbers in a natural way. The adult wasp feeds on nectar.

Like many insects, these butterflies have declined in number recently. Currently, the large white and small white are not the focus of conservation efforts, but many other more specialist butterflies have declined severely or have gone extinct in Essex since 1900.
You can find out more about local butterflies in the Take Away the Walls exhibition at the Museum.

June’s Object of the Month was chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

Image credits

Pieris rapae caterpillar: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]. Accessed 11/06/2019.

Pieris rapae chrysalis: Harald Süpfle [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]. Accessed 11/06/2019

Parasitic wasp Cotesia glomerata: Copyright © Albert de Wilde – All rights reserved http://www.ahw.me/img/sluipwesp4mm_grootkoolwitje01b.html. Accessed 11/06/2019.

Featured Image – Cabbage whites “Insects Injurious to Vegetables” on display in the Museum © Saffron Walden Museum

 

The polecat comeback

Object of the Month – February 2019

The European polecat, Mustela putorius, was thought to be extinct in Essex since 1880 thanks to persecution from gamekeepers. The first modern sighting was in 1999 near Wendens Ambo and there are now numerous records from north-west Essex, though only from roadkill specimens.

A mounted polecat skin from 1842 and a polecat skull, also from the 1800s.

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A bit behind the scenes

An update from James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

The Geology Gallery received a lot of attention in the run-up to the festive period thanks in no small part to the help provided by Cali, the latest addition to the natural sciences volunteer team. After a short training session in how to carefully clean specimens using a conservation vac and a paintbrush, we were away, and have already cleaned around half of the objects on display at the time of writing. It should be a fairly quick job to finish the rest of the objects in the ‘table-top’ display cases, leaving only a dozen or so in wall-mounted cases. This is part of regular ‘deep cleans’ that help care for museum objects, and will help us double-check and update the information we hold about each object. Many museums are also ‘Accredited’ which means that they uphold certain national standards of collection care, and this work contributes to Saffron Walden Museum maintaining its Accredited status year-on-year. Meanwhile, the photos we take can be used for everything from social media to encouraging researchers to visit the collection.

Fossil ammonite found in Saffron Walden. 150-200 million y.o.

At the start of December I visited the Essex Field Club’s (EFC) annual exhibition and social at Wat Tyler Country Park, near Basildon. The EFC is a volunteer-run society of amateurs and professionals who compile and look after a county-wide database of the wildlife and geology of Essex. The club’s secretary, Fiona Hutchings, very kindly introduced me to members from each specialty so I could speak to them about the natural sciences exhibition this summer, called Take Away the Walls. My plan is to hold a museum-based exhibition showcasing the wildlife of north-west Essex, and to run activities bringing together wildlife organisations and community groups across Uttlesford to help people enjoy the outdoors in new ways that will benefit their own health, and the health of the local environment. The exhibition and activities will really start to take shape behind the scenes soon, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the coming months.

Fossil bryozoan in flint. Tiny bryozoa live in coral-like colonies (above), but are much more complex internally.

At the end of this month I will be attending a short training seminar entitled ‘Finding Funds for Fossils, Ferns and Flamingos’, hosted by the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) at the World Museum, Liverpool. NatSCA are a nationwide ‘subject-specialist network’ of museum professionals working in the natural sciences who have an active programme of meetings, training courses and conferences throughout the year. This particular event is all about how to successfully attract funding and support to care for and promote natural sciences collections in museums, and I look forward to putting my new-found knowledge into use to benefit the tens of thousands of natural sciences specimens at Saffron Walden Museum.

Object of the Month -September 2018

September’s Object of the Month is a collection of fossilised teeth chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

These fossilised teeth come from the extinct fish Ptychodus (pronounced tie-co-duss) which lived across the Americas, Europe and Asia. They are closely related to modern sharks and rays, but may not have been direct ancestors. Some species grew up to 10 metres long, feeding on the large shellfish that existed during the Cretaceous period, 66–145 million years ago. Although they had similar diet and teeth to modern rays, they looked more like modern nurse sharks, which cruise the seabed for small fish and shellfish.

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Object of the Month – August 2018

Red squirrel - August object of the month

August’s Object of the Month is a red squirrel. The mammal was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This red squirrel was found dead at Saffron Walden, Essex in August 2003. It had been run over by a car in Landscape View. A member of the Uttlesford group of Essex Wildlife Trust gave it to Saffron Walden Museum to be preserved. The body was mounted, or stuffed, by a taxidermist. This red squirrel has russet red fur on its body and tail, with white fur on its chest and belly. Male and female squirrels look identical.

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