Amgueddfa Blog: Falklands Island Research

Diatom diversity of the Falkland Islands

Ingrid Jüttner, 31 May 2016

Since 2011 Museum scientists have been part of an international team helping to fill the gap in our knowledge of the diversity of Lower Plants (mosses, fungi and algae) in the Falkland Islands. To date, work has been principally on the mosses and lichens of this environmentally sensitive British dependency. In 2015, Dr Ingrid Jüttner, Principal Curator Botany, was awarded a Shackleton Scholarship to visit the Falkland Islands to study the biodiversity of freshwater diatoms.

Diatoms are microscopic algae which are found worldwide in all types of aquatic habitats. Their silica cell walls make them relatively easy to collect and study and hence they are much used in studies of water quality and environmental history.

There are only few studies on diatoms from the Falkland Islands. The current research aims to provide a checklist of common species and document them photographically. A collaboration with Dr Roger Flower, University College London, Environmental Change Research Centre, who conducted several studies on Falkland diatoms, and with Prof. Bart Van de Vijver, Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium, who is an expert on freshwater diatoms from (sub-) Antarctic islands, will allow us to compile the most important species and to compare the diatom flora of the Falkland Islands to those from other South Atlantic and (sub-) Antarctic locations.

The field work took place in November 2015. Collections of diatoms were made from a range of freshwater habitats on East Falkland, West Falkland and Pebble Island. Samples were taken from ponds, streams, springs and damp terrestrial habitats. Care was taken to collect from a good range of substratum types to allow the study of the different algal communities which can vary considerably between microhabitats.

I stayed on Pebble Island for three days and had opportunities to explore both the western and eastern parts of the island. I collected from sites impacted by agriculture within the vicinity of farmland but also from remote sites away from human activities. The sites were varied and included ponds near the seashore that would receive sea spray, ponds in sand dunes and others which were certainly frequented by upland geese and other birds including penguins and therefore rich in nutrients.

Ponds on Pebble Island

In the western area of the island I took samples from various types of springs, such as a spring with stagnant water (known technically as a limnocrene), a flowing spring (rheocrene), a captured spring supplying drinking water to the Pebble Island settlement, several seepage areas and a stream.

Stream on Pebble Island

Spring on Pebble Island

It is difficult to move further afield on the island because there are no roads. However, the very friendly and supportive staff of the farm took me out in their four-wheel drive to reach the remotest corners of the island.

I then flew to West Falkland in a small aircraft. These planes are vital for transport between the different islands of the archipelago and supply the small settlements and remote farms with food and other essentials.

On West Falkland I stayed at Port Howard and explored the area in the vicinity for one day collecting from various ponds and streams. On the second day my host took me on a trip along the road to Chartres which further leads to the area around Fox Bay, providing me with ample opportunities to sample including at the Patricia Luxton Nature Reserve and in the Lakelands area.

River between Port Howard and Fox Bay, West Falkland

Pond between Port Howard and Fox Bay, West Falkland

On my return to East Falkland I visited three contrasting areas: Lafonia, a large low-lying area in the south-west which has plenty of ponds, lakes, small streams and marshy terrestrial habitats in the Cortaderia (White Grass) grassland; the Cortaderia grassland and Empetrum rubrum (Diddle-dee) plain near Volunteer Point north-east of Stanley and a more agricultural area north of Mount Kent, near Hope Cottage Farm, and along the road between Douglas Station and Salvador.

Cortaderia (White Grass) grassland of Lafonia, East Falkland

Pond in Lafonia, East Falkland

Vantan Arroyo River between Mount Pleasant Airport and Stanley, East Falkland

On the journeys to some of the areas I also collected from rivers draining the central mountain ridge, although higher areas in the mountains were not collected during this visit due to a lack of time.

