To conserve and protect


It’s no surprise that people working in the Museum are rather partial to poking around in dusty storerooms to see what they might find. It’s an extra pleasure then, when we get the chance to do some sniffing about in another museum’s collection and help them with some conservation work at the same time.

Bethany Palumbo examining the collections at Abingdon County Museum

Bethany Palumbo examining the natural history collections at Abingdon County Hall Museum

Our head of Life Collections, Darren Mann, and conservator Bethany Palumbo recently got such an opportunity when they visited Abingdon County Hall Museum to condition-assess some natural history specimens there. The museum wanted to work through the material as part of a larger effort to de-clutter its collections. Bringing in Darren and Bethany helped curators there to work out the value of what they have got.

There were lots of treasures in there. They found an assortment of non-native shells, a large tortoise shell, and many pieces of mammalian sub-fossil dredged from a local river, including pieces of antler and bone. As well as assessing the condition of each item, Bethany and Darren also advised on the potential function within the museum. Specimens without any accompanying data, for example, were separated into a handling collection for use in the museum’s outreach activities.


Working with local museums in this way is a wonderful way to share skills and expertise with other professionals, and helps to build a stronger base of knowledge in the Oxford area. Besides, it’s always cool to see what can be found lurking in an old storeroom or two…

Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Collections
Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

What’s on the van? – Shark tooth fossil


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Paul Jeffery, assistant curator of the Museum’s Geological Collections.

The oldest known collection in the Museum is that of Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709), made during the 1680s-1690s. This collection formed the basis for Lhuyd’s ground-breaking monograph, Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia – a systematic illustrated catalogue of the collection of fossils he was responsible for as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, which at that time was still based in its original building, now the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street.

Lhuyd’s book set the framework for later works by authors such as Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and Gustavus Brander (1720-1787) who further systematised the naming and description of animals, plants and fossils, and introduced a Latin-based naming regime still used today.

Lhuyd also advanced thinking on fossils, recognising them as organic in origin, rather than spontaneous mineral concretions or sports of the devil. This was daring and radical for its time – an era when religious orthodoxy still strongly influenced philosophical and academic thought.

This particular shark’s tooth comes from the extinct species Otodus obliquus. It is from the 50 million year old London Clay (Early Eocene), and was found on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. Such teeth can still be found on the beaches there today, washed from the crumbling clay cliffs by rain and wave alike.

It is an uncommonly large species of shark – teeth may exceed 75mm in length, and represents one of the earliest steps in an evolutionary “arms race”. During the Palaeogene and Neogene this lineage of lamniform sharks evolved ever larger and more comprehensively serrated teeth, along with proportionately increased body sizes, to keep pace with early whale evolution, as they too increased from modest proportions to the giants of today.

It was a race the whales eventually won in the Early Pleistocene. Otodus’s descendant – the giant Carcharocles megalodon, a 20m long super-predator – disappeared around this time: outgrown by the whales, out-competed by new predatory species and displaced by global climatic cooling.

We will be exhibiting some of Lhuyd’s fossils in Natural Histories, a collaborative exhibition based at the Museum of the History of Science, opening on 14 May. More information about this will follow very shortly.

Paul Jeffery, Assistant curator of Geology

What's on the van?

Presenting… Bruno’s fossil find

Presenting Bruno's fossil find

Limulus polyphemisYou’ve read about it in the press (probably), but now you can see Bruno Debattista’s rare trace fossil find for yourself in our Presenting… display, just inside the entrance of the Museum. Although we are closed, this changing exhibit can be seen by visitors coming through the building to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

On display we have Bruno’s shale rock, found in Bude, Cornwall last year, which shows faint tracks left by a pair of horseshoe crabs as they crawled up an ancient, muddy shore more than 300 million years ago. Although the species of horseshoe crab which made these tracks is long extinct, we are displaying two modern specimens for comparison. One is around the size of the animal which left the original trackway; the other is a full size horseshoe crab which lives in the Atlantic Ocean – Limulus polyphemus.

We should also point out that horseshoe crabs aren’t really crabs at all. Crabs are crustaceans, but horseshoe crabs are more closely related to the arachnids, such as spiders and scorpions.Fossil and horseshoe crab

Scott Billings – Communications coordinator