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Turkey may seem a long way away to the people of Wales. But events there some 300 million year ago have had a profound and lasting effect, on our Welsh climate, landscape and wildlife.

For about 10 million years, Wales was part of an enormous tropical swampland extending from eastern North America to Turkey and the Caucasus. The dead remains of the plants that grew there caused massive deposits of peat to build-up. This peat was then buried by mud and sand, and the resulting heat and pressure changed it into the coals on which much of the industrial growth of places such as Wales depended, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But nothing lasts for ever, and the swamps eventually dried up and the accumulation of the economically important coal-forming peat came to an end. What caused this profound change to the environment has been the subject of much scientific debate. Research co-ordinated from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales (as part of the International Geoscience Programme project IGCP 575) suggests that it was due to the combination of two major factors.

  1. Landscape Change: The collision of two large continental plates (Euramerica and Gondwana) caused a massive upheaval of the landscape, with rivers changing direction and new mountain ranges forming. The effect of these changes was particularly felt in the areas where the swamps had been.
  2. Climate Change: The changing landscape caused a different type of vegetation to grow here, and this coincided with a significant warming of the climate and a reduction in rainfall.

Importantly, these environmental changes started first at the eastern end of these swamplands, in places such as northern Turkey, and then progressively moved westwards towards Wales.

So, in order to understand properly what caused the collapse of this ancient wetland in Wales, we need to study events in Turkey. To do this might have needed extensive (and expensive) field excursions to the area. Fortunately, we have a scientific resource nearer to hand that can provide at least a start to this work. In the years just before and after World War II, the great Dutch palaeobotanist Wilhelmius Jongmans led expeditions to northern Turkey to collect Carboniferous plant fossils. He sadly died before he could properly work on them. Fortunately, however, his collection of over 5,000 Turkish fossils is now stored safely in the Naturalis Museum in the Netherlands.

Chris Cleal from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales is now leading a collaborative project with colleagues from the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, to research this collection – using expertise developed in Wales to bear on an internationally important problem. It will help us understand what controlled the formation of coal deposits such as those found in Wales, and how vegetation, atmosphere and climate interacted in Carboniferous times. 

The world 300 million years ago was in many ways similar to today (far more similar to what it was in the intervening millions of years ago, for instance in Mesozoic times, when the dinosaurs were roaming around). Studying how climate, vegetation and the atmosphere interacted in this ancient world therefore allows us to check some of the assumptions on which scientists have been basing their modern-day climate models.

This shows the importance of international collaboration between museums in scientific research – why it is vital for scientists in Wales to work with colleagues from across the world.

What do our museum scientists do out ‘in the field’? One of our museum scientists, Ray Tangney, has just returned from the Falkland Islands. See what he got up to.

"There are 3 of us, myself, Matt von Konrat from the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA, and Juan Larrain from the Universidad Catolica de Guayaquil, Santiago, Chile; and we were in the Falklands as part of a Darwin Initiative funded project, recording and conserving the lower plants. This means we were searching for plants such as mosses and liverworts (small, low growing plants that do not produce flowers).

We spent most of the time in ‘Camp’ (the name for the hinterland beyond the capital, Stanley), visiting locations in a 4 wheel drive on East and West Falkland, and on Pebble Island to the north. We estimate we found 14 plants that had never been found growing on the Falkland Islands before; 8 mosses and 6 liverworts.

I gave a talk about the project to the Falklands Conservation AGM. We also ran a school activity session at Fox Bay School. The children collected and created their own herbarium specimens, making them accessible for scientists in the future. They looked at mosses under a microscope and observed details they would never usually have been able to see in the wild. Image 1 shows the children being asked by Juan whether the plant is a moss or a liverwort! It’s a silver coloured moss we also have in Wales called, rather unsurprisingly, Silver-moss (scientific name, Bryum argenteum). In January, the Lower Plants Project Officer, Dafydd Crabtree, ran a similar activity session about lichens with the children. Have a look at some more photos from the Falklands Conservation Facebook page here.

We found a number of new records of mosses for the Islands during this trip. Image 2 shows a misty Mount Donald on West Falkland at about 600 metres above sea level. The moss Bucklandiella pachydictyon growing on rocks here was a brand new record for the Falklands. It wasn’t all sunshine. The next day on Mount Adam we had rain, sleet, hail and snow, along with strong winds!

