Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cryptozoology (IV)

I still can't motivate myself to write the piece on cryptozoology that I have been threatening for the last few weeks, but I just can't seem to get away from news stories on beasties of one sort or the other. The summer is traditionally a good time for newspapers to fill vacant column space with yetis, pumas in the backyard, and the Jersey devil, but I had thought that the combined deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ted Kennedy, and Dominick Dunne (OK, maybe not Dominick Dunne) would have driven these journalistic equivalents of dust bunnies off to the far reaches of the internet, where they belong. But I was wrong. On Wednesday the Daily Telegraph asked the news question of the year: "Is the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth?"

The story, which actually first broke in The Sun (which should tell you all you need to know about it's authenticity), says that 25 year old Jason Cooke, a security guard from Nottingham, was browsing Google Earth (hopefully not when you were supposed to be guarding something, Jason!) when he made the startling discovery. "I couldn't believe it" Jason said. "It's just like the descriptions of Nessie."

You can judge this resemblance for yourself by looking at the image above. At first I was quite excited, because it seemed like Nessie might actually be some strange species of giant squid. However, it turns out that the thing on the right is actually a boat, trailing a wake behind it. The object of interest is the thing on the left. You know, the one that looks just like breaking wave crests, possibly on top of those big waves that are running across the picture from side to side.

The Telegraph article is a masterpiece of creative writing, chock full of priceless quotes. Earlier this year, apparently, it was reported that climate change may have killed the Loch Ness Monster. According to the Telegraph, "there have been no credible sightings of Nessie for over a year" which, of course, begs the question of whether there have been any incredible ones and how you distinguish credible from incredible when you're talking about a monster living in a lake in Scotland.

The article goes on to report that there have also been a number of searches for the creature. "The most recent was in 2008 when scientists used sonar and underwater cameras in an attempt to find the animal." It does not mention that they found absolutely zip. This is understandable if, as "veteran American monster hunter" Bob Rhines believes, the environment of the loch can no longer sustain Nessie. Or if (and I realize some of you may think this idea a bit far-fetched) the environment of the loch has never been able to sustain Nessie or any other large aquatic animal and it is inhabited only by shoals of arctic char and the occasional duck

However, it did occur to me that Google Earth might provide keen cryptozoologists with a new tool, enabling them to scour the planet remotely for their cryptobeasties while still holding down their day-jobs as burger cooks, tele-sales representatives, and yes, security guards. So I decided to test this theory by examining the Himalayas in exhaustive detail - and it wasn't very long before I made a quite startling discovery..... as you can see from this image.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More Financial Impacts

Most museums are a little cagey about the state of their finances, and this one more than most, but this piece from throws some light on the current situation at AMNH.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Picture This

I realize that with two posts in quick succession, I'm beginning to sound like a Nina Simon groupie. However, this post tackles a particular bug-bear of mine, which is overly-restrictive museum photo policies. I remember being asked by a former boss to investigate what steps our institution was taking to control copyright on images taken in the galleries - when I asked the head of our photographic collections, she rather dryly suggested that he should go onto Flickr and search on the name of our museum.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Birds of a Feather

In an earlier post, while discussing the theft of bird skins from the Ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum, I expressed amazement that specimens that were so incredibly rare and of such scientific value could end up as angler's lures. Of course, I had forgotten about the art of fly-tying, which at its more rarified extremes has very little to do with fishing. Consider this Japanese website, for example. Anyone prepared to pay $65 for 4 Cock of the Rock feathers is unlikely to be chucking them in a river anytime soon. Start googling "fly tying, feathers, exotic" and you come up with some alarming stuff. "There are many exotic birds we get only once or twice in a year. We have established a 'want list' for these skins and notify those on the list if we receive them" says one supplier. I'd become used to thinking about the risks to collections posed by the trade in fossils but the idea of a market for feathers, where a single bird skin might be worth thousands of dollars, was an eye opener....

More on Community

A few weeks on from the little "collections vs community debate" here is another take on the whole community engagement issue from the always excellent Nina Simon at Museum 2.0. She highlights an important point, which is that "community" is in danger of loosing its meaning as it gets adopted as a marketing ploy. The more I read what museums write about engaging with communities, the more it becomes apparent that "community" is increasingly being used as shorthand for "not us." We talk about "reaching out to the community" which suggests detachment rather than participation. I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to using this shorthand. It acts as a block on thinking, suggesting that as institutions we can only give and not necessarily get anything meaningful or important back from our fellow commuity members (this is something that my colleagues and I have been trying to tackle from a collections perspective).

