Natural Science research case studies

What is the impact of climate change and human activities on biodiversity?

Studying biodiversity is hugely important for the survival of all species on Earth, including ourselves. The research done by our natural science curators allows us to understand more about the highly complex relationship between humans, the natural environment and the other species with whom we share the planet. The earth’s landscapes, air quality, climate, rivers and seas, soil and forests are constantly changing due to human activity and will continue to do so as the population grows and new land-uses are developed. How will biodiversity change in response? Our collections of plants and organisms are valuable indicators of habitats both now and in the past, allowing us to understand what lies behind changes such as species loss and invasion.

Highlighted projects:

The Pollen Monitoring Programme: improving pollen studies as a tool for monitoring climate and environmental changes in Wales​

A clear understanding of the relationship between surface pollen deposition and vegetation is essential to assess the response of vegetation to past and future changes in climate and environment.  The Pollen Monitoring Programme was founded in 1996 to study pollen influx rates at a network of European sites. As part of this initiative Tauber pollen traps were established at Capel Curig in Snowdonia and Brechfa Forest, West Wales. Trap samples have been subsequently collected annually to produce a long record of pollen deposition for comparison with environmental variables.

The impact of sampling medium has been studied; research published in 2010 compared pollen accumulation rates from pollen traps and moss samples.  The results indicated that moss samples contained pollen deposited over an average of two years and also demonstrated a discrepancy in collecting efficiency; key taxa including pine and spruce are generally better represented in moss samples than traps.  More detailed research is assessing whether differences in pollen transportation, trapping efficiency or pollen morphology are primarily responsible.

The relationship between annual pollen accumulation rates and climatic variables is also the subject of research.  Results from sites across Europe and the Caucasus indicate that a complex relationship exists, with distinctive responses by individual taxa to temperature and precipitation.  The published paper provided further evidence that the conditions prevalent when the pollen is being formed are critical to the quantity of pollen produced, rather than conditions immediately prior to deposition. The response of tree taxa in Wales to annual variations in climate, together with natural cycles of arboreal pollen production, is currently being investigated; this will contribute to predictions of future changes in vegetation associated with climate change, vital to the wellbeing of future generations. 

Surface pollen data is compiled in the European Modern Pollen Database which provides modern analogues for past vegetation and empirical data for vegetation and climate modelling.

Key papers:

Davis, B.A.S., Zanon, M., Collins, P., Mauri, A., Bakker, J., Barboni, D., Barthelmes, A., Beaudouin, C., Bjune, A.E., Bozilova, E., Bradshaw, R.H.W., Brayshay, B.A., Brewer, S., Brugiapaglia, E., Bunting, J., Connor, S.E., de Beaulieu, J.-L., Edwards, K., Ejarque, A., Fall, P., Florenzano, A., Fyfe, R., Galop, D., Giardini, M., Giesecke, T., Grant, M.J., Guiot, J., Jahns, S., Jankovská, V., Juggins, S., Kahrmann, M., Karpińska-Kołaczek, M., Kołaczek, P., Kühl, N., Kuneš, P., Lapteva, E.G., Leroy, S.A.G., Leydet, M., López Sáez, J.A., Masi, A., Matthias, I., Mazier, F., Meltsov, V., Mercuri, A.M., Miras, Y., Mitchell, F.J.G., Morris, J.L., Naughton, F,, Nielsen, A.B., Novenko, E., Odgaard, B., Ortu, E., Overballe-Petersen, M.V., Pardoe, H.S., Peglar, S.M., Pidek, I.A., Sadori, L., Seppä, H., Severova, E., Shaw, H., Święta-Musznicka, J., Theuerkauf, M., Tonkov, S., Veski, S., van der Knaap, P.(W.O.), van Leeuwen, J.F.N., Woodbridge, J., Zimny, M., Kaplan, J.O., 2013. The European Modern Pollen Database (EMPD) project. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 22, 521–530.

