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On 19th February, I joined science curator Kate Mortimer-Jones to study marine life on the shores around Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, not far from the border with Scotland. While Kate hunted for magalonid marine bristleworms, I looked at seaweeds. Much of England’s east coast is not particularly suitable for seaweeds; however, the rocky shores around Northumberland form plenty of ideal habitats.

It was early in the year, so I wasn’t expecting to see the seaweeds that die down for the winter (similar to annual and perennial flowering plants). I was also expecting a lower diversity here when compared with Welsh shores due to the colder climate. Species with south-western distributions that prefer a relatively warmer climate, such as Brown Tuning Fork Weed (Bifurcaria bifurcata), relatively common in Wales, do not grow as far north and east as Northumberland. With climate change, however, there is always the possibility that these southern species may expand their range further north. This is more likely for non-native species that are in the process of establishing in the UK, so I was on the look-out.

There are some seaweeds that only grow in the north of the UK, such as the Northern Tooth Weed (Odonthalia dentata) which is absent from Wales. I wanted to become familiar with these in the field rather than just seeing them as pressed specimens in our collections. It’s always exciting to find a species for the first time in the wild too.

Despite the time of year and the north-eastern location, the very sheltered shore was an excellent one for seaweeds and I documented a wide range of species. While it was important to collect specimens as a permanent back-up for records and for future research, I had to remind myself not to collect too many as they take a long time to process and I didn’t want to be up until the ‘wee hours’.

Preservation of the seaweeds involves several techniques depending on future use. To preserve the seaweed’s DNA for molecular analysis, the seaweed needs to be dried as quickly as possible in a bag with silica gel. Combining DNA characters with morphological ones (such as shape and colour) is sometimes the only way to be sure of an identification. To preserve 3D structure and some microscopic details well, a sample is placed in a tube with formaldehyde for fixation. Finally, the traditional and still most effective method for overall preservation is to press and dry the specimen, unfortunately this is the most time consuming process. You float each seaweed out onto paper, place nappy liners on top (a crucial part to stop the seaweed sticking to the paper above it), then place a piece of blotting paper underneath and on top and put it into a plant press. At least once a day, I swapped the wet blotting paper for dry and made sure the wet paper dried out quickly enough to be used in the next cycle. A lengthy procedure, but worth it for excellently preserved specimens that will be invaluable for future research.

I had access to a microscope with a camera attached and so was able to take close-up images of the seaweeds while they were fresh. These will be useful when looking at dried specimens back in the museum. Characters such as colour and 3D structure can be altered in the drying process, but will show up well in these photos. I also took lots of photos with a waterproof camera (it is too terrifying to take a non-waterproof camera onto the shore!) and I will share some more of these in my next blog.

Welcome to Umberto Fiordaliso, a postgraduate student from the University of Florence who will be working at the museum for 3 months with the Erasmus Programme, which helps students to study abroad. Umberto has previous experience working on Mediterranean molluscs and will be curating the marine molluscs collected by Monterosato, part of our extensive shell collection. He will be working closely with Anna Holmes and Harriet Wood in the Invertebrate Biodiversity section to produce a published handlist on this historical collection.

Hello Bulb Buddies,

I have exciting news to report! We have had our first flower dates recorded on the website!

Congratulations to Ysgol Deganwy, who’s first Crocus flowered an the 21st of February at 90mm tall. Ysgol Tal Y Bont and Ysgol Bancyfelin who’s first Crocus's flowered on the 23rd of February at 65mm tall. And, Ynysddu Primary School who’s first Crocus flowered on the 25th of February at 50mm tall. They expect two more to flower any day now!

I have also had reports of even earlier flowering dates. Swiss Valley CP School report that some of their Crocus plants flowered over half term.

Silverdale St. John's CE School have reported that some of the Crocuses they planted in tyres have flowered. One is 110mm tall!

And today, via Twitter I received photographic evidence that Llanharan Primary School has at least two fully grown Crocus plants! They saw one of them open today!

Remember to enter your flower date and the height of your flower on the National Museum Wales website. But, only do this once the petals are fully visible and remember to measure the height in millimetres.

