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In the bad old days, biologists from places like the Museum would just go to a country, collect and then bring everything home. This was great for building our collections, but bad for the country involved. It didn’t help build up capacity in-country for biological inventory and understanding at all; many of the places the early explorers went were only just beginning to develop academic communities of their own. Things are different now though – and for the better.

IMG_7282_resized.jpgMy colleague Asunción Cano and his some of his students at the meeting of the Peruvian Botanical Society – academic life is certainly vibrant in Perú!

 

The Convention on Biological Diversity that was negotiated by the world’s governments in 1992 and subsequently ratified by most countries has meant, among other things, that permission to collect in countries not your own must be sought from the relevant authorities. This might seem like a bit of a pain – but what it does is gets you in contact with local scientists and tends to lead to some great collaborations! In Peru we have our research and collecting permits for both of our projects from the Dirección Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre of the Ministerio de Agricultura y de Rienda (Ministry of Agriculture and Water). The process is very straightforward; it involves a project plan, a list of people involved, and a promise to leave half the collected material in Peru. Sensible.

 

DNA permits - a different beast

 

For much of our work, however, we want to use DNA sequence data to look at evolutionary relationships for both the plants and the insects. This means we need a different and additional permit – a permit for use of genetic resources. All DNA has been identified as 'genetic resource' regardless of use. In a way this has created a huge problem for evolutionary biologists like us. Our use of DNA data has been equated with the plant samples kept in gene banks. So genetic resources permits can be notoriously difficult to negotiate and obtain.

 

We submitted our application of the DNA extraction from all Solanaceae and all insects associated with them in early December of last year, made some corrections based on observations from the people in the Ministry, and to my amazement and total surprise we were granted permission to extract DNA from specimens of Solanaceae and their associated insects we collect in Peru for evolutionary analysis! I signed a contract with the Ministry affirming each other’s rights and responsibilities in Lima, then headed for the mountains to join the team.

 

We really appreciate the efforts our colleagues at the Museo in Lima have made to help guide all these permissions through the system, and the efforts our colleagues at the Ministry have made to allow the genetic resources permit to be granted. I am really excited about the future collaborations we will have, and the new data and hypotheses we can generate. Doing all the permissions the right way has taken time, but I feel it has us all on a good solid, collaborative base for developing the research in the future.

 

Off into the field

 

The next day off I went to join the rest of the team – Erica, Mindy, Dan and Paul had gone to Canta the same day I had to stay in Lima to sign the genetic resources contract – so I followed by public transport, always exciting in Peru.

 

The car I got a seat in was old, bottomed out at every bump in the dirt road, and had a completely cracked windscreen. I might know why… the road from Lima to Canta was being repaired and widened in a number of places so there were lots of stops – at one of them several men were up the side of the hill pushing rocks down with sticks – no dynamite here, just manpower!

 

IMG_7312_resized.jpgI suspect the windscreen has taken a few knocks along the way … our driver and the one from the car in front discussing the delays.

 

IMG_7309_resized.jpgIf you squint you can see the tiny men on the slope – they are pushing the slope down with sticks, levering rocks out so the roll down the hill in clouds of dust…

 

The driver of our 'colectivo' got a bit impatient, and zoomed through – despite rocks skittering down the slope. Not great. But we made it to Canta, I found the team, whose day had been Solanum-filled and wonderful. I can’t wait to go out tomorrow!!

 

IMG_7318_resized.jpgErica (with Dan’s hands) sorting some of the day’s catch – it’s looking good!

 

 

Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on a research and collecting trip to Peru.

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The 64th Brazilian National Botanical Congress ended today after five pretty amazing days of talks, posters and conversations. The theme of the congress was “botany, always alive” – a clever play on the universality and persistence of the science and the members of the plant family Eriocaulaceae – called sempre vivas (live-forevers) here in Brazil. The flowers and stems of Eriocaulaceae are sold as dry flowers; one stand at the congress venue was selling them made up into small trees and wonderfully elaborate arrangements. The flower stalks are also used as a thin, wiry straw to make jewellery – it looks like thin bronze wire… very beautiful.

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The congress was held in the downtown part of Belo Horizonte, in a venue called Minascentro – an old building, with a very modern interior.

 

The week was jam-packed full of wonderful talks – there was never a dull moment. My two talks were on the first day, so I got to relax and really enjoy the science for the rest of the week. What was mind-boggling to me was the sheer number of botanists attending the congress – more than 1000 people were registered, more than half of them Master’s degree or undergraduate students. This to me shows that botany and the study of plants is alive and well in Brazil, one of the mega-diverse countries of the world. This is quite right – this is where the study of plants should be thriving. And it is…..