River near Hope Cottage Farm, East Falkland

Pond near Douglas Station, East Falkland

I am currently processing the diatom samples in the laboratory, and the entire collection of Falkland diatom samples held at the National Museum of Wales (including samples taken by a colleague during earlier visits to the Falkland Islands) has been entered on our diatom database. Imaging and taxonomic investigations will commence soon and a visit to the Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium, to collaborate with Prof. Bart Van de Vijver is scheduled for the beginning of September.

Diatom species of the genus Surirella

Thank you to David Tatham, Chairman of the Shackleton Scholarship Fund, and other members for awarding me the scholarship; thank you to Nick Rendell, Falkland Islands Government, and to Dr Paul Brickle, Director of South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) for the research licence and support. Many thanks to all the landowners who freely granted access to their land.



The Mossy Falkland Islands

Ray Tangney and Katherine Slade, 11 December 2015

What do our museum scientists do out ‘in the field’? One of our museum scientists, Ray Tangney, has just returned from the Falkland Islands. See what he got up to.

"There are 3 of us, myself, Matt von Konrat from the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA, and Juan Larrain from the Universidad Catolica de Guayaquil, Santiago, Chile; and we were in the Falklands as part of a Darwin Initiative funded project, recording and conserving the lower plants. This means we were searching for plants such as mosses and liverworts (small, low growing plants that do not produce flowers).

We spent most of the time in ‘Camp’ (the name for the hinterland beyond the capital, Stanley), visiting locations in a 4 wheel drive on East and West Falkland, and on Pebble Island to the north. We estimate we found 14 plants that had never been found growing on the Falkland Islands before; 8 mosses and 6 liverworts.

I gave a talk about the project to the Falklands Conservation AGM. We also ran a school activity session at Fox Bay School. The children collected and created their own herbarium specimens, making them accessible for scientists in the future. They looked at mosses under a microscope and observed details they would never usually have been able to see in the wild. Image 1 shows the children being asked by Juan whether the plant is a moss or a liverwort! It’s a silver coloured moss we also have in Wales called, rather unsurprisingly, Silver-moss (scientific name, Bryum argenteum). In January, the Lower Plants Project Officer, Dafydd Crabtree, ran a similar activity session about lichens with the children. Have a look at some more photos from the Falklands Conservation Facebook page here.

We found a number of new records of mosses for the Islands during this trip. Image 2 shows a misty Mount Donald on West Falkland at about 600 metres above sea level. The moss Bucklandiella pachydictyon growing on rocks here was a brand new record for the Falklands. It wasn’t all sunshine. The next day on Mount Adam we had rain, sleet, hail and snow, along with strong winds!

A characteristic feature of the Falklands are sea inlets. Streams that feed into these inlets are an important habitat for mosses and liverworts. One moss (Blindia torrentium) that only grows in the Falklands is commonly found on rocks in these streams.

Tiny plants such as mosses are such a big feature of the Falkland Isles landscape. School activity sessions, as well as talks, are crucial to increase local knowledge of, and interest in, the unique natural environment of these fragile, beautiful islands in the Southern Hemisphere."

Falkland Islands Museum

Teresa Darbyshire, 2 February 2015

30.01.15 Additional story

Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of Falkland Islands weather, we are currently stuck in Stanley for an extra day after our flight was postponed last night for 24 hours. Apparently, gale force gusting crosswinds are not suitable for airplane takeoffs!

Still, it meant I had time to visit the new Falkland Islands Museum which I had not had time to get to during the last two weeks. I visited this museum two years ago before it was moved to its new location. Back then, it was in a small building at the top end of Stanley, every conceivable piece of space crammed with stories and displays each vying for attention but difficult to concentrate on due to the overcrowding. Now, it has a shiny new, custom-built, two-storey building on the central waterfront, the displays have more space to view and it is easier to see and follow the stories of the different aspects of Falklands culture.

