Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

Have you ever asked yourself the question “What’s behind the gallery doors of National Museum Cardiff”? Well, if you have then this blog might be for you. The specimens and objects you see in the galleries are just a fraction of those we have in the museum’s collections. So why do we have so many? Specimens in the galleries do suffer when exposed to light while on display, and occasionally from being touched by little sticky fingers! To help protect them, we regularly swap fragile objects on display with those in our stores. We also change objects round for the different exhibitions we produce. Objects behind the scenes are also used for a whole variety of different activities such as education and research. 

While we may not be able to put all of our specimens on display, we do like to share as many of them as we can via our social media channels. In the Natural Sciences Department, we do that via the @CardiffCurator Twitter account. Each week, we might share our worm highlights on #WormWednesday, some of our fantastic fossils on #FossilFriday and various other amazing specimens on other days of the week via various alliterations! 

Of course, the festive season is no different and each year we promote Christmassy objects via a #MuseumAdvent calendar. For 2020, our calendar has been inspired by the ‘Nature on your doorstep’ program which the museum has run throughout lockdown aimed at reconnecting people with nature. One of the main activities has been photo bingo, where we challenged people to find and photograph a number of objects. For winter bingo, we released a card at the end of November with 24 wintery things, such a robin, holly, frost and a sunset. Behind every door of our museum advent calendar, we included helpful tips and photographs from our collections, alongside live photos to help people find everything on the bingo sheet.

We are nearly half way through the calendar, but if you would like to join in why not follow the #MuseumAdvent hashtag over on @CardiffCurator and see if you can call “House” before the 24th December.

How a Distanced Professional Training Year Can Still Be Enjoyable and Successful

As an undergraduate, studying biosciences at Cardiff University, I am able to undertake a placement training year. Taxonomy, the study of naming, defining, and classifying living things, has always interested me and the opportunity to see behind the scenes of the museum was a chance I did not want to lose. So, when the time came to start applying for placements, the Natural Sciences Department at National Museum Cardiff was my first choice. When I had my first tour around the museum, I knew I had made the right choice to apply to carry out my placement there. It really was the ‘kid in the candy shop’ type of feeling, except the sweets were preserved scientific specimens. If given the time I could spend days looking over every item in the collection and marvelling at them all. 

The 'candy shop' moment of seeing the museum's collections

Jars of preserved specimens in the collections at National Museum Cardiff

Of course, the plans that were set out for my year studying with the museum were made last year and, with the Covid-19 pandemic this has meant that plans had to change! However, everyone has adapted really well and thankfully, a large amount of the work I am doing can be done from home or in zoom meetings when things need to be discussed.

Currently, my work focuses on writing a scientific paper that will be centered on describing and naming a new species of shovel head worm (Magelonidae) from North America. Shovel head worms are a type of marine bristle worm and as the name describes, are found in the sea. They are related to earth worms and leeches. So far, my work has involved researching background information and writing the introduction for the paper. This  is very helpful for my own knowledge because when I applied for the placement I didn’t have the slightest clue about what a shovel head worm was but now I can confidently understand what people mean when they talk about chaetigers or lateral pouches!

Part of the research needed for the paper also includes looking closely at species found in the same area as the new species, or at species that are closely related in order to determine that our species is actually new.

Photos for the paper were taken by attaching a camera to a microscope and using special imaging stacking software which takes several shots at different focus distances and combines them into a fully focused image. While ideally, I would have taken these images myself, I am unable to due to covid restrictions, so my training year supervisor, Katie Mortimer-Jones took them.

Camera mounted on a microscope used to take images of the worms

Then I cleaned up the backgrounds and made them into the plates ready for publication. I am very fortunate that I already have experience in using applications similar to photoshop for art and a graphics tablet so it wasn’t too difficult for me to adjust what I already had in order to make these plates. Hopefully soon, I will be able to take these images for myself.

Getting images ready for publication

My very first publication in a scientific journal doesn’t seem that far away and I still have much more time in my placement which makes me very excited to see what the future holds. Of course, none of this would be possible without the wonderful, friendly and helpful museum staff who I have to express my sincere thanks to for allowing me to have this fantastic opportunity to work here, especially my supervisor, Katie Mortimer-Jones.

Shovel head worm 

Lewis Weston Dillwyn (1778-1855)

Lewis Weston Dillwyn is part of the influential Dillwyn family in south Wales during the 19th century. They were pioneers in photography, culture, industry, politics and science. Lewis Weston himself was a campaigner for social justice, a Whig MP for Glamorgan (1832-37), mayor of Swansea (1839) and a magistrate. He studied the natural world and advanced our scientific understanding of it, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and a founder member of the Royal Institution of South Wales.

