Almost nobody knows what a pangolin is - even the description 'scaly anteater' usually causes bemused looks. It's not like they haven't been familiar in Europe for hundreds of years.But the creatures they came from remained enigmatic. The first accounts of pangolins written by Europeans give a clue as to why.
I recently consulted as one of the 'unicorn experts' for a lovely article in The Observer by Alice Fisher, 'Why the unicorn has become the emblem for our times'. It got me thinking about unicorns, and I came up with a piece of a very different sort to that the Observer published, but I'll keep... Continue Reading →
In February 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded that several live duck-billed platypuses be sent from Australia to Britain.
Our perceptions of how the natural world is organised haven't really changed for hundreds of years, despite biological advances.
These objects are all marine specimens. But they are certainly not all from the same habitat, they span the ocean floor to the shoreline, the red-lit depths to the bright, sparkling space of the photic zone; anchored creatures to those that spend their lives traversing the open ocean.
Collectors have always produced catalogues of their collections. These have taken a wide variety of forms, from the luxurious to the basic; they could be taxonomic check-lists of contents, or lavish and erudite works explaining the cosmology of the collection. I wanted to see what would happen if I made a catalogue of my collection.
I have a cabinet containing most of my natural history collection in the corner of my flat. It's usually barely part of my conscious experience of my living space, but a thorough reworking recently proved to be a process of personal archaeology.
Corals are still seen by most people as still mineral-plants, not keystone animals. Changing our intuitive understandings of the value of natural things - which seems to have moved on little from the medieval Great Chain of Being- might help to stop biodiversity losses.