Pardoe, H.S., Giesecke, T., van der Knaap, W.O., Svitavská-Svobodová, H., Kvavadze, E.V., Panajiotidis, S., Gerasimidis, A., Pidek, I.A., Zimny, M., Świeta-Musznicka, J., Latalowa, M., Noryskiewicz, A.M., Bozilova, E., Tonkov, S., Filipova-Marinova, M.V., van Leeuwen, J.F.N., Kalniņa, L.  2010. Comparing pollen spectra from modified Tauber traps and moss samples:  examples from a selection of woodlands across Europe.  Vegetation history and Archaeobotany, 19, 271-283. 

Giesecke, T., Fontana, S.L., van der Knaap, W.O., Pardoe, H.S. and Pidek, I.A. 2010. From early pollen trapping experiments to the pollen monitoring programme. Vegetation history and Archaeobotany, 19, 247-258. 

van der Knaap, W.O., van Leeuwen, J.F.N., Svitavská-Svobodová, H., Pidek, I.A., Kvavadze, E., Chichinadze, M., Giesecke, T., Kaszewsk, B.M., Oberli, F., Kalniņa, L., Pardoe, H.S., Tinner, W., Ammann, B. 2010. Annual pollen traps reveal the complexity of climatic control on pollen productivity in Europe and the Caucasus. Vegetation history and archaeobotany, 19, 285-307.

Hicks, S., Ammann, B., Latałowa, M., Pardoe. H., Tinsley, H. 1996.  European Pollen Monitoring Programme: Project Description and Guidelines.  Oulu Univ. Press, Oulu, 28 pp.

Hicks, S., Tinsley, H., Pardoe, H., Cundill, P., 1999.  European Pollen Monitoring Programme: Supplement to the Guidelines.  Oulu Univ. Press, Oulu, 24 pp.

Habitat restoration of upland streams in Mid Wales: diatoms as indicators of recovery from acidification

Diatoms are microscopic algae which are widely used to study environmental change. Stream acidification as a result of land use change and atmospheric pollution is a widespread problem in areas of Wales with bedrock of poor buffer capacity.  In the upper catchments of the River Wye and the River Irfon, the combination of atmospheric deposition of pollutants and conifer plantations has led to low pH rendering many streams unsuitable for fish. Diatoms are good indicators of acidity in freshwaters and are used to monitor the restoration of stream water pH to levels that facilitate the recolonization by salmonid fish and support sustainable populations of fish.

During two long-term conservation and research projects, the Wye Powys Habitat Improvement ScHeme (Wye PHISH) and the Irfon Special Area of Conservation Project (ISAC), stream acidity was monitored in both river catchments using diatoms before and after treatment with lime to assess the effectiveness of the remediation actions. Changes in diatom species composition was a clear and useful indicator of improved water chemistry and this was reflected by rising numbers of juvenile salmon in both catchments.

Liming continues annually in both catchments by our project partner, the Wye and Usk Foundation, to maintain adequate pH levels, and a high-frequency diatom monitoring at selected streams sites will be carried out from 2019 to record diatom response to liming under different flow conditions.

Key papers:

Jüttner I., Kelly M., Evans S., Marsh-Smith S. 2017. Recovery from acidification and restoring of fish populations in the catchment of the River Wye, United Kingdom. 11th International Phycological Congress, Szczecin, Poland, August 13–19. (Conference presentation)

Jüttner I., Ector L., Reichardt E., Van de Vijver B., Jarlman A., Krokowski J., Cox E.J. 2013. Gomphonema varioreduncum sp. nov. a new species from northern and western Europe and a re-examination of Gomphonema exilissimum. Diatom Research 28(3): 303–316.

Lewis B., Jüttner I., Reynolds B., Marsh-Smith S., Ormerod S.J. 2007. Comparative assessment of stream acidity using diatoms and macroinvertebrates: implications for river management and conservation. Aquatic Conservation. Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 17: 502–519.

