The HMS Challenger Project Team visiting museums

Hello! Heather here. Recently Holly and I spent the week at the Natural History Museum in London. This is packed with specimens dredged and trawled by HMS Challenger – most departments will have some sitting in their store cupboards somewhere! NHM (previously the British Museum) took in all the types collected from the expedition before passing off some duplicates to many museums around the world (Sydney, Lisbon, Toronto, Berlin just to name a few of the international ones). They were left with well over 10,000 Challenger specimens. A couple of weeks ago we visited both the life sciences and the palaeontology departments looking at bottom sediments, ostracods, forams, dry corals, echinoderms and sea pens. We found a big starfish…

Holly and Heather with a big starfish collected on the Challenger Expedition

Holly and Heather with a big starfish collected on the Challenger Expedition stored at NHM

A big box of blue mud dredged up from station 45 (3rd May 1873). Dredged from 1240 fathoms…

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Blue mud dredged off the East coast of the United States stored at NHM.

And then we found the sea pen. There was a particular sea pen we were wanting to find for a while. It didn’t come up on the NHM database search but we were determined that it was there somewhere! It is Umbellula thomsoni. It is in the class Anthozoa and the order Pennatulacea. The Umbellula genus was a rare zoological curiosity that was probably one of the first signs of deep-sea life and so it was a very exciting find for the Challenger crew! On top of it being rare, this particular specimen was an amazing example of bright phosphorescence exhibited in some marine life.  We are waiting for the specimen to be professionally photographed so I can’t show it to you yet but hopefully will be able to soon! Once back from NHM I had one week back in the office at RAMM and then disappeared off to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff for 4 days to photograph some molluscs, including lots and lots of tiny shells! The majority of these were 6mm or smaller and so it was quite a fiddly job. We also got to photograph some bigger molluscs though – like octopus and squid.

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Shells found off of the Azores, Portugal stored at NMW

Some squid caught at station 313, by Argentina

Some squid caught at station 313 by Argentina stored at NMW.

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Some true whelks found off of Brazil stored at NMW.

Next stop is Dublin in 11 days time to visit the National Museum of Ireland. We are keeping busy here on the Challenger project!

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April’s Anemones

April’s anemones!

Sea anenomes are in the phylum cnidaria, like jellyfish. Sea anemones attach themselves to rocks with their adhesive foot, attacking prey as they go past with their stinging tentacles. Their tentacles have cells that contain toxins that, when touched, shoot out venom that paralyse the prey. The anemone then uses its tentacles to bring the prey into its mouth.

With over 1000 species of sea anemone, they range from 1/2 inch across to 6ft!  They can be found all over the oceans.

On the HMS Challenger expedition, several species of sea anemone were dredged and trawled. Take a look at some of the plates found in the reports below..

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Plate 1 from the Challenger Actiniaria report. Showing genera such as Porponia, Cercus and Paractis.

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Plate 2 from the Challenger Actiniaria report. Showing genera such as Corallimorphis, Polysiphonia and Bunodes

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Plate 3 from the Challenger Actiniaria report. Showing genera such as Stephanactis, Amphianthus and Ophiodiscus

One species of anemone found on the expedition was Calliactis polypus. They were found on station 208 on January 17th 1875 at 18 fathoms and also at St Vincent, Cape Verde. They were all found on gastropod shells that hermit crabs were living in. This is because the anemone gets to live and feed on the shells in return for protecting the crab. The anemone isn’t naturally attracted to the shells but the hermit crab will persuade the anemone to fix itself on to the shell by tapping on the shell so the anemone relaxes.

Project update!

We are moving a long at a nice pace with the Challenger Project – with the help of many museums we are starting to collect a large amount of Challenger material which I am currently sorting to go on our database. If all deadlines are stuck to, the website/database should go live at the end of September this year. Keep  your eyes peeled!

Me at Bristol Museum photographing Challenger material

Me at Bristol Museum photographing Challenger material

In next month’s blog I will be reading up on the narratives and diaries of HMS Challenger and will be looking in to the dark side of the voyage where all was not going well..

The Sladen collection from HMS Challenger

The Percy Sladen Collection

Here at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum we are lucky enough to have the Percy Sladen collection, part of which was collected on the HMS Challenger throughout the exhibition. Percy Sladen was a scientist born on 30th June 1849 who grew a good reputation as a biologist.

Percy Sladen portrait

He was presented the starfish material to identify after the exhibition was over. He was the only person Thomson and Carpenter (who led the expedition) could find that would be capable of managing to analyse the starfish. The ship had covered about 70,000 nautical miles and over the 354 stations sampled the crew had collected a lot of starfish! Sladen travelled all around Europe to speak to and gain connections with specialists that could help him a long the way. It is said that his hard work and dedication to the project could have been linked to his early death. He died in 1903 and his wife gave the whole collection to RAMM to make sure it was kept together.

Parts of the Percy Sladen Collection from the HMS Challenger

Take a look at a few of the pieces he studied…

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The picture on the left shows a small starfish whose latin name is ‘Lophaster stellans’. This little star doesn’t seem to have a common name. As you can see, the starfish was found south of Wellington island (off of Chile). We also know that is was found on ‘blue mud’. As far as we know, blue mud is so called because of the blue colour caused by organic material and iron sulphide. It is made up of silt and clay. Another thing to notice on the label is that it is from station 308 so we know that it was found in January 1876.

The picture on the right shows a couple of starfish – a different species ‘Chaetaster longpipes’. These were found off Bermuda at station 36 on some coral- so a few years earlier in April 1873.

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Another starfish from Sladen’s collection

All the collection is catalogued – he had a lot of specimens that aren’t Challenger specimens too. We are in the process of putting the Challenger data in to a suitable format for our new database. I just realised I haven’t updated you on that yet! We are speaking to museums around the country and also abroad at the moment to talk to them about the project. We are slowly getting our data and data from the Natural History Museum together. We are using this to create fields for the database and to start designing the website. Once we have a secure design and the initial data is uploaded and tested, we will be moving on to further museums to add their collections.

For anyone that has clicked on this post and is not aware of what the project is about, click here!

Speak to you all soon!