Between 20 June and 4 July, our popular Evolution of Wales galleries will be closed while we undertake some essential maintenance work.
For these two weeks, visitors will not be able to access areas showing the introduction, Big Bang, Carboniferous forest, dinosaurs, mammoth or the Ice Age animals. Other galleries remain open during this time, including the Diversity of Life gallery (with lots of birds), the mineral collection and all the natural history galleries with the British woodland scene, basking shark, hump back whale skeleton and our new exhibition Wriggle! The art galleries upstairs are also open, unaffected by the maintenance work.
The work covers improved care of the collections and sustainability of the building, including:
Changing the gallery lighting to LED, to reduce electricity consumption, our carbon footprint and costs. LED lighting gives off less heat than conventional lighting so the air conditioning system will work better - it’s better for the items on display, because keeping a stable temperature helps maintain the condition of the objects. LED lighting also reduces future maintenance costs, and changes to the lighting will make the galleries brighter in some places.
Improvements to the fire alarm system so it's better for the collections, the building, staff and visitors.
Upgrading video screens from CRT to HD LCD with touch button interactive controls. This will improve video content delivery, reduce maintenance costs and provide a contemporary aesthetic to the gallery, making units more streamlined.
While the galleries are closed curators will be able to secure some of the items that have become loose in the cases, thus improving their long-term care. They will also clean the displays thus reducing the risk of potential pest infestations – pest management is vital to the care of museum collections.
Finally, installation of the new life-sized recreation of the new Welsh dinosaur, Dracoraptor hanigani as part of the dinosaur display.
Since 2011 Museum scientists have been part of an international team helping to fill the gap in our knowledge of the diversity of Lower Plants (mosses, fungi and algae) in the Falkland Islands. To date, work has been principally on the mosses and lichens of this environmentally sensitive British dependency. In 2015, Dr Ingrid Jüttner, Principal Curator Botany, was awarded a Shackleton Scholarship to visit the Falkland Islands to study the biodiversity of freshwater diatoms.
Diatoms are microscopic algae which are found worldwide in all types of aquatic habitats. Their silica cell walls make them relatively easy to collect and study and hence they are much used in studies of water quality and environmental history.
There are only few studies on diatoms from the Falkland Islands. The current research aims to provide a checklist of common species and document them photographically. A collaboration with Dr Roger Flower, University College London, Environmental Change Research Centre, who conducted several studies on Falkland diatoms, and with Prof. Bart Van de Vijver, Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium, who is an expert on freshwater diatoms from (sub-) Antarctic islands, will allow us to compile the most important species and to compare the diatom flora of the Falkland Islands to those from other South Atlantic and (sub-) Antarctic locations.
The field work took place in November 2015. Collections of diatoms were made from a range of freshwater habitats on East Falkland, West Falkland and Pebble Island. Samples were taken from ponds, streams, springs and damp terrestrial habitats. Care was taken to collect from a good range of substratum types to allow the study of the different algal communities which can vary considerably between microhabitats.
I stayed on Pebble Island for three days and had opportunities to explore both the western and eastern parts of the island. I collected from sites impacted by agriculture within the vicinity of farmland but also from remote sites away from human activities. The sites were varied and included ponds near the seashore that would receive sea spray, ponds in sand dunes and others which were certainly frequented by upland geese and other birds including penguins and therefore rich in nutrients.
In the western area of the island I took samples from various types of springs, such as a spring with stagnant water (known technically as a limnocrene), a flowing spring (rheocrene), a captured spring supplying drinking water to the Pebble Island settlement, several seepage areas and a stream.
It is difficult to move further afield on the island because there are no roads. However, the very friendly and supportive staff of the farm took me out in their four-wheel drive to reach the remotest corners of the island.
I then flew to West Falkland in a small aircraft. These planes are vital for transport between the different islands of the archipelago and supply the small settlements and remote farms with food and other essentials.
On West Falkland I stayed at Port Howard and explored the area in the vicinity for one day collecting from various ponds and streams. On the second day my host took me on a trip along the road to Chartres which further leads to the area around Fox Bay, providing me with ample opportunities to sample including at the Patricia Luxton Nature Reserve and in the Lakelands area.
On my return to East Falkland I visited three contrasting areas: Lafonia, a large low-lying area in the south-west which has plenty of ponds, lakes, small streams and marshy terrestrial habitats in the Cortaderia (White Grass) grassland; the Cortaderia grassland and Empetrum rubrum (Diddle-dee) plain near Volunteer Point north-east of Stanley and a more agricultural area north of Mount Kent, near Hope Cottage Farm, and along the road between Douglas Station and Salvador.
On the journeys to some of the areas I also collected from rivers draining the central mountain ridge, although higher areas in the mountains were not collected during this visit due to a lack of time.
