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Day 1

Sandy:

In the morning Ayacucho turned out to be a very lovely city – full of charm and character. Ayacucho was the site of a famous battle that turned the tide against the Spanish during the liberation of South America, and the central plaza commemorates this with a huge statue of General San Martin – with Bolivar feted as one of the continents liberators.

Ayacucho_plaza_IMG_3272 (Mobile).JPG

The Andes are an active seismic zone, and our hotel had special areas set aside as safe areas, special lights etc. Not sure how effective this all is though, a few years ago a major earthquake devasted the city of Arequipa.

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Ayacucho is famous for handicrafts, and we took a bit of time to check it all out. Paul bought a brilliant taxi made from sheep mandibles as a present for his brother – a Lima taxi driver!

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We left Ayacucho headed for the town of Vilcashuamán, the geographical centre of the Inca empire. The road was wonderful, we went through a very high section of puna vegetation; the puna is a grassland above the treeline, the common grass is ichu (Stipa ichu).

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Amongst rocks we found a plant of the wonderful Solanum excisirhombeum – we had seen this one before, but this time, we found that the flowers below the grass and not expose to the sun were white, rather than purple, like the ones out in the open.

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When we descended out of the puna we came into a huge flat (-ish – the Andes are never completely flat!) fertile plain with fields of potatoes, barley, oats and quinua; this last is a staple Andean crop that has become popular as a health food (it is a member of the Chenopodiaceae, the same as lamb’s lettuce in the UK).

valley_Cangallo_DSC_8865 (Mobile).JPG

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We collected some new and interesting things along the way, as dusk fell we found Solanum polytrichostylum – a tall spindly thing with large flowers and purplish stems. It was growing alongside some apparently wild tobacco plants – quite a display.

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The rest of the drive to Vilcashuamán was in the dark, pretty hair-raising on twisty Andean dirt roads; once there, we were charged 2 nuevos soles (about 50p) for entrance to the city by a group of children – real business minds there! We arrived almost too late for any food, but found a place to stay where they let us put up the plant dryer – phew! What will it look like in the morning?

dusk_DSC_8797 (Mobile).JPG

 

Day 2

Sandy:

Vilcashuamán turned out to be a town built on the ruins of the Incas – the church sits on top of the Temple of the Sun, and a pyramid supposedly used of sacrifices sits right in town. We spent a bit of time looking around, then headed back on the same road we had come on (collecting where we had driven in the dark).

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We sped along on the bits we had collected before, but once on the unknown road again, we began to collect again. We went over a high pass on national route number 3 (a dirt road), where we found another Salpichroa growing amongst rocks (also in a sheep pen!), but no solanums.

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As we were collecting we saw three male china linda (a sort of falconid bird whose English name I can’t remember) chasing one poor female all over the place. Eventually they seem to have left her alone, as we saw her sitting quietly by the side of the road later.

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Descending from the puna into the valley of the Río Pampa (the border of the departments of Ayacucho and Apurimac) we hurtled through vegetation zones, one of which was Solanaceae heaven. Here we found one of our problem children – Solanum probolospermum (the name says it all!) – a woody vine with flashy purple flowers. It looks all the world like Solanum crispum of English gardens, but it belongs to Tiina’s group of Morelloid solanums…. Hmmmm.

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The find of the day, however, was the wild tomato species Solanum chmielewskii – previously only known from three collections from the department of Apurimac! Ours is the first record for the department of Ayacucho and a range extension for the species. Finding out the ranges of species is another reason for collecting, especially in areas that are not well-known. We were all pretty excited!

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We made it down to the Río Pampa as it was getting to be dusk, so another night drive was in order. The river was huge…  such power flowing through the narrow gorge.  Quite impressive.

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Up we went to the town of Chincheros (now in Apurimac) in the dark, hair-raising again, especially as there had been landslides (in Peru called huaicos, from the Quechua word) earlier in the day and the lorries made two-way traffic difficult if not impossible. We made it though, to a lovely town with a great hotel and a well-deserved sleep!

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Day 3

Tiina:

As it was so late in the evening when we were approaching Chincheros yesterday, we spend all day today exploring around the area.  We traced our way back to Rio Pampas, descending along the narrow mountain road collecting plants at every opportunity. The Rio Pampas valley is very diverse, but there are nearly no collections of solanums from this area. The valley crosses a large elevational gradient, and includes low elevation dry forest habitats as well as more moist montane forests higher up. This makes is just the most amazing collection locality!

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The most amazing species we saw today was something we all first thought very common. We are not sure what the name of this species is, or indeed if it is something never described before. Nevertheless, we first thought the plant we saw was just another Solanum americanum. The widespread Solanum americanum, not to be unkind, isn’t the most beautiful plant in the world. It has minute white petals and the tiniest of anthers. The plant we saw today, which we now refer to as “pseudoamericanum”, was a little more exciting than the usual Solanum americanum. It had equally small flowers, white petals and small anthers, but that is where the similarity ends. It has a very large stigma, and in a close up picture the disproportionate size of the stigma becomes evident.

