Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

As humans transport goods all over the planet we also unintentionally transport animals and plants to places that they do not belong. We call these animals and plants non-native or alien species. If conditions are right for the non-native species they can become established and outcompete our own native species for food and habitat. This is when they are called invasive species and could have a negative impact on our native species sharing the same habitat. This is bad news considering all the other pressures on our wildlife.

 

How do they travel such great distances?

Mytilopsis leucophaeta, native to Gulf of Mexico, found in Roath Docks, Cardiff in 1997

One of the major transporters of marine non-native species are the large goods ships that travel from one side of the planet to the other, taking on ballast water in various ports and ejecting the water at their destination. Ballast water aids the huge ships to balance. At ports, as containers are removed from the ship, ballast water is taken on to keep the whole vessel evenly balanced. The problem is that the water in ports often contains tiny floating animals that are the offspring (or larvae) of mussels, crabs, clams and other invertebrates. These larvae get sucked into the ballast tanks and survive onboard until ejected at the destination port, which is sometimes on the other side of the planet. These animals would not normally have reached these far off destinations naturally. 

 

The Manila Clam originally from the western Pacific Ocean  

Aquariums and aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic plants and animals, are another two major contributors towards the invasive non-native species spread. Shellfish farms import juveniles to grow and breed from but these can often escape captivity or have other species attached to them. The Manila clam (Tapes philippinarum) from the Indo-Pacific region was introduced for farming in the south of England in 1989, but has since escaped! Of all mollusc farming in the world, the Manila clam makes up an astounding 25% and this is because the species can grow quickly and reproduce in great numbers. It is also very hardy and has started to spread in the south of England and is breeding with one of our own native species. To learn more about Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) in Wales check out the Wales Biodiversity Partnership INNS pages.

Caribbean Chama sarda - the Cherry Jewelbox - attached to ropes washed ashore in Ireland

A third, less well-known method of transportation of non-native species is by rafting – or attaching to floating items. Numerous bivalves (eg. mussels, cockles, oysters) have crossed the Atlantic Ocean attached to bait buckets, buoys, crates and other sturdy plastic items. They wash ashore usually after particularly violent storms and are then stranded with the rest of the marine litter.  We call these bivalves ‘rafting bivalves’. They attach to their ‘raft’ using byssus threads or cement, depending on the kind of bivalve. Byssus threads are produced by a special gland in the foot of the animal to allow the shell to anchor onto hard surfaces such as rocks. You may have seen this with mussels on our rocky shores. Oysters and other similar bivalves use a special cement to glue themselves onto hard surfaces and so they are also able to attach to the plastic rafts. I am especially interested in learning more about marine bivalve shells that attach to ocean plastics and then wash ashore on our beaches and have started to add them to our Marine Bivalve Shells of the British Isles website.

To find out more about Rafting Bivalves check out next week's blog.

What is Ming?

Ocean Quahog shells - scientific name Arctica islandica

Ming is an Ocean Quahog clam with the scientific name of Arctica islandica. It was nicknamed Ming when scientists discovered that it would have been born in 1499 during the Ming Dynasty of China. Ocean Quahogs grow up to 13 cm long and the oldest one fished off the coast of Iceland was 507 years old, making it the oldest non-colonial animal known to science.

Where do Ocean Quahogs live?

These are the siphons of the Ocean Quahog - the shell is buried in the sand. It uses the siphons to suck in water and feed off tiny particles in the water

Ocean Quahogs belong to a big group of shells called ‘bivalves’. Most bivalves are filter feeders and suck in water through their tube-like siphons (you can see in the photo, the two holes surrounded by darker pink). While lying on the seabed or buried in the sand or mud bivalves can safely take food particles and oxygen from the water.

Ming was collected from the deep waters around Iceland but we get this species in British and Irish waters too, although it does not live to such a great age here. The waters surrounding our islands are warmer than those surrounding Iceland, which is just south of the Arctic Circle. Warm waters hold less dissolved oxygen than cold water and so around the UK the Ocean Quahog needs to work harder to get oxygen and so has a faster metabolism. A faster metabolism means that it grows quicker but when animals have a fast metabolism they do not live as long. In the colder waters surrounding Iceland the Ocean Quahog has a slower metabolism and so grows slowly and may even live for longer than 507 – scientists just haven’t found an older one yet!

 

How long do animals live?

Geoduck lives in the coastal waters of western Canada and USA and can live to 168 years

Some other bivalve molluscs can live for a long time as well. Giant clams can grow to 4 feet long (1.2 m) and live for around 100 years. They have tiny plant cells in their tissue that photosynthesize producing energy from the sun to give to the clam. This is why they reach such a large size – talk about plant power!

The Geoduck, which lives in the coastal waters of western Canada and USA, can live for 164 years. It is known as Gooey duck and has large meaty siphons that are a popular food for humans!

Come to our Insight gallery at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff to to find out more about how long animals can live for and much more...

Giant clams live in the tropics and can reach over 4 feet long (1.2 m) and live for 100 years

 

An introduction to Ming the clam can be found here:

https://museum.wales/blog/2020-02-11/Meet-Ming-the-clam---the-oldest-animal-in-the-world/

 

At 507 years of age Ming the clam broke the Guinness World Record as the oldest animal in the world. Collected off the coast of Iceland in 2006, initial counts of the annual rings of the shell put the age at around 405 years old, which was still a record breaker. However, in 2013 scientists re-examined the shell using more precise techniques and the count rose to 507 years old.