All projects on biodiversity and human impacts

  • Freshwater diatom flora of Britain: improving knowledge of the biodiversity of algae important for monitoring the health of freshwater habitats (Dr Ingrid Juettner)
  • Environmental impact in Wales of the invasive weed Himalayan Balsam (Drs. Heather Pardoe and Chris Cleal)
  • Marine algae (“seaweeds”) around the coasts of Wales: determining how fast invasive species are appearing in response to climate change (Katherine Slade)
  • Effects of climate change and human activities on upland (“arctic-alpine”) plant biodiversity in Britain (Dr Heather Pardoe)
  • Identifying and tracking the present, past and future of Britain's changing snail and slug fauna (Dr Ben Rowson)
  • Understanding the human impacts of habitat fragmentation through the molecular DNA diversity of feather mosses (Pleurocarpaceae) (Dr. Ray Tangney)
  • Understanding the pressures of tourism and development on habitats in the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory: baseline inventory and biodiversity of mosses (Dr. Ray Tangney)
  • Botanical illustrations as a tool for documenting changes in plant life through time (Dr Heather Pardoe)
  • Freshwater biodiversity in Himalayan lakes of Nepal: the effects of human impact on sensitive high-altitude habitats (Dr Ingrid Juettner)
  • Harold August Hyde (Keeper of Botany 1922-1962): archival evidence for his pioneering work on using pollen analysis to document changes in vegetation (Dr Heather Pardoe)
  • Using land snails as a tool to reconstruct the environments through which our ancestors walked (Dr Ben Rowson)
  • How can commercially important Post-larval bivalves be identified? (Anna Holmes)
  • How do storage and environmental conditions affect the preservation of the carbonate stain Calcein and what are the implications for using certain collections in long term environmental studies? (Dr Caroline Buttler)
  • An aid to conservation and global taxonomy: Identification and distribution of Falkland Islands bristleworms (Dr Teresa Derbyshire)
  • Stinging wasps, ants, and bees (Hymenoptera; Aculeata) in Glamorgan, their distribution and status  (Mark Pavett)
  • Sawlkies (Hymenoptera; Symphyta) their status and distribution in Glamorgan (Mark Pavett).
  • BRIGIT project – underpinning identification of Xyella spreading vectors in Britain (Dr Mike Wilson)

What is the deep-time evidence for climate and environmental change?

Natural history collections are becoming more and more valued by scientists studying global environmental change and how it affects life on earth. They help us understand the role of big transitions in the climate and in geological activity, and ultimately allow us to predict how changes may affect the evolution of life in the future. Different species thrive in particular temperature ranges and respond rapidly when climatic conditions change by modifying their distribution across the landscape. New analytic models allow us to determine the origins and history of different plant species, for example, revealing how these are affected by rising and cooling global temperatures, ancient movements of earth’s tectonic plates or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Highlighted project

Vegetation changes in the late Carboniferous coal swamps of Euramerica: a model for testing plant – climate interactions in "deep time"

Vegetation is thought to have a major influence on global climates. Modelling has suggested that forests, especially in the tropics, can alter levels of atmospheric “greenhouse” gases such as carbon dioxide and that this can have a major influence on global temperatures. Transpiration in forests can also influence the flow of water from soils into the atmosphere and this can affect large-scale rainfall patterns.

Until recently, these models were based on observations on today’s Earth system. However, models founded on just one set of data can be vulnerable to the confusion of correlation with causation, and additional evidence is now being sought from the geological record; can we see similar correlations between vegetation change and climate in “deep-time” that support the models?  Particularly useful is the geological record of the late Carboniferous (about 300‒320 million years ago). Although the distribution of the continental landmasses was rather different, conditions were then otherwise remarkably similar to today’s, with extensive polar ice and widespread vegetation, especially in the tropics. Much of this tropical vegetation consisted of swamp forests that at their maximum extent spread over about a million km2 of the tropics. The peat produced by these swamps has subsequently changed into economically important coal deposits and so have been extensively investigated and sampled by geologists. They therefore provide an excellent “natural laboratory” for testing ideas about plant migration and ecology, and how this related to climate change at the time.