I would love some photos of the flowers for the Museum’s website and my Twitter page. Please ask your teachers to send these in to me if possible.

I would also like to see just how artistic you all are! So, I have an activity for you to do once your flowers have opened! I’d like you to draw a detailed picture of your plant and label all its different parts. This is a great way to get to know your flowers better, and to see just how complicated such small things can be. It’s also very interesting to compare the Daffodil and the Crocus, can you spot the similarities and differences? In many ways all flowers are very similar, even though at first glance they look completely different to one another!

Here is a fun game to do with labelling plants that I found on the BBC Bitesize website:

I look forward to seeing your photos and pictures.

Keep up the good work Bulb buddies,

Professor Plant

Your comments:

Stanford in the Vale Primary School: We had snow on Tuesday! Bitter cold all week. Prof P: Wow Stanford in the Vale Primary, you have had cold weather! -2 on Tuesday – burrr!

Rivington Foundation Primary School: Our daffodils in pots started sprouting last week, now between 1 and 4 cms. Daffodils in pots no sign yet. Probably too cold in the ground. Professor Plant: Hi Rivington Foundation Primary, I’m glad to hear your bulbs are sprouting! It is exciting to see how fast they grow once they start to show above the soil. Usually, the plants in the ground would grow first because they are slightly warmer than your plants in pots. But this depends on a number of things, such as how much frost you have had! I’m sure they will show themselves soon, maybe they are waiting for it to get a little warmer!


Chryston Primary School: Sorry but we were off for 3 days and sadly a bulb got squished because it is near the playground and a ball landed of top of it. The good news is the bulbs are starting to grow. Next week we will start recording the height of the bulbs. Prof P: Oh I am sorry to hear that you lost one of your bulbs! I hope you are all sharing so that no one is too upset – these things do happen! I’m glad to hear that your bulbs have started growing though! It’s interesting to document how quickly they grow, and to see that each one grows at its own pace!

Saint Anthony's Primary School: We are enjoying taking the measurements and are delighted at how well our bulbs are progressing. Prof P: Hi Saint Anthony’s Primary, I’m glad to hear you are enjoying the project. I very much enjoy studying all the weather records that are sent in. And I especially like receiving lovely comments that show me others enjoy this project as much as I do! Keep up the good work Bulb Buddies.

Glyncollen Primary School: We have had good fun so far doing spring bulbs investigation! Prof P: I’m glad you are enjoying the project Bulb Buddies! There are lots more experiments and investigations you can do if you are enjoying this one, why not have a look at the MET Office website for idea! 


Saint Anthony's Primary School: We have noticed that the temperatures have recently been rising and falling. Prof P: Hi Saint Anthony’s Primary, I’m glad to hear that you are studying and comparing your weather records. You have had a bit of a jump, from -2 on Wednesday to 11 on Thursday! Differences like this can result from taking readings at different times of day, as the temperature will be consistently lower in the morning than in the afternoon! This is why it’s important to always try to take the readings at around the same time. However, this can also result from changes in the weather. I’m guessing it was a lot sunnier and less cloudy on Thursday compared to the rest of the week!

Our Lady of Peace Primary School: We hope our bulbs flower soon. We enjoyed planting them. Prof P: I’m sure it won’t be long now Our Lady of Peace Primary! One of my Crocus plants is nearly big enough, but it will be a while yet before my other plants flower! Isn’t it interesting to see that all of our plants are developing differently even though we planted them on the same day!


Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School: We have started to see that our bulbs are starting to grow. Some of our bulbs during the extremely windy weather blew over and were nearly out of the plant box and plant pot. However, we have seen some growth in a number of our plant pots and are hoping they will grow further. For the other ones that had blew over, we replanted them just in case there is any hope. This was a few weeks ago so hopefully we will see some change. Prof P: Hi Keir Hardie Memorial Primary, you did the right thing by re-planting your bulbs. I have my fingers crossed that they will still grow for you! I’m glad to hear that some of your plants have started to grow and that you are monitoring them so closely. Keep up the good work!

Glyncollen Primary School: We have had a broken thermometer on Monday and Tuesday. Professor Plant: Hi Glyncollen Primary. I’m sorry that your thermometer wasn’t working. But I’m glad to see that you fixed it or got a new one, and that you still took your rain fall readings. Good work!  

