Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

A new home for some Skomer seaweeds

Katherine Slade, 9 May 2023

Off the  coast of Pembrokeshire in west Wales is Ynys Sgomer, Skomer Island, a very special place for wildlife. It is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the surrounding waters were the first designated Marine Conservation Zone in Wales in 2014. This prestigious list gives a high level of conservation protection to the rich marine habitats and species found here.

A collection of over 100 pressed seaweeds from Skomer Marine Conservation Zone have been donated to the Museum by Kate Lock, Marine Conservation Officer at Natural Resources Wales. Scientists have studied the marine life of the island for many years, and these specimens were collected as part of surveys to record the life within this highly protected region covering 27 kilometers of mostly rocky shores including cliffs, rock pools, caves and tunnels.

The collection preserves evidence of over 70 different seaweed species collected from places with wonderfully descriptive names such as Garland Stone, Martin’s Haven, The Wick, Wendy’s Gully, North Wall and Mew Stone. Of the 119 specimens, 107 are red seaweeds, 12 are brown seaweeds, and 2 are green seaweeds. Almost all were collected from below the tidal zone.

A couple of non-native seaweeds make an appearance, Antithamnionella ternifolia, which was first recorded from Wales in 1956 north of Skokholm and south of Skomer. Also Siphoned Japan Weed (Dasysiphonia japonica) which is native to the Pacific Ocean and invasive in the UK. It was first recorded from Wales in 1999 at Milford Haven. Our specimen is from the Wick on Skomer Island and was collected in 2005. This same survey recorded the rare red seaweed, Crested Spermwell (Euthora cristata) which grows on Forest Kelp (Laminaria hyperborea) has a mainly northern distribution in the UK and most records are from Scotland, with a few in Pembrokeshire.

The exclusively subtidal rare red seaweed Lobed Jelly Weed (Schmitzia hiscockiana) was described as new to science in 1985 from Ynys Enlli in north Wales (Maggs & Guiry 1985). It is found on the western shores of Britain and Ireland and our specimen was collected in 1999 from Skomer.

Collections of plants and algae from highly protected areas like Skomer are rare and highly regulated. These collections were made during surveys conducted by the Countryside Council for Wales, which is now part of Natural Resources Wales, the organisation that manages the island for wildlife. The specimens provide invaluable evidence for the species found there and how they change over time and cannot be duplicated. They will now join the other 8000 algae specimens in the herbarium at Amgueddfa Cymru. They have improved the Museum’s coverage of this area, which previously consisted of only small numbers of seaweeds from Skomer.

Please contact Katherine Slade for enquiries relating to the algae collection at Amgueddfa Cymru.

If you’re visiting Pembrokeshire, its nearly your last chance to the visit the On Your Doorstep exhibition at Oriel y Parc in St. David’s, which runs until the end of May 2023. It brings together stories of nature and archaeological discovery in Pembrokeshire and features the Museum’s collections.


Further Reading

Bunker et al (2017) Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland. Seasearch

M.D. Guiry in Guiry, M.D. & Guiry, G.M. 07 February 2017. AlgaeBase. World-wide electronic publication, National University of Ireland, Galway.; searched on 30 January 2023

Maggs, C.A. & Guiry, M.D. (1985). Life history and reproduction of Schmitzia hiscockiana sp. nov. (Rhodophyta, Gigartinales) from the British Isles. Phycologia 24: 297-310.