 

Students are encouraged, if not required, to present posters, and posters there were! Every day there was a new poster session with hundreds of really interesting studies on show – in total nearly 2000 posters were displayed (1809 to be exact), giving the students a chance to show off their work and talk with the crowds who came to look at the work being done.

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For me this was a challenge – but my Portuguese improved greatly! Students were so kind about understanding my fractured attempts to ask questions about their work….. the best bit was everyone having a great time – the noise level was astounding!


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The opportunity to talk with students was great – many of them, like Luiza Fonseca de Paula here talking with Lynn about the phylogeny of a small group of really fascinating Brazilian solanums in which she has discovered a peculiar new species, have made some really interesting discoveries.


The range of topics covered spanned the gamut of organismal plant sciences – ecology, taxonomy, anatomy, conservation, floristics. My personal (highly personal and idiosyncratic) highlights were talks on the future of forests and on the Flora of Brazil. Each plenary talk was held in the main lecture hall – huge and almost always packed out. Lots of time was allowed for questions and discussion and the student participants really participated – even with talks given in English (translation services were provided).

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Paulo Motinho answering the many questions from the very interested audience.

 

Paulo Motinho of IPAM (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, or Amazon Environmental Research Institute) gave a thought-provoking talk about the future of Amazonia, looking at trends in deforestation and the increase in fire risk. He summarised some truly amazing experiments that involved covering hectares of the forest floor with plastic to see the effects of drought… headline answer, it really matters! The news that deforestation in the Amazon had increased and the newly published interactive map of world deforestation brought his talk into fresh relief.

 

But Brazil is more than “just” the Amazon – the habitat diversity here is extraordinary (as you can see in previous posts from this trip), part of what makes the flora here so diverse. Toby Pennington of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh gave another thought-provoking talk (in Portuguese, making it even more impressive) about the seasonally dry forests, often neglected in favour of the Amazon, but very diverse and evolutionarily very important for the generation of diversity in the tropics (Särkinen et al 2011). I was reminded of a talk I heard earlier this year at another conference where a speaker showed a map of agriculture and said that it was good that the area south of the Amazon basin was being used for widespread intensive agriculture because the Amazon was being “spared”. The area is the cerrado, an amazingly diverse and evolutionarily important dry grassland/tree habitat. There isn’t a one for one trade – all habitats hold unique elements and no one is more important than another. Nor can a country like Brazil put a fence around all natural habitats. The sheer diversity of forests here means the “agony of choice” is ever present.

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Caatinga is another example of a seasonally dry forest, a bit spiky and maybe not as romantic sounding as the Amazonian “jungle”, but important just the same – and highly understudied!

 

For me, the most exciting part of the week was discussions about the Flora of Brazil. A flora can be two different things – flora with a little f is usually used as a collective noun for the plant diversity of a country, while Flora with a big F refers to a publication describing and documenting the plant diversity of an entire country or region. The last Flora of Brazil was published in the nineteenth century by the great German botanist Carl von Martius, and remains a key reference work still. But knowledge of the diversity of the Brazilian flora has moved a long way since then!

 

A series of talks over one entire day of the Congresso set the Brazilian flora in context and laid out plans and tools for pulling the community together to make a 21st century Flora of Brazil. Inspiring.

 

Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (whose talk was given by her colleague Marli Morim from the Jardim Bôtanico do Rio de Janeiro as she couldn’t attend) set the flora in context. Brazil contains about 9% of the total plant diversity of the world, some 33,000 species, of these, 56% are endemic to Brazil and occur nowhere else. Wow.

 

Other talks in the symposium outlined

 

Though this seems like a daunting task, producing a compilation of all the plants (including fungi and bryophytes – not just flowering plants) of Brazil, the mood was so positive that this was really doable by 2020 – linking the effort to the targets set by the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Lots of arguments about how to do it and how to measure the impact of such work were had in satellite meetings in the evenings – but the dedication and positivity of this community was really inspiring. You know, even if only half of the Flora of Brazil is completed by 2020 a huge amount will have been achieved – but I would be willing to bet more is done.

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Vinicius Castro Souza leading a discussion of how a Flora of Brazil might be achieved, with others of the organizing committee looking on.

 

The congress was punctuated by the ascent of one of the local football teams, Cruzeiro Esporte Clube, to the top of Série A of the Brazilian league.

