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Natural History

May 2012

Blind shrimps

Posted by Julian Carter on 29 May 2012
Groundwater shrimp Niphargus aquilex
The blind groundwater shrimp Crangonyx subterraneus.

Within the groundwater in the rocks below our feet is a hidden world where living animals can be found. It’s a secret world that is difficult to study, and frequently forgotten as it is out of sight. In the UK these groundwater dwelling animals tend to be made up of crustaceans (which includes familiar animals such as crabs and lobsters), and range from tiny microscopic copepods to ‘larger’ shrimp like animals.

Recent survey work by Lee Knight, a freshwater ecologist, and Gareth Farr, a groundwater specialist with the Environment Agency, has found some new species to the Welsh fauna. This has included the first records for the very small amphipod Microniphargus leruthi which has now been found in a number of sites around South Wales.

Recently I joined Gareth on some fieldwork around the Bridgend area to collect some voucher specimens for the museum collections. On this particular trip we found two species not represented in the collections (and shown in the pictures). Both of these are termed ‘stygobiont’ animals, which means they are permanent inhabitants of underground environments. As a result they are characteristically white and eyeless as an adaptation to life underground.

So why does it matter that we learn about such animals and their environment? Understanding biodiversity is always important. Our whole way of life is underpinned by the environment through the food we eat, the water we drink, to the resources we use. In the case of these groundwater animals if the groundwater they live in gets polluted, then this affects not only these animals but us through contaminated water supplies. Thus even these small blind beasties have an important role to play in the sustainability of our environment.

My Big Day Out - Billy the Seal

Posted by Peter Howlett on 23 May 2012
Loaded in the van and ready for the journey down to Exmouth
It was great to be near the sea again after so many years
Having a chat with my co-star the Common Dolphin
I'm ready for my close up now Mr Demille
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Well, I thought things had looked up when I was put on display in the Clore Discovery Gallery. After so many years of just seeing the inside of museum stores it was great to be able to see visitors again!

Then came news that the BBC were to film me for a piece in their series called Coast, and, even better they wanted to film me on Exmouth beach - a day out - wow! Easy for me to say but this meant quite a bit of work for my curator, Peter Howlett, who had to get me ready, strap me into the van and do all the driving.

Anyway the big day arrived and I was loaded into a van for the journey down. It was great to see the world outside of Cardiff again - the first time since I was brought in on that trawler back in 1912. It was fantastic to see the sea again, even if it did get a little close during filming.

I was filmed with the skeleton of a Common Dolphin (courtesy of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust), I don't know about you but I think I'm far more impressive. The idea was to show why us Grey Seals are quite happy bouncing around on dry land when a dolphin ends up dead if it gets stranded. To explain this I had the company of one of Coast's presenters, Miranda Krestovnikoff. It took a while to set everything up but eventually they were ready and I got ready for my close up with Miranda - I think she was quite taken with me! It was rather nice being fimed on the deserted beach in the early evening sun.


Sadly my day out was now over and I was put back into the van for the journey back to the Museum and the following morning I was back in my usual place surveying the visitors in the Clore Discovery gallery. Keep an eye open for my appearance, I should be in one of the programmes to be screened next spring/summer.

Billy

Arctic Ocean exploration 12th May

Posted by Peter Howlett on 21 May 2012
The view from our berth at Bodo; looking across the bay to the fish factory and the mountains beyond.
Bodø marina
Discussing Norwegian-Welsh collaboration with Dr Børge Holte aboard the RV G.O. Sars
The check-in hall at Bodø airport
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And so to Bodø. Unfortunately the first half of the MAREANO spring 2012 research cruise is at an end.  We have arrived in Bodo, the largest city in Nordland county. The views from the bridge of the G.O. Sars reveal the port city  (pop. about 50,000) as fairly flat, surrounded by picturesque mountains.

