Esmee Fairbairn acknowledgement

August: Have snails, will travel


Back again with more mollusc related goodness. It’s been a busy month, with lots of travelling and some exciting finds!

The legendary Mary Gillham

At the beginning of the month I headed off to the local records centre, SEWBReC as part of my exchange with their LEMUR+ trainee. Here I spent most of my time working on the Mary Gillham project. Dr Mary Gillham was a pioneering female naturalist, who spent most of her life educating people about nature and campaigning for nature conservation. After her death in 2013 she left a huge archive of materials to SEWBReC, including documents and photos. All of these contain useful biological data and records, hidden away telling interesting stories about nature in South Wales.

One of the species featured in Mary Gilham's collection: White Lipped Snail (Cepea hortensis). Photo my own.

One of the species featured in Mary Gillham’s collection: White Lipped Snail (Cepea hortensis). [Photo my own]

While I was there I spent some time working on entering the data from old photographic slide. Al had kindly picked out a box of slug and snail related ones for me. This was a fun challenge of confirming Mary’s identifications and working out current scientific names.

The archive is a fascinating thing to work on, full of intriguing information and images. There are over 150000 wildlife records to extract out of 20 boxes of assorted papers, and 14000 slides to digitise and recover records from. It’s wonderful to think the work I did while there played a tiny part in that. You can see some of her photos here.

Volunteers are always needed, so if you can spare a few hours a week in Cardiff I’d definitely recommend being part of this fascinating project.

Slug and Snail ID training: TCV Northern Ireland

The next week it was time to head off to Northern Ireland and meet up with fellow Natural Talent  trainees Eleanor Lewis and Lorna Blackmore. While there, Lorna and I would be delivering training sessions to TCV Northern Ireland volunteers and others. This was an interesting challenge, as both of us had flown over from mainland Britain limiting what we could bring. I was really worried about flying with empty snail shells in my hand luggage, but the security staff didn’t bat an eyelid! I want to take live slugs on the plane (seems rather cruel!), so some time was spent hunting for live slugs in N.Ireland. It was really hot and dry while we were visiting, so we eventually resorted to heading into Belfast armed with a torch in the evening to see what we could find. Luckily we found a nice range of species, meaning people could get hands on with ID skills at the training session.

Introducing the wonders of slug and snail identification

Introducing the wonders of slug and snail identification

One of the attendees having a go at keying out live slugs

One of the attendees having a go at keying out live slugs

The island of Ireland is interesting. It has quite a different slug fauna, with many species not present and one additional species: The Kerry Slug. This is a slug so rare globally it is even protected by EU wildlife law! Sadly it only occurs in areas of Ireland too far for us the visit on our whirlwind trip. However, this minor disappointment was more than made up for by a visit to the breathtakingly beautiful Giant’s Causeway.

At the beautiful Giant's Causeway with Ellie and Lorna

At the beautiful Giant’s Causeway with Ellie and Lorna

Looking at some impressive limpets with Lorna (of course I looked for molluscs!)

Looking at some impressive limpets with Lorna (of course I looked for molluscs!)

Thanks to Ellie and all the staff at TCV Northern Ireland for doing a wonderful job of hosting our visit.

Fun with Snails at TCV Tree Life Centre

Less than 24 hours after touching down from Ireland, it was time to head off to Bristol. Here I met up with Natural Networks buddy Delyth Hurley and brought some Common Garden Snails along for the ride. The plan of action was to have a nature day with a slight slug and snail theme. I greeted visitors, ran snail races and helped families handle specimens and use a microscope. Delyth meanwhile was rushed off her feet with keen pond dippers and wildlife treasure trail hunters. A fun varied day!

Set up ready for a fun and varied day at TCV Tree Life Centre

Ready for a fun day at TCV Tree Life Centre

Sabotage! One of the racers is distracted by a blade of juicy grass

Sabotage! One of the racers is distracted by a blade of juicy grass

What do hedgehogs eat?

The next day it was time to head across to London and pay an overdue visit to TCV Stave Hill and meet up with Natural Networks trainee Clare Street. I have to admit that being a country girl I’m often very snobbish about the city of London. In my mind it’s grey and lifeless. Oh my goodness, did TCV Stave Hill prove me wrong! Even getting off the Tube at Canada Water made me realise just how amazingly green and wildlife filled parts of London are.

Canada Water: Proof that cities aren't all grey concrete! Beautiful place.

Canada Water: Proof that cities aren’t all grey concrete! Beautiful place.

Reaching Stave Hill, I was blown away by the amazing variety of habitats and wildlife. I then got to explore this amazing place with Clare, as we went on a hunt for slugs, snails and other invertebrates. We had some fascinating finds along the way:

Some of our finds: Girdled Snail (Hygromia cinctella), Hawk-moth Caterpillar , Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

Some of our finds: Girdled Snail (Hygromia cinctella), Hawk-moth Caterpillar , Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

The invertebrates were kept to show to families later that afternoon before being released back where we found them. The aim was to get them thinking about what hedgehogs eat and how to encourage hedgehogs into their gardens. This was a great opportunity to extol the virtues and value of slugs!

