Creatures Lurking in the Darkness at the Natural History Museum

Leaving the daylight behind, embark on a journey into the tenebrous setting of our world under the cover of night. First unearth a reminiscent scene of a Beatrix Potter novel, with a European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and a fox (Vulpes vulpes) specimen letting you feel their soft coats. Creatures of all shapes and sizes, from the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) to the nocturnal beetle Carabus coriaceus, are around every corner. Some you can spot, others you’ll have to look closer for – allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness before attempting to locate the elusive nightjar. As you delve deeper into the exhibition to explore caves and the depths of the oceans, the organisms you will uncover become less cuddlesome and more monstrous.

Walking through a pitch-black corridor you venture further into a bat cave with the sounds of their wings enraging your senses and the ammonia-fuelled smell of guano loitering on arrival. Hair-raising invertebrates permeate throughout the walls of the cave, like the giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantea) from Venezuela, which hangs from the ceiling awaiting passing bats to ingest for its dinner. Fascinating facts are found at every turn – did you know that African dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis) are thought to be the only crocodile in the world to reside uniquely within a cave system (the Abanda cave system, Gabon)?

Become entranced by a live exhibit of Mexican blind cave fish (Astyanax mexicanus) that leaves you mesmerised by how they traverse their environment, with a lack of light, there is no need for eyes as they are a costly energy-draining requirement. Instead, they use cells called neuromasts that detect vibrations for movement and chemosensors to detect morsels of food that are floating in the water. Many of the beasties dwelling in caves are blind. The blind albino cave crab (Munidopsis polymorpha) is endemic to the Jameos del Agua cave system in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, inhabiting lava tubes formed by volcanic eruptions 3,000 years ago. Then there’s the blind cave remipede (Xibalbanus tulumensis), a hermaphrodite that is the only venomous crustacean in the world! Found in the Anchialine Caves on the Yucatán Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea, this crustacean liquifies the body contents of other crustaceans with a venom like that of rattlesnakes.

Progressing further into the exhibit, you dive to subterranean depths and are greeted by an abundance of deep-sea dwellers from perhaps the most hostile environment on the planet. Take a seat and watch the video footage of the Nautilus expedition in the deep-sea as bizarre siphonophores (Siphonophorae) – colonial organisms that can be the longest on the planet (up to 50 metres) – drift by and the oddly cute dumbo octopus (Grimpoteuthis) seemingly sifts sand out of its eyes. Discover extremophiles like the pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) and the blind vent shrimp (Rimicaris kairei) which inhabit the harsh hydrothermal vent ecosystems at a minimum of 2,400 metres down in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, respectively. You may think these ecosystems are prehistoric, not having changed since their emergence of life, but you would be sorely mistaken. Not only is the Natural History Museum a landmark institution with corridors teeming with visitors from all over the globe, it is also a world-leading research centre. Scientists at the museum have recently revealed that hydrothermal vent ecosystems, with their unique ecology, are constantly evolving, despite appearing to have not changed since the dawn of time.

Further down, the majesty of bioluminescence is a wonder that never ceases and the moment you reach this world is a jaw-dropping one. Become astonished by the alien-esque inhabitants, like the bearded seadevil (Linophryne coronata) with two glowing lures – one from its chin (a barbel) and one from above – acting as baits for prey as well as attracting potential mates. Velvet belly lanternsharks (Etmopterus spinax) are one of the smallest shark species in the ocean, they use photophores (light-emitting cells) on their undersides as a type of countershading, which enables them to evade lurking predators in the looming darkness.

Animals have adapted to live within the darkest and most hostile environments on earth. Whether through sensory changes or behavioural mechanisms, all the organisms featured in this exhibition have become masters of their realm. Through extensive interactive opportunities, you can jump into their worlds and immerse yourself into their lives. From the more commonly known European badger (Meles meles) found in your countryside neighbourhood to the alien-esque bearded seadevil (Linophryne coronata) from the oceanic abyss, what will you uncover in the dark?

Life in The Dark is on at the Natural History Museum until 6th January 2019.

Words by Hannah Rudd. Images by Trustees @ NHM 

Hannah is a MSc Marine Environmental Management postgraduate at the University of York. She is an ocean advocate and her love for marine conservation has taken her around the world.

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