Hunt for the black lugworm
This week, three members of the department travelled to Whiteford Burrows on Gower to hunt for the black lugworm Arenicola defodiens. This species is less common than the blow lug Arenicola marina that most people may have heard of or seen previously, tends to be larger and, as the name suggests, is darker in appearance (see picture).
Digging for these animals is difficult as their burrows go deep into the sediment so we used a ‘bait pump’ to try and suck them out (see picture)! Success was variable but we did manage to collect a few of each species.
The black lug was first described in 1993 from shores in South Wales including Whiteford Burrows, so this area is considered the ‘type locality’ for the species. As we didn’t have any specimens of the black lug in our collections, we felt it was important to collect a few for future reference and potential research possibilities. Some material was also preserved in 100% ethanol for possible future genetic work.
Supporting Kids in Museums
The launch of the ‘Kids in Museums’ manifesto with the Minister for Culture and Sport John Griffiths and Children’s Commissioner Keith Towler took place at National Museum Cardiff this morning. It was a great event and good to see so many young people involved and supporting this project.
A few weeks ago Maria Miller, the English Culture Secretary, made a speech in which she justified the arts and culture on economic grounds. I was glad to hear John Griffiths challenge this reductionist and limited perspective, by emphasising the social and educational value of museums. We are the largest provider of learning outside the classroom in Wales, and play a key role in many communities across the nation.
Amgueddfa Cymru supports the Kids in Museums Manifesto which pledges to work towards putting the twenty points – from inviting teenagers to hang out at museums to creating a comfortable safe place for children and families – into practice. There is a Welsh language version of the manifesto, produced with support from the Welsh Government.
Something that’s fast becoming a star attraction at National Museum Cardiff is a beautiful bronze sculpture of a galloping horse by the famous 19th century French Impressionist, Edgar Degas. The work, which has found a permanent home alongside other works here, has been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax from the estate of the artist, Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, and allocated permanently to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales. The sculpture will be a major addition to our collection, of which we can all be proud.
Last weekend was particularly busy for National Museum Cardiff. We joined up with the BBC and a host of wildlife partners to host the ‘Summer of Wildlife’, a fun day of discovering more about our wildlife and we also supported the Welsh language festival Tafwyl in the grounds of Cardiff Castle with a chance for visitors to see the clogmaker from St Fagans and experience some of our natural history and art collections on our stand. Tafwyl Festival helps Welsh language thrive in the capital and we were more than happy to support this successful event.
At the end of May Amgueddfa Cymru had a very successful presence at both the Urdd Eisteddfod and the Hay Festival.
Over 5000 people attended our stand at the Urdd Eisteddfod in Boncath, north Pembrokeshire, where the focus was on the National Wool Museum, being just half an hour away from the Maes. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport visited the stand and Stephen Crabb MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire really got stuck into the knitting with the giant knitting needle! At the GwyddonLe science pavilion there was an opportunity to learn more about the archaeology of the Preseli Mountains and the Bluestones with Ken Brassil.
At the Hay Festival, we shared a stand with Cadw, the Royal Commission and the Historical Houses Association under the branding History Wales. We ran a number of activities for children during the week highlighting in particular the 30th birthday of Big Pit: National Coal Museum and craft work from St Fagans. The stand was extremely busy, and it was a great opportunity to work with partner organisations to promote Welsh History. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport, visited the stand to launch the latest edition of Big Pit’s people’s history magazine, Glo, which was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Big Pit as a museum.
Our new children’s book ‘Albie the Adventurer: Dinosaur in the Forest’ was launched officially at the festival in an interactive session with children. The story is by Grace Todd, and is based on a workshop run for Foundation Phase children in the Clore Discovery Gallery at National Museum Cardiff, where Albie discovers the sights and sounds of the prehistoric forest! I’m sure the book will charm children and grown-ups alike!
One event which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago was the National Theatre Wales’ production ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’. It was an immersive gig imagining the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the millionaire Italian communist who was at the heart of many of the most extraordinary events of the twentieth century. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the show will be going on tour to festivals this summer. I’d definitely recommend! And on the subject of things Italian, I have also been reading The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas, a Library of Wales publication, about a group of men who meet in an Italian café in an industrial community in the period around World War II. For me, Gwyn Thomas is a real discovery, a powerful writer with (is it just my imagination?) just a touch of Damon Runyon?
Lambelasma is my name
Fossils are cool, and everybody knows it. Dinosaurs, ammonites, trilobites – all extinct but living on in our imagination, in films and books and documentaries and children’s stories. We watch ‘JurassicPark’ and ‘Ice Age’ on TV, collect fossil bones and shells on the beach, and amuse the kids with a remote-controlled plastic dino until the batteries run out.
