Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

An insight into our display at the 2017 RHS Cardiff Flower Show

Visitors come into our marquee to see a display about wood & Welsh woodlands. There is an array of wood samples, wax models, taxidermy, insects, as well as live and pressed plants. Visitors know they are seeing a display by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, but do they realise that if they look a little deeper, in the same way that one of our scientists does down a microscope, it is showing them the daily work of the museum too?

The Flower Show to us is similar to one of our temporary exhibitions, but lasting three days instead of six to nine months, and we get ready for it in much the same way. Items for display are chosen and located, sometimes not a simple task when you look after 1 million or so botanical specimens. The correct sized cases need to be found to stop people from touching the historic specimens (which in the past may have been treated with chemicals to guard against pests). Delicate wax models, which have been made to show museum visitors plants all year round, need to be protected from the elements. Tiny preserved insects have to be extracted from the systematically ordered entomology collections, and remounted with miniscule pins in display drawers.

In the display, woodland mosses form an intricate garden. This gives us the opportunity to help visitors distinguish between different moss plants of the woodland floor. It also reflects how we carry out our scientific research, we do DNA/molecular work on dried plants from the herbarium, and conversely we sometimes need fresh material.

Acrylic panels hang at each end of the marquee, showing Welsh woodland tree silhouettes with their leaves, dried. These are not only artistic representations of the trees, they also show the technique we use for attaching delicate pressed plants onto card for storage in the herbarium. Thin strips of adhesive material are placed strategically along the plant to hold it safely on the card. This allows our botanists to easily remove the straps if they want to study the plant under a microscope, away from the card. The plants used in these panels have been collected specifically for the Show and have been pressed in the same way we would for long-term storage in the herbarium. They would also last for hundreds of years if kept out of the light.

Prints of a few of the hundreds of botanical illustrations in our collection adorn the marquee walls. These prints have been framed and mounted using standard museum techniques. They are not only intricate artworks, but are scientifically accurate representations of the plants they show.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to show you our unique collection of specimens with a Welsh woodland theme. The RHS Cardiff Flower Show, with funding from the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, has enabled the Natural Science Department to work with our colleagues from other departments. Our other museums have also helped us this year, bringing you clog-making, wood carving and garden conservators from St Fagans National Museum of History.

Why not keep up to date with what's happening in the Amgueddfa Cymru marquee over the weekend by following the @CardiffCurator Twittter account. Hope to see you there.

 

A New Big Cat for Amgueddfa Cymru

We are very pleased to announce that we have a new arrival! Bryn the Sumatran Tiger.

Photograph of Bryn, a Sumatran Tiger specimen which is part of the natural history collection at National Museum Cardiff

Bryn the Sumatran Tiger

He spent his life at The Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay and was one of its most iconic residents. In his lifetime he gave pleasure to all of the zoo’s visitors, helping to raise the profile of the plight of his species, as Sumatran Tigers are critically endangered. He had a relaxed and amiable personality and so was a key part of The Welsh Mountain Zoo’s 'Keeper for the Day' and 'Animal Encounter' experiences. He sadly died of natural causes in August 2016 at the grand age of 17, which is pretty good for a tiger. He has been portrayed in a natural walking position as if prowling through the jungle looking for prey. He certainly gave our security staff a few frights when he arrived! Standing by him you get a real feeling of the beauty and power of these amazing animals.

Sumatran Tigers only live on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and are the subject of intensive worldwide conservation efforts to save the species. Their numbers have declined drastically over recent years despite these efforts and it is estimated that less than 400-500 tigers remain in the wild. Habitat loss, illegal trade and lack of food have all contributed to this decline. Millions of acres of their forest habitat are cut down every year to make way for intense crop plantations such as palm oil and acacia. This means there is less prey for them to hunt, and that tiger populations have become fragmented, further risking the recovery of the species. The illegal trade in tiger parts is still common despite full national and international protection and tiger parts are openly sold on the island.

