Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Many are surprised to discover that museum collections consist not only of paintings, statues and local history objects, but some much stranger items too.

This grapefruit-sized object in the Worcester City collection is one of the most baffling, having confused many visitors over the years when displayed at talks and tours – is it a cannonball? Is it a seed pod? Is it an iron weight?

It is in fact a hairball from a cow, probably originating from the early Worcestershire natural history society collection in the 1860s, before the museum, art gallery and library were amalgamated at the end of the 19th century.

Most people have heard of cat hairballs, but this natural phenomenon also known as a “trichobezoar” can also occur in cud-chewing animals such as cows, deer and sheep. It can be quite a serious problem for cattle, which cannot vomit and so the hairball is not usually discovered until after death, at which point it has often grown to a very large size. There is even a National Hairball Awareness day in April to alert people to the existence of these medical curiosities.

 

Garston Phillips

Collections Ambassador

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The ‘Sabre-Toothed Easter Bunny’

This little rabbit was collected in Worcestershire in the 1970s and sent to Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire to be taxidermied before becoming part of the Worcestershire County Collection.
His unfortunate tooth problems make him an interesting specimen to study, which led to him being nicknamed in the local papers in the 1970s the ‘Sabre-toothed rabbit’.
Rabbits’ front teeth have to be aligned very precisely, so that they grind together and remain at a practical length. The skull at the back shows a set of normal rabbit teeth.
However, when incisor malocclusion occurs the teeth do not naturally wear down and grow constantly, making it difficult for them to eat. The skull in the foreground came from this rabbit, and shows the effects of malocclusion.
As a result, this rabbit would have become unable to carry out any cabbage-stealing (or Easter chocolate deliveries) and would have sadly had to go hungry.

Flightless Fancy

This is a Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), a rare breed of flightless parrot native to New Zealand.

Sometimes referred to as an Owl Parrot due to its moon-like face, the bird is nocturnal and entirely vegetarian, feeding mainly on flowers, roots and leaves. Whilst our specimen is slightly faded in colour, the Kakapo is usually a bright mossy green with dappled yellow and black. This camouflage allows the Kakapo some protection against birds who hunt above the forest using sight, but is of little use against mammals who hunt using smell.

Before the arrival of humans the Kakapo was common throughout New Zealand’s forests, but became vulnerable to attack from introduced species such as rats and cats. The bird is now heavily monitored and managed on predator-free islands.

This specimen is believed to have travelled to Worcester City Museum in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although its precise history is uncertain. Worcester had become a lively centre for natural history research and learning by this period, with the founding of the Worcestershire Natural History Society and other dedicated groups creating and promoting their own collections.

Having visited the Worcester Museum and seen the collection of bird specimens on display, it is believed that famous ornithologist John Gould was inspired to carry out his own Australian expedition.

Kate Banner
Collections Volunteer

As old as the hills?

The Malvern Hills has attracted geologists since the early pioneering days of the 19th century. The rocks and fossils found in this important geological area tell a remarkable 700 million year story about changing environments and climates of the past.

The Colwall (Malvern) Tunnels are a pair of railway tunnels that pass under the Malvern Hills and connect Colwall and Malvern Wells on the Cotswold Line. The railway was built to supply the Birmingham manufacturing area with coal from South Wales and started in 1856 before opening on the 17th September 1861. In 1907 part of the tunnel collapsed and a decision was made to bore another wider tunnel which was built between 1924 and 1926.

Around 400 specimens from the first Colwall tunnel were given to Worcester Museum, founded in 1833 by the Worcestershire Natural History Society. It is an irreplaceable part of our geological heritage as specimens can no longer be collected as the tunnel is brick-lined and closed to public access.

This specimen is an example of part of a crown (the head) of a crinoid sea lily collected in 1861 by W. J. Else. It dates from the Silurian period, around 435 – 405 million years ago when the sea flooded over Central England and the Welsh borderland.

Although the bodies of the animals are not preserved, they have left behind evidence of their activities and are known as trace fossils.

 

Rosemary Roden, Honorary Geology Curator

Huia Bird

The Huia bird (Heteralocha acutirostris), which has been extinct since 1907, originated in the mountain ranges and forests of the North Island of New Zealand. The female had a long thin beak that arched downwards to help extract insects and grubs from rotting trees, whereas the males had short, crow-like beaks that could chisel away at the wood in a similar fashion to woodpeckers.

The 19th century was a great age of travel and exploration, and when members of the Natural History Society formed a small museum in Worcester in the 1830s, they displayed the exotic forms of wildlife that they had collected, developing a very important collection of over 1300 specimens.

