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Seeking nightshades in South America

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

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

 

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

 

DNA permits - a different beast

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Off into the field

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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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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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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'Flygirl' Erica McAlister and 'Psyllid lady' Diana Percy arrived in Lima without a hitch, and I handed the initiative field work baton on to them; they will carry on the blogging through Erica’s blog stream, so I’ll watch there for adventures and progress – they go by bus to meet Tiina in Huaraz in the Callejón de Huaylas, where mountains await them, while apparently snow in May lies in wait for me!


We had a productive day at the Centro Internacional de la Papa (International Potato Center, one of the 17 CGIAR centres worldwide and the one responsible for potatoes and other Andean tuber crops, as the name suggests). Here I gave a talk – foolishly I had the audience vote whether to have it in English or Spanish; they chose Spanish and I probably made all kinds of mistakes! But never mind – it was fun.

 

Erica will be blogging about their day – new contacts for the insect component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relatives Initiative and we are now completely rethinking our approach to the collecting. I had long and very good discussions about permitting and the new Peruvian laws with respect to collecting and using genetic resources. Perfect – just what I had hoped for this trip.

 

Now that I am on the plane on the first leg of my many-hour return to the Museum, I thought I might just share a few of the things that I love about field work and its ups and downs.

 

The people

The people you meet on the road in different countries are wonderful – so often generous, kind and friendly – they are really part of what makes travelling so rewarding. We scientists often write about our work in the field as an unending series of scientific thoughts, actions and discoveries – all of this is true of course, field work does let you think about your scientific work in different ways – but it is all underpinned by interactions with local people, whether local scientific counterparts or countryfolk.

 

Take the gentleman from a small village high above Caraz discussing the differences between plants with Emilio, or the man who proudly showed me his recent potato harvest, or this woman who discussed her garden in detail with Paul and gave us some lovely fruits – if one takes a little time, the human interactions can be great.

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People in small rural villages also tend to know a heck of a lot about plants and the environment as well! And they are usually very happy to talk about them with someone who is interested.

 

The food

Food – you can’t do without it (as I found this trip after several days of battling parasites before finding a pharmacy!). You can take all your own food, as do astronauts or high mountain trekkers, but that spoils half the fun. Partaking of local fare is much more fun, and besides, it helps support the local economy. Wondering what the 'Menú' (or standard fare) might be is half the fun of stopping in a small village for a meal. Will it be stewed chicken? Ullucu with tripe? Beans and rice? Nothing at all? Sometimes there is even the luxury of choice.

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These women in Cabanas were making a sort of fry bread and 'papas rellenas' – deep fried mashed potato with an egg inside

 

I have eaten all sorts of things in the field, some I liked and some I didn’t – but they were all fun to try out. In the Andes I like to try to eat the traditional crops like quinoa, and the Andean tuber crops ullucu (Basellus ullucus, a spinach relative whose tubers are slightly slimy, but delicious), oca (Oxalis tuberosa, whose tubers are multi-coloured and slightly acid) or mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum, a relative of our garden nasturtium).

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Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is probably (after potatoes of course!) my favourite Andean tuber – these tubers are about 5 cm long and the diameter of your thumb or a bit bigger

 

But villages are not always close at hand, and you don’t always drive through them at the right time of day. So snacks and road food are always necessary.

 

This trip Tiina and I had a slightly silly shopping expedition in which we bought snacks for their amusing (to us) names – resulting in a mish-mash that no one else was particularly keen on. But we ate them – when you are hungry, it doesn’t matter if you are eating something called a Bimbolete really.

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Water too is essential – although there are streams, it is best to either purify it or drink bottled water – the risk of parasites from the large numbers of animals like sheep and llamas in the areas we were travelling through is just too great.

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But there is always Inca Kola to fall back on if you are desperate – said to be flavoured with lemon grass; it is the sticky sweetest stuff I have ever tasted!

 

The facilities

Since we usually travel through populated areas we tend to stay in small hotels rather than camp – it makes drying the plants easier and you can work a bit longer during the day. Hotels vary from pretty basic – a bed and blanket and that’s it (like in Mollepata), to more comfortable with hot water and electricity and sometimes even good coffee!