A characteristic feature of the Falklands are sea inlets. Streams that feed into these inlets are an important habitat for mosses and liverworts. One moss (Blindia torrentium) that only grows in the Falklands is commonly found on rocks in these streams.

Tiny plants such as mosses are such a big feature of the Falkland Isles landscape. School activity sessions, as well as talks, are crucial to increase local knowledge of, and interest in, the unique natural environment of these fragile, beautiful islands in the Southern Hemisphere."

We have had more of our I Spy Nature Competition winners in for special behind the scenes tours of National Museum Cardiff.

We ran a drawing competition as part of our I Spy Nature Pop-up Museum at the Capitol Shopping Centre over the summer. We had some fantastic entries and it was extremely difficult to choose the winners. However, we managed to select several winners and they were given natural history related goodies from the Museum’s shop and offered special tours to see what happens once you leave the public galleries and go into the museum’s collections.

These three lucky winners had tours in the fossil and mineral collections with palaeontologist Dr Lucy McCobb and mineral curator Andrew Haycock. 

Some of our other winners have also been in to see what happens in the marine, shell and vertebrate collections.

We are delighted to welcome our new intern, Theo Tamblyn, to the Invertebrate Diversity Section of the Department of Natural Sciences. Theo is currently in his gap year between A Level’s and university and is looking into studying an Earth Sciences degree at either Bristol University or UCL next year.  Theo’s passion for the natural world started at a young age, firstly with a focus on insects, which then evolved into collecting and learning about shells (molluscs), aided by his 8 year membership to the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland. He is no stranger to the Department, having already undertaken work experience with the Mollusca Curators whilst still at school, and Theo is keen to work with us once again. So, what will he be doing...

 

The Ted Phorson collection

Theo will be spending a total of 3 months with us curating and databasing the Ted Phorson collection, which was bequeathed to us in 2006. This collection, although primarily British marine molluscs, also contains lamp shells (Brachiopods), seed shrimp (Ostracods) and a group of miniscule marine seafloor dwelling animals known as forams (Foraminifera). It is a complex collection consisting of a mixture of microscope slides, growth series, loose micro-specimens and larger shell material. You can see from Figs. 3 and 4 that the slides and growth series in particular are often extremely beautiful.

 

Small but perfectly formed

The uniqueness of Ted Phorson’s collection comes from the fact that he meticulously picked out the tiny shells found in fine un-sieved shell-sand, therefore capturing the juveniles (young) of many species. Juveniles are an ongoing problem for scientists, with very few illustrations published of even the most common species, and so a reference collection like Ted Phorson’s is invaluable. The work that Theo carries out will make this collection accessible for the first time - it can then be utilised for Museum research projects such as the Marine Bivalve Shells of the British Isles, as well as being a useful resource for external users.

We are grateful to the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland who have kindly part-funded Theo Tamblyn’s internship.

On Saturday 10th October, scientists from the Museum’s Natural Sciences Department and Cardiff University came together to mark both National Biology Week and Earth Science Week, and to prove that biology (and geology) does indeed rock!  Engaging displays and fun activities filled the Main Hall and were also scattered through the lower natural history galleries and Clore Learning Space.  Visitors collected a stamping sheet at the door and could claim a stamp for every activity they completed.  Everyone who collected ten stamps had the chance to colour in and make their own natural history badge to take home.  Museum scientists wowed visitors with specimens from our collections behind the scenes, including the largest seeds in the world, glow-in-the-dark minerals and huge scarab beetles.  Visitors could also explore sea creatures and seaweeds in a rock pool, and have a go at matching fossils to their correct place on a timeline of the Earth’s history.  Fans of the game ‘Operation’ had the opportunity to try their hand with an actual size, adult dummy version, courtesy of biologists from Cardiff University, who also presented a range of other fascinating topics, including what we can learn from road kill, how healthy babies are made, how toadstools get their white spots and how to extract DNA from strawberries.  Appropriately enough, the University’s team of geologists set up shop at the entrance to the Evolution of Wales gallery, and invited visitors to experiment with what makes an explosive volcano, try to bend rocks and have a go at stepping in the footsteps of dinosaurs.  The day also featured several family-friendly events linked to the ‘Reading the Rocks: the remarkable maps of William Smith’ exhibitionTheatr na nÓg gave three performances of a one-man play exploring Smith’s work from the point of view of his young Welsh apprentice, and scientific historian Dr Leucha Veneer gave a family talk looking at early ideas about rocks and fossils.