But what about all those fossils that no film director wants to know about? 99% of all organisms that ever lived on Earth are extinct. Only a fraction of these were dinosaurs, so what about the rest? Billions of species have evolved and disappeared, and most have only ever been heard of by small groups of scientists who devote their lives to charting the history of evolution. Here’s a little test: do you know Lepidodendron, Meganeura, Rhynia, Bothryolepis, Calycocoelia or Lambelasma? Two of them are plants, one is a dragonfly, one fish, one sponge and a coral - ten points if you can put them in the correct groups.
Sometimes those bizarre fossils that only geeky scientists are interested in develop an unexpected life of their own. I am interested in corals – but not those colourful ones that make up the Great Barrier Reef, this beautiful living structure that can be seen from space. No, I picked an obscure group of corals that has been extinct for 250 million years. These corals are called rugose corals, and they look a bit like ice cream cones. They lived in the sea of course, little tentacles sticking out of a hard skeleton, some in shallow water, others quite deep. Most were only little, a few centimeters in size, although there are some that grew to half a meter in length. One of these has just reached a certain level of fame, and this is its story.
The mystery fossil
Two years ago two colleagues of mine were looking for brachiopods and trilobites in a remote corner of northeastern Iran. It was hot and dry, and where we in Britain have road signs warning of mud and flooding, in Iran they have signs warning of blown sand and collisions with wild camels. Doing geology is great in these areas, because you do not get any pesky vegetation growing in the way of beautiful rocks.
My colleagues, Leonid Popov (Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales), and Mansoureh Ghobadi Pour (Golestan University, Iran), did find plenty of fossils that day in the desert, but one rock contained something unusual. It was mostly buried inside the rock but the little bit that was sticking out looked a bit like a rugose coral. Leonid and Mansoureh knew exactly how old these rocks were. What they did not realise at the time, when they brought the fossil back to Cardiff for me to check out, was that they were too old for rugose corals.
Corals are an ancient type of organism. Several different kinds have existed, most groups of corals are now extinct. The rugosans are not the oldest, but they are pretty old. Early rugose corals have been found in Northern Europe, North America and Australia, in rocks of Upper Ordovician age (about 450 million years old). The rocks in Iran which Leonid and Mansoureh were walking on are Middle Ordovician (462 million years). Therefore, if this new little fossil from Iran really was a rugose coral, it was going to be the earliest known one. Excitement all around, because everyone wants to find a first, but you have to do this sort of thing carefully, because you do not want to claim a first, then be proved wrong and make a fool of yourself. Because there are some sponges at that time which also look like ice cream cones, so we needed to be sure before shouting it from the roof tops.
Identifying rugose corals is not easy. You need a geological lab to make at least a couple of thin sections of the fossil. These are slices of rock thinner than a human hair, so thin that you can shine light through them and look at the structures inside. At the National Museum, we have the lab and we make lots of thin sections. But this is a destructive technique – in the process of finding out what’s inside the rock you lose your fossil. What if you only have one or two fossils, and you don’t want to destroy it? I started looking around for what we call non-destructive analytical techniques, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts ended up at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire.
Fossils and X-Rays
Synchrotron X-Ray Tomography works a bit like an X-Ray in hospital, when you have broken your arm. Only the X-Rays are much more powerful – they can penetrate rock. At the Diamond synchrotron, this had only been tried once before, and the fossil then was preserved very differently (as pyrite) compared to ‘my’ coral (calcite and silica in a carbonate rock). Leonid came to Diamond with me, and together with Robert Atwood from Diamond we worked around the clock for three days – in that time I only had four hours sleep and I was completely shattered at the end of it. But just doing the analysis was not the end. The data coming out of the synchrotron were only ‘raw’, and they needed to be rendered, cleaned, edited, loaded into a different programme – this is what Robert did, and only after all that we found out whether the technique actually worked.
Robert did some amazing magic with the data, and it turned out that the technique really had worked. We were looking at a 3D reconstruction of the beast inside the rock, without ever having touched the rock. The fossil was still intact, it was still partly buried, and we also had the information we needed to describe it. For a palaeontologist this is pretty amazing stuff.
From the images and the 3D reconstruction it was immediately obvious that this fossil was not a sponge, but that it really was a rugose coral. This was the second sensation. Definitely a rugose coral, we are certain of the age of the rocks, and it predates the previously known oldest rugose coral by 5 million years – quite a margin, even in Palaeozoic palaeontology. We called it Lambelasma because it has some characteristics of that genus – even though in the future we will probably find that it is actually a new genus, but we need more fossils to be able to decide that. That is quite difficult to organise, due to the remoteness of the area where this one came from.
