A love note to the London Museum of Natural History

Remember when I said these last two months had been hectic? Well, one of the reasons was that in the middle of packing up our apartment Claire and I took a last-minute 10-day trip to London! We need to be out of the US for 330 days in 2018 for tax reasons and we realized we weren’t going to make it. So, a trip to visit my old college roommate now living in London ended up saving us money (despite how ridiculous that seems).

I love Natural History Museums. In particular, I love the collections and research happening behind the scenes that make the museum what it is. The public exhibits are usually interesting, sometimes even really excellent, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg of the life and purpose of a good Natural History Museum. London’s, of course, isn’t just good, it’s world-class. The London Museum of Natural History is old, and housed within are specimens collected by the original greats: Darwin, Wallace, Linneaus and on and on the list goes. So, just about our first stop in London was Cromwell Road.

London Natural History MuseumFirst off, please let me apologize for all the fish-eye pictures. I was playing with a new lens for my phone and only just now realized that I didn’t take any non-fisheye photos of the museum. Whoops.

IMG_8346This is the famous blue whale skeleton hanging in the main gallery. It’s really really big.

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This was my first time to the London Museum of Natural History and much of the museum was standard but beautiful. As per usual, there were lots of fading dioramas and dusty dinosaurs. I was also sad to see that there was only a short hallway devoted to extant reptiles and amphibians – what a missed opportunity! Still, every once in a while a beautiful exhibit would make us stop and admire for a few minutes.

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Things started looking up though when we saw a sign that said “Form queue here to see the Tyrannosaurus Rex” and very enthusiastically did. Luckily, given that it was January, the queue moved fast – as fast as little four-year-old legs can trot towards the promise of a T-rex. Much to my surprise, we rounded the corner and there to greet us was an animatron jerkily making its way through a dozen poses with dazzling flashing lights spinning through the color wheel from purple to green to fuchsia and playing in the background the “Rainforest at nightfall” track on a sleep machine punctuated with tiger roars and thunder.

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And the T-rex didn’t even have feathers*.

To me, theme park dinosaurs are about the antithesis of a good museum exhibit and so  by this point in exploring the museum I was pretty disappointed. All that changed though when I saw “The Cocoon” in the new Darwin Center.

The Cocoon At the Darwin Center LondonThis picture was taken during the glass elevator ride to the start of the exhibit. Out the window you can see the smooth white exterior of “The Cocoon” (I’m going to stop putting quotes around it but despite its awesomeness the name does make me roll my eyes) through which we were about to walk. The Cocoon is a slowly sloping ramp winding around several floors of the Museum’s entomology and botany collections! Amidst the excellent diagrams, videos, and interactive exhibits are windows into the racks and racks of collections with spaces for visitors to ask questions of researchers working inside. No one was there while we were walking through, alas, but there was an insect specimen preparation station that I’d have loved to sit and watch someone at work. We could also catch glimpses outside the Cocoon at the various lab scientists bedecked in full regalia (lab coat, micropipeter, and safety goggles) going about their work. This floor was a DNA lab and I promise there were people working – I didn’t want to post recognizable pictures. My only wish was that there’d been an LED ticker above the window saying something like “DNA EXTRACTION UNDERWAY OF HELICONIUS MELPOMENE, BUTTERFLY FROM MEXICO, FOR ONGOING SPECIATION PROJECT… CENTRIFUGE OPERATING AT 5000 RPM TO SEPARATE DNA… DNA CURRENTLY STORED AT -80 C…”

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This is what natural history museums are all about, and I am so happy to see these scientists get the attention they deserve! Sure, I imagine there’s a bit of a fishbowl awkwardness to working in a lab that doubles as a zoo. But, I think that negative is vastly outweighed by the potential to inspire all those proto-scientists on four-year-old legs that get to see young people that look just like them working, talking, discovering, and exploring. The contrast to the robotic roars under dizzying disco lights couldn’t be more stark.

Natural history museums and their specimen collections are expensive and have been under fire lately, in part because I think not enough people know what they do. The Darwin Center’s model in London is a brilliant effort to remedy this. If museum scientists don’t want to start gathering dust alongside their specimens, we need to start finding more ways of showing off the rest of the iceberg.

 

*Alright, so as near as I can tell the scientific consensus brought T-rex from scaly, to feathered, and back to scaly again with maybe only a bit of plumage on its back. So I guess feather-free animatronic T-rex got lucky in its biological reality.

 

 

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My lizards are on Atlas Obscura!

Geoffrey Giller is a recurring character on the blog and while people are usually most impressed by his terrific science journalism, or maybe his stunning nature photography, I’m very proud to share that he’s on his way to becoming a champion lizard catcher!

Geoffrey has helped out on trips to Redonda and to the Bahamas and will be returning with me to Redonda next month (more on that soon). He recently wrote a piece on Atlas Obscura about the Bahamas work and the lizard colony at Harvard that I wanted to highlight. You can see it here. Enjoy!

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Geoffrey with an Antiguan Racer on one of the offshore islands of Antigua. This snake has made a stunning comeback thanks to years of dedicated conservation efforts. You can read more about the project here.

A new chapter in Paris

If this blog were a book, this post would start a new chapter (and if I had my way, it’d start with a big illuminated lizard standing in for that I in if). For those of you subscribers who feel like the last chapter ended with a bit of a whimper of unresolved story lines, I’m afraid you’re right. I’ve been holding my research progress a bit closer to the chest these last two months, and everything else was so mind-numbingly hectic that in the thick of it I didn’t really feel I had much to share on the blog. In hindsight, though, a few retrospective posts might be in order, so I’ll be interspersing those over the next couple of weeks.

