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Seeking nightshades in South America

36 Posts tagged with the diversity tag

Estancia La Leona was just as lovely in the morning as last night. It has had an interesting history – the estancia was the ferry point for sending sheep on balsa rafts down the Rio Santa Cruz to San Julian – 200 head of sheep to a raft, imagine! The station developed into a buzzing meeting point, and all kinds came through, including, it is said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on their way north after robbing a bank in Rio Gallegos. Today it is run as a stop on tours between Calafate and Chalten – the lemon pie looked amazing!


La Leona from the bridge over the river - imagine carrying sheep on rafts down this!


Shortly after passing the eastern edge of Lago Viedma – another one of these lakes of an unreal blue – we began our day on gravel roads. Out in the desert steppe again, we made a stop to collect a couple of things and lo and behold what did Franco find along the road in the construction loose banks but Nicotiana ameghinoi – sounds a bit like an anti-climax, but this plant is a real find. The last monographer of the genus Nicotiana, Thomas Goodspeed, had never seen it in the field, its chromosome number is not known and we have never included it in any of our phylogenetic work on the genus. Goodspeed speculated it would be like another Argentine species, Nicotiana acaulis, but it is a another matter altogether. The leaves are thick and fleshy and covered with sticky hairs, the flowers obviously open at night and were closed in the morning, but were pale green with brownish petals. It had a thick taproot like a carrot…. It will be great to find out where this belongs in the genus – we collected seed and leaf material for DNA sequencing, so a bit of lab work and we should have a better idea.


Franco collecting seeds of Nicotiana ameghinoi


Along the same road we had another great find – a different Fabiana; Fabiana foliosa. This species has only been collected a few times, and we have been looking for it! There it was, tucked behind a rock where we stopped to look at another population of Petunia patagonica. This little shrub looks a lot like the Fabiana nana we collected at the petrified forest, but has spine-tipped branches and little leaves. At the same place we found a Benthamiella (at last), the common species Benthamiella patagonica. It was turning out to be an amazing day!


Fabiana foliosa, not much of a plant!



Benthamiella patagonica - much cuter, but tiny and hard to find!


Many kilometres of dirt road later, we ended up (after a certain amount of discussion of the difficulties of buying fuel versus finding a place to stay versus collecting some more new things) deciding to go towards the west again and head for the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (yes, he also has a national park named for him!) where in some estancias outside the park a different Benthamiella had been collected. By this time it was about 6 pm, and the park was some 90 km in on a dirt road…  there were supposed to be places to stay in the park…… so off we went, towards more snow-capped peaks in the distance.


Choiques (Patagonian rheas) and guanacos were abundant along the road, I don’t even get excited any more when they appear. As we approached the mountains small lakes began to appear; at one of them a large flock of birds was wading, getting out the binoculars we saw they were flamingos! And behind them grazing peacefully at the lake edge was a herd of guanacos. We were so taken by the birds that we only absent mindedly looked for plants until Gloria found a tiny grey cushion and called for the handlens. It turned out to be Benthamiella azorella – with flowers so tiny you can’t really see them easily without a lens. This was just the species we came here for! Juan also found Deschampsia antarctica at the lake edge, so all in all a terrific stop.




Benthamiella azorella close up and personal


By this time it was sunset and getting dark, so we will be back tomorrow for another look in better light. We found the estancia that rented rooms (at a price!) – so will set off early tomorrow back to the east again, and hopefully to more Benthamiella azorella. We might have to go look at the mountains a bit first though – they are spectacular!


Flamingoes and the Andes - can't beat it


Last night we finally found a place to stay, at supper and crashed at 2 am – Calafate is a tourist town and all the hotels were full. We found one in the end though, and collapsed. Morning had us headed for the wet, towards some more Benthamiella localities – can you guess what happened? That’s right – no luck. These collecting records are all from almost a century ago and the habitat has changed so much that finding these incredibly small, quite rare plants is difficult even at the best of times. We decided we need to come back to this area and spend a week or more just exploring all over. The old lables don’t even say what typ of habitat the plant was growing in or what it looked like – so it is a matter of guess work and some incredible luck.


