Can DNA extraction help to stop extinction?

Like most topics in natural science, DNA extraction was first bought to my attention as a young child watching in awe at the Jurassic Park film series. It is common knowledge that despite the valid DNA extraction techniques in the film, it wouldn’t be possible to use this to bring back animals that went extinct millions of years ago. This is due to the decomposition rate of DNA, as it has a half life of 521 years, which means its properties will only last for a maximum of 6.8 million years, even when preserved inside an insect in amber. Even if in theory, we were to try and “bring back” an animal from 6.8 million years ago, it would be virtually impossible as the vast majority of base pairs and genetic information will be gone. With this information, it is clear that we shouldn’t think about bringing back dinosaurs anytime soon, however could we use similar techniques to try and save species that critically endangered or even ones that have only recently become extinct?

In theory, we should be able to extract DNA from a living organism where it can then be stored and frozen to slow down the decomposition. This is already starting to take place, particularly in the instance of the Frozen Ark Project. The Project began in 1994, after a series of events starting in the 1950s had caused over 100 snail species to go extinct in the Polynesian islands due to invasive species that were artificially introduced to the area. 5 snail species in total were able to saved from the islands by bringing them to a lab at the Zoological Society of London, which is still ongoing today.

Cymatium femorale, a species of sea snail native to Tahiti, one of the Polynesian islands, part of collections at Manchester Museum.


Genetic material from the surviving individuals were subsequently collected and stored. This saviour from complete extinction triggered the idea of collecting and preserving cells from the world’s most endangered species, and so the Frozen Ark Project was established. Today, it is an accumulation of several institutions around the world in countries including UK, India, South Korea, New Zealand and South Africa.

Due to this, it is possible to preserve DNA of species that haven’t gone extinct, but how about the ones that have died out recently due to Anthropogenic causes? First of all, the priority of these types of programmes is to preserve what species we already have, not to resurrect ones that have died out, even if it was due to human causes. If we did want to bring back animals such as the Dodo, Thylacine or Quagga, the first hurdle would be that their living cells were never preserved. As producing new individuals would be done by cloning, it would require a living cell, which is sadly no longer available. Even with well preserved intact specimens, any DNA that remains would probably be of no use in recreating one of these organisms.
As this technique is impossible, there is another possibility which involves artificially sequencing DNA of an extinct species, for it to then be implanted into the embryo of a living close relative to then create a living individual. It is not as simple as just copying a sequence of an extinct animal, as it must also be packaged in the right chromosomes with proteins that fit in a very specific way. In 2021, the technology to do this is yet to be developed, but it may be possible that a living Mammoth could be produced some time in the future, if its recreated gene sequence was inserted into a modern Elephant’s embryo.

As is the case with techniques that involve cloning, there are questions on ethical matters. The question on whether we should do it, rather than whether we could do it may always be relevant in this field of science. Since many of the species that have become endangered or extinct in the past several hundred years were due to human causes, it is a popular opinion that it should therefore be our responsibility to bring back and save as many species as we can. Dr. Ann Clark, a founding member of Frozen Ark Project says that it is better to have the option than not, and that it is in the hands for future generations to decide. Whatever your stance on this technology, it is hard to deny how amazing it is that these things are possible and the potential that it can do for sustaining biodiversity on earth.

References
– Church, T., 2016. Dr Ann Clarke on De-extinction, a Frozen Ark, and The World’s Ultimate Biological Backup. [online] Tom Church. Available at: <http://tomchurch.co.uk/dr-ann-clarke-on-de-extinction-a-frozen-ark-and-the-worlds-ultimate-biological-backup/&gt;
– Science.org.au. n.d. Saving DNA: the Frozen Ark Project. [online] Available at: <https://www.science.org.au/curious/earth-environment/frozen-ark-project&gt;
– The Frozen Ark. n.d. The Frozen Ark. [online] Available at: <https://www.frozenark.org/&gt; [Accessed 9 March 2021].
– Villazon, L., 2013. How long does DNA last? sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/how-long-does-dna-last/

The tropical birds of Manchester

On one of my regular walks at Whitworth park a couple of weeks ago I noticed a type of bird in the trees that looked a lot different to the Pigeons that you might expect to see. I thought it was strange to see a bird with bright green feathers in the middle of cold rainy Manchester so I knew I had to look into it further. My first thought was that the Parakeet I saw must be someone’s pet that had escaped and that it shouldn’t be there at all.

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) at Whitworth Park, Manchester, February 2020.

My curiosity lead me to find out that they were in fact wild and that they had been living and breeding in the UK for quite some time.