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And here is a picture of Solanum americanum for comparison:

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If you look carefully, you’ll see that “pseudoamericanum” has longer calyx lobes, which are not reflexed in fruit. The fruits of “pseudoamericanum” are green when ripe, whilst in Solanum americanum fruits are shiny black, and calyx lobes are clearly reflexed. Also, “pseudoamericanum” has branched inflorescences with spaces between each pedicels, whilst Solanum americanum has simple inflorescences where flowers all arise from a single point. These differences are fixed within the species. In fact, both species occur in the Rio Pampas valley in the same elevational zone. I can’t wait to get back to Lima to study more material of “pseudoamericanum” in the herbarium. Whilst we were in Lima, I saw other specimens of “pseudoamericanum” but was not sure at the time about differences between it and Solanum americanum. All of the “pseudoamericanum” specimens are from similar habitats from Southern Peru – this fits well with what we saw today. We just need to confirm if this has been described before or not through a good study of some type material.

 

For lunch we stopped on a side track in a patch of dry forest. Earlier in the week we had bought a cheese in the high mountain village of Castrovirreyna. That was where I got seriously ill with altitude sickness… Having finally got over the bad memories of the serious altitude sickness I had whilst in Castrovirreyna, we opened up the cheese ready to enjoy the local delicacy we had bought. When we bought the cheese, the shop lady told us *with a big smile* that the cheese was made out of llama milk. Andrew and I took this seriously, despite the lady’s big smile. Both of us tasted the cheese with high expectations – after all, this was the first llama cheese we had ever tasted. I noted immediately how wonderful the llama cheese was. Andrew agreed. By this point both Sandy and Paul were looking at us with chuckles, telling us that what we were eating was just a normal cheese made of cow’s milk. What a disappointment! Life will never be the same again…

 

Whilst having our lunch, we spotted a veritable forest of wild tobacco, Nicotiana glutinosa. Apparently in loves landslides, we found it growing all over the recently eroded road side. The species comes in various colour forms all up and down in the Andes. This population had lovely coral coloured flowers.

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All in all today has been a great day. We have expanded distribution areas for many species, adding important data points for further analyses. We particularly want to use the data we are collecting for modelling species distributions. For this work, adding the data points from today and yesterday will be extremely valuable. Rio Pampa has been a black hole in terms of species distributions, but now finally we have some data!

 

Day 4

Sandy:

We began our day in the middle of a cloud – it had descended over the mountains at night – so we set off for Andahuaylas in dense fog. The highway is in the process of being paved, not a simple undertaking in these steep mountains.

 

We ascended over the pass between Chincheros and Andahuaylas, up into the puna again, to about 4100 metres. There we saw some really interesting cultivation – one set of tiny fields at 4100 m elevation had six different Andean crops – potatoes, tarwi (a kind of lupine), ullucu (a tuber related to beetroot, very distantly), faba beans (broad beans, a European import in colonial times, but very much prized) and two crops I had been looking for the whole trip – mashua (tuberous nasturtium with bright orange flowers, Tropaeolum tuberosum) and oca (a tuber bearing oxalis with yellow flowers, Oxalis tuberosa). A real hotspot of cultivated plant diversity!

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We stopped to look for our high elevation friend Solanum excisirhombeum in an amazing spot dense with the high elevation cactus Austrocylindropuntia (what a name!); we didn’t find it, but did find a tiny bulbous adder’s tongue fern, Ophioglossum, that Paul collected; the entire plant is abuot 2 cm tall, a true miniature!

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As we descended into the Andhuaylas valley we began to see solanums again – and the road was now paved. The construction was impresssive, as was the maintenance, these areas are prone to landslides, so constant clearing up is required.

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The new paved road is a boon for the local people, who now have a nice, non-muddy track by which to take their animals to pasture – for divers though it has its hazards!

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We arrived in Andahuaylas in the early afternoon, and decided to spend some time checking out the town. It is the Carnaval festival tomorrow, so the place was buzzing with activity, dancing and traditional music. Each province in Apurimac sends one to many dance/music troupes to compete, the winner goes to the finals in Lima at the end of the month. It was all fantastically colorful and exciting. Sets of people were dancing around a tree laden with gifts like blankets and pots and pans, when it came down (a chop happens every circuit) a mad scramble for the goodies ensues. It has to be seen to be believed.