This is a ‘local’ museum in the sense that it tells the story of the Falkland Islands from discovery and colonisation through to the present day, through social, natural, maritime and military histories. Not surprisingly, the social history aspects get the most detail and time and, slightly disappointingly, at least from my point of view, the natural history section is both small and fairly superficial. The most significant birds and mammals get a quick mention, invertebrates not at all, with no mention of the rich marine life found here. Geology fares even worse. There is however, a nice section on the commercial fisheries, their importance as well as the work done to monitor them, control them and help reduce bird mortalities associated with them. There is also a section on the current oil exploration. The Islands have long had associations with Antarctic exploration with many expeditions passing through the islands, Shackleton particularly spending time here. The ‘Reclus Hut’, for many years a research hut at Portal Point in the Antarctic, was shipped back here along with all of its contents before it was lost, after it had been closed and abandoned for many years. In the old museum, this was outside and was still faring badly in the weather. Now, it has a place inside along with the expeditionary stories related to its history and should last for many more years to come, reminding people just how tough Antarctic exploration was back then.

Outside, with more space and new coats of paint are the larger displays of maritime and military objects including a harpoon gun, now looking clean and shiny as opposed to the rusting relic it was before (see before and after photos). Unfortunately, the labels for these seem to have disappeared for now, with only my old photos to tell me what they are. Hopefully, these labels will be replaced soon as visitors will always want to know what it is they are looking at.

I’m glad the museum has been given more space and funds to properly showcase the Islands history and culture, the stories do deserve it. Perhaps in the future, they may be persuaded to expand the natural history sections in keeping with the variety and diversity of life they have here, also a story well-deserving of being told.

A non-biologist’s perspective

Teresa Darbyshire, 30 January 2015

Here is the last in this series of blogs from the Falkland Islands, for now. An account of the trip by husband Brendan:

A non-biologist’s perspective on fieldwork and worm hunting

I remember having a conversation with my careers advisor when I was 16 about my A-Level choices, at the time I was really interested in Sharks and wanted to be a Marine Biologist. My ‘careers advisor’ then cheerfully informed me that to achieve this goal I would need to continue my Chemistry studies, at which point my heart sank and my visions of playing with Great Whites became distant fantasies.  

My interest in the underwater world never really left me but I also never really got to understand what being a Marine Biologist would actually entail.  This trip in many ways has been an eye opener as it has provided me with an insight into what it is actually like to pursue Marine Biology and the level of dedication required.

My first lesson in advanced rock pooling began at a place called Rincon Grande in the north of the Falkland Islands.  The excitement I felt as I started picking my way through the pools and looking under rocks and actually being more successful than Teresa in finding a range of worms, including my first scale worm quickly led to stoic perseverance as I then went on to find a succession of ragworms for what felt like hours.  There was at least one stage when I wished we were looking for starfish as these seemed to be everywhere but were apparently not of interest.

One of the key things that Teresa was trying to do was identify the diversity of worms in any location and that meant trying to find as much as possible and ideally a sample of more than one of each.  In many of the locations we went to, this meant spending 2 or 3 hours persistently combing the rocks and digging through what sediment there was to try and find as much as possible in the short window the tides provided us with (photo 1).  This tried both of our patience on several occasions as travel in the Falklands over what is considered roads, which we would consider simply a pot holed gravel drive, means that you arrive feeling battered and bruised before you then spend a couple of hours crouched on a beach in weather that seemed to vary from one extreme to another hunting an, at times, elusive prey.

Whilst collecting on a beach where you can stand on something solid whilst holding a piece of rock in one hand and using the forceps in your other hand to pick off a worm that might be only a few millimeters long is challenging. Trying to do this underwater, whilst you have one hand on the rock to try and steady yourself against the rolling ground swell that is trying to alternately tangle you in the kelp or pound you against the rock that you are trying to prize a sample off with the dive knife that you are holding in your other hand is a different matter altogether (photos 2 & 3)! The really challenging thing was that after you had managed to prize the sample off the rock you need to get it into a plastic sample bag (ziplock freezer bag) without losing everything – apparently I failed in this respect. Whilst I can’t hide the fact that the trowel and the all important brass snap lock (yes she has mentioned it more than once) did get left behind my argument is still that the sample was more important and that was recovered! I also never realised just how difficult it could be to open, put something into and then reseal a zip lock bag whilst wearing neoprene gloves that are 5mm thick!

