Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

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.

King Ragworm (photo by T. Darbyshire)

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

Feather Duster/Fan Worm, Sabella pavonina. Ornamental feather duster worms are often found in aquaria (photo T. Darbyshire)

 

Shovel head worms get their name from their spade shaped heads used for digging in soft sands and muds. They are found all around the world, generally in shallow seas. There are over 70 species known worldwide, but large gaps in our knowledge exist. One such area is the waters around Africa.

 

Back in 2013 I was approached by colleagues from the University Museum of Bergen to collaborate on investigations into shovel head worms off Western Africa. Investigations have shown us that there are at least 20 different species of shovel head worms in these waters, many of which are new to science. Since then we have been working hard to describe the new species, and the first of a series of papers has just been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. This paper describes five new species of shovel head worms, present from Morocco to Angola.

Shovel head worm, Magelona mackiei named after Andrew Mackie, Honorary Research Fellow at Amgueddfa Cymru

One of the new species is named after Honorary Research Fellow at Amgueddfa Cymru Andrew Mackie (Magelona mackiei), another is named after zoologist and oceanographer Dr Fridtjof Nansen (Magelona nanseni), and a third is named after the Gulf of Guinea (Magelona guineensis) where the species was collected. The remaining two species are named for unique features of the animals: Picta from the Latin for painted, as this species carries distinct colouration (Magelona picta) and fasciata, meaning band, referring to the distinct stripy pattern along the length of the worm (Magelona fasciata)! 

Shovel head worm, Magelona picta, named for its ‘painted’ body

So, why is it important to study marine bristleworms and to describe new species? Marine bristleworms are a major constituent of the animals that live in and on the seabed. As such they are an important food source for many other animals, they are the ‘gardeners of the ocean’ and do similar vital ecological roles that earthworms do on land. They can also tell us a lot about the health and well-being of our oceans. Monitoring how well oceans are doing, depends on accurate identification of the species that live there. Sadly, for many regions even basic knowledge of what species are present is lacking. That’s where we step in to describe the diversity of life and produce identification guides for those who monitor how the seabed may change through pressures like climate change, fishing and dredging etc.

So, what have worms from western Africa got to do with Wales I hear you ask? Research on species outside of Welsh waters is vital to understand the species we have within them. In order to recognise a species new to science in Wales, or indeed and invasive species (which could have huge ramifications for native species) scientists need to have knowledge of species across the globe. This is particularly important given the changing climate and the increased transportation of species around the globe by human activities. We know very little about the distribution ranges of many marine bristleworms, but studies like this give us baseline information from which we can monitor changes as we move forward. Whilst several of the species in this investigation were found in very restricted regions, we have discovered that the European species Magelona alleni, a species first described in Plymouth back in 1958, and a common species here in Welsh waters is found all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, and it isn’t the only one either! We also know that several other species present in Welsh waters are present also off Western Africa, this will be covered in subsequent papers. Whilst we do not know how much the distribution ranges of species may have already been impacted by human activity, this is an important step in enabling the monitoring and protection of our seabed habitats here in Wales. 

Shovel head worm, Magelona fasciata, named for its stripy bands

‘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.

 

 

The next steps in a Professional Training Year

It’s been a little while since my last blog post and since then there has been a lot of exciting things happening! The scientific paper I have been working on that describes a new species of marine shovelhead worm (Magelonidae) with my training year supervisor Katie Mortimer-Jones and American colleague James Blake is finished and has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. The opportunity to become a published author is not something I expected coming into this placement and I cannot believe how lucky I am to soon have a published paper while I am still an undergraduate.

There are thousands of scientific journals out there, all specialising in different areas. Ours will be going in the capstone edition of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal which covers systematics in biological sciences, so perfect for our paper. Every journal has its own specifications to abide by in order to be published in them. These rules cover everything from the way you cite and reference other papers, how headings and subheadings are set out, the font style and size, and how large images should be. A significant part of writing a paper that many people might not consider is ensuring you follow the specifications of the journal. It’s very easy to forget or just write in the style you always have!

Once you have checked and doubled checked your paper and have submitted  to the journal you wish to be published in, the process of peer reviewing begins. This is where your paper is given to other scientists, typically 2 or 3, that are specialists in the field. These peer-reviewers read through your paper and determine if what you have written has good, meaningful science in it and is notable enough to be published. They also act as extra proof-readers, finding mistakes you may have missed and suggesting altered phrasing to make things easier to understand.

I must admit it is a little nerve wracking to know that peer reviewers have the option to reject all your hard work if they don’t think it is good enough. However, the two reviewers have been nothing but kind and exceptionally helpful. They have both accepted our paper for publication. Having fresh sets of eyes look at your work is always better at finding mistakes than just reading it over and over again, especially if those eyes are specialists in the field that you are writing in.