All that changes now! I’m writing from Paris and will be for the remainder of 2018. If you remember, my postdoctoral fellowship granted me funding for three years of working in and around natural history museum collections. The first year was spent at Harvard with its exceptional lizard specimens. This next year is going to be based at the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris in collaboration with long-standing friend-of-the-blog, Anthony Herrel.

What am I up to? Well, 2017 was such a grueling year for data acquisition that my first research priority is just writing up the mountains of data I’ve already collected. Grueling is the right word, too. I ended up leading expeditions to Antigua and Barbuda (3 people), the Bahamas (11 people), Greece (10 people), and two trips to Turks and Caicos (4 people), and all that permit writing, logistics problem solving, people minding, and data gathering left me just about as burnt out at the end of the year as I’ve been since my dissertation defense. Oh, and that doesn’t include co-managing a thousand-lizard animal colony on campus. Don’t get me wrong, the field adventures were memorable and the data immensely valuable, but all that’s left me eager for a “quieter” 2018 with somewhat less fieldwork.

So that’s the plan! I arrived in Paris yesterday and got my MNHN ID badge today. My wife is along for the adventure (thank goodness!), and we’re settling down into a teeny tiny 200 sq ft apartment in Le Marais – about 5 minutes walk from Notre Dame and a 20 minute walk to my office in the Jardin des Plantes. I’ll be posting more stories about settling in to Paris but if you want a closer look at the day-to-day adventures and faux pas of becoming Parisians, check out her new blog “Practice Makes Parfait.”

 

A video from Pine Cay, Turks and Caicos

I haven’t posted all that many photos from our time in Turks and Caicos, in part because I was worried about my friends on the islands as Hurricanes Irma and then Maria rolled through. Luckily the team stayed safe through both storms. Unfortunately, the damage and time delay from the storms means that the eradication efforts are going to have to be put on hold for a year.

Before the eradication was postponed I put together this little video. I held off posting it when the project future was in limbo but it seems a waste not to share it. We will be continuing this work and returning as soon as we can to look at the Anoles of Pine Cay following removal of the rats. It’s just going to be a slightly longer timeline than originally planned.

Hope you enjoy the footage. Remember to watch on “HD.”

FensFest 2017

This last Saturday was the 75th anniversary of the Fenway Victory Gardens so the Garden society hosted a terrific party. I caught a couple of lizards in the compost pile the day before and had them on display for visitors to learn about the Italian Wall Lizards in Boston.

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I need to work on the signage for next time, but one of the coordinators helpfully spray-chalked this awesome lizard right in front of my table:

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I had a great crowd stop by, admire the lizards, and ask terrific questions. Lots of people were interested to hear about how the lizards were surviving the winter (in the compost I think), where they’d come from (Italy originally but maybe by way of NYC?), what they ate (insects – just about anything they can get their mouths around), and whether they’d be a problem in the gardens (almost definitely not). I had a blast talking about these cool little immigrants.

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I did get a few tantalizing mentions of other lizards around the Boston area so keep your eyes open! If you notice a lizard please, let me know. Preferably with a picture!

For new visitors, want to learn more? I have more posts on the blog and you can read some news stories here. Thanks to all who came out to visit and check out the Green Monster!

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I’m back from Turks and Caicos

I’m back from Turks and Caicos, and not a moment too soon. For those of you watching the weather they’re buckling down for a pretty hard hit from Hurricane Irma. I’ll update you all with more information about the trip – it was fantastic – but for now just wanted to post a few pictures and say I’m safe and sound back in Cambridge!

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An update on taking toepad pictures

This is an update from my previous blog post on Toepad pictures. 

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I’ve taken more than four hundred toepad pictures using the new macro photography technique I introduced  in an earlier post and I’ve learned a few tricks that I want to share in this update.

First and foremost, I highly recommend this approach. For those of you looking to capture a lot of toepad data, particularly in the field, this kit is way faster and more portable than using a flatbed scanner and the images I’m getting are at least as sharp.

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A few tips:

  • Petri dishes work great as a clear platform to place the lizard feet on. I found that the 60 mm diameter dishes were much easier to balance atop the lens (~40 mm in diameter) than the larger dishes I’d originally shown.
  • I cut and taped a scale bar to one edge of the petri dish so I wouldn’t have to worry about juggling a lizard and a tape measure.
  • Make sure you have several petri dishes – they scratch fast – and keep some ethanol and a kimwipe close at hand.

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  • The app that lets you remotely trigger your iPhone is absolutely maddening. Do not download it. I’m not even going to relink the name. Instead, I suggest a much more stable alternative: connect your phone to your computer with the USB cable, open QuickTime Player, select File > New Movie Recording and click the down arrow next to the record button. This will give you the option to select your attached iPhone as a recording device. This live-view is far more stable and less frustrating. *Windows and android users I’m afraid I haven’t had an opportunity to sort out a solution for those platforms. If you know of something that works, please include in the comments!

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Unfortunately, through the live view all you can see is whether the lizard is in position. You cannot remotely trigger the shutter this way. That means you’ll need a second pair of hands to help. I found it worked best when my partner was in charge of putting the ID tag in the frame after I’d placed the lizard foot and then pushing the volume button on the side of the phone to trigger the camera shutter.

  • Lighting is really important. I suggested a headlamp in the previous post providing an oblique light source through the diffuser around the lens. I tried using a microscope fiber optic light source but I was really unhappy with the “warmth” of the light. I found that the white-LEDs in my headlamp produced a much more realistic looking image (see above). Also, make sure you don’t have any light sources above/behind the subject. Backlighting confuses the camera’s auto-contrasting and results in dark and sometimes unfocused images.

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