The History of Crustaceans – An interview with David Gelsthorpe from Manchester Museum.

Some of you may have seen our incredible fossil exhibition on loan from Manchester Museum – Well, recently I (Ellie) had the chance to speak to the brilliant David Gelsthorpe, Curator of the Earth Science Collections at the Manchester Museum.

David Gelsthorpe from Manchester Museum!

It was an absolute pleasure to talk to David and we are all feeling extremely inspired about how incredible the history of our Earth and of course our incredible crustaceans are! We hope you enjoy the interview below – and don’t forget, our wonderful exhibition of ancient crustaceans is on display until mid-March!

Ellie: ‘Hi David! It’s lovely to meet you and thank you so much for doing this today – I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself and what you do?’

David: ‘My name is David Gelsthorpe and I’ve worked at Manchester Museum for around 17 years now, I started by doing an undergraduate degree in geology and then a PhD in a mass extinction around 430 million years ago, looking at how algae had responded to sea level changes and climate changes and the way in which this has worked its way up the food web. After finishing my PhD I continued to volunteer at my local museum in Sheffield, before getting a paid position there. I moved round a few different museums to explore and learn more things, but have really found my home at Manchester Museum and have been there for the last 17 years.

But what really fascinates me and gets me out of bed in the morning is the ability to be able to use physical items to really excite and engage people about not only the history of our world, but how we can put it into the context of the modern day and how it is relevant and links to our lives now.’

Ellie: ‘That sounds like a really fascinating journey and a really fun way to teach people about our incredible planet – you have certainly made me want to learn more! Can you tell us a little more about Manchester Museum and why you enjoy working there?’

David: ‘Manchester Museum is a really fascinating place to work because we focus on such a broad range of subjects. We have around 250,000 rocks and minerals, dinosaur fossils, meteorites and mainly, such an incredible range of fossils. We also look at the natural history and the stories behind such fossils, looking at telling people how fossils came to where they are today (not just through formation, but through their cultural stories). What is also really unique about Manchester Museum, is that it is more than a museum. We are also part of the University of Manchester, which means we have lots of amazing and passionate students researching and working closely alongside us. We also see around 500,000 visitors each year! We’re really excited about projects coming up as we are linking these with the concept of rewilding to see the real wild history of our country!’

Photo by Manchester Museum

Ellie: ‘Wow! We really must come up and visit soon! Could you tell us a little bit why crustaceans are so important?’

David: ‘The history of crustaceans are so important; before crustaceans a lot of species were soft bodied (i.e. jelly fish like creatures) – this made them extremely difficult to preserve. However then came the Cambrian explosion – this is an extremely pivotal point in time where hard shelled or boned creatures were starting to appear. An outcrop in the Rocky Mountains in Canada (known as Burgess Shale) started to really show us the history of all species and it was where the first fossils with shells were recorded.  Fossils are also really able to show us the incredible illustration of our marine life. 350 million years ago the gorges of Bristol were amazing coral reefs, filled with diverse corals, trilobites and ammonites. It can be hard to imagine now but these are the amazing things that fossils can show us.’

Ellie: ‘It really is incredible to think how much our Earth and life on Earth has evolved – and to have something tangible that shows us this is really special. We have all spent hours looking at the fossils you have lent the hatchery but talking to you gives them an entirely new meaning! I was wondering if you could finish up by telling us about some of the fossils you have lent us! They really are beautifully intriguing’.

David: ‘My favourite fossil has to be the limestone shrimp from the Jurassic period around 145 million years ago. It was during this time that the earliest bird fossils were discovered, and it helped Darwin to identify the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. They were found in a shallow marine lagoon, an extremely salty and toxic environment, so anything that washed up in this area would die very quickly; but it also wouldn’t be scavenged. It was a really quiet environment too, so it meant that mud could gently settle and preserve all the main features. I think in the wider context of things they are just so fascinating and have really helped us to understand evolution, as we can trace things back through history and forward to how we have certain species now.

Another favourite of mine is this dark grey shrimp. It’s just incredible that material from the Jurassic era is so well preserved. The warm tropical conditions and once again the slow settling of layers just produces the most eye catching and detailed fossils.’

One of the fossils currently on view at the National Lobster Hatchery – borrowed from Manchester Museum!

Ellie: ‘They really are so beautiful and incredible!’

David: ‘I think what is really key for crustacean fossils is understanding just how long they have survived and why. They have evidently found an evolutionary niche as we can trace them back to 500 million years ago. It makes the work that the hatchery is doing so important; as it would be devastating if we as humans were to break this incredible line of history through overfishing!’

We want to thank David for taking the time to talk to us, and to Manchester Museum for kindly letting the National Lobster Hatchery borrow such a fascinating array of fossils. You can view the awesome crustacean collection Until March 2023!