All was not lost though, as Juan had some localities for a grass (Deschampsia) he is working with in the same area so we carried. Juan is looking at the phytogeography of Deschampsia antartica, a tiny little grass that grows all over Patagonia and on the Antarctic peninsula as well; they are studying its chromsomes and geography. More tiny plants to find! Fortunately these were more common once we got to the southern beech (Nothfagus) forests as we went west. The change from dry desert steppe to beech forest was quite abrupt, almost from one hill to the next.


Southern beech (Nothofagus) forest at the base of Cerro Buenos Aires, not sure which species yet...


The Nothofagus all had a sort of mistletoe – a parasitic plant of the genus Misodendron. The seeds have sticky plumes and after collecting a few specimens we were covered in them!


Misodendron - these plants are dioecious, with male and female flowers on different plants - this one is a girl


Because we were quite close, we decided to go see the Perito Moreno glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The glacier is named for Francisco Pascasio “Perito” Moreno, who was a geographer of the 19th century who not only helped to set the Argentine-Chile border, but battled for the education of the indigenous people of the region. He was awarded the King George IV medal by the RGS, among many other honours. Having a glacier named after you had to be one of the coolest ones though! This was definitely a detour worth taking – one of the wonders of the world – it is the centrepiece of the Parque Nacional los Glacieres; accessible by really organised walkways. The first sight of it brought gasps to us all, then we saw the viewpoint – called “Mirador de los Suspiros” (was that a joke? – it means Viewpoint of Sighs).


It is now summer in Argentina, so the ice melts, causing bits of the glacier to fall off. This particular glacier sits over a stream, so every year the water undercuts the glacier, making an ice bridge, which then collapses. This had happened a few days ago – it makes the national news! As we walked along the lower of the walkways big bits of glacier fell into the stream – the noise is quite loud, even the little bits seem like huge cracks. The entire glacier face is 60 m tall, and it is 5 km wide at the base – an impressive sight. This was a detour totally worth making – even if it did set us back a bit in the collecting line.


A huge piece of glacier falling - we have a video, but I haven't figured out how to put it up yet! The noise was tremendous



Here we all are - Juan, Franco, Gloria and I - all windblown and pretty cold, the glavier creates its own weather it seems


We realised we had spent too long at the glacier and would not make it as far as we thought, unless of course we were to break our record of arriving at midnight! So we saw a hotel advertised in the middle of the steppes and decided to try. So here we are. Moonlight outside, along a glacial river in the Patagonian steppes, the owner’s son in gaucho dress came to fix the heat (it is VERY cold) – AND we collected another population of Petunia patagonica at 10 pm!



With the morning and the break of the heat wave came the wind – I now believe the tales of Patagonian wind! We left San Julian, heading south… to find more populations of all of our solanaceous friends. The idea of the trip was to go south via the coast and then north again via the Andes, today was the day where we made the crossing to the west. But first, we looked for more Petunia patagonica. At a semi-random stop on a junction with a tiny (locked shut) dirt track to Punta Beagle (we can’t seem to get away from Darwin, not that one would want to!)  we found huge plants of the “petunia” – we are now certain it is not a Petunia! These cushion plants must be very old indeed, some of them were four or five metres in diameter and had entire ecosystems growing inside them. They seem to never get more than about 30 cm tall, but spread and die out in the middle.


Juan sitting in the middle a huge Petunia that has died inthe middle; Franco has a theory that this is where the seeds fall!


Before our collecting stop we passed through Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, where Juan (who was driving) was breathalyzed – at nine in the morning! We went into town, bought petrol and then and to go back to our collecting site – fortunately for us they were all at lunch when we next passed through! After a bit more frustrating looking for and not finding Benthamiella, we headed west. Against all advice, and ignoring a sign saying “Camino intransitable” (Road impassable) we headed straight across the province of Santa Cruz on Route 9 – a dirt track that went along a high pampa above the extraordinarily coloured Rio Santa Cruz. The river, which we had crossed at its mouth in Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, was a milky blue colour – this comes from its origins in the glaciers of the Andes, where we were headed.


The Santa Cruz River from the table land where we were driving...


The road of course was perfectly good, in fact excellent! The best bit was that there was no one else on it, so when we stopped to look for plants no one minded. The wind was incredible – it was blowing so hard that it was hard to stand up when you got out of the car. At one terrific stop we found a treasure trove of Solanaceae – including the quite bizarre Jaborosa magellanica that Gloria, who studied these plants for her PhD, had never seen in the field. The dark purple, almost black flowers smell like rotting meat and are pollinated by flies. We also found Nicotiana corymbosa – one of my target species; it is a wild tobacco with incredibly sticky (and smelly) leaves. The car stank!!


