Archive for the 'Museums etc.' Category

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

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Lying on the waterfront at long beach is the actually rather well hidden Aquarium of the Pacific. Exactly as with the LA Zoo, for me the great thing here was the quality of the exhibits and in particular the combination of rare species I’d not seen before, and those I’d come across at various times but never seen properly, or got good photographs. As a result, the collections here were superb and coupled with a few impressive outdoor tanks (again, the local weather means you can keep tropical species in the open air) made for an interesting collection.

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In part I did well here because the lighting seemed to be superb. Even the very dark tanks provided sufficient light I could get decent pictures (and just generally see) the species on display. In most aquariums, even the well-lit tropical tanks can be dark, so this was refreshing, but nothing was too bright, and the animals and plants did seem to be doing well, so it wasn’t any kind of negative on the welfare front.

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As with a couple of other aquariums, it really did need a few places to sit and take a breather which would have helped and later in the day it was rammed with people making it a bit awkward. Indeed this was the one thing that I had an issue with, as with any number of places, there were a couple of large touch-tanks, where small sharks, rays and some other fish roamed in shallow waters and people could interact. There were a host of staff on hand to control these and keep things gentle, but at peak times there were so many people I can’t help think the animals were stressed and at least on shark had some damage to the dorsal fin that I can imagine came from too many people stroking it as it went past.

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This really was my only issue, and at least some animals very obviously enjoyed the experience (one ray made a beeline for people every time anyone appeared at the tank) and in every case there were some out-of-bounds areas the animals could use to get away and none seemed to take advantage. Still, cutting down on the numbers at peak times would probably help a lot here.

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On to the actual exhibits though. Inside there were the usual mix of a few giant tanks with larger species and hosts of small ones and then lots of smaller dedicated selections. There was a superb deep-water area with low lighting with some great novelties – hagfish (my first), giant isopods (only seen once, partially hidden and with no good photos before), lantern fish, tons of interesting crabs, chimera, and various other oddballs and with a great mock-up of a decaying whale for them to clamber over.

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The big Pacific tanks were also superb and accessible from multiple angles and again had lots of species that were new to me. Overall there was a nice emphasis in places on invertebrates (and not just crabs) with selections of jellyfish, tunicates, ctenophores (always a highlight for me), giant sponges, various molluscs and others. There were some large animals too (sealions and seals, sea otters, penguins) and one outdoor tank had the largest sawfish and stingrays I’ve ever seen, and by some margin. There were also some more terrestrial species, as well as crested auklets (my first ones, and something I’ve long wanted to see thanks to mentioning them in my sexual selection papers), puffins, and indeed non-marine animals with various birds including in particular the super rare Guam kingfisher.

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The highlights for me were some rarely seen favourites – leafy and weedy seadragons, both present in large numbers in superb settings, and then to top it all off, a krait. Despite having been to some major collections all over the world, this was the kind of thing I never expected to see and so to have one at all (and then I was lucky enough that it sat alongside the glass for a good time) was incredible.

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The place as a whole lacks the raw impressiveness of the giant tanks of somewhere like Osaka, but more than makes up for it with the setting and arrangement of tanks, as well as the variety of species and real rarities and very special animals. It was an instant classic for me, and something I absolutely loved visiting. I could easily have gone back the next day, not because I’d missed anything, but some many species were out and active and behaving naturally, a second visit would not have been anything like a repeat or dull. I can only hope I get another chance to go again in the not too distant future.

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LA Zoo

tapirFollowing a recent trip to LA and the surrounding areas I’ve got a stack of photos and local reviews to get through. In addition to the local Museum of Natural History, I made it to the zoo, aquarium, the La Brea tarpits and across to the Raymond Alf Museum, home of palaeoblogger Andy Farke. Typically for a zoo review, I’ll try to sit back and let the photos do the talking, though there were some more things to comment on here than usual which makes a change.

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The most striking thing for me was simply the number of animals that are basically permanently outside. Thanks to the local climate, tropical species that in the UK (or indeed most collections) and would need an indoor area were year-round species. Thus alligators, false gharial, koalas, and a number of others had large outdoor areas and nary a heated room or glass panel was to be seen which was really nice and very refreshing.

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Overall the zoo was huge in area and it’s a good long hike around it and especially up the numerous hills. This was compounded by some poor signage and the fact that a number of areas are being redeveloped. It’s annoying enough that quite a few large enclosures were shut and off limits, but still more annoying that it often took me quite a long walk to get to the right are, longer to find it because of the maps, and then fit it was closed was very irritating.

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The new reptile house was absolutely superb, one of the best I have ever come across and was enhanced by the careful use of natural light for much of it (again, something that is facilitated by the location, not many places could copy this if they wanted to) and the snake collection in particular was superb. The enclosures generally were very well structured and huge (the elephant paddock is truly colossal) and there was some clever integration of them into the environments, with the aviaries on the hillsides working well.

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For me though, the best thing was the huge number of species I had not seen before. Two duikers (my first ever), gerenuk, a number of snakes, less kudu, chaco peccary, both mountain and Barid’s tapirs, and red headed uakaris. On top of that, there were a number of things I had seen before but never got a good look at, or decent photos, including giant otters, harpy eagles, giant salamanders, black and white colobus, Prevost’s squirrel and servals. Generally the zoo was a superb mix of ‘classics’ (giraffe, tiger, gorilla, elephant) and real exotics and rarities, and all superbly curated. The only real frustration was the closed areas and I’d love to go back when it is in its full splendour, but it was a superb visit and ticked a ton of boxes for me, especially on the new species front.

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Crocodiles of the World

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Morelet’s Crocodile

Recently I took a trip up to this unusual establishment in Oxfordshire on something of a whim. I’d been planning to go for quite a while but the opportunity came up and I wanted to make the most of it so headed over (so apologies to various people who I’d been muttering to about arranging a trip up there). I did not actually know what to expect really, but did know that it was a small operation and that they had lots of the smaller, and very much lesser seen, croc species. I’ll enjoy any good zoo, but there are generally only so many Celebes macaques or Asian short-clawed otters you can see, and filling in on a raft of the crocs not yet present in the crocodilian panoply made it a likely hit.

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Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman

It is indeed a pretty small outfit, but what there is available, is very well presented (the signs are numerous and excellent) the enclosures are great and spacious, and the animals in great condition and clearly breeding well and behaving naturally. It is not going to be a full day for anyone and even a reptile obsessive is unlikely to be able to spend more than a few hours there, but it is reasonably priced and thanks to numerous and well placed viewing areas, it’s almost impossible not to see every animal pretty well. Best of all, there are numerous small talks and feeding sessions scheduled for every day, so no matter when you go, there’s going to be some extra information and a chance to grill the knowledgeable and engaging staff.

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Yacare Caiman

There are a pair of macaws and several large tortoises and a few terrapins knocking around, in addition to some nice lizards (including the biggest varanids that are not Komodo’s I’ve ever seen) and a monstrous python, but obviously we are really here for the crocs. A total of 14 species are on show and most of them are not commonly kept in zoos and are hard to see at the best of times. Sure there’s a couple of American alligators, and Nile crocs and some not uncommon ones in the spectacled and black caiman, and West African dwarf croc and the endangered-but-often-in-zoos Chinese alligator. There were also more unusual ones like both Siam and Cuban crocs and a group of three salties. Then we get into the real rarities – Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, Morelets’ crocodile, blunt-snouted caiman, Scheneider’s dwarf caiman and finally the stunning Yacare caiman.

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Schneider’s Dwarf Caiman (or smooth fronted caiman)

Almost all of these were in at least pairs, and generally there were more than that. In the case of the Niles, they were in a huge pool since there were more than 30 of them (though all were only a meter or so long). Obviously most of these are small species even when they max out, but the biggest Siam and big alligator were at the 3 m mark and every big the major carnivore you expect at that scale and were very impressive. Despite the usual level of activity in crocs (especially with winter coming, even in a heated environment) plenty were moving around at least a little, and the feeding times stimulated plenty of activity, and I was able to see crocs high-walking, belly crawling, juveniles calling to their parents, some low-level aggression between individuals, and best of all, some of the Niles rocketing up out of the water to take food.