At 10 o’clock, it is sunny and an exploratory walk to the marina and through the town is very pleasant; quite warm in the sun, but bitterly cold in the wind. A weekend marine festival is being set up around the marina and people are starting to arrive. Having got our bearings we return to the ship to say goodbye to many of our fellow scientists, who are catching a taxi to the airport. It is now 11 o’clock, the sky has darkened, and we have near horizontal snow! The sun reappears later, thankfully.

Scientists for the second two weeks of the sampling are beginning to arrive. For this leg, the ship will travel south from ‘Nordland VI’ to an area between Kristiansund and Halten. They will concentrate on video filming the marine habitats there and will not be deploying grabs, trawls or sledges. You can keep up-to-date at with the latest news of the project here.

After lunch we meet with Dr Børge Holte, head of the MAREANO programme, and cruise leader for the next leg. We discuss our work during the previous two weeks, and all agree that our participation with the Norwegian science team has been mutually beneficial. There was much in common between the MAREANO and our own series of scientific investigations of the seabed around Wales. You can find out more about the MAREANO project taxonomy here.


Throughout the first leg, we had been comparing and contrasting our similar, but differing, sampling techniques and sample processing procedures. We also had many discussions concerning the animals we find in the seabed habitats off our respective coasts. It was a pleasure to see some of the species we are familiar with (as well as others we rarely or never encounter) in the Arctic region from which they were first discovered.

The ship is set to sail at 3 p.m., so we say our farewells and go to our hotel for a brief rest before flying back to the UK on Sunday morning.

Apart from the port, the tourist appealing landscape and outdoor activities, Bodø is famous for hosting the National Norwegian Aviation Museum. This is situated beside the airport and both have strong links with the UK. The British built the first runway in 1940, when Germany invaded southern Norway. Then, during the Second World War, two Norwegian fighter squadrons flew Spitfires from England. Naturally, the Museum exhibits include the Spitfire alongside the numerous other military and civilian aircraft in its 10,000 m2 floorspace.

Once back in the UK we will post some photos of the animals we encountered during the trip. In the meantime, here are two photos of a small holothurian (sea-cucumber), Elpidia — affectionately referred to as a ‘sea-pig’ by all aboard the research ship. These interesting animals ‘graze’ the surface of the seabed.  This particular species grows to around 2 cm in length, but this specimen (from 1,300 m depth) is only about 4 or 5 mm long. The animal can be seen in situ in a photo from an earlier MAREANO research cruise here

Arctic Ocean exploration 11th May

Posted by Peter Howlett on 11 May 2012
A trawl bulging with sponges
Diving in to sort through the sponges
Graham with one of the larger sponges
The camera sledge being lowered into the sea
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Friday
Since the last blog we have moved to shallower water which means that it takes a much shorter time to take the samples, less time between stations and a more hectic schedule. With the 12 hour shifts I have had little inclination to sit at the computer. Perhaps most spectacular have been the samples from the sponge grounds, some of these are the size of footballs. They are difficult to work with without gloves because of the spicules and worsened by the rather nauseous smell given off by some. Sorting and fixing such a large sample had everyone running around madly.


The Campod live video gear has been working, it is lowered to the sea bed and then hopped along a transect some 700metres long. The footage is stored and the megafauna analysed to create a chart of animal communities. You can see some of this video on the Mareano website http://www.mareano.no/english/. You can also read all about the programme in detail. We did a similar thing for the seas around Wales and published the results in our Biomor Reports but we did not have the video or geophysical data to go with our benthic sampling, wouldn’t it be interesting to have seabed images for all the communities we have found in the Irish Sea?


As far as my research goes we have collected a lot of relevant material. Firstly I have seen common Norwegian Sea species that just enter the British fauna and some that are found in both regions or so we think! I now have material of thyasirid bivalves to compare with those we have from the Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network  (Shetland-Faeroes) programme and can hopefully describe some new species now.


There is one family of bivalves that are always problematic, the Astartidae, and I now have a good series of northern A. sulcata fixed in 100% ethanol and RNA later for a molecular study that might be joint with the Bergen Museum.


I have not got Anna any Macoma for her tellinid study but I do have quite a few Abra longicallus a species we only get on the Porcupine Bank west of Ireland.


