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Seeking nightshades in South America

26 Posts tagged with the herbarium tag
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Into the Valley of Canta

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 4, 2014

Having survived the public transport ride up to the village of Canta and joined the rest of the team, we set off bright and early to look for more Solanaceae and their critters. Since Mindy, Dan, Erica and Paul had gone down the valley the day before, we decided to go up to the town of Obrajillo – worth a teensy mention in Dan’s guidebook as “oozing with colonial charm”.

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Definitely a colonial village, but pretty run down at the heels – this Merc was up on posts and had bags of grain in the front seat. There must be action here though during the foggy, cold season in Lima (September-October time) – hip hop is being advertised in the door behind the car!

 

We drove up beyond the town on a small dirt track that suddenly became a non-road – no harm done, but a bit of pushing was involved! The sun was shining and the insects were out – perfect conditions. Also perfect for sunburn… the sun at 2,900 metres elevation is pretty intense, and without sunscreen we pallid Europeans burn fast!

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Mindy and Paul looking for plants behind a somewhat random-seeming monument to the battle fought on the 2nd of May… Not in Obrajillo of course, but somewhere far away (in Callao on the coast near Lima in 1866 to be exact).

 

Since it had rained early in the afternoon the day before we decided to walk up spotting targets, then come back down collecting. The entomologists got to try out all their methods…

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Erica sweeping with wild abandon in a patch of potato wild relatives…

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Dan and Erica peering into their nets to see what they caught on the Solanum basendopogon that was creeping through the shrub on the right of the path…

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Erica sussing out just where to start suctioning up insects from a Jaltomata species growing against some rocks by the trail – the aspirator is basically a small, gentle hoover that sucks up anything on the leaves into a cup with a filter of gauze in the bottom, pop the top on and then sort it out in the evening!

 

One of the species we found here was Solanum habrochaites – a wild tomato relative – that the team had also collected from last year. This will be great for looking at the geographical distribution of insect communities on the same species – will the locality or the host species be the most important determinant of the insect communities association with the plants? Only by collecting from the same species in different localities (ideally at the same time of year) will we be able to start teasing apart these patterns.

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Solanum habrochaites occurs from Ecuador to central Peru and is quite variable in elevation and habit. It is an important wild tomato relative and has been used in the past to introduce new variation in the cultivated tomato for fruit sugar content. The sticky hairs all over the plant have a distinctive smell and could also be useful for plant breeders for insect resistance (the white dot on the flower is a white fly!).

 

About lunchtime a group of local people assembled in the valley below for a barbeque and dance/sing-along – Andean flute music and dancing. It was pretty atmospheric…

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The men on the rock in brightly colored ponchos did a sort of hand-waving dance – it looked good fun!

 

Well – it began to rain… earlier than the day before – so we headed back. Insect collecting with wet nets is just not possible. I begged though, and we went back to a spot we had seen a tomato relative not yet collected in the morning – it wasn’t actually raining (my logic ran…).

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Mindy showing just how big some of these tomato wild relatives can get – this one is Solanum corneliomulleri, a species that occurs in central Peru at higher elevations that we had not yet sampled from – so I was glad we had tried! We had collected this species in 2012, but no insects were collected on that trip…

 

Paul and Mindy pressed these last specimens and then we headed back to the hotel to sort the day’s catch, write up the notes, check our localities on Google Earth and otherwise get the plants onto the drier.

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Paul and Mindy emerging from the mist with the press full of solanums.

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The kind people in the hotel let us use the restaurant to sort out insects – amazingly even while other guests were ordering dinner…  we definitely recommend the Hostal Santa Catarina in Canta for biological field work!

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We set up our trusty gas plant drier (repaired by Tiina and Maria after our slight fire incident last year) in an unused communal bathroom… it works just a well as ever!

 

Tomorrow it is up to the puna – to find the high elevation potato wild relatives, and for me, to see if I can find some more interesting Solanum endemics… We will have to start out early to avoid the rain… can’t wait!

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Before leaving London I was given a shopping list of field items to obtain in Peru prior to the arrival of the rest of the team. This makes a lot of sense, as things like plastic sheeting, pots, Styrofoam ice coolboxes and string are a lot cheaper here than in the UK and we save on bulk as well. So I was on a mission…

 

First though, we had another morning in the herbarium – checking on potato distributions after our visit to CIP on Friday where the scientists shared potato distribution data with us, we needed to check to be sure there weren’t collections they needed lurking in the cupboards of the herbarium. And there were! Many of the herbarium specimens that represent unique collecting points were not in the data set – we will now share this back with the scientists at CIP and everyone wins!

 

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Mindy, Tiina and our colleague Reinhard Simon in front of the spectactular CIP logo.

 

While working away at the database the floor suddenly did a lurch, the cabinets rattled and Johanny, who works with us doing data entry, ran for the door. It was a small earth tremor – not even big enough to register on the US Geological Survey’s earthquake map (they only map those over 2.5 on the Richter scale), but the Peruvian authorities registered it as 4.0 on the scale and with an epicentre just N of Lima but causing no damage. We hadn’t even felt the much bigger event (5.7 on the Richter scale) earlier on in the week the epicentre was far to the south – the internet went off, so we reckon that was the cause! Peru is at the edge of the subducting Pacific plate, and so earthquakes and tremors are common occurrences – it is good to have these little ones, it lessens the probability of a major catastrophic event I guess. I will definitely be visiting the newly-refurbished volcanoes and earthquakes gallery back in South Kensington with a new appreciation!

 

It was open day at the museum and the staff all had rows of specimens on display and both students and staff members alike were out talking with gusto to the many members of the public who came for the day. It was sunny and nice and everyone was having a great time! Museums really depend on the public visiting and open days like this are so important for letting visitors catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

 

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The botany display...

 

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Here's the way to the reptiles and amphibians!!

 

Noontime came and a friend and colleague, Emilio Perales from the Agrarian University (near CIP), came to help me with the shopping. The Central Market in Lima is not the safest place to be as a foreign woman alone, anyway, shopping is better as a group activity! Off we went into the heart of colonial Lima...