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The streets were full of people selling flags and banners – bought and hung out of car windows and draped around supporter’s shoulders.

 

The bars and restaurants all over town filled with excited supporters decked out in blue and white to watch the games on tv screens in the streets. So far, so normal – a bit like my neighbourhood in Highbury when Arsenal plays, although the noise here is on a different level altogether – car horns hooting, constant fireworks in the streets. When Cruzeiro won midweek to claim the league for the third time in history (with 4 games to go!) Belo Horizonte exploded – all night. The chap I bought a banner from was slightly mystified with my comment that 1966, the year Cruzeiro first won the league was the same year that England won the World Cup – it didn’t register, or perhaps it was my fractured Portuguese! Jeff Ollerton, a colleague for Northampton also here for the congress, likened the horn tooting to cicadas – it got to be background noise after a while, but the big booms were startling, especially during talks!

 

Another high point of the Congresso was its location – right across the street from the central market of Belo Horizonte. The pepper stalls were truly amazing – fresh and pickled peppers like I have never before seen. I could have spent days wandering through the stalls and small shops – everything and anything was for sale from brooms and kitchen pots, to herbal medicines, to pets.

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In this Aladdin’s cave peppers preserved in oil and in cachaça – all sorts, all sizes, all colours – were for sale.


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Each variety in this shop (called Paraiso da Pimenta – pepper paradise!) was rated for spiciness.


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Cachaça, a spirit distilled from fresh sugarcane juice and a key ingredient of the famous cocktail caipirinha, is a speciality of Minas Gerais – and the sheer variety of types was amazing. Just like whiskey it is cured in wooden barrels, with age and method important for achieving the very different tastes – tasting was tempting, but there were talks to go to in the afternoon!

 

The congress dinner involved great conversation and samba music – Brazil really knows how to throw a party. João Renato Stehmann, the president of the congress, summed up the event in numbers

  • 1461 botanists registered
  • 1809 posters
  • 156 speakers
  • 11 keynote lectures
  • 20 training courses…..

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My colleague from the Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais João Renato Stehmann did an incredible job begin the president of this event while all the while being cheerful and a great colleague – he had even been in the field with us a few days before the event began! He deserves his halo…


All in all an inspiring week of botany in a country whose botanical community is vibrant, young and who are all really going places. This week has reminded me of why I study plants, and how lucky I am to be doing so.

 

I’ll miss walking from my hotel past the beautiful architecture of Belo Horizonte – but the field beckons again.

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This apartment block on the Praça da Liberdade was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, one of the key figures in modernism and the designer of many buildings in Belo Horizonte (most notably in Pampulha, where I had seen the capybaras early on in my stay).

 

A new species from the state of São Paulo and the enigmatic Solanum enantiophyllanthum are calling to us now, and tomorrow we set off to the south for a few days in the forest and in the really important herbarium of the Instituto de Bôtanica de São Paulo, where I am sure treasures await…. I’m glad I don’t have to leave Brazil quite yet!

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Field work began in earnest today – we headed from the coast up into the mountains, the destination was Cajamarca, by fast road 6 hours away – but we were taking the road less travelled. We took a tiny dirt track up a dry valley to a village called San Benito; our research in the herbarium in Trujillo told us this would be a good place to look for some special endemics. Wild tomatoes are most diverse in the dry western regions of Peru – so I was hoping to see some of the species I have not yet seen in the wild.

 

It took us a while to find the right road – road signs don’t really seem important in Peru, people generally know where they are going I guess! The area was fantastically dry, with rocky slopes and tall columnar cacti. This is the northern part of the Atacama, the desert created by a combination of the cold ocean current called the Humboldt Current coming from Antarctica and the rain shadow of the Andes to the east.

 

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The tall cactus peeking out from behind the hill is called Neoraimondia; Antonio Raimondi was a famous Peruvian botanist of the late 19th century and really began the exploration of the plant diversity of the country


The first plant we saw (well, the first one we were going to collect!) was a genus I have never seen in the field before – Exodeconus. It is an Atacama endemic, and this species is the only one to grow in northern Peru. Tiina collected a couple of other species last year in the southern part of the Peruvian coast.

 

The plants we saw in this valley were tremendously variable in size, from tiny with only a couple of leaves to large and fleshy and extending to a metre or more. It all depends on water, as is usual in a desert. Desert plants are masters at making do.

