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Things that go bump in the Main Hall…and the Herbarium

If Natural Sciences curators were of a superstitious nature, we might be feeling a little nervous, having welcomed 3113 visitors through the front door during our special Halloween Open Day.  We’re not sure what sort of omen back-to-back thirteens portend, but on the day itself they spelled meeting lots of new people and showing them some of the fascinating, creepy and sometimes deadly specimens from our natural history collections. 

Those brave enough to don special glasses and venture into the ‘Cave of Mystery’ were rewarded with a spectacular sight: minerals that look ghostly grey or white in normal light, but which glow eerily in pumpkin orange and gooey green under UV (ultra-violet) light.  For visitors wanting to see even more menacing minerals, there were poisonous ores, skeletal quartz, ghost crystals and goblin ore on display.

Slugs and snails, and creepy creature tales; that’s what our mollusc collections display was made of.  Many people were no doubt lured to this stand by the eerily back-lit cuttlefish, centrepiece of an intriguing array of shells, pickled specimens and models.  And if two dozen life-size slugs didn’t get you in the mood for Halloween, how about taking a closer look at a Pumpkin snail, ghost slug or South African Cannibal Snail?

We sometimes think that our entomology curators have one of the easiest jobs at Halloween.  Their wooden specimen drawers full of pinned insects (with the occasional massive spider or centipede thrown in for good measure) hold a fascination for many people.  Love them or loathe them, these invertebrates seem to draw everyone in to take a closer look.  This year, our insect experts went one better, and alongside the dried specimens of Death’s-head hawk moth and tarantula, they gave visitors the chance to have a close encounter with live cockroaches!  And not just any cockroaches. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which, as the name suggests, make a hissing sound when they are disturbed.  Judging by the crowds that surrounded the cockroach tank all day, lots of our visitors were keen to touch or even hold one of the surprisingly docile creatures…or perhaps just to get as close as they dared.

Not to be outdone by cockroaches, on the palaeontology stand we presented visitors with ‘The biggest creepy-crawly ever to have lived on land’.  Not the real thing, sadly, but the next best thing: Arthur the Arthropleura, star of BBC’s The One Show and a life-size model of a giant millipede that lived 300 million years ago, and which reached over 2 metres in length.  To bring Arthur’s ‘coal forest’ habitat to life, we displayed beautiful fossil Coal Measures plants from the collections, alongside living ferns, horsetails and clubmoss.

Visitors to the National Herbarium were in for a real sensory treat when they entered the ‘Spooky Herbarium Orchard’.  A lovely apple aroma filled the air, as visitors got to see 40 varieties of everyone’s favourite Halloween fruit.  These were part of a larger display of 519 varieties that had starred at the recent National Botanic Garden of Wales’s ‘Apple Weekend’.  And for those who dared explore the atmospheric graveyard, our botany curators were on hand to help them discover some sinister-looking fungi and the spookier side of apples - did you know there are varieties called Bloody Ploughman, Red Devil and Catshead, or that if you throw an apple peel over your shoulder it will form the initial of your future love?

Our curators had a frighteningly good day, and we can’t wait to think up some more spooky spectacles for next Halloween.

Dr Lucy McCobb

Senior Curator: Palaeontology (Arthropods)
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