 

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The central part of Lima still has many old colonial churches and buildings... this one is the Iglesia San Martin (I think)...

 

The market itself is not a building or an area along the street – it covers several city blocks and is composed of shops selling anything you can imagine… Specialism is highly developed and there are tiny shops selling only plastic containers, others selling only paper products, still others with only coolboxes and yet more with only plastic sheeting and rubber bands. The whole area heaves with people – Saturday afternoon might not have been the best time to do this particular task!

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Proper shopping involves going to several stalls and bargaining for the best deal for the best product – this is a highly interactive sport. Getting receipts for purchases can also be a challenge – seems strange to be asking for a receipt for something that cost two and half Peruvian soles (the equivalent of 50 pence) – but it is necessary to justify expenditure.

 

Finally, laden with two coolboxes, many metres of plastic sheeting, a large roll of fabric, several hundred plastic pots and a huge plastic storage box, we had a freshly squeezed orange juice in the fruit section of the inside market – my favourite part of any of these local markets. Beautiful…you just can’t beat it!

 

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Maize in Peru is called choclo and has huge grains - it is served boiled or roasted and is delicious!

 

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Native (the cracked open green ones in the right hand side are lucuma) and imported (pomegranates) fruits all side by side for sale in hundreds of competing stalls - it is grape season in coastal Peru and many varieties are grown...

 

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The duck aisle right down from the fruits...

 

Shopping done we caught a taxi back to the museum to put our haul ready for the field on Tuesday. It took us ten minutes to get into the tiny car; it was like a puzzle getting all that stuff (plus us!) into the small space. Everything got put away, and now there are just a few more tiny bits and pieces (like a mobile phone I can use in Peru!) to get before we go… we await the rest of the team with anticipation...

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The easy answer to that one is – lots!

 

Seriously though, this is a harder target to hit than one might think. As part of our project on Peruvian endemics, Tiina, Paul and I decided that a checklist of the species of Solanum in Peru would be something botanists here would find useful – so we set about generating this from the Solanaceae Source database. Sounds easy…

 

Solanum is one of only a handful of flowering plant genera with more than 1,000 accepted species, and applying the general rule of thumb that there are about 3 names for every accepted species (a result found by my colleagues at Kew Gardens in a paper in 2008) means we have a lot of names to look at! I have written about synonymy before, but just to recap –a species might have more than one name for various reasons:

 

  • communication in the early years of science was not so hot and botanists might not have known that the species had been described already
  • or so few specimens were available that botanists described the extremes of variation as different species and now with more collections we can see a continuous range of variation
  • or opinions can differ as to what constitutes a species!
  • or …

 

This doesn’t mean earlier botanists were wrong, it just means we need to reassess the evidence from time to time, especially as more collections are made in previously poorly collected areas.

 

This plethora of names means that without some sort of ordering and rationalization the day-to-day identification of plants for tasks such as environmental assessments or national park inventories can become inconsistent. Hence the checklist…

 

So now having generated a list from the database (and Maria Baden, our dapper driver from last year’s trip - having edited it and tidied it up!!) we are now checking the list against the entire national herbarium – species by species. It’s a big job.

 

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Besides checking, we are adding new data points to the database, especially for common species, so we can get accurate estimates of range size and distribution in-country - here is Tiina puzzling over the VPN connection as the day begins...

 

As we go, we find that some species that appear in the list are there due to misidentifications – like Solanum aturense, a name put on a couple of collections that are really the related Solanum leucopogon – and out they go. On the other hand, new records here mean that species are added to the list – like Solanum cajanumense, that for some reason just wasn’t in there.

 

Tiina began at Z and I began at A – yesterday we met in the middle at about Solanum multifidum. Done… a complete marathon of identification, databasing and comparing – but the list is now backed up by data from the national herbarium and we have re-identified and re-curated most of the Solanum collection in this, the Peruvian national herbarium. Now I just need to look at the unidentified specimens some more and then we can move on to the next phase of the work – more tidying up … It is almost ready for publication now.

 

So how many specimens are there? We’ll count and get back on that, but as we work here there are new Peruvian species being described by other workers – so it’s a moving target. One of my goals is to find specimens in the unidentified piles that correspond to these new ones so the holotype specimen (the gold standard) can be deposited in a Peruvian herbarium – this is one important way botanists from northern institutions can help our colleagues in South America prove the value of their collections to their government sponsors.

 

Marathon over for now, tomorrow is our day for visiting the folks at the Environment Ministry to discuss our permits and to see colleagues at CIP (International Potato Center) to discuss future work on crop wild relatives. Should be a good day…

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Well, here I am again – back in South America and back on the hunt for Solanaceae. This time the trip will focus on tomato and potato wild relatives for the Museum’s Natural Resources Initiative - we will be collecting the plants and their associated insects to look at patterns of distribution through a variety of lenses. I have joined Tiina Särkinen from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for a week of work in the herbarium on our massive checklist of Peruvian Solanum species before the rest of the Museum team arrives. I’ll be joined this time by

  • Mindy Syfert, who began to work with the team in September, but hasn't been in the field yet!
  • Erica McAlister (aka FlyGirl), who has been here before...
  • Dan Whitmore, another newbie to the team and to Peru.. he also does flies...

 

Our aim is the mountains of Central Peru; we will be accompanied by Paul Gonzales (who you might remember from the 2012 southern Peru trip…) whose bachelor’s thesis was done in our first target area, so we are in good hands!

 

Our aim for this field work is to collect all the insects associated with individual Solanaceae plants (concentrating on the wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes) – this will give us a data set that can be sliced in many ways – by geography for example, are the insects the same in any given area? Or do they differ between species in a locality? Is locality more important than host plant?

 

Or maybe the evolutionary relatedness of the plants influences the insect community – are close relatives hosting similar insect communities? I am sure you can think of more questions, as I am sure we will once in the field.

