Things I’ve learned working in a museum (part II)

That it’s not just jam that comes in jars…

I’ve been working in the Zoology Department for a couple of weeks now.
I started with their store of wet-preserved specimens (i.e. things in jars. Pickled, dead things). And I got to see a lot of amazing species, many of which you don’t normally get to see outside of wildlife documentaries. Some of them were quite gross (sea slugs, for example, look much cuter in text books (if they can ever be described as ‘cute’!)), but others were quite beautiful (some of the sea jellies (you’re not supposed to call them jellyfish any more) were stunning, and the little golden mole was adorable!). And some of them were just completely, nauseatingly, disgusting (such as the 240cm long tapeworm, removed from the bowels of a third-year zoology student in 1979. I do, however, love that they included these details on the label!).

And then there were the oddities…the sort of things you only see in a certain type of wildlife documentary (such as Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures). The freaks of the animal kingdom. Like the Australian Thorny Devil (which has the wonderful latin name of Moloch horridus), the Olm (a blind cave-dwelling amphibian with tiny vestigial legs and external gills), and the Surinam Toad…possibly the most disgusting (yet fascinating) thing that we found. And for this reason: once fertilised, female surinam toads carry their eggs on their back, and their skin swells to cover the eggs, embedding them in a sort of fleshy honeycomb. When fully developed, the baby frogs then burst out from beneath her skin, much like something out of Alien.
Unfortunately for these babies, this was the exact moment that they and their mother all got dunked in a vat of formalin. Which makes for a quite macabre spectacle. It has a strange, sort of “car crash zoology” effect…you know it’s horrible, but somehow you can’t quite tear your eyes away from it.

That while live beetles = creepy, horrible, get-it-away-from-me-now, dead beetles = beautiful…

Except for the few that’re still creepy, horrible, get-it-away-from-me-now!
Most of the beetle collection is fascinating, however. Wonderfully exotic colours and shapes. Some of them look like they’ve been painted with a tiny little brush! Or a much larger brush, in the case of the Hercules beetle, which looks like it could swallow a cat if it was so inclined!
There are beetles that look like spiders, like bees, leaves, thorns, and even frogs! And some quite remarkable beetles that are able to synthesise opal to form part of their wing-cases! And jewel beetles, which don’t really look much like jewels, but are beautiful nonetheless. And are actually used to make jewellery! Whole beetles, set in gold and made into earrings and brooches! A classy look, I think we can all agree. Although I suppose it’s not so different from the pyritised ammonite that I have on a necklace, so I can’t really comment.

The most stunningly beautiful things that I have seen so far on my store room rummagings, however, have to be the butterflies. Some of them are so fragile and delicate that they don’t look like they should be able to fly! And they have the most amazing, vibrant colours and patterns. And they’re all so different! Except the ones that are the same…There are some butterfly species that are the most convincing mimics of other species that you can barely tell them apart. Some harmless species copy the warning colourations of other, unpleasant-tasting, species, which improves their chances of survival beacuse predators will learn through eating the toxic ones that butterflies with that particular colouration aren’t good to eat. And sometimes two or more toxic species will develop the same patterning, benefiting them all by deterring predators.

This is my favourite butterfly so far, the blue Morpho:

(thankyou Wikipedia for the picture!)

Although the picture doesn’t really do it justice. There are lost of species of Morpho, in different shapes and hues. The most amazing are the ones that look boring and white until you hold them up to the light, and then they irridesce green/blue/purple/pink. But I couldn’t find a good enough picture of one, so you’ll just have to use your imaginations!


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