About More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

Turtley happy!

Black marsh turtle

Why’s our black marsh turtle smiling? It’s turtley obvious, he’s a star! He’s having a Christmas holiday at Banbury Museum where he features in our Natural Histories exhibition. He’s joined by other treasures on tour from the University of Oxford, such as a meteorite from outer space as old as the Earth itself, the jaw of a real Oxfordshire dinosaur… and much, much more.

One of the things I like about Banbury Museum is that its entrance is slap bang in the middle of the Castle Quay Shopping Centre, next to the picturesque Oxford canal. It’s really easy to take a break from Christmas shopping and have a look around, and (yes, you’ve guessed it!) admission is turtley free!

Natural Histories is on until 22 February 2014, Mon – Sat: 10am – 5pm but check holiday period opening times on the museum website http://www.cherwell.gov.uk/museum/index.cfm?articleid=5758/.

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections, and co-curator of ‘Natural Histories’

What’s on the van?… the end of the road

What's on the van banner 2

DSC_1230It all started with a question from a member of the public; “What are these things on your van anyway?” Since then, our weekly blog posts have featured the story of 37 specimens from the Museum’s diverse collections.

From the Oxford dodo to Darwin’s dung beetle, a gemstone to a T rex, the ‘What’s on the van?‘ series has covered it all. Each week, expert voices from across the Museum (and beyond) have brought insight and intrigue to the images, explaining the secrets behind the specimens that decorate our van.


DSC_1221We hope you’ve enjoyed the weekly installments and will feel a little bit more knowledgeable if you see us out and about on the road. You can call out “I know what’s on the van!”.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer


What’s on the van? – Ammonite


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Eliza Howlett of the Museum’s Earth Collections.

This ammonite belongs to the genus Mortoniceras, introduced by the American palaeontologist F. B. Meek in 1876 in honour of his colleague Samuel Morton (1799-1851). The species name rostratum refers to the rostrum, the curved projection near the opening of the shell.

This specimen was collected by William Buckland (1784-1856), Oxford’s first Reader in Geology. It was originally described and illustrated by Buckland’s friend James Sowerby in 1817 in his Mineral Conchology of Great Britain, the earliest work to describe all of the fossil shells then known from the country. The specimen lived during the Cretaceous Period and is approximately 100 million years old. It was found in a marine rock formation called malmstone at the hamlet of Roke, near Benson, 10 miles southeast of Oxford. Malmstone is a distinctive fine-grained grey green rock, widely used in buildings in the area.

The ammonite on the van

The ammonite on the van

Ammonites are an extinct group of molluscs whose closest living relatives are squid and Nautilus. They had an external shell made up largely of mother of pearl. As in Nautilus, the animal’s body moved forwards periodically as the shell grew, and the back end of the body secreted an intricately folded plate called a septum after each move, so that the shell was divided into a series of chambers with the animal’s body in the last chamber. The rostrum of our specimen tells us it was an adult and had stopped growing. Ammonites floated freely in the water column, probably feeding on plankton. Although they are traditionally illustrated with the body chamber at the top, in life they were actually the other way up, with the body chamber at the bottom.

Though originally described from Oxfordshire, Mortoniceras rostratum floated its way around the Cretaceous world, and specimens are known from Texas, Japan, South India, Madagascar, South Africa and elsewhere.

What's on the van?

Scaffolding sketches


The Museum has a long history as a source of inspiration for artists; from the involvement of the Pre-Raphaelites in the building’s construction, to the thousands of art students that visit each year. This year’s closure period has been particularly interesting for one artist, Kate Kay.

Kate Kay in the Museum

Kate Kay in the Museum

Kate, who lives locally in Oxford, is doing a continuing practice course through Ovada, an Oxfordshire contemporary arts organisation.

An architectural background and interest in drawing in large internal spaces led Kate to the Museum. She said “I’m particularly interested in framed structures through which one can see. The Museum of Natural History certainly provides this, with its dramatic and innovative structure, and its remarkable collection of skeletons adding further layers of interest. When I heard that the Museum was to be closed for renovation works, I realised that the scaffolding, and the protective wrapping of the skeletons would add yet more layers.”

Cut paper work inspired by the layers in the Museum

Cut paper work inspired by the layers in the Museum

During the early part of the year, Kate visited regularly and was welcomed on site by the contractors. With hard hat and high-vis jacket, she was allowed to  go anywhere on the site, and she made numerous sketches and took photos. From May she then worked on a very large charcoal drawing (top of this post), incorporating various elements of the Museum and the renovation project in one image. She also produced a work in cut paper (right) combining several ‘see-through’ images. These were exhibited in an end-of-year show at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.

P1030503“Now that most of the scaffolding is down, one can see how the Museum has been transformed. I’ve really appreciated the opportunities that this project has provided, particularly in exploring up in the roof structure. I look forward to drawing in the Museum again, once it’s back in action in the spring, possibly focusing more closely on some of the other exhibits.”

It’s important that this special year of closure has been documented in Kate’s drawings. When we re-open, I hope that more artists than ever will be inspired by the Museum, as sunlight floods through our sparklingly clean roof.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

What’s on the van? – Bumble bee


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr. James Hogan, of the Museum’s Hope Entomological Collections.

Bumblebees and honeybees busily working away are one of the iconic visions of summer. Bumblebees and honeybees are also closely related, both belonging to the order Hymenoptera, family Apidae.

In the UK 28 species of bumblebee (species of Bombus) have been recorded, although several species are sadly now extinct or have been seen only a few times.

The short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) has been the focus of recent conservation efforts. Although extinct in the UK, descendants of some British short-haired bumblebees still survive– in New Zealand! These bees originate from a deliberate introduction to New Zealand in the late 19th Century for pollination of clover crops. Unfortunately, attempts to re-introduce these New Zealand bees have been unsuccessful because they are too inbred, but by introducing short-haired bumblebees from Sweden the species is establishing again in Kent (more details about the short-haired bumblebee re-introduction can be found at http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/projects/details/299380-shorthaired-bumblebee-reintroduction )

Although we have lost some species we have recently gained one more, the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). This species is believed to have colonised the UK naturally from France and since its arrival about 10 years ago is spreading rapidly across Britain. We first became aware of this new bee in Oxford in 2008 when Steven Williams, one of our regular volunteers, brought in a strange-looking bumblebee which none of us recognised. It had a colour pattern unlike any other British species, with a red-brown thorax and a black abdomen with a white tip.

After a bit of detective work (and some help from local bee expert Ivan Wright) the arrival of the tree bumblebee in Oxford was confirmed. This bumblebee is now a common sight in Oxford gardens –look out for it next spring!

What's on the van?

Seaside Minerals

Russell Society

Last week, members of the Southern Branch of the Russell Society came to visit the Museum. They especially wanted to see some of the minerals in our collection that came from the South Coast of England. The Russell Society, in case you are wondering, runs lectures, museum visits and fieldtrips for people who enjoy finding out about minerals. It is named after Sir Arthur Russell, one of Britain’s most gifted amateur mineralogists. I’m a member and so is one of our volunteers, Jane Randle.

Baryte from Babbacombe, Devon (80mm across)

Baryte from Babbacombe, Devon (80mm across)

Now, Jane and I know the Russell Society folk are a very knowledgeable lot, so we put our heads together a devised a challenge for them. We got out from the stores a whole lot of interesting minerals from quarries, mines, beaches and cliff exposures all along the coast from Kent round to south Devon, and laid them out in a random way. Then came the fun bit; we took away all the labels!

The task was to work as a team and organise the minerals according to where they were found, from west to east. Easy? Well, that depends on how good you are at recognising the different kinds of minerals and where they come from.

One of the fun things about minerals is that each kind  – calcite, quartz, gypsum, etc, – can look very different according to where it is found. Some are very easy to recognise but some are not. After much debate, looking at maps, and rearrangement of specimens came the moment of truth as Jane and I put the labels back with their specimens, and everyone could see whether or not they were right.

