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Object of the Month – October

Dark stone with faint tracing of a fossil flower in two petal shapes

October’s Objects of the Month are pieces of fossilised plants.

Fossils can form in different ways depending on where they form and the type of plant or animal. Most fossils come from the hard parts of animals such as bones, teeth or shells. For plants, wood is the most common material to fossilise because it is quite hard, and takes longer to rot away than other parts.
Soft leaves and flowers need to be buried quickly in deep sediment like mud or volcanic ash where the low oxygen levels mean they won’t rot. Once underground, plant material can fossilise in different ways.

Compression

Dark stone with faint tracing of a fossil flower in two petal shapesThis flower is probably preserved by compression, like pressing and drying it in fine mud over millions of years. Heat and pressure deep underground turned the mud to stone and forced moisture and gases from the leaf at the same time.

The main ingredient in living plants is carbon, so a thin, black, carbon-rich film is all that’s left. In most fossils, new minerals replace the original material. But because this is a compression fossil, the carbon-rich film is the exact same carbon that was in the plant millions of years ago. Soft-bodied animals like squid can also be preserved like this.

Impression

Dark stone showing inpression of a fern leaf, with fronds alternating in an exaggerated sawtooth pattern

© SWM

This fern leaf, or frond, is preserved as an impression. When something soft is preserved by compression, the shape of it is also preserved as an impression, like pressing a leaf into soft mud or clay and then removing it.

This fossil is one part of a small rock nodule which was split in two to show the leaf – this part shows the impression of the frond. Because compression and impression fossils usually form together, the word ‘adpression’ describes both at the same time.

Petrification

Wedge of dark fossil wood, narrow at left. Lines of pale grey run top-bottom showing growth rings.

© SWM

Fossilised wood is often called ‘petrified’ wood, meaning wood ‘turned to stone’. It happens when the materials (cellulose and lignin) that make up the solid part of wood are replaced by minerals, turning it to stone.

Minerals dissolved in groundwater seeping through the sediment settle as solids in the microscopic cell walls of the wood as the cellulose and lignin slowly rot. This can create a perfect stone copy of the original structure of the wood.

See these objects up close in Curiosity Corner throughout October.

Object of the Month – June 2021

A humpback whale leaping out of the sea. One flipper visible pointing left.

Humpback whale photographs taken by Barry Kaufmann-Wright in New Zealand, in 2013.

BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

Image 1 of 5

BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

All Images BK-W © Saffron Walden Museum

Barry took and kept over 72,000 photographs in his lifetime, almost all of wildlife and the countryside. Barry grew up in Buckinghamshire but his first job was at Jersey Zoo, working for the famous naturalist Gerald Durrell.
When he returned to the UK, Barry joined Essex police and was posted to Thaxted, where he began duties as Wildlife Crime Officer and, later, Wildlife Liaison Coordinator for Essex. His photographs from all over the world are a modern treasure in the Museum’s collection, which also includes two slide projectors which he used when giving talks – up to 250 times a year (that’s 5 per week)!
Barry’s wife Pat very kindly donated his photographs and equipment following his death in 2016.

Humpback whales live in oceans all over the world, except the far north of the Arctic Ocean and around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean, where the sea is covered in ice. Whales are mammals, so sea ice stops them coming to the surface to breathe air.
They are grouped into four major populations in the north Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean. They usually migrate between summer and winter ranges, but there are year-round groups around Britain and Norway, and in the Arabian Sea between India and east Africa.

– They can grow up to 16 metres long
Humpbacks are one of the largest whale species. Females are slightly larger than males, usually up to 16m (50ft) long. They can weigh 30 tonnes – the same as 2½ double-decker buses.

This picture shows the size of a humpback whale compared to a human swimming next to it, and its long pectoral fins. Image: Jjw, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

– They have ‘big wings’
The scientific name of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, means ‘big wing of New England’. Their ‘big wings’ are their giant pectoral fins – one female had fins that were 6m (20ft) long, as tall as a giraffe!
The ‘New England’ part comes from where humpback whales were first discovered by European whalers, off the coast of New England in the far north-east of the USA.

– Each animal’s tail is unique
A whale’s tail is called a fluke, and has a wavy pattern along the rear edge. Like our fingerprints, this wavy pattern is unique to each whale and is an easy way to identify animals in a group.
Compare this image to Barry Kaufmann-Wright’s photograph of a humpback’s fluke, above.

Image: Terry Howard CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

– They use nets to catch fish
Humpbacks migrate between summer and winter ranges and only eat for 6 months of the year, in the cooler waters of their summer range. Hunting and eating for 22 hours a day means they can build up enough fat reserves to survive their winter breeding season without eating.
Some populations of humpbacks have learned to feed in groups using the ‘bubble net’ technique and use vocal calls to work together. The whales swim in circles below a school of fish, blowing bubbles from their blowholes to create a ‘net’ that the fish won’t swim through. When one whale gives a feeding call, all the whales swim upwards inside the net with their mouths open to catch the fish.

A humpback whale using the bubble net technique on its own. Image: Christin Khan, NOAA/NEFSC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

– They sieve their food
Humpbacks are one of a group of whale species called baleen whales, which have bony, comb-like plates inside their mouths. With a mouth full of water and food animals, baleen whales partly close their mouths, and push water out through the baleen plates using their tongue. The baleen lets the water through but keeps in food such as fish and krill, which the whale then swallows.

Baleen plates and bristles in the mouth of a young gray whale. Image: Marc Webber/USFWS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whale ear bone, probably from  North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica)

The North Pacific right whale is a baleen whale like the humpback.
This bone is the tympanic bulla and may have come from a North Pacific right whale. It’s a hollow shape but made of heavy, dense bone which helps sound resonate in the whale’s middle ear, inside the head. In life, it would have been attached to the petrosal bone, which has snapped off.

Smaller bones called the hammer, anvil and stirrup would sit inside the hollow space, and actually transmit the sound from the outer inner to the inner ear, just like in humans.

The North pacific right whale got its name because it is a large whale (up to 18m long but weighing 80 tons) with plenty of valuable blubber, it moved slowly, and would float after it was killed. It was the ‘right’ whale to go for because it was easy to catch and made lots of money for the whalers.

Image: John Durban (NOAA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More than 15,000 were killed by whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, estimates say there are fewer than 400 North Pacific right whales left, split between an eastern and a western population, making them the smallest known population of all whale species, As a whole, they are listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list, while the eastern population is Critically Endangered, with less than 40 animals.

Use this link to listen to a song about the dangers of whaling, based on the songwriter’s own experiences in Australia in the 1950s – www.swmuseumlearning.com/general-5

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]

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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Hello to James

Hello! As I’ve been here since the end of April, it’s well-and-truly time to introduce myself. I’m James Lumbard, and I’m delighted to have been chosen to share the post of Natural Sciences Officer with Sarah Kenyon. I’ve really enjoyed my introduction to the job, the museum and the friendly staff and volunteers who make it such a pleasant place to work and visit. I’m originally from South Wales and moved to East Anglia two years ago. I’ve moved around a few times since then, moving to Tendring district at the start of this year, so it’s great to have the chance to explore Uttlesford and the lovely town of Saffron Walden.

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