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.

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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.

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.


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.

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.

Bhutan – The world’s only Carbon negative nation

Whilst doing research on rewilding species in the UK, I was curious to see how it ties in with mitigating climate change and how it can help the UK reach its target to become a carbon-neutral country by 2050. Whilst looking into this, I stumbled across the rather impressive record that is held by Bhutan, that it is, as of 2020, the only carbon-negative nation.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small landlocked nation located in South Asia between India and China. Despite being sandwiched between two nations that are notorious for contributing massively to global carbon emissions, Bhutan is the only country in the world that is carbon-negative.

A map of east-central Asia, highlighting Bhutan
Bhutan’s location in South Asia

The entire nation only produces 2.2 million tonnes of carbon per year, which is less than half the annual emissions of Northwest England alone. Forested areas in Bhutan cover 72% of the land, which absorb 4 million tonnes of carbon per year. Compare this to the fact that European countries on average have 22% of their land covered by forest and it is clear to see why Bhutan is ahead of the curve in this respect. To go with this, 56.3% of Bhutan’s population is involved in agriculture, forestry and conservation, which means that this forested area is constantly maintained. In order to attract people towards these jobs, the Bhutanese governments subsidises free electricity for all rural farmers, in order to deter a large population accumulating in cities, which would cause carbon emissions to rise.

As well as this, the country has taken further measures to contribute less to carbon emissions. One of these is that in 2014, the government secured a partnership with Nissan car manufacturer, who are the global leaders in producing zero-emission vehicles. As a result, 10% of all cars in Bhutan are powered by electricity and this number is rising every year. As well as electric cars, the vast majority of Bhutan’s energy comes from hydroelectric power, which is sourced from the 4 major river systems that flow through the nation. Since 2019, the use of single-use plastic has been banned, making them one of the only countries to do so.

Nissan To Work With Bhutan Toward 'Electric-Car Nation' Goal
Former Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay and Former Nissan CEO, Carlos Ghosn, pictured with the Nissan Leaf, the best selling electric vehicle of all time.

Perhaps the most effective measure to keep the natural landscape intact and to reduce waste is that Bhutan has a tourist tax, which means that if you wanted to visit, you’d have to pay between $200 and $250 per day. This would cover all travel, food and accommodation whilst visiting. $65 of this daily fee goes towards conservation of nature, which adds up to be a major contributor, as Bhutan welcomes 130-150 thousand tourists every year.

In a world where governments seem to prioritise the economy and infrastructure, it is refreshing to see a country focus on the natural environment, as without it, we wouldn’t have been able to build the megacities that exist today. As the majority of countries on earth aim to become carbon-neutral by 2050, perhaps it is best to take a leaf out of Bhutan’s book, as they demonstrate it is possible to run an entire country whilst mitigating against global climate change.

Some of Bhutan’s well-conserved wildlife can be seen as part of collections at Manchester Museum such as the Great-tit (Parus major) and the Fire-capped tit (Cephalopyrus flammiceps).

Fire-capped Tit - eBird
Fire-capped tit (Cephalopyrus flammiceps), a native bird of Bhutan (ebird.org).

The importance of Peat land restoration

Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed plant matter that has been deposited in anaerobic and acidic conditions. These conditions subsequently slow decomposition for any matter that they encompass. The majority of modern peat bogs form 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice ace and grow at roughly 1mm per year.

Peat has been exploited in the past for traditional uses such as producing fuel, cooking and domestic heating. It is also a viable water source, with more than 28 million people in the UK using peatland storage as a source of drinking water. This early exploitation has however caused peatlands to decline in the UK and around the world.

Peat gatherers at Westhay, Somerset Levels, 1905.

One of the main properties of peatland is that they act as carbon sink, trapping carbon so it is not released in the atmosphere. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calculates that peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store on earth, as the 3 million km2 of peatland that covers the earth contains over 550 gigatonnes of carbon.

The presence of peat therefore slows down the rate of global climate change, as it means there is less greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Peatlands have also been known to have other purposes such as providing a habitat for flora and fauna, storing water for drinking and living and preventing floods.

