Fantastic Beasts – The Wonder of Nature is bursting with detailed information on the marvels of our natural world and an urgent message about what we need to do to preserve them during the current climate emergency.
Full of gorgeous imagery of real-world creatures alongside illustrations of the fantastic beasts we have come to love from the imagination of J.K. Rowling, we are led through the book by the curators and experts of the Natural History Museum and a host of other writers who specialise in the creatures – great and small – of this planet.
We learned an awful lot reading the book: about everything from insect-collecting equipment to Zouwu toys. But we’ve managed to whittle it down to the six biggest things.
So, put on your explorer’s boots. We’re going in…
Photo © The Natural History Museum
In a fascinating section written by Lorraine Cornish, the Head of Conservation at the Natural History Museum, we come to understand the behind-the-scenes work that preserves both the amazing objects on display and those stored away in the museum’s archives.
Take missing tiger whiskers: Nikki, one of the museum’s conservators, created false whiskers by inserting a thick nylon thread into catheter tubing, then used a heated spatula to flatten them into a whisker shape, cut them to various lengths with a scalpel, and painted them so they looked like the real thing. Different sizes were created to mirror the real whiskers on the other side of the tiger’s face. The attention to detail is pretty jaw-dropping.
Conservation is also a job with some risks. We see Cheryl, another member of Lorraine’s team, working on a scary-looking Colombian lesserblack tarantula, dating back to 1875! The spider hairs are potentially hazardous as they can cause swelling and itching of the skin, so when Cheryl was repairing one of its legs, gloves and tweezers were a must-have.
In a delightful case of life imitating art, scientists named a dinosaur Dracorex Hogwartsia in celebration of Hogwarts itself. Unlike the magical Hungarian Horntail, this huge beast was probably a plant eater and lived in a small herd, like the other pachycephalosaurs of its kind that roamed the Earth between 66 million and 140 million years ago. You can see a reconstruction of its magnificent head in the book and forthcoming exhibition.
Photo © The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
In an essay titled ‘The Naturalist Explorer’, Andrea Hart (Head of Library Special Collections) picks out Maria Sibylla Merian as a hero of hers – she was one of the first European natural explorers to study insects in the field. She set off from Amsterdam to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America in 1699, accompanied only by her daughter. She wanted to fulfil a lifelong ambition to document and illustrate new species of insects and the plants on which they lived. But the European dress style she wore was ill-suited to the heat and humidity of Surinam, so she had to conduct much of her research at night. It was worth it: she made pioneering discoveries in European eyes, captured in brilliant paintings depicting the life cycle of butterflies and much more.
In his piece at the beginning of the ‘Endangered Species’ chapter, author and natural history writer Patrick Barkham has a stark warning for us from history. As he points out, a replica of the dodo – known as the Diricawl to those in the wizarding world – is a star exhibit in the Natural History Museum. Barkham describes the dodo as a ‘reproach and a reminder’ from history about how fast extinction can arrive. In the current era, which scientists are calling the Anthropocene because of the dominance of Homo sapiens (i.e. you and me), the Earth is losing its bewitching diversity of life more quickly than in the past many millions of years. Worryingly, this period is what some call the Sixth Great Extinction...
If that feels pessimistic, fret not, because we can all make a difference – that is the overriding message of the book and exhibition. The large blue butterfly actually became extinct in Britain in 1979. Fortunately, the species clung on in some European countries and was successfully reintroduced to Britain by Professor Jeremy Thomas after he collected caterpillars from Sweden for the task. As Patrick Barkham explains: ‘By learning exactly what made the large blue tick – a fascinating symbiotic relationship with a species of ant – he was able to recreate suitable meadowland habitat.
Today, each June, more large blues fly in south-west England than anywhere else in the world.’ If there was a planetary equivalent of House points, Professor Thomas would get a lot of them.
Or rather, be kind to pandas, and everything else. Perhaps even more adorable than Nifflers, giant pandas were poached, and their habitat deforested, so that in the 1980s their numbers were reduced to as few as 1,114. It wasn’t until there were a few hundred left that a global movement started to save them. A panda census is taken every ten to fifteen years to keep track of their numbers. The most recent survey was carried out in 2014 and it estimated that there were 1,864 pandas living in the wild, and about another 300 in zoos and breeding centres around the world. Nearly two-thirds of all wild pandas now live in protected wildlife reserves and a handful of captive-bred pandas has been released into the wild. It’s only with the hard work and cooperation between the Chinese government, local communities and global wildlife organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that the giant panda’s future looks brighter.
And that’s the biggest lesson from Fantastic Beasts – The Wonder of Nature: as we admire the myriad colourful species from the real and wizarding worlds, we are reminded that we can make a massive difference as individuals, but an even greater one if we work together.