The Hidden Molluscs of the Natural History Museum


Written by Kieron Monks
01 Monday 01st June 2009

So what can we expect from your juicy department?

As one of the main seven zoology collections, we have about nine million specimens. These are split into wet and dry molluscs - either creatures or shells basically. The collection ranges from 1mm long snails to an 8.6 metre giant squid. The department is actually older than the museum, begun by Hans Sloane, an explorer from the 1700s. People think the museum is just a display, but 99 percent of specimens are kept out of the public area. It's our duty to record and document each new species to be discovered. We have around 300 scientists working in the zoology departments.

Have you had any good new species lately?

The best recent one was an epistostoma snail; they're only 2mm square, but under a microscope you can see they have the most complex ornamentation, as well as a mouth that goes in four directions and spines to stop predatory slugs.

Anyone ever tried to hoax you?

Not often with molluscs, but the Pildown case of 1912 was famous. Skull fragments were brought in by people claiming they were from a missing link between apes and humans. It turned out they were a forgery made by combining orang-utan and human bone. It took 30 years for us to discover the truth. Most people believe it was a prank by Arthur Conan Doyle, who had a fondness for such jokes.

The giant squid in his chamber

Everyone must be pretty thrilled to have a giant squid?

There's only one other specimen in the UK, which is in rather poor condition in Plymouth. Normally we come across remains on beaches, a tentacle or part of the body inside a sperm whale stomach. This one was caught live by a commercial trawler and frozen straight away. They donated it to the Falklands government, who called us. The squid arrived in march 2005, we kept it frozen for six months while we contacted other museums and experts for advice. To preserve it we injected it the same formaldehyde and brine mix used on Damien Hirst's shark. In fact his group helped us a lot over that period. I was basically in charge and it caused me sleepless nights because it was so important. The most dangerous moment was taking it out of the preservative bath. It took 14 people to carry ‘Archie' but once he was in the tank it was fine.

What scary new monsters are we discovering?

We're finding out more about the colossal squid, which in theory grows even larger than the giant (15m approx). We've only found junior colossals, but they're larger than junior giants and have shorter tentacles, meaning greater mass. There's also a crazy thing called the vampire squid, which is neither squid nor octopus, black when alive but with red staring eyes. It has a web skin that folds around it like a cloak and when it opens all you see its teeth.

Photography by Matthew Hass

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