As you would expect, the process of peer-reviewing takes some time. So, while we have been waiting for the reviews to come back, I have already made great progress on starting a second scientific paper based around marine shovelhead worms with my supervisor. While the story of the paper isn’t far along enough yet to talk about here, I can talk about the fantastic opportunity I had to visit the Natural History Museum, London!

We are currently investigating a potentially new European species of shovelhead worm which is similar to a UK species described by an Amgueddfa Cymru scientist and German colleagues. Most of the type specimens of the latter species are held at the Natural History Museum in London. Type material is scientifically priceless, they are the individual specimens from which a new species is first described and given a scientific name. Therefore, they are the first port of call, if we want to determine if our specimens are a new species or not.

The volume of material that the London Natural History Museum possesses of the species we are interested in is very large and we had no idea what we wanted to loan from them. So, in order to make sure we requested the most useful specimens for our paper, we travelled to London to look through all of the specimens there. We were kindly showed around the facilities by one of the museum’s curators and allowed to make use of one of the labs in order to view all of the specimens. The trip was certainly worth it. We took a lot of notes and found out some very interesting things, but most importantly we had a clear idea of the specific specimens that we wanted to borrow to take photos of and analyse closer back in Cardiff. 

Overall, I can say with confidence that the long drive was certainly more than worth it! I’m very excited to continue with this new paper and even more excited to soon be able to share the results of our first completed and published paper, watch this space…

Thank you once again to both National Museum Cardiff and Natural History Museum, London for making this trip possible.

Over the past year, we have all had to stay closer to home more often. We may have discovered new local places, and started to look in more detail at familiar places. The museum has launched a new set of web-based resources to help people continue this exploration. The new On Your Doorstep webpages help and encourage others to discover local archaeology and nature in Wales. We’ve included activities for investigating and learning more, in the countryside and urban areas. If you want to delve even deeper, you can explore our natural history and archaeology collections of over 4 million specimens, and find links to our specialist sites.

Visit: On Your Doorstep: Nature, geology and archaeology in Wales

Nature Bingo

Have a go at spotting everything on our nature bingo cards. Cards for spring and summer are available now, as well as cards with more abstract terms such as ‘hooked’, ‘shiny’ and ‘slow’ to challenge you to look more closely at nature when you are out and about. Get out there and start ticking them off! Who can get a full house first? You can improve your Welsh at the same time by using both English and Welsh versions together as well as the handy hints for learners.  

Spotter’s Sheets

The spotter’s sheets in Welsh and English are there to help you to recognise more of the natural world and the archaeology on your doorstep. Use our downloadable spotter’s sheets to identify animals, plants, fossils, rocks and artefacts. They can be used as an introduction to a particular theme, to remind you of helpful identification characteristics, or to learn interesting facts about ordinary things around us in Wales.

Guides…to animals and plants

Visit the nature spotters guides webpage

  • Garden Pond Snails. Are there snails in your pond, if so what are they?
  • Hitchhikers on Ocean Plastics. Some sea creatures use floating plastic, or other waste, to travel around the world. Get in touch with us if you find any in Wales.
  • Brown Seaweeds. Brown seaweeds are often the most obvious living things on a rocky shore. Learn about a few selected seaweeds to get you started on the 120 you can find in Wales!
  • Red & Green Seaweeds. When you’re next on a rocky shore, try looking for these red and green seaweeds which are common features of rock pools.

Guides…to geology

Visit the nature spotter's guide webpage.

  • Have I Found a Fossil? Use this guide if you are unsure whether the object you have found is a fossil or not.
  • The Main Fossil Groups. Working out which group your fossil belongs to will give you an idea of how old it is and tell you something about the habitat where it lived, millions of years ago.
  • Penarth Fossils. Search the beach for loose fossils at Penarth and use this guide to work out what you have found.
  • Building Stones of National Museum Cardiff. Look at geology in an urban environment, and learn more about the stones used to build National Museum Cardiff.

Guides…to archaeology

Visit the discovering archaeology webpage.

  • Recognising Prehistoric stone tools. This guide helps to work out if a stone you’ve found is natural or if it has been shaped by a person in the past. 
  • Housing in Wales before 1000 BCE. Today’s houses are a recent innovation. Find out what type of houses were common just a few thousand years ago.
  • Making axes at the end of the Stone Age. People started making polished stone axes around 4000 BCE and used them to chop down trees, impress neighbours, or beat up enemies. But where do you go to find the right rocks to make an axe in Wales?

Get involved!

You can share archaeological finds with us on Twitter via @SF_Archaeology, and natural history finds via @CardiffCurator.

We currently have a project looking at new animals rafting across seas and oceans to Wales on plastics, so we really want to hear from you. Tell us if there are any other spotter’s sheets you’d like us to make. And if you complete any of our nature bingo cards, feel free to boast on social media by sharing your nature photos with us! To let us know about more sensitive things such as dinosaur footprints or rare plants, or for more help, please get in touch with our Museum Scientists.

