Saturday, June 20, 2015

I make a lousy fossil

Some people want to become diamonds after they die. Some people want to be star dust again. Me, I'm happy to be fertiliser. Unless I could become a fossil, because that would be extremely cool. But then again, that isn't very likely.

I got an opportunity to see fossils first hand at the Universiti Malaya Museum of Zoology with the crew from the Advocates of the Propagation of Science Literacy (APOSL) on Saturday, April 25th. Whodathunkit there's a museum of natural history in the heart of the great metropolitan of Kuala Lumpur? 


The Museum of Zoology is located in a new-ish block in the Institute of Biological Science (better known as ISB , Institut Sains Biologi), Faculty of Science. It is adjacent to the Institute of Mathematical Science (whose notice boards feature the most interesting stuff about numbers that even those allergic to maths like me find fascinating) and is open during weekdays from 9 am to 4 pm.

The entrance to the museum.

We were fortunate that the curator, Prof. Sasekumar, very graciously agreed to open the museum to us on a weekend and made himself available to show us around and answer our questions.

Prof. Sasekumar, the Curator.

He explained that a large number of the specimens were collected over the years from various sources. Some were donated by state museums that have run out of space to store their natural history specimens, while others were the university's own research collection. A few others were gifts from visiting biologists who brought specimens of animals that are common in their country, like the muskrat specimen from North America and a piranha from Brazil. It was here that I discovered that piranhas look a lot like pomfrets with bad teeth.

Prof. Sasekumar explaining the Earth's biological time scale.

Prof. Sasekumar began the tour by explaining the wonderful mural of the Earth's geological and biological time scale that was painstakingly done by students of the ISB. No members of the Homo spp. family were included in the mural as the most recent animal in the mural still predated Lucy by a few million years

 The Earth's biological time scale mural

 The Earth's geological time scale mural

The Curator further explained about how fossil evidence supports the biological time scale. He invited us to read further on the geological time scale as it was not his area of expertise and suggested that we speak to the Geology Department for more information.

One of the members asked Prof. Sasekumar if he has had to answer questions from students who are inclined towards creationism. His adroit answer was, "Let's keep science and religion separate." 

 Some of the resources available at the museum. Sticky tape is optional.

 Look at the date of the periodical at the far right. 

Prof. Sasekumar took us into his office for fossil viewing. I was gaping so much at this huge replica of a crinoid leaf fossil that I forgot to snap a pic. It looked like Han Solo in carbonite! He explained to us that fossils are generally expensive and that most that are on display are replicas of some sort. However, he did show us one of the few real fossil specimen of the museum which was a trilobite fossil. It was a lot smaller than what was shown in my biology text books, that's for sure.

Previously, there was no real effort to hunt for fossils in Malaysia. The recent discovery in Pahang gives hope to paleontologists and dinosaur hunters in the country for more exciting discoveries to come. The BBC has an excellent page of resources on fossils, which you can visit here.

 The Godfathers of Biology: Darwin, Linnaeus, Wallace and Mandel

Decorating the entrance to the exhibit are posters of the Godfathers of Biology; Charles Darwin, Carolus Linnaeus, Alfred Russel Wallace and Fr. Gregor Mandel. I can't wait for the September talk on Russell Wallace! Please visit the APOSL Facebook page for updates on this talk and other exciting events.

The Zoology Museum is divided into several sections: the Fossilarium (in Prof. Sasekumar's office), the Osteological exhibits, the Rainforest Diorama, the Animal Diversity exhibit, the River Basin Diorama and the Entomology Box.

The Osteological or bones exhibit feature several specimens that help us compare how form matches function in terms of skeletal structure. Although all bones are hardened by calcium, the structure differs to match the form and function of the animal.

Prey vs Predator skull comparison.

The crocodile skull above is an excellent example. Its skull is heavy, with a hinged jaw that gives it one of the most powerful bite in the animal kingdom. The muscles that hold the jaw open, however, are relatively weak, which makes the slamming force of the upper jaw snapping shut perfect for quick kills.

Their triangular teeth is perfect for tearing their  prey's flesh, but the lack of molars means that crocs cannot chew their food. Therefore, crocodiles use biting and whiplash motions to rip their prey apart and swallow the pieces whole. Think of it as swallowing your KFC drumstick as a whole piece. Plant-based food requires a lot of chewing to render it digestible, so this lack of molar also means a strict Atkins diet and no carbs for the crocs.

The crocodiles' metabolism is relatively sluggish and they take a long time to digest the pieces of prey that they swallowed. This is why they only need to eat every few weeks or so and spend most of their time just hanging out and chilling. Eyes at the top of their head are perfect for scouting careless prey moseying by where they lie in wait, half submerged.

Multi-teeth nightmares are made of these.

You expect to be frightened by the fangs of predators but nothing prepared me for the squirm-inducing teeth of herbivorous critters. Apparently plant-devouring critters have TONNES OF MOLARS to help them grind down their tough and fibrous vegetarian meals. I can't really explain why they give me the heebie-jeebies, but if you have trypophobia, you would probably understand.

Not serpent wine

No El Nino this year, thank God

I found the water cycle diorama interesting as it gave a good explanation about the great flood that affected Kelantan late last year. Did people really think that they can raze forests to a nub and that nature will not retaliate? Idiots.

Flood oracle

Scary tales.

We never really pay attention to soil loss because we are in the tropics. But in places where desertification is a problem, people scrutinise water movement and soil erosion in order to arrest the widening of deserts. Let's hope that we don't let things get that far before we do something concrete about our top soil loss.

The exhibit included some fine examples of the local fauna. Sadly, a number of them are already no more, and many more are on the endangered species list (e.g. kancil, binturong, tenggiling etc.). I'm an omnivor myself, but I don't get people who eat animals that are already diminished in number unless they actually dwell in the forest and cannot get poultry et al. What's wrong with sticking to beef, rabbits, chicken, etc? Assholes.

Tropical jungle animals

Corals and peat swamp forest

More on peat swamp forest.

I'm sure that not many of us here in Malaysia realise that we are home to more than one kind of swamp forest: the mangrove as well as peat swamp. Sepang used to be a humongous peat swamp forest reserve, as well as many areas dotting the coastline of the peninsula.

The mangroves are important because it provides a nursery for the natural fishery lots. Not to mention it helps to control coastal erosion, provides home to tonnes of biodiversity, help to detoxify the coastline and is a pretty neat place to visit.

Peat swamps are important because they are invaluable water catchment areas, provide shelter and food to migratory birds, enriches the soil, increases the underground water table reservoir, and many more. Sadly, they are also located in areas that are prime for development. I guess we'll only pay attention to the damage caused by loss of peat swamp forest when we have problems like flash floods and top soil loss.

Oh wait. It's already on going but nobody cares.

 Prof. Sasekumar explaining the difference between the stingless 
and regular bees

We ended the tour with a visit to the stingless bee colony housed outside the museum. The bees were acquired from an apiary in Melaka. They produce small quantities of high quality honey that the Institute sells on a seasonal basis. What a pity that our visit did not coincide with the season. *pouts*

 Stingless bee colony

The museum may be modest in size but is chock-full of information on Malaysia's environmental heritage with  its exhibits of preserved animal specimens and informative posters. The museum is happy to entertain tours of pax up to 20 people, so please contact them if you are interested!