Wales has one of the best palaeobotanical records for this time, representing vegetation change in tropical latitudes spanning over 10 million years. It provides a “gold standard” against which vegetation dynamics seen in other coalfields in Europe and North America can be compared. New radiometric data are now also starting to provide an improved temporal framework for examining rates of species evolution and migration within the swamps. Results have already suggested a close correlation between climate and vegetation change in these swamp floras. Now we are starting to look in more detail at changes in distribution of key species to try to determine the underlying factors that caused the vegetation change.

Key papers:

Cleal, C.J. 1997. The palaeobotany of the upper Westphalian and Stephanian of southern Britain and its geological significance. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 95, 227-253.

Cleal, C.J. 2007. The Westphalian-Stephanian macrofloral record from the South Wales Coalfield. Geological Magazine, 144, 465-486.

Cleal, C.J. 2008. Palaeofloristics of Middle Pennsylvanian medullosaleans in Variscan Euramerica. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 268, 164-180.

Cleal, C.J., Tenchov, Y.G., Dimitrova, T.Kh., Thomas, B.A., Zodrow, E.L. 2007. Late Westphalian-Early Stephanian vegetational changes across the Variscan Foreland. In Wong, Th. E (ed.). Proceedings of the XVth International Congress on Carboniferous and Permian Stratigraphy. Utrecht, the Netherlands, 10-16 August 2003. Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam, pp. 367-377.

Cleal, C.J., Thomas, B.A. 2005. Palaeozoic tropical rainforests and their effect on global climates: is the past the key to the present? Geobiology, 3, 13-31.

Cleal, C.J., Opluštil, S., Thomas, B.A. & Tenchov, Y.G. 2010. Late Moscovian terrestrial biotas and palaeoenvironments of Variscan Euramerica. Netherlands Journal of Geosciences, 88, 181-278.

Cleal, C.J., Uhl, D., Cascales-Miñana, B., Thomas, B.A., Bashforth, A.R., King, S.C., Zodrow, E.L. 2012. Plant biodiversity changes in Carboniferous tropical wetlands. Earth-Science Reviews, 114, 124-155.

Thomas, B.A., Cleal, C.J. 2017. Distinguishing Pennsylvanian-age lowland, extra-basinal and upland vegetation. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments, 97, 273-293.

Evolution and mass extinctions – where has life come from and where is it going?

How have plants and animals adapted to environmental change in the past? In the fossil record held in the collections palaeontologists can study the impact of climate change in the past and use this information to predict how future changes may affect life on earth. Being able to study these changes over very long timescales is essential for understanding the slow evolution of life-forms and how this responds to environmental factors. For example, marine species are sensitive to temperature changes, observable by examining fossilised shells, whilst preserved pollen spores indicate what vegetation was present.  Extinction events in the past tell us a great deal about environmental stresses such as global temperature increases, changing vegetation and warmer waters, and how and why certain species adapt to these and survive, whilst others die out.

Highlighted projects

What do new fossil trilobites from Carmarthenshire reveal about ancient Welsh marine environments 445 million years ago?

Trilobites were creatures that lived in the seas between about 520 and 250 million years ago.  Their name means ‘three-lobed’ and comes from the fact that their hard outer shells, or ‘exoskeletons’, were divided into three distinct areas running down the full length of the body.  They are a completely extinct type of arthropod (jointed-legged invertebrate), unrelated to modern crabs, insects and spiders.  Trilobites were one of the most diverse groups of animals in the ancient oceans.  They evolved into many different species, which made their living in a variety of ways. 

Trilobite fossils are found in several areas of Wales, because the rocks there were laid down in the bottom of the seas where trilobites lived.  Recently, an amateur collected hundreds of new trilobite fossils from ten localities in the Llanddowror area, near St. Clears in Carmarthenshire.  Preliminary work revealed several new species from the Llanddowror localities, and different trilobite species at different localities.  Detailed research on the fossils will increase our understanding of the diversity of trilobites living in the ancient oceans and will reveal the different trilobites that lived in different environments and water depths.  Comparison with trilobites of similar age from elsewhere will reveal information about migrations of trilobites between the waters off Wales and those off other nearby landmasses.  It will also help to clarify the age of the trilobites in this rock formation, in relation to those found in other formations in Carmarthenshire.