Look out for more activities and features appearing on the ‘On Your Doorstep’ webpages through the year and keep an eye out for more archaeology which will launch fully for the 2021 Festival of Archaeology during July.

How to Name Nature

My Professional Training Year placement in the Natural Sciences Department at National Museum Cardiff has been going for a few months now and we are making great progress! We have gotten to the stage where it is time to name the new species of shovel head worm (Magelonidae) that we have spent many months describing and drawing. Shovel head worms are a type of marine bristle worm.

Shovel head worm 

So, the big question is, how exactly do scientists name the new species they discover? 

All species are named using a system called binomial nomenclature, also known as the two-term naming system. This system is primarily credited to Carl Linnaeus in 1753 but there is evidence suggesting the system was used as early as 1622 by Gaspard Bauhin. You will know them as the Latin names for organisms or scientific names. These names are firstly formed of a generic name, identifying the genus the species belongs to and a specific name, identifying the species. For example, the binomial name for humans is Homo sapiensHomo is the genus, which also includes our ancestors like the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) but if you want to specifically refer to modern humans you add the species name, sapiens. So, Homo sapiens is what you get.

Today, binomial nomenclature is primarily governed by two internationally agreed code of rules, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICNafp). Across the two codes the rules are generally the same but with slight differences. As my work focuses on naming animals, I will focus on the rules set out by the ICZN.

The first step in naming a new species is figuring out exactly what to name it after. There are generally 3 main ways to pick a name.

Firstly, you can pick a physical trait of the animal. This trait usually makes it stand out from the other species in its genus. This is my preferred method of naming because it gives people an impression of what it is like just by its name. For example, European robins are given the binomial name Erithacus rubecula and rubecula is derived from the Latin ruber, meaning red which emphasises the robin’s iconic red breast.

A robin, Erithacus rubecula from our collections

An example of a shovel head worm with a name like this is Magelona cepiceps, translating from the Latin cepa for onion and ceps referring to the head. This relates to the shape of the ‘head’ (prostomium) of the worm resembling an onion!

Shovel head worm, Magelona cepiceps

Secondly, you could name the new species after the place it was discovered. It’s not as descriptive as naming the animal after a physical feature but tells you where you may find it. The binomial name for the Canada Goose is Branta canadensis, displaying that although the bird is a common sight in many places thanks to its introduction, it is originally from Canada.

Canadian Goose, Branta canadensis (photo: Cindy Howells)

A shovel head worm with a regional scientific name is Magelona mahensis, indicating that it is from the island of Mahé in the Seychelles.

Shovel head worm, Magelona mahensis

The Island of Mahé in the Seychelles where Magelona mahensis was first described

 

 

 

 

Lastly, you can name it after someone. Of course, a person’s first instinct might be to try and name a species after themselves. The ICZN doesn’t have a rule explicitly against this but it is seen as a sign of vanity. But perhaps if you name enough species in your field, eventually someone may name a species after you. This is my least favourite way to name species because it may not tell you anything about the species at all, but it is nice to give honour to those that are important to us or those who have put in a lot of work in the field. For example, in honour of Sir David Attenborough’s 90th birthday a dragonfly was named after him, taking the name Acisoma attenboroughi. Attenborough has inspired so many scientists that he has around 34 species named after him currently. There is a shovel head worm named Magelona johnstoni which is named after Dr George Johnston, one of the first scientists to describe shovel head worms.

Shovel head worm, Magelona johnstoni named after George Johnston (Photo: Andy Mackie)

While the names can be taken from words in any language they must be spelt out in the Roman alphabet, ensuring they can be universally read. Many binomial names are formed of words from ancient Greek but have been Latinised. Typically, if you have selected a physical feature it is translated into Greek or Latin. There are several books specifically written for helping scientists translate and create new species names.

Brown's Composition of Scientific Words - a book used when deciding on names for species

To Latinise the name, you have selected you have to make sure it follows the rules of Latin grammar. This is where it gets a little complicated as you have to start considering the genus name of the species. Latin has masculine, feminine and neutral words, you can tell this by how the word ends. The gender of the genus name will affect the ending and gender of your species name.

And with that information you are just about ready to name your species!

It might seem like a lot of things to consider when you are naming a new species, believe me I never expected to know this much about Latin grammar! But these rules are incredibly important to ensure we can orderly name and keep track of each of the fascinating organisms that are discovered and allows everyone to universally understand which animals scientists are talking about. Especially when you consider that there are over 12,000 known marine bristleworms globally and that number is increasing.

Once all of the drawings and descriptions are complete, the scientific paper goes through a peer-reviewed process where other experts in the field consider your decision to describe and name the new species. If the reviewers agree the species is formally described and those that were involved are now the species authorities. In scientific journals the species name will be written down followed by the names of those who described it and the year it was described. So, while you might not name a species after yourself, whenever the species is mentioned you will get recognition for the work you have done.

So, what will our new species be called?........Well, you’ll have to stay tuned to find out........