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Andahuaylas is famous for, among other things, being the birthplace of Jose Maria Arguedas, a Peruvian author who wrote about traditional village life in the Andes. Last year was his centenary. One of his books is entitled Yawar Fiesta – it is about the traditional festival of this part of Peru which involves a fight between a condor and a bull – the condor represents the Andean peoples and the bull the Spanish colonists. The whole thing symbolizes the conflict between the two cultures. A statue on the plaza comemorates the festival (the Solanaceae treelet behind it is Brugmansia, or floripondio, commonly cultivated at these elevations).

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We must leave town tomorrow before 9 am, as the streets will completely shut for the traditional parade – it would be nice to stay, but the solanums of the rest of Apurimac and Cusco beyond beckon.

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The road to Ayacucho...

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 5, 2012

 

Day 1

We left Lima in the midafternoon to miss the traffic – but miss the traffic we did not! Lima traffic ressembles a bumper car ride in the funfair – just about anything goes.

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We headed south on the Panamerican highway – through amazing desert areas where absolutely nothing was growing, the coast of Peru is part of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. This partly due to the rainshadow from the Andes to the east and also to the presence of the cold Humboldt Current that flows north up the coast until it turns out to sea at the equator.

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Despite the almost complete lack of water (although there are some rivers that flow from the moutains all the way to the sea – that is where the towns are), people are builiding loads of vacation beach houses along the coast – not very sustainable. We drove to the little town of Paracas to spend the night. Paracas is a fishing village but is also the point of departure for tours of the Islas Ballestas. These islands are the nesting sites for seabirds galore – boobies, comorants, pelicans, penguins, terns…  etc. In the late 19th and early 20th century the guano (or bird poo) was mined for use as fertilizer – that industry has become much less important, but still continues to some extent.

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Day 2

A day of unbelievable changes. We began the day at sea level and ended up in the town of Castrovirreyna at 4000 metres elevation! Never in my life have I driven up that sort of elevational gradient except in Peru once before and then only to go straight back down again, the habitat gradient was totally amazing. Our first plant of the day was right at sea level – Solanum americanum – a superweed in the Morelloid group that has what we think is a global distribution. How does it do it? Collecting the same species in many different habitats will hopefully let us begin to unravel the answer.

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We carried on up the dry valley of the quite swollen Rio Pisco. Pisco is the grape-growing region of Peru and we saw fields of irrigated cotton and vineyards along the way; the cotton here is a type with very long fibres and is highly valued.

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As the valley narrowed the crops were more scattered in smaller fields. We came across a group of people harvesting their pepino crop – pepino is a fruit that has a taste sort of midway between melon and cucumber – and it is a solanum – Solanum muricatum. These kind farmers gave us several pepinos for the road, and on we went.

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The road got narrower and narrower, and twistier and twistier – Andrew was driving and he did amazingly. At times it felt as though we were clinging onto the cliff edge by the tyre edges. We had decided to take a smaller road loop rather than follow the main road - it was a great idea but gut-wrenching at times!

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In the drier parts of the valley we found wild tomatoes – Solanum corneliomulleri – whose leaves smell like a mixture of citrus and mint, and many other interesting plants. Solanum americanum accompanied us up the valley, dropping out at about 2000 metres above sea level.

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At the little town of Tilcrapo we left the main valley of the Rio Pisco and really began to climb, the switchbacks were almost on top of one another. When we got to a lovely view place and stopped to have a bite of lunch, we met a Swiss fellow named Joachim who had come from Santiago de Chile – on his bicycle!! This trip we are really finding a lot to make us seem quite normal.

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We kept on climbing and we kept on stopping to see wonderful plants – as it began to rain slightly we stopped along a stream (well more like a torrent) to look for solanums. We found several and a fantastic species in another solanaceous genus – Jaltomata bicolor – with flowers about 3 cm long.

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We arrived in the tiny little town of Castrovirreyna where we looked for the municipal hostel (most Peruvian towns that are provinical capitals have them and they are usually pretty basic but always clean and nice). Along the street came dancers dressed as devils and whirling around, all to the tune of Andean huaynos – a particular type of music from the high Andes with harps, drums and whistles. We were invited to the party, but we needed to do our plants, so declined (anyway, these village affairs always involve copious quantitites of alcohol, and at 4000 m elevation, we were not really very keen!).

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At this high elevation it is definitely NOT warm, so we shivered and got wet trying to find something to eat (it had begun to rain in earnest by then) – eventually some kind locals took pity on us and found us some food…  it was warm and lovely! We set up our field dryer and began to process the plants we had collected – it was great to see them again.

 

Day 3

Sandy-

Morning broke in Castrovirreyna and we all felt a bit light-headed from the altitude – altitude sickness is called soroche in Peru; Andy had been bad the nght before, but Tiina was hit badly once we began to drive on towards Ayacucho. So I will do this first bit – as she was not in any shape to even look at the scenery. What one needs to do with soroche is get down in elevation, but first we had to go up. And up and up – into the snow zone, where the plants were minute and often formed huge cushions, covered with snow, they still bloomed.

