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Seeking nightshades in South America

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Sierra de Santa Barbara

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 16, 2012

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Cordoba, Argentina....

Posted by Tiina Feb 8, 2012

Sandy:

 

I am here at last; flying over the Andes this morning from Santiago in Chile was amazing - beautifully clear and I could see all the glaciers and snow-capped peaks. Not much snow now because it is summer here....

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Cordoba is a beautiful town, a brilliant mixture of old colonial and new. The University where the herbarium is located is near the centre of town, we went over there this afternoon to have a look around. They are experiencing a heat wave in Cordoba - it is approximately 30 degrees and VERY humid! I am catching up on all the adventures Tiina and Gloria have been having last week - I'll had over to her now for the update!

 

Tiina:

 

It was great to get Sandy here with us to sort out some issues with Solanum! Like Sandy says, it's extremely hot and humid, which is why we've also had some big storms this week. A few days ago it was raining ice balls - yes I mean ICE BALLS!

 

I took pictures as proof of how bad it was: we had to mop water from the floor as the roof and windows were leaking in the herbarium! It was a real mixture of ice the size of table tennis balls, and massive rain.

 

It just goes to show that it's not easy to keep up a museum in tropical countries... While we were busy mopping water from the floor, the storm knocked down a large tree just outside. The sound was tremendous! Gloria and I went out to see the damage afterwards.

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The challenge of the coming days is to fit everything in. We have meetings to talk about our recent results, our work with molecular phylogenetics and taxonomy at NHM, and cytogenetic and taxonomic work here in Cordoba. It's a great chance to throw some ideas around, discuss what we have and plan future work.

 

We also have to plan the route for our longer trip in the north. We are heading to the big Andes on Friday, to the departments of Jujuy, Catamarca, Tucuman and Salta. There are many species we want to cover, and we can gather localities where to find them from the herbarium and our existing online Solanum database.

 

During the weekend we did a short 3 day trip around the departments of Cordoba and San Luis and managed to find species which were previously only known from types. The three species we found in the field can now be studied in detail together with the original descriptions to fully understand the species.

 

Now off to bed, we are gathering strength for what's ahead! Thus far 253 specimens fully databased, c. 400 identified, and more to go!