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Specimen of the Month: The Giant Squid

The good news is that you still have until the 29th October to enjoy our incredibly popular temporary exhibition the Robot Zoo and interact with the larger than life animatronic animals that inhabit the gallery. In even better news, there is still one final species in the exhibition to have not yet been investigated by the Specimen of the Month blog series, hoorah, and that is the Giant Squid (Architeuthis). NB: There is no bad news in the Specimen of the Month blog series.

Squid or Cuttlefish?

Today is International Squid and Cuttlefish Day, so let’s start with the difference between a squid and a cuttlefish as let’s be honest, probably not everyone has nailed it. Cuttlefish are a type of squid so, that’s confusing for a start. What we’re really asking is - what’s the difference between a cuttlefish-squid and all of the other types of squid that we call squid, ‘traditional squid’ if you prefer. The answer - Cuttlefish have a lovely fringe that skirts their entire body like a tutu, and a face that looks like it got stuck in a spiralizer. A squid-squid, on the other hand, could be compared to an ice cream cone with an octopus stuck on the top. The tutu is restricted to two triangular ‘wings’, one on either side of the mantle, that in some species form an arrow-shaped ‘tail’.

Unlike their close relative, the octopus, whose anatomy is restricted to just the eight appendages, both squid and cuttlefish have eight arms and two tentacles as well for good measure. The arms are covered in suckers, which in the Giant Squid can measure 5 cm across. Tentacles tend to be much longer than the arms and have sucker-covered ‘tentacular clubs’ on the tips. The tentacles are used in the same way as rocket-propelled net launchers; they are flung out at prey with great speed in ambush attacks. Once they’ve got a hold, the tentacles bring the prey in closer to where the arms can get involved and help guide the prey back to the mouth at their base.

  • Cuttlefish+Squid, Left: A Cuttlefish showing the tutu that surrounds the body (mantle). Right: A common squid showing the triangular wing on either side.
    Left: A Cuttlefish showing the tutu that surrounds the body (mantle). Right: A common squid showing the triangular wing on either side.

They don't make it easy

Incredibly, despite extensive efforts by scientists to study them, no Giant Squid had ever been seen alive until 2004 when Japanese scientists managed to get the first photographs of a living animal. It took another two years for scientists to hook one and pull it to the surface, thus making history with the first human (on record) to ever clap eyes on a live Giant Squid. In 2012, scientists used a submersible and both saw and recorded a Giant Squid feeding in its natural habitat. The story of how they acquired the footage that had scientists around the world drooling over their laptops is quite wonderful. Given how vast the world’s oceans are, rather than going in search of a Giant Squid they decided it would be much more efficient to attract a squid to them. The Giant Squid doesn’t prey on jellyfish (that we know of) but jellyfish luminesce when predators are nearby, and jellyfish predators are what the Giant Squid eats. So the research team attached a series of bioluminescent lures to the outside of their submersible in an ingenious effort to mimic panicked jellyfish, and, as you can see from this clip beneath, the ingenuity paid off.

20,000 leagues under the sea

There is a lot of misinformation about the Giant Squid, specifically in relation to its size. It doesn’t help that what we do know about their dimensions is largely based on carcasses that have washed up on beaches half decayed, with tentacles and arms missing, and often bloated with water. Without a doubt, the Giant and Colossal Squid are the two largest invertebrates on the planet (currently known to science), yet because they are so elusive, and we can’t just go out and catch a good sample of specimens, we don’t know realistic maximum body lengths. Putting aside anecdotes from fishermen who report 900 foot monsters far out at sea - the Giant Squid is thought to be responsible for the myth of the Kraken for example - the largest scientifically recorded Giant Squid specimen was 13 metres. That is a massive animal with enough wow-factor to not warrant exaggeration in my book, but exaggeration is human nature I suppose. Measurements for the largest Colossal Squid on record vary greatly but most references seem to acknowledge the Giant Squid as being the larger of the two.