The origins of this Huia are so far inconclusive. One of the world’s most famous ornithologists John Gould was so impressed by his visit to Worcester museum’s collection of Australian birds that the Worcestershire Natural History Society reported at the time that he was impelled to travel to Australasia as a direct result. Here, he wrote his famous volume of ‘Gould’s Australian Birds’ and the society states in their report that the collection was “enriched with many beautiful specimens from Mr Gould himself,” making it possible that it was a gift on his return.

On the other hand, museum records from the 1850s show a donation of two Huia birds in July 1851 from a Captain Thomas, yet only one specimen remains in the collection.

Garston Phillips

Collections Ambassador
Museums Worcestershire

A Deer Little Creature!

The ‘mouse deer’ is the smallest known hoofed mammal in the world, which at full maturity is around the size of a rabbit and can be found in Southeast Asia. This specimen from the Worcester City natural history collection dates from around a hundred years ago, when the creature would have been a curiosity during an era of world travel and discovery.

The mouse deer evolved 35 million years ago. In several languages the creature’s name translates to “little goat” and in the wild they lead a solitary life, feeding on fruits, shrubs and other vegetation. However the habitat in this glass case is actually British, which indicates that it would have been sent back by an explorer and mounted in this country.

Although this does not show signs of being prepared by any well-known taxidermist, as the casing is not of a high quality, this object has clearly been well-loved during its time in the museum. The red velvet underneath the case suggests it was placed on a table to be examined and moved around, the front of the deer has faded and the label is in the handwriting of a former curator from Worcester, matching the labels on birds from the same era.

The rock that rolled

Erratics are large pebbles or boulders that have been transported and deposited often some considerable distance from their origin, usually by glaciers. By comparing the rocks with those from possible originating areas, it is possible to monitor and plot past ice movements across large areas.

Worcester city collection has three such specimens in its collection, all of which are on display in the Museum and Art Gallery.

Around 40,000 years ago, at the height of the Ice Age, these granite boulders were brought to the area by ice sheets. When the ice finally melted about 13,000 years ago, the boulders were left behind.

The two largest specimens were both found in Claines having travelled down from the Lake District and Criffel in South West Scotland.

The smallest specimen is a little more mysterious. Looking through our historical records, an entry states that in the early years of the 20th century ‘a large, smooth stone was dredged from the river Severn and taken to the museum’. We think this entry might well refer to our smaller boulder and that it was then added to the collection.

Millicent the Mammoth

Every day thousands of motorists stop at Strensham Services, by Junction 8 of the M5 in south Worcestershire. Few are aware that, 200,000 years ago, Strensham was the final stop for a very different traveller: a young adult Woolly Mammoth, 20-25 years old.

She came to drink from a shallow pool and died there, her body settling into the soft mud. She was discovered by archaeologists during construction works in July 1990, along with bones from at least five other mammoths and a red deer antler. Initially christened Marmaduke, she was swiftly renamed Millicent once she was found to be female.

Mammoths are often associated with Arctic conditions, but the presence of cold-averse species of molluscs within the Strensham deposits reveals that Millicent lived in a climate similar to Britain today, during a warm period within Marine Isotope Stage 7 (243-191,000 years ago). The Strensham pool lay within a marshy meadow, surrounded by heath dotted with stands of trees. Millicent lived alongside familiar faces such as wolves, foxes and wild boar, but also woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, bison, and the fearsome cave hyaena. Millicent is just one example from half a million years of Palaeolithic prehistory in the region.

Rob Hedge
Lost Landscapes Project Officer 

Nest of the European Hornet (Vespa crabro)

This intricate piece of natural architecture is a superb example of a nest of the European Hornet (Vespa crabro). Although for many finding a specimen such as this in the attic would hardly be a welcome discovery, Mr and Mrs Skinner of Shrawley kindly donated this vacated nest to the Worcester City Natural History Collection, allowing its delicate structure to be carefully preserved and displayed from time to time.

The overall population of European Hornet colonies tend to be proportionately smaller than wasp nests, however this is still a substantial size, measuring around 50cm across with individual hexagonal cells much larger than ones created by wasps.

They begin with the work of the lone fertilised queen hornet, who creates the first layer of papery cells and lays an egg in each one. The first generation of female hornets continue to forage and build the rest of the nest.

There is a lot of variation in appearance between nests of this species of hornet, as the insects use a variety of materials available to them at the time of building. Whereas wasps prefer hard woods, hornets content themselves with soft or decaying wood, often mixing it with sand or soil and cementing it together with saliva, resulting in a coarse, yellow, papier-maché appearance. If you look closely, you can see striped lobes which are the results of the work of individual hornets’ work, with colours varying due to the different types of trees and wood collected.

Garston Phillips