Lewis Weston was born 1778 to William Dillwyn, an American Quaker and anti-slave campaigner. After settling in England in 1777, William was one of the 12 founding committee members for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787. In 1802, William established Lewis Weston Dillwyn, then aged 25, as owner of Cambrian Pottery in Swansea. A year later Lewis Weston moved to south Wales and four years after that married Mary Adams, heiress of John Llewellyn, firmly establishing the Dillwyn-Llewellyn family’s influential position in south Wales. He was an abolitionist like his father but was also close friends with the De la Beche family who owned slave plantations up until the early 1830s. His son Lewis Llewellyn Dillwyn married Elizabeth De la Beche in 1838.

It was mainly during the time he was head of Cambrian Pottery that Lewis Weston studied algae.

The Book of Algae

Lewis Weston had a scientific interest in the natural world, most notably plants, beetles and molluscs. At a time when art, industry and science were often pursued in conjunction with one another rather than separately, he introduced many natural history designs onto the products made at his Cambrian Pottery.

The Museum holds Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s book of pressed seaweeds and algae. Inside are over 280 specimens of algae from both fresh and seawater, mainly from Wales and England. Many are thought to have been collected by Dillwyn himself, and many were sent to him by scientists from the UK and Ireland. The book contains algae that were completely new to science and described by Dillwyn for the first time. Some of these new to science algae were discovered for the very first time in Wales. The book is an early record of the natural heritage of Wales and a glimpse into the scientific life of a prominent 19th century philanthropist.

New to Science

It was particularly between 1800 and 1810 that Lewis Weston Dillwyn focussed on algae. He noted that Linnaeus, who was classifying the whole of the natural world, “was too busily engaged in the immense field he had entered on, to spare the time necessary for an investigation of the submerged Algae.” (Dillwyn, 1809, British Confervae). Dillwyn felt he had found a niche for his scientific study.

The algae that Lewis Weston studied was a group with very thin fine branching known as the Confervae. He collected specimens, pressed them and placed them into the book now held at the Museum. His many connections led to a network of scientists who would send him specimens he was interested in to his home in south Wales. He described 80 kinds of algae new to science.

Someone in Dillwyn’s position could afford to buy a microscope powerful enough to study this group which have very small features. He would also have needed expensive books and his standing in society meant he was able to access the libraries of friends such as William Jackson Hooker and of the Linnaean Society in London, where he was made a Fellow. It also meant he was able to discuss current thinking with other prominent scientists of the time and gauge where to place his efforts.

At the time, there had been little work done on this difficult to study group. Dillwyn knew the algae he was looking at were probably unrelated, but in his published work he put them into one group. He had done the initial pioneering groundwork to describe them but he himself modestly admitted that it was flawed. The pressed algae in his book at the Museum includes what scientists now know belong in many different groups: green algae, red algae, brown algae, lichens, fungi, cyanobacteria, stoneworts and diatoms. Dillwyn published the results of his studies in instalments, culminating in the publication ‘British Confervae’ in 1809.

 

Further reading

The Diaries of Lewis Weston Dillwyn, transcribed by Richard Morris: https://www.swansea.ac.uk/crew/research-projects/dillwyn/diaries/lewis-weston-dillwyn-diaries/

The Dillwyn Dynasty by David Painting (2002): https://www.swansea.ac.uk/crew/research-projects/dillwyn/dillwyn-day/dillwyn-dynasty/

British Confervae by Lewis Weston Dillwyn: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/2189#/summary

A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator

My name is Jennifer Gallichan and I am one of the natural history curators at National Museum Cardiff. I care for the Mollusc (i.e. snails, slugs, mussels, and octopus) and Vertebrate (things with backbones) collections. Just like everybody else, museum curators are adapting to working from home. But what did we use to do on a 'normal' day, before the days of lockdown?

Caring for the National Collections

Most of our specimens are not on display. Amgueddfa Cymru holds 3.5 million natural history specimens and the majority are held behind the scenes in stores. Caring for the collections is an important part of our role as curators. We have to meticulously catalogue the specimens to ensure that all of the specimens are accounted for. As you can imagine, finding one object amongst 3.5 million could take a while.

Harriet Wood (Curator: Mollusca) in the collections

Natural history collections cover a whole range of materials including shells, dried plants, minerals, fossils, stuffed animals, bones, pinned insects and fluid preserved specimens (this includes things in jars).

Cephalopod specimens from the William Evans Hoyle collection

These collections are vital for research, education, exhibitions and display. Some have been in the museum for well over a century, and it is our role to ensure they last into the next century and beyond. We work with specially trained Conservators to monitor the collections and highlight anything that might be at risk, needs cleaning or repair.

Cleaning the skeleton of one of Cardiff famous residents, Billy the Seal

Answering your Questions

We spend a lot of time working with you, our fantastic visitors. Much of our time is spent answering the thousands of enquiries we receive every year from families, school children, amateur scientists, academics of all kinds, journalists and many more. We also host open days and national events throughout the year which are another great opportunity to share the collections. Many of us are STEM (Science, Technology Engineering & Mathematics) ambassadors, so an important part of our role inspiring and engaging the next generation of scientists.