Key Papers:

McCobb, L. M. E., McDermott, P. D. & Owen, A. W.  2018. The taphonony of a trilobite fauna from an uppermost Katian echinoderm Lagerstätte in South West Wales. Lethaia, (doi: 10.1111/let.12265)

McCobb, L. M. E., McDermott, P. D. & Owen, A. W.  2018. The trilobite fauna of an uppermost Katian (Upper Ordovician) echinoderm Lagerstätte from South West Wales.  Palaeontological Association Annual Meeting, University of Bristol; December 2012 (poster presentation).

McCobb, L. M. E., McDermott, P. D. & Owen, A. W.  2017. The trilobites of the latest Katian Slade and Redhill Mudstone Formation, South West Wales. Sixth International Trilobite Conference, Talinn, Estonia; June 2017 (oral presentation).

McCobb, L. M. E. & Popov, L. E.  2017. Late Ordovician trilobites from the Mayatas Formation, Atansor area, north-central Kazakhstan.  Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 107, 33-52.

McCobb, L. M. E., Boyce, W. D., Knight, I. & Stouge, S. 2014. Early Ordovician (Skullrockian) Trilobites of the Antiklinalbugt Formation, North-east Greenland, and their biostratigraphic significance. Journal of Paleontology, 88 (5), 982-1018.

McCobb, L. M. E. & P. D. McDermott.  A new species of Tretaspis (Trilobita, Trinucleidae) from the Late Ordovician (Katian/Ashgill) Slade and Redhill Mudstones of Carmarthenshire, South Wales.  (Poster presentation). Palaeontological Association Annual Meeting, University College Dublin; December 2012 (poster presentation).

Identifying and tracking the present, past and future of Britain's changing snail and slug fauna

Non-marine molluscs (snails, slugs, and freshwater bivalves) are a part of British life. They make up a substantial slice of Welsh and global biodiversity and some are illuminating model organisms in zoology. A few are well-known as horticultural pests, but molluscs also play special roles in archaeology and climatic history (as markers of human migration, and as high-resolution environmental indicators), and parasitology (as intermediate hosts of helminths of humans, livestock and wildlife).

Shells being irresistibly collectible, the development of scientific malacology is entwined with the story of Museums and of amateur and professional natural history. The UK’s molluscan fauna remains surprisingly dynamic, with non-native species spreading and new ones detected, while declining natives and their habitats become the focus of conservation efforts. The state of nature is always a changing one.

The evidence underpinning these observations is drawn largely from collections-based research. It comes from our national lists of species, discriminated through morphological and DNA taxonomy; from biological records made over time, many by local enthusiasts; and from identifications, made by reference to specimens or illustrated guides. The data set the stage for the next 50 years. Which species will thrive in Wales, and which will struggle? How will they affect our lives, and we theirs?

Key publications

  1. Rowson, B., Anderson, R., Turner, J. A., & Symondson, W. O. C. 2014. The Slugs of Britain and Ireland: Undetected and Undescribed Species Increase a Well-studied, Economically Important Fauna by More Than 20%. PLOS One 9(3): e91907. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091907
  2. Rowson, B., Anderson, R., Allen, S., Forman, D., Greig, C., & Aziz, N. A. A. 2016. Another wave of invasion? First record of the true Sicilian Slug Deroceras panormitanum sensu stricto from Ireland, and another from Wales (Eupulmonata: Agriolimacidae). Journal of Conchology 42 (3): 123-125.
  3. Rowson, B. & Symondson, W. O. C. 2008. Selenochlamys ysbryda sp. nov. from Wales, UK: a Testacella-like slug new to Western Europe (Stylommatophora: Trigonochlamydidae). Journal of Conchology 39(5): 537-552.
  4. Aziz, N. A. A., Daly, E., Allen, S., Rowson, B., Greig, C., Forman, D., & Morgan, E. R. 2016. Distribution of Angiostrongylus vasorum and its gastropod intermediate hosts along the rural-urban gradient in two cities in the United Kingdom, using real time PCR. Parasites & Vectors 9: 56. doi:10.1186/s13071-016-1338-3
  5. Rowson, B., Turner, J. A., Anderson, R., & Symondson, W. O. C. 2014. Slugs of Britain and Ireland: identification, understanding and control. Field Studies Council, Shropshire, UK. 140 pp.
  6. Cavadino, I. & Rowson, B. 2017. Molluscs as markers in the Living Landscapes of Gwent. Natur Cymru 61: 40-43.
  7. Rowson, B. 2019. Non-marine Recorder’s Report 2018. Report to the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland, March 2019.
  8. Owen, C., Rowson, B., & Wilkinson, K. 2016. First record of the predatory semi-slug Daudebardia rufa (Draparnaud, 1805) from the UK (Eupulmonata: Daudebardiidae). Journal of Conchology 42 (3): 119-121.
  9. Rowson, B. (Mollusca). In: Smith, G. & Walker, E. A. 2015. Snail Cave rock shelter, North Wales: a new prehistoric site. Archaeologia Cambrensis 163: 99-131.
  10. Rowson, B. 2017. [38 Assessments (European or Global) for the IUCN Red List of Threatened species.] Example citation: Rowson, B. 2017. Geomalacus maculosus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T9049A85983466.

Plant diversity through 450 million years of Earth history: the effects of evolution, climate, landscape and mass extinctions

The diversity of life on Earth has fluctuated substantially over geological time in response to environmental factors such as changing climate and landscape. It is widely thought that there have been at least five "mass extinctions" when there were significant loss of biodiversity triggered by large-scale igneous activity and/or extra-terrestrial bolide impact; the present-day biodiversity crisis induced by human factors is sometimes referred to as the sixth "mass extinction".

This extinction model was largely based on the record of marine faunas as these animals dominate the fossil record. More recently, however, we have had available better data on the distribution of plants through geological time, notably through the Fossil Record 2 and Brief History of the Gymnosperms projects, and these are telling a rather different story. Numerical analyses of these data are now showing that plants often responded to environmental crises in quite different ways to animals. In most cases, these “mass extinctions” had relatively little effect on the overall trajectory of plant evolution and in one case (the late Devonian event) extinction in marine faunas seems to have been triggered by changing river discharge into the oceans as vegetation diversified over the land. There has also been at least one extinction event that effected plants (in late Carboniferous times) that had little or no effect on marine faunas. Only one of these events appears to have affected all life on Earth, at the Permian – Triassic boundary, and even here plants responded to the ecological crisis in a rather different way to animals.

Collaboration between scientists at Amgueddfa Cymru and from across the world (including France, Belgium, Spain, South Africa and India) is continuing to refine the vegetation data used in these analyses to gain deeper insights into the overall trajectory of plant evolution. We are also now focussing on vegetation patterns during the early phases of when plants were starting to invade and dominated the land, paving the way for the subsequent movement of animals out of aquatic habitats onto dry land.

Key papers:

Anderson, J.M., Anderson, H.M., Cleal, C.J. 2007. Brief history of the gymnosperms: classification, biodiversity, phytogeography and ecology. National Institute of Biodiversity, Pretoria SA (Strelitzia, 20), 279 pp.

Cascales-Miñana, B., Cleal, C.J. 2013. What is the best way to measure extinction? Reflection from the palaeobotanical record. Earth-Science Reviews, 124, 126-147.

Cascales-Miñana, B., Cleal, C.J. 2013. The plant fossil record reflects just two great extinction events. Terra Nova, 26, 195-200.

Cascales-Miñana, B., Cleal, C.J., Gerrienne, P. 2016. Is Darwin's ‘Abominable Mystery’ still a mystery today?. Cretaceous Research, 61, 256-262.

Cascales‐Miñana, B., Servais, T., Cleal, C.J., Gerrienne, P., Anderson, J. 2018. Plants—the great survivors! Geology Today, 34, 224-229.

Cleal, C.J. 1993. Pteridophyta, Gymnosperms. In Benton, M.J (ed.). The Fossil Record 2. Chapman & Hall, London, pp. 779-808.