A conference in Oxfordshire and another one in Dublin, scientific publication, press release, and radio interview later, everything calms down. Until, six months later, an e-mail from the Diamond press office asks if I can come to the Cheltenham Science Festival in two weeks’ time. Apparently, 14 year old Christy Au from Headington School in Oxford picked our research as the subject to write about as part of Diamond’s ‘Light Reading’ competition; and won it! Her little story describes the feelings and experiences of the little fossil inside the rock, waiting to be discovered, and it is absolutely amazing.
Science and Art
This was all quite short notice, but a sudden burst of activity and a lot of help from many different people – most of all Sheng Yue from the University of Manchester – meant that Diamond was able to produce an upscaled 3D model of the coral. The model was nearly 20 cm long and much more presentable than the 1.8 cm long original fossil.
Christy came to Cheltenham thinking she was just part of a normal school trip to the Science Festival – but then, to her amazement, got ushered into the VIP area for a an award presentation. She met some of the team involved in the research, met the fossil and the 3D reconstruction, was photographed from all angles, and her story was read out by Professor Alice Roberts. Suddenly, Lambelasma had taken on a life of its own. This obscure little fossil, that, normally, would only get half a dozen geeks excited, was now on a public platform. Everyone was talking about it. It definitely had the X factor.
So what about Lambelasma now? It has all gone quiet again, and the fossil has gone back to the collections at the National Museum in Cardiff. Maybe you’ll come to visit the museum and happen to see it there. Look closely, because it really is only little. Hopefully you won’t think ‘Oh, it’s just an obscure little fossil, half-buried inside a small piece of rock’. Instead, think how much work it is to uncover the secrets of our Earth, and what wonderful stories are hidden inside each piece of rock.
Museum collections in Wales – Knowledge is Preservation
More than 100 institutions in Wales have natural science collections in their care. Natural science includes all things connected to the natural world: bird skins, insects, minerals, shells, fossils, plants, fluid preserved specimens and even microorganisms such as diatoms. These collections contain an awful lot of knowledge of our present and past natural history, and one purpose of museums is to preserve this knowledge for posterity.
What is a museum?
Museums are guardians of knowledge, and collections are what makes museums special. Collections are what sets museums apart from other organisations, the absolute core of museum work. There has been a discussion for a while over the traditional concept of the museum as a collecting institution, and whether to broaden the definition of a museum to include institutions without collections, for example one-object museums (e.g., ship museums) or science centres. However, exhibitions, research and many education activities are not possible without specimens and objects from museum collections.
Hand in hand with collections goes the knowledge that is embodied in them. Knowledge of the objects, their collectors, their provenance, their age, their cultural and scientific associations, and simply where objects are stored. This is the information that makes a collection usable. In recent years, many museums have managed to update their storage records. In many cases records are available in digital form and are easily searchable. Having said that, every museum curator knows that records are far from complete even in large museums with fancy collections management systems.
The overwhelming majority of collections information is in the heads of the curators looking after these collections. This is especially the case for tacit knowledge – the ‘soft data’, information about collectors and their biographies and interests, stories and anecdotes about objects and collectors. The sort of thing that makes or breaks good exhibitions. Most of the time, these stories are never written down; instead, they are passed down the generations from curator to curator, and it takes years to learn all this.
It is easy to argue that a collection without information is worthless. If I cannot identify the objects in my collection, if I cannot find them, if I do not even know I have them, there is no point keeping the collection because it is, to all intents and purposes, worthless. Ultimately, this last point is the biggest danger – most curators are aware of stories of valuable collections ending up in a skip because the person making the decision did not have the right knowledge. And if we do not know what we are throwing out we have no idea what we are losing. Ultimately, society as a whole would become poorer culturally, historically and scientifically.
The specialist curator
Good curators then are not a luxury but a necessity. And a good curator needs to be a jack of all trades to be master of one: trained in a specialist subject, with experience of collections management, research, design, public speaking and storytelling, a communicator who understands the need for sharing knowledge with other museums and, crucially, the public. With people like that looking after museum collections our cultural and scientific heritage should be perfectly safe.
But here’s the thing: the number of natural history curators fell by one third in the past ten years (Museums Journal 113/04). The trend is similar – if somewhat less dramatic – in other subject disciplines. There is an increasing number of ‘orphaned’ collections, which have nobody to care for and protect them, let alone use them. In Wales the current situation is that out of more than 100 institutions with natural science collections, only a single one has any specialist curators left – the National Museum.