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At these elevations the main farm animals are llamas and alpacas – llamas are bigger and are used as pack animals, alpacas are shorter and are kept for their wool. Most of the herds we saw were mixed, and all had newborn lambs who looked beautiful and white.

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Eventually we made it to the pass on the road – at 4700 metres. As we descended we got back into solanum-collecting territory. We found a wonderful plant in an other Solanaceae genus – Salpichroa – hanging from a rock face.

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As we found our second solanum (Solanum excisirhombeum) of the day Tiina re-emerged, feeling much better – so I will hand over to her now…..

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Tiina-

Whilst all this was going on, I was on the back seat of our lovely pick-up – which we have now named Freddy – and did not want to see anything, not even Solanums. The thing with altitude sickness is that it totally takes you over. My head felt like it was about to burst, which is not a nice feeling to have. Any light, especially strong sun Andean sunshine at 4,700m elevation hurst your eyes. Then, on top of this all, you feel nautious… great, but at least I heard Sandy, Andy and Paul telling how wonderful the scenery was!

 

By mid-day I started picking up and made it out of the car to see my first Solanum of the day (as Sandy allready mentioned). Solanum excisirhombeum was worth the effort, it’s an incredibly attractive high elevation plant, and it manages to produce large flowers despite all the hardship!

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The day progressed whilst we were slowly moving down the road towards Ayacucho. We saw great fields of Puya raimondii, a large terrestrial bromeliad that grows for years before finally sending out a flowering shoot over 2 meters in height. Then, once it has flowered, it dies. Sad really.

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Coming over the next high pass we passed through landscapes that were almost lunar – vicuñas in the distance and clouds coming down…. The number of different landscapes we have come through today boggles the mind!

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In the afternoon we passed from Huancavelica to the department of Ayacucho. The area around the province of Vinchos was full of Polylepis forests. That’s where we found our second target Solanum of the day, Solanum gonocladum. Yesterday we found it in lower elevation, but it actually quite enjoys higher places. It hides underneath Stipa grass humps, rocks or anything that provides shade from the tough climate.

 

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At five o’clock we finally reached Ayacucho, ending our first road tour in the back and beyond. Ayacucho has been a no-go area for a long time due to the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) terrorist group’s activities. Now it’s a shining departmental capital, producing great handicrafts famous around Peru. It’s surrounded by mountains, and when the skies opened at seven whilst we were having our dinner, all the water running down into the city formed rivers on the streets. On our way home we figured out that the flood had reached the sewers as well…

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Tomorrow we start our second tour. This time we are heading southwest of Ayacucho on a smallish road to Vilcashuamán. The rains we experienced tonight might have caused some issues on local roads – how far will we get?

 

(PS - sorry the photos aren't centred - blogging on the road can be tricky!!!)

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Off for the mountains

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 2, 2012

Our vehicle was delivered (a nice 4x4 pickup truck that will be perfect for the mountain roads), we are almost finished in the herbarium - so today we will head south and then up into the Andes. Getting out of Lima is a challenge in itself!

 

It has been raining a lot in the mountains, so who knows what we will find. Peru is famous for what are known locally as huaicos - huge mudslips that block roads; none have been reported though for the road to Ayacucho, so we are hopeful!

 

I am very excited to be going to Ayacucho - when I live in Peru in the 1980s it was the centre of activities for the Shining Path, a violent terrorist group whose activities disrupted all of Peruvian society for years - it was a no-go area in those days. Now, in contrast, Peru is a vibrant buzzing place, and there is a new road from the coast directly to Ayacucho - very little plant collecting has been done in the area recently (although our Peruvian colleagues have of course been there), so we are not sure what we will find, but it is bound to be interesting.

 

We are joined on this leg of the trip by Andrew Matthews, an NHM volunteer and forester, and Paul Gonzales, a student from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, who has just finished his undergraduate degree and is on the way to becoming a top Peruvian botanist - we'll have more about them later. How many solanums will we find in Peru?

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Our permit has come through, we are awaiting the confirmation of our rental vehicle....  so while we wait and get organised, we are entering the data from specimens in herbarium collections here in Lima into the Solanaceae Source database. Solanum is such a large genus that botanists fear to tred (we, of course are a bit crazy, so here we go!!) - with 1500 species, it is hard for a non-specialist to get a handle on identification, so many many collections end up in the unidentified cupboards - our first port of call. What a treasure trove! At the Museo we have reduced this backlog by more than half, and in doign so, managed to enter very important collections to the database. Many recent collections have latitude and longitude recorded, so with these data, we can calculate species ranges. This will contribute directly to our new project on the correlates of extinction in the Solanaceae of Peru - THE hotspot of diversity in the family.

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a small part of the now identified Solanum collection at the Museo!

 

Before we leave Peru, we will copy the records from each herbarium to a new file and leave it with those in charge of herbarium management - taht way, no work is duplicated and our colleagues can use the records to enable their own research as well. As we sit madly entering data, students and visitors from elsewhere in Peru constantly arrive bringing small piles of dried plants in newspapers - their own collections for us to identify. Most of the time we can identify things to species, but when we can't it is frustrating to not be able to help. People are very tolerant of our failings however, and we have many very interesting conversations.

 

The other evening the Museo held its 94th anniversary celebrations - with the dedication of a fossil of Purussaurus - a huge crocodilian from the pre-Amazon basin discovered by palaeontologists on the staff.

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Purussaurus - reconstructed!

 

Peru does parties exceptionally well, and this one was no exception. There were several speeches, including a lvoely one from the widow of a prominent Peruvian grass taxonomist Oscar Tovar whose library has been donated to the Museo. I named a species in honor of Dr. Tovar (Solanum tovarii - from his native department of Huancavelica) in the 1990s - I am hoping we will find it when we go south into the mountains.

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Today we visited the herbaria (there are two, but confusingly they are advertised as only one) of the Agricultural University in the outskirts of Lima in La Molina. Here one can see the dry hills that surround the city - the coast of Peru is part of the Atacama desert and is very dry. The summer (now) is hot and dry, but the winter is damp, cold and wet with fog all day coming in off the Pacific Ocean - this "garua" creates a very special vegetation type called "lomas" in the hills where the moisture collects. Several endemic Solanum species are found in this habitat - like Solanum montanum (see the entry in Solanaceae Source for pictures of this species, http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/solanaceaesource/taxonomy/description-detail.jsp?spnumber=3951) - which makes an underground stem like a potato, but they are not related.

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At La Molina (as the university is called) we especially wanted to see the specimens collected by an amazing German botanist who lived and explored in Peru in the early part of the 20th century - Augusto Weberbauer. His book (in Spanish called El Mundo Vegetal de los Andes Peruanos - loosely translated as The Plant World of the Peruvian Andes) is still a classic for the understanding of habitats and vegetation in the country. Many of his specimens were used to describe new species by the great German solanologist Georg Bitter, but were tragically destroyed (along with many others) in the bombing of Berlin in the 1940s. But, fortunately for us, duplicates are held in the La Molina herbarium; to me, this is the single biggest advertisment for spreading the collections around, they are so easy to destroy and lose forever. Expert and careful curation is so important for future generations - thisis why we will be collecting duplicates of everything, half will stay in Peru, half will come to the NHM. These Weberbauer specimens are critical for understanding these names - some of these are the only specimens collected by him in existence. We were kindly received by the curators, and examined the type specimens that had been identified, but as I looked into the rest of Solanum - I saw at least three more Weberbauer types, lurking unknown inthe cupboards - a return visit is indicated!

 

Just as at the Museo, we identified many of the Solanum specimens without names and entered then into the database (well not all, there just was not enough time). We found some real oddities - like a minature species from the north of Peru, a bit like our friend Solanum chamaesarachidium from Argentina, but quite different; a new one? Only more study and collecting will tell......

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Andrew Matthews - slightly crazed from doing to much specimen databasing; without him we couldn't have done it!! He definitely deserved a cold beer......

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We bade goodbye to our potato breeder friends last night with an amazing dinner at an archeological site called Huaca Pullana (a huaca in Peru is a ruin). Huaca Pullana is a pre-Inca site made entirely of mud; said to be a religious centre, it covers several city blocks right in the middle of Lima.

 

Huaca_Pullana_IMG_3131.jpg

 

Today was the beginning of the annual week of celebrations held for the founding of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (the NHM in Peru); this year they are celebrating the start of their 94th year. The Museo in Lima is like the NHM in London in that it has collections spanning all living organisms, fossils and minerals.

 

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Today (Saturday) the scientific departments with the collections were open to the public - who came in droves! It was a bit like Science Uncovered Peruvian style, with activities for children, food and lots of buzz.

 

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Pond-dipping is popular the world over!

 

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Pointing the way to the vertebrate zoology section!

 

Visits to the science departments and collections were very popular - our herbarium colleagues made a wonder display of the groups of plants, algae and fungi from Peru, and studentw were on hand to explain it all to the many many people who came through the door.

 

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Miguel and Isabel with the flowering plant displays...

 

Our favourite part though was outside, where a section of the activities beckoned people to discover how to mount a scientific expedition - the area was full of collecting equipment, tents and paraphenalia - students again were on hand to explain how they collected and why it was so important for the conservation of Peruvian biodiversity.

