A Hidden Paradise in Ford Park Cemetery

By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History

We are surrounded by mini-beasts. They are everywhere: in the soil, the trees, the grass, and even in rivers. With over a million different species worldwide, this is the most diverse group on animals of the planet. (Compare that to just over 5,400 species of mammals!) Beetles with their hard, shiny cases, to butterflies looking so delicate as they clumsily flutter in the air, the world of mini-beasts is truly spectacular.

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Behind the scenes in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery are over 100,000 insects. Here is just one drawer of British Beetles. Image by Kim Davies

To highlight, and celebrate this miniature world of creatures, the Royal Entomological Society have set up the bi-annual event, National Insect Week. During the week, events and activities run across the UK to highlight how amazing the world of insects really is.

The real challenge with appreciating mini-beasts is trying to spot them in the first place. They are all around us but because they are so small, and many are so well camouflaged, they are not easy to see. Unless you happen to be looking for them.

The Wild about Plymouth group met for their annual bug hunt at Ford Park Cemetery during National Insect Week. A cemetery may seem like a bizarre place to hold a bug hunt, but Ford Park Cemetery is a rich habitat for many animals: mini-beasts, small mammals, birds, and slow worms. The Trust, who manage the site, promote the rich wildlife through exhibitions, walks and events throughout the year. Scientists from Plymouth University and Buglife came along to supply equipment and help identify the creatures.

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The groups getting together to share their mini-beast finds.]

Full of excitement, the families that came along wanted to discover that was hiding in the long grass, or what they could shake from trees. To search for the unseen, you need a little patience. And a net. And an umbrella.

A sweep net is the obvious weapon of choice for the little ones. Sweeping the net through the long grass and back again several times picks up a surprising amount of mini-beasts. We found dozens of beetles (weevils, thick legged flower beetles and more!). 3 or 4 different types of leafhoppers sprung out of the net as we peered closer. Bright green orb web spiders peered out at us, and we were lucky enough to see a wolf spider carrying her bag of eggs. Just one sweep in one spot, and dozens of species.

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A pot of bugs. The little blue insect on the right is a lovely little weevil. The other two are ‘true bugs’, similar to shield bugs but thinner bodies.

A rather popular method was the ‘beating’ technique. Here, a tent pole gently taps a branch, while underneath an upside down umbrella catches anything that falls out. And a surprising amount of life falls to the umbrella below. More orb web spiders, leafhoppers, snails, and lots of flies. From what just looked like a boring tree branch was a hidden metropolis of life.

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Behind the scenes in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery are over 100,000 insects. Here is just one drawer of British Beetles. Image by Kim Davies

Dozens of mini-beast species were seen at this Bug Hunt. I sat for a moment in between identifying insects, and watched a flower. A tortoise shell butterfly, gently stopped for a moment using it’s long tongue to taste the sweet nectar. Three different bee species buzzed by. Some unidentified flies zipped in to the flower. One flower. So many species.

Mini-beasts are key to the diversity of our planet (and vital for an important healthy planet where we can live).  Not only bees, but beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, hoverflies and more pollinate plants. They keep the soil healthy for plants to grow. They provide food for birds, bats, badgers, hedgehogs and so many more animals. Without mini-beasts, the world would be a desolate, empty place.

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The umbrellas were turned the other way round when a spot of rain hit. But even this didn’t stop the families looking at the mini-beasts!

The greatest joy of the bug hunt was watching the families working together. Sisters showing their brothers things they had found. Children were showing their parents an unusual bug. Families even joined forces and helped each other, and shared each other’s excitement when a weird and wonderful new mini-beast was seen! Getting out, exploring in the grass and discovering new things brought so many smiles. Enjoying nature together and seeing the joy it can bring helps the next generation to appreciate it. And protect it for the future.

Visit Ford Park Cemetery’s website to find out more about their events.  You can also see some of the museum’s specimens on display in an urban wildlife exhibition from Saturday 8th October to Sunday 20th November 2016.

The Buglife website has lots of information helping to protect bugs and run many events and activities across the UK.

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Forty legs are better than three

By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History

Museums are full of delightfully strange creatures. The weird and the wonderful are stuffed, pickled or even pinned. Filling shelves and drawers behind the scenes there may be a ghoulish lamprey preserved in spirit, an over-stuffed platypus,* or an enormous goliath beetle in a drawer. Many of these specimens were brought into the museum when it first opened.

For Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, that was in 1910. Relatively late
for a museum to open, it was built for the education and enjoyment of the newly joined city of Plymouth. Back then, there were no televisions, no internet and the best way to explore the wonderful world of nature was to visit a museum.**

Many collections in the museum are over 100 years old. This is a long time for collections to have moved around store rooms, or for curators leaving, taking their knowledge with them. Every now and then the new curators find something we didn’t know was there.

Centipede with some legs attached
The giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantean) with the loose legs.

Some years ago, I was moving some boxes in one of our store rooms, and I found something. In an old plastic box lay a humongous centipede wrapped in tissue missing practically all of its legs.

The job of a museum curator is to care for the collections they are in charge of. We spend time re-packing specimens, labelling them, and constantly checking them to make sure they are safe. Over 100 years, some things do become damaged. Some may not be packed correctly. Others may have had pests attack them. Boxes may have been moved around carelessly. And some may just have been put in boxes many, many years ago waiting to be found.

Museums have specialist staff (conservators) who can carry out very complex repairs on a huge amount of varying objects including paintings, sculptures, shoes, and archaeological pieces. Because natural history curators care for such a large number of collections, a large part of their job includes conservation skills; such as consolidating fossils, re-spiriting pickled creatures, cleaning and mending taxidermy, and reattaching broken insect parts.

Photo of the centipede before conservation next to a sketch
I drew a quick sketch of the giant centipede so when I matched a loose leg with the body, I could keep it in the right place so I knew where to attach it. One of the four legs which were attached was loose, resulting in just three legs attached to this giant mini-beast.

Reattaching 37 legs, and both antenna was no easy feat. The giant centipede itself was very fragile: being an invertebrate, the hard parts were on the outside, and this specimen was hollow because all the insides had literally turned to dust. First thing to do was find out which leg went where. Each leg was checked with the main body for the right fit. (This sounds tedious, but each leg had its own unique break – and this break could be matched to the corresponding break on the main body.) A quick sketch let me put the correct leg in the correct place.

Next came reattaching the legs. This was the fiddly bit.

Museum curators have a very particular set of skills; skills they acquire over a long career. They use these skills to find any problems and eliminate them. We learn skills through training courses (through the important subject specialist groups such as the Natural Science Collections Association, and the Geological Curators Group). The circle of curators is also very close, and we give each other support and advice on problems we may come across. (I had a plan on how two repair this centipede, and I checked with two specialist natural history curators in the UK: they both approved the conservation I proposed.) Repairing museum specimens is not simply putting blobs of superglue on the broken bits and sticking them together. There are special glues that museums use: reversible if ever needed. And it takes a lot of patience.

Small strips of acid free tissue paper were rolled up, and coated with a pH neutral glue. In two cases, acid free tissue was rolled around small stainless steel pins to add support. It was carefully fitted inside the detached leg, and the other end fitted inside the main body. I was very careful to make sure the leg was reattached in the right position, with the breakages linked perfectly. Each leg was reattached, along with the two loose antenna.

Animation showing each leg being attached to a centipede in turn
The finished centipede, leg by leg, attached and complete.

This giant centipede now has all of its legs attached, all 20 pairs. It is complete again.

As well as the displays that you see in the museums, the curators and staff behind the scenes work hard to make sure collections are safe for future generations of visitors, researchers, artists, and school groups. One day I may be pickling an octopus, the next reattaching the legs to a centipede. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

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*Strangely, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery doesn’t have a platypus in the collections. Every other museum in the country I have visited has one. It may be that the museum opened after the rush of collecting the platypus in the mid to late 1900s.

**This is still extremely true today. Lots can be seen on the internet today, and there are some unbelievably remarkable nature documentaries on the BBC. Still, there is nothing quite the same as seeing the real thing up close. Pop into your local museum this lunch time, and get a real look at nature.

Going on safari (almost!) – Dartmoor Zoo

By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History.

Driving through quiet country lanes, you arrive at the pretty picturesque village of Sparkwell, just 15 minutes outside of Plymouth. Here, almost hidden, is large car park. And this is where your trip to Dartmoor Zoo begins.