 

Meanwhile, however, I am in Lima with Tiina, working hard in the herbarium on compiling an updated list of all the Solanum species that occur in Peru. Yesterday I went through all the unidentified specimens and thankfully managed to identify many if not most, so we are getting there! Tomorrow we start at opposite ends of the alphabet and work through the list to the middle, checking distributions against the collections in the herbarium to be sure we have not missed anything. Oh, and we will certainly be writing a few new species descriptions and making some decisions about what to call the new species we have found… more about that tomorrow.

 

Today though is Sunday and a day for visiting old friends. It is autumn in Lima and the sun is out and skies are clear, so after a great lunch with my old friends Blanca León and Ken Young of the University of Texas who live in Peru part-time (Ken is on sabbatical now and is fortunate to be living here full time for the moment!) and Asunción Cano of the Floristics section of the Peruvian national herbarium, a walk on the cliffs over the Pacific seemed a good idea.

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Ken, Blanca and Asuncion on the cliff tops with the blue Pacific behind!

 

This area is called Miraflores and is growing fast – particularly with high rise apartment buildings. A few old houses remain though, nestled amongst the towers...

 

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The land is so valuable that few old houses remain - the tower block on the left is unfinished - the contractor ran out of money... Sometimes the owners of these lovely old houses sell and then get a flat in the new block.

 

The cliffs down to the Pacific from this part of Lima are precipitous; at the bottom is a shingle “beach” – but the sea is full of people, all beginning surfers learning to ride the beautiful long waves that crash on this shore. When I lived in Peru many years ago, this seafront was not a very salubrious place to be, but it is now totally transformed – a cliff-top park full of families and people out strolling in the sunshine. What better way to pass a Sunday afternoon!

 

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Lots of surfers in the sea, a shingle beach and cormorants on a lamp post - I could be in England but for the blue of the sea and the warmth of the sun...

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Congresso over, samba danced, party enjoyed – we all now head off for fields new. Lynn has gone back to Utah, but Leandro and I, along with Izabella Rodrigues, set off for São Paulo state to look for a putative new species. My colleague Jefferson Prado, with whom I worked on the new International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants published in 2012, and his wife Cinthia Kameyama have sorted out permits for collecting in the famous reserve in Paranapiacaba also known as Alto da Serra that is owned and managed by the Instituto de Botânica de São Paulo.

 

First though we needed to get to São Paulo. Famed for its traffic jams (executives allegedly go everywhere in helicopters to avoid them) we thought that leaving at 6am on Sunday would mean we got there before the rush into town after the weekend. Well, how wrong can you be. We hit the tailback about 2pm, about 75 kilometres outside of the city…and crawled the rest of the way.

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Cars, lorries and all sorts -  all crazily trying to get into São Paulo… Bumper to bumper for hours and hours. The amazing thing was that people were selling water and sweets along the central reservation of the highway, at incredible risk when the traffic actually did move, but I expect they did pretty good business, otherwise they would have been nuts to be there at all.

 

We did arrive in the end, getting lost a couple of times, but we got there. Our first day was spent in the herbarium at the Instituto – looking for new localities of the probable newbie and generally identifying plants. My trip here has been paid for by the Virtual Herbarium of Brazil partnership – and in exchange my job is to identify as many herbarium specimens as I can, thus helping with the quality of information available from the consortium.

 

We got a taxi from the hotel to the institute – no way was Leandro driving in that traffic any more than he had to! Our driver was chatty as can be, and took us to the wrong place at first. But rather than complain and blame us, he quite amazingly took us back to the hotel, set the meter to zero and we began again. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else on Earth? All the while keeping up a constant monologue on politics, life in São Paulo and things in general, including the World Cup (to be hosted by Brazil in 2014, with one of the main venues in São Paulo).

 

He dropped us at the entrance and we walked through the botanical gardens to the herbarium. It took us ages as the road was lined with solanums… Including the amazing, altogether wonderful Solanum castaneum – the ultimate Bob Marley plant, I swear this one has dreadlocks!

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We saw a huge black Bombus species buzz-pollinating the flowers – these are Leandro’s thesis topic, so he was pretty excited to see them in a place he hadn’t expected them to be so common!

 

So the herbarium. The institute in São Paulo is one of the larger and older herbaria in Brazil and so there were a lot of plants waiting for us to name…  between us Leandro and I identified some 500 specimens, including many of the new species. In 2008 I had tentatively identified three specimens of a plant from the mountains of coastal São Paulo as Solanum evonymoides – a species we had collected in Bahia, but with reservations. The amount of material in São Paulo convinced me that the plant is indeed completely different to S. evonymoides – what an idiot for not realising it earlier! But this is the beauty of visiting other collections, with little evidence to go on one cannot make a decision – the evidence is there in the collections, and they are so, so valuable – all of them, big and small alike.

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Lunch in the botanical garden with (L-R) Maria Candida Mamede (curator of the herbarium), Cinthia, Jefferson, me, Leandro and Izabella.


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Leandro counting some of our identifications for the final report from my trip… we basically just counted the piles and multiplied!

 

Bright and early we set off for Paranapiacaba – about an hour towards the coast in the Serra do Mar, the coastal range that rises to almost 2,000 metres above sea level between the city of São Paulo and the ocean. The town of Paranapiacaba was built by the British who came to construct the São Paulo railway, and the reserve managed by the institute was established in 1909, making it the oldest protected area in Brazil. The famous British botanical artist Margaret Mee spent time at the reserve, mostly painting bromeliads – she stayed in the lovely little house on the top of the hill that has housed scientific visitors for decades.

