This is the first in a series of blogs about the Museum’s Biodiversity Initiative and its ambitious endeavour to research novel ways of describing insect species (though naturally our priority is beetles!) in tropical forests around the world. We endeavour to bring together DNA methods and traditional morphological taxonomy to help us make statements and answer questions on species richness and turnover, diversity and distribution as well as simply increasing our knowledge of the incredible (and seemingly infinite) diversity of species in the world’s most threatened of habitats, primary tropical forest.
Project assistant Julien Haran unwittingly demonstrating the scale of the forest in Santa Fe National Park.
As fieldwork and collections co-ordinator for the Panama project I had to make sure that any fieldwork we undertook was approved and regulated by the relevant authorities. As one of the world’s foremost institutions in natural history, we are governed by a strict code of practice and adhere to international regulations on Access and Benefit Sharing and the Convention on Biodiversity.
In order to fulfil our obligations to the countries and institutions we collaborate with, a permit will be agreed upon setting out the conditions and commitments we must abide by in order to collect insect specimens for scientific research.
On our collecting trip to Panama in March and April 2014 we were fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Panama, and Panama Wildlife Conservation - without their assistance this project would not have been possible.
Fast-forward four months and today is an exciting day. Finally, after months of tense negotiations with international couriers, many phones calls, texts and emails flying between Panama and the UK, we are finally expecting a very large package of carefully preserved insects…Those long minutes spent on hold to our excellent couriers listening to 'Aint no river wide enough' - on a loop, paid off...
The very wide and deep river we crossed everyday to get to our field site. Foreground, Luis Ureña, one of the project leaders in Panama and background, Julien Haran, with hopefully dry underpants!
So, this is a backwards way of introducing a major project on beetle genetics and Natural History Museum collections development but most importantly a very big thank you to all the amazing people and organisations that helped us realise this project.
In particular we want to thank Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña who we kind of left behind in the field in Santa Fe NP once our three weeks of collecting were over! As part of our commitment to collaboration with Panama, it was important to us to exchange expertise and knowledge; essentially capacity build. Our intention was to collect in the dry and rainy season which meant being in the field for at least 2 months (my tolerance for roughing it extends to three weeks maximum!) and also there is always a financial constriction on how much time we can spend in the field.
Vayron de Gracia with a fancy lizard (photo bomb Julien Haran!).
A somewhat nervous looking team we are about to leave behind to continue collecting. From left to right: Vayron Cheffin's Father, Bernardo, Julien, Cheffin, Senior Pastor; and most importantly, the faithful Rosinante!
It was an ideal situation to find two excellent, willing and able biology students from the University of Panama; eager to accompany us on this trip into the darkest interior of Santa Fe National Park to a locality previously never collected for insects before.
Learning all about yellow pan traps.
Vayron and Bernardo didn’t seem to mind living in a chicken pen and eating SPAM for weeks at a time (more on that in later instalments!) so they proved the ideal field companions! We trained them in biological recording techniques and beetle family identification which helped them to put the theory learned on their university course to practical use in the field. When we left (just on the edge of the dry season) Vyron and Bernardo stayed on for another five weeks to continue collecting using the methods they had learned from us.
Here's home for eight weeks!
Arguably a more sanitary lunch break in the field with one of the project leaders, Eric Flores (left foreground).
Learning how to process insect samples in the field (no sign of lunch!).
Here is what they have to say about their experience working on a Natural History Museum fieldwork expedition (all good of course!)
And thank you Vayron and Bernardo; we can’t wait to start working on the specimens and finding out more about the beetle biodiversity of the beautiful country that is Panama!
Report on the training of Panamanian field assistants
By Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña
The collecting of insects developed in the Santa Fe National Park, allowed us for the first time to learn about collecting methods and about the traps used to capture insects in tropical forests. This was the first time we worked with these type of traps, in understory (FIT and Malaise), upper canopy (SLAM), on the ground (Pitfall) and Winkler traps (leaf litter); and the Yellow pan traps at ground level to capture other orders of insects such as Hymenoptera.
As undergraduate biology students at the University in Panama, we have only been taught about trapping for aquatic insects. Another important aspect was the way the traps were deployed on a plot by plot grid system that can be used in any tropical forest anywhere in the world, not just Panama. We did not know about this methodology to capture insects, in summary this was all new knowledge for us.
Julien, Bernardo and Vayron light trapping, with fierce competition from the moon!
This is the first Project of its kind in Santa Fe National Park (SFNP) and it has been an exciting experience to be part of it from the very beginning and to witness how traps need to be deployed - the organization and methodology used in the field with experts from the Natural History Museum. Moreover, the data generated as a result of this study will be new for the SFNP and for Panama regarding the entomological fauna.
When Google maps go wrong - our plot design; co-ordinates for Santa Fe.
Now we have the capacity to transfer the information to other people on how to conduct insect collecting and to collaborate with other scientist in the future. It was also valuable to deal with the traps and collecting in the following months after the team from the Natural History Museum departed. For example, the harsh climatic conditions, some landslides near the path to the plots, and the damage to the SLAM traps.
On one day of normal field collection, we left the Isleta camp to empty our traps and we were astonished to find the SLAM traps of Plot 1 had some holes in the sheet, and the plastic pots were perforated (see pics). Our first guess was that the guilty guys were crickets and woodpeckers! We were really worried because we were alone in the field and had to solve the problem in situ, after all we were in charge of collecting in the field. Masking tape was the temporary solution to the damage of the traps and luckily it worked out until the end of the dry season sampling in Santa Fe.
Electrical tape saves the day!
Frequently communication was a barrier from the beginning since our level of English was really poor. However there were always funny moments and anecdotes. For example “Chefin” our field guide use to say “Hay cantidad” (There is a lot) of anything he thought could be important for us. At the end this phrase was learnt by Julien Haran who one day working toward the plot claimed: “Hay cantidad”, referring to many cockroaches wandering on the leaf litter…