Talking about the collections at the Eisteddfod

Working with Volunteers

Our museums are crammed full of fascinating objects and interesting projects to inspire and enjoy. We spend a lot of time with our excellent volunteers, helping them to catalogue and conserve the collections, guiding them through the often intricate and tricky jobs that it has taken us decades to perfect.

Our fantastic volunteers currently working on transcribing letters from the Tomlin archive of correspondence

Working with Other Museums

Museums across the world are connected by a huge network of curators. We oversee loans of specimens to all parts of the globe so that we can share and learn from each other’s collections. We have to be ready to deal with all manner of tricky scenarios such as organising safe transport of a scientifically valuable shell, or packing up and transporting a full sized Bison for exhibition.

A meeting of mollusc curators as part of a research project at the Natural History Museum, London

Working with Visitors

Despite the fact that a large part of the collections are behind the scenes, they are open to visitors. Researchers from across the globe come to access our fantastic collections to help with their studies. We also host tours of the collections on request.

Working with visitors in the collection, examining Sawfish rostra

Making Collections Bigger and Better

Despite having millions of specimens, museum collections are not static and continue to grow every year. Be it an old egg collection found in an attic, or a prize sawfish bill that has been in the family for generations, it’s an important part of a curator’s job to inspect and assess each and every object that we are offered. Is it a scientifically important collection or rare? Has it been collected legally? Do we know where and when it was collected? Is it in a good condition? Do we have the space?

Bryn, our Sumatran Tiger was donated to us in 2017 from Colwyn Bay Mountain Zoo

Creating New Exhibitions

A fun part of the job is working with our brilliant Exhibitions department to develop and install new exhibitions. We want museums to be exciting and inspiring places for everyone so we spend a lot of time making sure that the information and specimens we exhibit are fun, engaging, inspiring and thought provoking.

Adding specimens to a specially created exhibit called Museum in a House, for Made in Roath festival, 2015

Being Scientists

Last but definitely not least, when we aren’t doing all of the above, we are doing actual science. Museums are places of learning for visitors and staff alike. Many of us are experts in our field and undertake internationally-recognised research. This research might find us observing or collecting specimens out in the field, sorting and identifying back in the lab, describing new species or researching the millions of specimens already in the collections.

Kate Mortimer-Jones (Senior Curator: Marine Invertebrates) hard at work identifying marine worms

Museums from Home?

Despite lockdown, we are working hard to keep the collections accessible. We’re answering queries, engaging with people online, writing research papers and chipping away at collection jobs from home. And like all of you, we are very much looking forward to when the museum opens its doors once again.

If you want to find out more about the things we get up to in the museum, why not check us out on Twitter or follow our blog? You can also find out more about all of the members of the Natural Sciences department here.

In my previous blog I explained what rafting bivalve shells are and how Caribbean bivalves are ending up on British and Irish shores attached to plastics. There are numerous records of non-native bivalves on plastics in the southwest of Ireland and England but nothing has yet been reported in Wales, which is something that I’m trying to rectify. To encourage recording I’m enlisting citizen scientists – volunteers from the general public – who can help to spot and identify these rafting species in Wales. But first of all, I want to check to see if there are rafting species turning up on our shores so I began talking to groups who already go out on the shores to survey, beach clean or educate.

 

PLANED team at Wiseman's Bridge beach

In December 2019 I met with a fantastic group of people at PLANED in Narbeth. PLANED have excellent coastal community links and everyone I spoke to was enthusiastic and willing to incorporate the rafting bivalves project into their usual activities of beach cleans, foraging, outdoor activities or education.  They were keen to help record any rafting species that they discover and we talked about how to identify any bivalves found. Since then I have been working on an identification guide that I plan to develop with the help of these community groups.

 

Pembrokeshire National Parks staff and volunteers looking for plastics at Freshwater West beach

In February 2020 I met up with 35 people at the Pembrokeshire Coast National Parks offices in Pembroke Dock. They were eager to learn more about non-native bivalves on plastics. After lunch, those daring enough braved the freezing temperatures and gales to carry out a mini beach clean at Freshwater West beach. We found a lot of large plastic items in less than half an hour which we brought back to the car park for a closer look. Even though there were a lot of pelagic goose barnacles (stalked crustaceans related to crabs and lobsters that attach to flotsam) on some items, proving that the items had been floating in the ocean for a long time, no non-native bivalves were found.

Plastics found at Freshwater West beach - no bivalves attached, though!

In early March two colleagues and I attended the annual Porcupine Marine Natural History Society’s

Presenting the rafting project at the annual Porcupine Marine Natural History Society Conference at SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science).

conference where I presented the project and had several more offers of eyes on the ground to record and test the identification guide, which is great news.  I’ve also set up a Facebook page where volunteers can post images of any suspected non-native bivalves for me to identify. I’m hoping to meet up with several more groups later in the year to ask them to look for these pesky hitchikers so we can find out if and where they are attempting a Welsh invasion!

If you would like to help record non-native bivalves on plastics on Welsh beaches then do contact me at Anna.Holmes@museumwales.ac.uk