But why have a Sumatran Tiger in a Welsh museum? Why have stuffed animals at all? This is a really common question that we are asked at the museum. Museums play an important role as storehouses for biodiversity, keeping a record of a species for posterity. For example we have extinct animals like the Tasmanian Wolf and Great Auk in our collections, we even have a Dodo skeleton. With wild Sumatran tiger numbers as low as they are, it is pertinent now more than ever, to keep a record of this species.

Often museums are one of the first places that people are able to encounter wildlife up close. This puts us in a fantastic position to talk about threatened wildlife, not just abroad, but on our own doorstep. Remember, it is not just exotic species in far-flung places that are in trouble. So we use these iconic specimens to grab your attention and talk about a whole range of issues affecting wildlife around the globe. We want to make our visitors more aware of the natural world around them and to empower them to take a more active role in both enjoying and preserving it.

Bryn will feature at our International Tiger Day on July 29th 2017, so you will have the opportunity to come and see this enigmatic creature up close. So come along, take part in some activities, learn more about what museums do with their collections and what you can do to help tigers like Bryn get off the endangered list!

You can learn more about Sumatran Tigers and what the WWF are doing to protect them here.

You can learn more about protecting British wildlife by looking on The Wildlife Trust website, and RSPB website.

You can learn more about the Vertebrate collections at the museum here.

 

 

We used microscopes to search seabed samples for tiny animals

Working on the collections in the Natural Sciences Department of the National Museum Wales can be both enlightening and complex. Visiting from Bangor University for a week in Cardiff, we were involved with work in the invertebrate biodiversity section, in particular with bivalves and polychaetes. We were very privileged to gain lots of laboratory skills during this process and undertook a huge variety of tasks!

Worm hunting

We were got down to business with sorting a benthic survey sample from 2013 into Polychaeta, Mollusca, Crustacea and Echinodermata by investigating samples under the microscope. To our amazement, we found a big diversity of species just within the samples we looked through, finding everything from bristle worms to isopods! Later in the week we also took on the challenge of trying to identify the polychaete species we found, with some kind help from Teresa. Whilst it was challenging at first, we all became much better by the end and even managed to identify some just by their tails! Teresa also kindly showed us how polychaetes are photographed for publication and identification guides, which was very interesting – it takes a lot of patience and is quite fiddly but the final results are incredible!

A Serpulidae worm that we liberated from its rock!

Another aspect of the laboratory work included sorting some live polychaete samples brought in by Andy from a recent survey. This included smashing up some of the rocks to get to all the invertebrates hiding inside, a bit like cracking an Easter egg open! One of the most stunning specimens we found was of a Serpulidae worm, which at first was curled up with just the operculum visible, but after waiting patiently it uncurled into a beautiful fan-like structure!

 

Ensis - razor clams - from the Mollusca collections

Molluscs

Our work with bivalves began by sorting a collection donated by CCW - Countryside Council for Wales (now Natural Resources Wales) - originally collected by Bangor University back in the 50’s, and inputting the collection details onto the museum's digital database. However, obstacles were met along the way: some sections contained more than one label indicating that more than one species were in the same container, as well as the same species all from different places! But Anna kindly trained us up so we were able to organise shells into the correct species groups and off we went!  We sorted some beautiful shells, including razor clams! For some specimens, a light microscope was needed in order to see the most important features for identification. By using the British Bivalves online database, created by museum staff, we were able to ensure that the names of the shells were up to date.

While there we had an explore around the collection and came across some stunning shells, including a huge Triton shell, which is from a species of sea snail that preys on Crown-of-Thorns starfish! The mollusc collection at the museum contains lots of other shell bearing creatures such as limpets and snail-like shells, as well as books on molluscs dating all the way back to the 17th century that contain a wealth of knowledge, and are stored in a glass bookcase to protect them from the environment.

Chiselling rocks to find burrowing worms and bivalves

While the hands-on science occupied the majority of our time at the museum, we also got to explore the treasure trove of wonderful collections that is the Natural Sciences Department of the National Museum Wales. We started off with a behind the scenes tour of a variety of collections, from some containing thousands of shells to others with all the bee species in Britain! We can definitely say we never knew there were so many different species! We slowly explored a snippet of the wonders the museum holds, and the knowledge available from the specimens kept there and the staff who care for them (our 11 o’clock coffee breaks were a great time to discuss the ins and outs of curating a collection with museum staff, from seaweed – which you can press just like a flower! - to penguins and of course, worms!).

