Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Arthropleura at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences tucked away in Downing College, Cambridge. Despite being hidden out of view of the public, it is well visited and represents a captivating journey through the geological wonders of our planet. This museum promises to transport visitors through time, offering a glimpse into the Earth’s remarkable history (without the need for a DeLorean). Having recently visited, in order to see the newly acquired Arthropleura, I am eager to share my thoughts and experiences of this amazing museum. I have a somewhat close relationship with the Sedgewick Museum, as I volunteered as a Gallery Operative as an undergraduate whilst studying across Parker’s Piece at Anglia Ruskin University in 2013-14. Whenever I am in Cambridge, I always try to visit as no matter how many times you walk among the galleries, you always spot something new.

The whole reason for my visit, to see Arthropleura

The discovery of the 326 million year old fossil Arthropleura at Howick Bay in Northumberland in 2018, was celebrated with quite some fanfare in the scientific community. The fossil itself was found to be one of the most complete specimens of the giant millipede to date, and was discovered by complete accident (as most great things are). The Howick specimen is one of three partially complete fossils currently known and after being brought to Cambridge for further analysis, this revealed a number of things about the invertebrates’ habitat and evolution. As well as confirming that Arthropleura was at home at equatorial latitudes, it also revealed that Arthropleura did not live in coal swamps as previous reconstructions suggested, but that they preferred open woodland habitats near the coast instead. This particular fossil now on display at the Sedgwick Museum is the largest of the specimens, demonstrating that Arthropleura could grow to a length of 2.7 metres and weigh around 50 kilograms. This makes Arthropleura the largest-known invertebrate of all time! So make sure you go and see it.

Who doesn’t love a good Ichthyosaur collected by the great Mary Anning?

To me, one of the highlights of the Sedgwick Museum isn’t its dinosaurs but instead its diverse collection of exhibits. From fossils and minerals to interactive displays, the museum covers a broad spectrum of earth sciences. The exhibits are thoughtfully curated, providing a comprehensive overview of geological evolution. Standout displays include the Barrington hippo and the Ichthyosaurs, showcasing the museum’s commitment to education and engagement. The Sedgwick Museum is split into various zones, each covering a different era, starting at the Cambrian and ending at the present day. It isn’t just fossils that the museum focuses on, there are also exhibits on volcanoes, minerals, and how rocks are formed. With over 1 million fossils in the collection (not all on display), there is something for everyone. It is also open six days a week, so there really is no excuse not to visit!

One of the things I love about the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is the original Victorian cabinets that everything is housed in, it gives the museum so much character

Beyond the fossil exhibits, the Sedgwick Museum boasts a remarkable array of minerals and gemstones (although you’re going to have to walk the furthest away from the door as possible to find them). The vibrant hues and crystalline structures on display are a testament to the Earth’s geological diversity. From the glittering depths of amethyst geodes to the iridescence of opals, this section of the museum offers a sensory feast, allowing visitors to marvel at the beauty hidden beneath the Earth’s surface. There are also models of the crystal’s structure allowing members of the public to visualise how the lattice structure in each crystal differs, and how this contributes to the properties of that mineral. Then, on your way back towards the entrance, you can move forward in geological time, learning how rocks form, and how life on Earth evolved through both time and space.

Some amazing artwork also adorns the walls, so keep an eye out!

Something the Museum also has which I have failed to mention up until this point are dinosaurs. There is a very good reason for this, I feel that the Sedgwick has a far greater display of more impressive fossils than just their dinosaurs that you could remove them entirely, and still have an amazing experience. There are education displays regarding Charles Darwin and his voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, you can get close and personal with specimens from every time period that life has existed on Earth, and if you are really eagle-eyed, you can find the only frog fossil in the museum. So, next time you’re in Cambridge, why not check out the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and tell me all about it in the comments section below?

These crocodilian fossils are some of my favourite in the museum

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