Friday, 5 September 2014

The final highlights from’The Rarest of the Rare.Stories behind the Treasures at the Harvard Natural History Museum’

The Dodo became extinct on the island of Mauritius by 1700. Genuine Dodo remains are very rare and the museum possesses one of the few genuine skeletons, albeit a composite with genuine bones and plaster reconstructions. The only pieces of genuine flesh and feathers are held by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They have a head and right foot. They did have the entire body but it was infested with worms and worse which would have spread to other exhibits , so it was ordered that the carcass be buried. A curious caretaker decided to cut off the head and foot as a keepsake before burning the rest. This is the ‘Alice in Wonderland dodo’ that inspired Lewis Carroll (full time Oxford don of Mathematics as well as part-time children’s author).

The museum also has a dodo model based on a drawing by an artist who never saw a real dodo. It is a fake, obviously, made from chicken and egret feathers and duck wings, by the prestigious London taxidermy firm of Rowland Ward Ltd. Many of these were produced around 1900 and sold to Natural History museums around the world. London’s Natural History Museum has one, which was featured in David Attenborough’s recent programme about the museum – and so does my local museum in Bristol.

Aepyornis – the ’giant elephant bird’, also became extinct by 1700. These lived in Madagascar, concurrent with human beings, but they declined as plantations and settlements took up their grassland habitats. Based on its skeletal remains, they were 11 feet tall and weighed half a ton. A large ostrich is 8 feet tall and weighs 150 kilos. Aepyornis birds may have been the inspiration for the mythical bird in the Thousand and One Nights where Sinbad the Sailor meets a giant bird whose young were fed on elephants!

Aepyornis laid the largest egg of any living creature. Intact eggs are extremely rare – the HMNH has one.

The Great Auk was another large flightless bird that was driven to extinction by men. t lived in big colonies in the North Atlantic and was hunted for its meat and feathers and its oily body fuelled sailor’s bonfires that burnt for weeks. The last recorded sighting was of a mating pair on an island off Iceland which fishermen clubbed to death in 1844. About 80 stuffed specimens were known to exist. The one in the museum collection once belonged to Rowland Hill, the English Viscount who invented postage stamps. When it was remounted , the taxidermist removed a few of the original bones and sold them for £4 to Lord Walter Rothschild, son of the banking dynasty ,whose natural history collection is still on display in Tring, Hertfordshire. Hill’s collection was sold by Roland Ward Ltd and the Auk was finally donated to the museum in 1931.

In 1941 a Chinese forester noticed an unusual tree in a remote part of East Sichuan. Five years later a Biology student trekked 72 miles to check the forester’s report. He identified it as a dawn redwood tree, until then thought to have been extinct for about 2 million years. It had changed little over 100 million years. The student reported his find to his Professor Hsen Hsu Hu, the first Chinese botanist to have received a doctorate from Harvard. He got in touch with Harvard who financed a seed collecting expedition. These seeds were distributed to botanical gardens and arboreta across North America and Europe and Metasequoia Glyptostroboides, a living fossil, now flourishes ,despite being critically endangered in its original habitat.

Mention should be made of Evan Scholtes, Harvard Ethnobotanist whose doctoral thesis, in 1938, on plants used by indigenous Mexicans, included identifying the hallucinogenic mushroom the Aztecs called, ‘the flesh of the Gods’. He paved the way for the psychedelic revolution. His ‘Psychedelic Plants – A Golden Guide’, was a sell-out with 3 reprints in 1976, before being withdrawn. Not to be confused with, ‘The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants’, 1992, by Dr Christian Ratsch, Cultural Anthropologist, and one time right hand man at Hamburg’s Fossil and Mineral Gallery … who is not to be confused with Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht, who was a fictional character with an equally silly foreign name created by J.B. Mortan aka, ‘Beachcomber’, in his humorous column in the Daily Express in the 1960s. The ‘magic’ mushrooms Scholtes described were on display for many years.

Also in the museum collection is the Stalin Ant: Amateur entomologist and Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley(you couldn’t invent a name like that) attended a dinner in the Kremlin in the presence of Joseph Stalin and said ant – a member of the species Lasis Niger – which he preserved by dropping into his Vodka.

There is also a collection of inflated caterpillars. Caterpillar inflation is apparently a lost art these days but it was a much-practised technique in the 19th Century, to study caterpillar markings by removing their insides and pumping them with air before mounting them.

There is a collection of preserved tapeworms taken from the intestines of the high society of Boston and donated to the museum by their doctor in the 1880s.

The Blaschka Collection of glass flowers made by Leopold and his son Rudolph in Dresden, Germany from 1887 – 1930, especially for the museum, are world famous and unique. They are well worth looking at pictures of if you can't manage a trip to Harvard easily.

And finally, mention has to be made of Nabokov’s ‘Genitalia Cabinet’! Russian born writer Vladimir Nabokov was a research fellow at Harvard in the 1940s, specialising in blue butterflies. He found that male butterfly genitalia differed from one species to another more than just their wing markings and he permanently impaired his eyesight staring at butterfly genitalia under the microscope 6 hours a day, 7 days a week. Bear this in mind next time you read his novels. His collection of butterfly sexual organs, each in its own glass vial, can be examined on request.

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