 

A common denominator in Peruvian hotels though is the lack of electricity sockets. This means charging up all the devices we carry with us these days can be a challenge. Whose batteries are likely to run out first, the GPS or the camera? How do we both work on the computer at the same time and charge all the kit? It can be a real challenge.

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Maria and Tiina’s hotel room in Cabanas had a single wall socket – they used it to the max!

 

Toilet facilities can also be a challenge – I won’t go into it, but sometimes a tussock of grass has to be enough. And in Peru, travel without your own toilet paper in your pocket at your peril!

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Small disasters

Flat tyres, small bumps – car hiccups are common. Less common are more dramatic things, like the plant presses catching on fire. We use a dryer in the field that consists of a set of metal shelves with a gas burner underneath. On top we put the plant press, with the plants pressed in newspaper alternating with blotters and either cardboard or aluminium corrugates through which the heat passes, drying the specimens. The whole thing is wrapped in a sort of blanket contraption that keeps the heat from escaping out the sides and channels it up through the press.

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Paul with the plant dryer on a good day on last year’s trip in southern Peru

 

This system works really well, and specimens dried in the field are much nicer than those preserved and dried later – they keep their colour better and are just prettier. A day’s worth of collecting usually fills (usually a bit more than, so we are always a bit behind) the press and dries overnight.

 

In Caraz though, the top shelf collapsed – letting the press fall down onto the flame from the burner. Not good. Fortunately I woke up really early and went to check the dryer and found it smoking gently, not yet truly on fire. Phew! We managed to get all the plants out and stamp out the smouldering cardboard corrugates – only a little half-moon shaped area was really charred, and we only had a couple of quite charred specimens. All in all a lucky escape!

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The aftermath of our almost-fire – not too bad considering!

 

Getting plants for making specimens can also lead to hiccups – sometimes it is easier to climb up a steep bank than to get back down again!

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Emilio got up to this specimen of Solanum huaylasense, but once up there realised it was quite a way back down!

 

The roads

I’ve written about roads a lot on these Andean field work blog posts – they are one of the striking things about working in such a mountainous region. How they built some of these roads I cannot imagine, but they did, and they all have traffic. Meeting a large Volvo lorry head-on on a hairpin turn is a heart-stopper; someone has to back up to let the other pass. The general rule is that the person going up has right of way (it is more dangerous to back down the hill than up), but sometimes size matters.

 

Couple this with dirt, mud and ruts and it is pretty exciting. Our general rule is that the driver is not supposed to look out for plants – that is the passengers’ duty.

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If you look closely you can just see the amazing switchbacks snaking up the seemingly vertical bank opposite

 

The lorries are amazing too – they range from monsters belching black smoke to works of art. An endless parade of semi-hidden design talent exists on Peruvian roads.

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In all but the smallest, most remote villages there are swarms of mototaxis – like rickshaws, but motorised. They are used to carry everything from passengers to chickens and pigs. This one seemed to be carrying a full load of grass and alfalfa harvested to feed the owners livestock, but we didn’t stop him to ask. They too are often spectacularly decorated – I even saw one with angel wings on the top!

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Last but definitely not least, the plants

This is what I come in the field for – I’ve never been good at travelling for holidays, I feel I am missing something. There is nothing quite like the rush of seeing something you haven’t seen before, even if it is a species already described. I’ve written about why field study is so important before, but I’ll say it again – seeing plants (and insects) in their native habitats give a whole new dimension to the work we taxonomists do at the Museum, and allows us to go beyond just what they are to what we think they are doing.

 

I for one really appreciate the support the Museum gives to its staff to go in the field and collect – not only do we improve our collections with new material collected using modern methods, but I think we improve our interpretation of those and other collections as well. It might seem a luxury to allow staff to travel all over the world acquiring new specimens for an already large collection, but it is not a luxury, it is essential. The collecting we do is part of a global monitoring system for biodiversity; these specimens will provide future generations with the data and baseline for today. They allow us to see how organisms grow and co-exist in wild nature and provide a valuable record of where things occur.

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Solanum huaylasense flowers being buzz-pollinated by a small green bee – the brown matches on the anther cone are from where she has bitten to hang on

 

I always come back from the field buzzing with new ideas – for projects, about the plants themselves, about ways to look at data we have collected. Field work might not suit everyone, but for people like me, it pushes the science in exciting new directions.