The final thing I want to tell you about the Giant Squid is how they got so big. The best guess scientists have come up with is this species has evolved larger and larger in an eight-arms race with predators. The only (known) predator of an adult Giant Squid is the Sperm Whale, which in itself is a huge beast and imagining epic battles between these two colossal creatures makes one's inner geek salivate. Although this has never been witnessed (presumably their encounters occur many fathoms below the surface) beak parts of Giant Squid are regularly recovered from the stomachs of Sperm Whales, and in a tit-for-tat scenario that suggests a battle rather than clear-cut predation, many Sperm Whales are found to be covered in scars from giant suckers, duh duh duuuuuh...

  • Smithsonian Report 1916 (003), A piece of Sperm Whale skin showing signs of a battle with Giant Squid, note the scarring from suckers - In Smithsonian Report 1916 - Bartsch
    A piece of Sperm Whale skin showing signs of a battle with Giant Squid, note the scarring from suckers - In Smithsonian Report 1916 - Bartsch

Specimen of the Month: The White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, has the pleasure of telling us all about her favourite odd-toed ungulate, the rhinoceros. 

Oh my goodness gracious, I get to write a blog about rhinos, my absolute favourite animal. Hold on to your hats and don't go anywhere folks, this is going to be exciting. Not only is this the penultimate Specimen of the Month blog to focus on each of the eight species of animal in our incredible Robot Zoo, it also happens to be World Rhino Day!

A feat of engineering 

  • Robot Rhino, The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.
    The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.

The robotic rhino grazing on the snazzy grey carpet in the Robot Zoo is made largely out of every day and household objects, this ingenious work of engineering manages to pick out all of the White Rhino’s most important features. It has a fly swatter hanging off of its rear end for example, as real rhinos flick away irritating insects with a swish of their hair-tipped tails - although only two of the five species of rhino have a particularly tufty tail per se; the White Rhino and the smaller, delightfully furry Sumatran Rhino. Microphones for ears, and large cones they called 'smell-inlets' for nostrils demonstrate the rhinos excellent senses of smell and hearing. Armour plating represents their thick skin and bright purple rubber takes the place of thick grass-gripping lips. It even uses a crane to lift the head, demonstrating how strong their neck muscles are.

A tale of two rhinos

  • Southern White Rhinoceros, Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.
    Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.

There are two subspecies of White Rhino; the Southern and the Northern. The wild population numbers of Southern White Rhino is a huge feather in the cap of conservation, and every one of these thick-skinned beasts hoofing about in sub-Saharan Africa is a testament to how humans aren’t entirely useless as a species. The White Rhino was down to just 100 individuals in the late 19th Century due to hunting in the colonial era. Due to intensive conservation efforts, the numbers have risen to over 20,000 and subsequently the (Southern) White Rhino is not currently listed as endangered. 

In contrast, their friends in the North are not doing so well. There are three Northern White Rhinos in the world. Three. They are called Sudan, who is the only male, and Najin and Fatu who are both females. Unfortunately, Sudan is Najin’s father and Fatu’s grandfather, making repopulating the earth with Northern White Rhinos an awkward conversation. Further complicating things is that Sudan has to be under armed guard 24 hours a day to protect him from poachers who would target him for his horn, which is as medicinal as the metal cone on our robot. 

A sixth rhino?

  • Nola the Northern White Rhino, This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.
    This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.

There has been an argument put forward that the Northern White Rhino is not, in fact, a subspecies of the slightly larger White rhino but a distinct species in its own right. Personally the idea of there being six rather five species of rhino in the world means Christmas has come early in my book, but the proposed name of Nile Rhino may never make it into the history books as the rhino scientists of the world met the proposal with scepticism. Darn it. Still - as exciting as it would be on the one hand if Sudan and his family of two did represent a distinct species, on the other, it would mean we are on the verge of losing a much more genetically distinct animal than previously thought. I could explain in detail why having distinct species is important to the ecosystem (not just rhino enthusiasts), but I’m out of space so you’ll have to campaign for the Horniman to allow me more rhino airtime.

Until then- Happy World Rhino Day!


