March 4, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The UCL Granth museum is the home of more than 67,000 dead things, part of dead things and dead things turned into stone ...

LDUCZ-Z581_IMG1 - Equus_quagga_quagga-skeleton

Deep behind enemy lines, somewhere amongst the buildings of University College London, there lies… dead things.

The Grant Museum of Zoology is the last university repository for gruesome zoological artefacts in London. Imperial, Queen Mary and King’s all gave up their fossil and pickle collections in the dim and distant 80s, but UCL kept going, and now the museum is home to over 67,000 dead things, parts of dead things, and dead things turned into stone by minerals leaching into them.

The most famous inhabitants of the Grant Museum are probably 18 moles, pickled together in a single jar. They are on twitter @GlassJarOfMoles, and have six times as many followers as I have. Their cramped living conditions are allegedly down to the cost of preservation fluid and shelf space, but there was probably a scientist’s sick sense of humour involved somewhere too. See how long you can spend trying to work out which claws belong to which mole.

But the moles aren’t the only celebrities to be found within the walls of the Grant Museum. There is a cast of a Compsognathus, the chicken sized dinosaur made famous by Jurassic Park for being very small and very evil. There is also a cast of Archaeopteryx, the creationist busting ‘first bird’. The skeleton of a very small dinosaur is just visible, its neck bent all the way to its spine, and around its arms are the ghosts of feathers. Only ten more specimens have been found since its discovery in 1861, but none of those are “mounted in a fetching blue, wooden, glass-topped box” (quote from the Grant Museum catalogue).

For those who prefer their extinct reptiles a little less mainstream, the museum also houses a Dimetrodon skull. Iconic for the enormous sail on its back, Dimetrodon was a reptile that became extinct approximately 40 million years before the dinosaurs appeared. It is often misidentified as a dinosaur, but it walked like a modern lizard, with bent legs sprawled out to either side. Despite this, it is more closely related to mammals than it is to either lizards or dinosaurs.

Some people want to get that really guilty feeling from a museum visit, and the Grant Museum caters to them as well, with a selection of specimens of species driven to extinction by humans. There is an incomplete dodo skeleton, remarkable for how normal it looks compared to the stuffed examples in other museums.

It also houses a complete set of quagga bones, one of only seven in existence. The quagga was (debatably) a subspecies of plains zebra that lived in South Africa until the late 19th century. It had zebra markings only on the front half of its body, with horse colouring on the back half. This unusual combination led to its popularity amongst the wealthy, who used it as a carriage horse, and also amongst hunters, who killed it for its skin. This is presumably the reason why the museum has to make do with just the skeleton.

If you like your dead, pickled and informative with a sprinkle of sparkling wit, the Grant Museum is probably the place for you.


IMAGE: UCL Grant Museum of Zoology