There are over 100 species of Parakeets in the world, mostly native to tropical regions of the world in Africa, Asia, Australasia and South America, so what exactly is a whole family of them doing in a park in Manchester in mid-February?

The particular species I spotted was a Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), which also happens to be the only naturalised Parakeet species in the UK. This species, native to sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia is now the northern-most breeding Parrot species in the world. Since the 19th Century, it has made itself at home in many countries across Central Europe including France, Germany, Belgium and most abundantly, the UK. The question is how have they managed to adapt and become such successful feral birds around Europe, and why are they here in they here in the first place?

A popular pet in Europe since the 19th century, it is widely accepted that released and escaped individuals have contributed to the feral population. The fact that they have few natural predators in Europe and their food is easily available at bird feeding stations in parks and gardens has allowed these early individuals to thrive and therefore survive to reproduce at a rapid rate. A 2015 count across 10 European countries concluded that there were 85,220 individuals in the wild, with 31,100 being in the UK. This is rather impressive as they weren’t established as a wild species in the UK until the 1970s. It’s adaptation to the Himalayan environments in South Asia have allowed it to thrive in the cold winters of Europe, even Manchester.

As with most things in natural science, there are some rather speculative theories on how they have been able to spread across the UK. Some people may believe that they have become successful after they were released during the filming of the 1951 film “The African Queen” in Shepperton, Surrey or that it is due to the fact that Jimi Hendrix let a pair go during a gig in London in the 1960s.

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) model, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

References

Africa’s forgotten Palaeontology

Africa is the second largest continent on earth and has incredibly diverse natural landscapes. It is therefore no surprise that fossils have been discovered in all corners of the great continent and have made large contributions to Palaeontology in the process. Prehistoric wildlife from Spinosaurus to Australopithecus are a couple of examples of fossils that were discovered on European expeditions to Africa, but have had the accomplishments of the local people that were also involved, seamlessly disassociated with them. For many, these European-led explorations in the 19th and 20th centuries can’t be separated from African fossil discovery, however it is known that native people in Africa were involved in Palaeontology before any European contact.

One of the earliest known cases of fossil collecting dates back to 300,000 years. Early Homo sapiens were found to have collected fossil seashells in Morocco. The evidence for this is the fact that fossilised cuttlefish shells were found at Erfoud, far from where these fossils are native to, suggesting they were carried and deposited by people. Although they were probably used for ritual purposes and not studied or put up in a museum, this shouldn’t be ignored and should be seen as representative of early human curiosity that led to the Palaeontology we know today.

Erfoud manuport, Morocco

This isn’t the only significant case of early fossil collecting in Africa, as there is evidence all over the continent for instances like this. A tomb filled with prehistoric fossils was discovered in 1922, some thought to have been 2 million years old. The site, located near Qau el-Kebir, Egypt dates back to 3,300 years ago and shows more evidence of early fossil transportation, as well as using them for spiritual purposes.

A more recent discovery from an unknown person in Africa took place in the early 1820s. What is though to have been the first discovery of a fossil in the Karoo region of South Africa was by an unnamed Griqua person. They discovered a fossil of a Mesosaurus, a reptile from the Devonian period. This discovery was so significant as Mesosaurus became a crucial piece of evidence for the tectonic plates shifting theory, as specimens have been found in South America as well as the southern parts of Africa. This person, whose name was never recorded, is only mentioned in passing in a report about the finding and what it contributed to the theory, and was most likely never paid. Because of this, we will sadly never know the identity of the person that made this important discovery.

Although the previous examples happened many decades ago, there are still instances that happen in the modern day. One example of this is the discovery of “Little foot”, an important specimen of Australopithecus. Ronald J. Clarke, a Paleoanthropologist, sent two of his technical assistants, Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi to a cave in South Africa to find the skeleton, as Clarke had found bones from two feet in a box of monkey fossils at the University of Witwatersrand which were labelled to be from this location. Molefe and Motsumi found the skeleton within 2 days of searching and reported back to Clarke. The excavation carried on for 15 years after this. As this discovery occurred post-apartheid, the two men received recognition of their role and were part of the press conference to announce the finding. However, despite initial recognition whilst the story was covered by media all over South Africa, Molefe and Motsumi were never able to pursue an education or career in science, despite their significant contribution. This shows that, despite the progress in some areas, there is still a long way to go before decolonisation can benefit all areas of science.

Australopithecus africanus skull cast (South Africa, 2.5ma), part of collections at Manchester Museum.

