n The city’s Natural History collection at Weston Park is the only source of recorded environmental history of Sheffield in existence.
EVER come across a black spider in South Yorkshire? Or jellyfish in the Sheffield Canal?
Ridiculous as they sound, these tales are actually true.
And these are just two of the 200,000 public inquiries that Weston Park’s Natural History Department has dealt with over the last 25 years.
Nothing surprises the department’s two curators, Paul Richards and Alistair McLean.
“We get all kinds of inquiries,” said Paul. “People may ask us to advise them on how to clean up old bones, or identify strange objects people have found in their garden.”
Some people even go so far as asking the curators to identify exotic stowaways returning from their holiday destinations. Somebody even reported seeing a ‘lobster’ walking down Ecclesall Road.
“It turned out to be a crayfish but it was still quite bizarre,” said Paul.
Equally as strange was the call about a jellyfish in the canal.
“We got that call and I thought ‘jellyfish, in a canal in Sheffield, never’,” said Paul.
“But how wrong I was – there is one type of jellyfish that can live in such conditions and we had them in Sheffield. Our rivers and canals are much cleaner than they used to be now so the types of creatures living here has changed over the years.”
On another occasion the department was contacted by Environmental Health, asking about a strange insect that had bitten a blind man who had returned from Thailand.
“The man was emptying his case when something bit him on the arm. He couldn’t see what it was so he called Environmental Health. It was a huge centipede – about 10 centimetres long – that had smuggled himself into the man’s case,” said Paul. The museum actually kept the centipede alive for three years, feeding it on earthworms.
Paul and Chris are zoological experts, so they’re a safe call for any insect-related queries, and some are more serious than others.
Paul said: “We had this man come in to the museum who said he’d found this spider in a car brought back from California and asked us to tell him what it was.
“It turned out the spider was a black widow, so I asked him whether there was anything else like that in his new car. He said: ‘Well I found a web and some eggs so I swept them up and chucked them I the bin’.”
By now, alarm bells were ringing in Paul’s mind. “I asked him where he kept the bin and whether it was in a warm place and he said ‘yes.’ So I said to him: ‘They’re going to hatch. Put them in the freezer’.”
And almost as scary was the fanged-fly found on a Sheffield factory floor.
“We had this call about a big fly with huge fangs that was found in a packing case. It was a dobson fly, found in the southern US, which uses its fangs to latch on to the female when it mates. A few days after that call the person brought in another fly of the same species – the female. One man brought in a cassette case with a live scorpion inside, which he’d brought back from Saudi Arabia. Now, less dangerous scorpions have big pincers and small tails. This scorpion had small pincers and a very, very big tail. When I asked to take the man’s details he ran off – he realised what he had done was illegal,”
Should someone be stung by a scorpion or black widow in either of their native countries, the hospitals are well-prepared, with the correct anti venom medicine.
But Alistair said: “Can you imagine rolling up at the Children’s Hospital saying you’d been bitten by a black widow? What would they do?”
Indeed, to say Alistair’s and Paul’s jobs are varied is an understatement. As curators they are responsible for cataloguing the museum’s vast collection of more than 185,000 specimens – ranging from tiny bugs to stuffed polar bears, conserving specimens, recording specimens and leading educational projects. And then, on top of all this, are the thousands of inquiries.
“Somebody once said they had found a sand lizard in Killamarsh. It was true, they had, though how it ended up there I have no idea,” said Paul.
“Someone else rang to say they found a scorpion in their bath in Stocksbridge.”
But bizarre tales aside, Alistair and Paul’s work makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Sheffield’s natural history.
“Sheffield is a really interesting spot for wildlife,” said Paul.
“We are at the most northerly point of most southern-dwelling species and the most southern point of some of the northern-dwelling creatures. Along with parts of Scotland we’re also one of the only places to have mountain hares.”
Even outside Sheffield, the department’s observations play an important role in natural history research.
“What people don’t realise is that if we don’t document, record, preserve and study all the specimens we obtain then in 50 years we will have no understanding as to how habitats – and even the weather – has changed. You won’t be able to take samples of water from 50 years ago, but you can look at the preserved species that we have labelled and documented that was living in that water,” said Paul.
That’s of course, when they’re not chasing black widows, Stocksbridge scorpions or giant centipedes.
There are dozens of natural history events at Weston Park Museum, including workshops on het bug identification on Saturday, June 18, from 11.30am to 4pm, millipede identification, on Saturday, July 2, from 11.30am to 4pm and a small mammal identification on Sunday, July 17, from 1pm to 4pm. Courses cost around £25/£22.50. For details and bookings please call 0114 2782649 or email email@example.com
How we’ve all been bitten by the wildlife bug . . .
The city’s Natural History collection at Weston Park is the only source of recorded environmental history of Sheffield in existence.
Staff have a wide range of experience in the preventative and restorative conservation skills required to protect the city’s collections and preserve them for future generations.
The botany collection dates from the late 1700s and includes marine algae and hundreds of species of plants, many of which are from the Yorkshire and Derbyshire regions.
There are more than 6,000 vertebrate specimens including mounted skins, freeze-dried specimens, deep-frozen specimens, wet-preserved material, casts and eggs. Much of the material is historical, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There are more than 2,000 skeletons, including a good selection of British material, of which the bird collection is regionally outstanding.
The collection of more than 90,000 invertebrate specimens grows each year. It consists primarily of insects, molluscs and myriapods, including extensive series of British butterflies and moths.