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Broad Snouted Camian

I do think people going expecting a full on zoo, or anything like a normal reptile house might be, if not disappointed, then at least surprised. This really is 90% croc, but that’s in no way a criticism, and the excellent set ups and the animals were a real joy. As someone who does like to target species I’ve not seen before, it was a real revelation, a good half dozen that were new to me, and plenty more I’d seen only occasionally (I’d not seen a Cuban croc before this year, only seen a Siam once before). Moreover with the good signs and all the animals in one place, it was really easy to compare them to one another and get a real feel for some of the differences and how they line up to one another. If reptiles are in any way your thing, this really is something that should be on a to-do list and it’s a great addition to the UK collections.

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Black Caiman

London Aquarium

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Alongside my trip to London Zoo at the start of summer, I also took a day at the London Aquarium on the South Bank. The last time I had been was not too long after it opened, probably around 1996 and I remember being fairly unimpressed. There were three giant tanks with the same inevitable fauna in them and not that much else. For various reasons I’d simply never been back and this trip was largely to see what had changed in the intervening years, not least given a recent revamp that had apparently added a fair bit in terms of additional enclosures.

Turning up, my the first impressions were worrying – originally an independent creation, it is now owned by the SeaLife Centre chain. I’m not a big fan of these, not because they do a poor job keeping and exhibiting animals, but having visited a number of them I found them to be almost carbon copies of each other. It probably works as a business model, but I used to be excited at the prospect of seeing any new collection in the UK, but these were so similar when I visited at the back end of the 1990s that it virtually was ‘one you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’ and I rapidly lost interest and had not been to one since.

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Happily, the aquarium confounded both my fears and my memories. The former perhaps offset by the existing set-up that was used to good effect, the latter because things had changed a fair bit compared at least to how I (possibly incorrectly) remembered them. This is very much a modern aquarium with a nice balance between classic things like big sharks in big tanks and tropic reef fish, local fauna (there’s an excellent section on fish from the Thames), popular exhibits like penguins and piranha, and some oddities like spider crabs and morays.

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The major new addition since my first visit is a rainforest section that has a mixture of the inevitable (tetras, terrapins) and the less usual (a Cuban croc, the first I have ever seen), though all of it well laid out and with some excellent set-ups. The place as a whole has lots of viewing spaces and some very large windows into the bigger aquaria, and actually despite being in the very heart of London, it’s not a cramped space, though with hordes of visitors and it not being the size of even a small city zoo, it was a bit of a squeeze at peak times or for the more popular spots.

My only real complaint was that there was almost no where to sit anywhere at all – in addition to simply wanting to kick back and watch the animals (especially in the big tanks where it takes time for some of the animals to come around), I’m sure there are plenty of people who are aging, infirm or with kids who just want to take a break for 5 minutes and that’s all but impossible. It’s probably a combination of the space (limiting areas for seating) and a desire to keep crowds moving, but I’m sure with a bit of thought they could generate two or three spaces for a bench or even a couple of chairs and they’d be most welcome to plenty of visitors without disrupting the flow.

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Overall this is hardly on the scale of some of the larger aquaria, but this is certainly one of the best in the UK and well worth a visit. If I had only one day, I’d still take London Zoo as my sole trip and by a wide margin, but this is not something to be overlooked and, compared to the aquaria in Europe that I have been to, is very much at the top end and will satisfy most enthusiasts.

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London Zoo

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This review is a very long time coming given how many times I have visited this place over the years. In addition to many childhood trips, I worked as a volunteer keeper here at weekends for several years and as a result know the place fairly intimately. The lack of a review was largely down to not having any accessible photos during most of my blogging past, but a visit in April this year took care of that. In many ways it makes this summary all the more appropriate since a huge amount has changed in the last few years. Although London has always undergone upgrades and renovations, some of the most recent alterations have rather starkly changed the face of the zoo and the difference say between now and ten years ago is a world away to say the different between 1984 and 2004.

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London historically has some major issues when it comes to these kinds of changes which makes the transformation all the more remarkable. Situated in Regent’s Park, it doesn’t actually own the land it is on and instead effectively enjoys rent-free tenancy from the crown, but it also means they can’t expand with public rights of way across the zoo, and the presence of both a road and canal through it, limit the footprint further and the locations of possible new builds or rebuilds. Many of the buildings are also old and creaking, making the costs of maintenance and upgrades very expensive, while prices in London for building work are obviously much greater than in many places. On top of that many of the buildings are historically important and have listed status, which means even minor changes, let alone major alterations or replacing the building, are often impossible. Put that all together with the funding crisis the zoo suffered for many years (staff were made redundant, buildings closed, animals moved on) and it’s incredible that not only are they still afloat, but have in fact been rejuvenated.