 

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The sign says "DISCOVER HOW TO MAKE A SCIENTIFIC EXPEDITION"

 

The day was great - we spent most of it in the herbarium working on the database - so many interesting specimens, but could hear people having a graet time outside... the entire day was themed around Peruvian biodiversity and how the Museo worked to understand and conserve it - the enthusiasm from both those explaining and those visiting was so inspiring.

 

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A game for children painted on the pavements - the rhea is saying "I am disappearing beacuse of hunting, egg collection, capture of my chicks and destruction of my habitat" - the idea was to compelte the circuit and then fill in some missing boxes - we saw lots of people playing!

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A botanist's life if full of contrasts! Tiina and I have been invted to a conference on the use of crop wild relatives at the International Potato Center in Lima, quite a change from crashing through the underbrush in search of wild solanums! We are discussing how to use the wild relatives of the potato - Solanum tuberosum - to help combat climate change.

 

The attendees are from all over the world and are potato breeders, ethnologists and modellers - quite a group. The discussions have been fascinating, and have really helped us to see how the research we do in the delimitation of species of Solanum can help with problems like the changing climate's effect on crop productivity and pest resistance.

 

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Coffee break at CIP

 

I will give a talk about the diversity of Solanum tomorrow....  should be exciting.

 

The International Potato Center (Centro Internacional de la Papa in Spanish - or CIP) is an incredible place, and really modern research centre in the middle of the cahotic city of Lima (well, outside Lima really, it took us 1/2 hour to get here in a taxis, but the traffic was incredible).

 

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Lima from the air on arrival yesterday!

 

A little aside - the flight from Cordoba to Lima is totally the best ever - meringue mountains aboud - absolutely fantastic!!

 

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Touching the sky.....

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 22, 2012

Well, we did make it to the puna – and all there is to say is – wow. We first climbed from 1200 m above sea level in the town of San Salvador de Jujuy up the Quebrada de Humahuaca to 4500 m at the Abra de Lipán – up an incredible road. Unlike most of the roads we have been on this trip though, this one was paved – it is the road to Chile over the puna.

 

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Once over the pass we felt like we could touch the sky – it was amazingly clear and you could see for miles. Distances are hard to measure at these elevations – everything looks quite close. The snowy peaks we could see in the distance were in Chile! It looked as though they were right there…..

 

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As we looked for solanums at high elevations a storm gathered…. We found our friend from Catamarca – Solanum chamaesarachidium – but this time in miniature, who could believe a plant so tiny could reproduce. That is, however, what plants and animals do; this plant has a flower and a developing fruit - amazing.

 

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It started to rain, so on we went, heading to the tiny village of El Moreno, where Gloria had once before seen Solanum sinuatirecurvum, another high elevation speciality.

 

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We found the plant, got very excited, climbed the fence to photograph it – but then the storms gathering all round caught us up and thunder and lightening began, accompanied by hail. Now a bit of bad weather never really deters plant collectors, but being the tallest thing for miles in a lightening storm is not a great idea – so we got in the car to wait it out.

 

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After the storm we talked to some of the residents of El Moreno – imagine a place where water takes ages to boil, and the only fuel is wood – but there are no trees. Interestingly, the man we spoke to had a solar stove for boiling water – he said it took 25 minutes to boil 5 litres of water – using only sunlight – something there is plenty of high up in the puna.

 

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We then began the drive back through the puna to return to the town of Purmamarca for the night, seeing more vicuñas on the way, plus several other exciting plants. The main road to Chile goes over huge salt flats (the high Andes is full of these salt pans or salares) so we took a quick detour to see them. Optical illusions abound in places like this – the far-away mountains looked as though they were floating on air.

 

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It was a day of wonderful plants, amazing views and great fun. We spent the night in Purmamarca where we ate at a place with live music – Tiina learned to dance the chacarena – a local Jujuy dance, and the music was great. What stays with us still though, is the pure beauty of the weather in the high Andes – we were surrounded by storms all day, but never really got wet; what we saw was an ever-changing sky so close it felt like you could touch it.

 

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After a fantastic couple of weeks here in Argentina tomorrow we head for Peru, and more solanum hunting. We have spent the last few days since returning from the field in the herbarium here in Córdoba - a real treasure trove. We have added some 800 new records to the Solanaceae Source database - some very old specimens, but all new to us! Field work is great for sorting some problems, but the herbarium can bring specimens together in a way so that all the variation is laid out in front of you to see and decide what to do!

 

We have solved a number of knotty problems - realised that some of the species we were confused about were in fact only variants of a single widespread species - Solanum salicifolium - that can grow just about anywhere. Feels good to have sorted that out.

 

Tiina has gone out dancing with the post-docs - Gloria and I are making sure everything is in order for our joint treatments of Solanum for the Flora of Argentina, and generally just catching up. The list of things we will leave to do "next time" just keeps getting longer; it is clear there will another field trip next year, we are hopingn to go to Patagonia. We will be sad to leave this wonderful country and out great friends, but are looking forward to Peru, where we will arrive just in time for the Museo de Historia Natural's birthday party!