Fossil sponge preserved in chalcedony from Brighton beach (110mm across)

Fossil sponge preserved in chalcedony from Brighton beach (110mm across)

Our Russell Society folk certainly showed they know their local minerals!  They recognised the little round masses of baryte crystals from the Isle of Sheppey,  large transparent  gypsum crystals from Battle, powdery white masses of aluminite from Newhaven, rare blue vivianite crystals from near Southampton, sparkling pointed crystals of calcite from Charmouth, branching crystals of real gold from near Torquay, and many more. Others did elude them, and came from surprising places. Our beautiful polished slices of fossil sponges, for example, came from pebbles collected on Brighton beach in the 19th century!

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections

What’s on the van? – Beryl gemstones


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections.

This time, it’s a special double issue of ‘What’s on the van?’! Two gemstones, that look very different, turn out to be exactly the same mineral, beryl. On the right is a greenish yellow variety of beryl called ‘heliodor’. It gets its name from the Greek word for the sun, and is coloured by a trace of ferric iron. The stone on the left is absolutely colourless because it has no impurities colouring it. This kind is known as ‘goshenite’ after Goshen in Massachusetts, USA, where it was first found.

Beryl is composed of beryllium, aluminium, silicon and oxygen (Be3Al2(SiO3)6 to be precise) and it is not very common. Flawless transparent crystals are rare, and as they are also very hard and durable, they are ideal for cutting into gemstones. Heliodor and goshenite are not often seen in jewellers shops, and nor is the pretty pale pink variety called ‘morganite’. There are two kinds of beryl which are much better known, ‘aquamarine’ and ‘emerald’. Aquamarine is  coloured light blue or green by a trace of ferrous iron, while rare and highly prized emerald is vibrant green because it contains a little bit of chromium.

We talk about ‘cutting’ gemstones, but in fact the faces are ground away on a flat fast-revolving flat metal plate charged with abrasive powder, called a lap. The faces are then polished using finer and finer grades of abrasive powder. Each face is cut at a very precise angle to get the maximum amount of sparkle in the gem.

Our heliodor and goshenite gems are from a beautiful collection generously presented to the Museum by Mr Bernie Peel in 2004. You will be able to see lots more cut stones from the Peel collection in the Museum’s gemstone display when the Museum reopens in February 2014.

What's on the van?

What’s on the van? – Trilobite


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr David Legg, Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Museum’s Earth Collections.

This particular trilobite specimen (Acaste inflata) was collected and named by John William Salter during the Ledbury Railway Tunnel cutting in 1864. Salter worked with many famous scientists during his career; he was an apprentice of the famous mineralogist James De Carle Sowerby, before becoming a curator for Adam Sedgwick at the Woodwardian Museum in Cambridge (now the Sedgwick museum), and in his later years he assisted Roderick Murchison on his work on Siluria. During this time, Salter developed an interest in the trilobites of Wales and was considered a world expert on this group.

Trilobites are a group of arthropods (the group that includes spiders, scorpions, crustaceans, insects, etc.) characterised by the possession of a hard exoskeleton composed of calcium carbonate. They are some of the first animals with hard parts found in the fossil record. The first trilobites appeared roughly synchronously on various continents around 520 million years ago, and went extinct during the largest mass extinction of all time at the end of the Permian (c. 251 million years ago), nearly 20 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared.

Acaste inflata belongs to a group of trilobites called the phacopids. The eyes of phacopid trilobites are unlike any others in the animal kingdom. The eye may consist of over 50 lenses, each separated from the next by a thick interlenticular cuticle. Because there are no modern animals with similar eyes it is unclear how they functioned to produce a clear visual image, however, the shape of each individual lens meant it was capable of focussing on objects of varied distance without the need for any additional focal mechanism (like the human lens which needs to change shape in order to see objects of different distances).

This picture is a bit strange because the trilobite is enrolled (curled up like a woodlouse) and the view is of the top of the head. We assume that this was a form of defence used by most trilobites.

What's on the van?