 

Besides – it’s great fun!

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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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On the road again!!

Posted by Sandy Knapp Jan 12, 2013

After almost a year in the herbarium and lab, I am ready for the wide-open spaces of field work again! This year I go (without Tiina, who is getting organised for another Peruvian adventure and for her new job in Edinburgh) to Argentina again to collect nightshades with my colleagues from Cordoba - Gloria Barboza and Franco Chiarini. This year we go south to Argentine Patagonia - in search of the rare and endemic nightshade genera Combera and Pantacantha, both of which only occur in the region. We have received funding both from the Museum and from the Argentine National Science Foundation's Pedersen Fund for collecting, so its a real joint effort.  I'll also visit another colleague in Mendoza - Iris Peralta, who worked at the Museum in 2001 on the tomato monograph with me. It will be great to see everyone again, and to find some new and exciting plants!

 

Franco has mapped out some collecting localities - and sent me the route all mapped out in Google Earth - its an epic journey - each day is ina different colour - a real road trip in the making! We will go down the coast and back to Cordoba through the Andes.......

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The tiny white typing is the localities for collecting particular plants - I have never seem many of these Patagonian endemics in the flesh before, so going to places where others have seen them is a good start. I'm sure we will find new populations and see new things though - we always do. I am in the Museum this weekend getting all the bags and envelopes together for collecting - Patagonia is a long way from anywhere and we don't want to run out of supplies for sampling.

 

When I looked at the distribution of Solanum collections in the Solanaceae Source database we have been building up over the last few years Patagonia is a real hole - so any Solanum we collect will be a great addition; they are not as common in southern Argentina as in Peru or northern Argentina, but they must be there....  I am sure of it!!

 

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See the hole just above this place? All that database entry is really starting to pay off now - we can see where we need to either collect more, or add georeference points to our database......

 

The Patagonian endemics are small scrubby plants - I am especially looking forward to seeing the bizarre Petunia patagonica in the wild - I am sure it is not a Petunia, but am not quite sure what genus it belongs to really - seeing it in the wild and collecting some leaves for molecular analysis will help us to place it in the nightshade family tree, so watch this space!

 

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Here is Petunia patagonica growing in the Apline House at Kew - its a sticky little shrublet about the size of a basketball - the flowers are about 1 cm long and very oddly patterned - can't wait to see it in its native habitat!!

 

I leave for Cordoba on Wednesday - so its all a bit of a rush to get ready to go, but the permits to collect are all sorted, even for the national parks. This is the most important aspect of getting ready for a field trip - and sometimes the most difficult. I'm lucky to have such great colleagues in Argentina who help with all the necessities of this part of the work.

 

Next post - from Argentina!!

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Making order out of chaos

Posted by Tiina Apr 10, 2012

29th March – Good bye to Freddy our car

Today we had to say goodbye to Freddy, our lovely and most faithful car. We are finally back in Lima!

 

The day passed sorting things out, and clearing and cleaning Freddy. Presses went back to the Museum’s store room, specimens into our preparation area, and so on. Most importantly, Paul re-united with his family – his 2 year old daughter Fabiana was full of smiles! In the evening we all went for a nice cake and ice cream to celebrate our safe homecoming.

 

 

30th March – Digitalising field notes

I have been typing our field notes bit by bit into our database. I started the job whilst we were in Arequipa. Yesterday I used the long drive to type some more in the car. Today I have spent all day doing this, and now as the typing has finished I am focusing on preparing herbarium labels. Our database software has a great interface for designing your labels – but you need to do some technical stuff to get the labels look perfect. It is pretty much like programming language, that is how it feels. Quite nice, very nice balance after all the field work.

 

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Once the label design is correct, the labels need to be proof read. It is good to make sure they look perfect – they will remain with the specimens for years to come!! Sandy sent us acid free paper from UK, so that we can print the labels properly. For long term storage, it is important to use acid free paper. These specimens are going to be five star top quality!

 

 

2nd April – Applying for an export permit

Our labels are ready now! We printed them out, and then cut them neatly.

