Amgueddfa Blog: Learning

If you ask a primary school child what they did that day in school, they’ll often enthuse most about what they did at play time.  Play time is the time they get to decide what happens. They choose the games, the toys, even the players, within the safe parameters given them. And within these parameters, they are learning. Learning how to move and what they are capable of physically. Learning how to act socially, through sharing and caring. Learning how to deal with emotions when the game doesn’t always go their way. Playtime is vital.

And the learning starts long before school. Toddler Time is one of my favourite regular events that the museum runs. It’s a chance for parents to bring their little ones for some supervised play in a quiet, safe environment. We’re just there to assist, play a little, and give exhausted parents an extra pair of eyes on their little ones. The best part is that we get to use the resources the learning team has and put together a different themed experience every time.

If it’s jungle day, we set out the room with jungle themed soft play decorations.  Soft logs for toddlers to climb over, green fluffy rugs to crawl over. We can then bring out the animals: the tigers, the monkeys, the elephants. Children can play with them, making their own stories and adding their own sounds and movements. Even if a child isn’t talking yet, copying sounds and movements helps them learn.

Its not just movement and sound that children love. Touch is vital for early learning. Young children love to explore items with their hands, or even their mouths, so our toy boxes are filled with simple, easily cleaned blocks for them to examine. We have many thematic sensory boxes, filled with soft fake fur, rough leathery fabric, and all sorts of wonderful textures for the little ones to touch and feel.

When the children are played out, it’s time for a story. We have a huge collection of beautiful children’s books, related to our themes, which can be performed in a lively or calm manner, using audience interaction or not. The one thing we’ve learned is how to read a room.

While things are different at the moment, with certain parts of the museum still closed, we’ve managed to put together lots of online resources for the little ones. We’ve got stories, arts and crafts activities and lots of silly movement and rhyme in both Welsh and English to keep you going until we fully reopen.

 

Llantwit Major beach in the Vale of Glamorgan is a popular, rocky beach, backed with impressive cliffs.  With views across the Bristol Channel towards Minehead on a clear day, it is a stunning and inspiring location.  However, more importantly to you & me, Llantwit Major beach is one of the best places in Wales to find Jurassic fossils and is a treasure trove of undiscovered delights for fossil and nature explorers alike.  So, on a cloudy afternoon, armed with my kit and sketchbook, I visited my favourite beach, to see what I could find…

The cliffs at Llantwit Major experience regular rockfalls which have sadly resulted in fatalities, so although it may be tempting to look for fossils within the recent rockfalls, it essential that all fossil hunters stay well away from the cliffs!  As I walked towards the beach, this rockfall was out of sight, but within a few yards, there it was. A timely reminder to stay clear!

So, what did I take with me? Well you certainly don’t need a truck load of scientific equipment or a palaeontological assistant when fossil hunting! This is something that everyone can do with simple kit and a keen eye.

Before heading out hunting however, here are some things to consider:

  • Check the tide times before you visit.  It is safest to start your fossil hunting on a falling tide so that you don’t get cut off as the tide rises.
  • Wear suitable footwear and clothing. Good, sturdy footwear is essential on this rocky terrain and be prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions.
  • Fossil hunting can be thirsty work so it’s a good idea to bring some snacks and fluids to keep your energy levels up.  The nearest café could be some distance away!

My kit

  • Sturdy shoes.
  • Drinking water.
  • Kitchen roll to help carefully clean interesting finds.
  • Things to document my experience, such as a sketchbook, a notepad, my phone (for the camera function), a ruler, pen and pencils.

I decided to walk to the left, at a safe distance from the cliff. The landscape here is varied and rocky, perfect for rock pools and fossil hunting.

I had a quick scan of the shale before looking at the boulders.  The most common fossils found on this beach are likely to be molluscs such as ammonites and bivalves, although you might spot fish remains or even ichthyosaur bones if you’re lucky!  You might also see beautiful examples of more modern shells.  As I approached the larger boulders, I spotted some markings that looked like an ammonite, so I decided to investigate further.

I drew a simple sketch of my find and measured its size with my ruler.  I also used my phone to take a photo of the locality with my finger pointing toward the fossil.  This is a very simple way of documenting the location of interesting specimens so you can easily find them again if needed.                                      

Eager to find more, I headed further down the beach.  The boulders here become more fragmented and a particular one caught my eye.  I’d found another ammonite impression! However, I decided not to risk hammering the rock around my find as this often damages fossils rather than removing them nicely.  Imagine the feeling of accidentally destroying something that has been preserved for millions of years in a second with a wayward blow – it’s too much to bear!  I decided to leave this fossil exactly where I found it. Llantwit Major is sadly becoming over collected, and I believe that this example should be left for others to enjoy. I hope you find it if you visit!

If you find any fossils or items of interest, please contact us at the museum via our website.  We love seeing your discoveries and our team of experts will happily help you identify your finds and provide further information.

Remember - everybody can be a palaeontologist!

Happy hunting!

To find more resources to help you with your exploring why not check out 

On Your Doorstep: Nature, geology and archaeology in Wales | National Museum Wales 

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.

I’ve always loved an insect. There’s something about them and their family in the bug world that has fascinated me since childhood. They are just so contradictory in every way. So familiar and yet so alien. So oblivious to our existence and yet vital to it. Equally freakish and beautiful in their variety.

It’s no wonder I was drawn to the insect drawer in the Clore Discovery Centre. A huge selection of my favourite creatures in the world, encased in clear plastic, enabling amateur entomologists like myself to examine them without danger of them flying off. And I mean flying off because all insects have wings. This, along with knowledge of the three segmented body, and the two sets of wings, is important information. With this information you can recognise the difference between insects and their cousins, the arachnids, arthropods, or bugs.

These differences are not always easy to spot. The largest group of insects are beetles (making up 40% of all animal life on the planet) who sometimes hide their wings beneath a hard shell, preferring to bumble along like colourful tanks, seeing humans as another obstacle to climb over. Some beetles’ wings have hardened, leaving them to trudge the undergrowth, but even huge beetles like the Hercules beetle (which is bigger than some birds) can fly when it needs to, although maybe not very gracefully.

These things can all be seen in great detail when our insects, frozen in time, are placed under the high-powered microscope in the Clore Discovery centre. You can see the defensive spikes on the hugely powerful legs of a locust, the iridescent beauty of a butterfly’s wings or the all-seeing compound eye of a common fly which makes it so difficult to swat. If you stray to the arachnids drawer you can even see the individual hairs on a tarantula’s leg.

Insects’ beauty might be debatable, but their sheer variety makes them endlessly fascinating. Even those who find them terrifying, when given the opportunity to examine them safely, may find themselves softening to the insect world. You may even find yourself discovering a new favourite.

Mounted on the wall in the Clore Discovery Centre is a specimen that could have swam straight out of a mythological sea adventure. I wonder whether you’ve seen anything like it before?  Could it be a unicorn horn perhaps? Many of our visitors believe so!  Often referred to as the ‘Unicorns of the sea’, this tusk once belonged to a pale-coloured creature found in the Arctic coastal waters.

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are related to dolphins, Belugas, and Orcas. They spend their lives hanging around in the icy waters around Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. They winter for a very chilly 5 months under the ice and are generally spotted in groups of 15 to 20. 

Narwhals feed on fish, shrimp, squid, and other aquatic fare (not that they have much choice!). Like killer whales and other toothed cetaceans, narwhals are suction feeders, meaning you might observe them tapping the fish and sucking them in, swallowing them whole. They can dive to a depth of around a mile and a half and rely on cracks in the ice above to allow them to pop up for air when needed.

The tip of the iceberg

The tusk – most commonly found on males – is actually a tooth. The spiral swordlike tusk grows right through the narwhal’s upper lip, up to 10 feet long. Some Narwhals may have two - ouch!

Scientists are not certain of the purpose of the tusk. Some believe that it is used to impress potential mates, or that they are used for battle. Recent drone footage claims to have captured a narwhal using the tusk to stun fish and some research indicates that the tusk has sensory capability, with up to 10 million nerve endings inside. What do you think their tusks are for?

Dangerous or in danger? 

Narwhals and other arctic species such as polar bears and the walrus, have spent thousands of years evolving for life on and around sea ice. However, due to the effects of climate change, their ice cover is changing rapidly. Sea ice is not only a place for narwhals to feed, but also a place of refuge, providing a safe environment to hide from predators. It is shrinking far too quickly for narwhals to adapt and posing a real threat to the species.

Narwhals are also at threat from increased shipping traffic, placing them in danger of collision. Increased shipping traffic also produces a lot of underwater noise, and since whales rely on sound to communicate, noise pollution has a negative impact on their ability to find food, mates, and to avoid predators.

Our fabulous specimen is an object of wonder, but it is also a reminder of our personal and collective responsibility to ensure their survival.