The Blessed Sacrament Catholic Primary School: Nearly all our bulbs have shoots now the weather is a bit warmer and the mystery bulbs have buds so it looks like we may have some flowers soon. E and O. Prof P: Ooo this is exciting! Once your mystery bulbs have flowered let me know what type of plant you think they might be! Keep up the god work!

Stanford in the Vale Primary School: Another strange week with the weather....high winds, cold and heavy rain, then beautiful sunshine! Our plants in the ground look as if they could be showing signs of opening.....but the one in pots seem rather behind....so we are on constant watch! Kind Regards, Gardening Club. Prof P: Hi Stanford in the Vale Primary Gardening Club! I’m glad to hear that your plants are doing well, and that you are comparing the growth of the plants in the ground to the plants in pots. It’s very interesting that these are developing differently, can you think of reasons why this might be?

Glyncollen Primary School: Some of our spring bulbs are starting to grow and our crocus! Prof P: That’s good news Glyncollen Primary, keep a close eye on them now because they’ll grow quickly!

The Marine Section at National Museum Cardiff have studied the shores around Berwick-upon-Tweed for several years now, concentrating on the marine bristleworms living in the muddy sand and the rocky outcrops of this beautiful beach. This is an historic beach for these fascinating creatures as several species were first described from this locality by Dr George Johnston (1797 – 1855), a Scottish physician and naturalist who studied the fauna and flora of the area. One of the most abundant types of bristleworms found there are shovelhead worms, beautiful creatures that use their flattened heads to dig in the sand and feed using two long feeding tentacles. Staff at the museum specialize in this group and hence Berwick-upon-Tweed is an important site for their research. Hence, I “set sail” to the shores of Northumberland again to collect more samples both for our research and the museum’s natural history collections. One of our current focuses is to understand how these animals feed, breed, burrow and behave and our latest findings have recently been published in the proceedings of the 11th International Polychaete Conference.

On this trip, I was joined by fellow science curator Kath Slade from the Botany section, who specializes in seaweeds. This allows us to look more holistically at the shore’s ecology, by looking at both the flora and fauna.

We will keep you posted with updates about what we have discovered.

Our trip to collect shovelhead worms (a type of marine bristleworm called a magelonid) at Berwick-upon-Tweed started last Thursday (19th) at 06.30, giving us plenty of time on the shore before low tide. We were extremely lucky with the weather, as although it was only 7 degrees, the sun was out and it wasn’t raining. Staff at the museum specialize in this fascinating group and this particular trip was aimed at collecting animals to further our understanding of the biology of the group but also to gain specimens for the Museum’s natural history collections. Magelonids are extremely abundant on this shore and material used in the description of the British species, Magelona johnstoni was collected here by Head of Invertebrate Biodiversity Andy Mackie, who was one of the team who described the species back in 2000. The species was given its name in honour of the work carried out by the naturalist Dr George Johnston in this region.

Although, abundant on this shore, finding and collecting animals which are less than 1 mm in width can be tricky! These animals are rather long and fragile and a great deal of care has to be taken when collecting them. Animals are gently removed from the sand using a water bottle and soft forceps and placed into a cool box to keep them cool on the journey home. Once back to our makeshift laboratory I was able to identify and observe them for our research. We have designed a specialist tank in order to observe them over longer periods of time as well. We have successfully kept animals in this tank for nearly two years. We are hoping to observe the difference between three species, which can be found on this shore, Magelona johnstoni, Magelona mirabilis and Magelona filiformis. A fourth species is known to occur in low numbers on this shore, however, we were unable to locate any specimens for study this time.

We spent four days on the shore at Berwick-upon-Tweed collecting animals and although the weather did turn and temperatures on the beach dipped significantly it is a lovely shore to collect on. The tank and the animals have now made the long trip back to Cardiff and are now in the marine laboratory at National Museum Cardiff. We will continue to observe and publish research on these fascinating and also beautiful creatures (although may be I am somewhat biased, I shall leave it up to you whether you agree or not!).

Watch this video, to see how we sample shovelhead worms.