Maltese Naturalists

Giuseppe Despott (1878-1933)

Giuseppe DespottGiuseppe Despott was born in Cospicua on the 24 July 1878, the son of a renowned lawyer Dr. Carmelo Despott LL.D., and Giuseppina nee’ Schembri. Because of his father’s occupation, the Despott family was well off.

When Giuseppe was nine years old, his family moved to 280, St. Paul’s Street, Valletta, and later on in 150, St. Lucia Street, Valletta. He received his education at St.IgnatiusCollege, and FloresCollege. Unfortunately, in the early years, Giuseppe’s love for painting was not approved by his parents, who had other plans in mind for him. In June 1899, he sat for the Matriculation examination for admission into the University of Malta.

In October 1900 he was admitted, as a regular student for a triennial course in Literature. He studied English, Italian and Latin, History and Philosophy. He attended regularly, had a good conduct and obtained an average mark of 60 per cent in his periodical tests. However, in spite of this Giuseppe decided not to continue the remaining two years of the course and so dropped out of University. He was never interested in following in his father’s footsteps. His father was well aware of this and when he saw that his son had a talent for oil painting, in 1902 he sent him to study at the Institute of Fine Arts in Rome, Italy.

 After successfully completing his course, Giuseppe returned to Malta. Despite his painting abilities, he never possessed a full time job as an artist. His passion for nature kept him busy where he used to spend days, watching birds, reptiles and collecting seashells from around the Maltese shores. He rarely if ever carried any notebooks but he used to scribble his field observations on packets of cigarettes that he always carried with him.

In November 1913, at the age of 35, he was appointed Curator of Natural History at the University, a post that he held until 1922. In that same year, the newly formed Museum Department entrusted the Curatorship of the Natural History Section to Giuseppe Despott. Two years earlier Giuseppe was appointed the First Superintendent of Fisheries; he held both this position until 6th June 1933 when he had to retire because of ill health.

 Giuseppe’s interest in natural sciences culminated in his long list of publications covering various and diverse fields such as birds, marine shells, reptiles and fish. He also showed a great interest in Palaeontology (fossils) and archaeology were he carried out a series of excavations at Tal-Herba Fissure and later on at Ghar Dalam. One of the greatest assets that Despott possessed, were the numerous foreign contacts that he had, such as the Italian Ornithologist Arrigoni degli Oddi and Palaeontologist Dorothea Bate from the British Museum Natural History and many others.  Giuseppe passed away in 1933 at the age of 55.



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Specimen of the Month


Mummified – Nile CrocodileCrocodylus niloticus

Since ancient times crocodiles were very common along the lower regions of the River Nile. All this changed when the Aswan Dam was constructed in 1970. Today, Nile Crocodiles can still be found in the waterways south of Aswan.

In Pharaonic Egypt this large reptile was widely distributed throughout the whole length of the Nile. Like many other animal deities, the crocodile also formed part of this pantheon of gods. He was known as Sobek and was depicted as a crocodile or a man with the head of a crocodile; a powerful and frightening deity.

In Egyptian mythology it was Sobek who first came out of the waters of chaos to create the world. As a creator god, he was occasionally linked with the sun god Ra. Thousands of mummified crocodiles were found scattered in various tombs and holy sites in Egypt.

One such specimen was presented to the National Museum of Natural History. It now forms part of the permanent display of the museum.

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Specimen of the month – December 2012


Robin – Pitiross  Erithacus rubecula

Cold, wet and long nights characterize the month of December. This is also the month when out of our closets emerge the Christmas tree and lights. It is that time when we start seeing flashing lights in our balconies while behind the antiporta there is usually the traditional presepju (crib). One of the most significant bird associated with this time of the year is the robin , many a Christmas card depict this small chubby red-breasted bird heralding the seasons’ greetings and the coming New Year.

In Malta, robins start arriving in mid-September but it is only from the second week of October that large numbers pass through our islands. Many keep moving south towards Africa but a significant number spends the winter months in the Mediterranean, including the Maltese Islands. The characteristic tick-tick-tick call and its melodious call are heard from every garden in rural and urban areas. Robins are highly territorial and studies have shown that wintering birds return each year to the same spot. By the end of March most of the robins would have left the islands but a few individuals remain here throughout the summer months. One or two live robins can be seen in the front courtyard of the museum while a specimen is displayed in the bird’s hall inside the museum.

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Specimen of the Month


Long-eared Bat

The month of November starts with a celebration formerly known as All Hollow’s eve or as it is now  known – Halloween. Many believe that this is an American holiday. There are no records of it being a holiday there, on the contrary the puritans objected vehemently against it. It was only after the mass migration of Irish and Scottish Christians in the 19th Century that Halloween became an American holiday. Apart from human skeletons, pumpkins and other paraphernalia, bats also feature prominently.

Worldwide there are over 1,000 different species of bats of which some 35 are found in Europe. Twelve  species of bats are known to occur in the Maltese Islands. In 2011 a new species of bat was discovered to occur in Malta – Savi’s Pipistrelle Hypsugo savii. This species was discovered roosting inside the museum building. Specimens of different species of bats can be seen in the museum displays.

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Specimen of the Month

Garden (or Edible) Snail,Għakrux Raġel, Cantareus aspersus

The first autumn rains awaken a myriad of animal species which had spent the hot summer months sleeping in the shade of a bush or boulder or simply by digging in the soil. Some species are minuscule while others are more evident. None is more evident than the Common Garden Snail. This is one of several species of land snails present in the Maltese islands. The Common Garden Snail is the largest species of terrestrial snail occurring in the Maltese islands.  This species is edible and bebbux bl-arjoli (boiled snails in garlic dip) is a favorite local delicacy. It is often regarded simply as a pest in gardens and to agriculture, especially where it has been accidentally introduced. It is native to the Mediterranean area and Western Europe, but has been spread by humans, both deliberately and accidentally, to various countries around the world. The National Museum of Natural History holds examples of this species in the Conchological Collection. 

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Specimen of the Month

Eurasian Honey-buzzard – Kuċċarda – Pernis apivorus

The month of September is synonymous with bird migration, in particular, raptor migration. Flocks of broad-winged birds of prey such as harriers and buzzards can be seen in the early afternoon, soaring on the rising warm air currents (thermals). In the evening, several of these birds decide to spend the night on the island and in places like Buskett one can witness the magnificent descent from the skies into the trees of these truly aristocrats of the air. The Eurasian Honey-buzzard is one of the more commonly seen species and comes in a variety of different plumage colours (morphs) from pale white to dark black and any shade imaginable in between. Specimens from the historical collection can be seen on display in the bird’s hall of the Natural History Museum.

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Volunteering at Lampedusa

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Secimen of the Month May 2012

Caloplaca aurantia on hard well lit calcareous rock (limestone).

Lichens form as a result of a symbiotic partnership between two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga or a cyanobacterium. Around 18,000 species of lichen have been described and identified worldwide. In Malta around 200 species have been recorded so far, 12 of which are endemic to the Maltese islands. Lichens come in a wide array of colours and various growth forms, including foliose (leaf-like), fruticose (shrub-like), crustose (forming a thin crust on rock or other substrates) or squamulose (intermediate between foliose and crustose). These organisms grow on soils, rocks or tree bark and occasionally on other substrates including metal. They are able to survive in all climates and altitudes but in general they need three things to grow; undisturbed surfaces, time, and clean air. Their growth rate is fairly slow adding to about 3 millimetres to their radius every year, but a few species grow about 10 times as fast. Their ability to absorb water and minerals from rainwater and directly from the atmosphere makes them ideally sensitive to air pollution. Different lichen species vary in their tolerance to pollution and therefore make very good biological indicators of levels of atmospheric pollution. Lichens are used for many things by both animals and humans worldwide. They provide forage, shelter and building materials for mammals, birds, snails, slugs and insects. In the past lichens were used as a food source in times of hardship by humans and before the advent of modern dyes they were important sources of dyes for clothing. Their unique chemistry has lead to the production the litmus dye which is widely used as an acid/alkaline indicator in chemistry. Furthermore because of their unique and varied biologically active substances, lichens are also used in the development of natural drugs, in the pharmaceutical industry and as food supplements. Two collections of lichens are currently housed within the National Museum of Natural History. One of the collections, donated by Surgeon Rear Adimral Sir Reginald Bankart dates back to the 1930s whilst the other collection was recently donated by Professor Denis De Lucca, son of the late Dr. Carmelo De Lucca, one of the former curators at the National Museum of Natural History.

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Specimen of the Month April 2012

Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallow-tailed Butterfly Papilio machaon melitensis (Farfett tal-Fejġel)

The largest butterfly in the Maltese Islands. The race occurring locally is endemic, that is, it is not found anywhere else. In the not so distant past it was much common but like most butterflies it has declined drastically through human activities. One of its local vernacular names is Tal-Lira, in 1976 this butterfly was figured on the 10Lm Gold Coin. The Swallow-tailed butterfly is also the logo of the National Museum of Natural History.

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Introduction to Nature Photography

In March 2012 Heritage Malta’s Education Unit and the National Museum of Natural History organised a course to introduce students in primary and secondary schools to the art of nature photography. The course was held at the National Museum of Natural History at Mdina for students from Malta and at the Gozo Nature Museum at the Citadel in Gozo for Gozitan students.

The participants had to practice what they learnt during the theoretical and practical sessions which were led by Paul Portelli. The best pictures submitted by the participants can be seen in the museum’s Facebook page.

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