392065_n Some of the repurposing has been very intelligently done. Much of the Charles Clore Pavilion (effectively the small mammal house and nocturnal section) has been knocked together to form a single, large walk-through South American enclosure with birds, armadillos, sloths, tamandua, marmosets and others wandering freely, while the basement still houses the nocturnal animals, and the perimeter contains a series of other small critters like squirrels and tree shrews. It has totally changed the scope and style of the building, but without huge changes to the structure that would be costly, and allowing the fundamental purpose (small mammals) to remain the same (keeping staff and facilities in situ too).

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This is still very much a city zoo, meaning it is generally small but packs a lot in. One major improvement (if originally most a money-saving effort) was the removal of most of the larger animals and the zoo no longer has the rhinos and elephants of before, while things like big cats and apes are fewer in number and have much larger enclosures. Even so, ‘traditional’ species like giraffe, (Asiatic) lions, gorilla and vultures are still in residence, but the focus has turned to smaller animals in many cases when it comes to things like large mammals and birds, though the presence of Komodo dragons, tigers, hunting dogs, okapi and llama hardly means that it is all ‘tiny’ species though these are in abundance.

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For a long time it boasted the most diverse (in terms of species) collection in the UK, if not Europe, and while I don’t know if this is still the case, it must certainly come close. This is assisted by the presence of the Clore, insect house (the Millennium building), aquarium, reptile house and an aviary for small birds, and so there is a huge amount of species covered between these. While here too there are plenty of ‘traditional’ species that the public will hoover up, even to the jaded zoo go-er like me, seeing things like Congo pygmy goose, Philippines crocodile and frogmouths were all new and great to see. 198019857637_o

One can also get much closer to many animals than in many places. In addition to the Clore, the children’s zoo, two small aviaries, the giant Snowden aviary and butterfly house all had walk-through sections while new viewing platforms for the giraffe and well designed new set-ups for the tiger and gorillas give much better access (while still giving the animals privacy) than before. So although much of the zoo is still original in many ways (there are no shortage of bricks, concrete and historic buildings), and preserves its feel and tradition, it is no longer the stark and unfriendly place as it was so often portrayed in the bad old days.

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While certainly I do have a bias in all of this with my connections to the zoo, it is hard not to consider it still one of the premier collections in the world. It is a modern flourishing zoo, and given that it has maintained its position as one of the top zoos for research and conservation work (it was originally founded as part of the Zoological Society which sits in the grounds) while reworking the grounds and facilities, and housing a vast collection of important species, it is hard to find any real flaw in the place these days. No matter your interest in zoos – interesting species, common species, research, education, conservation, history and design there is something important and compelling here. Sure there are things to improve and change, but one can say that of any zoo, however good it is, but if you are a zoo aficionado, London really is one of the places to visit.

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Black Beauty

IMG_2084So here is one of the absolute classics of palaeontological mounts – the Tyrannosaurus specimen known as ‘Black Beauty’. Actually from a scientific perspective I don’t really like these panel mounts, they tend to cover up too much of the actual details of the bones, but to be fair, from the point of view of a visitor and the display aesthetics, they can be spectacular and this one certainly is.

IMG_2085Obviously a fair bit of this is not original and is reconstructed material or casts (I didn’t look close enough to check which) and most notably while there is a good skull it’s not stuck way up there. That’s obviously a good thing from a safety perspective, a fall would utterly destroy it, but what is odd is that while the skull is on display, it’s not next to the mount. Instead, it’s currently in the next gallery in the series and sits alone in a rather fetching ‘picture frame’ case with some of the museum’s other prized specimens.

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Naturally those producing displays need to be mindful of a great many things and it’s understandable (if frustrating) that researchers are not closer to the top of that list. However, given the amount of Tyrannosaurus material available at the Tyrrell and just how good this looks, I have to admit, I’m pretty much giving this one a pass.