 

More solanums await in Peru - first we must sort out the permits for collection in Lima..... I am sure surprises await!

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We left a heaving Purmamarca – it is the long weekend holiday for Carnival in Argentina and many people head for the mountains. We had a few stops planned to look of r special solanums, so stop we did, and find we did as well. From San Salvador de Jujuy we drove through low elevation areas where tobacco was being cultivated – it didn’t look very healthy though – but it was probably just ready to be harvested.

 

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We entered the province  of Salta and there we found Solanum zuloagae – an Argentinian endemic we found along the narrowest road I have ever seen – two lanes winding over the mountains in the space one lane of “normal” road. A very beautiful plant with tiny white flowers; Solanum zuloagae grows in yungas forest like that we had seen before in Calilegua.

 

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Ever since San Salvador de Jujuy we had been trying to buy diesel for the trunk, but not only were there a billion cars on the road, not a single petrol station had any diesel… the queues at the petrol stations were amazing.

 

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Since it is Carnival, parties abound – we found two young men who bought the entire ice supply of a petrol station where we finally found diesel – it was so hot I suspect it all melted by the time they got to their destination! The temperature was amazing – more than 40 degrees centigrade, and with the humidity, it was hard to get out of the truck to collect.

 

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We searched for Solanum physalidicalyx at its type locality (where the original specimen used to describe the species was collected) in some brushy, prickly forest near a river at about 3 in the afternoon – the height of the heat – mad. Once back in the truck I felt a tickly sensation on my hand and discovered a huge tick…. I know I shouldn’t mind ticks, but……  Later on Tiina found one on my arm… we are madly checking all our clothes; Gloria found several on her socks….  I suppose they have to make a living somehow, ticks, and we were a nice meal just waiting to be eaten. I still don’t like them very much.

 

On our way out of Salta we bought buñuelos – a sort of doughnut with wild honey – a speciality of the province, from some women by the side of the road. Gloria is from Salta, so she knows all the best things to eat and made sure we tried them all.

 

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Tomorrow we will be back in Cordoba – it is about 6 hours drive from where we are tonight (San   Miguel de Tucumán); we don’t plan to collect tomorrow, but what do you bet we find something?

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We devoted today to exploring Calilegua National Park, an area that protects some of the rarest forest types in Argentina called the yungas. The forest is wet and mossy, and has big trees of walnuts and podocarpus – and of course, many solanum species. Argentina has a very efficient park system with professional park rangers, our day began with a visit to the ranger’s office to show our permit to collect. Once we were cleared, we set off up the mountain.

 

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One of our big finds for the day (we knew it was there) was Solanum huaylavillense – a very unusual little plant with yellow flowers known only from Argentina and Bolivia. Most Solanum species have white or purple flowers (except of course tomatoes), but this little beauty has translucent yellow flowers about half a centimetre long.

 

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We have had a “vertebrate of the day” ever since the vicuñas – today we had two, the first a toad so well camouflaged it took several minutes to point out to the others, and the second a bright orange and black toad hopping gaily amongst the rocks in a little stream. Can’t wait to figure out what this little chap is called!

 

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The spider was also gently minding its own business crossing the road – Jan Beccaloni I am sure can tell me what it is! We ate lunch to a chorus of parrots - loro alisero (Amazona tucamana - not sure what the name in English is, but here is the scientific one - universal!!); beautiful birds, with red beaks and a little yellow nose tuft.

 

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Our disappointment of the day was not finding Solanum calileguae, a vine endemic to this area. We looked and looked, but it clearly was not in flower or fruit, and amongst all that green would have been impossible to see. Another trip is clearly in order! Actually, it is good every now and then to realise that one never really finds everything every time, collecting is efficient if well-planned, but plants are on their own time schedule and may not flower or fruit at the same time every year. Some are also so rare that even finding them is difficult – it may be that Solanum calilegueae is one of those.

 

Passing through the town of San Francisco, we came upon the celebrations for Carnival – the week of feasts before Lent. Here in the mountains the people were offering gifts to Pachamama (Mother Earth), singing and dancing – and drinking! We were offered chicha (fermented corn drink) and beer, but managed to convince the festive crowd that we had a long drive ahead. All through the Andes there is a subtle and complex mix of Christian and indigenous celebrations; people have kept the things that are important to them.

 

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So tomorrow we head up to the puna again to look for some special high elevation plants (more Solanaceae of course) – it is a little unclear if we can really do this – it involves going up to 4500 m and driving a very long way. Can we make it?