I am currently processing the diatom samples in the laboratory, and the entire collection of Falkland diatom samples held at the National Museum of Wales (including samples taken by a colleague during earlier visits to the Falkland Islands) has been entered on our diatom database. Imaging and taxonomic investigations will commence soon and a visit to the Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium, to collaborate with Prof. Bart Van de Vijver is scheduled for the beginning of September.
Thank you to David Tatham, Chairman of the Shackleton Scholarship Fund, and other members for awarding me the scholarship; thank you to Nick Rendell, Falkland Islands Government, and to Dr Paul Brickle, Director of South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) for the research licence and support. Many thanks to all the landowners who freely granted access to their land.
Kathmandu University, Norwegian University of Life Sciences and National Museum of Wales
Dr Ingrid Jüttner, Principal Curator Botany, has studied the biodiversity of diatoms, a group of microscopic algae, in the Nepalese Himalaya since the early 1990s. In spring 2016 she was invited by her colleagues from Kathmandu University to join their team on an expedition to Rara Lake, a protected Ramsar wetland in the high Himalaya.
Here is her blog about the visit and scientific work on Nepal’s largest lake in the remote mountains of north-western Nepal.
23 April. In the morning our team met at Kathmandu Airport to take a flight to Nepalgunj, a town in the lowlands of western Nepal. The following day we flew with a small aircraft from Nepalgunj into the mountains of the Mugu district in north-western Nepal.
Our team was led by Dr Roshan M. Bajracharya, the project coordinator of the 5-year SUNREM-Himalaya Project at the School of Science, Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, Kathmandu University. This project is funded by NORHED, the Norwegian Research Council, with a grant held by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås (NMBU), under the leadership of Prof. Bishal K. Sitaula, International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric).
The aim of our expedition was to investigate Rara Lake, to learn about its history, water quality and how the lake relates to its surroundings. We studied sediments, soils, microscopic algae and water chemistry. This will help us to understand how Rara Lake may be affected by climate change and local human activities.
Our team included eight researchers, Prof. B.K. Sitaula from Norway, Prof. R.M. Bajracharya, Dr Chhatra Mani Sharma, Dr Smriti Gurung, Dr Nani Raut, two master students Anu Gurung and Preety Pradhananga from Kathmandu University, and myself.
Rara Lake is the largest lake in Nepal with a 10.8 km2 surface area, a maximum length and width of 5 and 3 km, respectively, and a maximum depth of 167 m. It is situated at 2990 m altitude in the Rara National Park of the Mugu district in north-western Nepal.
The lake drains to the Mugu-Karnali river system via the Nijar Khola. Rara Lake is surrounded by conifer forest, dominated by blue pine associated with several species of Rhododendron, and by alpine meadows. The National Park is home to over 50 species of mammals, including the Himalayan Black Bear and the Red Panda, and to 272 bird species, with the lake itself being important for migrating birds. The lake is also home to three trout species, one of which is endemic.
The area is sparsely populated, but a small settlement including a guesthouse, a health post and an army camp are located at the northern lake shore.
24 April. After a 45 minutes flight from Nepalgunj with spectacular views of Rara Lake from the air our small plane landed at an airstrip in the village of Talcha at 2700 m altitude. From there we walked four hours to the lake.
25 April. The aim of this year’s field visit was to resurvey all sites which were first studied in October 2015. The sites were located in the lake littoral along the entire shore, and also included a number of small inlets and the outlet.
Diatom samples were taken at each site from all available substrata to study diversity and species composition in relation to water chemistry and habitat character. The collections from October and April will enable us to investigate possible seasonal differences between the post-monsoon season in the autumn and the pre-monsoon season in spring.
Physico-chemical parameters including temperature, pH, conductivity, turbidity were measured and water samples were taken for chemical analysis of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphate, major ions such as silica, sodium, calcium and trace elements. Habitat features such as substratum composition and land use were recorded.
Today we started our field work exploring the north-western shore of the lake and the area near its outlet.
26 April. Four members of our team rowed across the lake to take bathymetric measurements and to locate the deepest part of the lake in preparation for the collection of sediment cores on the following days. A large deep basin with a maximum depth of 167 m is present in the western part of the lake, the area most suitable for coring.
The other team members walked around the entire lake while taking diatom, water and soil samples along the southern shore. The soil investigations included studies of four transects with four sites per transect located along altitude gradients. Soil samples were collected to study physical parameters such as bulk density and texture, chemical parameters including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, organic carbon, pH and cation exchange capacity, and the soil fauna.
After ten hours we arrived back at the guesthouse, it took us approximately seven hours to walk around the entire lake during which we stopped at several sites to collect our samples.
