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Curator of Diptera's blog

2 Posts tagged with the sandy_knapp tag
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I have been away alot recently (that sounds familiar to all that know me) and one of those trips was a field trip to Peru. In fact I brought my partner with me to be our driver and field assistant. This is a big gamble - would we be able to cope without killing each other; would he understand and enjoy what we were doing; would he drive us off the cliff? These were all considerations that we pondered but eventually decided that it would be great - if we couldn't explain to him the value of our work then we reallly needed to work on our communication skills.

 

However it wasn't a holiday for him - as well as the driving we made him press plants, collect insects, take DNA samples, transcribe field data and also I made him write my blog . There was a lot so he will be doing it in instalments as he also has a day job . It has been enlightening reading it and seeing what we do through the eyes of another.

 

Without much further ado, I give you Dave:

 

For reasons best known to herself, The Doc thought it would be a good idea for me to come with her to Peru for two weeks as her field assistant/driver/Odd Job man. Part of the deal was to see if I could write her blog for a few days. Folly! The idea is that I might provide an outsider's perspective on what Erica does, as prior to this I had little experience with fieldwork beyond high-school geography. So I gave up two precious weeks of holiday and relented.

 

I've never been to South America. It's not something you pass up. I paid the air fare, but much of the (admittedly inexpensive) rest came free. As an editor in my job, at the very least this would be an opportunity for me to ask some awkward questions! So I'll be filling in for Erica and revealing what she and Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist extraordinaire and leader of this expedition, find in Darkest Peru (© Paddington Bear).

 

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The gang.

 

It took 20 hours of flying and 14 hours (más o menos) of driving to get our first sample, so let it be known that the Museum goes far for our money. We were joined by two wonderful spirits of the insect and plant world: Evelyn Gamboa of the entomology dept of the University of San Marcos in Lima (the oldest in the Americas) and later by botanist Segundo Leiva Gonzales, Director of the herbarium at Antenoar Orrego University in Trujillo.

 

First question: what are we doing here? Is it worth it? Is this some sort of jolly? I'd suspected Erica led a charmed life coming on these trips, which she called work. But I had to keep an open mind. So of course we're here to collect plant and insect samples. Specifically it's plants of the Solenacaea family (i.e. nightshades - wild relatives of our cultivated tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes and tobacco) - and the pollinators, pests and associated microfauna thereof. In particular, we'll be collecting diptera - true flies, which you'll all by now know about already if you follow Erica's blog.

 

Sandy says this is the first study we know of that samples both the plant and associated insect population together, in situ. The success of this trip - or otherwise - could have extensive repercussions for future study. Naturally, this trip will also add to the Museum's (and by extension, the world's) knowledge of these species, and will boost Segundo's university's collection. We'll also be able to tell what's happening to the distribution, prevalence and range of these species over time (many records go back decades).

 

And the data they find here could have a wide variety of applications. For example, a changing climate might put stress on current cultivars of tomatoes. Crossing these staples with certain varieties of their hardier Peruvian cousins might increase pest resistance, or tolerance to drier conditions for instance - agricultural benefits with with knock-on effects for food security, natural pest control, biodiversity and species distribution.

 

But, before all that can happen, we had to find them first. That meant a day of driving up the Panamericana north from Lima. We had the right car for it - a 4x4 Toyota the crew likes to call Freddie. It is owned by a man called Martin, who has never learned to drive it. I will be happy to test-drive it on this occasion. I will not be calling it Freddie...

 

 

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Dave and Freddy.


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Away from the sprawl of the capital

 

Once Freddie had escaped the sprawl and grubby winter permafog of the capital, we hugged the coast up the Panamericana and the fog lifted. The scenery slowly evolved from apocalyptic ashen desert into drifting caramel dunes, lonely pastel mountainscapes and roads that vanish on the horizon. We stopped in a roadside café made of reeds with a toilet located tellingly far from the main building that had no water, no toilet paper - but did have a colourful penguin collage painted optimistically on the outside. Yet here they served us the freshest and tastiest ceviche - perfect fodder when the thermometer is climbing above 30degC.

 

We spent that evening in Trujillo, where the crumbling colonial mansions and old courtyards of the old town seemed to me to be a vast improvement on what I'd seen of Lima at that point (which to be fair, was not much). Yet I felt I had been in the country for some time - a result of that temporal illusion you get when you're a bit jetlagged and you've crammed so much into a short period. But as Erica and I shared a beer at the end of a dusty day, I realised we hadn't even taken our first sample.

 

At 6.30 the next day we were off. We headed north again on the Panamericana and after an hour or two, turned right towards the distant mountains, roughly following the river Chicama. After a brief stop for grub in a charming market village called Roma we wound our way up a dry valley interspersed with fertile arable land into the foothills of the Andes. The dunes had given way to scrub - semi desert - where stately cacti pointed skyward and the road deteriorated into a dirt track full of entertaining potholes (n.b. not entertaining for everyone in the car). We stopped occasionally to sample the plants, and Erica showed Evelyn the ropes of how to collect with nets and Erica's primary weapon - the suction sampler. Basically this is a handheld vacuum cleaner with a net and container for catching the insects. Anyone wielding it looks like That Fourth Bloke in Ghostbusters. It looks daft, but it does its job. Vultures hovered hopefully in the blue as we inched inadvisably on.

 

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The variety of landscapes.

 

Hours of lurching later, Sandy bade us stop at a loop in the road, an unconvincing turnoff to a place called Colbot, having seen a likely candidate. Her instincts were correct - a single specimen of Solanum habrochaites clung defiantly to a cleft in the bend. This is a wild tomato species that is found on the western slopes of the Andes from central Ecuador to central Peru. This species is notable partly because, with a bit of crafty crossbreeding, it yields 20 times more sugar than the cultivated tomato - a matter of keen interest to the Heinz family.

 

Erica and Evelyn got out and swept their nets gamely - Erica performing a more detailed local sample and, as had been decided, Evelyn with a more free role, performing a general sweep in all the sites we encountered. Sandy cropped herself a small sample when they'd finished swishing. Here Erica discovered a beefly among the other unfortunate captives in her killing jar. As we know, Erica gets soppy about beeflies. But not so soppy as to let them go.

 

Segundo took a sample of Capparis scabrida - a relative of the caper plant - sprouting in the dry riverbed. Then Erica and Evelyn swept the hell out of this area with their nets and Erica seemed interested to have caught a micropezidae - stalky, stick-legged flies, which she feels are "quite funky".

 

We stopped for lunch here. A local cowherd came and joined us and he told us that there hadn't been any rain that year, and that it was making life difficult. I can but try and imagine. I was finding it hard to believe we would find much in this environment. But not for the first time I would be proven wrong.

 

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Life finds a way

 

A single mototaxi - a tuktuk - wobbled past us carting an old lady, probably from the market in Roma. We'd passed it several times and when we'd stopped to look for specimens and it had crawled past us, the tortoise to our hare.

 

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The 'tortoise' to our hare

 

The vegetation became more abundant, as the road gathered height, along with my spirits. Not that I wasn't fascinated with the desert but, given a choice, I much prefer the mountains and greenery to deserts, and the scenery was becoming more and more preferable.

 

Several stops and samples later, we made a final stop in a bend where a stream passed under the road a mile on from a charming mountain village called San Benito. This location was teeming with life. Humans included. Children from the nearby village came to say hello, all curious to see what these gringos were doing on their patch. All except one young lad, who was having a bad day and preferred to throw stones at his friends. For this, his big brother took him home upside down.

 

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Where there's water

 

 

Meanwhile, we swept for various insects, and I carried on my supplementary job of detailing the GPS location, weather conditions and general description of the sample site. I was also given the seed-collecting detail. Lots was found here.

 

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Sandy found three different kinds of wild tomato and then casually announced she had discovered  a new species of Browalia - a Solanacaea species sometimes grown ornamentally like petunias. This was something I found astonishing but to the experienced botanist, it was merely very interesting. And Erica discovered a few snail-killing Scyomyzids -the presence of moist liking flies was presumably testament to the damper conditions.

 

After an hour or so of sweeping, the mototaxi pottered round the corner, passed us again and disappeared round the corner for the last time. 

 

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Colourful buildings of San Benito.

 

 

After a welcome supper in a very rustic kitchen in San Benito, where Segundo secured us berths in a municipal hotel, Erica and Evelyn started pinning the specimens, Sandy set up her plant-dryer - an insulated stack of card and wood heated overnight by a small gas flame - and I started logging the samples we had found on Erica's ancient laptop. By the time we had finished it was time for bed.

 

 

But first I felt I should at least reacquaint myself with the night skies of the southern hemisphere and say hello to the Southern Cross. I avoid the overused word 'awesome' if I can, but it seems perfectly fitting here. I've never seen the stars quite as clear as that night in San Benito. I thought I had made some sort of mistake - but no, it wasn't low cloud, but the distinct ghostly veil of the Milky Way. '

 

To be continued....

 

 

So that was Dave's first thoughts on fieldwork with us..More blog pieces to follow....

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Potatoes in Peru

Posted by Erica McAlister Jun 11, 2013

I am in a hotel lobby in Lima, Peru (OK, that’s a bit of a lie - I was when I wrote this but now I'm back in UK…). There is, as with most cities globally, a high level of chaos around me involving road works, building works, giggling and cleaning. However I am in a happy place - mainly because I am in Peru and it is lovely to be back, but also because today I spent most of my time in the International Potato Centre (CIP) discussing a project and our projected findings with incredibly well informed folks (the Man of Potatoes below).  So let me fill you in with a few details...

 

Erica-1.jpgThe Man of Potatoes at CIP, Peru

 

This field trip is the first of many, which is part of a larger project looking at potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines, their wild relatives and their associated insect fauna. Botanists, entomologists, modellers and digitisers at the Museum have got together to look through the collections, mine them for data and then go out into the field to fill in the gaps in our knowledge to enable us to start to map what will happen to our economically important species in the future.

 

A couple of days ago, after months of planning, Dr Diana Percy (aka Psyllid lady; Psyllids are very, very, very small jumping bugs) and myself flew from a cold and rainy UK to a muggy and hot Lima to join various colleagues who where already there. 

 

Sandy Knapp, our intrepid leader, potato queen and lover of all things South American, was in Lima having come back from the field and took us this morning to the Institute. She has been working with various people at the Institute for a long time looking at the Solanaceae distribution in Peru but as well as working with the plants the Institute is also looking at the pest and pollinator species and their predators and parasitoids. This was great to hear as this was something that we were investigating too. The Centre consists of many plant workers, modellers, etc. and more importantly for me at this precise moment – entomologists.

 

We had a brief tour and then it was time for a very enlightening seminar (in Spanish) by Sandy to the group of scientists about Solanaceae and the work that she and other collaborators were performing involving the phylogentics of the group, as well as the project that we were undertaking over the next couple of years.

 

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Sandy Knapp thanks collaborators on her project and shows a lovely photo of Tiina Saarkinen, who is in the field waiting for us to join her!

 

(Did you know that there are only 29 fossil records for the whole of Solanaceae? Which in laymen’s terms could mean that we have no real idea of where the potato came from…?)

 

Entomologists that we met were Dr Jurgen Kroschel as well as Veronica Cañedo Torres and Norma who were working on various agroecology and biodiversity studies focusing on potatoes and their associated insect communities. The facilities were great and we first walked into a lab where there were tiny pots containing one of the moth pest species.

 

Erica-3.jpgPots containing moth pest species of solanaceae

 

As well as looking at what species attack the potatoes they are looking at where on the plant the damage is occurring - i.e. is it the tuber (the lovely edible part) or is it the leaves, the stems etc; what part of the life cycle of the pest species is causing the damage (with the moths it is the caterpillar but with the beetles it is the larvae and the adult); but also which species are the most important and does it depend on where the plants are located (potatoes can be found thousands of meters up a mountain). So as well as the preserved material that they have caught out in the field through sweeping the plants, leaving out potatoes as bait, laying down pitfall traps etc they have reared material in the lab and have now colonies of the different insects.

 

We move past the living pots and head into the collection space proper. A lovely air conditioned room containing sealed cabinets full of wonderfully curated specimens. Veronica had prepared most of the material herself as well as identifying many of the species. There are, as with all collections, many more that had not been identified and this is where the collaborations between the institutes becomes fun - we can help each other out in terms of specimens and identifications and everyone benefits!

 

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The fatties at the bottom of this drawer are tachinids which are fab parasitic flies.

 

Diana and I poked through the collections to gain insight into the types of species that they were collecting from the potatoes. Many of our preconceptions about which species would be present or would be more important were disbanded and the information that we gathered would help us strengthen our sampling strategy once we were in the field. (This is often the way of fieldwork - best laid plans and all that… flexibility is the name of the game... as well as entomological training; we have been trained by both the A-team and Blue Peter to enable us to build objects from a toilet roll and spare tyres to enable us to capture that elusive fly…)

 

We were then shown the rearing facilities - I could work here. We walked past carefully manicured gardens and trees with brilliant red tanager, the massive greenhouses that were chock full of potatoes, past the courts where dancing lessons were given on Wednesdays and into the new rearing facilities. Rooms with pots of insects in always makes me smile. Little containers, medium containers, large containers, all with potatoes and all with one species or another that is trying to maim or kill something.

 

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Wounded potatoes

 

As well as the moths and the beetles, the major pests were the leaf mining flies which are easily recognisable by the excavated passage ways that they leave behind in the leaves.

 

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Damage caused to leaves by leaf mining flies

 

These flies do not directly harm the tubers but reduce the overall fitness of the plant and so reduce the overall size and numbers of the potatoes.

 

They had large containers that housed either only flies or flies with different parasitoids to observe the affect of just pests or plant/pest interactions on the potatoes health. All very interesting stuff.

 

We left the Institute armed with scientific papers, species lists, sterilised sand (for rearing in the field ) and with more impatience to get into the field and see what was out there. Hopefully we will stop there once we are back from the field armed with more questions but sweetened with many specimens to look at and compare.

 

Good times lay ahead. more to follow on the search for wild potatoes and the joys of pootering at an altitude of 4,000m.....



Erica McAlister

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

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