Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Museums and extinct species

Natural science museum collections contain some of the huge biodiversity that we share our home planet with. A particular jewel of museum collections that curators are keen to shout about are specimens of extinct species.

Despite the promises of technological advances, once species have become extinct, we will never again share our planet with them. Millions of years of evolutionary history, billions of generations and iterations of natural selection are irretrievably lost.

Museums holding specimens of these lost species then become the only place where we can see them or learn from them. If we’re really lucky, there may even be recordings of their sounds held elsewhere. But that’s a poor substitute for enjoying them in the wild, and certainly no use in filling whichever ecological niches have been left empty by extinction.

While researching for my Bird Name of the Week tweet, I came across our Kōkako study skin. First of all, enjoy that name. Kōkako. There are two types of Kōkako, both from New Zealand. Some consider these to be two distinct species, while others consider them two subspecies within the same species. The bird skin we have in our collection had been catalogued simply as ‘Kōkako’ (I’m going to keep using this word while I have the chance!). When researching the meaning behind this name, it became obvious that our Kōkako is, or was, a South Island Kōkako. The North Island Kōkako (Callaeas wilsoni  (or Callaeas cinereus wilsoni)) is dark grey bird with characteristic blue wattles, visible in our two taxidermy mounts of this species.

Mounted brown bird with blue patches
North Island Kōkako
In contrast, the South Island Kōkako (Callaeas cinereus (or Callaeas cinereus cinereus)) has orange wattles, as seen in our study skin specimen.

Bird skin showing a brown bird with orange wattle
 South Island Kōkako

As well as their wattle colour, the North Island and South Island species of Kōkako have another very important difference. Although they are endangered, it is still possible to see a North Island Kōkako in New Zealand. However, the South Island Kōkako is now thought to be extinct, the last confirmed sighting being in 2007.

So, it seems that Leeds Museums and Galleries can add another species (or subspecies) to our list of extinct animals in our collection. The extinction of the South Island Kōkako has made this sad-looking specimen precious. It will be vital in the future, perhaps to research the genetics and conservation of the surviving North Island Kōkako, but certainly to teach us why we need to look after our planet, and what we risk losing if we don’t.

Rebecca Machin, Curator – Natural Sciences

Monday, 2 May 2016

A WW1 Writer in Residence at Armley Mills

Robert held writing workshops at Armley Mills, Leeds, focusing on local First World War stories.

As a writer of children’s books I normally take workshops with the under elevens. But my short Writer’s Residency at Armley Mills Industrial Museum last week enabled me to work with the over elevens for a change! Some participants in my creative writing workshops were over fifty years over eleven! 

Whilst children often have few inhibitions about creative writing us grown-ups are sometimes reluctant to put pen to paper. But over two days, after slow, reluctant starts some truly exceptional writing and poetry was created inspired by the Women, Work and War exhibition and the stories it tells. 

Inspiration and WW1 history
A visit to Armley Mills Industrial Museum more than two years ago inspired me to write my up and coming novel, Troublesome Aunts, and last week the exhibition inspired people of all ages to write accounts and stories based upon their own knowledge of World War One, how it affected family members and the social and economic impact that the conflict had on women in the UK. 

The Barnbow Munitions Factory features heavily in the exhibition as it does in my book and it was amazing to meet someone who had worked at Barnbow, albeit in the 1970s when the site produced tanks for Vickers. The tragic events of December 6th 1916 were really brought to life by the exhibition for me and the visitors and I really hope Leeds Museums will commemorate the anniversary of the tragic loss of the 35 lives later this year. 

Discovering WW1 stories
During the final session one lady who found writing difficult wrote a moving piece about how the exhibition opened her eyes to what women, not only in Britain but in her home city of Leeds, went through and achieved in World War One. But she finished by stating that she wasn’t surprised about what the women in Leeds achieved as she knows that women can do anything!

You can visit the Women Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills until 24 September 2017. Find out more on our website.

By Robert Bullock

Friday, 29 April 2016

Treasures of the Herbarium Collection

During my placement at the Discovery Centre I have been documenting the Herbarium collection donated to Leeds Museums by the University of Leeds. 

Conserving delicate plants

The herbarium sheets, cones and seeds that I am working with are stacked in groups by the species to which they belong and groups of species folders are then placed together into larger folders by genus. The genus folders are then sorted by taxonomic family. 