Tyrrell educational displays

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These are almost the first things in the Tyrrell once you have made it past the opening tyrannosaurs, and it’s a great set-up for the main exhibitions. Obviously kids will want to run through and see the skeletons, but from the educator’s point of view, you do want to maximise their enjoyment and appreciation of the material, and well, if you can get them to learn something too that’s obviously a bonus. In this case these two stands are pretty simple in design, but obviously do their jobs well – they are clear and stark and use very obvious examples which should be easy to understand for young kids, and of course lean heavily on things featured in the galleries (tyrannosaurs and hadrosaurs are plentiful to say the least), but without resorting to huge numbers of primary colours and cartoon-like illustrations which I think can be rather unnecessary. In short, great stuff!

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More Tyrrell Tyrannosaurs

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As you might have already guessed, the Tyrrell is not short of tyrannosaurs and this blog is going to be heaving with them by the end. I mean, this is the second post and I’m still on all the life reconstructions! (and no, we’ve not got to the murals yet, let alone the actual mounts and specimens). First off is this great rendering which stands outside at the main entrance, and it’s one I really like and probably prefer to the set I covered in the last post. The pose is really cool and a colours are great (though perhaps a bit faded in the sun), but it really is a great way to welcome people to the museum and stands atop the Tyrrell logo which is, well, you guessed.

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The second one is not easy to see as it’s in the education centre and so not always visible to the average visitor, which is a shame as it is absolutely great. It looks like a bronze statue from a distance, but in fact appears to be made of metal plates welded together, with the details picked out with blobs of metal that I assume were welded or soldered on. It’s mounted on a plinth with seats built into one side, and a glass case containing a partial skull on the other. While it’s a shame not everyone gets to see these, I’m sure it’s a real thrill for the kids that they get to see some bonus stuff the adults can’t and it’s a superb sculpt. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and welding can’t be the easiest medium, yet the result is brilliant.

IMG_2408Coming next? Oh, I don’t know. I still have several hundred images to sort through and much exam marking to complete. I’m sure I can find something exciting though. Probably with tyrannosaurs, whether I intend to or not.

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And so to the Tyrrell. Well, there’s really quite a lot to come here, from the setting of the buildings, the collections and of course the galleries. As with the Carnegie, it’s going to take quite some time, and so I really do hope people don’t get sick of it, but well, for those who have never been and may never go, I’m sure it’ll be something of a delight, and even those who know the museum well, I hope I can add some new thoughts.
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Although there are life reconstructions outside the museum and various details of the building and so on, I’d though I’d begin with what is effectively the start of the museum and the entrance hall which contains four life sized reconstructions of various Albertan tyrannosaurines. They are certainly impressive, and rather appropriate, and the setting is rather well done, though I have to be picky and point that they all have rather odd heads, and given that these are (as far as I could tell) supposed to represent two or three different species, the fact that they are all the same colour and pattern is rather a disappointment.

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Nitpicking aside, they really do dominate the room and are beautifully made. Everyone I saw who entered stopped to have a good look and the effect on the kids was obviously superb. They do have problems, but as an introduction to a dinosaur museum, I thought they were superb.

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The Grant Museum of Zoology

For the last couple of months I’ve been doing some on-and-off work in the Grant Museum of Zoology in London. I had dropped into this place a few times before in the past, but recently the collection has moved (all of about 100 yards down the road) to a new and more spacious setting. The museum was started, and remains, a teaching collection for comparative anatomy and as such is devoted to zoology alone and retains a great many and varied specimens on display.

As with the traditions of older museums (like Oxford and Dublin for example), material is everywhere and there’s a lovely cluttered feel with every cabinet and shelf full of specimens. While it can be a nightmare to photograph in situ, each specimen can be see quite clearly so as a visitor it’s fine. A lot of the material is grouped taxonomically providing great opportunities for comparing details (and there are some fossils in there too), though there are small asides for relevant collections such as a case devoted to dissected heads, or one comparing different ways of preserving zoology specimens, or recently extinct taxa (featuring a quagga and thylacine skeleton, and a skin of the latter).

The vertebrates do especially well and there’s a super skeletal collection of the mammals in particular. There’s a nice line in having skeletons next to taxidermy or pickled specimens too which is great, and all manner of odd and unusual pieces that are rarely seen on displays. If you want to see a leopard seal skull, pickled baby aardvark or stuffed golden mole, this is the place for you. All in all this is a superb little museum and for those like me who do like their anatomy and simply want to see lots and lots of specimens, this really is a must.

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.


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