Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator March 2021

This year I’m writing a diary entry each month for a typical week in the life of a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum. In the March entry, one of my discoveries appears on the front cover of a journal, pebbles bought at the Rock, Mineral and Fossil show in Tucson are registered, images of fossil fish scales bring back fond memories, I uncover a specimen from Sloane’s original British Museum collection and a departmental reshuffle means a change in role.

Journal of Systematic Palaeontology cover
Image of the conodont Aldridgeognathus manniki on the cover of our in house Palaeontology journal.

Monday – one of my discoveries on the front cover

I’ve been asked to provide an image of a microfossil for the front cover of the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, one of the Museum’s own journals. I choose my best image of Aldridgeognathus manniki, a new genus of conodont named after my late PhD supervisor Dick Aldridge and the species named after a colleague that I have published with, the Estonian scientist Peep Männik. Conodonts are tiny phosphatic teeth of an extinct worm-like creature that are used extensively for dating rocks of Palaeozoic age roughly 500-205 million years old. The specimen is from the Ordovician of Oman and is roughly 460-465 million years old.

Pebbles acquired from the Rock, Mineral and Fossil Show at Tucson in 2020.

Tuesday – updating details of imported specimens

As March is the last month of the reporting year we need to make sure our records are up to date and provide details for performance indicators such as the number, nature and value of specimens added to our collection over the past year. This year I asked a colleague attending the Rock, Mineral and Fossil show in Tucson Arizona to buy some interesting pebbles for inclusion in a book that I hope to write. As I add import details for these specimens to our collections management system, I wonder if I will ever attend one of these shows? Opportunities for travel will certainly be limited for the near future.

Thelodont scales representing early jawless fish collected from the Welsh Borderland.

Wednesday – Images bring back happy memories of collaboration

Home working means that we have spent more time this year on digital activities relating to the collection. Part of this work for me this has meant re-evaluating my collection of scanning electron microscope pictures as many of them could be delivered via our data portal alongside details of the specimens. My colleague Matt Porter has been helping me to prepare some images of thelodonts from a publication in 2004 for migration to our database. Thelodonts are the microscopic phosphatic scales of extinct early jawless fishes and like conodonts, they can be used to date rocks. I published these with another Estonian colleague Tiiu Märss and looking at the images reminds me of a great three weeks of fieldwork that we carried out together in the Welsh Borderland in the late 1990s. It also reminds me of how much I enjoyed the artwork of putting these publication plates together.

Variolite from Sloane Collection

Examples of variolite with a specimen from the original Hans Sloane collection of the British Museum (right).

Thursday – an unexpected request to move some rocks uncovers an historic specimen

Today I am on site supervising the servicing of one of our specialist microscopes. While I wait for the engineer to arrive I receive a knock on the door from our departmental manager asking me to move three cabinets of rocks as they are preventing the replacement of a fire door on the bottom corridor. Like most curators, I cannot resist looking at all the specimens in the drawers as I move them so it takes me a bit longer than it should. I am rewarded by finding some beautiful specimens of variolite, one of which was part of Sloane’s original collection at the British Museum dating back to 1753.

Friday – news of a change in role

The financial situation in the museum has meant that some of my colleagues have taken voluntary exit. This, combined with plans to move part of our collections to Harwell, has resulted in a reshuffle of the management structure in our department so that four Earth Science divisions have become three. Micropalaeontology will now be part of the Invertebrates and Plants Division so it means the end to my association with the rocks and ores collection, a position I have held since 2015. This is the fourth change of division for me during my career. While all these changes make me feel unsettled, I’m excited by the opportunity to spend more time on Micropalaeontology collections/research and work with colleagues in my new division.