Whilst the beach sampling and the diving both presented challenges the rewards do come when you get to view your catch down the microscope. What on the beach looks like a small orange blob is transformed into an elegant looking worm with a flowing mane of orange hair (a cirratulid – photo 4).  If you’re really lucky you get rewarded with a scale worm, resplendent in its glistening armour (photo 5), if you’re unlucky, well it’s just another ragworm…..

All in all whilst ‘rock pooling for adults’ may not be entirely accurate, I have to admire the persistence and knowledge required to do what I dreamed of doing as a young man in Leeds.

Sea Lion Island

Teresa Darbyshire, 29 January 2015


For the last 2 days, we have been out on Sea Lion Island, the southern-most outpost of all of the islands. Once again, we ended up on a flight that landed over an hour after low tide, even though the tide was at 4pm! This was very frustrating but we were straight out as soon as we could, and down on the nearest patch of shoreline to see what we could do. My trusty trowel had been replaced with a coal shovel, the best I could manage at short notice but it would have to do. Although the shore was the kind I knew would be poor for worms (favoured by penguins) we had a go. No luck. At the end of the bay were some rock ledges with a few rock pools with some sand and algae not yet being affected by the rising tide. We suddenly started finding a (very) few worms under the sand in the pools and then I also noticed some small casts as well (see photo 1). This spurred us on to keep looking and at least come away with something (photo 2). We eventually ended up with a small pot that turned out to be slightly more diverse than expected with at least four different species represented (not bad for a fairly bare rock pool and only just over a dozen animals). The most common animal in the pot was an animal known as Boccardia, which is very hardy and often found in the higher shore environments here (photo 3).

The following day dawned windy and wet and the tide was not until nearly 5pm. This gave us plenty of time to peruse the island, see the sights and check out the coastline as the island is only around 5 miles long. I had been here before a few years ago and had already sampled some of the rocky shores on the south side so was more interested in trying to get something from the northern coasts. Shortly after we set off the rain started, although not too heavily. On one of the first shores we visited we found a male sea lion (photo 4), fast asleep. A fantastic sight and one I had not seen before so that improved our mildly damp spirits. By lunchtime, the rain had become persistent and not so light anymore. Our waterproofs were holding out but both pairs of feet were increasingly squelchy. As we turned to follow the north coast back up the island, we found ourselves heading into the wind. Suddenly life felt a little unfair. Most of the shores we had seen were either inaccessible below vertical cliffs, clean boulders in equally clean mobile sand with no life beneath or solid rock ledges, scoured clean by sea and weather. We eventually fought our way back to the bay we had started at the night before, but this time a couple of hours before low tide to find it being pounded by waves. We dug a few holes but there was nothing apparent. After a brief sit down to stare vacantly at the shore while being eyed up by an obviously nesting pair of caracaras who just as obviously didn’t want us there, we decided to head directly across the island to the opposite, sheltered shore and try there instead. We then walked the length of the shore, digging small holes every so often like itinerant squirrels, as the tide slowly ebbed out. Still nothing. We crossed back to the other shore and walked the length of that too, just to say we tried. Salvation came in the form of washed up kelp bladders that were encrusted with the small coiled tubes of spirorbid worms that were still alive (photo 5). We finally allowed ourselves to retire to the lodge, peel off our boots and wring out our socks.

Today was even windier and I have to admit the will and strength to fight my way through it had gone. Our flight back after lunch was short with an even shorter take-off and landing thanks to the wind. Tomorrow I have to pack all of my samples up and make sure they are ready for sending home before doing the same for myself.

Brendan is tasked with the job of finishing off the blog for you, giving a non-biologist’s view of fieldwork and worms and the delights of getting involved with both for the first time. Then it’s an early start on Friday before the long haul home.