One thing I particularly liked about her post was the tacit acceptance that by making a conscious effort to invite in particular groups of people, the museum may not be able to cater for all people, and that maybe we shouldn't panic about this. At the end of her post she quotes from the "about us" section of a neighborhood bar, which ends "we are not for everyone but for those of you who feel welcome and at home, we are very, very happy you found us." Which is as applicable to a museum as it is to your local dive.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Missing, Presumed Gone

Many years ago, while I was working in a university museum, we had a visit from the university auditors. It wasn't really clear what they wanted to do, but after we'd walked them around the collections for a while and showed them some cool stuff they told us. What they basically said was - "OK, we're going to go to your catalog and pick a specimen at random. Then you're going to go and find it for us." And, of course, we all laughed long and loud.

Obviously, I was much younger then.

This incident came back to me very forcibly a few days ago, when I read an email from colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London that "a number" of bird skins had been stolen from their Ornithology Department, which is housed at the Walter Rothschild Museum in Tring. This was later reported in the press - you can read more about it here. It's an enormously depressing story, and not just because it seems like this extraordinary collection of birds of paradise, quetzels, and cotingas, having been hauled back from the ends of the Earth and carefully cataloged for use in research and teaching, may end their days pulled apart and used as fishing lures.

For the average collection manager, this is the sort of thing that wakes you up in the early hours of the morning in a cold sweat. There may be some readers out there who, having watched movies like "The Thomas Crown Affair," believe that all museum collections are guarded by the sort of hi-tech security systems that can only be circumvented by a genius. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Natural history collections are particularly vulnerable because of their enormous size (the NHM bird collection, for example, contains around 750,000 bird skins) and the fact that they are next to useless if they are not actively used for research. This means that we have to let people in to look at them.

Of course, we take all sorts of measures to protect them (and no, of course I'm not going to tell you what they are), but the fact is that if someone is really determined to take a specimen from the collection, they can. And unless there are cast-iron procedures in place for taking regular inventories of the collection, the chances that anyone will notice if they do is pretty small. With huge collections, limited staff, and enormous demands on resources, most large museums have enough to do keeping on top of day-to-day operations, let alone tracking every specimen in their collections.

Things continually go missing in museums. I remember reading a museum collections policy a couple of years ago that decreed that we immediately report every specimen found missing to the museum's lawyers. Once again, we fell about laughing (OK, so I haven't grown up all that much) as we wondered how long they would put up with receiving daily emails from all the collections divisions. Things go missing because someone puts them in the wrong drawer; or because a curator or student removes them to his or her office without filling out a removal slip; or because they came back from loan and six months later someone still hasn't had time to return them to the collection; or because they are out on loan and someone forgot to fill out an invoice; or because their location was mistyped in a database. Most things turn up in a week or so. Some turn up in a year, or five years. Some things reappear, miraculously, after decades. And sometimes they disappear for good.

So most collection managers don't really worry when they can't find a specimen (unless it's something extremely important - I once lost the genotype of Velociraptor for a week because I put it into a random cabinet "for 10 minutes" while I went off to do another job and then forgot about it. It was not a pleasant week). What is really alarming is when you discover that there's more than one specimen. And if it turns out that there's a pattern - certain very specific things are missing - then things get really unpleasant. That's what happened at the Australian Museum six years ago. It spiralled away into an enormous scandal that eventually brought down the Museum's director. You can read about it here, and I urge you to do so. It's a cautionary tale for all sorts of reasons.

Anyway, now I'm off to review our security procedures. Can't sleep.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Yesterday, I got three separate emails from colleagues, all urging me to go and read an article in the New York Times which, I was assured me, would blow my socks off. Entitled “Dawn at the Museum,” it was written by Olivia Judson and it seemed to have aroused great excitement; as one poster to a listserve put it -

'Dawn at the Museum' is well worth noting and have [sic] on file for your department head or dean when cuts, elimination and/or moves are suggested for your herbarium or part of the museum. It is encouraging to see an eminent molecular biologist today advocate publicly the value of museums when so many in the academic physiological, cellular and molecular areas have only distain for field biology and specimens.”

