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.

 

 

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.”

 

Back from Greece!

Greece came and went this year faster than it ever has before. I think it had to do with the fact that it was the third of my field expeditions this spring. Maybe it had something to do with the only three days at home between returning from the Bahamas and leaving for Athens. Much of my time in Greece was spent breathless trying to get from island to island and now, in retrospect, the three weeks of fieldwork seem like a bit of a hazy dream.

Luckily I’ve got a big stack of data sheets to remember the lizards by.

The goal this year was to revisit the island introduction experiment I started in 2014. This is year three and the first year where all of the lizards we originally introduced to the island have likely died of old age. This means that most of the lizards we were catching were the grandkids of the original colonists and had never experienced any environment other than the little islands they were born on. This is terrific for our ability to start asking questions about evolution over the course of those three generations.

We revisited all five experimental islands and all of the lizard populations are still doing great!

Two of the islands now have well over 100 lizards on them. That’s starting from a seed population of just 20! The lizards are getting big too. It seems like they’re not having any trouble finding food on these little islands.

I’m putting together video from the trip now. I promise to show a bit more restraint in the aerial video than I did on Redonda. Here’s a short fly-over of one of the islands just to give you a look. (Don’t forget to play it on HD). This island was one of our most densely populated – well over 100 lizards on it!

For those of you with a particularly keen eye (and a very long memory on this blog) this is Galiatsos which used to have a fort on it. Here’s a map of the Bay of Naoussa from 1776. Galiatsos is the island with a “Batterie de 35 Canons.”

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From the flyby you can still see the raised embankments around Galiatsos that formed the foundations of that fort. Once upon a time, those canons were watching over one of the best-protected bays in the Cyclades. It’s fun to be on the island 250 years later and still be able to make out hints of its long history.

 

On my way!

All my bags are packed and I’m ready to go! I’ll catch a train from New Haven in just a few hours and then, it’s off to Greece! I can hardly believe it has come up so fast. Now that it’s here though, I’m anxious to get through the traveling portion and get out to those islands!

Packing has been a bit crazy this year. I’m bringing a ton of equipment and research supplies, but luckily I have the help of three terrific undergraduate research assistants to haul it out to Greece with me. We’ll do introductions soon, but this is the first of many tasks I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do without them. It was fun the other night to see their jaws drop as we filled their bags and pockets with supplies that we were going to need.

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Just about all of this fit into two bags!

The final task is going to be packing up the kayaks for checking on the airplane. The kayaks, for all their sleek lines in the water, are a bit bulky when smushed into a cube. My current plan is to cinch them together and wrap the whole thing with packing plastic. This still leaves the daunting task of maneuvering them over trains, and through airports. I’ve rigged up two “skates” with scrap wood and casters from home depot and I’m hoping these will help. I’ll let you know!

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Next post from Athens!

Made it to Athens!

Next step is a bus ride to the docks and then a long ferry ride to Naxos. I should be in Naxos in about nine hours though so I’m really excited about that!

Travel has been wondrously smooth so far (I don’t want to jinx it!) Let’s see… I trained from New Haven to Newark NJ and then flew to Montreal. From Montreal I flew through the night and landed in Paris the next morning. During my 12 hour layover I went into the city, had an extremely exciting meeting with a future collaborator and then walked several miles  around the area and to Notre Dame; it was a beautiful day! (Pictures and details of all of that soon, I just want to post a quick update). Then it was another nighttime flight from Paris to Athens where I’m currently enjoying a bit of free internet.

I haven’t really slept more than about an hour in all of that so I’m starting to really feel the wear and tear. I’m hoping for a bit of shut eye on the ferry and if not, definitely when I get to Naxos. Sometime soon though I will update you with stories and pictures from Paris.

Thanks for all the well-wishes on the travel front. I appreciate it!

More soon from Naxos!

 

The Plan

I’ll give you the full spiel on my research plans in bits and pieces so as not to bore you. For now, the big picture:

My research centers around the impacts of human land use on ecological systems. I’m focusing primarily on a Greek Wall Lizard, Podarcis erhardii, which lives in the Cyclades. I hypothesize that, due to grazing which destroys lizard habitat, rock wall building which creates favorable refuges for lizards, and exotic species introductions which bring predators and competitors to the islands, the behavior, physical appearance and physiology of these lizards has changed.

How am I going to test this? Most of the projects I am planning for this summer revolve around rock walls. Based on a bit of preliminary data and some anecdotal evidence, rock walls seem to be the refuge of choice for erhardii, where they are available, and end up concentrating the lizards in high densities. To test whether lizards living on rock walls are in fact different from their kin living out in the open, I’ll be conducting a series of surveys looking at lizard behavior, physical features like leg length and head shape, and physiological characteristics such as digestive efficiency. I’ll save why I’m so interested in these particular features for a future post.

Why do we care whether lizards living on rock walls have slightly shorter legs or spend more of their time basking? Because changes in behavior, morphology and physiology have been shown to have cascading effects on entire ecosystems. If humans are indeed fundamentally altering how these lizards interact with their environment, I anticipate indirect effects on the insect and plant communities of these islands. This is where I hope to go with this project long-term, and I will be collecting pilot data on this question over the summer.

 

Countdown to Greece

It’s that time again! The official countdown to Greece has begun. That means two things: I’m running around crazily trying to get everything ready, and this blog is finally going to get interesting again.

I leave New Haven on the 28th of April and will be in Naxos on the 30th. Before that, I hope to update you with snippets of my plans for the summer, details of the preparation, and a few pictures to keep you interested and help me remember why the stress is worth it!

So, here we go! 24 days to go and for those of us just getting our first glimpse of New England summer, a bit of sunshine from Naxos:

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Stay tuned!