Museums, universities and other educational institutions around the world can no longer hide the fact that, for many of them, they were founded on the basis of racism, slavery and colonisation.
Manchester Museum is committed to decolonising our collections in an attempt to showcase the stories of people that have otherwise been written out of history. It is important to give credit to those that have contributed to discovery that were ignored on the basis that they weren’t White European.

Institutions around the world should look at their colonial past in order to educate people and to help the fight against racial inequality.

You can find out more on early African Palaeontology and Decolonisation by visiting the Manchester Museum collections online or by following @IndigeniseMcr on Twitter.

You can also read literature on these matters in books such as Christa Kuljian’s “Darwin’s Hunch” and Gerhard Maier’s “African Dinosaurs unearthed: The Tendaguru expeditions”, and you can also listen to the Palaeocast episode, Decolonisation of Palaeontology, where some of the information on this blog post came from.

References
– The Conversation. 2017. It’s time to celebrate Africa’s forgotten fossil hunters. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/its-time-to-celebrate-africas-forgotten-fossil-hunters-77345&gt;.
– The Conversation. n.d. What would it mean to decolonise palaeontology? Here are some ideas. [online] Available at: <https://theconversation.com/what-would-it-mean-to-decolonise-palaeontology-here-are-some-ideas-102133&gt;.

Manchester Museum’s Minerals and Empire 2/2

A few weeks before lockdown I was able to open our new mineral display. It was a great opportunity to show off our stunning gemstones, gold and diamonds. More importantly it was a chance to tell some of the hidden stories of how we got the collection and the people involved. The history of Black and Indigenous peoples, and the role of empire in museum natural history collections is largely unknown or ignored. Since finishing the display, I’ve had chance to uncover more information and think about how museums need to change going forwards. This post is the second about Manchester’s Minerals and Empire.

The ‘Quartz Sorting Table’ Robinson Mine, Johannesburg, South Africa’, 1901. Original copyright, The Keystone View Company No. 11977

Part of what I wanted to do with this research was to uncover the stories of the people who had mined our minerals, but I also wanted to try and test if our minerals were an attempt to map the resources of empire. Data analysis of the mineral collection shows that 24% of the collection comes from countries that were previously colonised.

The percent of mineral specimens collected from the UK and Ireland, countries of different former empires and elsewhere.

50% of the Museum’s minerals from the former British Empire are Australian, of which 33% came from the Imperial Institute.

The percent of minerals from countries of former European Empires in the collection, excluding British Empire countries.
The percent of minerals from countries from the former British Empire.

The Imperial Institute was founded in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee. The main idea behind the Institute was for it to be ‘a centre and clearing house for information investigation and exhibition of the natural resources of empire’. It was a forerunner to the Commonwealth Institute.

The transfer of minerals from the Imperial Institute to Manchester Museum was probably part of the Institute’s efforts to reframe the collection and a shift from the original colonial objectives. The decline of the British Empire had caused the organisation to re-evaluate its purpose to become focussed on display and education rather than research.

This analysis has shown that Manchester Museum’s mineral collection is intimately connected to empire, but the history of Black and Indigenous peoples is ignored or unknown.

There are enormous opportunities to develop this work through fostering partnerships with source communities around the world. This research is a call to action for all museums to uncover and tell these stories and be open about the role of empire in our collections.

I gave a presentation about this work at the Natural Science Collections Association ‘Decolonising Natural Science Collections’ conference.

My time at Manchester Museum (so far)

As the second working week of 2021 is well underway, I thought it would be a good idea to update on how my time at Manchester Museum has been so far.
I’ve been a part of the team for almost 4 months now, which is something I myself can’t quite believe, as it has completely flown by.

Due to the pandemic, I am yet to actually work in the museum and have worked completely remotely up to this point. Despite this, I feel like I’m still learning every day about the role of a museum curator as well as contributing to various projects at the museum and I’ve been made to feel like a true part of the team.

I’ve been involved in projects such as cataloguing minerals (which I wrote about here). I’m also involved in cataloguing images on to records on Sapphire, contributing to adding museum specimens on to an online platform which makes them more easily accessible (particularly at times like this).

I’ve also been involved in a couple of research projects on top of these. The first of which involved looking at the numerous rewilding projects in the UK and the efforts that they’re putting in to reintroduce wildlife back to their native habitats in the UK. For me, this has been interesting to look at the sheer scale of these types of projects and I now feel like I understand the lengths that organisations go to to protect wildlife.

A project I am currently working on involves looking at the relationship between indigenous people and fossils and minerals. This is particularly compelling as it is relevant to the topic of decolonisation, which is all about re-telling the past so that we don’t ignore or disregard people that contributed to history, that may have been written out due to colonisation. Manchester Museum is one of many institutions that is committed to this cause and it’s great to be a part of.