The sheets have been temporarily stored in plastic wrapping and so I am unpacking the bundles and re-storing them in new conservation-grade boxes. Some of the specimens have been mounted on newspaper like the one above and you can see how the paper has become discoloured over time. I will have to re-mount some of the specimens on to acid-free paper to preserve them for the future.

Why do we preserve herbaria?

Herbaria are important for studying plant taxonomy, studying geographic distributions and in cataloguing the flora of a certain area. 

Pressed plant specimens
(Osmunda regalis)
Having a large collection from a single area can help us to understand the natural distribution over which plants grow and can provide a historical record of plants that have become extinct in one area. This information helps environmental scientists who track climate changes and human impact on the local species.

This example I found in the collection is Osmunda regalis a species of deciduous fern collected in York in 1877. If you look closely at the handwritten note above the label, in 1927 (forty years later) 

'In spite of reports that Osmunda was all gone from Askham Bog, I am glad to learn that it still survives on one spot, in small quantity….but strictly preserved.'

Another note below this says 'Happily increasing by protection 1936!'

This Osmunda regalis (above, left) is a perfect example of herbarium specimens being used to keep track of plants over time.

(Antirrhinum Majus)

Pictured above is Antirrhinum majus, collected by Ida M. Roper in 1829. These plants were often called ‘snapdragons’ and were thought to have supernatural powers to provide protection against witchcraft. This is probably because when the flowers die they leave behind seed pods that look like skulls. This specimen has some interesting newspaper clippings that show these macabre seed pods.

Finally, these are my favourite specimens found so far in the herbarium collection. I think they are beautiful and delicate, they could almost have been painted in watercolours. 

By Gemma Bailey, Herbarium Work Placement Student, University of Manchester

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Mystery of the Dinosaur Bone in a Rock

Something new turned up in Conservation needing cleaning for the up and coming ‘There’s a Dinosaur at the Museum’ display, (30th May to 6th June at Leeds City Museum).  It looked like a rib in a piece of stone, but was covered with a heavy layer of sooty deposits, that made it look black. We believe it came from a large reptile, possibly a dinosaur, but it has not yet been identified.

Image of partial rib in blackened rock.
Before Conservation

The rib was acquired in 1866, so it is not surprising over the years it has acquired a layer of industrial pollution. It came into the Conservation Studio looking very indistinct and not very exciting. As you can see in the photograph you can make out the rib but that is about it. After a quick inspection to see if there were any obvious breaks or damage, we decided to steam clean it with our new steam cleaner.

The Cleaning Process

We use a dental steam cleaner with deionised water. This is water that has had the impurities filtered out, a bit like the filter jugs that you can get for your own kitchens, but a bit more refined. We can adjust the pressure coming out of the nozzle so can do very fine cleaning. Steam cleaning is one of my favourite jobs, as it can be really satisfying. This one turned out to be very satisfying indeed!

Half Way Through

Image of rib partially cleaned, half black and half cleaned.
During Conservation

In the photograph above you can see a half cleaned and un-cleaned section. As you can see the dirt layer lifts of very easily without damaging the underlying surface. The oval shapes beginning to be seen just under the rib are fossilised sea shells. It took a couple of hours to clean this up, including the back. Sometimes if fragile paper labels are present we have to protect them otherwise they would be obliterated.  

The Final Stage

Cleaned rib showing more detail and fossil sea shells.
After Conservation

As you can see from the last picture the finished article looks radically different from the first time it came into Conservation. The removal of the surface deposits, which are most likely industrial and quite acidic in nature, will ensure the continued longevity and enjoyment of this object. We can also see that part of the end of the rib has been damaged but is still partially preserved in the matrix of the stone. Additionally, the sea shells will help our Geologist to date the rib more precisely and hopefully help to identify the dinosaur.

Cleaning can yield up more information, protect an item by removing harmful industrial deposits and enable you to see more of this dinosaur.

Find out more about the forthcoming 'There's a Dinosaur in the Museum' display on our What's On website (opens as new link).

By Emma Bowron, Conservator

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Behind the Lines - new First World War poetry exhibition

I love war poetry, from Wilfred Owen to Rupert Brooke, so when I was given the chance to put together a small, portable exhibition on war poetry from the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections, I jumped at the chance. From deciding which poems to include to receiving the final proofs from the designer, it has been an extremely valuable experience that I have truly enjoyed and one that would not have been possible without Leeds Museums.