Sjøtun et al. (2008) Present distribution and possible vectors of introductions of the alga Heterosiphonia japonica (Ceramiales, Rhodophyta) in Europe. Aquatic Invasions. 3(4): 377-394

A new Welsh treasure trove of very special fossils

Lucy McCobb, 1 May 2023

Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales palaeontologists have discovered a large number of extraordinary new fossils, including many soft-bodied creatures, at a new site in mid Wales.  Honorary Research Fellows, Dr Joe Botting and Dr Lucy Muir, are working with Senior Palaeontology Curator Dr Lucy McCobb and colleagues from Cambridge (Dr Stephen Pates), Sweden (Elise Wallet and Sebastian Willman) and China (Junye Ma and Yuandong Zhang) to study the fossils, which feature in a paper just published in Nature Ecology and Evolution Independent researchers Joe and Lucy discovered the new fossil site, known as Castle Bank, near their home in Llandrindod Wells during Covid-19 lockdown.  Unable to travel to use museum equipment, they crowd-funded to buy special microscopes to allow them to study their finds in more detail.  Ongoing work on the fossils is revealing a much more detailed picture of life in ancient Wales’ seas.

Where are the fossils from?

The fossils were discovered in a quarry on private land not far from Llandrindod Wells (the exact location is being kept secret to protect the site).  The rocks in which the fossils were found were laid down under the sea during the Ordovician period, over 460 million years ago, a time when what is now mid Wales was covered by an ocean, with a few volcanic islands here and there.

What kinds of animals were found at Castle Bank?

Fossils of lots of different kinds of animals were found at Castle Bank, totalling over 170 species so far.  Most of the animals were small (1-5 mm) and many were either completely soft-bodied when alive or had a tough skin or exoskeleton.  Places where soft-bodied fossils are found are very rare.  They give us an important glimpse of the full variety of life in the past, not just the animals with hard shells and bones that are usually found as fossils. 

The soft-bodied fossils include lots of different worms, some living in tubes.  There are also two kinds of barnacle, two different starfish and a primitive ‘horseshoe crab’.  Our own branch of the family tree is also present, in the form of primitive jawless ‘fish’ called conodonts.

Castle Bank fossils include the youngest known examples of some unusual groups of animals, including ‘opabiniids’ with their vacuum cleaner-like proboscis [Unusual new fossils from ancient rocks in Wales | Museum Wales].  There is also a ‘wiwaxiid’, a strange oval-shaped mollusc with a soft underbelly and a back covered with rows of leaf-shaped scales and long spines.  Another animal resembles Yohoia, an arthropod with a pair of large arms out the front, tipped with long spines for grasping food.  Before the Castle Bank discovery, these kinds of animals were only known from much older rocks, dating from the Cambrian period over 40 million years earlier.

On the other hand, some Castle Bank fossils appear to be the earliest examples of their kinds yet known.  If what looks like a horseshoe shrimp really is one, then it is the first fossil ever found of a group of crustaceans only previously known from living examples.  And another fossil looks remarkably like an insect and may be distantly related to these familiar creatures, which didn’t appear (on dry land) until 50 million years later.

Most Castle Bank fossils are found as dark shapes on the surface of the rock, a type of preservation known as ‘Burgess Shale-type’ where soft tissues are fossilised as films of carbon.  Almost all the previous examples are from the Cambrian Period (when animals with skeletons appeared in the fossil record), but Castle Bank dates from the Middle Ordovician, some 50 million years later. This is important, because it gives us a new window into how life was evolving at this time. 

Very fine details of the fossils can often be seen under the microscope.  A pair of eyes and the outline of what may be a primitive brain are visible in the head of an unknown arthropod.  Several trilobites have traces of their guts inside, and some of the worms have tentacles and jaws.  Only one other Ordovician site in the world (the Fezouata Biota of Morocco) preserves close to this level of detail. 

Researchers in Sweden also dissolved some of the rock in hydrofluoric acid, which left behind minute fragments of organic remains.  Under the microscope, these show cellular-level detail and provide clues to an even greater diversity of life than can be seen with the naked eye.

Future research on these intriguing fossils aims to unravel more of their secrets and to figure out their exact relationships to the rest of the tree of life.

What was life like at Castle Bank 460 million years ago?

All animal life was under the sea at that time.  A lot of the Castle Bank animals fed by filter feeding (filtering small particles of food out of the water) including a huge variety of sponges, along with sea mats (bryozoans), shellfish known as brachiopods and colonies of graptolites.  Many of these may have lived attached to underwater rocks and provided shelter for other animals that moved around. 

