Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

Nature Finds a Way

Alyson Edwards, 3 May 2022

The Recolonisation of Invertebrates on Restored Grassland:

I’m Alyson, a Professional Training Year placement year student from Cardiff University (School of Biosciences), currently working within the Entomology department at National Museum Cardiff under the supervision of Dr Michael R Wilson (researchgate.net). My interest in ecology, conservation and zoology ultimately led me here, and with no prior specialist knowledge in entomology (the study of insects) I jumped in at the deep end. Within a few months I was sampling in the field and identifying leaf- and planthopper species from Ffos-y-Fran (an open cast colliery site near Merthyr Tydfil). This  is currently undergoing the process of restoration so that it is converted from a colliery site to reseeded grassland.

Sampling in the field at Ffos-y-Fran in July 2021

Samples were then frozen and analysed along with samples taken in 2017-2019

Sorting invertebrate samples using a microscope and forceps into labelled tubes of ‘Hemiptera’, ‘Coleoptera’, ‘Diptera’ and ‘Assorted’ before storing specimens in 80% alcohol for preservation

Identifying and analysing over four years of invertebrate samples, involved looking at 195 samples.  This took a fair amount of time but allows the rate of recolonisation over a 5-year period, total species diversity, richness, and population dynamics within the fields across the years and seasons to be calculated. Leaf- and planthoppers (Hemiptera: Auchenorrhyncha) were chosen as models within this study as they are frequently common within grassland environments and can be used as an indicator of recolonisation progress on man-restored environments and ex-colliery spoil sites. Colliery sites are a common landscape visible across the UK, especially in the south Wales valleys. Their ecological importance and possible biodiversity are often overlooked, however work by Liam Olds (formerly Natural Talent apprentice at Amgueddfa Cymru), continues to highlight this through the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative (https://www.collieryspoil.com/about).

The 195 samples were sorted into tubes labelled as ‘Hemiptera’, ‘Coleoptera’, ‘Diptera’ and ‘Assorted’

Further sorting of the Hemiptera samples to species level in order to record population and gender numbers

I am currently in the process of analysing this huge data set and creating a report to show the findings. However, in summary, the data has shown a trend of increasing diversity of hopper species within the field since it was reseeded. In total, 33 species were identified from the site – highlighting the ecological importance these habitats hold. Interestingly, grassland species generally uncommon to the area such as the planthopper Xanthodelphax flaveola and the leafhopper Anoscopus histrionicus, were abundant across the site leading to interesting discussion points as to why this environment encourages their colonisation. Other observations and discussions have also arisen from different wing-morphologies (shapes) seen in specimens of the same species. For example, the discovery of long-winged females of Doratura impudica, which are commonly a brachypterous species (short or rudimentary wings) encourages thought on arrival and colonisation methods of certain species, which could potentially help analyse other environments under recolonisation and ‘rewilding’ programmes. 

Uncommon species of grasslands in the area, leafhopper Anoscopus histrionicus (male specimen) were observed frequently at Ffos-y-Fran.

Uncommon species of grasslands in the area, planthopper Xanthodelphax flaveola (male specimen) were observed frequently at Ffos-y-Fran.

Long-winged morphs of Doratura impudica, a brachypterous species (short or rudimentary wings), were observed infrequently across the site

Studying the recolonisation of hoppers at Ffos-y-Fran has allowed me to develop and gain numerous skills which I will take with me into my final year of university and beyond. Not only have I been able to improve on existing skills such as report writing and data analysis, but I’ve also had the opportunity to gain new skills such as invertebrate identification, mounting specimens and taxonomical drawing. I’ve also had the chance to use the Scanning Electron Microscopy and sputter coating, and I have also used the imaging equipment at National Museum Cardiff to create a ‘species guide’ of the 33 observed at Ffos-y-Fran to supplement the report and provide a visual aid. Within my first few months at the museum, I was also able to get involved in a data collection project run by Dr Alan Stewart (University of Sussex), analysing specimens within the Auchenorrhyncha collections to create spreadsheets for the eventual creation of species distribution maps as part of the UK Mapping scheme for this insect group. There are so many opportunities and experiences to be had within the museum!

Looking through the collections and understanding the role of a collections manager

Gaining experience in imaging by photographing Fijian spittlebugs in preparation of redescribing and describing new species

My time with Amgueddfa Cymru has been amazing, conducting research and joining the Natural Sciences team, and has solidified my desire to pursue a career in research. I believe my placement has given me a great start for a future career with the skills I’ve gained and developed through my work on Ffos-y-Fran and my secondary research project. The second project I am currently working on in collaboration with Dr Mike Wilson will provide an up-to-date redescription and description of new species of Fijian spittlebugs with the aim of publication of my first peer-reviewed scientific paper. Watch this space to find out more on the latter project …. 