Cleal, C.J., Cascales‐Miñana, B. 2014. Composition and dynamics of the great Phanerozoic Evolutionary Floras. Lethaia, 47, 469-484.

Further projects on evolution and mass extinctions

  • The fossil history of sphenophytes (“horsetails”): have biodiversity patterns changed over 350 million years of Earth history? (Dr Chris Cleal)
  • What do new fossil trilobite fauna from Carmarthenshire revealing ancient Welsh marine environments 445 million years ago? (Dr Lucy McCobb)
  • The taxonomy of an evolutionary exuberance: description, classification and biogeography of hunter snails (Streptaxidae) (Dr Ben Rowson)
  • What is the evolutionary history of trepostome bryozoans (fossil colonial marine animals) and how do Welsh faunas fit into a global context?  (Dr Caroline Buttler)
  • How do encrusting bryozoans reveal a hidden palaeoecology of the ancient Silurian seas? (Dr Caroline Buttler)
  • Underpinning environmental monitoring and conservation of species: A review of Shovelhead worms (Magelonidae) from Britain to western Africa: describing species and exploring their distributions (Katie Mortimer-Jones)
  • Unravelling the past: understanding the evolutionary relationships of shovelhead worms, a group at the base of the annelid tree of life (Magelonidae) (Katie Mortimer-Jones)

How can we more fully understand our natural heritage and communicate it to new audiences?

The natural heritage of Wales is rich and varied, exemplifying the deep historical connections between its geology, flora, fauna and human populations. We want to enable more people to appreciate these connections and to understand the various and often unexpected ways in which the collections shed light on this natural heritage. Using our collections, we have a unique opportunity to work with others and to pass on this knowledge and share skills of curation, scientific interpretation and public engagement with a variety of audiences, whether established natural history enthusiasts or newcomers. Sharing our research and collaborating with others enables us to interrogate previously-accepted beliefs and to construct new hypotheses: for example, how new techniques for provenancing stone may finally allow us to answer the riddle of why the Stonehenge bluestones were brought to Wiltshire all the way from Wales, or how the blurred distinction between dealer, collector and conchologist in historical practices of shell-trading resulted in the development of shell collections and furthered the taxonomic study of molluscs.

Highlighted projects:

What will petrological and geochemical provenancing of the Stonehenge bluestones tell us about early Neolithic in Wales and answer the who, why, when and how questions about Stonehenge?

Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, is one of the world’s most iconic historic monuments. It is dominated by large monoliths composed of sarsen stone, a hard sandstone from the local environment and a less obvious set of much smaller monoliths, collectively known as the bluestones, whose origins are exotic to the area. The bluestones are predominantly igneous in origin, mainly spotted and unspotted dolerites and rhyolitic tuffs with rarer sandstones.

In 1923 H.H. Thomas, Chief Petrographer to the Geological Survey of Great Britain, presented evidence for the origin of the bluestones in the Preseli area of north Pembrokeshire, West Wales, some 230 km to west of Stonehenge. He cited specific outcrops for the derivation of some of these bluestones.

Using a range of modern analytical techniques, it is possible to reassess Thomas’ original assertions. Two alternative locations for the bluestone sources have so far been identified, notably the outcrops of Craig Rhos-y-Felin and Carn Goedog. Archaeological excavations at these Pembrokeshire sites have revealed evidence for Neolithic human activity which has been linked to stone extraction. This raises questions about why stone was being extracted in Pembrokeshire and suggests we must review hypotheses about ​how and why it was then transported to Wiltshire. New evidence suggests that the stones could have been carried overland - raising fresh questions about our ancestors' motivations. Continuing field investigations in north Pembrokeshire are aimed at answering this conundrum and identifying further specific sources of the bluestones.

Key papers:

Parker Pearson, M., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Welham, K., Casswell, C., French, C., Schlee, D., Shaw, D., Simmons, S., Stanford, A., Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R. 2019. Megalith quarries for Stonehenge's bluestones. Antiquity, 93, (367), 45-62.