How to be a curious entomologist

Our volunteer, Helen, tells us how an afternoon with the nationally renowned Richard Jones helped her catch the entomology bug. 

The Devonshire Road Nature Reserve tucked away in the middle of residential Honor Oak is a real gem of South East London and only a stone’s throw away from the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On 22 July, Richard Jones, the nationally acclaimed entomologist, led a group of excited wannabee entomologists into the meadows of the reserve armed with nets, magnifying glasses, collecting pots and test tubes to boot.  

Richard explained the right technique for using the nets, sweeping across the flora and grasses casting our nets far and wide to ensure a good catch to put in our test tubes.  We were advised to let go of species that had already been identified, particularly Bumble Bees and Butterflies and take back to the lab those insects useful for education and research that could be identified and ultimately added to the national database.  We were already feeling like debutante entomologists.

We were shown how to humanely kill our specimens with a form of ether, ethyl acetate, and to prepare and focus our microscopes so we could do the curatorial bit of mounting and labeling our bugs.

Picking up the array of micro pins with tweezers, a vital bit of kit used for spiking the smallest of insects required a great deal of care, patience, and a steady hand when working with the microscope.  For the flatter specimens, mounting them on card with a gum glue was the preferred method before adding data labels to our specimens. We had now become real citizen scientists.

As I left the nature reserve, with a spring in my step and renewed interest in plant bugs, leaf bugs, tortoise bugs, green shield bugs, the soldier beetle, picture-wing flies, and hoverflies – their facts and figures buzzing inside my head, I couldn’t help but feel that life just got a whole lot more curious!


How a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection can help modern science

Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.

I'm Katie, and I'm three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.

The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.

  • Herbarium Volume, Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
    Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott

The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant's scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database. 

Once it is all in one place, it then becomes possible to spot some trends within the herbarium data - for example, who the main collectors were, which amateur societies or organisations they were linked to, what they collected, where and why. This information then enables us to begin to understand the herbarium within its historical context and uncover the interesting stories surrounding Victorian plant collecting. Through documenting the herbarium we will also be able to make it an important resource for botanical researchers today. 

  • Mimsy Database, An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy
    An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy

So why would a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection be relevant to modern science? Well, due to the work of these plant-collecting Victorians we know what grew where and when in the period they were collecting. For example, this herbarium sheet includes the name of the specimen - Potentilla reptans - and where it was collected - Thame in Oxfordshire - and when - July 1843. This information can be used to compare the known locations of Potentilla reptans today with where it was collected in the past, using examples held in this herbarium and others held elsewhere.

  • Potentilla reptans, Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott
    Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott

In doing so, it is possible to track the spread or decline of individual species - its distribution - through time. Species such as Potentilla reptans, also known as Creeping Cinquefoil, viewed by many gardeners as a slightly annoying weed, may not be such a cause for concern, but species that are rare and declining due to habitat loss, climate change or disease, or species which may have become invasive through their ability to thrive due to recent climatic changes, can be tracked by comparing data from historic herbaria with their contemporary counterparts. We only have to think about how much the British landscape has changed from the places familiar to someone like John Constable or Charlotte Bronte in the first half of the 1800s, compared to what is there now,  to understand how plant populations and diversity have changed over time. 

Not only is the herbarium useful in ecological terms, it is also interesting for us to see how plants have been named over time. Luckily, the name Potentilla reptans is still used today as the scientific name for Creeping Cinquefoil, but in other species, this may have changed many times between the mid-1800s and 2017. A single plant species may, at different points in time, have been attributed many different names. Potentilla reptans itself has around 17 synonymous names which are no longer in use or may previously have been used to describe a plant that was actually Potentilla reptans, but that botanists thought a different species. 

All in all, working with the herbarium has been great fun so far. It is interesting, as a museum studies student, to see the differences between collections care then and now - mercuric chloride, a form of mercury, may have made a super pest repellent in 1843 but now we go for less toxic methods - and after a while you do feel a bit of a connection between yourself and the plant collectors. Perhaps it is the nature of decoding the idiosyncrasies of someone's handwriting, but it is easy to feel as though you know the collectors through their work, which is, as you can see from the pictures, often not only scientifically valuable but beautiful.