Taxonomy- A dying science?

Abbie Taylor, 29 April 2022

As a Biological Sciences student I am very familiar with the concept of classification and evolution, having been taught about it from primary school level. The idea of using a filing system to organise species became common place at secondary school level. Constantly reciting the Linnean system and its eight levels of taxa (domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species) for exams and coming up with rhymes and mnemonics to remember it in class. 

Museum scientist in the DNA lab

Due to this I was vaguely familiar with taxonomy, I knew what it was and why it was important, as I describe below. However, we never truly explored taxonomy in any great detail, especially in a modern context, and so I never thought about it as a career many still do today. That was until February of 2020 when I was searching for placement opportunities for my Professional Training Year as a part of my degree at Cardiff University, and I came across an opportunity to undertake at National Museum Cardiff exploring taxonomy. I now have a much greater understanding of taxonomy’s importance and unfortunately the crisis it might be facing.

What is taxonomy?

Taxonomy is the science of naming, describing and classifying species, including species new to science. It is the foundation stone of biological science. The first step in understanding how many species we have, where they live, and what they look like so others can identify them. For example, it can be an early indicator of evolution, and in seeing how the morphological characteristics of species may help in adapting and surviving in their environments. 

Some tools for taxonomic drawing for a species of shovelhead worm (Magelonidae)

Why is taxonomy important?

To understand the great diversity of the world we must know what is in it, and so taxonomy is essential in beginning to describe distributions and habitats of species. This will help scientists determine for example, whether a species is under threat, or the presence of an invasive species that can threaten other species and as a result their ecosystem. Scientists need to know all of the species in an environment, all described in a standardised manner that can be understood by those from around the world no matter the language spoken. This is so that they can begin to understand how to help preserve biodiversity and help the planet. 

Taxonomy is essential in aiding communication between scientists by giving a species a binomial scientific name. Many species will have many differing common names, for example Puma concolor, also known as the puma, cougar, panther, mountain lion, catamount, etc. in fact, P. concolor has over 40 common names in English alone. A binomial name (often in Greek or Latin) reduces confusion by surpassing language barriers and avoiding differing common names.

Puma concolor CC BY 2.0

Taxonomy is also the first step in identifying species that have the potential to help people, to that end, the species related to them which may possess similar qualities. 

Truthfully, it is not known how many species share the planet with us. The most commonly cited number is 8.7 million species, however, this number ranges from five to ten million species. Either way taxonomists have only identified and described around two million species. Unfortunately, there will be many species that become extinct before we even know they existed. Scientists are unable to determine the rate of species extinctions or truly understand changes in biodiversity on a global scale because of the frightfully little knowledge of the species we share the planet with.

Importance of taxonomists

As mentioned, I mostly knew taxonomy as science undertaken in the past and if I did think of it in a modern context it was through modern techniques such as DNA barcoding. As a career opportunity for new biologists, taxonomy barely crosses the mind. It has been suggested that funding in taxonomic research is also on the decline, and that traditional taxonomy is too slow in producing research papers. 

Museum scientist in the DNA lab

But while using DNA to aid in identifications and for evolutionary relationships is no doubt useful, it is dangerous to remove all of the other “old-fashioned” techniques used for looking into morphological characteristics. Techniques such as drawing, AutoMontage imaging, scanning electron microscopy, written descriptions from observations, notes on habitat and distribution to name but a few. DNA analysis should be used to supplement the more traditional techniques, not replace them. There have been numerous examples in papers of errors in conclusions being made due to scientists looking at species from only a genetic point of view but having misidentified the species. To that effect integrative taxonomy has recently become a popular choice. It includes multiple perspectives such as phylogeography, comparative morphology, population genetics, ecology, development, behaviour, etc., so as to create the best descriptions and knowledge of species. 

After all, without taking the time to properly observe and describe a specimen you won’t truly know what the species looks like and how it uses its features to survive. How shall keys and field guides be properly constructed so that non-experts can identify species too? Without taxonomists how can the irreplaceable and valuable collections in our natural history museums be properly maintained and organised?

Imaging software used to image specimens, in this instance, the abdomen of a new species of shovel head worm

As I have experienced in my research on a relatively understudied family, mistakes have been made in identifications leading to false conclusions to be drawn, which has dangerous consequences for example in determining biodiversity. These false identifications may be enhanced by a purely DNA route into taxonomy. If taxonomy starts to die and fewer experts who truly understand a species exist who shall correct these mistakes and continue to document the rich biodiversity of the world?

