Thematic Collecting

@ Manchester Museum


April 2015

Groundwater Shrimps that survived the latest Ice Age

It is known that during the latest Pleistocene glaciations (2.59-0.01 Million years ago) the territory of Britain, as well as of Ireland and many other territories of the northern hemisphere, were covered by glacier and were uninhabitable for terrestrial fauna. During glaciations animals and birds either migrated southward or died out. Palaeontological and genetic evidence indicates that the majority of the contemporary fauna of Britain arrived from continental Europe dispersing across a land bridge that existed between Britain and mainland Europe during the short period after ice retreat and before it was submerged by rising sea level (ca. 0.45 Mya).

However, surprisingly, there are few British species that were able to survive the latest Ice Ages, for instance, the endemic Groundwater Shrimp (Niphargus glenniei; see on the photos below) currently known from cave ecosystems of Devon and Cornwall only. Another endemic species of the groundwater shrimps, restricted to Ireland, is Niphargus irlandicus. None of these species is known outside southern England and Ireland correspondingly.

Niphargus glenniei, the Groundwater shrimp that is adapted to live in subterranean environments. Shrimps are blind, lack pigmentation and have elongated appendages. Photo credit: Chris Proctor.
Niphargus glenniei, the Groundwater shrimp that is adapted to live in subterranean environments. Shrimps are blind, lack pigmentation and have elongated appendages. Photo credit: Chris Proctor.

As argued by McNerney et al. (2014), the most recent common ancestor of both species and all other Niphargus species (over 300 species distributed in cave ecosystems across Europe) was isolated approximately 87 Million years ago, i.e. during the late Cretaceous period (100–66 Mya). More importantly, that the two endemics (glenniei and irlandicus) should have been where they are now for at least 19.5 Mya and thus they have survived the entire Pleitocene period and many glaciations in the groundwater. This makes both groundwater shrimps the oldest known species of the British fauna.

This story is based on the paper by McNerney et al. (2014), The ancient Britons: groundwater fauna survived extreme climate change over tens of millions of years across NW Europe. Molecular Ecology, 23: 1153-1166; doi: 10.1111/mec.12664


Migrating Ideas: Herakles goes to New Zealand

Herakles battles the centaurs on a vase at Manchester Museum
Herakles battles the centaurs on a vase at Manchester Museum

Earlier today David Gelsthorpe and I had the great pleasure of filming an interview with Dr Emma Stafford, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Leeds on the subject of Herakles. Emma has research interests in  ancient Greek religion, myth and Herakles and the Trojan War, and recently curated a temporary exhibition at Leeds Museums and Galleries about Herakles. “But what’s this got to do with migration?” I hear you ask. In this case Emma worked with prints from the talented New Zealand artist Marian Maguire, who has transposed Herakles to the incongruous setting of New Zealand.

Herakles receives the girdle of Hippolyta queen of Amazons (Manchester Museum)
Herakles receives the girdle of Hippolyta queen of Amazons (Manchester Museum)

Our interview began with Emma talking about a particularly handsome amphora in the archaeology collection which shows Herakles fighting a centaur, the half-man, half-horse composite from Greek mythology. The story  behind this scene is a visit that Herakles made to his friend Pholus the centaurs. Pholus offered his guest some wine but the other centaurs smelt it and tried to gatecrash the party and Herakles took up his club to restore order (think have-a-go-hero beheads four…). On the pot in the first image above you can see the blood flowing where Herakles has wounded his centaur opponent. This was only one of many adventures that Herakles had. In fact he was set a series of twelve seemingly impossible challenges known as the Twelve Labours of Herakles in which, for example, he had to bring back Cerberus, the hound that guarded the gates of the Underworld, clean the stables of King Augeas, defeat the man-eating Stymphalian birds, capture the belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (see image above) and so on.