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The Casa de Naturalista is idyllic – I wished we didn’t have to push on to get to our next Solanum-hunting spot…

 

One the path up the hill we saw Solanaceae galore – Izabella’s genus Aureliana was common, there were lovely little peppers, and Solanum castaneum for Leandro. Izabella, in her quiet understated way, mentioned she saw a little green fruit high in the canopy…so up we looked, and there it was – the new species – an 8m tall tree, looking not at all like Solanum evonymoides! For sure, sure, sure something new and different – and extraordinarily, it was quite common. The reserve guards told us that when it was in bloom it was incredibly sweet-smelling and perfumed the whole forest – everyone had just thought it was a common species in the same group (the one I did my PhD thesis on, section Geminata) called Solanum pseudoquina, and not bothered to collect it up there in the canopy…

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Doesn’t look like much, but I was pretty excited! The branches have an odd (for Solanum) whorled structure, so we might just call it Solanum verticillatum – the leaves are leathery and shiny – it really is a pretty plant.


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Izabella studies the Brazilian almost-endemic genus Aureliana - of the 13 species, 12 occur only in Brazil! This one is the common but incredibly confusing Aureliana fasciculata - Bella had to do oa lot of statistical analyses to work out the limits of this species for her PhD thesis - she is now doing a post-doc studying the pollination biology of these discrete forest plants.


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The town of Paranapicacaba was the hub of the São Paulo railway, taking goods from inland to the port – the Serra do Mar is so steep that a cog railway had to take things down the last slope to the sea. This is now a touristic region for Paulistas…


We would have loved to stay for ages in the reserve, or in the little town of Paranapiacaba – but on we needed to go. Firstly to get to our next destination, and secondly to miss the São Paulo traffic out of town! So we delivered Cinthia to the institute, and set on our way… We were aiming to get to the Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo state border to be able to spend the whole day photographing plants in the national park of Itatiaia, where several really interesting endemics occur.

 

We made it to the town of Queluz for the night, only a few kilometres from the turnoff to the park. Unfortunately, we missed the turnoff the next morning and ended up driving about 40 kilometres extra and having to pay a toll twice (about £10) because there was no escape from the toll road! Very annoying – but we had gone far enough so we didn’t lose much time.

 

The Serra da Mantiqueira is an ancient mountain range that rises to more than 2,000 metres above sea level, and the area around the tri-state border is protected and highly forested. We did not have a permit for collection in the park, so we went with our cameras instead – Leandro and Izabella had collected here many times before, so we were there to get good pictures of these rare plants, not really to collect specimens.

 

The area is a paradise for Solanaceae – they were all around us in all their amazing variety … Here are a few of the stars of the day:

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A new species Leandro will name to honour Alexandre Curt Brade, one of the great botanists of Brazil in the early 20th century.


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The extraordinary Solanum gnaphalocarpon with densely hairy fruits – I thought this was only found in dry areas, but as is so often the case – I was wrong!


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Solanum itatiaiae – only known from high elevations in this region, growing near a bridge at about 2,000m.


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Solanum cassioides – disjunct from populations in southeastern Brazil, this species has a foothold here at high elevation where it gets really cold…


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The view across the mountains from the road was spectacular – this is very large piece of well-protected forest, and harbours many exciting plants!


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And finally, from lower down, the almost unbelievable Solanum lacerdae – the hairs on the calyx are like little stars on stalks, bizarre but for real!

 

In the afternoon the thunder and lightning began – and the car developed an odd squeal… so down we went, well satisfied with our day of photography. We planned to stop in the touristic town of Caxambu – with hot springs and thermal baths – before heading back to Belo Horizonte. Too bad I forgot my swimming costume! And this was a staid, turn-of-the-century family resort town, not a place for skinny dipping… So we just slept…

 

Next day – Belo Horizonte again – all set for a few days intensive work in the herbarium before heading home. I need to do so much – annotate and identify specimens, describe the new species, work out some real taxonomic problems with Leandro and João… will I manage it all? I hope so – the plane home looms…

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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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We left João in Ilhéus to catch his plane back to Belo Horizonte, while we spent the afternoon in the herbarium at Centro de Pequisas do Cacao (CEPEC: Chocolate Research Centre) looking at new collections from Bahia – what a rich collection! Bahia is very diverse, and the collectors in the herbarium are very active, so we found many new localities for species we are interested in.

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Lynn readying herself for identifying specimens in the CEPEC herbarium.

 

Next morning we woke to torrential rain, and headed out to a private reserve called Serra do Teimoso, a bit further south than Ilhéus. This is a very rainy place – and it rained the whole way there, with a few breaks where the sun shone and we collected a few plants along the road. We passed through cacao plantations (this is a big cacao growing area) – they leave the tall trees and underplant with cacao. From the road it looks a bit like good forest – and it is for some animals, not for understory plants though.

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Cacao (Theobroma cacao, first described by Linnaeus) grows as a small tree in the shade of the forest canopy.

 

We reached the private reserve Serra do Teimoso in the pouring rain, but found our little house and got settled in. The accommodation was luxurious – a bedroom each with sheets and towels, electricity, and all with the accompaniment of birds and cicadas, only the noises of nature.

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Lynn and Leandro getting settled in before we set out for the field – hoping it stops raining!

 

The main reason we had come to Serra do Teimoso (other than it is a very nice piece of forest) was to find the extremely rare Solanum paralum. This was one of the species Lynn had studied for her PhD, but she had never seen it in the field and it had not yet been included in any study of evolutionary relationships in the group. So it was a real target…

 

It might seem odd to be looking for things we know about already, but it is really important to see an organism in the field to understand how it fits into the grand scheme of things. For one thing, plant form is not well preserved (well, not at all!) on flat 2D herbarium sheets, collectors often write down incorrect or misremembered information about plant height or shape, flowers often have particular scents, and you often find associations with insects or other plants. Also, specialists in a group are the keenest observers of differences or similarities, and these are more often apparent in the field.

 

To get to Solanum paralum though, we had to climb the mountain – and there was not enough time on day one of our stay in Teimoso. We spent the afternoon looking in vain for other Solanaceae near the base of the mountain in a torrential rainstorm – it rained buckets! Rarely have any of us been so very wet….

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The Serra do Teimoso in the rain – we certainly hoped it would let up for the next day's collecting!