In my next blog post, I hope to talk a little more about some of these collectors, as well as give an update on how the documentation is going.

Specimen of the Month: The Chameleon

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, gives us the lowdown on Boy George's favourite reptile - the chameleon.

  • IMG_2144[1], This huge reptile is taller than the average human. Meet it for yourself in Robot Zoo.
    This huge reptile is taller than the average human. Meet it for yourself in Robot Zoo.

If you have visited the Robot Zoo already, you will have seen we are currently home to, among other things, a huge, robotic chameleon. It’s about 20 times life size - if you take average chameleon species’ sizes into consideration - and it demonstrates perfectly what fascinates us most about chameleons: their ability to change colour, their bulging eyes, and their massive tongues. If you haven’t visited yet, I can easily entice you by letting you know that you can interact with this giant reptile, and control all of the above features yourself.

The Real McCoy

  • NH.A595, Such a cute couple. This chameleon pair are on display in the Natural History Gallery.
    Such a cute couple. This chameleon pair are on display in the Natural History Gallery.

The lovely pair of specimens shown here are on display in the Natural History Gallery and are Mediterranean Chameleons (Chamaeleo chamaeleon). They are thought to date back to the 1930s and have maintained their beautiful speckled skin due to a healthy (actually incredibly unhealthy for humans) coating of arsenic.

In life, male Mediterranean Chameleons colour can vary from green, through brown, to grey. The females have an even larger repertoire which includes yellow, orange, and even green spots during the mating season. The ability to change colour is very important to a chameleon as changing colour can help regulate its body temperature, which of course reptiles can’t do automatically like mammals can. You’ll never find a sweaty chameleon. It can also change colour to make itself stand out if it wants to attract a mate, or ward off a rival. Or if threatened it can, to a certain extent, blend into its surroundings.

Speaking of threats, the Mediterranean Chameleon’s primary predators, besides humans capturing them for the pet trade, are domestic cats, snakes, and…each other. They may look like a cute cartoon character but an adult chameleon will eat a juvenile if it catches one.

Huge Assets

The giant tongue, to which I referred earlier, can be twice the length of the body and they project it at such a speed that it can nab a fly right out of the air, just like Mr. Myagi with chopsticks.

For this, they rely on the fact that they have incredible eyesight, but they can also move each eye independently of the other. Personally, I don’t get how this doesn’t blow their brain. I can play Lego Batman on the XBox whilst watching re-runs of Star Trek, but that’s as chameleon as I’ll ever get.

  • Panther chameleon, All eyes and tongue. A Panther Chameleon from Madagascar (Furcifer pardalis)
    All eyes and tongue. A Panther Chameleon from Madagascar (Furcifer pardalis)


Specimen of the Month: The Grasshopper (Caelifera)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, tells us all about noisy grasshoppers.

'A plague upon both your houses'

Grasshoppers are those cute, colourful, hoppy insects you may have run around in circles trying to catch as a kid. Grasshoppers are also the thing of nightmares, capable of gathering in their billions and swarming across the land, much to the chagrin of Ancient Egyptians and modern farmers alike. It is only a small number of grasshopper species that form these gargantuan, crop-decimating swarms, causing mayhem and bringing dishonour to the good name of grasshoppers worldwide, earning them the alternative name of locust.

A locust is just as much a grasshopper as any other species of grasshopper, but their gregarious phase sees them swarming in groups of up to 50 billion individuals. A swarm of this magnitude can weigh up to 79 tonnes. To give you some context, that’s more than 13 adult male African elephants, or if you’d prefer the equivalent of 10 Tyrannosaurus rexes. I’d say everything is better if the unit of measurement is dinosaurs. Locust swarms of this size will decimate the land by consuming around 192,000 tonnes every day until it dissipates. That’s 32,000 African elephants worth of crops being eaten. Or 24,000 T. rexes…either way, the take home message is it’s a good job they’re vegetarians.