Before my placement started I had goals and expectations in mind, such as wanting to get more contacts in the museum and natural sciences as a whole, learn about research of different topics and to become more knowledgable in earth sciences. Safe to say I’ve achieved all of this and then some, I really couldn’t have wished for anything better.

Since I watched Jurassic Park for the first time at 4 years old, it’s been my dream to work in a museum. Although this placement is only for a year, I feel like this has been a massive step in the right direction for my education and career prospects.

Thank you to the team at Manchester Museum who have made this opportunity amazing for me so far, especially David, as he’s done a lot more than just let me write on his blog. Thanks to David I’ve been kept in the loop of everyone at the Museum and I wouldn’t be involved in all these amazing projects if it wasn’t for him.

Hopefully the museum will be open for visitors soon and I’ll be able to interact with visitors and colleagues on site before I return to Liverpool in September. Until then, even if things stay as they are I’d have been more than satisfied with how my placement year has been.

Manchester Museum’s Minerals and Empire 1/2

A few weeks before lockdown I was able to open our new mineral display. It was a great opportunity to show off our stunning gemstones, gold and diamonds. More importantly it was a chance to tell some of the hidden stories of how we got the collection and the people involved. The history of Black and Indigenous peoples, and the role of empire in museum natural history collections is largely unknown or ignored. Since finishing the display, I’ve had chance to uncover more information and think about how museums needs to change going forwards. 

Gold ore specimen from Crown Mines, South Africa (N.2446)

I decided to use archive images as a powerful way of telling the stories of who discovered our specimens. The images are from South Africa in the early 1900s and show the miners working at the time our gold was dug out of the ground. We have never told these stories before.

‘Human moles follow the compressed air drill – developing a drift in the greatest gold bearing region of the world, Crown Mine, Johannesburg, S. Africa’, about 1910. Original copyright, The Keystone View Company No. 33760.
‘Black, Chinese and White labourers in a gold mine in South Africa’, around 1910. Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection (Library of Congress), LOT 11356-39.

By 1908, 12% of the Rand Gold Mines workers were indentured Chinese people. Strong opposition to their presence from the White community meant there was compulsory repatriation after three years of labour. Between 1904 and 1910, over 63,000 Chinese miners were brought in to work on South African gold mines. Annual reports of the South Africa Chamber of Mines show that in the first 30 years for the twentieth century a total of 93,000 African miners died of disease on the Witwatersrand gold field and 15,000 miners died during work-related accidents. 

In contrast to the stories of the South African miners from over a hundred years ago, the Museum’s Sierra Leone diamond gave me an opportunity to show the lives of miners there today. I was able to link the Museum’s Sierra Leone diamond with research by Roy Maconachie, from the Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath to tell the story of ‘Blood Diamonds’.

Diamond in its host-rock from Sierra Leone (N.19336.69), alongside image of diamond mining in Sierra Leone. © Roy Maconachie, Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath.

Diamond mining is Sierra Leone’s most lucrative export industry, with an annual production of up to $USD 250 million. Due to poor governance and corruption, only a fraction of this wealth returns to the people who mine the diamonds. The miners are only paid by their ‘supporters’ if they find diamonds, leading to a highly unequal relationship. This is the first time this story has been told in a UK museum. 

These stories are often difficult to tell and difficult to hear. They are stories of racism, abuse and exploitation. I have found that the exhibition development process inevitably involves editing stories and cutting some stories altogether. Simple stories that can be quickly grasped by the public, are usually the ones that make it through the editorial process. This means that very often, the stories about Black and Indigenous peoples are not told. This institutional racism across the museum sector perpetuates the status quo and must be challenged. 

I gave a presentation about this work at the Natural Science Collections Association ‘Decolonising Natural Science Collections’ conference.

Pluto – The unsung aboriginal miner

Whilst doing research for the museum on indigenous cultures and their relationship with fossils and minerals I came across a certain story which grabbed my attention.

William Davis (better known as Pluto) was an indigenous Australian man born in Charters Towers in 1869. After having spent time in jail between 1890 and 1892, he was next seen in 1895 where he was travelling from Laura to Coen in the company of Basalt Earl, a mining entrepreneur. He left Earl’s party to try his luck on the Coen goldfield. It was however a problem for him to be in the north, as this meant he would have come under the jurisdiction of the norther Protectors of Aborigines. This would have meant that he had to be employed by someone in order to work, he couldn’t be self-employed or hire other people.