 

It kept raining most of the night – because it was so wet we had visitors. This little frog was nicknamed Ha-Ha by Lynn – a play on the word for frog in Portuguese ‘rã’, pronounced with a guttural r. There were many beautiful moths by the veranda light, its times like these I wish we were with a large team with other specialities (see Alessandro's Lepidoptera blog). But travelling with other solanologos (Solanaceae lovers!) is great – everybody is happy about the same things and no one is disgruntled having to wait for someone else to find his or her organisms.

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I am not sure of the identification of this lovely frog; it was about 4cm long and landed with a plop whenever it jumped!

 

It dawned perfectly clear and sunny – amazing – we took this to be a good sign. So off we set in search of Solanum paralum. Our guide, Francisco, was a bit uncertain as to whether or not there was a trail to the top, no one had been here for about 3 years – his observation was “it is very far and difficult, and there is probably not a trail anymore”.

 

But we were insistent and so off we set. Indeed there was no trail, well at the bottom there was a faint track through the forest, but once we began to climb – nothing at all. We followed a ridge, basically straight up, but with many detours getting a bit lost and having to go round huge treefalls.

 

Francisco was amazing – he made us stop every now and then so he could investigate, but he knew just where we were going – more or less. The treefalls were the worst – the trees here are very large, we saw some as big as almost a metre in diameter, so when they fall they leave a big tangle to get around.

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To get across these areas you have to cut a path through thick secondary growth that springs up where light reaches the forest floor once a big tree falls.

 

The forest going up the ridge was drier than we had expected, and was full of prickly vines and members of the mulberry family (Moraceae). We did find our friend Solanum bahianum, and an absolutely beautiful passion flower – growing straight out of a corky stem about 2cm in diameter.

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This Passiflora is a huge canopy vine; the flowers are asymmetric, so its identification will probably (?) be pretty straightforward once we are back in the land of botanical literature!

 

After several hours of climbing straight up we came to a place where the vegetation changed completely – no more mulberries and the understory was full of large monocots like Heliconia and Panama hat palms (not really palms, but Asplundia species in the family Cyclanthaceae). And there it was – a small sterile plant of Solanum paralum! It is easy to recognise by its fleshy, slightly blue-green pinnate leaves.

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Our first find of Solanum paralum with Francisco as scale – the plant was actually sprouting from a fallen stem.

 

Everyone, especially Lynn, was pretty excited even though there were no flowers and fruits. So we scouted around to see if there were more plants – this species is known from only a very few collections so we were expecting it to be rare. Alternatively, it might be known from so few collections because it is incredibly hard to find!

 

Francisco found another sterile stem, but when we looked down the hill we saw it was again from a fallen tree and that farther up the stem there were branches with flowers and fruit! The tree itself was about 6m tall and about 4cm in diameter – Solanaceae often have very soft wood but this species seems to topple over an awful lot, maybe it is something to do with the very wet habitat as well.

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We made a number of duplicate specimens for other collections – with something this rare it is important that it is represented in many herbaria. Since it was a tree we only took a few branches, and we left some of the ripe fruit for the forest…

 

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The flowers of Solanum paralum smelled like a strong perfume – not like anything else, but very strong smelling. This comes from the enlarged back of the anther (the dark purple bit) that produces scent that is collected by male bees for use as an attractant; a very specialised pollination system. The petals were also covered with fine glandular hairs, and the parasol-shaped stigma (for which Lynn named this plant) was really obvious.

 

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The fruit we found were absolutely ripe and full of pale orange pulp. Solanum paralum is related to the tamarillo, but the fruit did not taste as good. Not bad though, according to Lynn!

 

In the same area we also found a Brunfelsia growing in the understory in deep shade. We can’t figure out what species it might be, so will have to wait until we get back to the herbarium and library to do some careful comparison.

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Brunfelsia species often grow in a very dispersed way, one here one there. This was the only plant we found in bloom, but we saw other sterile ones. The flower tube was almost 4cm long

 

So what a plant was Solanum paralum!! Impossibly hard to get to and such a find – the trek was totally worth it.

 

If anything, the way back down was harder than the way up, we were all a bit amazed at the steepness of it. It didn’t feel that steep climbing up! Near the bottom, where there was actually a trail again, Leandro decided to climb to the canopy platform (Lynn and I bottled it – neither of us are fond of heights).

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The platform is about 30 metres up in a tall leguminous tree, the straight up ladder looked a bit scary to me!

 

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Leandro came back with amazing photos – he says this rainbow’s other end was at the Solanum paralum collecting site, something I quite believe (picture courtesy of Leandro Giacomin).

 

Looking back up the mountain at the end of the day it didn’t seem like we went that far. But it was a hard couple of days. The end result makes it all worthwhile though and that is one of the joys of collecting, seeing plants in their native habitat increases our understanding, but also appreciation for the richness of plant life. And that is why we all got into this business in the first place; it is trips like this that remind me how lucky I am to be doing what I do!

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After several months of work in the herbarium with specimens, giving talks at international symposia (the latest in Beijing) - I'm ready to head into the field again. This time it's Brazil - I have been invited to give a plenary lecture at the amazing Brazilian National Botanical Congress in mid-November - but first, it's the forests of Bahia with Leandro Giacomin and Lynn Bohs, both long-term Solanum collaborators.

 

Last time Lynn and I went into the field together was in 2001 to Bolivia - it's been a long time! We are aiming for the incredibly biodiverse coastal forests of the state of Bahia - a hotspot for Solanum diversity. I have described several new species (like Solanum bahianum and Solanum santosii) from there that I have only ever seen as herbarium specimens - so I am pretty excited!!

 

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The type specimen of Solanum evonymoides Sendtner  - another Brazilian endemic species I hope to see in the field for the first time!

 

I have never been in these forests before - so everything I see will be new to me. This is truly the joy of field work, in addition of course to seeing old and new friends and colleagues and being able to talk Solanum for weeks on end! I'll be trying to blog every day, but some of the places we plan to go are pretty remote - so hasta la vista! See you from Brazil!!

BrazilMap.jpgWe will start in Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais) and head to the circled area....  a long way!!