Damaged peatlands release 6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions every year, so the UK is establishing a strategic peatland action plan to support the UK’s climate mitigation plans and international biodiversity targets. In the UK, the pioneers in Peat land restoration is an organisation known as Moors for the Future.

The biggest challenge when it comes to restoring peat is that there is nothing to hold it in place, meaning it is susceptible to damage by erosion, abrasion and being trampled on by wandering animals and humans. Constant seasonal changes also damage the structure, as the freeze-thaw action in cold weather and the drying action in warm weather makes the peat prone to be blown or washed away by wind and water.

Peat stabilisation is therefore essential and can be done by covering peat with heather brash, which contains seeds as well as moss fragments and spores. This will protect the peat from wind erosion, thus creating stable conditions for germination and means that seeds of fast-growing shrubs and grasses can be sown. This is normally done by helicopter in order to cover large areas. Fertiliser is also used to encourage the growth of these plants. Heavy machinery may also be used to stabilise peat, especially in cases where a landform has caused the area to be too steep for brash to stay in place.

An example to show the preservation properties that peat has can be seen in the Lindow man (also known as Pete Marsh), which is a preserved human body dating to between 2 BC an 119 AD. The body was discovered in 1983, at least 1800 years after it was buried and was found to still have hair and one eye intact. This specimen is on display at the British Museum in London, but has been on a previous exhibition at Manchester Museum in 1987, 1991 and 2008.

Various peat specimens, part of collections at Manchester Museum.

Reintroducing the Grey wolf to the UK

The Grey wolf (Canis lupus) is the largest extant member of the Canidae family and is native to areas of North America and Eurasia. Most of the British population are oblivious to the fact that these animals, capable of growing up to 160cm in length, are actually a native British species. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this however, as the last wild wolf in the UK and Ireland was hunted by the 1700s.

Canis lupus skull and lower jaw, 1758, part of collections at Manchester Museum

Wolves have been one of the most popular animals to be potentially reintroduced as a wild species in the UK, as well as being one of the most controversial ones, and the idea has been in circulation for at least 20 years.

A study by AlJazeera in 2019 asked 2,083 members of the British public if Wolves should be brought back to the UK wilderness, in only which 36% said yes.

Unsurprisingly, the main concern is how dangerous they are, being a 40kg predator that hunts in packs, it’s not something you’d like to come across on your Sunday afternoon walk. However, the proposals that have been put forward has suggested Wolves to be put in remote, fenced off areas, mostly in the Scottish Highlands where there are low human populations.

Farmers in these areas are some of the main advocates for not reintroducing wolves, as they pose a risk to livestock, which will have a knock on effect on crops and other areas of farming. Organisations such as Alladale Wilderness Reserve have proposed that there will be schemes in place to compensate and subsidise farmers in the event of a wolf killing livestock.

Alladale Wilderness Reserve is most likely the first place they will be reintroduced to the UK if it ever happened. It is a 23,000 acre-fenced space, with plans to expand the area to 50,000 acres. Plans are to introduce two wolf packs, that would control the rapidly increasing deer population, and benefit the ecosystem of the whole area. The site also plans to run tourist wolf safaris and other experiences which will generate further income.

Location of Alladale Wilderness Reserve, roughly 47 miles from Inverness, the closest city.

Evidence to support the reintroduction of Wolves can be seen by looking at Yellowstone National Park, USA. Since 14 Wolves were reintroduced to the area in 1995, elk population has decreased, which has allowed more greenery to flourish, thus more birds returned to the area and beavers could create dams again, which had an affect on the ecology of rivers flowing through the area, allowing fish to repopulate, which subsequently brought back bears and foxes to the area. This also increased tourism in the area, and today, brings in $35.5 million annually to the state of Wyoming

By looking at this, it can be seen that Wolves would be a good option to reintroduce to the UK, and it hopefully won’t be too long before a concrete plan is put in place so they can return to one of their native lands.

You can find out more information on wolves and other species of fauna and flora conservation in the displays at Manchester Museum, or by searching the collections online.

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