Dr Stafford and the catalogue of Marian Macguire's work showing the Amazons of New Zealand
Dr Emma Stafford and the catalogue of Marian Maguire’s work showing the Amazons of New Zealand

Marian Maguire has extended the adventures of Herakles by transplanting him to the other side of the world, New Zealand. This is quite a feat of the imagination, even for Herakles who is arguably one of the best-travelled heroes from ancient Greek mythology. Of course the challenges he faces in New Zealand are of a completely different nature though still comparable to those he faced in ancient Greece.

Herakles and the Amazons of New Zealand
Herakles and the Amazons of New Zealand

There is some wonderful tongue-in-cheek humour as Herakles fails to defeat the women of New Zealand in their campaign to have the right to vote. In fact the  Antopodean Amazons were the first women in the world to get the vote. Herakles also fails to control the rabbit population. A hilarious print shows the hero waving his club ineffectually whilst two rabbits in the foreground do… well what rabbits do.

Herakles herding a cow with Mount Taranaki in the distance
Herakles herding a cow with Mount Taranaki in the distance (print by Marian Maguire)

Herakles is almost always shown as he appears on some of the Greek vases in the Black Figure technique but he appears in a landscape that is unmistakably that of New Zealand. For example, we see him clearing the landscape or herding a less-than-formidable cow (so much for capturing the Cretan bull!) with Mount Taranaki in the background. It all seems as though the challenge has proved too much and that Herakles has got sucked into a life of mundane tasks that is at odds with his heroic status. In another print Herakles serves two immaculately dressed genteel European ladies who are taking tea in the bush, whilst a Maori looks on puzzled.

This is all great fun and of course what makes it possible is the transposition of a hero from Greek mythology into the incongruous setting of New Zealand on the other side of the world. The artistic imagination allows the juxtaposition of ideas that are challenging, stimulating, entertaining and thought-provoking. We are accustomed to talking about what happens when animals and birds migrate, and we can contrast the migration of peoples in the past and in the present, but Marian Maguire’s work shows what happens when the familiar Black Figure outline of Herakles migrates to the southern hemisphere. It’s Brian Murphy (of George and Mildred fame) on steroids. In this case the outcome is humorous but almost certainly the migration of some ideas caused as much damage as the introduction of invasive species like the Cane Toad in Australia and the Lionfish in the Caribbean, not to mention Mink and Japanese Knotweed in the UK.

David Gelsthorpe filming the interview with Emma
David Gelsthorpe filming the interview with Emma

This is one a number of interviews that members of the Collections Team are recording as part of the Thematic Collecting project. The edited interviews will be made available on YouTube and may result in the acquisition of objects for Manchester Museum and may lead to an exhibition. It strikes me that if Herakles going to New Zealand has any traction we ought to seriously consider acquiring one of Marian Maguire’s prints, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

My thanks to Dr Emma Stafford for giving up her time to give this interview for thematic collecting and to David Gelsthorpe for filming.

Visiting Mammoths at North Sea Fossils in Holland

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Surviving salt and waterlogging on the Albuferita, Mallorca

Herbology Manchester

Albuferita, Mallorca

It’s that time of year again when a lucky group of 1st year undergraduates from the University of Manchester head to the Mediterranean to learn about plant evolution and adaptations. This year in Mallorca we stopped at a slightly wetter part of the Albuferita, a small salt marsh near to the town of Alcudia (north-west of the lager famous wetland and Ramsar site, the Alubufera). With more water in evidence, this part looked like a better place for the students to learn about mechanisms plants can use to tolerate salt stress.

Open-air lecture in progress Open-air lecture in progress

The area is dominated by three plant species Arthocnemum macrostachyum (Glaucus glasswort), Halimione portulacoides (Sea purslane) and Juncus maritmus (Sea rush). Each of these has has specialised mechanisms for living in high salt, waterlogged soils such as succulent stems, the ability to exudes salt onto the leaves or air-filled spaces within the leaves and stems.

Patches of…

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