From the car park, you have to walk a few hundred metres to the main zoo. You are not alone on this walk. Animals in large enclosures are roaming on your right: the biggest rodent, the capybara; the weird trunked tapirs; and the big flightless birds, the rheas. The walk up the hill takes longer than you think – in a nice, relaxed way, because you lose yourself watching these beautiful animals.

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The giant rodent, the Capybara, along with the big bird, the Rhea. Just two friendly faces that greet you as you walk up to the zoo.

 

The story of Dartmoor Zoo began in 2006, when Benjamin Mee and family took over the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in 2006. I won’t say too much, because there was a film made about it! The zoo has recently become a charity, and is working with the Museum, and Universities in the south west to promote research and conservation of wildlife.

Our guides around the zoo were friendly, approachable, and incredibly knowledgeable about all the animals at the zoo. The passion and pure love for the work they were doing shone from the moment we left for our special guided tour. Walking along, following our guide, you don’t get feel like you are in a zoo. It is extremely natural. We stop and are introduced to two very cute, high pitched short clawed otters. The older otter, fittingly named Attitude came to the fence, squeaking loudly calling at us. The younger otter, Jonsi, swiftly follows. The pair always run to the fence and squeak to the visitors, almost as if performing!

Dartmoor Zoo looks after the most number of big cats than any other zoo in the UK. We didn’t see the lynx (which was sleeping) or the cheetah (which was hiding). But this was forgotten very quickly when we came to the Siberian Tigers, Vladimir and Stripe. They are enormous! Siberian Tigers are the largest of the big cats, and are critically endangered, with just over 500 individuals left in the wild. To watch these beautiful animals stride softy across their enclosure, reminds us how fragile their lives are in the wild with poachers, hunters and habitat destruction. They may be the biggest cats alive today, but extinction doesn’t care about size.

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The two enormous Siberian Tigers, Vladamir and Stripe.

In an enclosure opposite is the magnificent lioness, Josie. She moved close to the fence when Justin spoke, giving a clear view of her muscular legs: it was not hard to imagine a pride taking down a zebra. The zoo has plans to do a little match making with Josie. A large male lion, Jasiri lives in the enclosure adjacent to Josie, and we could see his big mane across the grass: he was checking Josie out. Matchmaking lions takes a lot of patience. A lot. The two need to get to know each other, be aware of each other’s presence, each other’s smells. There are plans within the next year to move Jasiri in with Josie. When we came round to his area, we didn’t notice that Jasiri had headed inside his hut feeding. Then something happened. Something that showed us how much the staff at Dartmoor Zoo care and know the animals, and how much the animals know the staff at the zoo. Justin called out for Jasiri. Remember, this big African lion is eating a nice juicy chunk of meat. They generally don’t leave that alone. Justin called for Jasiri. And Jasiri came. Slowly, his large legs plodded out of his hut, and moved slowly towards the back of the enclosure, and then made his way down to us. A truly magnificent animal.

Chincha, the stunning jaguar lay spread out on top of her climbing frame as we walked up to her. Justin called her name. And again his call was answered. Despite looking incredibly relaxed with all legs dangling across a large wooden beam, Chincha got up and climbed down. Gracefully, this powerful cat slowly padded towards us. We could see her short legs, perfect for an ambush predator. She walked passed us in silence.

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The gorgeous jaguar, Chincha, took a stroll to see us all. One of the most beautiful of the big cats.

We were extremely lucky with the next enclosure. It was feeding time for the Iberian wolves. These slender, elegant mammals are pack hunters. Here there are three wolves. In the wild, leader of the pack, the alpha, sends the lowest ranking wolf to assess the surroundings if there is food, or they have just made a kill. Any danger, and the lowest ranking one will be in trouble, but the alpha is safe. What was incredible was that although these wolves were captive animals, they did exactly that in their enclosure: the alpha sent in the lower ranking male to check it was safe. And he did. He ran around the fresh meat several times, and never once touched the food. The second rank came next and did the same thing, and both wolves waited until the alpha took her first bite before touching any of the food.