 

 

3D printing

Scanning a rodent skull using the 3D scanner

Our adventures behind the scenes didn’t stop there! While working on the collections we were lucky enough to have a go at 3D printing, which is a mesmerising process to behold. In addition to the printing we witnessed how the fantastic images you see on display in the museum gallery and within books and papers from the staff are created. A fine art of patience and care creates beautiful imagery of amazing detail. Our time at the museum was spent just prior to Christmas allowing us to join the wonderful museum carol service, which was held in the main hall and made up of members of the museum staff, all with amazing voices. As for Cardiff, it was our first time in this vibrant city for all three of us; the foods in Cardiff market are amazing and some of the restaurants are a must go – and of course ice skating in front of the beautiful collection of buildings, one of which is the museum (we didn’t fall over either)! 

 

The week we spent with the museum has given us an insight into how the amazing collections on display are put together, as well as gaining some hands-on science experience, and we will hopefully return again soon!

The printed result of the 3D scan!

We were excited to see that USA Today named Wriggle as one of 'the best museum exhibits in Europe this winter', so we thought we'd share what some of our visitors have to say about the show!

Hosted at National Museum Cardiff, Wriggle has been a hit with families from all over the UK. Entry is free, and there are plenty of opportunities to dress up, crawl and explore - as well as get up close to some wonderful wriggly worms.

We'd love to welcome you to the exhibition - for more information, visit our Wriggle page. We look forward to seeing you! 

Towards the end of last year, staff members from the Amgueddfa Cymru took part in a research ‘Roadshow event’ held at Swansea University.   The event gave a chance to meet academics with shared research interests and discuss potential collaborations between our two institutions, and already the event seems to have nurtured some promising links.

At the event Teresa Darbyshire, our Senior Marine Invertebrate Curator, made contact with Dr. Rich Johnston who is co-director of Swansea University's brand new Advanced Imaging of Materials Centre (AIM), a £9M EPSRC/Welsh Government funded integrated scientific imaging facility for Wales. Following this contact, the opportunity arose for myself, Teresa and Dr. Jana Horak (Head of Mineralogy & Petrology) to visit the centre and see the facilities first hand.

To say we were a little overwhelmed by the centre would be quite an understatement. The centre offers state-of-the-art advanced imaging facilities including including transmission electron microscopy (TEM), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), Ion beam nanofabrication, X-ray Diffraction (XRD), X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS), Energy-Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS), and micro and nano X-ray computed tomography (microCT). Not to mention a full suite of optical imaging and teaching microscopes.

AIM is primarily focused towards engineering and material science, and you may be wondering why they would be keen to collaborate with the Natural Sciences department here at the Museum. Well, part of their research is looking at the structures of biomaterials to learn how naturally occurring materials are formed, and with over 3 million specimens in our Natural Science collections we offer a huge reference library of material, along with the specialist knowledge of our curatorial staff, right on their doorstep. In return, we can benefit from access to their facilities to help us investigate our collections further for our own research and outreach needs, perhaps helping us to discover new species or identify historic conservation work that may have been undertaken on our specimens.

In fact, we are already utilising their MicroCT scanner to digitise a Whelk shell in order to produce a 3D printed replica in transparent material so that we may see how hermit crabs and a species of marine worm co-habit in these shells.  As you can see below, we’ve already digitally scanned the external of the shell here at the museum, but AIM’s MicroCT Scanner will enable us capture all the internal structures as well. We'll post the results when we get the scan back.

 

 

Whilst there, we also had the chance to visit the Virtual Reality (VR) lab to see how digital models produced by microCT or our own 3D scanning facilities could be developed for outreach and learning in a virtual environment. We had the chance to "visit" a virtual museum and see digitised objects in this environment. Although a little disconcerting to start with, once we got familiar with the VR world it really did offer a unique way to visualise objects that otherwise may not be possible. In the future, this technology really could open up new ways for the public engage with our collections.