Despite this, Pluto went on to be become a successful mining entrepreneur. He eventually founded the town of Plutoville, Queensland after discovering a rich alluvial deposit on the Wenlock goldfield in 1910. Between 1910 and 1916 he made several more discoveries of alluvial deposits to be exploited for minerals. There was a small rush to these grounds and it is thought that 213 ounces were found by Pluto and his partner, Anderson, who is reported to have been a European man.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.jpeg
Gold ore from Queensland, Australia, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

Regarding his partner, Anderson, there are conflicting reports as to whether Pluto made his claims with or without him. Evidence may suggest that Anderson was a made up European person to ensure that Pluto had no trouble with officials, as it was illegal for an indigenous man to work without supervision from a white European person. This theory of a made up white employer would also mean that Pluto was able to have his own permit and bank account that he could access. This would have meant he didn’t have to have his money doled out to him by his employer at a rate of 5 shillings per month, as all other Aborigines under permit were required by Queensland law. He also provided work to other Aboriginal miners at a party located 6 miles north of Plutoville and provided fairer wages to his workers.

By the time of Pluto’s death in 1916, there were attempts to write him out of history and discredit his achievements. A European writer known as ‘JK’ wrote “It is no fiction that rich alluvial gold was found in Batavia River by accident. An old Rockhampton blackboy who was with me found the rich patch at Plutoville. He struck it driving a tent peg.”
We know now that this isn’t true and we know Pluto’s real story but it is clear to see how hard the European colonisers tried to dehumanise the indigenous population and discredit any of their achievements.

Although Pluto died over 50 years before the 1967 Australian referendum his story is still seen as inspirational and is one of the early stories of indigenous people standing up for their rights in Australia.

The information on Pluto’s story in this blog comes from ‘The aboriginal miners and prospectors of Cape York Peninsula 1870 to ca.1950s.

Cast of Gold ingot from Queensland, Australia, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

More information on the hidden histories of mining gold and other minerals can be read on the new online mineral display.

References
– Ellwood, H., 2018. The Aboriginal miners and prospectors of Cape York Peninsula 1870 to ca.1950s

Evolution on Madagascar – An isolated world

Madagascar is an island nation off the east coast of Africa, roughly 250 miles from the mainland at the nearest point. If you were to think of African wildlife, you’d probably think of animals such as lions, elephants, giraffes and many more of some of the worlds largest terrestrial mammals. Madagascar however, has native species very different to the rest of the continent.

Geologists estimate that Madagascar separated from Gondwana (which included parts of what is now Africa, Asia, South America, Antarctica and Australia) roughly 150 millions years ago and that the flora and fauna has evolved in isolation ever since then. This has caused unique species to evolve on the island. Today, it is thought that 90% of extant species on Madagascar is endemic, meaning they are not native to anywhere else in the world. It is thought that these species are descendants of individuals that migrated here either by rafting, swimming or flying from the coastal areas of land that borders the Indian Ocean. There are many theories on how species came to the island, some include birds flying from areas of Southeast Asia, descendants of lemurs rafting from mainland Africa and hippos island hopping. It may have also been possible that some terrestrial animals travelled during an ice age, when ocean levels would’ve been significantly lower and so the oversea distance would’ve been shorter.

One of the most dominant groups on Madagascar, prior to its extinction from anthropogenic causes, was the Elephant bird family (Aepyornithidae); so named due to the ancient myth that it preyed on African elephants. They are thought to be the largest birds to ever exist, particularly the Vorombe genus, which stood at 3 metres tall and could weigh over 700kg. Despite its morphological resemblance to an Ostrich, the closest relatives to Elephant birds are Kiwis, Emus and Cassowaries, all of which are native to parts of Oceania. This suggests that common ancestors of these animals possessed the ability to fly, as they must have flew the distance to Madagascar, and became flightless later in evolution. The Elephant bird is thought to have only gone extinct roughly 1000 years ago, probably due to the consumption of their eggs by humans. Due to it being relatively recent, their remains are often found as subfossils or haven’t fossilised at all, making them easier to study and can be analysed using PCR techniques to assess their taxonomy. The elephant bird is also a prime example of Foster’s rule, stating that members of a species get significantly larger or smaller based on changes to their environment or colonisation of a new one. In this instance, the elephant bird experienced a significant increase in size due to the lack of predators and other birds on the island, meaning it could feed on a diet of fruit and plants without competition, which may have otherwise stunted their growth.

Cast of Elephant Bird Egg, roughly 30cm in length and 10kg in weight, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

The dominant predator on the island today is the Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). Due to its feline-like features it may be popular belief that they are closely related to other African big cats (Felidae) such as Lions and Cheetahs. Despite this, it is actually most closely related to the Mongoose, as it is thought they migrated to Madagascar roughly 20 million years ago. Interestingly, the Fossa shows convergent evolutionary features with (Felidae) from mainland Africa. This includes features such as retractable claws, a compact braincase and large eye sockets.