 

This is the actual shell that was used in the aging study

This is what remains of the actual shell that was used in the aging study. At 507 years the Ocean Quahog is the oldest non-colonial animal in the world. We say ‘non-colonial’ because some animals such as corals can live to over 4,000 years but they are made of lots of animals (called polyps) stuck together as a collective form. Of the animals that exist alone the Ocean Quahog is the oldest and the Greenland Shark comes in second at around 400 years old.

Some examples of how long animals live

Our Insight gallery showcases research on the Natural World and displays a tiny percentage of our vast collections 

If you’d like to see Ming face-to-face (well, shell-to-face!) and find out how scientists discovered Ming’s age then come to Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd – National Museum Cardiff and visit our Insight gallery. As well as learning about Ming you can find out about Freshwater snails, prehistoric mammals and lots more....

Come and see Ming in our Insight gallery

The dinosaur skeleton we know and love as Dippy, has an interesting history. But we know these fossils were first called Diplodocus, right? Well, no probably not….

We’ve heard about how ‘Dippy’ came to London in 1905 – a plaster cast of the original fossil bones kept in the Carnegie Museum Pittsburgh. And thanks to palaeontologists, we can picture it as a living animal browsing in Jurassic forests 145-150 million years ago – seeing off predators with its whip-like tail.

But what about the middle of the story? Where did these fossils come from?

AC-NMW

In 1898 thanks to the steel industry, Andrew Carnegie was one of the richest people in the world. He was busy giving away money for libraries and museums. Hearing about the discovery of huge dinosaurs in the American West he said something like ‘Get us one of those!’, sending a Carnegie Museum team to find a “most colossal animal”.

So, in 1899 in the last days of the American Old West, a Diplodocus skeleton was discovered at Sheep Creek, Albany County on the plains of Wyoming, USA. It happened to be the 4th of July, Independence Day, which prompted the Carnegie team to give the fossil its first nickname - ‘The Star Spangled Dinosaur’. Predictably though, this new species was later published as Diplodocus carnegii.

The dig site would have looked very similar to this one at the nearby Bone Cabin Quarry one year earlier.

To set the scene, these late 1800's photographs are from other parts of Albany County, Wyoming (via Wikimedia Commons).

Dippy’s first name, “Unkche ghila”.

But what about the original people of the plains, the Native Americans? Wouldn’t they have found dinosaur fossils before the European settlers? In her book “Fossil Legends of the First Americans” Adrienne Mayor shows that indeed they did. They visualised the fossils’ original forms as Giant Lizards, Thunder Birds, and Water Monsters, and several of the famous dinosaur collectors had Native American guides. This book shows that Native American ideas about fossils were perceptive of the geological processes involved such as extinction, volcanoes, and sea level change.

( “Clear”, Lakota people, 1900. Heyn & Matzen

The original people of the plains where Diplodocus fossils are found are the Lakota Sioux. James LaPointe of the Lakota people was born in 1893, and recalls a legend he heard as a boy:

“The Sioux called these creatures “Unkche ghila”, roughly comparable to dinosaurs; these oddly shaped animals moved across the land in great numbers and then disappeared. The massive bones of these now extinct creatures can be found in the badlands south and east of the Black Hills. It is not clear when the unkche ghila went extinct, but Sioux geology maintains they were still around when the Black Hills rose from the earth.” From James R. Walker , 1983. ‘Lakota Myth’.

So, via Adrienne Mayor, I’ll give the last word here to the US National Park Service:

“The stories and legends told by American Indians offer a unique perspective into the traditional spiritual significance of fossils and offer an exceptional opportunity to illustrate the interconnectedness of humans and nature.” Jason Kenworthy and Vincent Santucci, “A Preliminary Inventory of National Park Service Paleontological Resources in Cultural Resource Contexts.”

Our new role as marine curatorial assistants within the invertebrate biodiversity section of Amgueddfa Cymru has so far not disappointed in offering insights into the tremendous diversity of life in our seas. After the first ten weeks of working to curate and conserve a large set of marine monitoring collections donated to the museum by Natural Resources Wales, we’ve already managed to log over 5,000 records of predominately marine invertebrates from around the welsh coast. These records have included starfish, polychaete worms, bryozoans, molluscs and anemones, to name only a few. Monitoring collections are essential for research in understanding the complexity of the natural world and diversity at many levels. To understand evolution, genetics and the morphological variation of species for example, specimens from many years are often needed, something which is not usually possible with live animals. These voucher specimens also hold valuable information about when and where species live and can be used for verification when the identification of a species is in doubt. An important contemporary issue is that specimens held in collections offer a wealth of baseline information which can be used as a comparison against current observations. This is essential when looking at how climatic changes are impacting marine life. 

 

For research to happen, specimens must be properly cared for, with their information being easily accessible. Our role can be predominately split into two parts: office and laboratory work. Work in the office encompasses everything from sorting species vials into classification groups, the logging of each vial from analogue to digital formats into a database, where locality information (e.g. sediment type and depth) and method of collection is inputted, to printing new labels for the vials, each with a unique reference number. In the laboratory, the number of specimens in each vial must be counted to accurately record species abundance, vials are then topped up with ethanol, labelled and rehoused into larger jars according to their classification groups. This method of double tubing vials into larger containers acts as not only an accessible way for a particular species to be found, but also as a preventative to stop specimens drying out. These new specimens will be added to an already impressive collection of marine invertebrates at the museum, with over 750,000 specimens. Hopefully, they will be used for generations to come to compare what we know today about the unknowns of the future.