27 April. The morning was taken up by sediment coring which had to be completed by lunch time: in the afternoon the winds are too strong and the waves too high to keep the boat steady in one place. The army camp near our guesthouse provided us with a large inflatable boat and four soldiers to row it.
Lake sediment records contain remains of organisms and persistent chemicals which can be used to reconstruct environmental change over a period of time. Two 30 cm long sediment cores were extracted from a depth of 165 m. One of the cores was cut into 0.5 cm slices and will be used for dating. The second core was cut into 0.5 cm slices for the top 10 cm, and subsequently into 1 cm slices. Diatom assemblages will be investigated in each slice. Any major change in species composition along the core’s profile would indicate environmental change within the lake and in its catchment.
In the afternoon diatom and water samples were collected from several sites along the northern shore in the vicinity of the settlement and the army camp. It will be interesting to see whether negative impacts can be detected in this part of the lake due to polluting runoff.
28 April. In the morning three additional sediment cores were collected, and further bathymetric measurements taken in the eastern part of the lake. The cores will be analysed for trace elements, metals, nutrients and organic contaminants including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). After lunch we left the guesthouse to return to Talcha. On the way collections were made along one other soil transect, and water and diatom samples were collected from three sites on the north-eastern lake shore.
29/30 April/1 May. Since our arrival at Rara Lake mist had fallen and eventually was so dense that planes could not fly any longer into the mountains. We had to take a two day, 400 km long adventurous bus journey along a winding mountain road to return to Nepalgunj. In the evening of 1 May we arrived back safely in Kathmandu.
On 3 May I gave some lectures at Kathmandu University about freshwater algae including diatoms and my research projects in the Himalaya and the United Kingdom.
It was a wonderful opportunity to work together at Rara Lake, to complete our fieldwork successfully and report about my research on diatoms. Our project gave us reason for optimism, and the time spent together was uplifting and encouraging after the devastating earthquakes which hit Nepal in April and May 2015.
This blog is about fossils whose beautiful patterns have intrigued us for as long as we’ve been human. These animals survived the evolutionary power struggles of the past to leave their relatives in today’s oceans. They are the Sea Urchins, or to give them their scientific name, the Family Echinoidea - Echinoids to their friends.
A ‘Hedgehog’ by name, but not by nature
Their name comes from the Greek ‘Echinus’, meaning Hedgehog, because of their spines. People in the Middle Ages had the idea that each kind of land animal had a matching version living in the sea; sea-horses, sea-cows, and so on. So the spiky Echinoid was naturally called a Sea-Hedgehog. This might sound daft today, but we still call the Echinoids’ cousins “Starfish” though we know they’re nothing to do with fish at all !
Like little armoured aliens
The bodies of echinoids are really strange, almost like something from science-fiction. Being covered in massive spiny stilts you can walk on is weird enough, but inside their box of a shell they’re even more peculiar. They have a multi-purpose organ called the water vascular system. It’s a central bag of fluid connected to five lobes which lead to many tiny tubes coming out through pores in the shell. These are its tube-feet. It can move them around by changing the pressure inside the bag. They’re very handy for dragging itself along the sea floor, sensing the surroundings, and for getting food to its mouth. Some burrowing echinoids can even stick a tube foot up above the sand to get oxygen from the water.
Their basic body plan has proved to be very well adapted to a life of sea-bed scavenging. They move along like armoured tanks eating up whatever they can find; mostly algae, but their set of five toothed jaws can deal with a varied diet.
Cherished by the Ancients
The beautiful shells of echinoids have fascinated humans for a very long time indeed, maybe because they’re so different from other animals on the planet. Most animals have just one line of symmetry and an even number of limbs. But echinoids and their cousins the starfish can show star-like five-fold symmetry.
The oldest example of a collected and labelled fossil, is an echinoid with Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on it about 4000 years ago. It was found “in the south of the quarry of Sopdu, by the god’s father Tja-Nefer”. Sopdu was called the god of the morning star - he was a kind of border-guard god, and it’s been suggested that echinoids were important to the Egyptians in some way in their travels to the afterlife.
But human fascination with echinoids stretches back much, much further than that; long enough for the great ice sheets to have advanced and retreated across Britain four times since. About four hundredthousand years ago in what is now Kent, someone chose to make a tool from a flint containing a fossil echinoid. Most flint tools have two cutting edges, but this one may have been left unfinished on purpose. If the maker had chipped the flint to make the other edge, the fossil would have been destroyed. What is amazing is that this person was not a Homosapiens like you or I, but either a Homo heidelbergensis or a very early Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis). Other humans were collecting fossils before members of our own species left Africa.
Trevor Bailey, Senior Curator – Palaeontology. This blog was adapted from a gallery tour I gave at the National Museum Cardiff.