Taxidermy Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) specimen, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

Lemurs were the first group of mammals known to arrive on the island, with many species still alive today. Within the whole superfamily (Lemuroidea) there is 8 families, 15 genera and over 100 species. A recent theory suggests that ancestral lemurs arrived in Madagascar by rafting roughly 64 million years ago. They may have also crossed a land bridge or arrived by island hopping. Although they do belong to the Primates order, they evolved independently from monkeys and apes and actually have features more resemblant to basal primates such as a wet nose, low metabolic rate and a lack of visual signals in communication. Prior to the arrival of humans on the island, lemurs were present in most areas of the island and some species were even as large as modern gorillas. Today, as is the case of all large Malagasay fauna, these animals have become extinct. The fact that there are so many species of lemur, extinct and extant, along with the fact they have always been endemic to Madagascar illustrates the varying geographical landscape of the island that have allowed varying biological niches to be filled.

Examples of Lemurs and native Primates of Madagascar, part of collections at Manchester Museum.


The island itself can be split into 5 different geographical regions, these are the East Coast, West Coast, Southwest, Tsaratanana Massif in the north and the Central Highlands. The east side of the island experiences hot and humid winds travelling in from the Indian ocean that are blocked by the mountainous regions at the centre of the island. This has caused the east side of the island to have a hot and wet climate with high levels of humidity and tropical forests, whilst the west side is dry and has deciduous forests. The south of the island is very dry and can even be considered a desert, with spiny forests on the very southern tip, an environment which has not been found to exist anywhere else in the world. The fact that there are so many habitats and climates on a relatively small land area has had a major impact on the biodiversity of Madagascar.

Map of Madagascar to illustrate the different climates in different areas.

Roughly 2000 years ago, humans first arrived on the island, making it one of the most recent land areas to be colonised by humans. Since then all large endemic species have gone extinct and roughly 97% of the forested area has been removed. Madagascar has been a global priority for conservation for decades in order to prevent this happening further. 90% of its species are endemic and in many cases has no extant close relatives outside of the island. This is one of the main reasons why conservation of native Malagasy species is so important.

You can find out more about wildlife and conservation in Madagascar by visiting Manchester Museum collection online or by visiting the Museum’s natural sciences collection after re-opening.


References
– Animals. n.d. Fossa | National Geographic. [online] Available at: <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/facts/fossa&gt;
– Briggs, H., 2018. New perspective on how lemurs got to Madagascar. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45250302&gt; [Accessed 23 February 2021].
– Chepkemoi, J., n.d. Which Are The Island Countries Of The World?. [online] WorldAtlas. Available at: <https://web.archive.org/web/20171207094959/http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/which-are-the-island-countries-of-the-world.html&gt;.
– Pbs.org. n.d. Madagascar — A World Apart: Eden Evolution. [online] Available at: <https://www.pbs.org/edens/madagascar/eden.html.
– Torres, C. and Clarke, J., 2018. Nocturnal giants: evolution of the sensory ecology in elephant birds and other palaeognaths inferred from digital brain reconstructions. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285(1890), p.20181540.

Crocodilians – How nature crafted the perfect predator

Extant Crocodilia consists of 24 recognised species of Crocodylidae (Crocodiles), Alligatoridae (Alligators and Caimans) and Gavialidae (Gharials and Tomistoma). Crocodilia first appeared in the late Cretaceous period, roughly 95 million years ago. Members of the Pseudosuchia clade, which all recorded Crocodilia are classed under, first appeared in the Early Triassic period, 250 million years ago. Pseudosuchia is part of the Archosauria clade, which is the same clade that contains Dinosaurs, Pterosaurs and Birds. This means that the closest living relative to crocodiles are in fact birds.

Simplified Phylogenetic tree of Archosauria, Steven M. Carr, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2002.

The evolution of crocodilians within the Mesozoic era saw very noticeable changes. To get an idea of this, let’s look at Postosuchus, from the Late Triassic and compare it with the features of Deinosuchus, from the Late Cretaceous (roughly 130 million years apart). Looking at these two animals side by side, the differences become very clear. Postosuchus has an erect stance designed for obligate bipedalism, a short and slim snout, eyes and nostrils on the side of its head and a tail used for balance. The Deinosuchus, which shares many of the same features as modern crocodiles possesses features such as a sprawling stance, a long snout, eyes and nostrils on top of its head adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, and thick long tail, taking up half of its body length in order to use as a propeller to move through water.

