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Working on the collections in the Natural Sciences Department of the National Museum Wales can be both enlightening and complex. Visiting from Bangor University for a week in Cardiff, we were involved with work in the invertebrate biodiversity section, in particular with bivalves and polychaetes. We were very privileged to gain lots of laboratory skills during this process and undertook a huge variety of tasks!

Worm hunting

We were got down to business with sorting a benthic survey sample from 2013 into Polychaeta, Mollusca, Crustacea and Echinodermata by investigating samples under the microscope. To our amazement, we found a big diversity of species just within the samples we looked through, finding everything from bristle worms to isopods! Later in the week we also took on the challenge of trying to identify the polychaete species we found, with some kind help from Teresa. Whilst it was challenging at first, we all became much better by the end and even managed to identify some just by their tails! Teresa also kindly showed us how polychaetes are photographed for publication and identification guides, which was very interesting – it takes a lot of patience and is quite fiddly but the final results are incredible!

Another aspect of the laboratory work included sorting some live polychaete samples brought in by Andy from a recent survey. This included smashing up some of the rocks to get to all the invertebrates hiding inside, a bit like cracking an Easter egg open! One of the most stunning specimens we found was of a Serpulidae worm, which at first was curled up with just the operculum visible, but after waiting patiently it uncurled into a beautiful fan-like structure!

 

Molluscs

Our work with bivalves began by sorting a collection donated by CCW - Countryside Council for Wales (now Natural Resources Wales) - originally collected by Bangor University back in the 50’s, and inputting the collection details onto the museum's digital database. However, obstacles were met along the way: some sections contained more than one label indicating that more than one species were in the same container, as well as the same species all from different places! But Anna kindly trained us up so we were able to organise shells into the correct species groups and off we went!  We sorted some beautiful shells, including razor clams! For some specimens, a light microscope was needed in order to see the most important features for identification. By using the British Bivalves online database, created by museum staff, we were able to ensure that the names of the shells were up to date.

While there we had an explore around the collection and came across some stunning shells, including a huge Triton shell, which is from a species of sea snail that preys on Crown-of-Thorns starfish! The mollusc collection at the museum contains lots of other shell bearing creatures such as limpets and snail-like shells, as well as books on molluscs dating all the way back to the 17th century that contain a wealth of knowledge, and are stored in a glass bookcase to protect them from the environment.

While the hands-on science occupied the majority of our time at the museum, we also got to explore the treasure trove of wonderful collections that is the Natural Sciences Department of the National Museum Wales. We started off with a behind the scenes tour of a variety of collections, from some containing thousands of shells to others with all the bee species in Britain! We can definitely say we never knew there were so many different species! We slowly explored a snippet of the wonders the museum holds, and the knowledge available from the specimens kept there and the staff who care for them (our 11 o’clock coffee breaks were a great time to discuss the ins and outs of curating a collection with museum staff, from seaweed – which you can press just like a flower! - to penguins and of course, worms!).

 

 

3D printing

Our adventures behind the scenes didn’t stop there! While working on the collections we were lucky enough to have a go at 3D printing, which is a mesmerising process to behold. In addition to the printing we witnessed how the fantastic images you see on display in the museum gallery and within books and papers from the staff are created. A fine art of patience and care creates beautiful imagery of amazing detail. Our time at the museum was spent just prior to Christmas allowing us to join the wonderful museum carol service, which was held in the main hall and made up of members of the museum staff, all with amazing voices. As for Cardiff, it was our first time in this vibrant city for all three of us; the foods in Cardiff market are amazing and some of the restaurants are a must go – and of course ice skating in front of the beautiful collection of buildings, one of which is the museum (we didn’t fall over either)! 

 

The week we spent with the museum has given us an insight into how the amazing collections on display are put together, as well as gaining some hands-on science experience, and we will hopefully return again soon!

Rydym ni wrth ein bodd bod USA Today wedi nodi bod 'Mwydod! Y Da, y drwg ac yr hyll' yn un o'r 'arddangosfeydd gorau yn Ewrop y gaeaf hwn', felly dyma weld beth yw barn ein hymwelwyr am y sioe:

Mae Mwydod! yn arddangosfa i bob aelod o'r teulu, a cewch ymweld â'r sioe am ddim yn Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd. Mae digon o gyfleoedd o wisgo lan, i archwilio a mwynhau - yn ogystal â gweld llwyth o fwydod rhyfeddol.

Mae croeso cynnes i chi ymweld â Mwydod - am ragor o wybodaeth, ewch i'n tudalen ddigwyddiadau. Fe welwn ni chi'n fuan!

Towards the end of last year, staff members from the Amgueddfa Cymru took part in a research ‘Roadshow event’ held at Swansea University.   The event gave a chance to meet academics with shared research interests and discuss potential collaborations between our two institutions, and already the event seems to have nurtured some promising links.

At the event Teresa Darbyshire, our Senior Marine Invertebrate Curator, made contact with Dr. Rich Johnston who is co-director of Swansea University's brand new Advanced Imaging of Materials Centre (AIM), a £9M EPSRC/Welsh Government funded integrated scientific imaging facility for Wales. Following this contact, the opportunity arose for myself, Teresa and Dr. Jana Horak (Head of Mineralogy & Petrology) to visit the centre and see the facilities first hand.

To say we were a little overwhelmed by the centre would be quite an understatement. The centre offers state-of-the-art advanced imaging facilities including including transmission electron microscopy (TEM), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), Ion beam nanofabrication, X-ray Diffraction (XRD), X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS), Energy-Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS), and micro and nano X-ray computed tomography (microCT). Not to mention a full suite of optical imaging and teaching microscopes.

AIM is primarily focused towards engineering and material science, and you may be wondering why they would be keen to collaborate with the Natural Sciences department here at the Museum. Well, part of their research is looking at the structures of biomaterials to learn how naturally occurring materials are formed, and with over 3 million specimens in our Natural Science collections we offer a huge reference library of material, along with the specialist knowledge of our curatorial staff, right on their doorstep. In return, we can benefit from access to their facilities to help us investigate our collections further for our own research and outreach needs, perhaps helping us to discover new species or identify historic conservation work that may have been undertaken on our specimens.

In fact, we are already utilising their MicroCT scanner to digitise a Whelk shell in order to produce a 3D printed replica in transparent material so that we may see how hermit crabs and a species of marine worm co-habit in these shells.  As you can see below, we’ve already digitally scanned the external of the shell here at the museum, but AIM’s MicroCT Scanner will enable us capture all the internal structures as well. We'll post the results when we get the scan back.

 

 

Whilst there, we also had the chance to visit the Virtual Reality (VR) lab to see how digital models produced by microCT or our own 3D scanning facilities could be developed for outreach and learning in a virtual environment. We had the chance to "visit" a virtual museum and see digitised objects in this environment. Although a little disconcerting to start with, once we got familiar with the VR world it really did offer a unique way to visualise objects that otherwise may not be possible. In the future, this technology really could open up new ways for the public engage with our collections.

 

I have been specialising in a group of marine bristleworms called magelonids for the last 17 years. Magelonids are known as shovelhead worms due to their distinctive spade-like heads that they use to dig in the soft sediments in which they live. Shovelhead worms have a world-wide distribution, generally living in shallow waters, although a few deep water species are known. I study the taxonomy of the group - a branch of science concerned with the classification of all living things, involving describing species, some which may be new to science. Principally I have worked on specimens from Europe, the Indian Ocean and the seas surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. However, more recently I have also been studying the behaviour of this fascinating group, investigating how they feed, burrow and move etc.

I was invited to colloborate with the University Museum of Bergen (UMB), Norway back in 2013 to work on shovelhead worms from Western Africa. The project, The Marine Invertebrates of Western Africa aims to investigate seabed samples from the West African continental shelf from Morocco to Angola. Very little is known about the shovelhead worms of this region, with only three species currently described, all from South Africa. Therefore I visited the lab at UMB to work with the team back in 2015 on MIWA material. The results from that trip were very exciting and approximately 20 different species of shovelhead worms were found in the material, many of which were likely to be new to science. Whilst work on these specimens carried on back at National Museum Cardiff, it was felt that it would be beneficial to re-vist Bergen to carry on the colloborative work. So consequently UMB invited me back to work with them once more this January. So for the last two weeks I have been studying more material from the region in order to find specimens for DNA analysis. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is found inside every cell of every living thing and is different in every individual. We can use DNA analysis to see the difference between very similar looking animals and thus we can see whether animals belong to the same or different species. We can then compare this information to what the species looks like (morphology). We have now selected 74 specimens which will be sent off for DNA sequencing and hopefully the results from that will come back shortly.

