Zoology: Digitising the Demonstrations

Published on: Author: thehunterianblog 1 Comment

A staff post by Maggie Reilly, Curator of Zoology at The Hunterian.

Many of us involved in teaching are working flat out to prepare digital versions of practical classes. As everyone knows by now, almost all teaching has moved on-line – certainly lectures, seminars, tutorial groups and so on. Digital teaching presents obvious difficulties for subjects where hands-on experience in laboratories and practicals is an essential part of training. The Zoology collections are used frequently in life science classes at all levels from L1 to post-grad and often in the form of a facilitated demonstration class. This format does lend itself moderately well to digital presentation. Normally, selected specimens are laid out on tables/benches with descriptive labels and the students work through a lab manual examining each specimen and answering questions. Amongst other learning objectives, students hone their observation skills and see a wide range of real animals which gives them a much better idea of animal form, function and diversity.

Students in the Zoology Museum working with specimens.

So, my colleague Jeanne and I have been using our digital cameras (shout-out for the Olympus Tough series – beloved of naturalists everywhere) to photograph most of the specimens. We are also using the advanced Leica camera system that Jeanne acquired last year and is now set up in the KH Research Lab. Challenges included photographing tiny things (slide mounted or not) and photographing specimens pickled in glass jars. 

Anyway, techie bits aside, the idea was to get as good quality pix as possible with our amateur skills,  and assemble them with text, diagrams, other images, embedded You Tube videos etc., to make a Powerpoint that will then be run via Moodle.

So – how did we do? Well – it’s shaping up good and the Zoology teaching staff are pretty happy with how it’s going. We have captured some cracking images! Let me show you:

The first class we tackled was the L3 ‘Animal Diversity Invertebrates Porifera and Cnidaria’ – this is the Junior Honours Zoology class looking at *sponges and jellyfish, sea anemones, corals and their relatives.  ( *yes, sponges are animals with some unique properties – see this article).

There are three different groupings of sponges based on the kinds of strengthening spicules they use to support their body wall – calcium, glass or spongin. We show the students all of these – some are quite large specimens, some are on microscope slides:

Magnified image of the common calcareous sponge Leucosolenia.

This is a magnified pic of the common calcareous sponge Leucosolenia and our image very clearly shows the calcium spicules sticking out of the sponge body.

Microscope slide with tiny piece of sponge dry mounted.

This image is of the actual microscope slide – a standard 3×1 in glass slide with a little well in the middle where a tiny piece of sponge is dry mounted. Students would normally look at this down a microscope but alas, not this year.

Venus Flower Basket.

This lovely thing is a Venus Flower Basket – one of the few sponges with a common name. It’s about 20 cm long and made of glass spicules.

Close up of Venus Flower Basket showing intricate glass lattice work that makes up the sponge wall.

The close up shows the intricate glass lattice work that makes up the sponge wall.

If I have awakened an interest in sponges try the Wikipedia page for starters.

The Cnidaria are divided into a number of groups with many familiar species – I hope everyone has had a breath-taking moment looking at images or films of stunning coral reefs. Cnidarians are key components of the reef community. Again our specimens range from tiny to enormous:

Portion of a cross section of the base of a tiny sea anemone.

Peachia. This is a portion of a cross section of the base of a tiny sea anemone. It has been prepared (preserved, dyed, dehydrated, embedded in wax and cut horizontally into micron thick slices and mounted on a slide). It shows cellular detail.

(a.) Physalia. This is the dreaded Portuguese Man O’ War.  It is related to jellyfish but is actually a colony of animals. They are attached to the float at the top and the long tendrils (b.) contain poisonous stinging cells used for food capture. This specimen is in a jar around 400mm tall and weighs about 10 kg but is a relative tiddler as the tendrils can reach over 100 feet long. See info on Wikipedia.

I hope this gives an insight to a small part of the work we are currently doing.

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