Hands on slug, snail and other invertebrate fun!

Hands on slug, snail and other invertebrate fun!

Finding the elusive Roman Snail

While searching around Stave Hill, Clare was kind enough to show me the area where she had seen the Roman Snail (Helix pomatia) before. I was keen to try and find one as it’s a species very rarely found in Wales. After poking around in the bushes, success!

Getting excited about my first Roman Snail encounter!

Getting excited about my first Roman Snail encounter!


Mystery slugs

A pair of Netted Filed Slugs Deroceras reticulatum showing some dark speckling characteristic of the species.

A pair of Netted Filed Slugs (Deroceras reticulatum) showing some dark speckling characteristic of the species. [These two are in courtship]

I’ve been out and about so much I’ve barely seen my office at National Museum Wales, but on a few rare visits I’ve managed to spend time sorting the few specimens I’ve collected during my travels and doing some identification bits and pieces.

While searching for slugs in Northern Ireland, I came across an unusual Deroceras reticulatum (Netted Field Slug). Usually these are white or pale cream with a dark irregular fishnet pattern. This individual was very creamy and unmarked. This was more like Deroceras agreste (Artic Field Slug), a species with only one record in Ireland. The most reliable way to tell the species apart is to have a look at the penis. D.reticulatum has knobbly or frilly appendages on its penis, while D.agreste has a smooth simple penis.

Looks like a nobbly one!

Looks like a knobbly one!

Unfortunately for me not D.agreste this time around, but the very common D.reticulatum! Still a great opportunity to work on my dissection skills.

Is it a Leopard?!

The famous Leopard Slug's mating behaviour! [Image from Flickr: naturalhistoryman]

The famous Leopard Slug’s mating behaviour! [Image from Flickr: naturalhistoryman]

One of the most exciting find was a very odd looking population of Leopard Slug’s around my house in South East Wales. Usually these are very distinctly patterned slugs. Often they have leopard like spots on the mantle and stripy tails. I’ve noticed over the past few years that some near my home have very few to zero markings. Sometimes these are only a few little dots of black on the tail! The FSC guide to Slugs in Britain and Ireland does have a photo of a Leopard Slug with similar markings, so I guessed it was L.maximus, but decided to take one into the museum to look at the genitalia. Now the Leopard Slug is very famous for it’s mating displays, dangling down from branches and walls, bodies intertwined, with a shiny long mass hanging below them. These are actually the genitalia, and means that the typical Leopard Slug penis is incredibly long!

Upon opening up my slug specimen to have a little look at the penis, I discovered that it was unusually short. There also seemed to be a small nipple like structure on the end of the penis, not typical of the Leopard Slug. Ben also looked it over for a second opinion and noticed that the slug had a tomato red patch on its neck under the mantle. This reminded him of some Limacidae slug species found in Italy, so we can’t help wondering if it could be a new species for the UK.

View of tomato red patch on the slugs neck

View of tomato red patch on the slugs neck

We decided it would be best to get a second specimen from my garden to compare, as perhaps I just found a very odd individual. So a couple of weeks later I headed out into the garden with a torch and practically stood on one! This one appears much more typically marked for the species than others I have seen. We decided to have it photographed, cut off its tail for DNA analysis, and dissected it.  Analysing the DNA means we can see what species in the genetic bank this individual closest in relation to. I wouldn’t be surprised if this second specimen is Limax maximus, but I’m disappointed I couldn’t find one of the oddly marked ones for DNA work! Keeping both these specimens in the museum means we have a permanent record of this odd population, and they could be looked at again in the future.

Lesson in live slug photography by James of National Museum Cardiff.

Lesson in live slug photography by James of National Museum Cardiff.

On opening up this second specimen, I discovered it also has a surprisingly short penis, adding to the intrigue! This could simply be down to variation within the population. It will be interesting to compare it with other specimens of Limax maximus from the museum collections and also see what the DNA suggests.

The slug from my garden showing an unusually short penis for the species!

The slug from my garden showing an unusually short penis for the species!

Plenty more excitement to come over the next month.

Until next time!

Hwyl fawr am nawr!

Imogen Cavadino

Natural Talent Trainee: Non-Marine Molluscs

Don’t forget you can keep up to date with my daily antics on Twitter here or here.

A massive thank you to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for funding this amazing programme. Find out more about them here.

Also to National Museum Wales for hosting my placement. Be sure to drop in for a visit to the public collections when you’re in Cardiff!

May: filming, meadow surveys and hoverflies

Got started May off with a bang by doing something really exciting (and maybe a little scary) – getting interviewed by a film crew! This was orchestrated by Norton Priory Museum (located in Runcorn, Cheshire), which also happens to have lovely grounds and a beautifully maintained walled garden. They wanted to have a series of interviews with specialists in their field about all the different kinds of wildlife that you can find at the Norton Priory gardens. They were really keen to have someone talk about pollinators and the range of species which can be found in the gardens – so that’s where I came in. These videos are then going to be put on at the museum for people to watch for years to come! Was quite nerve wracking but surprisingly once we actually started my nerves all but disappeared!