Postosuchus skeleton reconstruction, Scott Hartman, 2018. Skeletaldrawing.com.
Deinosuchus skeleton reconstruction, Scott Hartman, 2018. Skeletaldrawing.com.

By looking at these it is clear to see how different both animals are, however if you compare the Deinosuchus to a modern Crocodilia such as the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porusus), there is very little morphological differences, despite the 73 million year age gap. Similarities between the two include a secondary bony palate, which allows the animal to breathe through its nostrils whilst underwater, a tail half the size of total body length and a long snout adapted for basking and catching prey. It is these similarities that show the design of modern Crocodilians has been around for roughly 100 million years with very little need to change. The main noticeable difference is the size, as Deinosuchus grew to roughly 10 metres in length, whilst the Saltwater Crocodile, being the largest extant crocodilian, can grow to 6 metres in length.

As the idea of evolution is for organisms to adapt in order to gain an advantage in their environment, these similarities in morphology could be interpreted in a way that shows crocodilians have evolved into a “perfect” form and have not needed to change much in millions of years. Excluding minor changes to better accommodate certain habitats, all modern crocodilians have the same fundamental body plan, as well as living in areas all over the world. This is shared with crocodilians from as long ago as the Cretaceous period.

Worldwide extant crocodilian distribution. (Green = land, Blue = Water). From data collected by Cogger, H.G & Zweifel, R.G. (1998).

Crocodilians have evidently maintained the niche of being dominant predators in whatever environment they inhabit. Whether they were sharing the landscape with Dinosaurs of the Mesozoic, Megafauna of the Pleistocene or large predatory Mammals of today, they have survived extinction events and maintained their role as an apex predator all over the world.

References
– Conley, K. and Shilton, C., 2018. Crocodilia. Pathology of Wildlife and Zoo Animals, pp.855-870.
– Dinopedia. n.d. Deinosuchus. [online] Available at: <https://dinopedia.fandom.com/wiki/Deinosuchus&gt;
– Dinopedia. n.d. Postosuchus. [online] Available at: <https://dinopedia.fandom.com/wiki/Postosuchus&gt;
– Mun.ca. 2002. Phylogeny of Archosauria. [online] Available at:<https://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/Phylogeny_of_Archosauria.htm&gt;

Is the presence of dinosaurs in media good or bad for Palaeontology?

1993 saw the release of Jurassic Park, a pioneer for dinosaurs being present in the mainstream media. Although film and television had starred dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals before, this was the first time that a “Dinosaur film” had become as iconic as it is. At the time of release it was the highest-grossing film of all time and has grossed over $1 billion USD up to today, along with 4 sequels and a 5th due to be released in 2022. It is no doubt that this is what kickstarted worldwide public interest in dinosaurs and natural history. For many people, myself included, seeing dinosaurs in film and media fuelled a passion for natural history and science, and has raised a generation of young people wanting to be involved in the world of natural science.

The main issue is that dinosaurs in popular culture are, more often than not, made to look like killer monsters, rather than animals; these oversized, scaly, godzilla-like creatures are believed to be scientifically accurate by the general public. A classic example of this is the Velociraptor, the star of the show in the Jurassic Park film series. In the films, the Velociraptor is portrayed as a scaly, 2-metre tall, hyper-intelligent monster that would kill any living thing it sees. However, we know now as we did in the 90s, that Velociraptor was a small carnivore that stood at 50cm tall and was covered in feathers and probably behaved more like modern birds of prey, rather than a carnivorous snake, as they were portrayed in the films.

Accurate model of a Velociraptor, currently on display at Manchester Museum.

The dinosaur that is perhaps most unrecognisable when comparing its pop culture appearances to its scientifically accurate models, is the Spinosaurus. Its first major role in a film was in the third instalment of the Jurassic Park film series, where it is also depicted as a monstrous killing machine, and it is emphasised that it is “bigger and stronger than a T. rex”. Although it is true that it was larger than the average Tyrannosaurus (as many dinosaurs were), it was built in a completely different way, and would probably not put up much of a fight against a T. rex, like it did in the film (although the two would have never met in real life, being from two different land masses and time periods). In the film, it is seen as an exclusively terrestrial carnivore that would prey on large dinosaurs and could run fast enough to catch up to a plane on a runway, none of which are thought to be true. A recent study published earlier this year changed the view of Spinosaurus. It is now widely accepted that Spinosaurus was an aquatic or semi-aquatic dinosaur, with a lifestyle similar to a modern crocodile, rather than that of other terrestrial theropod dinosaurs. The Spinosaurus is now thought to have been exclusively a piscivore, with its tail acting as a paddle when swimming and hunting for its food (fish). In Universal Studio’s defence, this information wasn’t known at the time of release of the film in 2001, however the average persons idea of a Spinosaurus is more often than not, the heavily outdated version that is portrayed in the film. You can find out more information on Spinosaurus by visiting the Manchester Museum collection online.

