Nature’s nippers

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Author(s): Freedman. Jan; Year published: 2019; Origin: other; Pages: 
Topic(s): environment, maritime, and museums; Location(s): Plymouth

In October 2018, Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, gave a talk to the DA’s Forum. He shares below news of The Box in Plymouth and an exciting new project.

For the last three years, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery’s building (along with the former Central Library building and St Luke’s Church) has been undergoing a multimillion pound redevelopment. Renamed as The Box, and set to open in spring 2020, it will be three times as large. It will care for collections from the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, the South West Film and Television Archive, and the South West Image Bank, along with the collections from the museum.

The Box will have newly developed galleries, which have taken years of planning. The natural history gallery will be larger and have many more specimens on display than ever before. Key to the displays are the stories the collections can tell the visitors. I have focused strongly on the natural world around us and how we can, and do, affect the natural environment. I am extremely keen for visitors to look more closely at the animals and plants around them when they leave the gallery.

Citizen Science is an effective way of encouraging people to become involved with the natural world and enables members of the public to get involved with real science projects. This could be anything from recording the insects you see in your back garden to helping identify species from photographs online. Our new gallery has an area dedicated to this, with a new project each year.

Scorpion Spider Crab
Photo: The Box, Plymouth

The Box holds over 4000 spirit preserved marine creatures collected from Plymouth’s coastline. We’ll be displaying over 500 of these beautifully preserved specimens, and the first project will be linked to this display case looking at the crabs we find on the coast. There are around 65 different species of crab living in UK waters and they’re a very important part of the marine ecosystem. They provide food for many animals, even humans and some species are economically very important. They help eat dead animals and plants and recycle waste. There’s a small number of species which live in association with crabs, depending on them for survival. These unassuming little nippers are the unsung heroes of the marine world.

As part of an international initiative, the Citizen Science ‘Crab Watch’ project aims to encourage people to venture outside and explore their local seashore. By recording their finds, members of the public can help scientists to look at the distribution of crabs across Europe.

Crabs are very susceptible to changes in the water, including pollution and climate change, and there are new invasive species like the wonderfully named Chinese mitten crab and the Asian shore crab. These species are out-competing the native crab populations which can have a dramatic impact on many other species in the environment too. It’s hoped that information collected by ‘Crab Watch’ participants will reveal new patterns and changes that scientists working alone would be unable to detect.

Working closely with the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, we have developed a short video about the ‘Crab Watch’ project, supported by specimens from the collections. We are encouraging people to visit the beaches and record what they find, with the information being fed into the project’s database. A free identification and recording app is available. Printable identification guides and recording forms are free to download from the website. Our main aim is to empower people with the confidence to get out and really start to look at the incredible creatures on their doorstep.

To find out more about The Box redevelopment, visit

To find out more about ‘Crab Watch’ and how you can get involved, visit

Jan Freedman
(first published in DA News, Spring 2019)