Blogathon: From Millport to Great Sea-Dragons

By Lily Burke

I recently took a trip to Special Collections to see if they had any information about the Millport marine station where I did some field work last year. Millport is a small town on the island of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde, and after some interest by the naturalists of the day, a permanent marine station, complete with laboratories and a museum was opened in 1897.

Annual report 1898

Millport annual report 1898

I wasn’t disappointed! I found a journal containing various reports and agendas from several West of Scotland agencies, including the yearly reports of the marine station from 1898 and 1899.

Visitor numbers for 1898

Visitor numbers for 1898

The reports show how different biology and marine science was in those days. In the 1898 report, a mere year after the stations opening, the writer describes the advancements made at the station’s lab. While detailing the great new tank room, explains it was so easy to rear young Echinoderms (starfish and sea urchins) that many of the workers took home preserved collections of the various larval stages, a practice which would never occur today! The report also notes the number of visitors to the museum during the year (over 8000!), a number which no doubt rivals the current visitor number!

Title page of the sperm whale book

Title page of the sperm whale book

Among the other marine biological books in the special collections department I found a book written in 1851, detailing the natural history and physical description of a sperm whale skeleton recently added to the museum collection in Sydney.

‘Catadon australis’ diagram

‘Catadon australis’ diagram

The author, William S. Wall, believed it to be a new genus of sperm whale called Euphysetes. As far as I can tell, the specimen he describes is just a sperm whale, now known as Physeter macrocephalus. In the days without internet when a quick google search was out of the question many people took liberty in ‘discovering’ new species! He gives a very detailed drawing of the skeleton of the specimen, calling it Catadon australis.

But by the far the most interesting book I found in Special Collections was the mysteriously titled ‘The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons: Extinct Monsters of the Ancient Earth’. The title, first plate, and size of the book led me to think it was a book of scary children’s stories, not a piece of scientific writing…

Book cover

Book cover

First image of the book, maybe depicting how the author thought these extinct beasts may have lived?!

First image of the book, maybe depicting how the author thought these extinct beasts may have lived?!

But on further inspection inside the book I discovered descriptions and wonderfully accurate illustrations of fossilised skeletons of ancient marine reptiles, known as Ichthyosaurs and Pleisiosaurs.

An ancient Plesiosaur

An ancient Plesiosaur

An ancient Ichthyosaur

An ancient Ichthyosaur

My favourite illustration in the book, aside from the whimsical picture in the front, has to be the painstakingly accurate final illustration labelled ‘Copros’ or, in English, poo.

Copros

Copros

 

UPDATE (27.06.13)

References:

Millport annual report: Sp Coll Mu22-f.15

History and Description of the skeleton of the New Sperm Whale: Sp Coll Hunterian L.6.6

Book of The Great Sea-dragons: Sp Coll HX 109

 

 

 



Categories: Special Collections

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