After lunch we gathered in the education room, where we were extremely lucky to see some incredible creatures up close. Here Kevin the red tailed boa, Kelloggs the corn snake, Django the western hognose snake, Dylan the Crested Gecko and Mango the blue tongued skink all came out. These are animals that people won’t see in this country. And here is where museums and zoos are similar (apart from the obvious!): people can get close to animals and really look at them, the details of their scales, the beautiful colours. When you see an animal in real life, you can really appreciate everything about it. And you can appreciate how wonderful nature is.

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Getting hands on in the education room, with Django, the western hog nosed snake.

The entire day was, to quote one person in our group, ‘like being on safari’. We were watching animals so close, doing things they would do as if they were in the wild. Everything about Dartmoor Zoo is extremely natural. The animals look very happy and healthy, and the passion, and enthusiasm for the zoo staff is nothing but inspirational. They love what they do and the animals they care for. And they are making a difference.

 

A walk in the woods

By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History

Ham Woods is one of Plymouth’s hidden gems. Hidden in the north east of the city, an area the size of around 36 football pitches is home to dozens of species of plants and animals. And it is there for all to enjoy and explore.

The woods would not be here today if it wasn’t for Ham House. Built in 1639, Ham House was built for Robert Trelawny, and stayed in the family for over 300 years. Attached to the house was a large estate, which was covered in managed woodland and lots of exotic interesting plants around. Today you can see a wonderful variety of animals and plants in the woods.

Our Wild about Plymouth October event took a group of enthusiastic families around the woods. Starting at the giant pine tree next to Ham House, we headed down the gentle slope towards the woodland. The entrance to the woods welcomed us with trees, shrubs, flowers and lichen. We turned left, along the path following the leat.

Further into Ham Woods you can find over grown, magical paths that lead you to new spots. The paths in the woods take you on a nice circle route, so there is no chance of you getting lost.
Further into Ham Woods you can find over grown, magical paths that lead you to new spots. The paths in the woods take you on a nice circle route, so there is no chance of you getting lost.

With magnifiers and pots at the ready the families began to explore under stones and rotten branches for mini-beasts. And they were rewarded with dozens of species. Orb web spiders, harvestmen, millipedes, flies, wriggly worms, and beetle larvae crawled around inside the pots. A beautiful Lesser Stag Beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus) as long as my thumb was the highlight of the search, with its large jaws, and beautiful shiny back. This is quite a late sighting for this beetle, which is normally seen during the summer months.

The Lesser Stag Beetle, one of the UK big beetle species.
The Lesser Stag Beetle, one of the UK big beetle species.

Walking on to the bridge heading up to the meadow the group stop for a quick paddle. Along the bank of the river the families look at the yellow lichen, and lift up rocks to see ground beetles scurry away. Keen eyed youngsters try to spot freshwater eels in the shallow brook without success.

We walk up, through the wild meadow, green and luscious. Just a few years ago, this meadow was a fortress of brambles, meters high, and filling the whole area. Dedicated volunteers organised by the Friends of Ham Woods slowly hacked back the wild brambles and managed to open this area up as a wild meadow. In summer, the meadow is a sea of colours teeming with mini-beasts.

We trundle through the meadow, and someone spots a field vole scurry into a nest in the grass. Too quick for most people to see, but it pumps fresh enthusiasm in the group.

An old crab apple tree. Too sour to eat fresh, but can be cooked into a sweet sauce.
An old crab apple tree. Too sour to eat fresh, but can be cooked into a sweet sauce.

At the top of the young orchard, we sit and look out at the woods. All around is green. Down below, the young apple trees will soon be big enough to produce lots of apples for the picking. To our right, trees move gentle in the autumn breeze. We sit, in silence listening to the sounds of the woods. What is magical about it, is the opportunity to sit in silence. So often we are running around, crossing busy streets, yet here, in the middle of a city, we are sitting in the grass, and can’t hear a sound. No cars whizzing by. No televisions. No chatter of people in a shopping centre.

That’s what makes a walk in the woods so special: to enjoy the beauty of nature around us, and the quite stillness. How lucky we were to see a field vole, a lesser stag beetle and a whole army of mini-beasts. If I head there a little earlier, I may hear the call of a blue tit, or a robin.

There are ten nature reserves in Plymouth, free to use. Take a break from the city life and have a walk around. Listen to the sounds and you will find yourself more relaxed. What is really wonderful is that these nature reserves are in the middle of the city. Yet it seems like you have escaped.