Amgueddfa Blog: Gwirfoddoli

Nature Finds a Way

Alyson Edwards, 3 Mai 2022

The Recolonisation of Invertebrates on Restored Grassland:

I’m Alyson, a Professional Training Year placement year student from Cardiff University (School of Biosciences), currently working within the Entomology department at National Museum Cardiff under the supervision of Dr Michael R Wilson (researchgate.net). My interest in ecology, conservation and zoology ultimately led me here, and with no prior specialist knowledge in entomology (the study of insects) I jumped in at the deep end. Within a few months I was sampling in the field and identifying leaf- and planthopper species from Ffos-y-Fran (an open cast colliery site near Merthyr Tydfil). This  is currently undergoing the process of restoration so that it is converted from a colliery site to reseeded grassland.

Identifying and analysing over four years of invertebrate samples, involved looking at 195 samples.  This took a fair amount of time but allows the rate of recolonisation over a 5-year period, total species diversity, richness, and population dynamics within the fields across the years and seasons to be calculated. Leaf- and planthoppers (Hemiptera: Auchenorrhyncha) were chosen as models within this study as they are frequently common within grassland environments and can be used as an indicator of recolonisation progress on man-restored environments and ex-colliery spoil sites. Colliery sites are a common landscape visible across the UK, especially in the south Wales valleys. Their ecological importance and possible biodiversity are often overlooked, however work by Liam Olds (formerly Natural Talent apprentice at Amgueddfa Cymru), continues to highlight this through the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative (https://www.collieryspoil.com/about).

I am currently in the process of analysing this huge data set and creating a report to show the findings. However, in summary, the data has shown a trend of increasing diversity of hopper species within the field since it was reseeded. In total, 33 species were identified from the site – highlighting the ecological importance these habitats hold. Interestingly, grassland species generally uncommon to the area such as the planthopper Xanthodelphax flaveola and the leafhopper Anoscopus histrionicus, were abundant across the site leading to interesting discussion points as to why this environment encourages their colonisation. Other observations and discussions have also arisen from different wing-morphologies (shapes) seen in specimens of the same species. For example, the discovery of long-winged females of Doratura impudica, which are commonly a brachypterous species (short or rudimentary wings) encourages thought on arrival and colonisation methods of certain species, which could potentially help analyse other environments under recolonisation and ‘rewilding’ programmes. 

Studying the recolonisation of hoppers at Ffos-y-Fran has allowed me to develop and gain numerous skills which I will take with me into my final year of university and beyond. Not only have I been able to improve on existing skills such as report writing and data analysis, but I’ve also had the opportunity to gain new skills such as invertebrate identification, mounting specimens and taxonomical drawing. I’ve also had the chance to use the Scanning Electron Microscopy and sputter coating, and I have also used the imaging equipment at National Museum Cardiff to create a ‘species guide’ of the 33 observed at Ffos-y-Fran to supplement the report and provide a visual aid. Within my first few months at the museum, I was also able to get involved in a data collection project run by Dr Alan Stewart (University of Sussex), analysing specimens within the Auchenorrhyncha collections to create spreadsheets for the eventual creation of species distribution maps as part of the UK Mapping scheme for this insect group. There are so many opportunities and experiences to be had within the museum!

My time with Amgueddfa Cymru has been amazing, conducting research and joining the Natural Sciences team, and has solidified my desire to pursue a career in research. I believe my placement has given me a great start for a future career with the skills I’ve gained and developed through my work on Ffos-y-Fran and my secondary research project. The second project I am currently working on in collaboration with Dr Mike Wilson will provide an up-to-date redescription and description of new species of Fijian spittlebugs with the aim of publication of my first peer-reviewed scientific paper. Watch this space to find out more on the latter project …. 

Taxonomy- A dying science?

Abbie Taylor, 29 Ebrill 2022

As a Biological Sciences student I am very familiar with the concept of classification and evolution, having been taught about it from primary school level. The idea of using a filing system to organise species became common place at secondary school level. Constantly reciting the Linnean system and its eight levels of taxa (domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species) for exams and coming up with rhymes and mnemonics to remember it in class. 

Due to this I was vaguely familiar with taxonomy, I knew what it was and why it was important, as I describe below. However, we never truly explored taxonomy in any great detail, especially in a modern context, and so I never thought about it as a career many still do today. That was until February of 2020 when I was searching for placement opportunities for my Professional Training Year as a part of my degree at Cardiff University, and I came across an opportunity to undertake at National Museum Cardiff exploring taxonomy. I now have a much greater understanding of taxonomy’s importance and unfortunately the crisis it might be facing.

What is taxonomy?

Taxonomy is the science of naming, describing and classifying species, including species new to science. It is the foundation stone of biological science. The first step in understanding how many species we have, where they live, and what they look like so others can identify them. For example, it can be an early indicator of evolution, and in seeing how the morphological characteristics of species may help in adapting and surviving in their environments. 

Why is taxonomy important?

To understand the great diversity of the world we must know what is in it, and so taxonomy is essential in beginning to describe distributions and habitats of species. This will help scientists determine for example, whether a species is under threat, or the presence of an invasive species that can threaten other species and as a result their ecosystem. Scientists need to know all of the species in an environment, all described in a standardised manner that can be understood by those from around the world no matter the language spoken. This is so that they can begin to understand how to help preserve biodiversity and help the planet. 

Taxonomy is essential in aiding communication between scientists by giving a species a binomial scientific name. Many species will have many differing common names, for example Puma concolor, also known as the puma, cougar, panther, mountain lion, catamount, etc. in fact, P. concolor has over 40 common names in English alone. A binomial name (often in Greek or Latin) reduces confusion by surpassing language barriers and avoiding differing common names.

Taxonomy is also the first step in identifying species that have the potential to help people, to that end, the species related to them which may possess similar qualities. 

Truthfully, it is not known how many species share the planet with us. The most commonly cited number is 8.7 million species, however, this number ranges from five to ten million species. Either way taxonomists have only identified and described around two million species. Unfortunately, there will be many species that become extinct before we even know they existed. Scientists are unable to determine the rate of species extinctions or truly understand changes in biodiversity on a global scale because of the frightfully little knowledge of the species we share the planet with.

Importance of taxonomists

As mentioned, I mostly knew taxonomy as science undertaken in the past and if I did think of it in a modern context it was through modern techniques such as DNA barcoding. As a career opportunity for new biologists, taxonomy barely crosses the mind. It has been suggested that funding in taxonomic research is also on the decline, and that traditional taxonomy is too slow in producing research papers. 

But while using DNA to aid in identifications and for evolutionary relationships is no doubt useful, it is dangerous to remove all of the other “old-fashioned” techniques used for looking into morphological characteristics. Techniques such as drawing, AutoMontage imaging, scanning electron microscopy, written descriptions from observations, notes on habitat and distribution to name but a few. DNA analysis should be used to supplement the more traditional techniques, not replace them. There have been numerous examples in papers of errors in conclusions being made due to scientists looking at species from only a genetic point of view but having misidentified the species. To that effect integrative taxonomy has recently become a popular choice. It includes multiple perspectives such as phylogeography, comparative morphology, population genetics, ecology, development, behaviour, etc., so as to create the best descriptions and knowledge of species. 

After all, without taking the time to properly observe and describe a specimen you won’t truly know what the species looks like and how it uses its features to survive. How shall keys and field guides be properly constructed so that non-experts can identify species too? Without taxonomists how can the irreplaceable and valuable collections in our natural history museums be properly maintained and organised?

As I have experienced in my research on a relatively understudied family, mistakes have been made in identifications leading to false conclusions to be drawn, which has dangerous consequences for example in determining biodiversity. These false identifications may be enhanced by a purely DNA route into taxonomy. If taxonomy starts to die and fewer experts who truly understand a species exist who shall correct these mistakes and continue to document the rich biodiversity of the world?

 

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Mae Buddsoddi mewn Gwirfoddolwyr yn wobr safon ansawdd ar gyfer Rheoli Gwirfoddolwyr.

Allen ni ddim bod wedi gwneud hyn heb waith caled ac ymroddiad ein staff a'n gwirfoddolwyr gwych. Diolch yn fawr!

Wedi cael cyfle i ddarllen yr adroddiadau asesu, yr uchafbwynt i ni oedd y sylw hwn...

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The Making of the Tip Girl

Craft Volunteers at St Fagans National Museum of History , 15 Hydref 2021

The Craft group of volunteers had been “coasting” for some time waiting for our next assignment from the museum. We’d made rag rugs for the houses at Rhyd y Car, we made mediaeval costumes for the children visiting Llys Llewellyn and we’d used the lavender grown in the castle gardens to make lavender bags to sell in the shops. For a few other meetings we’d been doing our own crafting projects in Gweithdy, talking to visitors, showing them how we made our various quilts, rugs, throws, and tapestries, but we were ready for a new project.

None of us had been familiar with the term Tip Girls, or the work they did in the mining industry when Noreen and Ceri from Big Pit visited us to ask for help in setting up a new temporary exhibition at the big pit Museum.

We were asked to design and make an outfit suitable for a Tip girl as would have been worn in the Welsh coal fields. Little research has been done on these girls in Wales but some records were kept of those girls working in the coal fields of Nottinghamshire and Durham. There were similarities between the two but also some distinct differences; most notably the names: Tip Girls in Wales and Pit Girls in the north of England

We obviously needed to research these Tip Girls and the period in which they were working, to find out the type of clothes they wore in order to undertake our task.

Until 1842 women and children had regularly worked underground, but after a dreadful mining disaster in Barnsley, Queen Victoria demanded an enquiry. This resulted in the Mines and Collieries Act banning women, girls, and boys under 10 from working underground.

This was a blow to many women who earned their living, or supplemented their household income from working underground, but women who needed to work adapted. They worked at loading wagons or hauling tubs up from the pithead and some became Tip Girls, sorting rocks and stones from the coal when it had been brought up from the mines below ground.

In our research we found that Tip girls developed a distinctive style of dress and different areas develop their own distinctive styles

The work was cold and wet and very dirty and the girls’ dresses catered for this.  In Wales, W. Clayton had taken photographs of these women; although they were posed and in a studio setting we still get a good idea of how they were dressed.  They wore long flannel skirts or frocks covered by leather aprons. Some wore breeches under their skirts, but this was frowned on in some mines, although it was commonplace in the mines in the north of England. They clothed their heads in hats and scarves, ensuring all of their heads were completely covered to prevent the coal dust saturating their hair.

Several members of the Craft group luckily have experience in costume design and they shared their expertise with us, helping us to design the costume.

We needed to decide what fabric we could use for the costumes, and we were lucky to be allowed the opportunity to see the museum exhibits in storage that would help us in designing the costume. We saw skirts, aprons, petticoats, stockings, socks and even boots that were all being carefully conserved by the museum.

 

We had been given a shop-window mannequin to use as the Tip Girl and were expected to dress her. However, her solid hands and feet posed a problem in that we needed to give her gloves and boots, and her elegant pose made making her resemble the Tip Girl very difficult.                                                                 

It took some time to work out that she couldn’t be used and something else had to be sorted out. There was no other mannequin available from the museum, so our resourceful team got together and manufactured one from various sources. (It does help having costume designers in the group!)

We used the original mannequin as the basis to design the clothes and even used our own members as models.  The tip girls hats seem to have been of special interest to the girls. They were all decorated quite lavishly with beads, ribbons, bows, flowers, and even birds and cherries and other fruit.  This seems to have been their gesture to glamour in the midst of the grime of the pit head.

We were getting on nicely with the manufacture of the clothes when Covid hit and we were locked down. We carried on our monthly meetings over Zoom but the Tip Girl project was side-lined for a while, while we made masks and protective clothing for the NHS. Edwina however was still working on our model and when a year later we resumed, we were nearly there with our very own Tip Girl, who we had nicknamed Brenda, for some unknown reason!

In discussion with a friend who is also doing research on the Tip Girls of the Welsh mines, I discovered that these girls were not the lowly workers they seem to be from their photos. In fact, they were quite well-paid and regarded themselves as better off than girls who had to go into service at the local “big houses”. Photographers also wanted to take their photographs and make them into postcards to sell to the public which made some of the tip girls into minor celebrities.

During lockdown we have made headscarf, skirt, chemise and socks. We’d made hands (ready for gloves) hats, bloomers and a bodice.  On returning to face-to-face volunteering, we collected what we had been working on and found we had been quite productive during lockdown.

The home-made mannequin was coming along at pace and caused some hilarity when we first assembled the legs and body as they weren’t quite compatible. Caroline, our expert in period costume, had knitted a wonderful pair of stockings that fitted the homemade legs perfectly.

 

 

The figure of the mannequin at the beginning caused much hilarity, and the arms and legs both had to be considerably altered. Having it made by different people in different places had its difficulties!


Our next meeting was at Big Pit, when we collected the disparate pieces of the costume and put them on the model. Our home-made model was not in use, and the museum was using another mannequin that was being altered to fit the brief. It was rather tall for the display case, but the staff intended shortening it discreetly.

The main reason for visiting Big Pit was to make the costume look as realistic as possible for the exhibition. They all looked newly made and pristinely clean, and we had to make them look as grubby and dirty as possible. So, after dressing up the model, we then undressed her again, and took the clothes over to the Forge where we had a good time rubbing them into the dirtiest and most filthy parts of the machinery.

 

It’s finished now, and we are waiting eagerly for the opening of the exhibition. We’ve left the clothes with the museum, along with both models, and it depends on which model best suits the display cabinet. When we visit the exhibition we will be very interested to find out more about the Tip Girls, and proud to see the small contribution we made to the exhibition on display. 

 

 

From Student to Scientist

Kelsey Harrendence, 28 Gorffennaf 2021

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.