  • Swarm of Locusts, This swarm of locusts was photographed in Madagascar in 2014.
    This swarm of locusts was photographed in Madagascar in 2014.

A Rhythmic Symphony

There are lots of insects that look like grasshoppers but only those within the suborder Caelifera are ‘true grasshoppers’. They’re also known as the short-horned grasshoppers which refers to their antennae length, they don’t have actual horns.

Grasshoppers make their chirping sound by rubbing a series of small pegs located on the inside of their hind legs across their forewing. In general, male grasshoppers have evolved to deploy this to greater effect than females as grasshoppers primarily use the sound to attract a mate or repel a rival. Both of which seem to be a ‘boy job’. Grasshoppers have a number of different ‘songs’ depending on what they are doing, their favourite of which, I am sure, is the ‘Copulation Song’.

The act of rubbing two body parts together is called stridulation. Whilst this fancy term is primarily used in relation to insects, some spiders and snakes also use stridulation. A few species of grasshopper take a slightly different tack and produce sound by snapping their wings together in flight, akin to the sound my knees make when I stand up after a three-hour board game. The snapping noise made by grasshoppers (and my joints) is referred to as 'crepitation'. Two great words for your next pub quiz.

If true grasshoppers decided to join forces and work out how to alter pitch and coordinate a harmony, they would have the means to rival the best orchestra in the land. It’s not particularly likely to happen anytime this side of a lot of evolution as at present, the 21st Century grasshopper can hear intensity and rhythm, but really struggles to differentiate between pitches. So they’d be pretty rubbish in the performance of all scores bar the most basic of percussion segments.

  • Robot Grasshopper, The metal parts in our giant Grasshopper means it does a lot of crepitating. The Robot Zoo exhibition is open until 29th October 2017.
    The metal parts in our giant Grasshopper means it does a lot of crepitating. The Robot Zoo exhibition is open until 29th October 2017.


Goodbye to the Hands on Base fox

Learning Assistant Lucy Maycock says farewell to one of our fox friends.

The time has finally come to retire our friendly old fox after nearly twenty years of service. He has been a firm favourite of visitors to our Hands on Base - young and old alike. Poised by the entrance, our fox has warmly greeted every school child, family and community group who have walked through the door, totalling thousands of people.

Over the years, he has inspired artwork, taught children about habitats, and allowed visitors to see these beautiful creatures up-close. Unfortunately, after too many hugs, kisses and pats on the back, he has grown tired and threadbare and is in need of a well-earned rest.

We’ll be sending our old friend to a new home soon - rumour has it he’s looking forward to retirement! Don’t worry though, we’ve found another furry doorman. Just a few weeks ago we received an exciting delivery of a brand new fox. Here he is, carefully wrapped up with a badger from our Handling Collection.

Our lovely new fox has now settled into his new home and is ready to greet a whole new generation of visitors. We hope you’ll all give our fluffy new fox a warm welcome; be sure to carefully stroke his velvety ears and bushy tail next time you’re in the Hands on Base.

You can visit the Hands on Base every Sunday, 11am-12.30pm, during Open for All. Let us know what you think of him, and send us your selfies on Twitter and Instagram!

The bees are back

Engage Volunteer Shelagh is celebrating the return of the bees to the Nature Base.

If you go down to the bees today, you're sure of a big surprise.

We are so pleased to see the new colony of bees in the Nature Base, and the great thing about a young colony is that, because there are fewer bees, you can really see what's going on. We have been able to watch lots of key moments in the bees' world.

We've seen young workers actually hatching out. First, you notice a tiny hole in the top of some of the wax caps in the brood frame. Then, as the wax is chewed away from the inside, a young bee starts to emerge head first.

  • Young workers actually hatching out, A young worker bee hatching out, Barbara Hornik
    A young worker bee hatching out, Barbara Hornik

Sometimes, an older worker comes to communicate with the emerging young bee - seeming to 'wipe' its face with antennae. One hatchling seemed to be 'stuck' for ages, with a 'collar' of wax round its neck. We were waiting for an older bee to come and help!

