Bernard Picton

Curator of Marine Invertebrates

  • Department: Natural Sciences
  • Email address:

Core responsibilities:

Bernard is responsible for building and curating the marine invertebrate collections in the Natural Sciences section. He publishes extensively on the taxonomy of nudibranch sea slugs and sponges and is the author of several species identification guides. Since 2014 he has been partly retired.

Staff background:

Bernard began collecting pond life and butterflies in 1957 and as a teenager he extended this interest to plants. He became active in the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Wildlife Trust where he met many experts in the identification and conservation of flora and fauna.

Bernard has a degree in Botany from the University of Bristol. During this time he learned to SCUBA dive, becoming interested in nudibranchs (sea slugs) and the plant-like animals they feed on (hydroids, anemones, sponges, sea squirts).

Bernard joined the staff of the Ulster Museum in 1975 as diving technician. He played a key role in the work to build a reference collection of marine animals around Northern Ireland. Documenting their distributions and habitats was undertaken through fieldwork each year. The fieldwork started in Strangford Lough and then moved to Dundrum Bay and Portrush.

In 1982 the museum received three years of funding to undertake the Northern Ireland Sublittoral Survey (NISS). The project aimed to create a baseline survey of marine life using direct observation and photography by SCUBA divers. The results helped inform recommendations for marine nature reserve designation. The methods developed for the NISS formed the foundation for the Marine Nature Conservation Review.

In 1987 Bernard helped set up a Biological Records Centre for Northern Ireland. In 1995 this became CEDaR, the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording.

After taking a career break in 1993 to work on the Biomar survey in Trinity College, Dublin, Bernard returned to the Ulster Museum in 1997. On his return, he established the Habitas websites, based on the demonstration Biomar Viewer CD-ROM.

In 2005 Bernard obtained a grant to study the sponges of Rathlin Island. His intention was to extend the Marine Conservation Society sponge identification guide (Sponge V). In addtion, he wanted to investigate species collected on Rathlin by the NISS and later visits. These specimens were already amongst the 2000 specimens of sponges in the museum marine invertebrate collection. These were used in descriptions of the species in Sponge V.

The project employed Claire Goodwin who was an experienced diver and the local Seasearch coordinator. The survey resulted in the photographic documentation and collection of 2000 specimens of about 140 species. At least 28 were new to science.

The Rathlin Sponge Survey led to two years of further funding for a review of species of conservation concern. It also led to a three-year project to investigate sponges in the rest of the UK using the methods developed for Rathlin.

The sponge collection now contains over 8000 specimens and is the most complete collection of UK sponges in existence. It is the only collection extensively backed by photographs of the living specimens in their habitats.

Bernard has been honoured by having several species named after him.

  • A worm from Hong Kong, Tectidrilus pictoni (Erséus, 1984), collected in a bucket of mud. It is now known to be one of the commonest worms in Hong Kong Harbour!
  • Claire Goodwin named a sponge from the Falkland Islands after Bernard in 2011, Iophon pictoni.
  • In 2017 Bernard had the honour of having a rare nudibranch named after him, Knoutsodonta pictoni. This was the result of a collaboration with two Italian scientists, Giulia Furfaro and Egidio Trainito. They had discovered the new species in the Mediterranean Sea but were able to confirm that it also occurs as far north as Scotland. This was possible with the help of DNA sequencing and specimens collected by Bernard at Achill Island, Co Mayo.

Staff interests:

Bernard’s interests include gardening and exploring the coutryside. His primary hobby is SCUBA diving and underwater photography. He enjoys leading expeditions for citizen scientists and sea slug enthusiasts in Ireland and elsewhere. In recent years he has made many visits to Norway including teaching on the nudibranch safari held each year at Gulen Dive Resort, north of Bergen. He is a founder member of the MERO foundation in Bali which is documenting the marine fauna of Bali and teaching local scientists.

Behind the scenes blogs