Most of the animals living at Castle Bank were small (1-5 mm).  They include lots of juveniles of a common trilobite called Ogyginus (but no adults), which suggests that this was their nursery, with fully grown trilobites living elsewhere.  Many other animals appear to be adults of small species.  Perhaps Castle Bank was a relatively safe, sheltered place, where smaller creatures lived in nooks and crannies away from the more perilous open ocean.

Joe and Lucy are still collecting fossils at Castle Bank as often as they can.  Many more new species are likely to be discovered in the coming years, as the rocks gradually give up their secrets.  We’re looking forward to learning much more about life in ancient Wales.

What can I do if I find an unusual-looking fossil?

As these fossils show, there are still lots of exciting new things to discover in Wales. If you find something that looks interesting and you're not sure what it is, our Amgueddfa Cymru scientists would be happy to try to identify it for you, whether it's a fossil, rock, mineral, animal or plant.  Just send us a photo (with a coin or ruler included for scale) with details of where you found it.  You can contact us via our website ( or on Twitter @CardiffCurator  We also have a number of spotters’ guides on our website, which will help you identify a lot of the more common things you’re likely to come across (



Arthropod = an animal with no spine, a hard outer shell (‘exoskeleton’) and lots of jointed limbs. Includes insects, spiders, crabs and scorpions.

Mollusc = an animal with no spine and a soft body, often partly covered by a hard shell. Includes slugs, snails, clams and octopuses.

Crustacean = an arthropod with a hard outer shell, lots of legs and two antennae (‘feelers’). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps and woodlice.

Bryozoans = tiny animals with no spine that live together in branching, rounded or flat colonies in the sea and filter food particles out of the water. Also known as sea mats or moss animals.

Brachiopod = shellfish with two shells and a special feeding loop covered with tentacles and fine hairs for filtering food particles out of the water. Also known as lamp shells.

Graptolites = tiny extinct animals with no spine that lived together in branching tube-like colonies with cups to house individuals, which filtered food particles out the water. Lived on the sea bed or floating in the water.

Rights and Rites; a new project to digitise and investigate botanical specimens from South Asia

Nathan Kitto and Heather Pardoe, 21 February 2023

Work has started on the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Rights and Rites, project, which explores, with community groups, plants and plant products originating in South Asia, primarily India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. 

The Amgueddfa Cymru biocultural collections (comprising approximately 5500 specimens), include a wide range of medicinal plants, notably plants important in traditional Ayurveda and Siddha medicinal systems, food products and raw materials. Specimens in the collection were originally donated by individuals and institutions, such as the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, and the Imperial Institute. The biocultural specimens, together with linked herbarium specimens and botanical illustrations are being explored in workshops involving curators and local community groups, with links to the places of origin of these specimens.

The aim of this collaboration is to combine the scientific knowledge of the curatorial and research staff with the expertise of local members of the Asian diaspora, to provide cultural context for specimens in the Museum’s collections. We aim to work together to increase knowledge of plant species used in traditional medicine, cuisine, ceremonies and culture. Through this collaboration, we are co-curating new interpretations for South Asian specimens, drawing on people’s lived-experience and cultural understanding of the specimens’ country of origin. The updated records on our collection databases have the scientific botanic information augmented with contextual information on medicinal and culinary properties.

This extends what we know about the collections, combining scientific details with information on traditional uses of the plant products. Access to specimens in the collection is being enhanced by digitising the South Asian specimens in the collection and also by producing 3D scans of the selection of specimens. Furthermore, we are researching the provenance of the botanical specimens concerned and creating new permanent records to include the new, co-created content.  We intend to make the economic botany collection more accessible to local communities, other institutions and scientists across the globe.