A reconstruction of Spinosaurus through time, by Matt Dempsey, Natural History Museum, London.

It’s not only films that display false information about pre-historic animals, as some documentaries have also been guilty of it. We can forgive older documentaries for presenting information that was thought to be true at the time but is now outdated, however some programmes have been seen to twist facts in order to gain more attention. One of the biggest culprits of this is the American docuseries, “Clash of the Dinosaurs”. This particular documentary has been criticised for editing clips of Palaeontologists talking about certain concepts in order to make it look like they say something that they didn’t. An example of this is the instance where Matt Wedel, an American Palaeontologist and expert on Sauropods, spoke about the old and discredited theory of Sauropods having two brains. The editors have edited the clip so it appears to have him say “The sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hind-limbs and tail”. This is just one example of natural history documentaries presenting false information in what could be seen as an attempt to attract viewers. You can read more about what has been presented in this documentary on Matt Wedel’s blog.

Perhaps the problem lies within the education system. As someone who has been in education in the UK for the last 16 years, I only recall learning about natural history very briefly once during primary and secondary school, where in year 11 Biology we had one or two lessons on Mesozoic fauna in order to grasp the concept of evolution. I also remember that in one of the textbooks, a Pteranodon was referred to as a Dinosaur; this may appear true to some, although if asked, the same person would probably correctly answer that an Eagle is classified as a bird, despite living in an era dominated by mammals; why is it different for prehistoric animals?

Despite personally having little to no knowledge on the film industry, I realise that these distortions of fact are ultimately done in order to gain more popularity and views, but who’s to say that a more accurate model of a T.rex in the next Jurassic World film won’t be as popular as the last 5 films in the franchise? Since Dinosaurs are as popular as they are, shouldn’t up to date reconstructions of these animals be common knowledge? One of the most significant T. rex specimens in the world, known as Stan, has a cast model on display at Manchester Museum, where you can also find information on how the real skeleton was discovered and prepared and how the animal may have lived in the Late Cretaceous.

main article image
Up to date reconstruction of Tyrannosaurus rex, R.J. Palmer, 2018.
Tyrannosaurus rex right femur, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

Considering all this, the world wide interest in dinosaurs has a knock on effect on Palaeontology and natural history, as more people want to go and visit their nearest museum, where adults and children become more educated on natural history. The museum therefore benefits as well , as they may receive more donations and publicity, ultimately opening the door to new resources, exhibitions and projects. This shows that, despite the controversies, dinosaurs in film and media have acted as a catalyst for the rapid progression in Palaeontology in the last 15-20 years, that will hopefully continue for many more years.

Although the museum is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, you can still search the collections online.

References
– Box Office Mojo. n.d. Jurassic Park – Box Office Mojo. [online] Available at: <https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt0107290/&gt;
– Carpenter, Kenneth (1998). “Evidence of predatory behavior by theropod dinosaurs”
– Ibrahim, N., Maganuco, S., Dal Sasso, C., Fabbri, M., Auditore, M., Bindellini, G., Martill, D., Zouhri, S., Mattarelli, D., Unwin, D., Wiemann, J., Bonadonna, D., Amane, A., Jakubczak, J., Joger, U., Lauder, G. and Pierce, S., 2020. Tail-propelled aquatic locomotion in a theropod dinosaur. Nature, 581(7806), pp.67-70.
– Nhm.ac.uk. n.d. Velociraptor | Natural History Museum. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/velociraptor.html&gt;
– Nield, D., 2018. Chubby And Naked: Meet The Most Accurate T. Rex Reconstruction to Date. [online] ScienceAlert. Available at: <https://www.sciencealert.com/chubby-naked-t-rex-most-accurate-painting-to-date&gt;.
– Science. 2020. Case for ‘river monster’ Spinosaurus strengthened by new fossil teeth. [online] Available at: <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/case-for-river-monster-spinosaurus-strengthened-by-new-fossil-teeth&gt;
– Wedel, M., 2009. Lies, damned lies, and Clash of the Dinosaurs. [online] Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week. Available at: <https://svpow.com/2009/12/15/lies-damned-lies-and-clash-of-the-dinosaurs/&gt;.

%d bloggers like this: