The Natural History Museum in London is an incredible building. It contains a vast number of brilliantly preserved dinosaur skeletons, plant and animal specimens and a huge array of creepy shark heads in jars.
The NHM functions not only as a window into the history -- and future -- of our planet for tourists and other curious members of the public, but its wealth of knowledge, gathered over hundreds of years, helps inform today's scientists from many backgrounds.
I visited the museum to see just what goes on behind the scenes. Click through to see how a Stegosaurus can be 3D printed, how scanning reveals the last meal of a deep-sea fish and find out why the museum wants to digitise all of its 80 million specimens.
One of the museum's major tasks being undertaken away from the public eye is its digitisation project. The goal is to create a digital record, including a photograph and description, of most of the museum's 80 million items.
The main reason for doing this, according to Darrell Siebert, the Natural History Museum's collections database manager, is to release the information that the museum holds. "The information is largely tied up in ink on paper, and only specialists know of its existence."
By creating a digital record of all its specimens, future researchers will have quick and easy access to information, allowing them to study trends in evolution, see how climate change is affecting species and use existing specimens as a reference point to help identify new species entirely.
The butterfly and moth collection was selected as a pilot project to help refine the digitisation process. Each specimen is carefully mounted in these boxes, along with a ruler to indicate the specimen size, and they're all individually photographed.
The information will not only be for internal use, but will be available on a public portal to allow researchers, schools and curious individuals to access this wealth of information anywhere in the world.
Meet Sophie the Stegosaurus. A recent addition to the museum's collection, Sophie is the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found. She's 5.6 metres (18.4 feet) long, 2.9 metres (9.5 feet) tall and is comprised of over 300 bones.
Although she's a venerable 155 million years old, Sophie was believed to be a young adult when she died. The team knows this as she had yet to develop a thick plating on her bones, which would have developed in adulthood. She's called a she, but it's not possible to determine the actual sex.
The small part of the tail, highlighted in this 3D model, shows the only part of the skeleton that has had to be artificially created.
The entirety of Sophie's skeleton was scanned using LIDAR scanning. Individual bones, however, were scanned using lasers to achieve an extremely high resolution 3D model. The scanning was done by Prop Shop, a company that normally creates detailed props for blockbuster films like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Star Wars".
Using this model, explained palaeontologist Dr. Charlotte Brassey, the team was able to determine details such as the dinosaur's weight, its jaw strength, the strength of the plates running down the back and how fast it would have walked.
As well as allowing the teams to create digital models for use on displays within the museum, the high resolution 3D scans can be used to create extremely accurate 3D printed models of the whole skeleton.
This is just one of the plates from the back of the Stegosaurus. It's printed in fine detail and is a great way of letting members of the public close to the dinosaur, without the original bones being damaged by being constantly touched.
The 3D files are also sent to researchers and educational institutions around the world, letting them print off their own versions of Sophie for study.
The skull in the public display of Sophie's skeleton isn't real -- the genuine 155-million-year-old skull is actually locked away beneath the museum and can be seen here sat in my hand (career highlight, right there).
The skull pieces are apparently far too fragile -- not to mention valuable -- to mount on the frame with the rest of the skeleton.
Sophie's jaw is kept behind the scenes too. It's been a major focus of study as nobody is exactly sure how the Stegosaurus ate. Although it's known to be a herbivore, the teeth are extremely small, so wouldn't have been able to grind plant matter in the mouth as would typically be expected, Brassey explained to me.
Instead, it's possible that Stegosauruses like Sophie swallowed leaves whole and used their stomachs as fermentation tanks in order to process their food. It's thought that the tiny teeth may not have even been used, which is why they became so small over time.
A different kind of scanner is housed in the bowels of the museum. This CT scanner uses X-rays to penetrate flesh, bone and even rock to help scientists see inside specimens without having to damage them.
This "hairy angler fish" was a mystery for James Maclaine, curator of fish at the museum. The body of this particular fish is only small, but its stomach has been grossly enlarged by something it's apparently swallowed.
Very few examples of this fish have been caught and preserved, so the specimen is too valuable to simply cut open and see what's inside.
By using CT scanning, Maclaine was able to see exactly what's going on under the surface, without causing any damage to the fish itself.
If you look closely at the image, you can see the angler fish's skeleton is only the small part going along the top. Inside its stomach is the folded skeleton of another fish, almost twice as big as the angler fish.
Using the high resolution scans, James and his team were able to not only see the size of the fish inside the stomach, but work out its species, by counting the number of bones and looking at its overall structure, without ever needing to cut the angler fish open.
Notice how the teeth point inward -- this means it's easy to get fish inside its throat, but extremely difficult to get them back out.
While that means it's handy to stop small fish escaping, some angler fish corpses have been found with extremely large fish trapped in their throat -- they have literally choked to death by trying to swallow something too large.
While the female angler fish is around the size of a watermelon, this, unbelievably, is the size of the male.
Maclaine explained that the male of the species is needed for reproduction only and that food at such depths is in extremely short supply. As the male is so small, he doesn't compete with the female for food. Instead he simply attaches himself to the underside of the female to live off her as a parasite.
Inside the CT scanning chamber. It's being used here to study the internal construction of a meteorite.
Each scan generates around 20-40GB of data; in a week, around 1-2TB of data is produced. The scanner is producing more data every week than the museum previously created in its history, the team explained to me.
Here's Dippy, the iconic Diplodocus who greets visitors at the museum's main entrance. The Natural History Museum created something of a stir on Twitter recently when it announced that Dippy would be retired from his prominent spot.
Dippy will be replaced by this blue whale skeleton. It may seem to some like a less exciting option than a full dinosaur skeleton, but Dippy is actually only a plaster cast -- the blue whale skeleton is completely genuine.
"As the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth, the story of the blue whale reminds us of the scale of our responsibility to the planet," said NHM director Sir Michael Dixon. "This makes it the perfect choice of specimen to welcome and capture the imagination of our visitors, as well as marking a major transformation of the Museum."
"The collection has been expanding for over 200 years," explained Dr. Blanca Huertas, senior curator of Lepidoptera (that's butterflies, to you and me). Some of the samples were collected as far back as the 1600s.
"We can look back at what happened [in the world's climate] in the 1800s. Through digitisation, we can see British butterflies are shifting north due to climate change," Dr. Huertas said.
All the butterflies will eventually be scanned into the digital collection, although only a small portion have so far undergone the process.
For now, most are still in the original display cases, with the old labels attached. The original labels will of course be kept as they're every bit as important to the history of the collection as the specimens themselves.
"The label is sacred. We never touch the labels," said Dr. Huertas.
It may seem odd to keep so many of the same species, but Dr. Huertas explained that it's incredibly important.
By having numerous examples, it's possible to see variations -- due to climate, for example -- in each species. They also act as a reference point to help determine if a new example found is simply an expected variation of an existing species, or a new species entirely. This wouldn't be possible if you were referencing against a single butterfly.
The museum's butterfly collection is visited not just by researchers and scientists, but by artists and fashion designers too, who come to find inspiration for clothing designs from the beautiful wings.
As the tag says, the butterflies in this case were all collected by Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist, explorer and biologist who independently developed his theory of evolution through natural selection at the same time as Darwin.
It's a magnificent collection. If you're keen on seeing a whole host of living butterflies, check out the NHM's Sensational Butterflies exhibition, which will allows you to get close to a variety of species this summer in a tropical greenhouse.
Welcome to the museum's tank room -- where the spirit collection is housed. The walls are lined with glass tanks filled with a bizarre range of sea creatures, lizards, snakes and mammals, housed in various highly flammable alcohols.
"Everything is about 100 years old, from that Victorian age where you could pretty much go anywhere and take whatever you wanted. There's a lot more regulation now," explained James Maclaine, the curator of fish.
The elephant in the room is Archie the giant squid. His name is derived from his scientific name, Architeuthis, and was caught off the Falkland Islands.
"I remember when it arrived," Maclaine told me, "it was in a crate, all frozen, so we defrosted it. The stink that came off it -- they have a lot of ammonia in their tissue, so there was this nasty public toilet smell. Then we had to inject it, which was a horrible job.
"You can't just get a specimen and put it in a tank -- that will only preserve the outside of it. You have to inject it so the preservative gets into all the tissues. We had to inject it all over and all along its tentacles. Then it leaked," Maclaine said.
"It took months. We didn't have the tank for it until quite late on, so we had to make a tank from wood and pond liner. This tank came from America and cost about £20,000."
Sharing the tank with the giant squid is a colossal squid. Although this example is smaller than the giant squid, colossal squids are thought to be the larger variety -- although none have ever been seen alive in their natural habitat, the deep ocean.
These jars of specimens were collected by Charles Darwin. As with the butterflies, the tank room contains numerous examples of single species, inside "hundreds of thousands of jars", according to Maclaine.
"When you think you have a new species, you go to museums and you check other examples to make sure yours is a new species," explains Maclaine. "There's nothing more embarrassing than describing a new species that turns out to be an old one. This comparison is one of the uses of our collection.
"The strongest reaction I ever got from anybody in this room was to the snakes. When the Queen visited the building, one of her assistants came in, saw the snakes, and just wouldn't come back in!"
"You can never tell what's going to be of interest or when. Some of these have been bottled up since the 1800s, then you'll have someone wanting to study that group of fish, find out what they're related to and you have to open them all," Maclaine said.
"It's like a library -- there might be a book that sits there for years and years but then somebody wants to read it. It's a reference collection -- you cannot tell what uses things are going to have."
This shark head has been in the collection for decades, but was recently re-examined to study the nostrils, in order to help develop a new theory about how sharks breathe.