Often, people announce - with a knowing look in their eye – that Science knows more of the surface of the moon than it does of the deep oceans of our own planet. This platitude is probably vague enough to be considered accurate, but it ignores a salient fact about Earth: a lot more is happening here, especially in the oceans, and even the smallest sample of abyssal mud contains a wealth of life sufficient for years of study. Oceanographic missions are rare because each one produces a superabundance of data and specimens that require decades of work to describe and interpret. The simple problem of man-hours and scarcity of expertise in niche fields is what limits the scope of modern oceanography (and the funding available to it).
The index case for this problem was that of the Challenger expedition of 1872-76, a sprawling endeavor to “investigate the physical conditions of the deep sea in the great ocean basins” - scarcely has an expedition brief been bolder or more vague – with a navy vessel and a small group of gentleman-scientists headed by Charles Wyville Thomson. Wyville Thomson had headed earlier voyages to chart the waters around the British Isles, discovering life down to depths of 1200 metres; he had become the patriarch of the nascent discipline of oceanography, which – before Challenger – was limited to a hazy understanding that a lot of the oceans were very deep indeed. The vessel set out with a complement of around 250 men of all ranks and stations, weighing anchor in Portsmouth in December 1872 and zigzagging down the Atlantic coast of Europe before striking out towards the Caribbean. She would sail on for almost eighty thousand miles, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic before swooping down to the sub Antarctic Kerguelen archipelago, circling Australia and the Pacific, and finally passing through the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America on her way home.
A challenging legacy
This, however, is not the end of the story. On her voyage, the Challenger measured depth and temperature and collected biota, samples of living organisms from the sea floor, at 360 stations along the route of her voyage. The vessel was fitted with a fully-equipped laboratory, and vast volumes of specimens, data, and readings were amassed during the three years at sea; sediment samples sealed in meticulously-labelled bottles and countless specimens steeped in alcohol, volumes upon volumes of log-books and charts, water samples, and photographic negatives. There is a limit to the amount of useful scientific study that can be done by half-a-dozen scientists on a ship, so the massed volume of potential information was stored for the journey before being distributed across the country upon the ship’s return, each major grouping of specimens going to an organisation or individual most proficient in the study of that given group. Thus began the process of documentation, interpretation, and publication which follows any respectable scientific endeavour; but from the start it was fraught with difficulty, and the project would outstrip the length of the voyage six fold in terms of years spent upon it.
Tome after tome…
The grandly-titled ‘Report of the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the Years 1873-76’, and its associated texts, started trickling from the presses almost as soon as the ship returned to port, but publication would drag on across fifty volumes and more than 29,500 pages. These shelves of heavy tomes contained the distilled data of the expedition, beautifully illustrated with hand-coloured lithographs depicting the litany of species which described as new to science. Wyville Thomson oversaw the publications, but the stress of the project overwhelmed him and he withdrew in 1881, dying shortly afterwards. His place was taken by John Murray, his friend and fellow oceanographer on the voyage; the Report would not be completed until nineteen years after the Challenger docked, a vast, sprawling and prohibitively expensive manuscript which has yet to be matched in terms of vision, boldness and scope (and quite possibly cost) to this day. In the current climate of meandering austerity and profit-motivated science, it seems inconceivable that such a dedicated blue-skies expedition, and the years of follow-up, could be mounted in the 21st century; modern oceanography exists as a passenger, travelling alongside the oil industry and the world’s navies, everywhere studying the workings of nature through the lens of humanity’s impact upon it.
Echoes of Challenger
Echoes of Challenger appear everywhere in the study of samples from the deep ocean. Besides the heavy, leather-bound volumes that sit in the Mollusca Library at the Museum, the Ted Phorson collection which I’m currently working on contains swathes of sub-millimetre-sized mollusc shells (and other, stranger things) sampled from the North Atlantic by a remote vehicle (R.V.) designated vessel named Challenger, and Phorson himself worked on some of Charles Wyville Thomson’s still-unsorted specimens in the late 1970s, almost a hundred years on from when they were first collected. Modern scientific literature on the fauna of the deep oceans refers frequently to the Challenger Report, as so few works have tackled these organisms at the same level of detail since, and it seems unlikely that the oceanographers of the future will be able to; the days of the explorers are surely long gone. It is easy to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the scientific buccaneers of Challenger and, before it, the Beagle voyage – free from want for time and money, invested not with a desire for the wealth of nature, nor with a noble wish to save the oceans from man’s depredations, but instead willing to cast themselves out into the boundless wastes of the sea in search of the heady drug of knowledge, a pure and stupefying substance that raises one above the clouds, denied to us pragmatic, modern mortals. It is comforting to think of the vast mines of secrets that remain undreamt amid the vastness of the abyss, waiting for the explorers of the far future to uncover. Perhaps it is just as well that the days of the old sojourners are over, for now – after all, they have left the better part of their work undone.