We also noticed two or three 'premature' white hatchlings that seemed to have been pulled out of their cells, and were being carried around by older bees. Had they decided that perhaps these young were not viable? How could they tell? Presumably, these would be consumed by other hive-members, so as not to waste any of that precious protein. Yet more bee questions for us to ponder.

  • Bees in the Nature Base, Bees in the Nature Base, Connie Churcher
    Bees in the Nature Base, Connie Churcher

As it was windy and raining outside, it was not surprising that there weren't any bees coming back into the hive with full pollen baskets on their legs. But there was plenty of activity inside the hive - evidenced by what seemed to be a warmer than usual feel to the surface of the glass when you put the back of your hand against it. Bees in the upper frame were working hard on building new wax cells.

All this was very exciting for visitors and volunteers to witness. A Polish visitor with her daughter said her dad was a beekeeper, so she grew up with bees. She told us about a project in Poland called Pszczelarium which helps people living in cities to set up and look after their own beehives.

Before they go, a great question we ask visitors is:

If bees were paid the minimum wage, how much do you think a jar of honey would cost?

The answer is...




£143,000, which works out as roughly $182,000 or €166,330!

This great bee-fact comes from a brilliant little book called Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker. It makes you think about all the bee-hours takes for one jar of honey, and how we take for granted their "free" labour. Respect!

Specimen of the Month: The Giraffe

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, looks at the world’s tallest animal - the Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis).

Microphones; All the better for hearing you with my dear

Giraffe’s are a well-known and well represented animal; most zoos, natural history museums, and Duplo animal sets come with a Giraffe or two. Yet no other place I know of has a Giraffe quite like the one we are currently housing. Reaching over five metres high, the Giraffe is the world’s tallest animal, which is perhaps why we only have half of one. A half-Giraffe.

Our half-Giraffe is 2m and 70cm high from the base of the neck to the tip of the metal horns (or ossicones to be precise). Metal horns aren’t the latest giraffid fashion fad, as far as I know they are only utilised by robot Giraffes, such as ours. It has microphones in its ears which act as ‘moveable acoustic receptors’ and allow the Giraffe to hear the sweetie packet you are rustling, plus moveable optical receptors to give you side-eye as you shouldn’t be eating in the gallery.

The huge flexible tube running the length of its neck lights up to show visitors how food is squeezed down the oesophagus (food pipe) and a parallel, smaller tube shows how valves in the blood vessels help the blood reach the top of that very long neck despite the best efforts of the world’s gravitational field trying to yank it back down again.

  • Giraffe from The Robot Zoo, This friendly chap is waiting for you in The Robot Zoo, open until October.
    This friendly chap is waiting for you in The Robot Zoo, open until October.

My my!

Giraffes are very well-endowed… in the tongue department. No less than 45cm in length, the tongue is prehensile, meaning it can be wrapped around a twig on a tree and used to strip the leaves away. This immense tongue is a dramatic purple-black colour which adds a bit of elegant glamour to the already impressive organ.

Giraffes are also horny. The horns aren’t huge and obvious like a rhino’s, but short with a rounded tip. If you visit our mechanical Giraffe in The Robot Zoo exhibition take a close look at the horns. The normal manner of sexing the Giraffe can’t be used as the half of the Giraffe we have is the wrong half for such obvious assets. The horns however, will give it away. Although both sexes have horns in Giraffes, they are fluffy on top in females and bald on top in males. I’m not making any remarks about human men here as that would be rude.

Giraffes use infrasonic sound, which means we can’t hear them chatting because our hearing range is set too high. The same sound is used by elephants, though I’m unsure whether they can understand each other. I speak on the same frequency as my dear Glaswegian friend, but I can’t understand her most of the time. Giraffes also have a repertoire of bellows, snorts, hisses and a noise that sounds like a flute being played.

  • Giraffe bone fragment, The only non-robotic Giraffe specimen we have is this bone fragment, part of the original Horniman Collection, acquired by Frederick Horniman before 1906.
    The only non-robotic Giraffe specimen we have is this bone fragment, part of the original Horniman Collection, acquired by Frederick Horniman before 1906.