As you will have gathered from previous posts, life in museum collections tends to incline you towards grumpiness and a feeling of being unwanted, or at least unappreciated. This can lead us to react poorly even when people are being nice to us. So I really, really wanted to react in a positive way to this piece. Honestly, I did.

At first sight, things looked good. There was a large color picture of my alma mater and birthplace of my museum career, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I felt a surge of nostalgia. Then as I glanced down the page I saw, blown up for extra emphasis, the following quote:

It is the DNA molecule that has made museums strangely — wonderfully — relevant to biology in the 21st century.”

Oh dear.

Where do you begin with a statement like this? Does it mean that museums were irrelevant to biology before the advent of DNA amplification and sequencing technologies? Does it imply that collections that do not preserve DNA (i.e. like mine) are not relevant to 21st century biology? And why “strangely?”

By now I was spoiling for a fight; like some belligerent drunk in a bar, I was looking for an excuse to start one. And a few lines later, Dr. Judson provided me with the perfect excuse. She used the word “dusty.” To be precise, what she said was that collections have the ability to become much more than “hugely important stores of information about biodiversity“because of “all those dusty specimens.”

Let me paraphrase this article for you. “Crikey. I bet you though that those museum collections were just a bunch of dusty old bones and skins. Yeah, of course they’re ‘important’ because they have all that biodiversity stuff in them. But get this – they’re actually really important, because now you can get DNA out of them. And DNA means real science. Wow, who knew?”

Olivia Judson saying museum collections are “strangely relevant” is a bit like Joe Biden describing Barrack Obama as “articulate.” It may be well-meaning, it may be true, but boy is it patronizing.

So here’s my answer to Olivia. Yes, you’re correct that the advent of new technologies for extracting and sequencing DNA are giving us access to information from museum collections we didn’t previously have, as are other techniques like stable isotope analysis, microwear studies, CT scanning, laser surface scanning, and GIS mapping. But these things don’t make collections relevant. Collections are relevant.

Every time you use a scientific name, you’re making use of a hypothesis validated by the existence of an actual, physical type specimen that’s sat in a collection somewhere. You may never need to see that specimen, but if you decide that for some reason you want to confirm that hypothesis for yourself, you can go look at the specimen (and others like it). That’s the foundation on which our understanding of the natural world is built – you cannot make a meaningful description of life on earth without reference to museum collections. I can’t think of anything more “relevant” to biology, be it 20th, 21st, or 22nd Century.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cryptozoology (III)

Nothing says summer in Britain like a spate of big cat sightings. Honestly, this has been going on since I was a kid - back in my day, it was known as the Surrey Puma. Since then we've had the Beast of Exmoor, the Kellas Cats, the Black Beast of Bodmin Moor, and others too numerous to mention. The latest one is the Coulport Cougar, which you can read about here - I particularly like the title "Unidentified 'big cat' filmed near military base" which makes it seem super-sinister, as if the British government is testing some new sort of feline superweapon. There's even a movie! And yes, it surely is a cat, although I'd say it's debatable quite how "big" it actually is.

As the article reports, big cat sightings in Britain go back to the Middle Ages, which if nothing else goes to show that the summer was a slow time for news back then as well. There are a variety of theories to explain the existence of these cats, ranging from the cryptozoological (there is an undescribed species of large cat in the UK that has managed to escape detection on one of the most densely populated islands in Europe - see Di Francis et al), through the paranormal (the "cats" are not cats at all, but strange psychic manifestions - see Janet & Colin Bord), to the prosaic (they are exotic pets that have been dumped by their owners). What do I think it is? I think it's a cat.

Call me an old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud museum guy, but we need a body. Photos, videos, and eyewitness sightings are notoriously unreliable. The Kellas cats, which were frequently cited as a new species, turned out to be as introgressive hybrids, representing animals with varying degrees of Scottish wildcat and domestic cat ancestry. Who made this determination? A colleague of mine at the National Museums of Scotland, Andrew Kitchener. How did he do it? He looked at a bunch of dead Kellas cats. I rest my case.

PS: just to show I'm not a total cynic, I am prepared to accept that there is one part of the world where there may be some truly odd "feral cats," and that is Australia. To bring you up to speed, I suggest you go and read this very interesting blog post from Darren Naish. Then go and read this counterargument and see which one strikes you as most convincing.