This makes it immensely more difficult for museums to use their collections. We do need to know where collections are and how they can be accessed. Local communities, schools, tourists and researchers want to see those collections and learn about them. The good news is that most of the collections are still there.
How collections reviews can help
The ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is now starting to assess the first collections in local museums. Specialist curators from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales are soon going to review collections across Wales. The intention is to capture information about those collections in a single database. This does not replace the need for specialist curators, But local staff and volunteers will trained and much more able to utilise their collections. This will mean better educational materials, better exhibitions and a better experience for museum visitors. Most importantly, however, it means that these collections will be safely preserved for future generations.
Spring Bulb for Schools: Results 2005-2013
The ‘Spring Bulbs for Schools’ project allows 1000s of schools scientists to work with Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to investigate and understand climate change.
Since October 2005, school scientists have been keeping weather records and noting when their flowers open, as part of a long-term study looking at the effects of temperature on spring bulbs.
Certificates have now been sent out to all the 3,979 pupils that completed the project this year.
See Professor Plant's reports or download the spreadsheet to study the trends for yourself!
- Make graphs & frequency charts or calculate the mean.
- See if the flowers opened late in schools that recorded cold weather.
See how temperature, sunshine and rainfall affect the average flowering dates.
Look for trends between different locations.
Facebook Professor Plant
Here in the Library at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff we have two very rare examples of original 1920s iron roller racking. They are still in perfect working order, although do get incredibly heavy when full. The stacks always remain cool in the summer, which is good as the Library can get very stuffy. However, they are bitterly cold throughout the winter, and on a dark wintry afternoon one might almost say... "spectrally" so!
Peregrines on City Hall clock tower 2013
June 7 Update
Eventful couple of days. Received a call yesterday that a young Peregrine was on the ground near City Hall. Directions weren't brilliant so had to go hunting around and finally found a young male hunkered down at the edge of one of the footpaths in Alexandra Gardens, under some overhanging vegetation. Amazingly you could walk past within a couple of feet and it didn't move. He was duly picked up and taken back to the roof of City Hall at the base of the tower where he was fitted with a BTO ring and a colour-ring Blue FH, the first photo is of him looking lass than happy with his experience but hopefully it will keep him out of trouble until he can fly strongly enough to gain height.
Then this morning I had another call from the RSPB to say that a young Peregrine was on a statue in King Edward VII Avenue. I met up with Phil Pinder and there was the bird sat on the statue (second photo). This one was unringed so we knew it was a different bird to yesterday, I tried to catch it so it could be ringed but wasn't quite quick enough and it flew off strongly. Which is a good thing as it suggests it should survive. Apparently it had been seen feeding earlier so it's good to know that the parents are feeding them even quite some way from the tower.
No sign of the young female today though.
Peregrines on the City Hall Clock Tower 2013
June 6 Update
All three youngsters are practically fully grown now and one of the males has even left the nest ledge. He was seen on a roof above the west entrance to City Hall yesterday morning where he will be safe enough.
The other two, a male and a female, could be seen wing flapping and getting themselves ready for their first flight. It won't be long before they're out and about.
So far, so good, although the next two or three days are still perilous for the youngsters as they don't have the strength to get back to the higher ledges in the first few days after their first flight. Fingers crossed that all three will be safe and fledge this year.
A 13th Century guide to the heavens
Ioannis de Sacro Bosco [c. 1195 –c. 1256] was a scholar, monk and astronomer [probably English] who taught at the University in Paris. In around 1230 he wrote this authoritative medieval astronomy text Tractatus de Sphaera [On the Sphere of the World]. It gives a readable account of the Ptolemaic universe[the universe according to the Hellenistic astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus in the 2ndcentury AD] that went on to become required reading by students in all Western European universities for the next four centuries. Though principally about the heavens it contains a clear description of the earth as a sphere and its popularity shows the nineteenth-century opinion that medieval scholars after this date thought the Earth was flat as a fabrication [Wikipedia].
This copy [photographed here] is dated 1577 and forms part of our Vaynor Collection; this consists of a number of 16th and 17th century astronomical works, including several of the writings of Galileo. The collection was formed and donated by John Herbert James of Vaynor [which is just north of Merthyr Tydfil].
The condition of this book is excellent; the paper is bright and unmarked, robust to the touch and all the little volvelles [rotating paper wheel charts] still work perfectly.
It is bound in pure white vellum [calf skin] as are the majority of the Vaynor astronomical books which I always think gives them a very "celestial" look.