The project employs new scanning equipment, purchased using an AHRC grant, to scan specimens.  The scans will act as a catalyst to spark dialogue and knowledge-exchange about the Indian flora both between curators and the community and within the local diaspora community. 


Spices and herbs from South Asia

Hasminder Kaur Aulakh, 21 February 2023

Recently, curators from the Botany section have been working on an AHRC-funded project, Rights and Rites. The project aims to co-create new interpretations for South Asian specimens, drawing on people’s lived-experiences and cultural understanding of the specimens’ country of origin; to engage community groups of Asian heritage with relevant biocultural specimens; and to encourage dialogue and knowledge-exchange about the South Asian flora.

We have developed new partnerships with several members of the local Asian community through a series of interactive workshops.  These events provided a wonderful opportunity to share knowledge about the use of plant products in cooking and medicine, in traditional Asian cultures.  Here guest blogger, Hasminder Kaur Aulakh, shares her experience of using fennel, fenugreek and green cardamon at home.


Spices and herbs are staples of kitchens all over the world and their smell can invoke memories of home, family, events, and happy memories. These seeds, leaves, stems, and husks have a place in the heart, reminding us of our ancestors, homelands, and roots, and in the body by helping us cure and ease ailments. 


Saumph (Fennel)

Take the humble fennel, or Saumph as my Punjabi family refer to it, which can be found in South Asian households as dried seeds or in powdered form. Saumph is a key ingredient of the palate cleansing mix of seeds offered by many Indian restaurants to freshen one’s breath, and this mix is often kept in Indian homes for the residents and guests after meals. However, this seed also assists with digestion due to the high fibre content, which can come in handy after a large meal, and is said to calm the intestinal lining. Babies with colic are often fed saumph seeds in water. Chewing saumph is also linked to stabilising blood pressure and regulating heart rate.


The digestive benefits of saumph can be complemented with mooli, white radish in English, and saumph is a necessary ingredient in the making of mooli wala paronthe. Saumph is also a key ingredient in cha, Indian masala tea, and in Ayurveda steeping saumph is the most effective way of consuming the herb. 


Methi (Fenugreek)

Methi, known as fenugreek in English, is another staple of Indian households. This herb is useful as fresh and leaves and as seeds. Fresh methi leaves is to Indian cooking what fresh basil is to Italian cooking, and the widely popular Punjabi dish of butter chicken wouldn’t taste the same without a sprinkling of methi on top. As well as improving the taste of food methi contains saponins which can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol, improving the eater’s health. Methi is also a popular preservative for pickles. 


Methi has a place in home remedies as well, such as being made into a tea along with honey and lemon to help break fevers. Skin issues are also said to be helped by treating them with methi paste, such as eczema, burns and abscesses. Methi paste can also be used to treat an itchy scalp and dandruff and is used in cosmetic soaps for this purpose. Some believe methi to have antacid properties, and when ingested can reduce heartburn.


Elaichi (Green Cardamom)

Despite being considered a truly divisive herb, with some not being able to stand the taste and others who can happily eat a whole pod raw, elaichi nonetheless has a steadfast place in South Asian kitchen. From its use in savoury dishes such as biryani and bread to sweet treats like cha and sweets elaichi’s importance in South Asian cooking and baking cannot be denied. Elaichi’s form in a kitchen, much like its uses, are versatile and can be found in pod, seed, and/or powder form, and can be green or black. Green elaichi is the more commonly used in South Asia, but elaichi is used all over the world in its various forms.



Elaichi is thought to have antimicrobial properties, and has therefore been used herbal treatments against harmful bacteria. Much like the earlier discussed saumph, elaichi’s antimicrobial properties make it a top choice for use as a mouth freshener and it is thought that chewing on the pods can aid in the fight against oral bacteria that can cause problems such as infections and cavities in teeth. It is also thought to be a powerful anti-inflammatory, and consumption of the herb is said to aid with digestion and help avoid problems such as acid reflux and stomach cramping. The anti-inflammatory properties also lend itself to being helpful with relieving sore throats when steeped in hot water or tea.