Strange family

The closest living relative to the Giraffe wasn’t known to science until 1901. It is called the Okapi and looks like a cross between a Giraffe and a Deer, with Zebra stripes on its bottom and the upper part of all four legs. Given that Okapis are large animals, it feels like scientists at the turn of the last century weren’t doing a very thorough job of looking for new animals. However, they live in dense jungles in Africa and their populations are naturally low, the combination of these two elements means they are seldom seen. Of course now there are more humans than atoms in the world*, their habitat is shrinking and their populations are even lower.

Another claim to fame for the Okapi is it has a strong connection to the infamous journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley. If you’re a natural history buff/fan or general know-it-all, you’ll know that Stanley was the chap sent to Africa in the early 1870s to locate David Livingstone, which he did, and (is rumoured) to have subsequently uttered the immortal phrase, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' Before the Okapi had been ‘discovered’**, Stanley was told by indigenous people of a horse, that lived in the forest, which had a long neck and striped legs. It turned out not to be a horse, but the closest living relative of the Giraffe, and an animal completely new to science, now known as the Okapi.

  • Okapi , The Okapi is the closest living relative of the Giraffe.
    The Okapi is the closest living relative of the Giraffe.

* Slight exaggeration

** By the academic world/Western science


Farewell Armadillo

Our Engage Volunteer, Gemma, is reflecting on one of the objects she has enjoyed working with over the last few months.

One thing working on the Engage table has shown me time and time again is that there is always more than one way of looking at things.

As of 29 April there have been new objects to handle out in the Museum at the trolley next to the Natural History Gallery. While I am really looking forward to working with them, I’ll be sad to see the back of the things we have been using for the last couple of months.

All the most recent batch of items had bags of personality.

The python skin has been a real winner. Kids and adults alike never seem to tire of unrolling its massive 4m length - so I’m sure it will be back! The duiker has been stroked and petted as we’ve cooed over the idea of tiny antelopes the size of bunny rabbits.

The wonky turtle has kept us guessing about the life it led before ending up at the Horniman and, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how keen you are to meet one), I never did come across a single visitor who had seen a longhorn beetle in the UK.

There was also an armadillo carapace.

The handling has darkened it a bit, but it was not particularly well preserved in the first place having been badly bent and stuffed with bits of newspaper. The old newspaper kept the Engage team entertained as it has fallen out piece by piece providing snippets of news about a driving ban, the number 1870 and some sort of warning about German girls (I have no idea what they are alleged to have done).

The carapace has great links to the rest of the Horniman. Armadillos have traditionally been used in the Andes to make music. With its lumps and ridges, I’d pictured something like a guiro – a percussion instrument which you would rub with a stick or brush, but apparently it’s usually made into a stringed instrument called a charango. Sort of like a lute.

As a lovely example of animal adaption, it makes a good introduction to The Robot Zoo exhibition. There are also a couple of armadillos in the Natural History Gallery, but actually, one of those is not all it seems…

One of the things the Engage staff were told about armadillos is that only the three banded armadillo can curl completely into a ball. However, at the far end of the Natural History Gallery, there is another armadillo carapace. It’s a nine banded armadillo like the one on the trolley. It is very much curled into a ball.

According to the Curator, this may have been the work of an over-enthusiastic Victorian and is not a fully accurate reflection of the abilities of nine banded armadillos. Then again, when most of your audience wouldn’t have seen an armadillo in action, it gets the point across that they are bendy when they need to defend themselves and is no more misleading than our much loved (but very overstuffed) walrus.

As anyone who was around in the 1990s will tell you, the armadillo has links to the café too. Anyone for a certain smooth on the outside and crunchy in the middle chocolate snack? Or you can just eat it. I am told it tastes like pork.

So goodbye to our lovely, intriguing armadillo with all its great uses and links.

Or, as one American visitor said to me lately, "yuck, it’s just road kill."

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