Bevins, R.E. and Ixer, R.A., 2018. Retracing the footsteps of HH Thomas: a review of his Stonehenge bluestone provenancing study. Antiquity92, 788-802.

Bevins, R.E., Atkinson, N., Ixer, R. A. & Evans, J.A. 2017. U-Pb zircon age constraints for the Ordovician Fishguard Volcanic Group and further evidence for the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones. Journal of the Geological Society of London, 174, 14-17.

Parker Pearson, M., Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Welham, K., Chan, B., Edinborough, K., Hamilton, D., MacPhail, R., Schlee, D., Schwenninger, J-L., Simmons, E., & Smith, M. 2015.  Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge. Antiquity, 89, 1331-1352.

Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R. A. & Pearce, N.J.G. 2014. Carn Goedog is the likely major source of Stonehenge doleritic bluestones:evidence based on compatible element geochemistry and Principal Component Analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science, 42, 179-193.

Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E. 2014. Chips off the old block: the Stonehenge debitage dilemma. Archaeology in Wales, 52, 11-22.

Bevins, R.E., & Ixer, R. A. 2013. Carn Alw as a source of the rhyolitic component of the Stonehenge bluestones: a critical re-appraisal of the petrographical account of H.H. Thomas. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 3293-3301.

Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R. A., Webb, P.C. & Watson, J.S. 2012. Provenancing the rhyolitic and dacitic components of the Stonehenge landscape bluestone lithology: new petrographical and geochemical evidence. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39, 1005-1019.

Parker Pearson, M., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Thomas, J., Welham, K., Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R., Marshall, P. & Chamberlain, A. 2011. Stonehenge: controversies of the bluestones. In L. García Sanjuán, C. Scarre and D.W. Wheatley (eds) Exploring Time and Matter in Prehistoric Monuments: absolute chronology and rare rocks in European megaliths. Proceedings of the 2nd European Megalithic Studies Group Meeting (Seville, Spain, November 2008). Menga: Journal of Andalusian Prehistory, Monograph no. 1. Seville: Junta de Andalucía. 219-50.

Bevins, R.E., Pearce, N.J.G. & Ixer, R. A. 2011. Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources and the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38, 605-622.

Further projects on our natural heritage:

  • Identifying the key sites that help us understand the genesis of the mineral deposits of Wales and to ensure their conservation for future generations (Professor Richard Bevins)
  • Using biocultural collections in museums to communicate the economic and social importance of plants (Dr Heather Pardoe)
  • Coalfield geoheritage of the Atlantic coastal region: improving geological knowledge of coalfields and using it as a tool for public engagement and education (Dr Chris Cleal)
  • The History of the Moore ichthyosaur collection – how does it provide insights into the Victorian fossil trade? (Cindy Howells)
  • The influence of shell dealers, trade networks and auction houses through time and how they have affected our collections today? (Harriet Wood)
  • What does the legacy of the Italian Marchese Monterosato reveal about our national shell collection? (Harriet Wood)
  • Improving identification, knowledge and distribution data of marine fanworms around Wales and the UK (Dr Teresa Derbyshire)
  • Historic sources and use of stone (building, ornamental and archaeological): defining the resources in north east Wales (Andrew Haycock)
  • Prehistoric gold : what was the source of gold used to create  Chalcolithic and Bronze Age gold artefacts in Western Britain? (Dr Jana Horak).
  • Making complex geology accessible – a guide to the geology of Anglesey (Geopark)  (Dr Jana Horak)
  • The history of mineral collecting in Britain – how early 19th century female collectors viewed the mineralogical world (Tom Cotterell)
  • Making the mineral and rock collections accessible – phase 1 catalogue of published mineral specimens (Tom Cotterell)
  • Conserving the natural heritage -  characterising the mineral diversity of Wales (Tom Cotterell)
  • Leafhopper and planthopper diversity in colliery spoil grasslands in south Wales (Dr Mike Wilson)
  • Resolving issues within taxonomy of leafhoppers of Western Europe (Dr Mike Wilson)