Secrets of the Animal Mummies.

Ancient Egypt is known throughout the world as one of the birthplaces of civilisation, thriving along the banks of the Nile for nearly three millennia. Perhaps the most fascinating and iconic aspect of Egyptian culture, besides the monumental pyramids they built, was the practise of mummification.

Mummification means the preservation of deceased humans and animals, usually by applying mixtures of chemicals in a process known as embalming. The Egyptians believed the body needed to be preserved in order for a being to reach the afterlife and live for eternity, and so mummified both humans and animals on a scale unparalleled in human history.

While the mummies of pharaohs and the treasures that filled their tombs draw millions to museum exhibits around the world, less attention has been given to the mummies of animals. The Egyptians held animals and nature in tremendous regard, and many of their gods were depicted as animals. Many Egyptians even worshipped living animals, as physical representations of their gods on Earth. The mummification of animals was thus a deeply important part of Ancient Egyptian culture.

The work by Doctors Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton-Woolham of the Faculty of Life Sciences looks at mummified animals that were given as religious offerings to the gods of Ancient Egypt, known as ‘votive offerings’. The Egyptians made these offerings in their millions, and archaeologists are still discovering more of them today. Using advanced techniques such as radiography, CT scans and chemical fingerprints, these FLS researchers have been able to unlock the secrets of animal mummies and the mummification process, and give us amazing new insights into Ancient Egyptian culture and society. They have even been able to discover what the climate was like in ancient times, based on the types of animals that have been found.

Lidija and Stephanie’s work is currently on display in an exhibit at the Manchester Museum, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’. The exhibit includes numerous examples of mummified animals, such as crocodiles, cats and birds, as well as some beautiful Egyptian relics, artwork and even a simulated CT scanner!

The exhibit lasts until 17th April 2016, and entry is free. The science behind the exhibit can also be seen in the latest episode of the Life Science Broadcast, available here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hztZ1MijB10″>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hztZ1MijB10

Faculty Historian awarded Wellcome Trust 5 year research grant

Historian of science and medicine Dr Duncan Wilson has been awarded a 5 year fellowship by the Wellcome Trust to fund research into considerations of human health in the history of animal conservation.
duncanDr Wilson, whose previous work examined the history of bioethics, will look at why scientists increasingly drew connections between species loss and human health from the 1940s onwards. He will focus on how this viewpoint led to ethical debates about which species we should prioritise in conservation programmes, which influenced and continues to influence the work of scientists working across universities, parks and zoos.

When asked about the project, Wilson describes:

‘A striking feature in coverage of epidemics like Ebola today are claims that increasing rates of species loss are, to quote the International Union for the Conservation of Nature “the leading driver of disease emergence in humans”. Scientists warn that species loss through hunting, habit loss and climate change causes viruses to “spill over” into humans and eradicates potential medicines.

These warnings link our health to the fate of endangered animals and raise difficult questions about which species we should preserve’.

‘Yet despite its importance for understandings of our relation to the natural world, we do not understand why this view of species loss emerged and became influential. My new project will show how scientists in the 1940s first drew on ecology to argue that extinction threatened human health. I will detail how these claims underpinned the work of conservation organisations, national parks and zoos, and will isolate the professional and ethical concerns that led scientists to prioritise certain approaches and animals.

Wilson summarises:

‘Given the dire warnings about the rate and consequences of species loss today, with up to half of all  plant and animal species predicted to become extinct by 2100, this project is vital for helping us reflect on the changing connections between human and animal health, and on why we value some animals over others’.


Does it pay to be a lover or a fighter?

As mating season approaches male animals are faced with a question that can determine their chances of reproducing: shouldwalrus (1) they be a lover or a fighter? A recent study, led by Faculty researcher Dr John Fitzpatrick, has found that where animals fall on the lover/fighter scale depends on the extent to which they are able to ensure continued mating rights with females.

In species where fighting for the right to mate means greater control of the female, males invest more in weapons and less in testes size. But males produce large weapons and testes in species where fighting for females occurs both before mating – with weapons – and after mating – with sperm. Some males found fighting the most successful method. Others found fighting was only the first step in sexual relations and also had to rely on large testes to ensure their fertility.

The study looked at over 300 species and found that male ability to monopolise females for continued mating drove the way they evolved. Looking at mammals, birds, fish, insects, and flatworms, they discovered that males only traded-off investment in weapons and testes when they were sure that females wouldn’t fool around with another male when their back was turned. Dr Fitzpatrick said:

“We set out to see why some species show trade-offs in sexual traits and others do not – the answer lies in how successfully males are able to keep females from mating with rivals. We know animals try to get females in a couple of ways. When they fight for them they sometimes evolve weaponry – such as antlers, big body size, or big teeth. The other way they do this is not to bother to compete before they mate, but to have big testes and the highest sperm quality so that they can fertilise the most eggs.”

Dr Stefan Lüpold, from Syracuse University, said:

“You don’t get something for nothing in evolution. We wanted to see which species invested in weapons over testes. Some of these species invest in both, and that is a bit of a mystery. We will now look at whether maximising investment in sexual traits means you pay the price in some other aspect of life. Understanding the way animals reproduce is important as it helps us understand how species evolve and can prove important for conservation.”

Raising awareness of animal research

animalresearch (1)Pupils from schools and colleges across Greater Manchester recently attended a special open day at the University, learning how and why animal research is used in certain situations. They heard how researchers were looking for cures for cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and age-related deterioration and attended a tour which showed how the animals are kept. The event came following the University’s commitment to developing principles of openness in animal research. Faculty researcher Professor Matthew Cobb said:

“The visit allowed students to experience the conditions and high standards of care we give to our animals. They saw mice, some of which are genetically modified by deletion or insertion of genes, or genes that can be switched on and off. They learnt about epilepsy research in flies and compared young flies and their grandparents to learn about ageing and how it can be studied. Believe it or not, we have lots in common with fruit flies. Many of our organs and structures have the same origins and serve the same purposes. Applying this knowledge from Drosophila flies to humans and human disease is a powerful and effective strategy.”

Mark McElwee, Deputy Head at Parrswood High School, said:

“The event was really worthwhile. The pupils gained an insight into the realities of animal research. It definitely opened their eyes to the potential of animal research for medical benefits and in fact it changed some of their opinions. They were also amazed at the care and dedication put into ensuring the wellbeing of the animals. The feedback from the pupils is that some were so inspired they are seriously considering changing their UCAS applications to go into biological sciences.”

Karolina Zaezyczny, aged 17, from Holy Cross College, said:

“The open day did change my view. It’s made me aware of the positive things and why scientists sometimes have to use animals in their research. I was very impressed with the facilities the animals were kept in.”