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Musings from the Museum

Labels - lovely labels

The Museum of Life Sciences (MoLS) is fortunate in having a band of volunteers who help with, and carry out, many of the activities necessary in developing a new, active museum: cataloguing, mending and cleaning specimens, designing displays, putting on exhibitions and workshops. None of the members of this band of volunteers who make up this MoLS team had any curatorial experience before the new museum began its formal life in 2009, but they are discovering just how special are the skills you need to establish and nurture a new museum collection.

One unexpected yet fundamental truth of the museum world that members of the team now understand is that the road to a successful museum is paved with information labels - lovely labels. Labels are profoundly important. Each one acts as an indelible brand-mark that ties the object in the collection to the information base in the Museum’s catalogue. That information is an inventory of everything the institution knows about that specimen such as identification, source, collector, date of collection and other facts; what is known is in that list whether the specimen is the skull of a baby Indian elephant or a microscope slide with a section of a sponge on it. The label is the tether between object and information.

Some of the MoLS specimens have excellent informative labels yet others, having lost their labels, may be beautiful and well-preserved in themselves but of enigmatic provenance and identity. Now and then we find a well-concealed label on an apparently unidentified specimen and suddenly we are presented with a doorway to more information: so our love affair with labels began.

An exciting instance of a label which unlocked the identification of a specimen and far more besides occurred during the summer of 2010. The work on the cabinet displays of invertebrate animals had reached the rich species diversity of the arthropods. These are the invertebrates with jointed limbs, animals such as insects, spiders and crabs. As well as these familiar groups there are many others that are more obscure. This label story is about a crustacean belonging to a group of ‘second cousins’ to the crabs, called copepods; aquatic, generally small (a few mm) shrimp-like animals that make up a significant fraction of the animal plankton in the oceans.


Some of the larger species of copepods are parasites that do not swim freely in the sea but attach to fish with a feeding anchor and feed on their blood (magnified view above left). These highly adapted forms are the so-called ‘fish lice’. The Museum has a specimen (not to same scale, above right) of one called Lernaeocera, the cod worm,that feeds on the gills of cod fish and their relatives in UK waters. It can reach lengths 2 to 4 cm.

In an old looking, cylindrical glass container filled with preservative fluid but with no apparent labels we found what looked like a Lernaeocera on steroids! It was more than 20 cm long compared with 2-4 cm of puny Lernaeocera (below left) .We were resigned to never understanding where it had come from or indeed what it was.

Our resignation was premature. As the specimen was being rehoused, the old glass container was being cleaned a tiny paper label (below) was noticed partly buried in debris at the bottom of the cylinder. Carefully removed it proved to be a treasure trove of information. On it was handwritten ‘’ Pennella balaenopterae fr Balaenoptera physalus. L. Blacksod Bay Co. Mayo 27/6/14’’.


What does all that mean? The creature is a parasitic copepod called Pennella balaenopterae. What is more, it is the largest copepod in the world. Its specific name balaenopterae denotes that it is a parasite of Balaenoptera physalus, the fin whale; it feeds from blood vessels in the blubber (above left). It seems likely that the fish lice, adapted for living as parasites on fish, adopted whales as equally useful hosts.

At first we assumed that some as yet unknown collector had come across a beached whale in 1914 in Blacksod Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Then, however, the magic of web browsers took over. With ‘Blacksod Bay/whale’ as search terms we discovered that from 1909 to 1919 Blacksod Bay was the location of the only whaling station in Ireland. We even know how many whales were taken there for processing in 1919. Maybe an invertebrate zoologist from King’s College visited the station and removed parasites from the skin of a fin whale captured by the Blacksod Bay whalers. Or perhaps staff at the Blacksod station ran a side-line in providing specimens for various academic institutions.

Whatever the case, we have come to realise that the worst sin that can be committed by museum workers is to lose the label!

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