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Sierra de Santa Barbara

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 16, 2012

Another wonderful day exploring and hunting the wild solanums of Argentina! Some might think we were a bit crazy – but not as crazy as the chaps we met up in the puna near the dunes a couple of days ago (forgot to write about them) who were traversing Argentina on motorbikes from Tierra del Fuego to the Bolivian border – 5000 km each way!! - in 15 days; this definitely makes botanists look sane.

 

Today we went to a small mountain range in the eastern part of the province of Jujuy – specifically to look for a plant known only from its type specimen (Solanum fabrisii), to see if we could recollect it. We did – it turns out to be the same (we think) as a species someone described earlier (Solanum glandulosipilosum – great name); this makes it a synonym – not a mistake, but a different interpretation of the evidence to hand (a story for another time!). On the way – we saw spectacular scenery, this huge canyon had no roads or trails leading to it – tierra incognita – or so it seemed to us.

 

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Today has made us both think about why field work is so important for the science we do at the Museum; not only do we find new things and sort out who is who, but field work is essential for looking at the natural variation of plants in the wild. Take, for example, a species we saw all day today – Solanum “aloysiifolium” (in quotes because we are not quite sure what its correct name is yet!). We saw this plant all over the Sierra de Santa Barbara (and have before today), but each time it looks a little bit different – just like individual people look different in small details. Big leaves, small leaves; white flowers, purplish flowers….. This is variation – the very stuff of evolution. Seeing this species in many different places, and looking a little bit different every time lets us calibrate how we are defining species, and shows just how much variation there is in nature. Doing this together, all three of us can discuss what matters, what we see (and we all do see very different things!) and just how we might deal with the complexity of what we observe. Collecting specimens that we will later look at carefully in the herbarium will let us connect the differences we see in the field with the data we take from pressed specimens and from DNA sequences to come to decision about what constitutes this particular species – is this one species or three or seven?

 

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Collecting a species more than once is definitely NOT a waste of time! It does, however, mean we have more plants to dry every night on Gloria’s field dryer – here set up in our hotel in the town of Libertador   General San Martín; we set it up every night and it works a treat. Looking for electric sockets in tiny hotels in villages in out of the way places can be a challenge though…..

 

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The past couple of days have been full of discovery - in the herbarium! Cordoba is a great centre for Solanaceae research, the great solanologist (person who studies nightshades - so wonderful they have their own profession) Armando Hunziker worked here until he sadly died in 2001. He was the director of the institute for 52 years, incredible dedication. His portrait hangs behind where I am working - I hope he approves.

 

The cupboards are full of treasures - new records for Argentina for little known species, lots of specimens of species that are endemic to Argentina and of which we have not a single collection in London - this is why working with colleagues in other institutes like ours is so incredibly rewarding. Highlights have been many specimens of Solanum endodenium - which we hope to see in the next week - with dark purple flowers with a green "eye"; a duplicate of a type specimen that I thought had been destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in the 1940s, oh and the list goes on. Tiina is figuring out her very complicated plants over in the next room - we keep popping back and forth to trade ideas and questions.

 

We have been looking at specimens not only for databasing and recording for future work, but more urgently to see where we need to prioritize the trip in order to see as much as possible. We will certainly find surprises though, in the Andes solanums are everywhere, and a beady eye is a must while travelling. Our route will take us to 3000 m elevation and through some fantastic places - can't wait!!

 

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The big snow got me a bit worried about getting out to Argentina to join Tiina Sarkinen, who has been there for a week working in the herbarium with our colleague Gloria Barboza and her students. But it all looks fine - flight is not yet cancelled and so I am on the way! Hard to imagine laeving this snow and ice behind.

 

Packing for a long field trip is always a challenge - what to take, what to leave. My house and office have been piled up with the many items needed for field and herbarium work. Camera, plant press, secateurs (for cutting branches to press as specimens), camera, sunscreen, first aid kit - the list is endless!

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Because our field trips are not only just about going in the forest to collect nightshades, but also about working with our colleagues in institutions like the Natural History Museum in other countries, I need to take all the bits and pieces for that sort of work as well. I have printed out many annotation slips - small identification chits I will place on the specimens in other collections to indicate my identification of these specimens - they will say I identified this specimen as a particular species on a particular date. This is how botanists leave the evidence of their use of hte specimens.

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I have never been to the collections in Cordoba, Argentina before (our first stop), so am really excited to see what I find! I know there are specimens of a species in a group I am currently working with - Solanum mortonii - that I have never seen; we don't have any specimens of this in the NHM collections. Exciting!

 

I am also looking forward to seeing what Tiina has found in her travels so far - in a strange set of coincidences some Chinese colleagues of mine (see the eggplant blog from 2010) are visiting Gloria in Cordoba as well, so we will have a chance to have a truly global conversation about Solanaceae. One of the great things about working on a particular plant family like the nightshades is that colleagues are everywhere and the spirit of working together is very strong.

 

So in an hour I will leave for the airport - next post will really be from the field!

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