 

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Exodeconus maritimus growing in a shady  place under a rock – some leaves on other plants were the size of saucers! The flowers are beautiful, bright white with a deep purple centre


The tomatoes soon began to appear, like Exodeconus growing in slightly wetter microhabitats. The first species we saw was Solanum pennellii – the closest relative of the tomatoes proper. It doesn’t have the pointed anther cone of the rest of the group, so was placed in the genus Solanum, rather than Lycopersicon, as the tomatoes used to be known.

 

We now recognise all of the wild and cultivated tomatoes as members of the genus Solanum, based on the molecular studies done by my colleague David Spooner in the early 1990s. His results showed tomatoes are closely related to potatoes; many characteristics of the plant form also support this evolutionary relationship. So we now group the tomatoes as part of the large genus Solanum, reflecting their ancestry and evolution more accurately.

 

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Solanum pennellii has stubby anthers – here being buzzed by a small bee


All Solanum species are buzz pollinated by bees – the anthers open by tiny pores at the tips and female bees grasp them and set up a resonance inside using their flight muscles, pollen squirts out lands on the bee and she carries it to another flower – if you sit by flowering tomatoes long enough anywhere, bees will come and buzz, the sound is quite audible!

 

Tomatoes proper have a long beak on their anther cone, but there are pores inside – the beak is a shared evolutionarily derived character that tells all tomatoes are closely related to one another.

 

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Solanum arcanum – a northern Peru endemic species only recently described by my colleague Iris Peralta (with whom I was recently collecting in Argentina), has the elongate beak typical of wild tomato relatives. This species began to appear a bit further up the valley towards the mountains

 

The small fruits of wild tomatoes are usually green and hairy, but even from them you can tell the species apart. The sepals of Solanum pimpinellifolium – the progenitor of our cultivated tomato – are strongly turned back, while those of Solanum arcanum (below) are always held flat – easy!

 

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Solanum pimpinellifolium

 

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Solanum arcanum

 

We were elated with our success at finding the wild tomatoes, all in flower, but were becoming disappointed about one special species we were seeking – Solanum talarense, an endemic to the dry coastal valleys of northern Peru and rarely collected.

 

We had almost given up, the road was going up the valley into wetter habitats and higher elevations, but then we saw it – possibly the rattiest plant I have ever seen! Eaten by goats, despite its ferocious prickliness, there it was hanging on in rocks by the roadside.

 

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Solanum talarense amongst the rocks, completely eaten by goats (we think, but it certainly had been munched by something!)

 

Jumping out of the truck I felt prickles in my shoes – only to discover that several 2 cm long thorns had gone right the way through the bottom of my boots; it will be interesting to see how this affects them when we get to wetter places! Solanum talarense was most definitely THE plant of the day, totally weird and wonderful – a plant only a Solanum taxonomist could love.

 

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The 'spines' on the stems and leaves of Solanum talarense are technically prickles, outgrowths of the surface – true spines, like those that went through my boot, are bits of stem. Prickliness does not seem to have deterred the animals eating this plant at all!

 

Ascents from the coast to the Andes in Peru are amazing – in a single day you can go from sea level and a dry desert to 4000 metres elevation and dripping wet cloud forest. This time we went over a pass that was only 3500 metres elevation, to descend again into the dryer valley of Cajamarca (via a couple of other passes – the geography is incredibly complex in northern Peru).

 

DSC_7103_resized.jpgWet cloud forest beckons ahead in the mountains

 

In the village of San Benito, in the cloud forest – in the pouring rain – we found our last wild tomato of the day. Solanum habrochaites used to be called Lycopersicon hirsutum, but when the time came to change its name to put it into Solanum, there already was a Solanum hirsutum (a European species) – so we had to think of another species name for it. The name we chose – habrochaites – means softly hairy in Greek; we thought it described the plant exactly.

 

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The fruits of Solanum habrochaites are covered with long hairs each of which has a small sticky gland on top. These glands exude a substance that gives each wild tomato species its particular smell, and gives us that lovely smell of ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine

 

We reached Cajamarca at about 11 pm, a bit later than planned – maybe we spent too much time collecting in the desert, but none of us thought so! This first day collecting was a great success – lots of other wonderful northern Peru endemics and some real surprises and firsts for me (Leptoglossis schwenckioides, Browallia acutiloba and on and on).

 

Now for a day in the herbarium of the University of Cajamarca and a visit to the wonderful Peruvian botanist Isidoro Sánchez Vega, for whom I named a lovely species of Solanum a couple of years ago. I am hoping we find Solanum sanchez-vegae on this trip – maybe when we leave Cajamarca for points south. Can’t wait.

 


Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on field work in Peru.