Archive for June, 2012



Fighting zebras

On my recent trip to Marwell, I and my colleagues were treated to quite a number of interesting animal behaviours. One of these was a pair of zebras having quite a serious disagreement. The encounter lasted a good few minutes and with lots of kicking, biting and general jostling. All of us burned off plenty of frames on the cameras and we come out with some good shots, and here are the best of mine.

As usual though, there’s a little scope for me to mention dinosaurs and palaeobehaviour. While obviously some animals were better equipped than others to fight, pretty much all species engage in some form of intraspecific combat at some point. You don’t have to have horns or tusks or spikes to inflict some serious injuries on your opponent and while a zebra may be rather less well equipped to deal out damage than say a buffalo, that doesn’t mean it can’t injure or kill another zebra. Similarly, while I imagine the primary reaction of any hadrosaur to a serious predator would be to flee, I’m sure that a pair of edmontosaurs with enough to fight over would have bitten and stomped as far as possible and fights would doubtless have got nasty – it wouldn’t just be the ceratopsians that would have tried to defeat one another.

Incidentally, I can’t help suspect that ‘the fighting zebras’ is the name of some US college basketball team or some long forgotten infantry company. And if it isn’t, it really should be.

Horniman cabinets

Having muttered about the aquarium and some of the model archosaurs, it’s time to turn to the actual displays. I’ve mused a fair bit on the past on signs, displays and exhibitions in museums and generally advocated more information, more basics to biology and more attention to putting things in context. All of this is done superbly here (despite the rather venerable nature of much of it) and is put nicely in the context of diversity as a whole. So while there is a gallery devoted to diversity and classification, and cabinets that show key groups like parrots and carnivores, a lot of space is given to presenting fundamentals of biology.

This is done well though, so that not just the key point is made simply and effectively, but that more information is available if you delve into the details, and there is much to look at and enjoy, even if you don’t read a word. There are displays dedicated to sexual selection, convergence (spines in one case, moving in water for another), crypsis and display colours, flight and more. Below are some of these to give a flavour of the kind of thing that is on show, though a bit of the context is lost as several of these were part of a series, the point should be quite clear.

Dogs: A clear a simple display of skulls and heads (mostly cut off). Domestic animals are a great way to introduce ideas about variation and what can happen with selective breeding as they are so familiar, and in dogs you have perhaps the most familiar and most varied animal.

The embryological sequence is superb and mapped out from a single-celled zygote upwards, showing the whole pattern and process of vertebrate embryology.

Skulls: A nice display to show the number and diversity of bones in the skull and their consistency across many differnt groups.

More on skulls: this follows the previous display and shows more explicitly how certain changes occurred and clearly the coloured bones helps show the changing shapes and emphasise the positions of the fenestrae in the skull.

Evolution of the elephant: Mammoths aside, many people might not be aware of other fossil elephants. Here we see skulls, teeth (key characters for this clade), and life restorations.

Modifications: birds are highly derived animals specialised for flight, but here we see how penguins have reversed or modified some of these traits for swimming.

All in all this is superb stuff. There’s lots of little features here which will grab attention and answer questions and prompt thought – just the kind of thing you want from a museum. Moreover, the design is superb – in pretty much every case, a 5 second glance is enough to convey the really basic and essential message (skulls have the same bones but are different, you can breed lots of variety from a stock ancestor) but that taking time will unveil greater depth and detail.

Horniman pterosaurs

Yesterday I put up some photos of the gloriously anachronistic dinosaurs at the Horniman museum. As you’ll have already deduced from the title that they also had a couple of pterosaur models. While presumably hailing from the same era (and perhaps even that same artist) they are not quite as inaccurate, though this is, I suspect, more to do with the fact that our ideas of pterosaurs have changed less over time (or in some cases returned to an earlier idea), rather than any greater level of detail being paid to the pterosaurs.

While there are (inevitably) some mistakes, the only really standout one is the neck of the Pteranodon. It’s absolutely tiny and makes it look like the head has just been welded onto the body. Given that one of the defining characteristics of the pterodactyloids is the long neck, and that in Pteranodon it should be about half to two-thirds of the length of the skull, this is far from a good representation of a pretty basic bit of anatomy.

The Horniman dinosaurs

The Horniman museum is rather bereft of dinosaur material. There are some Igunaodon vertebrae in rather poor condition, there’s some trackways hanging around, and though I missed it, I’m assured there is a Triceratops rib on display. Given the size of the museum vs the style of the collections that’s not a criticism, but no real natural history museum can really count as such without at least a token effort at some dinosaur display and this is no exception. There are several small life reconstruction models of dinosaurs dotted in the halls to illustrate various issues and here they are.

Yes, they are rather out of date to say the least, and it’s quite a surprise that there’s no theropod or sauropod at all, just ornithischians. Still, they are rather endearing and I really like them in terms of style, though obviously from an educational standpoint they could do with being a bit more up to date (and how long as Scolosaurus been sunk into Euoplocephalus?). The detail is nice too, though the Stegosaurus is probably the best (and appears to have walked straight off the set of King Kong) and I only find now that my photo is rather out of focus, sorry about that.


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