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What I Learned At The Natural History Museum.

26 June 201401:10AMeurope-2014travel

Turtles' spines are fused to their shells. They separate for them to be able to move their head and tail, are otherwise totally fixed. "What do turtles look like on the inside" is a question that's been bugging me for white a while, believe it or not.

There is a fish called an Umbrella Gulper. Its eyes are on the front of its ridiculously oversized wire-framed jaw, which makes it look like a Muppet:

There were a couple of Dutch-sounding entomologists, who showed us their beetles. Beetles make up 20% of the biomass in the world (I think - the slightly secondlanguageesque turn of phrase was "one in five of the creatures in the world." Which makes them pretty much the most successful type of living thing on the planet. They had a display of the largest beetles in the world, which were about the size of my fist, and speared with these giant pins, and then for comparison, they had one of this guy just sitting on a tiny card looking for all the world like a speck of dust.

Here's another beetle fact - Beetles technically have four wings. Their primitive ancestor was something like a dragonfly, but over time the front set of wings evolved into the moveable bits of shell that protect their hind wings, in much the same way as whales still technically have tiny atrophied leg bones, only more useful. In terms of their structure and how they're attached to the rest of the beetle, beetle shells are still very much wings. This sort of weird and wonderful modification of the same basic parts seems to happen all the time in the insect world, and its really cool.

The man who invented dinosaurs - or at least the word for dinosaurs - was named Richard Owen. They had a statue of him, but for some reason I only took a photo of the plaque.

Dolphins can learn syntax! We don't know if they use it naturally, but if you teach them to associate particular sounds with particular objects (the example used was a ball and a hoop) then they can interpret the difference between "bring the ball to the hoop" and "bring the hoop to the ball" based entirely off word order. This is neat, because a lot of the time when we teach sign language to say, apes, they just spam the signs they know will get them food without any regard for meaning encoded in word order.

Posture was important to dinosaurs. One of the reasons dinosaurs were so successful is that rather than having legs that stuck out sideways, like a gecko, or legs that stuck out at an angle, like a crocodile, their legs sat directly underneath their bodies, like modern mammals. This meant that they didn't have to throw their weight around so much to move, which meant that they were much more energy efficient, which, in purely evolutionary terms, I guess allowed them to produce more dinosaur per unit of food since they needed less of it just to get around.

Birds' beaks are filled with gapfiller, or at least the biological equivalent. It looks like this vaguely fibrous material, and it's covered in a hard coating.

Hmm. Possibly more like a fiberglass then? Foam inside, hard outside.

This is not a painting. It's a naturally occurring type of rock called Ruin marble, so named because it looks like the apocalyptic ruins of a city. Wikipedia reckons that "the patterns (similar to Liesegang rings) develop during diagenesis due to periodic rhythmic precipitation of iron hydroxides from oxidizing aqueous fluids restricted laterally by calcite filled joints", which is cool and all, but I think what's cooler is that the page image on the Wikipedia article is actually the same bit of ruin marble that I saw in the museum. It's very surreal to Google something because you want to know more about it and have the very thing you're looking at pop up in front of you.

Flamingoes are pink because of where they live. The volcanoes in that part of Africa are unique in that their lava turns white when it hardens rather than black due to the high concentration of... I think it was carbonates? Anyway, it gets into the water, making it highly... I want to say alkaline? And the only thing that lives there is a particular extremophile algae called Spirulina. This is the main food of flamingoes - but there's a particular toxic-ish chemical in the Spirulina that the flamingoes can't process, and they excrete that chemical into their feathers to get rid of it - which turns the feathers pink! I found this explanation awesome, because of the way these seemingly separate fields just map together perfectly.

Frozen lightning. When lightning hits a desert, it heats and fuses the sand in its path into a metres-long rod of natural glass called fulgurite. The museum has one on display, unbroken, that reaches from the floor to the ceiling, and still surrounded by the column of sand it was formed in. I can't even begin to imagine how difficult that was to extract intact.

Sand dunes happen because of angles of repose. Sometimes physical objects are the best way to understand something.** I read a thing ages ago on ABC Science about angles of repose, and it's sort of rattled around in my head as a cool concept without necessarily being used to explain anything beyond the obvious. Then I ran my hand across a fossilised sand dune, and had one of those brilliant realisation moments - sand dunes are caused by angles of repose, but dynamic rather than static. When the wind pushes the sand into a pile, it eventually reaches a point where it's too steep - it's past its angle of repose - and collapses, only to be swept up into the next dune, and the next, and so on. I doubt I would have found this so fascinating if it wasn't ina physical object I could feel, and if I hadn't learned the theory months ago, but it was a really cool moment.

I wonder if there's a noticeable selection pressure against being pretty? The museum - its building and its collecting both - are very much a byproduct of the great age of discovery, of aristocratic naturalists and gentlemen scientists and brilliant inventors. And while I think it was a really fascinating period which laid the groundwork for modern science, stuff like this can't help but make me wonder, not entirely joking, if all that work didn't create a selection pressure against being beautiful and interesting.

Decide for yourself. This was a recurring theme on the exhibit panels, and I think it's a wonderful one. Despite having a marble statue of Charles Darwin in the foyer, nothing in the museum tries to preach. It often even shies away from offering definite answers to questions. Its refreshing, given the trend towards contextless facts over rational thought that it stays true to the ideals of science - it presents the evidence and invites you politely but pointedly to draw your own conclusions.

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