Compound Ascidian (Sea Squirt), D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, University of Dundee

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In the late nineteenth century Dundee was the European capital of the whaling industry, a fleet of up to sixteen ships sailing for the Arctic every year. Professor D’Arcy Thompson, recognising the potential for his Zoology Museum, made friends with the whalers and encouraged them to bring back specimens for him. In time he built up one of the largest collections of Arctic zoology in the world. But even the whalers knew that their prey were diminishing in numbers, and in 1892 one of the leading companies, David Bruce & Co, took the risky decision to head south instead, to investigate reports by early Antarctic explorers that whales had been spotted there in large numbers. Four ships sailed on the Dundee Antarctic Expedition, and thanks partly to the influence of Patrick Geddes (Professor of Botany in Dundee and, like D’Arcy Thompson, a radical interdisciplinary thinker), places were found on the voyage for three scientists (acting as surgeons) and an artist. The artist was W G Burn Murdoch, a former student of Geddes’s from Edinburgh, who became effectively the Antarctic’s first artist in residence. Accompanying him on the SS Balaena was the naturalist William Spiers Bruce, who would later lead the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition on board the Scotia. The public interest in Burn Murdoch’s paintings and drawings, and the scientific interest in the specimens and data collected by Bruce and the other scientists stimulated a renewed interest in Antarctic exploration, and were an important catalyst for Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition and the age of polar exploration to come.

All three of the scientists brought back material for D’Arcy’s museum but sadly only one specimen from the expedition survives in the museum today – a Compound Ascidian collected by Dr C M Donald from the SS Active in Erebus and Terror Gulf. Believing it to form the type of a new genus, D’Arcy named it Julinia australis, and his assistant W T Calman published a paper on it in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopal Science. It has since been reclassified as Distaplia cylindrica.

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Professor D’Arcy Thompson, recognising the potential for his Zoology Museum, made friends with the whalers and encouraged them to bring back specimens for him.