Want to look at some weird specimens pickled in jars, eat cake and learn about evolution? Open to the public for the very first time as part of the inaugural London Science Festival, the Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum Kings College London, hosted an exhibition on the mechanisms of evolution, and it wasn’t just cake that was on the carte du jour …
Hidden away, nestling near to the Gordon Museum of Kings College London, we discovered a traditional exhibition room, preserved in time, intriguingly filled with unusual displays and a wealth of old and not so old specimens from the early 19th Century onwards.
Every creature imaginable seemed to be present in one form or another – from bees, butterflies and crabs to hedgehogs, moles and sponges! Curator Gillian Sales was on hand to help explain the stories behind the skeletons and vessels full of bizarre creatures. Through these fascinating explanations, she helped to shed more light on the subject of evolution….
A bit fishy…
One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the transition of our evolutionary ancestors from sea to land is how we developed digits – fingers and toes. This exhibition aimed to present a clearer understanding of these evolutionary stages and did so particularly well through its study of the lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri.
Development of the fin rays in the lungfish is controlled by the gene, HOXD13, which also controls our finger and toe development. This shared gene is a fascinating step in explaining the origins of our fingers and toes and our relationship to these fish-like creatures that roamed the seas millions of years ago. Fingers are not perhaps as we thought – like it or not, we do indeed have fish fingers…
Fun Fact: Did you know a giraffe has two toes on each foot while a horse only has one? Find out more here.**
Next the exhibition gave us a glimpse of our ancestors in a remarkable display of skulls, providing fossil evidence of the evolution of the human, from apes to a perfect Homo sapiens skull. It is postulated that modern humans first evolved in Africa and then migrated out all over the world. According to this model, Homo sapiens gradually replaced the indigenous pre-human species of other continents, including the Neanderthals in Europe.
Pointing the finger
In March 2010, a single finger bone was found in a cave in the Denisovan region of Russia, an area known to be previously inhabited by both Neanderthals and humans. Analysis of DNA from this finger bone and from a tooth found in 2000 indicated that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago in the Middle East. As a result of this interbreeding, 1-4% of the genome of people from Eurasia has been contributed by Neanderthals. This discovery may be pointing us in the right direction in our search for knowledge about the origin of modern humans, but many questions still remain to be answered.
It is clear from images how the differences in skull structures vary substantially. Although these variations are largely determined by genes, they would also have been significantly influenced by environmental factors such as diet and exercise. As you can tell, there are stark differences between the Homo sapiens skull and the Neanderthal skull. The rounded shape, relatively large brain, existence of a chin and lightly built skeleton are qualities associated with the Homo sapiens skull, while the Neanderthal skull is remarkably thick and has a massive brow ridge.
Three eyed oddity
A subject of considerable study is the evolution of the eye and a whole area of the exhibition was designated to this. Certain parts of the eye, such as the visual pigments, appear to have a common ancestry and the basic structure of the visual pigment is similar throughout the animal kingdom. In addition, a single gene, PAX6, controls the developments in eyes of all animals. Therefore all light sensing animals must share a common ancestry.
But not all animals have eyes as developed as the human eye and it was Charles Darwin who suggested a gradual evolution of the complex eye, by studying the eyes of other creatures which seemed to be less complex. These differences were ordered in a step by step progression from the most simple of eyes, to the most complex, as the exhibition helped to demonstrate. Some of the simplest eyes are nothing more than spots of a small number of light sensitive cells clustered together. Examples of creatures with simple flat eyespots include cnidarian medusa, turbellaria (flatworms with eyespots that function as both photo- and chemoreceptors), annelids (i.e segmented worms), caterpillars, and starfish.
One intriguing creature, of special interest to the museum is the Sphenodon punctatus, also known as the “living fossil.” A reptile native to New Zealand, this creature provides an interesting aspect to the story of evolution: it has a third eye whose current function is the subject of continuous research but is thought to be involved in sleep and hibernation. It is also used by zoologists as an example of the most primitive reptile they can find and the evolution of reptiles can be described as starting from the Sphenodon punctatus anatomy.
One of the joys of this museum was guessing what some of the specimens were before reading the labels. For a taste of the fun yourselves, can you guess which animal the skeleton in the picture above belongs to?
Clue: it is classified under the Proboscidea order….answers in the comment thread.
While many questions remain to be answered about human evolution, scientists have a growing bank of evidence at their disposal, so it is exciting and refreshing to see a museum like the Life Sciences opening its doors to the public on this rare occasion. To celebrate (along with the cake) we might be tempted to indulge in an aptly labelled bottle of wine we discovered in the exhibition. Let’s raise our glasses and drink a toast to the unravelling of the mysteries of evolution….VIVE L’EVOLUTION!!!!!