Talking about the importance of pollinators to Norton Priory film crew - feeling like David Attenborough for the day!

Talking about the importance of pollinators to Norton Priory film crew – feeling like David Attenborough for the day!

I had a great time chatting to the film crew about all the different types of pollinators there are – bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies. About what pollination is and how each species of pollinator are so different yet interconnected with each other.

It helped a great deal that the camera men were genuinely interested in what I had to say. I explained to them how different pollinators are suited to different plant species. An easy way to illustrate this is with common bumblebee species. There are seven commonly found species of bumblebee in the UK and each have a different length of tongue. Which is important as the length of tongue a bee has dictates which flowers it can feed from.

The garden bumblebee had the longest tongue out of the common bumbles about 12mm long – almost the length of it’s entire body! Which it can use to reach the nectar at the very base of very deep tubed flowers like Viper’s Bugloss. Whereas short tongued bees prefer more shallow open flowers – like dandelions – where they can reach the pollen and nectar easily. This causes different bees to specialise on pollinating different plants, acting to reduce competition between different species. I find it really fascinating that some solitary bees have gone even further and have a single plant species or group which they specialise to feed on.

Thankfully the weather on the day of filming was lovely, so I got to actually show the crew some of the different pollinators in the gardens. Several common bumblebees, hoverflies, butterflies and even an active bee hotel – with loads of the solitary Red Mason bees flying in and out! Such a fantastic opportunity to get involved in. Now just to (nervously) await the result and see how it turns out! Fingers crossed!

This month I also started my urban created meadows project. Doing vegetation surveys to quantify available flower resources and link that together with what pollinator species are present on each site. It’ll be interesting to see which species inhabit each site across the season!

Some species can be identified easily in the field. This one is Andrena haemorrhoa female. Look at all the pollen on her legs! Just an example of a species that I've seen in the meadows.

Some species can be identified easily in the field. This one is an Orange-tailed Mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) female. Look at all the pollen on her legs! Just an example of a species that I’ve seen in the meadows so far.

Been quite busy this month, one event I took part in was the Speke Coastal reserve bioblitz. Recording as many species as we could and leading butterfly walks over a course of a two day period. Bioblitz events are proving quite popular as I also helped out for the mini bioblitz event at Knowesly Safari Park. Taking note of a species, it’s location and the date you saw it is hugely important information. It helps people to protect nature by finding out which species are in decline, where they are and can help provide information on what their habitat requirements are. The importance of this was became even clearer when I attended the National Federation for Biological Recording conference. Really interesting finding out about the issues that face biological recording. So many people have use for the data – scientists, consultancies and conservation bodies – yet there aren’t enough specialists to verify the data. Makes me feel privileged that I’m on the Natural Talent scheme, learning these specialist skills. Got to meet a couple of folk from the BWARS (Bees Ants and Wasps Recording Society) as well. Incredibly knowledgeable people!

I also had the opportunity to share the knowledge I’ve learned by helping to run a Bumblebee Masterclass at Chester Zoo as part of their Wildlife Connections project. Helping to aid identification and promote knowledge on common bumblebee species. Myself and my colleagues at World Museum promoted the Big Garden Bee Count so that people could use their new knowledge to take part and contribute much needed records on bumblebee distributions.

Masterclass at chester zoo

A twitter post by one of the attendees of the workshop.

I even managed to introduce people to solitary bees during the workshop, I couldn’t resist! It was such a lovely day so after the workshop we took everyone on a walk through the zoo to show them some of the species that they’d learned about. When hunting for bees with my group I’d spoke about mining bees (Andrena) and nomad and cuckoo bees (Nomada). That the mining bees lay their eggs in small tunnels underground and that the cuckoo bees then sneak in and lay their own eggs. Not long after showing people an active mining bee nest did a cuckoo bee that I had just talked about buzzed around the entrance looking to get in. Perfect timing! People were really interested in finding out about these bees. And they were thrilled to hear that the bee hotels they made during the workshop might help attract some species to the garden. I’m so pleased with how the workshop went.

To top it all off I went down to Shrewsbury on a Hoverfly ID course. Ran by Manchester Metropolitan University, I got to learn all sorts about the variety of hoverflies that you can get in the UK. The instructor Nigel Jones was very knowledgeable and helpful with all kinds of queries. It was great to find out the ecology of some the species as well. Turns out one of the hoverfly species (Cheilosia albitarsis) I had encountered in my meadow surveys is a specialist on buttercups! Which made perfect sense given the large proportion of the plant at some of my sites. The adult female lays her eggs on buttercup, so that when the larvae hatch they can go down to the roots of the plant to feed. Usually the study of hoverflies focuses on aphid-eating larvae so it’s really interesting to find out how varied they are as a group. Looking forward to identifying all the insects I’ve collected!

Very long post this month but I hope you enjoyed it – thanks for reading!