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After a great day in the Cajamarca herbarium, we set off to the south through the fascinating system of valleys of the western Andes. This region is dissected by many small river valleys, some draining to the Pacific, some to the Atlantic, and all with very different microclimates. This means the diversity one encounters is truly amazing; in an hour you can go from cactus scrub to fertile, moist agricultural land.

 

This is a highly settled region, so natural habitat is hard to find. Fortunately Solanum species are often plants of open spaces, so they hang on in the face of widespread habitat change as roadside weeds.

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The valleys are a mosaic of fields of barley, oats, potatoes, maize and alfalfa – interspersed with Eucalyptus trees, used for firewood. Very little original vegetation exists near the roads


We found several exciting Solanum species – including two I had described, but rarely seen in the field before! Solanum dillonii I described a few years ago grows in dry valleys – I had collected it in the 1980s in Ecuador, but never in Peru!

 

Solanum clivorum was described in the 1990s – I agonised long and hard over it, was it new, was it not, was it just a strange Solanum oblongifolium? In the end I described it as new and hadn’t seen many specimens until I hit the Trujillo herbarium a few days ago. Wow – is it different! Seeing it now in the field made me really glad I described it as new; it is quite peculiar.

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The anthers of Solanum clivorum are held splayed out in a way I haven’t seen in any other of the members of this group – they are tiny as well

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Another exciting find – a possible new species from rocky hillsides amongst cacti and verbenas – this was a straggly plant with fruits completely enclosed in the calyx and sticky leaves – I can’t think what it might be!


We had started really early, and finally begged for lunch at about 3 pm – sometimes you just get a bit carried away and forget the time, and then crackers and Nutella is just not quite enough. We stopped in the town of Cajabamba for a proper meal, and enjoyed the rest.

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Paul and Maria enjoy a sunny break and a coffee on the side of the main drag in Cajabamba


As we drove through Cajabamba we found our friend from southern Peru Solanum 'pseudoamericanum' (see my blog post from last year’s collecting trip) growing out of a wall in town – it still looks just the same, grows at the same elevations and still looks new to science. It is surprising how many new species there are that are actually quite common, merely overlooked.

 

Across the street from the Solanum we saw a family drying their beautiful multicoloured maize harvest. The maize in Peru has very large grains and is usually white, but these ears were of many colours. Dried maize kernels are traditionally served with ceviche – the Peruvian dish of raw fish cooked in lime juice, and mote, or cooked maize kernels, are a delicious side dish for many meals.

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Ears of maize are called choclo, and the grains mote – this was one of many mats of drying kernels this family had out by the side of the road drying; next to them are beans


What a day – we have been through loads of habitats, seen many wonderful solanums and found some exciting things. More valleys tomorrow, on the road to Ancash – I am anxious to find more of our little purple-flowered mystery, or is it endemic to the valley of the Río Condebamba? Or maybe it is a species already described, but just one I don’t know yet?

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End of a great day – the beginnings of sunset over the western Andes

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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.

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Today we spent the day databasing specimens in the local Trujillo herbarium; all herbaria have 1-4 letter acronyms, standard codes so we all know what collection we are talking about – the one for the herbarium in Trujillo is HUT. It is a small collection and has been built up over the last few decades by a series of local botanists – the one I knew the best was Abundio Sagástegui, who sadly died a few years ago.

 

The collection is rich in material from this area of Peru – and has a lot of gems. For example – I described Solanum clivorum in 1992 and have only seen a few specimens. Here at HUT we saw eight new ones, thus expanding our knowledge about this species’ distribution hugely! 

 

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Space is at a premium at HUT – Tiina and my computer tried to share the desk – Tiina eventually won!

 

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Maria used the other computer to database specimens, balancing it all on a stool…..

 

Trujillo is a beautiful city, with old colonial architecture and wonderfully painted buildings. We managed to become part of a parade to celebrate the local team having won the national women’s volleyball championship – brass bands and all.

 

The Plaza de Armas is the heart of any Peruvian city – the one in Trujillo features brightly and freshly painted buildings, now mostly government offices (it is the capital of La Libertad Department) and a fantastic mustard coloured cathedral.

 

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The taxi count in Trujillo’s city centre is phenomenal – we counted about 10 taxis to every private car, and no buses – perhaps the streets are too narrow

 

Trujillo was named after the birthplace in Spain of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who led the expedition that defeated the Inca rulers of Peru. It has a long and distinguished history since that founding in 1536, and has been the site of many important events in Peruvian history; it was the first Peruvian city to declare independence from Spain.

 

But Trujillo's history began long before Europeans came onto the scene – it was at the centre of both the Moche and Chimu cultures, pre-Inca coastal peoples who constructed monumental pyramids of adobe (clay bricks) and mud. One thing I love about Peru is that wherever you are, the history stretches far back into extraordinary events and cultures, but those cultures are also alive and evident today.

 

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Many of the houses on the Plaza retain the original (or restored) Spanish colonial balconies made of wood from which women would watch festivities safely hidden from view

 

So after a day’s hard work in HUT, we re-identified about half of the Solanum collection, added new and exciting locality records to our field trip planning and made new friends.

 

Although many of the collections we entered into the database were already represented by duplicates from elsewhere (because plants are big, botanists usually collect several examples and share them with other collections), I still think it is important to have the specimens from small local herbaria like HUT in a main project database – it gives visibility to institutions that otherwise sometimes go un-noticed and lets other botanists know that there is treasure to be found in these small collections!

 

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Sandy, William and Paul outside the door to one of the rooms housing the HUT herbarium

 

Tomorrow collecting begins in earnest – our route has been planned using the information we have derived from the collections we saw today, plus those already in the database, and from the knowledge of where people haven’t been!

 

If all goes well we will go from the deserts of the coast to montane cloud forest near the town of Cajamarca, where we will find another small, but rich herbarium to work in the next day. What will be our most exciting find? It’s bound to be something we don’t expect……

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Heading north…

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 6, 2013

After a last push in the herbarium and a bit of shopping for containers for Erica to rear flies in (obtained by Maria in the Mercado Central in Lima, where you can quite literally buy anything!), we were ready to go…

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Maria Baden and Tiina Sarkinen with the fruits of an amazing shopping expedition to the Lima Central Market – the plastic containers will be used to rear fly larvae we find in fruits of Solanaceae

 

Leaving Lima at 6am (to beat the traffic) we drove through grey, gloomy fog – typical weather on the coast at this time of the year. The fogs come in off the cold Humboldt current – making it cold and damp, but never truly wet; the unique vegetation of the coast lives entirely off the moisture from these seasonal fogs. Several endemic species of Solanum live in the lomas – or fog forests – but we are a bit too early to catch them. The foggy season has only just started and plants are only just beginning to grow.

 

The coast of Peru always fascinates me – it is such a dry desert, yet people live wherever water presents itself. At intervals between desert sections, the Panamerican Highway on which we drove north crosses small rivers coming from the Andes to the east, and there agriculture flourishes.

 

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Sugar cane is a common sight in the river valleys; increasingly it is being grown under irrigation farther into the desert – surely an unsustainable practice. This is, after all, one of the driest deserts in the world!

 

Once we got further north, the skies cleared, the fog burned off and the sun came out – and on we went! When the Pacific came in view we all got out to have a look, even though the area was completely devoid of plants. The water is clear, blue and cold – we saw fishermen in tiny rowboats fishing what looked dangerously close to rocks just off the coast. This part of the coast is famous for its anchovy fishery – the fish are used for fishmeal, but also end up on pizzas worldwide.

 

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Our rental pickup parked near the coast – it really is a desert!

 

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Maria shooting video footage of the fishermen – the sea was an unreal colour of blue

 

One peculiar vegetation formation that occurs on the desert hills is the 'tillandsial' – patches of small bromeliads, plants related to Spanish moss or airplants, that are the only living things growing. Like all the other native plants of this coast, they get their water entirely from the fogs that come in off the sea. Their leaves are covered with scales that help trap the water from the air. In a way, they are like epiphytes, but on the ground!

 

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Tillandsial near the town of Casma – this species is probably Tillandsia purpurea

 

We didn’t stop for lunch until quite late – between towns in river valleys there is nothing at all. When we did stop we had our usual coffee rating - coffee can be wonderful (10) here, or dire (0)– this rated about a 2, pretty awful, but the Inca Kola sugar canister made up for it. Inca Kola is the local soda pop – fluorescent yellow and sticky, it is said to be flavoured with lemon grass; I don’t believe it!

 

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Tiina with the Inca Kola canister (we had to stop her asking to buy it, it is her favourite sort of enamel kitchenware!)

 

We made it to Trujillo and a wonderful colonial hotel; tomorrow we hit the herbarium on the search for more localities for Peruvian endemic Solanaceae. So – I’m sure we will find them, but the big question is – what will the coffee tomorrow morning be like?

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One of the things scientists do today that never happened in the past is to request official permission to conduct scientific research in another country. It might seem a bit bureaucratic and overly pernickety, but the issue of permits for collecting is an important way in which tropical countries rich in biodiversity manage their natural resources – probably the most important of which is biodiversity itself.

 

In Peru, all permissions for collection are managed through the Ministry of Agriculture, and there are clearly laid out rules for how to apply. I already have a permit for collecting Solanaceae – but this year I needed to sort out a permit for new work to be done under the Museum’s science initiatives.

 

The Museum's Natural Resources Initiative has three strands:

 

  • Critical Elements managed by Richard Herrington of Earth Sciences
  • Neglected and Emerging Diseases managed by Tim Littlewood of Life Sciences
  • Crop and Pest Wild Relatives (CPWR), managed by me – we jokingly call it the rocks, pox and crops initiative!

 

Crop and Pest Wild Relatives


Our main idea in the CPWR strand is to use the data from our and other collections to look at the distributions of crop wild relatives and the wild relatives of major crop pests, then use these data to model both plant and insect responses to the changing environment, taking into account the evolutionary relationships of each of the groups, a sort of orthogonal axis.

 

We have chosen to begin with the rich Solanaceae dataset I and collaborators have amassed over many years of databasing specimens in herbaria all over the world and manage through Solanaceae Source – it means the plant layer is done already! We will then begin to digitise (image, database and geolocate) all the Museum’s specimens of three major pest groups – beetles (relatives of the Colorado Potato Beetle, one of the worst pests of potato), leafhoppers or jumping plant lice (devastating pests of all kinds of crops), and fruit flies (big pests of tomato and aubergine). We also will do a new kind of collecting, where entomologists and botanists go in the field together – we will collect all the insects associated with particular Solanaceae species (well, really from any we see), thus compiling data on who lives where and on whom.

 

Hence the need to collect insects on Solanaceae in Peru – the centre of diversity for both wild potatoes and tomatoes. And the necessity of obtaining a legal permit to export the specimens so they can be compared with our collections and identified; I completed all the paperwork last night, and submitted it all at the Ministry today.

 

The importance of doing this now is that we are taking advantage of my current collecting trip to Peru for Tiina and my joint project on endemics, and two Museum entomologists are joining us in the middle of May – Erica McAlister (curator of flies and well known from her flygirl blog!) and Diana Percy (researcher on leafhoppers) will test out our collecting protocols and get the first field data for the initiative. It is exciting, as it feels like things are really starting!

 

Changes in Peru

 

Lima is a funny place – it is big, chaotic and has a very energetic, almost frenetic feel. It is in the dry coastal zone of Peru, so rain never (or very rarely) falls – the only moisture is fog from the sea. Getting to the Ministry involves wild taxi rides through crowded streets – dodging accidents and traffic jams. I lived in Peru in the 1980s, at a difficult time for the country; it was in the grip of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorist threat then.

 

Today Lima is a more open, vibrant place – and things are really happening. Even the huge multistory tower that is part of the Social Security complex next to the Peruvian National Natural History Museum looks like it is due for changes – the sign says 'Soon this tower will be at your service. After 30 years'. This building has stood empty since the early 1980s, towering over the museum gardens. So, let’s see if things really do change!

 

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The Seguro Social tower - ready for a long-delayed makeover!

 

We head to the north on Sunday – passing through the herbaria of Trujillo and Cajamarca to enter data from specimens of endemic species into Solanaceae Source. Then the fieldwork blog will really be about field work at last!

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Tiina Sarkinen, who until late March was working with me on South American Solanum, has now set out on her own with a new job at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. We will continue to work together - the world of nightshade research is ever-expanding!

 

She left for our second big Peru trip at the beginning of April, and has just posted her first blog post through Edinburgh's website. The work is funded by National Geographic, so blogs will appear there too. Watch NaturePlus to see the work expand!

 

I go out to join Tiina on the 1st of May, after a brief stop-over to give a couple of lectures about Alfred Russel Wallace in the Amazon in the USA - our objective is the Cordillera of Huascaran and more exciting solanums!

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After a day of working the in herbarium in IADIZA ( Instituto Argentino de Investigaciones de las Zonas Aridas), where Iris works, we set off again to look for wild tobaccos, cacti and purslanes in the valleys leading to the high mountains in the more southern part of the province of Mendoza.

 

We made an early start, as we had far to go and little time! Iris and I were accompanied by Pablo Molina, her student who will be studying the phylogeny of cacti and purslanes, and Gualberto Salazar, who was driving, but was a dab hand at botany as well. Driving south from Mendoza to join my old friend Ruta 40 again we saw to the west the Cordillera, here called the “Chain of Silver” for the high snowy peaks that are always snow-covered.

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Cordon de Plata in the morning light – the highest peak to the left is Tupungato, almost as tall as Aconcagua, but difficult to access and climb, thus less well-known

 

Accessing the mountains involves driving out to flatter land in the east, then west again into deep valleys where rivers have carved out the mountains and roads can enter. We were heading for the Laguna Sosneado – we thought it might be an old name for the lake now called Laguna Blanca near the town of Sosneado, but no, we were wrong!

 

We stopped in the town to ask and were told exactly how to get there….  forty kilometres in on a dirt road up the Río Atuel, which was bad and then got worse. The valley was broad and rocky and the river must have been pretty impressive in full flood – as it was it was running quite red from rain in the upper reaches. The road was perfectly all right – not bad at all!

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The flat valley bottom of the Río Atuel is composed of sandy gravel – the plants trap the sand as it blows in the wind and small hillocks called “monticolos” are formed

 

We decided to drive straight to the lake, rather than stopping on the way up, as our locality data from the herbarium had cited the lake as a collecting site for several species we were looking for, among them a strange Jaborosa that Gloria and Franco from Córdoba were seeking.

 

The lake was a jewel in the dry vegetation all round – it was fed by small springs and was surrounded by grass. A gaucho 'puesto' or summer station was located at the lake – sheep, goats and horses are brought up the valley to graze in the summer, and then taken down again once the snow begins to fall in the autumn.  What a place to spend the summer!

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Laguna Sosneado – surrounded by rich grass that grows in what are called in Argentina 'vegas' – patches of lush vegetation near the water from springs in the middle of otherwise very dry scrub. The lake was beneath some tall basalt cliffs, evidence of the volcanic past of the region

 

Above us in the mountains we heard thunder and the sky turned black; rain fell, but not much – the show was spectacular though! We looked and looked around the lake and in the hills surrounding it for the Jaborosa and for the tobaccos also cited for the area, but to no avail. As it was really beginning to rain and it was getting late (again – it seems to be the story of this field trip!) we decided to go back down the valley…

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The storm came from the west over the Andes – storms in central Argentina can be very violent and hail often falls, damaging the famous vineyards further to the east. Nearer Mendoza they seed the clouds to prevent hail during these storms.

 

We did, however, see some pretty amazing cacti – this individual plant of the cactus Maihuenopsis was about 2 metres in diameter – from the car the mounds these cacti formed looked like sheep! This particular species was very common at one particular section of the valley – starting at about 1800 metres elevation and higher.

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Pablo was excited to find such large individuals – they were in fruit as well, so he could collect seeds to study their anatomy and structure

 

As we drove down the valley we looked for plants as we descended – as we had driven straight up to the lake, we were looking harder on the way down! Iris spotted what she thought was a wild tobacco – so we stopped. And my goodness, we found just the species we were looking for – Nicotiana linearis and Nicotiana spegazzinii. As part of long-term studies I have been doing with colleagues from Kew and Queen Mary, Laura Kelly has discovered that these two species are possibly of hybrid origin and is interested in studying them further. Once we stopped and began to walk around the ground was covered with Nicotiana linearis – it is a tiny little plant only a few centimetres tall, so not easy to see from the truck driving along.

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The flowers of Nicotiana linearis are held in tight clusters, each flower is less than a centimetre long and is a dirty white colour. The whole plant is covered with sticky hairs – in this place, all covered with sand!

 

Nicotiana spegazzinii was much less common that Nicotiana linearis – we only found a few plants, but what was really exciting was that we found intermediates – the two are not as distinct as it appears from the descriptions in the published literature! This will be a perfect place to return to study these plants in more detail – in the daytime! As usual, the best discoveries are made at the end of the day, when the light is dimming and night is falling….

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Nicotiana spegazzinii has  larger flowers (still only about a centimetre long) that are widely spaced along the stems and although it is sticky, does not have such long hairs as does Nicotiana linearis

 

It really started to rain as we finished up collecting the wild tobaccos – and we headed further south to Las Leñas, where we had reserved a room in a ski resort for the night. The central Andes in Argentina are a big skiing destination – the snow is deep and the scenery spectacular – but these resorts are not much used in the summer, so rooms are cheap! As usual, we arrived at about 10 pm – not late for eating by Argentine standards….  We still had a lot of plant organising to do though, and the next day to plan, back into the Andes up the valley.

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