In the mean time work will begin on drawing, describing and imagining all the shovelhead worms from Western Africa. It is likely that there will be many new species within these samples, so we will need to decide on names for all of them and these will then be published in scientific papers. Once published this information will be used for example, by people monitoring the health of the seabed within this region.

To read more about the work on MIWA shovelhead worms click here 

 

 

One of the great things about being a museum curator is that I am always learning new things on the job. I have been a museum curator for 15 years.  In this time, my job has been to care for the mollusca collections but I have also now taken on the role of overseeing the care of the vertebrate collections. This has meant a whole raft of new things to learn and deal with, the least of which being that the animals all have backbones!

I was recently asked on behalf of the Sawfish Conservation Society (SCS) to investigate what sawfish rostra we have in our collections. So what is a sawfish? And what is a rostrum? Sawfish are incredible. They live in tropical and sub-tropical waters across the world. Also known as Carpenter sharks, they are in the same family as stingrays, electric rays and skates. Their characteristic feature is a long narrow nose extension called a rostrum which is lined with sharp teeth. These run down the length of the nose giving it the appearance of a saw.  To make this nose extension all the weirder, it is covered with electro sensitive pores that allow the sawfish to detect the smallest of movements on the sea floor. Little is known about the wild feeding strategies of sawfish, but it seems they skim the surface of the muddy sea floor looking for fish and crustacea, the way we might swish around a metal detector. The rostrum can be also be used to slash and impale anything that might be passing!

It is mostly due to this excellent nose that all sawfish species are listed as endangered or critically endangered. Seen as a curiosity, these sawfish rostra were prized by collectors. Overfishing and habitat destruction have had a devastating impact upon sawfish numbers, they have disappeared from at least 80-90% of the areas they once inhabited. They are now protected in a large number of countries making it illegal to harm them or trade in the removed saws.

The SCS has come up with a plan to help us better understand these amazing animals. They are partnering with researchers and institutes from around the world, which in the UK includes the Deep Aquarium and The Shark Trust, to launch the ‘See a Saw’ Citizen Science Sawfish Project.  Although the removal of saws has had a negative impact on their populations, researchers want to turn this negative into a positive. By using these saws to learn important information about them, they can then be used to conserve the remaining populations. They have the added bonus that the rostra are much easier to measure if the sawfish is not attached!

So with this in mind, I met with Al Reeve and his volunteer Sharon Williams from the South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre (SEWBRec). Al is an avid elasmobranch enthusiast and it is through him that the enquiry first reached me. We set about photographing, measuring and counting the teeth of a whole series of rostra from the collections. It was an amazing experience to handle these specimens and to learn so much from Al about this group of animals. In the future, we may also be taking tissue samples from these rostra to send on to researchers for analysis. I quote Jeff Whitty, Founder and co-administrator of SCS to explain why:

"The data and tissue samples will be used in multiple international studies to further sawfish management and conservation. Sawfish have been suggested to be the most threatened shark or ray in the world and yet we know little about them, which makes conserving the remaining populations difficult. The morphometric data that you provided will help us improve our identification guides of sawfish and will provide us with a better understanding of the distributions of these species. The tissue samples from the rostra will be used by multiple genetic studies that are exploring the differences in the genetic diversity between historic and contemporary populations of various sawfish species. Information from these genetic studies will allow us to better understand if genetic diversity in current populations have declined or remained steady through the years and thus will inform managers if genetic health of a sawfish species or population is a topic of concern."

It is an unbelievably rewarding experience to know that this work can in a small way contribute to the conservation of this most endangered and enigmatic animal. We are often asked why we hold collections in museums. What good can come out of preserving animals? Why would we want to keep such a negative reminder of the wildlife that we have slaughtered on mass in our past? And we can answer that some good can come out of it. To conserve, to learn, to educate, to enthuse, and to help us do things better in the future. It is a great job that I am privileged to hold.

You can learn more about Sawfish by going on the Sawfish Conservation website. You can find out more about the Sawfish project and who else is involved here, or watch this video about measuring saws.