And there we have it, the versatility of herbs and spices in South Asia. Whilst these do not replace strong antibiotics, vaccines, or painkillers, they can certainly help with minor conditions. The great smelling and tasting herbs and spices that create South Asian cuisine have such an important role to play in keeping our stomach’s full and bodies healthy, and these uses have been passed down through generations.

Digitising botanical specimens from South Asia for the Rights and Rites project

Nathan Kitto and Heather Pardoe, 21 February 2023

Over the last 7 months curators have been working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project, Rights and Rites. The project aims to work with members of the local community to reinterpret Botany specimens from South Asia, primarily in the Economic Botany Collection, to provide cultural context, to understand traditional methods of using the plant products and to improve access to the collections.

The Economic Botany Collection, comprising approximately 5500 specimens, contains a variety of different plant products, such as leaves, roots, fibres and seeds, all with significant economic, cultural or medicinal value. In addition, the project has drawn on collections of herbarium specimens, botanical illustrations, lower plant specimens and materia medica.

A key approach to making the collections more accessible is to digitise the specimens, producing images that can be shared with museum staff, researchers and communities outside of the museum.   Several techniques have been used to digitise the specimens, depending on the size and form of the specimens.

Working with different equipment and technology, Research Assistant Nathan Kitto has built up a collection of over a thousand images that include vascular herbarium sheets, specimens in jars and boxes and beautiful hand drawn illustrations. These images will be stored on the museum’s Natural Sciences online image library, along with specimen data, which can then be used as a research and reference tool. In future the images will be made more widely available through Collections Online

Initially 2D images were created using a high quality digital SLR camera.  This is a vital step to record unique details of the specimen, including accession number, common name and scientific species name and origin.  A colour chart is normally included in the image to ensure consistency in colour, size and scale. Micrograph equipment also has been used to take extreme close ups of specimens. By magnifying the specimen, it is possible to distinguish fine details which cannot normally be seen, giving a completely different dimension. 

New high-tech 3D scanning equipment has been purchased recently, supported by a grant from AHRC. Very detailed 3D scans have been produced of selected specimens that were suitable in terms of size and shape. The equipment allows us to capture a full 3D image of a specimen and permits end-users to rotate the specimen so that it can be viewed from any angle, providing quite a different perspective compared to a two-dimensional image. 

The scanners work by taking multiple frames or images of the object from different angles to build up a real 3D image. One type of scanner, the Artec Micro, has a more automated process; with the equipment doing most of the work, by rotating and choosing specific angles from which to take high quality images. In contrast, the Artec Space Spider is a handheld scanner, controlled by the operator, that takes a higher number of images while the object is rotating. It was very easy to use and was very accurate as well. After acquiring enough images from different orientations, the images are then merged using specialised Artec Studio software. With a few tweaks and repositioning, a 3D model is created and uploaded to Sketchfab. This is the online studio where the 3D image of the specimen can be optimised with lighting and positional edits. The Economic Botany 3D image library, which can be found here, displays 21 models of specimens, supplemented by information on traditional medicinal and cultural uses of individual species.

There are many benefits of creating 3D models of museum specimens; they make the collection accessible to anyone, and suitable for online searches. Preservation of the object is facilitated, since it allows the user to get a close look at delicate objects without the danger of causing damage. A digital asset will not deteriorate with time and can be copied and stored in multiple places and it also can be used to create 3D printed models. Furthermore, a digital 3D object allows for a different interaction with an object. 

The 3D models have been used to make museum specimens accessible to members of the public during community workshops.  This form of engagement generated very positive feedback and provided a good starting point for discussions about museum collections and the many uses of the specimens. The creation of these 3D models is just the starting point.  The curators on the Rights and Rites project look forward to seeing how people will continue to interact with the models in the future and hope it can be a useful and engaging resource for the public and museum to share.  If you have any comments about the objects shown in this blog, then please contact: