A SPECTACULAR celebration of learning and discovery, the IF Oxford festival of science and ideas is continuing to inspire and delight with a packed programme of events.

The festival continues until next Tuesday with a mix of hands-on activities, lectures, talks and general scientific fun.

Among events still to run is an art exhibition of printing techniques and interpretations called Species, by the Oxford Printmakers’ Workshop, which features a wide variety of animals and plants from the familiar to the more rare and unusual.

The artists whose work is on show have all produced new small-scale works of 25 x 25 cm, using their art to encourage the viewer to think more about both the extraordinary breadth of innovation and evolution of life on earth.

While some of the 40 pieces in the exhibition are carefully-considered studies of animal forms seen in the wild, both locally and further afield, others highlight endangered populations or are underpinned by anthropology and archaeology, or medical research.

Margot Bell, most known for her prints of mythological creatures, is showing wood-cut chameleons inspired by their similarity to some of the fantastical beasts in ancient legends and folklore.

“It has been revealed in fossils that chameleons lived 60 million years ago,” she says. “Today almost half the known species live in Madagascar. They were originally discovered by a German botanist, Alfred Voeltzkow but numerous others of varying sizes have been discovered more recently.

“Research has shown that crystals in their skin enable them to change skin colour to regulate temperature, to communicate with their own species and in fearful situations. Their eyes can focus on prey from 5 to 10 metres away and with strong teeth they easily crunch their prey. Their unusual feet clasp branches like a pair of salad tongs. They’re fascinating.”

Oxford Mail: Sumatran Tiger by Isobel Piggott

Another unusual creature was also chosen by Catriona Brodribb for its curiosity factor: the Surinam toad or Pipa pipa from South America.

“The toad eggs are hatched out on its back,” she explains, “like an exploding currant bun, or bubbling tapioca. The eggs once created – involving under-water gymnastics with Mr Toad – are positioned on the female’s back. These eggs sink under her skin within 24 hours, and then develop in honeycomb style pockets or chambers under the dorsal skin.

“The female can hatch out between 60-100 eggs, which take 3-4 months to develop. Then the baby toads hop away once hatched. They have no eyelids and can reach about eight inches in length with every jump.”

Equally striking is The Sumatran Tiger by Elizabeth Piggot. “The Sumatran tiger is a smaller subspecies of tiger that once inhabited all the Sunda islands of Indonesia,” she says.

“It now survives solely on the island of Sumatra where fewer than 500 individuals remain in the wild. Their future in Sumatra remains fragile as their forest habitat comes under increasing threat, not only from expansion of coffee and acacia plantations but also the creation of extensive palm oil plantations, driven by our unprecedented use of palm oil; an ingredient in so many of our household products and foods. These beautiful tigers face further threat from trapping and poaching for their body parts; in particular, teeth, bones and claws which continue to be in demand for use in Chinese traditional medicine, despite measures to halt this trade. The loss of this precious subspecies of tiger would be a tragedy.”

Oxford Mail: Scene by Margot Bell in Species by the Oxford Printmakers’ Workshop

Jane Peart chose a black rhinoceros “I felt it would be a good subject for the Species project for several reasons,” she says, having sketched the animal at London Zoo.

“It was very sad to see such an impressive animal in a relatively small enclosure. It made me think about the fact that animals, such as the rhino, are struggling for their existence and possibly in years to come we shall only see these animals in zoos. At the moment the black rhino is classified as critically-endangered and three subspecies are now extinct. There are vast swathes of the African continent where the rhino used to roam but sadly no more. I wanted to draw the animal to try and capture the essence of it and found such an imposing animal quite a challenge. My aim is to make a strong bold image to do the black rhinoceros justice.”

Oxford Mail: Species by the Oxford Printmakers' Workshop. Kray by Jackie Conway

Jackie Conway’s etching depicts one of the oldest of the sled dog breeds of the Arctic, believed to be a descendant of the domesticated wolf and one whose original looks have not been significantly altered since although times are changing. “’Kray’ is an etching of a Malamute dog,”  she says

“With the increased population and the domination of mankind, animals have had to adapt. These are dogs which work closely with the Malemuit tribes in Alaska. They are built for the freezing cold and also built for strength. They also provide valuable protection but the world is changing and now they are pets for westerners.”

Whilst many of the artists mourn the diminishing populations of the species they have chosen to depict, Sharda Mistry looks to the future and the way animals are helping with cutting edge research.

Oxford Mail: Species by the Oxford Printmakers' Workshop. Sharda Mistry's Jellyfish

Although Jellyfish, a drypoint print on Perspex, shows elegant jellyfish floating in an ocean of royal blue, it is their value to scientific research that inspired this picture. “Stem cells, taken from human skin cells, are used in heart disease studies to discover how heart muscles respond to drugs, thus avoiding tests on actual heart,” she enthuses, “and fluorescent proteins from DNA samples of jellyfish used in these studies help to find out how heart and heart muscles may behave. Scientists in Munich have used DNA from jellyfish to manufacture fluorescent proteins inside cardiomyocytes to study the properties of the heart and heart muscles. This protein is also helping researchers in efficiently detecting electrical activity in the heart muscles.”

Although there’s a serious undercurrent to the exhibition as a whole, visitors should expect a scattering of uplifting and humorous pieces too, from garden flowers and playful otters to cartwheels and a polar bear dancing beneath the northern lights!