 

A Shell Enthusiast's Dream - The Phorson Collection

Ellie Parry, 21 March 2022

Hello! I’m Ellie, an undergraduate from School of Biosciences at Cardiff University (School of Biosciences - Cardiff University), completing a Professional Training Year as part of my undergraduate degree. I’ve spent the last few months at National Museum Cardiff working in the Natural Sciences department in Mollusca, spending my time aiding in the research conducted by curator Anna Holmes (Staff Profile: Anna Holmes | National Museum Wales). The project I’ve been involved in is to identify common British post-larval bivalve shells. This is important because there is very limited information available for identification of these species at post-larval stage, so the aim of this research is to provide a taxonomic tool for fisheries and other similar organisations to be able to identify these juvenile bivalve shells at a species level. So far, my main task has been imaging specimens from within the Museum collections, which contain an impressive number of shells with some dating back as far as the early 1900’s.

A common cockle, Cerastoderma edule, spanning just over 1mm in width, from the Phorson collection at National Museum Wales in Cardiff.

One particular part of the collections I have been lucky to study, and one found to be most useful to the project, is the Phorson collection. This collection consists of thousands of miniscule specimens, ordered by size and species, glued onto small pieces of black card. This collection is by far the most impressive I have yet seen, with the larger of the specimens on these size series slides all withinaround 6-8mm, so you can only imagine the time and effort that Ted Phorson himself spent ensuring his collection was to the utmost perfection. The collection itself was organized and curated by another student, Theodore (Curation of a British Shell Collection | National Museum Wales), a few years ago, who wrote about his time in the Museum and with this phenomenal collection: Adventures in the Mollusca Collections | National Museum Wales

Ted Phorson’s incredible collection consists of 160 different shell species, all of which have been carefully and precisely arranged (Ted Phorson: A personal recollection | The Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland (conchsoc.org)). I have found in my five months of imaging many different types of specimens of bivalve shells that Phorson’s collection is a shell enthusiast’s paradise. It is a dream to image this collection, where every shell is perfectly sorted, ready and waiting in a patient line to be photographed. Other specimens from other collections have to be gently put into position, one by one, so the camera can capture the exact angle of each shell, which can be rather time consuming.

The setup for taking images of the specimens (pictured is the Canon camera attached to the Leica microscope tube).

Shovel head worms from Wales to West Africa

Katie Mortimer-Jones, 3 December 2021

From my recent musings you may have deduced that my research is centred around a beautiful group of marine bristleworms, which are given the name shovel head worms. Most people will be unfamiliar with shovel head worms, but they may have come across other marine bristleworms such as ragworms and lugworms used as bait by sea fisherman (the latter also being responsible for the casts of sand you see on sandy beaches), or the ornamental feather duster worms that people often keep in aquaria.

Lugworm casts and lugworm (photos by K. Mortimer and A. Mackie)

Unravelling a can of worms

Katie Mortimer-Jones, 14 October 2021

‘Who’s who in Magelona’ is a question I have asked myself for the 20 years or more that I have worked with marine bristleworms, but are we closer to knowing the answer?

 

Marine bristleworms, as the name suggests, are a group of worms that are predominately found in our seas and oceans. They are related to earthworms and leeches and can make up to 50-80% of the animals that live in the seabed. 

Collecting marine bristleworms at Berwick-upon-Tweed

I am a taxonomist, and as such, part of my role is to discover new species that have never been seen before, which I then get to name and describe, so other scientists can identify the newly discovered species. I may also rediscover new things about species we have long known about. Although people may not know much about marine bristleworms they are vital to the health of our seas, so understanding what species we have and where they live is an important part of protecting our oceans.

Drawing marine bristleworms down the microscope using a Camera Lucida which helps us "trace" what we see

Magelonids, or shovel head worms to give their common name, are a beautiful group of worms, whose spade-shaped heads are used for digging in sands and muds at the bottom of the sea. Of course, I may be biased in thinking they are beautiful, having spent over two decades studying them, I shall let you decide! They are unusual, even amongst bristleworms, and it is for this reason that we have often had trouble relating them to other marine bristleworm groups, or even understanding how they are related to one another.  As part of my job, I have discovered and named species from around the world, including species from Europe. I am currently investigating up to 20 new species off West Africa, and the similarities they share with those here in Wales, but that is a story for another day!

Shovel head worms

A plate taken from the journal article 'Who’s who in Magelona’ 

We cannot understand the natural world without first understanding how life on earth is related to one another. With this in mind, we have been looking at shovel head worms and the relationships between them. We have been working with colleagues in the USA and Brazil to answer this question, looking at different characteristics, for example, the size and proportions of the head and body, whether they have pigment patterns or whether they are known to build tubes. Due to the number of different characters and the numbers of species studied it has taken a long time to process the results. However, the results have just been published in the journal PeerJ, so we can share with others our findings. If you want to read more about ‘Who’s who in Magelona’ then the article can be downloaded here from their web-site.