 

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I sorted the labels into numeric order and then off we went to the herbarium to put them with the specimens! It felt great, we were very excited seeing the specimens all ready to be mounted and processed into the museum.

 

We had a small party to celebrate us finishing. Lemon pie and passion fruit limonade, yum yum! Here is the crew of the San Marcos herbarium, you can see the beautiful garden just outside:

 

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Celebrations were also due as we handed in our export permit application this morning. We had prepared all the documents, and the museum’s secretary at the San Marcos herbarium had helped us to prepare another document necessary for the application. All that hard work paid off, and now we are just waiting to hear back from the Environmental Ministry.

 

 

3rd-4th April – Back in the herbarium with plants

Time to catch up with herbarium work. With all our experience now from our field trip, it is great to be back in the herbarium identifying specimens, and studying the material with more time in our hands.

 

Lima has two other herbaria in the Universidad Nacional Agraria Lamolina (MOL). We visited one of these herbaria today, the Weberbauer herbarium. The collection is rich in types, as many taxonomists used Weberbauer’s high quality specimens to describe new species. Unfortunately, the top duplicates used for describing these species were deposited in Berlin. These duplicates were destroyed during the Second World War, and now the remaining duplicates, many of which are in the Weberbauer herbarium in Lima, are extremely important. If they exist, they can be used to lectotypify the names for which types have been destroyed.

 

I needed to search through the material to find if some duplicates of Solanum sandianum or Solanum planifurcum might exist. I managed to find three specimens which are types of Solanum names, but none of them were the ones I was after. Good job done though, now these specimens can be scanned and put online for other taxonomists to use.

 

Here we are in the midst of annotating and databasing the material, with Professora Vilcapoma in the background.

 

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5th April – Beautiful Lima

It is officially Semana Santa! The museum is closed today, and we are taking some time off to explore the city.

 

Lima is going through a heat wave. Generally in late March Lima is foggy. The fog enters from the Pacific, and takes over the city. With fog, there is less sun and the atmosphere in the city is cold, humid and dim. This year, however, the fog has not arrived yet despite it being April already. Instead, it is +35 degrees celcius every day, full sun shine.

 

We took a walk on the beach to touch the Pacific. Emilio Perales, a junior lecturer from the forestry department of the Universidad Nacional Agraria Lamolina, joined us on our walk – and got into a water war with Andrew!

 

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Emilio explained to us how the local public transport system works. Lima’s famous micros are mindboggling to most tourists. Busses do not have numbers or routes, but instead, they are colour coded. The bus system is not that official even – it seems bus lines are just born out of necessity, rather than planned by the council. Anybody can become a bus driver as well, there is no licence involved.

 

Here are examples of the bus lines: the blue white line:

 

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These busses go from Avenida Arequipa through the Ovalo in Miraflores to Chorrillos via Barranco. It’s a great bus as it takes the more scenic route through Larcomar along the coast.

 

Another one is the red white bus that comes to Chorillos too, but it takes a different route throught Avenida Tacna.

 

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Then there are the more complex bus lines, like the green bus with black roof, two green stripes, one white stripe, and red at the bottom. Who knows where it goes …

 

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The yellow white bus comes to Chorrillos through Abancay

 

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I wish there would be a guide to these busses, but there isn’t. You just have to learn them as you go. It is quite an anarchistic public transport system. The bus drivers are not licensed either. I suppose you wake up one morning, decide to become a bus driver, hackle for a bus, buy it cheap, and paint it (this is the important part!). The next most important thing you need to become a successful bus line is a fierce assistant. We call these assistants bus pimps. The assistant’s job is to shout the route aloud from the moving bus, by hanging from the open bus door and by making as much noice and hand waving as you possibly can. If you accidentally make an eye contact with the bus pimps, you will quickly find yourself inside a bus on a route to somewhere – they are very keen on getting more customers!

 

Once you’ve got your head around the general system, you are off. The busses drive extremely arrogantly, which means you get to your destination fast.

 

People don’t believe me about the colour code when I try to explain it to them, so I hope the blog will help to de-mystify the system to any confused tourists in Lima.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Purussaurus - reconstructed!

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Coffee break at CIP

 

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

 

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

 

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Lima from the air on arrival yesterday!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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We 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?