Jaborosa magellanica - the flowers are almost black!


By this time it was freezing cold and the wind was blowing so hard that when I tried to climb back over the fence to get back to the car it pushed me back into it and I somersaulted backwards. The weather had definitely changed, and was changing as we went west. Route 9 was an amazing road, through wide open steppes, with guanacos everywhere and fantastic clouds framing the scenery. Before heading to our destination El Calafate we made one last stop looking still for Benthamiella – at about 9 pm, as usual for us on this trip. It must have been about 5 degrees Centigrade – what a change for the other day! And we have snow and glaciers to come, we could just see them in the distance as we approached Calafate at the end of the light…..


The steppes at sunset


So – after having to buy a new tyre in Bahia Blanca, another day of driving to the south…  Patagonia is a long way from central Argentina! Although we were in Patagonia strictly speaking in Bahia Blanca, we still had a long way to go before our plants appear. After an early start we hurtled along the excellent roads – along the sides were harvested fields, all pretty normal looking until you looked closer to see flocks of rheas (South American ostriches) grazing the stubble!


Passing into Patagonia proper there are strict controls on the transport of fruits and food products – this is a big agricultural region and many diseases are absent (like brucellosis for example) – so all vehicles are carefully inspected at the border of the province of Rio Negro…  so we had to eat out fruit before crossing over! The lovely salami from Cordoba didn’t pass muster, so had to be thrown away...  a tragedy.


We headed for a beach resort right at the mouth of the Rio Negro, not for the usual, but again in search of Jaborosa bergii. This plant is proving totally elusive – we failed again! We did collect a beautiful composite – Grindelia – whose chromosome Franco is studying, and a couple of other things.


We also failed to see whales or dolphins, but then again that requires going out on a boat and that is not really what we are here for! We did, however, take a tiny detour to see the largest parrot nesting site in the world – 12 kilometres of coast line is occupied by thousands of burrowing parrots who nest in holes in the soft cliffs. The fledglings were leaving and the hawks circling – an amazing sight.


The Atlantic in the distance, mouth of the Rio Negro


Burrowing parrots near the nest - slightly out of focus - I do plants not birds!!


We headed for the tourist town of Puerto Madryn for the night, a mistake as it turned out. Gloria and Franco had had trouble there before finding a hotel, and we ought to have learned from that experience! No rooms were to be had anywhere. It was Franco’s birthday – so we had a nice meal with a birthday ice cream cake and singing in a restaurant on the sea front (by this time it was almost midnight – the sun doesn’t set until 9pm this far south in the austral summer!), and drove on to the next town – Trelew. We finally reached a hotel at 2 am….  a very, very long day!


Back to the "real" world?

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 23, 2012

I left Tiina, Andy and Paul in Cusco and began my slow re-entry into the world outside plant collecting – culture shock for sure! Flying into Lima the world looked very different – big cargo ships, anchovy fishing fleets, dry desert – something I hadn’t seen for what seemed like years, but really was only a couple of weeks.


I tried really hard not to be envious of their journey on the Interoceanica – failed of course, but I will hear about it eventually! They are sure to find great things, can’t wait to see them.

I spent a day and a half in Lima, working in the herbarium again trying to sort out a few mysteries, catching up with friends and generally getting things set up for when the others return. Some of the great old friends from previous times in Peru were in Lima (Blanca Leon and Ken Young from the University of Texas) – we all had a great Sunday walking along the seafront near their apartment in Miraflores.

Although I have now come back to the Museum and am getting to grips with the “real” world, the field trip work does not end yet. All those lovely solanums we collected need to have their data typed up into the database so the labels can be printed out. In order to export our part of the specimens from Peru we must provide complete data labels, too often people come and collect, leave the plants but never send the labels, making the collections a burden for the staff of our sister institution in Lima. Field work needs to be collaborative from start to finish, and the finish is long after one leaves what is considered the “field”!

The Museum hasn’t changed utterly since I left, so picking up the threads of what I was doing before is pretty straightforward. The best bit is that I feel a new excitement for what I am doing in Solanum taxonomy, a new appreciation for the collections we have and the ones we have just made, and have come back altogether rejuvenated – full of new ideas and plans. Seeing plants in their native habitat, doing what they just do, is without doubt once of the most important ways to increase understanding of the diversity and scope of nature. The collections we hold at the Museum are important, of course, but it is the combination of knowledge from the collections and field that really makes for good science - an integrative whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

This is definitely the best job in the world!! Keep tuned in for Tiina's posts from Peru, and once she is back here in London, we will keep you up to date with what we do with the wonderful nightshades we have collected in South America.


Return to Cordoba

Posted by Tiina Feb 20, 2012

Today was the final day of our field trip. We all sat in the car doing nothing – except Leo of course as he was driving – chatting about what we have found during the past 10 days. The plants we have seen have been most amazing, all flowering AND fruiting which is excellent. They have also been the first nighshades I’ve ever collected, and the trip has brought home how diverse the family is!


The two day drive from Jujuy down to Cordoba has also brought home how far we have been. We have driven nearly 3000 km only in 10 days! Argentina is a large country and it takes some stamina to cover all of the northern parts in one trip. You can imagine how all my muscles are aching by now from sitting in the car for hours on end… During long drives I have struggled staying awake, the calm humming of the engine lulling me into sleep. Leo’s safe driving has helped too of course J. Lunch times are the worst, because after a full stomach there is a very high likelihood of finding me snoring on the back seat!


On a trip like ours, day-to-day mood of the team greatly depends on three things: car, the driver and roads. Leo has been amazing, and has made our trip. Our pick-up has been great too, and the roads, except for a few instances where sudden rains have flushed down parts of roads blocking our way to intersting localities. So given that the plants are blooming and there are flowers or fruits to look at, it’s all about cars, really. It doesn’t sound as exciting as trips trecking in the jungle, which focus on collecting in a single locality over number of days. But the most amazing thing about a longhaul trip like ours is that you get to see so many different species in one go! This is worth every moment and aching muscle!


We counted the number of Solanaceae species we have seen in 10 days – we’ve reached 100 by now! As I said, these are my first nightshades ever. Although I’ve worked in the Andes before and know already some plant groups well, I have never looked at nightshades before. The reason for this is that the group is so diverse that it feels inpenetrable to a non-specialist. Learning from Sandy and Gloria has been great, and I can now tell apart the large main groups within the family and especially within Solanum. I have also learned that there truly is great morphological variation in the family. Look at Nicandra for example: it’s a monotypic genus with a single species that occurs throughout tropics in the world, N. physalodes. The species has tomato like berries, but unlike fleshy tomatoes, Nicandra berries dry out!


nicandra (Mobile).JPG


Other favorites of mine are the campanulate flowered Solanums, one of which is S. fiebrigii which we collected in Jujuy in the National Park of Calilegua.


fiebrigii (Mobile).JPG


Then there is of course the Episarcophyllum group of Solanums, these are high elevation species, some with fleshy succulent leaves. We have found several of these, Sandy mentioned these earlier (see one about high elevation sand dunes). Here is another one of the Episarco’s from Catamarca yet to be identified. You can see in the picture that whilst I was filming, a lucky insect took the opportunity to get the photo!


insect (Mobile) (2).JPG


And then there is of course the Parasolanum group of Solanum, which consist of four species, some of which are prostrate creeping herbs growing amongst stones near rivers and streams in high elevations. My absolute favorite thus far in this group is S. tripartitum.


tripartitum (Mobile).JPG


During our trip we have not only seen over hundret species of nightshades, but sorted out some very important taxonomic issues. There are a bunch of names we now understand as we have been able to visit the type localities of these species. We have also observed how some species vary enourmously in leaf shape and growth form, and based on these observation we can synonomise names and simplify things on our return. We have two days remaining in Argentina. These will be spend in the herbarium annotating and databasing specimens, studying type material and editing species descriptions based on what we have seen. On Wednesday we will be heading off to Peru where Andrew Matthews is joining our team. Sadly we have to leave Gloria and Leo behind - but it’s not so sad as I’m sure we will return to Cordoba before too long.


Having seen over 100 different species of Solanaceae in Argentina, what will we find in Peru?

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