Andy has been building up an impressive collection of photographs of living polychaetes, he will post some of these on our “return to home” final blog.


We dock early tomorrow morning in Bodo so it is now a frantic pack, tidy and clean period so I had better go.

Arctic Ocean exploration: Wednesday 2 May

Posted by Peter Howlett on 8 May 2012
View from the bridge of the seas which have stopped us working
It's difficult to convey the size of waves in photographs!
Snow!
The GO Sars is able to maintain an accurate position using GPS
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We have stopped and started since Monday due to bad weather and with waves up to 8.5 metres the ship cannot launch the sampling gear. It has also been snowing!  It is very difficult to show the sea in still photos but views from the bridge give some idea.

The GO Sars is a modern research ship with dynamic positioning; this gives impressive accuracy for sampling and bottom photography as well as returning to an exact position for repeat sampling. We have managed a deep station over 2200m with the beam trawl and the sample has some strange fish along with crustaceans and starfishes of many kinds.

A sledge haul from the same site came up with four purple sea urchins along with three of the bivalves that I had come to collect. Hopefully colleagues in Paris will be able to identify the symbiotic bacteria that live in the gills of the bivalve.

We will now move to shallower water where sampling will be quicker, not the 4 hours it takes to do a trawl in abyssal depths.

Arctic ocean exploration: Monday 29 April

Posted by Peter Howlett on 8 May 2012
The hangar where the grabs are launched from.
A grab being launched from the hangar - you can see why it can't be done when it's rough!
Sorting the trawl from 660m
A first glimpse of deep sea life in the Arctic Ocean
» View full post to see all images

We spent the last 24 hours doing little while a Force 9 gale stoped all sampling, waves were washing over the trawl deck. At last the beam trawl is out now and sampling at just under 2000m. We have completed one station at 660m.

At every station we take samples with a Van Veen grab, a box core, a beam trawl and an epibenthic sledge. The grab and box core are launched from the hangar which is in the middle of the ship, and the doors open close to the sea level. The sledge and trawl are launched off the trawl deck at the stern of the ship. The pictures show the hangar with doors closed and a remote video camera array in the corner. With the doors open the Van Veen grab is launched by the crew, not the scientists, we have no intention of falling into the Arctic waters.

The first beam trawl from 660m is now up and our first sight of life in the Norwegian Sea is on deck. This sample has many kinds of starfish and brittlestars of stunning colours along with an angler fish.

Ocean exploration north of the Arctic Circle

Posted by Peter Howlett on 8 May 2012
Old Tromso
The Polar Museum in Tromso
The research ship GOSars
The scenary is dramatic around Tromso

Dr Graham Oliver and Dr Andy Mackie from the Department of Biodiversity and Systematic Biology have been offered the chance to take part in a research cruise to the Arctic waters of northern Norway. This cruise is part of the Mareano project, which aims to map the bathymetry, sedimentology and biology of the seabed around Norway. Graham and Andy will be looking for deep water bivalves and ploychaete worms to augment their research here.

 

Graham takes up the story:

Our ship is in port and we are now on board waiting to depart for the research area south of the Lofoten Islands. Once there we will be taking samples from depths between 200 and 2500metres.

We have arrived in late spring but already the days are long with the sun coming up well before 5am, but then we are north of the Arctic Circle. The snow is still lying thickly but the bright weather makes the mountainous backdrop really spectacular.

We sail around midnight and it will take 24 hours to reach our first station when we start our 12-hour shifts. Lets hope we can then show you the ship at work and hopefully some of the marine life in the Norwegian Sea.

In the meantime here is a flavour of Tromsø. The town is a mixture of old and new, all jumbled up and reflecting a boom time in the 1960’s. The wooden houses are typical of the old town and the Polar museum represents a most modern addition. The city is surrounded by rugged scenery of fjords and mountains. Our ship the GOSars is named after an eminent marine biologist and one of the most modern in the Norwegian research fleet.

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