This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Zoological Collections.
The name “four-horned trunk fish”, Acanthostracion quadricornis, comes from this animal’s unusual appearance. The fish looks rather like a stiff box or trunk with solid walls that allow only small openings for the tail, fins, eyes and mouth, but keeps all the internal organs safe from predators. Some members of this group are not only protected by the box’s shape and its structure, but also have the ability to release a poison when threatened. Acanthostracion quadricornis, can be easily identified by the presence of four “horns”, two at the front of the head and two at the back of the body. The animal’s other name of “cowfish” makes a clear reference to them. This and other members of its family, Ostraciidae, live in shallow waters of oceans: Atlantic, Indian and Pacific
This particular example is one of the oldest specimens in the country, as it dates from the seventeenth century. It belonged to the Tradescant Collection, also known as the “Tradescant Ark”, assembled by the two John Tradescants, father and son. Their collection of “Naturalia” and “Artificialia” contained not only exotic, hitherto unknown animals and plants, but also portraits, clothes, weapons and jewels brought by sailors and traders from newly discovered lands. The collection was displayed for many years at the Tradescants’ home in Lambeth, London and all the specimens were listed in 1656 in the very first printed museum catalogue in the country.
In 1678 their collection became the property of Elias Ashmole, who in turn offered it to Oxford University. In 1683 fourteen carts containing the collection travelled on barges to Oxford to be displayed in the newly built Ashmolean Museum, then located on Broad Street. This ancient fish is now one of the real treasures of the Museum of Natural History’s collection.