There are a variety of authors from different walks of life and backgrounds within the Leeds collection and it was difficult to narrow the selection down to just four pieces. I settled upon a poem written by an unknown author which details the rigours of training to become a soldier, two poems written by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson who was a Captain in the West Yorkshire Regiment and one written by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe who was the Lady Mayoress during the First World War.

Poets from the home front to the trenches
I chose four poems because I wanted to look at the difference in tone and content from the start of the war through to its end, as well as considering the view of those on the home front and those in the trenches. The first poem written by an unknown author provides a comedic look at the process of training, but this is contrasted by the evocative descriptions of the realities of warfare, written by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson in his pieces Twentieth Century Civilisation and To Glory. Both of these pieces are entirely different to the work of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. She looks at the war as it comes to an end, what the aftermath is and how the women who were left behind can cope with the loss.

A wealth of war poetry
Of course there is so much more poetry to explore in the collections, and there are several pieces which I could not fit into the exhibition that I wish I could have done, such as Division Forty-Nine which was written by Pte. Alfred Calton who worked with the West Yorkshire Field Ambulance during the war. His poem describes the first time the Germans used phosgene gas against the Allies.

Hopefully the poems in this exhibition will give everyone a glimpse into what the mood was like for different people in Leeds from 1914 all the way to 1919, the changes in attitude and the varied experiences among the population.

Borrow the portable exhibition
If you would be interested in borrowing these panels and displaying them free of charge; or if you would like to know when and where they will be displayed, please get in touch with us at and keep an eye out on the website!

By Laura Varley, First World War Project Placement Student.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Eggy Oddities: Why Kiwis Produce Massive Eggs

Generally in the natural world the size of one’s offspring correlates with the size of one’s self. Elephant babies are huge and mouse babies are tiny. The bigger the bird the bigger the egg or the bigger the egg the bigger the bird…depending on which came first! Of course nothing in nature is that simple and so there are a few exceptions to this rule.

Kiwis are the smallest of the flightless bird group, ratites. However, their eggs are the largest relative to body weight of any existing bird. To put this into perspective, the average kiwi weighs just 2500g and an average kiwi egg weighs a massive 371g. This is 15% of a kiwi’s body weight. In comparison an ostrich weighs around 100,000g and lays an egg weighing just 1314g.  This is only just over 1% of the ostrich’s body weight (Figures taken from Amadon, 1947)

Despite the horror inducing image of producing an egg this size, kiwis are highly productive and an average adult female will produce one of these giant eggs every year (McLennan et al. 2004). Females produce these eggs at little additional energetic cost. Half the energy needed to produce them is obtained from stored energy reserves (McLennan et al. 2004) rather than the bird desperately having to forage for food during egg development. Furthermore when the egg hatches the female still needn’t panic about providing for her young as the kiwi egg contains an unusually high yolk content (65% (Piper 2007)) which can sustain the chick until it is able to forage for itself. 

The greatest benefit of producing such large eggs is that they hatch into highly precocial young. This means kiwi chicks hatch fully feathered with open eyes and within a week are able to feed themselves (McLennan et al. 2004; Frances and Larter 2011). Being precocious helps young to evade predators. However, before mammals were introduced to New Zealand kiwis had very little problem with predation. 

Nocturnal predator species such as owls were only as large as 600g and therefore too small to prey on even young kiwis (McLennan et al. 2004). In modern days despite being nocturnal, well camouflaged and elusive kiwis are still preyed upon by introduced mammals including rats and stoats (Attenborough 1998; Frances and Larter 2011). The large and strong egg of the kiwi protects the chick as they are too large and heavy to be broken by rats (McLennan et al. 2004). Despite these adaptations smaller kiwi species are preyed upon for the first four months of life before outgrowing their predators (McLennan et al. 2004). 

Although there are some clear benefits of producing such enlarged eggs the true reason why kiwis exhibit this level of parental investment is unknown, but given the choice it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t prefer the parental life of our humble domestic chicken. 

By Sarah Burhouse, Zoology Project Placement Student

Amadon, D. (1947) An Estimated Weight of the Largest Known Bird, The Condor, 49 (4), pp. 159-164. 
Attenborough, D. (1998) The Life of Birds. Great Britain: BBC Books.
Frances, P. & Larter, S. (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Limited. 
McLennan, J., Dew, L., Miles, J., Gilingham, N. and Waiwai, R. (2004) Size matters: predation risk and juvenile growth in North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 28 (2), pp. 241-250. 
Piper, R. (2007) Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopaedia of Curious and Unusual Animals. USA: Greenwood Publishing Group.