Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

The first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe

One sunny evening in September 1878, Welsh artist and naturalist Thomas Henry Thomas was wandering around the small village of Nottage, just outside Porthcawl. The rays of the setting sun were shining across a large slab of rock placed on the edge of the churchyard. The local villagers told him that the five strange markings on the rock were the footprints of the devil as he strode across the slab. The rock had lain between the church and the village pub for years, and was a local curiosity.

Thomas was a well-educated man, born in Pontypool in 1839, and had studied Art at the Royal Academy, before returning to Wales. He was a key member of the Cardiff Naturalists Society, and a well-respected artist as well. On discovering the footprints, illuminated by the setting sun in the churchyard, he was struck by the similarity between these markings and newly found dinosaur footprints in North America. He quickly sketched the prints and informed various local geologists. John Storrie, curator of the Cardiff Museum, visited the site and made a cast of the trackway.

The President of the Cardiff Naturalists Society was Colonel Turbervill, who arranged for the rock to be brought to the Cardiff Museum for safe-keeping.

Thomas H. Thomas wrote a short paper, in January 1879, describing the footprints and also his attempts at Bristol Zoo, to persuade a suspicious Emu to walk across modelling clay, for comparison! He described the footprints as "Tridactyl Uniserial Ichnolites", but left it to Professor W Sollas of Bristol University to publish a formal description, with the name Brontozoum thomasi. We now know that these footprints were made 220 million years ago by a medium-sized meat-eating dinosaur, similar to Megalosaurus which evolved later.

The original footprint slab was around 6' 6" long and 5' 6" wide, and about 6 inches thick, although excess rock was later removed to make it easier to handle and display. When the collections of the old Cardiff Museum were transferred to the new National Museum of Wales in 1907, the footprints were one of its most important acquisitions. Currently the fossil is on display in the Evolution of Wales gallery, as befitting the first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe.

Wales has an important place in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs; not only this early set of footprints, but also another major trackway site near the town of Barry, which is one of the most significant sites of its age in Europe. The rocks of this area were laid down around 220 million years ago, at a time when Wales was a low-lying desert, similar to those in the Arabian Gulf today, and dinosaurs had just evolved. Over the next 20 million years, the sea-level rose and the deserts disappeared underwater. However the dinosaurs living on higher ground continued to diversify into different species, one of which was Dracoraptor, the small theropod dinosaur found near to Penarth in 2014, and now on display at the National Museum Cardiff.

For the Royal Horticultural Society’s Flower Show in Cardiff this year, we decided to build on previous experience of creating real botanical windows. We wanted something that would form an eye-catching backdrop to the collections on display within Amgueddfa Cymru's woodland-themed marquee.

The botanical windows began in 2015 with our Museum in a House exhibit for the Made in Roath festival. We wanted a display that would reflect aspects of our Museum work as well as to represent the herbarium itself. We pressed plants following the standard method for creating herbarium specimens as shown below. In this way, plant specimens last for hundreds of years on conservation grade card and out of light in herbarium cupboards.

Method for pressing plants for long-term storage in the botany collections:

  1. Select a plant showing as many characters as possible – fruit, flowers, roots.
  2. Place between blotting paper, arranging the plant at the same time, to limit the amount of overlapping material.
  3. Place in a plant press and tie as tightly as possible.
  4. Place in a drier between 20 and 30oC.
  5. Change the blotting paper initially every day, and then less often until the plants are completely dry. This will take about a week.
  6. Attach plant to conservation-grade card (for example made from cotton) using small strips of adhesive cotton tape. Place the tape strips strategically on the plant’s stems and leaves to hold it safely on the card. This technique allows for some flexing of the card without damage to the plant and for easy removal of the plant from the card for study.
  7. Store out of light in an environment with humidity between 40 and 60 RH.

After pressing, we attached the plants to large sheets of tracing paper using small pieces of transparent tape strips (rather than the conservation grade materials we would normally use for the botany collections). The tracing paper was then wrapped carefully for transport to the site of the exhibit and then taped to sunny windows in the living room.

For the RHS Flower Show in 2016, we built on the initial idea but had the added complication of having to create our own windows to install in the marquee. We had nine 80 x 60 cm sheets of 2mm thick acrylic cut, with holes drilled into each of the corners for hanging. We attached the plants to these sheets using small transparent tape strips. Once at the Flower Show, we attached strong metal rings to the corner of each panel and hung the panels from the cross bars of the marquee by looping fishing line (the type strong enough to catch a 60lb fish!) through the metal rings. The only worry now was whether the ranges of temperature and humidity in the marquee would be too much for the transparent tape and we would arrive the next day to find the plants on the floor! We certainly would never subject pressed specimens from the collection to this environment. We were relieved to find that the panels held well the whole weekend – and with much praise from visitors.

In 2017, we planned to recreate the botanical windows for the Flower Show, but with a slight twist. We had a woodland theme, so we chose Welsh trees for each panel: Oak, Beech, Hazel, Hawthorn, Holly, Scots Pine, Yew and Lime. To make the display really stand out, we printed a silhouette of the tree with its Welsh, English and scientific name onto transparent material for the backdrop. We taped the transparencies onto the acrylic and then taped the pressed plants onto the transparencies as before. Unfortunately, this year was particularly warm weather – the transparent tape holding the pressed plants did not last as long on some of the panels, so remedial work had to be carried out to keep the display looking good.

 

Read about the RHS Flower Show in 2017:

 

Find out more on our Made in RoathMuseum in a House’ installation in 2015 and the RHS Flower Show in 2016

 

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales at the RHS Flower Show, Cardiff 2017

We have had a presence at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Flower Show, Cardiff for over 10 years. This year our theme was Welsh Wood and Woodlands, encouraging visitors to learn all about the plant and animal life associated with Welsh woodlands from the ancient ‘coal forests’ of the Palaeozoic era, through the post-glacial forests, up to the present day. We put our unique Welsh collections on display, including living and preserved plants, botanical wax models, fossils, insects, taxidermy birds and mammals, as well as botanical illustrations. A superb collection of large timbers, rarely on show to the public, formed the centrepiece for the display. In the foreground, a vibrant green moss garden demonstrated the variety of mosses found in Welsh woodlands, while hung as a backdrop were 12 large botanical ‘stained glass’ windows of pressed woodland plants.

Geraint Parfitt the clog maker and David Davies the woodcarver from St Fagans National History Museum, demonstrated their crafts at the RHS Flower Show for the first time. Members of the public were fascinated to see Geraint practice his traditional craft, turning newly felled timber into clog soles while David showed his skill at making Welsh love spoons.

Crowds were attracted by our 3D printer where we showed how we can reproduce specimens from the collections the twenty-first century way. This enables us to make replicas of delicate or poisonous specimens from the collections more easily, that would not otherwise be touchable.

Families could test their knowledge of Welsh trees or work out the age of the trees from our collections by counting their rings under a microscope. Talented story tellers from Amgueddfa Cymru entertained children with woodland inspired stories.

We were delighted that the RHS honoured our exhibit by presenting a Commended award. We would also like to thank the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for supporting this event.

Have a look at the Twitter fall from RHS Cardiff 2017 – it follows the preparation and set-up of the Museum’s display to our visitors’ experience.

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.

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.