Under the skin

"Animals Inside Out" at the Natural History Museum.

Just behind the gigantic cast of a Diplodocus, which dominates the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall, is a gruesome example of the latest innovation in preservation: plastination. A camel, stomach exposed and a tri-section of its head visible demonstrates the process developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagen.

Following in the footsteps of Body Worlds, Hagen’s hugely successful and contentious exhibition, Animals Inside Out sees his team apply the same technique to some of the world’s largest creatures capturing their anatomy in fine detail. The process of plastination involves extracting all the water and fatty tissue from the animal before replacing them with polymers in a vacuum. This revolutionary method of preservation was invented by Hagen in 1977. However, it wasn’t possible to preserve larger specimens until the early 1990s. The process prevents the decay of the body and provides a fascinating insight into the anatomical workings of each specimen.

The most striking example of this takes the form of a large porbeagle shark. Having had its skin removed and colored liquid resin injected into the main arterial network, this fear-inspring predator is reduced to an intricate network of blood vessels. Floating, seemingly weightlessly, the delicate system of interweaving capillaries seems almost impossible, the crimson resin creating a luminous effect that reinforces its unreal aspect.

Though Animals Inside Out is designed to be factual, it’s emphasis on the biological and physiological, it is difficult not be distracted by its dazzling and often stomach-turning visuals.

Once you get used to the grisly spectacle of skinned animals, their insides take on a perverse kind of beauty. Indeed, where plastination is at its most impressive is in its preservation of the internal organs. The hare’s brain appears like a tiny, purple jewel; the cat’s brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, which we are told “give it the capability to react swiftly and with extraordinary precision”, sprawl across their case like creeping vines. There is something spectacular even in the towering giraffe whose body is sliced into thin cross sections allowing us to see its many vertebrae. Likewise, the elephant, which, weighing in at four tonnes is the biggest single specimen displayed in the museum, is remarkable if only due to its vast scale.

Despite their beauty, there is something unsettling about being surrounded by real animal specimens rather than models. Undoubtedly less macabre than Body Worlds, Hagen does not hesitate to remind his visitors that these creatures were living things; a foal frollicks with its plastinated stomach, digestive tract and other internal organs suspended next to it, a bull rears displaying its complex layers of muscle. Perhaps this is why the curators seem at pain to remind us that, "none of the animals in the exhibition have been killed for the purposes of plastination" and that "the Museum has undertaken due diligence to ensure that all the specimens comply with best collections practice". Nonetheless, some may argue that there is something distasteful about standing his skinless sheep, its intestines, liver and stomach revealed, on a sheepskin rug.

Animals Inside Out is on display at the Natural History Museum until 16 September.

Porbeagle Shark, Photo: Natural History Museum
Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder