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Seeking nightshades in South America

31 Posts tagged with the species_discovery tag
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The flight to Mendoza was short and sweet, and I was met by my colleague Iris Peralta, with whom I had written a monograph of the tomatoes and their wild relatives when she was in London on a post-doctoral fellowship in 2001. We spent the afternoon in the herbarium, looking at the Solanum and Nicotiana from Mendoza province to see where was best to go in the field over the next few days.

 

Our first field excursion was to the valley of Cerro Aconcagua. Pablo Molina, a new PhD student studying the phylogeny of cacti and their close relatives the purslanes (Portulacaceae) came with us to look for his plants as well! The peak of Aconcagua is at almost 7000 m above sea level, making it the tallest peak in South America. The area around Mendoza and into the high mountains is a high elevation desert – the vegetation is of shrubs and grasses, and at higher elevations vegetation is almost absent.

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The vegetation on the way up the valley to Uspallata is dominated by creosote bush (Larraea); this genus also occurs in the deserts of California and Arizona in the USA

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All along the roadsides in the disturbed soil we found Nicotiana noctiflora – we were early enough in the morning to see the flowers still open; at one site a nectar-robbing carpenter bee was carefully alighting on each flower and biting a hole in the base to suck out the nectar – this species flowers at night (hence the name!) and is pollinated by moths

 

Although the area is arid and dry, in winter it is snowy and the pass over the mountains to Chile (this is a major connection between the two countries) is often closed; all up and down the upper parts of the valley were ski areas, very popular in winter. The region has been shaped by the action of glaciers and landslides – ancient rockfalls and terraces were easy to see with the light vegetation cover.

 

We came to Puente del Inca – now I truly felt I was following Darwin around! After the Beagle had rounded the tip of South America, the ship suffered damage that had to be repaired. They docked in Valparaiso, Chile to repair the damage. Darwin took two men with him and rode over the Andes and then to Mendoza, riding back across the Andes into Chile along exactly the same valleys we were driving along. He described the unusual geological formation of the Puente del Inca beautifully in his book about the voyage of the Beagle.

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The stone bridge over the river was formed from the concretion of chemicals from a thermal spring – this was the site of a thermal spa in the early 20th century with a posh hotel and baths. An avalanche completely destroyed the hotel (to the far right in the picture) but spared the church

 

Our first sight of Cerro Aconcagua came at Quebrada Horcones – it was a completely cloudless day – we were very lucky, the peak is often shrouded in clouds. What a mountain. Climbing it is tightly controlled – every year climbers die and they are buried in the “Cemeterio del Andinista” in the valley.

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Quebrada Horcones is one of only a few places where climbers begin the ascent – apparently the record climbing time is 15 hours, incredibly speedy, most take longer and spend the night on the glaciers

 

Although we a lot of locality information for the Solanum and Nicotiana we were seeking, they were nowhere to be found. Like Patagonia, it was very dry, so we suspect it has been a bad year. We did find several of the purslane species Pablo and Iris were seeking though, on the way up an incredible set of switchbacks (called caracoles – snails – in Argentina) to a pass at 4000 metres.

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Montiopsis andicola was named by John Gillies, a Scottish botanist who, between 1823 and 1828, explored this region botanically for the first time; this entire plant is smaller than a 5 pence coin!

 

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The switchbacks to the statue of the “Cristo Redentor” were amazing – but the road had been fixed so it was full of cars and microbuses, the tourists in summer clothes had a shock at the top in the cold wind

 

Our amazing day ended with a new route back to Mendoza, along the way we collected some Fabiana for Iris’s PhD student at an amazing petroglyph site.

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It had rained as we came down the valley from the high mountains and the resinous foliage of this species had a wonderful incense-y smell

 

Our last stop was at the plaque Iris and colleagues had organised to commemorate Darwin’s travels in the area. The plaque sits in the site of a petrified forest that Darwin described…  it was quite moving to think of him on horseback seeing these same hills and the same vegetation. Seeing it myself brought it home to me how much his entire experience in South America must have shaped his ideas, not just the Galapagos.

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Just behind the plaque we think we found the Solanum I was looking for, but only as tiny plants just breaking the soil…..  frustrating, but I hope we find it elsewhere in the region, it seems to be common, but might just be fussy and not grow some years. What a day…. and at the very end, the mountain let us see it again from the top of the pre-cordillera, an ancient range just to the east of the Andes themselves, we were indeed very lucky!

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After our sauna unloading the truck at the Instituto we got all our plants and equipment up to the herbarium – just in time it turns out! The skies that had been dark as we were unloading opened in a truly impressive storm – thunder, lightning and hailstones the size of golfballs! A few hours later, the sky was clear again, and the air had cleared a bit.

 

The flora of Argentina

Gloria and I spent the rest of that day and the weekend looking over Solanum species for our joint treatment of the genus for the flora of Argentina. The new flora will be a guide to all the plants of the country, and will be a modern treatment with illustrations and descriptions of all the species.

 

Sometimes scientists feel that flora writing is not as important as evolutionary studies, or molecular biology, but they couldn’t be more wrong. A good flora allows local scientists (and those from outside the region) to identify plants so that new studies can begin locally, and if done well, can reveal problems that can’t be solved in the timespan of a flora, but can form the basis for postgraduate work in local universities where field work can be undertaken more easily than from a European or North American university.

 

Solanum synonymy

We had a couple of really tricky problems in the group we were both working with and took advantage of our time together to discuss them with all the specimens from the Córdoba herbarium in front of us. One of these problems was that we had decided earlier to recognise two species in the Morelloid group (the black nightshades) that had greenish black fruits that fell with their stalk – Solanum cochabambense and Solanum aloysiifolium.

 

This time in Patagonia we had not collected any of these plants, but had some questions about some of the synonyms. A synonym is when a plant receives two names from two different (or even from the same!) botanists, and a later worker in the group decides that both names represent part of the same entity. The name that was published first has priority, and so the second one becomes a synonym.

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Solanum aloysiifolium

 

One way of deciding synonymy is to look only at the type specimens and see if they are similar, but a better way to assess this is to look at as many specimens of the group in question as possible. This way, one can see if the type specimens, that might look quite different if they come from the extremes of variation, are connected by continuous variation in different characters. The great advantage of being in Córdoba for this was that since these are common Argentine species, there was LOTS of material to compare.

 

We went back and forth trying to separate the masses of specimens into piles that corresponded to the types, and in the end, decided we couldn’t do it reliably with the data to hand. So, for the flora, we will recognise these as a single species with the name Solanum aloysiifolium (described in 1852, while Solanum cochabambense was described in 1912).

 

The complex pattern (or non-pattern) of variation needs close study by a local student who can go in the field regularly and can also bring seeds and plants back and grow them in a common garden – we suspect some of the differences we can see are environmental in nature. For example, plants with larger leaves are always found in wetter forests, and other characters seem to vary in the same way.

 

It might seem a bit of a cop-out to not resolve this problem here and now, but making these decisions is a practical compromise – the flora needs to be finished by a particular date, and best of all, we now have a great project for a student who likes plants and field work!

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To begin our day driving to the north we stopped on the way out of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno to see if we could find some more Benthamiella azorella. We did, so more photos and collections. Just to show you how small this thing really is, below is a photo of the flowers with an Argentine 10 centavo piece next to them (for reference, this is about the size of a 5 pence piece). They are MINISCULE! The flowers are a pale tan colour, the leaves are packed into domed shapes that look white from the hairs on the leaf margins…  these plants are certainly easy to miss….but definitely worth finding!

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The tiny tan flowers are dry, we missed the flowering season. They have 2 stamens that stick way out of the flower.

 

Whilst looking for the Benthamiella we were carefully watched by a troop of guanacos (not sure if troop is the right collective noun, herd might be better!) from the hill overlooking the lake. They were not quite sure about us, and made some very odd bird-like noises. Near the national park and away from hunting pressure they are less fearful and tend not to run away so quickly – they do in the end though.

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Three guanacos suspiciously watched me look for Benthamiella around a small lake full of flamingos and geese

 

Driving out of the side road that led to the park we re-joined Ruta 40 – Argentina’s equivalent to the iconic Route 66 of the western United States. Ruta 40 goes for more than 5000 kilometres from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to Quillaca on the border of Bolivia, traversing the country. There are teeshirts, mugs, stickers – everything you could want with Ruta 40 on it. Like Route 66 it is a national icon. Unlike Route 66 though Ruta 40 is of variable quality! It can be lovely and paved, or a dirt track, depending upon where you are along its long trajectory. For miles today we drove along a bumpy gravel road, with a beautiful newly paved, but not quite ready, Ruta 40 alongside. Quite frustrating. We finally did get onto the paved road, but at the province border between Santa Cruz and Chubut, it suddenly became gravel again. Long days on gravel roads across what seem like trackless plains are tiring!

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The gravel stretches seemed to go on forever, Juan did most of the driving today, thank goodness

 

The road goes for miles with no people, no sign of any habitation at all, expect every now and then there is a sign to an estancia, or occasionally a tiny little town. Petrol is hard to come by, and filling up is a priority. Our truck uses gasoil (diesel) so we are OK, almost, but cars using petrol often have to carry jerrycans to make it between stations.

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The metropolis of Bajo Caracoles

 

We stopped a few times in our rush to the north, at one place just north of Baja caracoles we found an extraordinary Lycium species that hugged the ground in the dry river bottom so tightly it seems to be fused to the mud. Lycium is the genus from which we get go ji berries (a Chinese species known in the UK as the Duke of Argyll’s teaplant).

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Lycium repens (the fruits are about half a centimetre long)

 

On the way we passed through an archeologically important region of Argentina – in these painted hills is the Cueva de las Manos where early humans (probably more than 10,000 years ago) made handprints on the walls of the cave. These sites are among the earliest evidence of human occupation of South America – I wish we had had time to stop. Next time.

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The landscapes in Argentina remind me of my home in New Mexico – the same painted hills that Georgia O’Keefe so loved and painted in northern New Mexico are also found in Argentina – convergent landscapes!

 

We got to the town of Rio Mayo at about 8 pm – early for us; we had planned to go on, but decided the next town was just too far, we would have arrived at 11 pm, had to press all the plants and set up the dryer – we wouldn’t have finished until the next morning! So we had plenty of time to get all the collections organised and drying (we always dry plants in the field on a rack over two heaters – we had a picture of this in the blog from last year!). I had collected a tiny little tobacco, Nicotiana acaulis, in the dry steppe near the park, and when we found it in the morning, the flowers were closed. Putting in the press though revealed open flowers – this species flowers at night, and is probably pollinated by moths. The flowers smelled very sweet as well. So all is well with the plants, they are happily drying, we are resting up for another marathon drive tomorrow – then some more fertile collecting in the Andes….. we are leaving the Benthamiella behind, but there are Solanum species to come!

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Nicotiana acaulis – this tiny species grows like a strawberry and throws out runners that develop into small plantlets in loose soil around lakes and along roads

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

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

 

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

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Franco collecting seeds of Nicotiana ameghinoi

 

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

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Fabiana foliosa, not much of a plant!

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Benthamiella azorella close up and personal

 

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

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Flamingoes and the Andes - can't beat it

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"I do not think I ever saw a spot, which appeared more secluded from the rest of the world, than this rocky crevice in the wide plain." - Charles Darwin (1838, Puerto Deseado, Patagonia, Argentina).

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Rocky cliffs along the Rio Deseado

 

Charles Darwin landed in Puerto Deseado, where we woke up this morning, on 23 December 1838 – it must have looked quite different then! We usually associate Darwin’s ideas with his experiences in the Galapagos, but these Patagonian steppes had to have influenced his ideas – life is so difficult here, in the vastness of the steppes, living through incredible extremes of heat and cold. He rode and collected along the Río Deseado probably in the exact same area where we found Petunia patagonica yesterday. He probably even saw it!

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Puerto Deseado

 

We actually didn’t follow in Darwin’s footsteps today, we just went looking for more plants! Along the road we saw a large group of choiques – Darwin’s rhea (the “avestruz” Darwin shot and ate before remembering to make a specimen!). In this species the males have harems of several females, all of whom lay eggs in the same nest. He then looks after the chicks (called charitos) – this was a male with about 10 little ones!

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Our first port of call was the Bosque Petrificado (Petrified Forest) National Park towards the west in the centre of Santa Cruz province. It is about 50 km off the main road on a dirt track and as we entered the landscape just got more and more spectacular. At the park headquarters where we needed to check in to show our permit and talk to the guardaparques (the national park system in Argentina is very organised, being a park ranger is a proper career and they are fantastically knowledgeable people) the ground is literally littered with the fossilised remains of upper middle Jurassic forests – huge trunks of long dead monkey puzzle trees more than 10 metres long abound; this was no crumbled fossil bed – it was amazing. The trunks are the remnants of Araucaria mirabilis – an extinct species belonging apparently to a clade now only found in Australia, thus providing rock solid evidence of the ancient connection of the southern continents. There was a really nice little museum as well, where there were great examples of some pretty amazing fossils that had been found there.

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Bosque Petrificados - looking to the west, the large rocks in the front are fossilised tree trunks!

 

I haven’t yet properly introduced my colleagues…  all are from the InstitutoMultidisciplinario de Biología Vegetal of the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba – a real powerhouse of South American botany. I am lucky tohave such good colleagues for field work – although my Spanish  is pretty good, as a group we find more plants and have more fun!

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From left to right - Gloria Barboza, Juan Urdampilleta and Franco Chiarini (note the Araucaria mirabilis!!)

 

Although we had gone in towards the park looking for a special Nicotiana (we didn’t find it, but we have more chances to come), we came away with a real prize – Fabiana nana, a plant we had been seeking for the last couple of days. It is a tiny spiky cushion plant and looks like something you might avoid if you had the chance – but there it was with beautiful white flowers. The whole thing is only about 10 centimetres high, and the flowers are tiny. There are no leaves, the green stems do the work of photosynthesis – this is a common strategy in dry desert areas, it reduces water loss from leaves. Tiny leaves do form on new shoots, but they don’t last long! My colleague Iris Peralta has a student who is studying these plants and she has had a very difficult time getting DNA out of them – they are full of resin. Coping with life in Patagonia can be difficult! Guanacos are everywhere – the grazing pressure must be very high.

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The leafless stems and tiny flowers of Fabiana nana

 

We carried on looking for plants along the main road, heading for some specific places and all the time looking for characteristic domed shapes of Fabiana or Bethamiella. The roadsides in Argentina all have shrines to Gauchito Gil – a gaucho from Corrientes who defied the boss and eloped with his daughter, and was a sort of latter-day Argentine Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. The Gauchito is a driver’s “saint” and shrines vary from huge and elaborate to quite simple and personal. This one was kilometres from any village or habitation and quite new, older shrines have many little red huts and lots of flags. It is traditional to leave gifts of alcohol, cigarettes and red bunting.

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At the last stop –again at 9:30pm – failing to find the target plant – we encountered another population of Petunia patagonica, it is becoming commoner now we are further south, but it seems we don’t find it unless it is almost dark! Still no seeds though, this will help tell us if this is a different genus to Fabiana. As we entered the tiny port town of San Julian it began to rain – it looks like the heat wave is over and we are really in for a big change.

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I was told that Patagonia was always cool and incredibly windy – but things that are always true usually slip up sometimes! We hit a heat wave – today the temperature reached 40°C, and there is absolutely NO shade. We began the day looking for Benthamiella again – they are so tiny you need to get up very close…  Gloria used the handlens to figure out if we even had a Benthamiella! One we thought was turned out not to be once we looked closer in the cool of the car. We did find one though…. They certainly are a struggle!

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Searching for the elusive Benthamiella.


About 3 in the afternoon we went looking for a collecting locality called Manantiales near the town of Fitzroy (named for the captain of HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin travelled, more about this later!) and ended up walking along an old abandoned railway line (probably built by the English) in the blazing heat – it was a bit like the end of the world. All the plants were dried up and crispy – we felt the same. It was starting to be a not such a great day.

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Juan rather desperately looking along the railway

 

So on we went – slightly desperate by now, to the next locality – to find one of our stars for the trip – Petunia patagonica. We had some pretty good locality information, so headed off on a tiny dirt road across the steppes. It seemed we were the only people in the world, so deserted was it – but we were accompanied by wonderful Patagonian wildlife – guanacos, maras (Patagonian hares, they look a bit like a cross between a hare and a kangaroo) and more rheas. This time the rheas were smaller – they were the endemic choique, or Rhea darwinii, first collected in Patagonia and described from his collections which are now in the NHM in London. He killed and ate his specimen – ours just ran away too fast even to photograph!

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Guanacos are so much more elegant and beautiful than their cultivated cousins, llamas and alpacas, this group had males, females and babies.

 

We went to what we thought was the locality, and spent quite a time looking for Petunia – no luck, and we thought it really was going to be a bad day. After some heated discussions about the map, distances and whether or not sat-navs actually work in places like Patagonia for measuring distances, we decided to head for Puerto Deseado on the coast for the night and try one last place that might be the locality. Good job we did that rather than continuing on the road in the other direction! There it was – a big population of Petunia patagonica in sandy soil in an old river bottom.

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Collecting plants in the dark has its advantages - it is nice anad cool by then, even if you can't see very well! The blobby green mounds are all Petunia patagonica.

 

By this time it was almost dark (about 9pm) so it was almost other worldly walking amongst these most peculiar plants. This is certainly NOT a Petunia! The shrublet forms mounds to about 1.5 m in diameter and the woody bases were as big as 5-6 cm in diameter (that is when they could be seen- they were mostly covered in sand!); the leaves are tiny round blobs that are slightly sticky – most peculiar. No flowers, and very few fruits, but seeing this plant in the field will certainly be one of the highlights of the trip. All the more for finding it at the end of what was a really hard, very hot day. The rest of the way to Puerto Deseado we invented new names for it – we’ve come up with a good one, but let’s wait and see if it really is a new genus; we need a bit more study. More populations beckon…. 

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A new genus?

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This was the day when the plants were to begin – again though we began by driving a very long way! Our destination was the Pampa del Castillo where three species of the Solanaceae genus Benthamiella had been collected - old collections, but these plants are very rare and we are trying to hit every locality in the hopes of finding at least some of them. Benthamiella is a genus that is endemic to Patagonia, with 12 species in Argentina and Chile. These are tiny cushion plants of the steppes, hard to find!

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As we drove south the landscape became more and more desert-like, the plants lower and lower and drier and drier. We began to see guanacos along the road, grazing in the weeds, and also in the native vegetation. These camelids are the wild ancestors of the “cultivated” llamas and alpacas of the Andes and are absolutely beautiful – they look like proper wild animals, sleek and beautifully colored.  Petrol stations are few and far between in Patagonia, so every time one appears everyone tries to fill up, there are always queues!

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Petrol queues in the middle of nowhere!

 

We turned off for Pampa del Castillo, and began to search the steppe for Benthamiella. We found lots of interesting things, and it was very hot!, but no luck. The sight of four botanists, heads down looking at the ground must have looked absolutely crazy! The only creatures that would have seen us were rheas though – the area was absolutely deserted.

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You can just make out Juan, Franco and Gloria heads down searching the steppes for Benthamiella!!

 

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Rheas - the epitome of avian elegance, and not the slightest bit interested in us....

 

We drove and collected and drove – all the way to what was on maps as the town of Holdich – abandoned long ago. It must have been so difficult living in this dry exposed area – today it is a large oilfield, full of “grasshoppers” extracting black gold…..

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This abandoned house had a deep basement and was full of beautiful old tiles - it must have been quite some residence at one time.

 

In a last attempt, we stopped at the last locality – not hoping for much – but success at last! Two species of Benthamiella! The flowers were less than 4 mm long, and dried up and almost falling off – we wondered if we had just walked by these plants earlier. Once you get your eye in for a plant, it appears everywhere – let’s see if we can find Benthamiella more efficiently tomorrow!!

Gloria+Benthamiella_MG_2783.JPGGloria with our first Benthamiella find.

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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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Back to the "real" world?

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from Sandy:

For my last day of collecting with Team Solanum we decided to go down another of the roads out of the Sacred Valley up over the mountains and to the Amazon slope. This one made a loop, so we thought it would be a good idea! Well, it was, but it made for a VERY long day. First we ascended up a shale scree slope on a road (yes a road) to 4578m elevation over the Abra de Amparaes….

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We then descended through a wonderful glacial valley, classically shaped as a U – it was full of tiny communities with herds of llamas and alpacas. These iconic Andean animals are related to camels and are hardy enough to withstand the altitude and temperatures – although they are set out to graze every day and brought back to stone corrals every night by the local people. You can see the camel-like faces….

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Our first exciting solanum of the day was the enigmatic Solanum “Cusco-branched” – a plant sort of like Solanum probolospermum of the Abra de Malaga, but with dense branched hairs all over its stems and leaves. Is it the same, is it different? We needed to really collect it intensely over the range of elevations to be sure… it seems that this branched hair thing is on the Amazon side (E slopes), with Solanum probolospermum (with simple hairs) on the western slopes. We collected this plant as often as we could over the elevational gradient to be able to see if this idea holds once we get back and compare our collections to those made by others earlier and in different places.

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Down and down the valley we went, encountering more and more solanums as we got lower. We also saw lovely waterfalls and fantastic rock faces…..  this is truly a spectacular place. Driving along a one-lane road cut into the rock wall can be heart-stopping of course, but we are getting used to that!

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We encountered the junction to begin our ascent up the other branch of the road at about 2500m elevation – and just a few hundred metres up that road, a real prize revealed itself – Solanum sinuatiexcisum, the relative of Solanum fiebrigii we had collected in Argentina. This was a huge herb more than 2 m tall though – quite a different beast.

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By this time we were getting a bit nervous about climbing over the pass again (different road though this time) in the dark, so kept our collecting to a minimum…. this of course meant stopping a lot, and getting excited over all the new things we were seeing. One mystery was a small tree with shiny leaves and green fruits that I think might be a new species – I will need to check in the herbarium in Lima once I am back to be sure though, I think I have been calling this Solanum maturecalvans for ages, but it is really different seen alive – this is why field work is so important…. For now it is called Solanum “not-maturecalvans”!

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In a small village just before Lares we saw the beautiful solanaceous species Brugmansia sanguinea close up and personal – this is a magic plant, you can just tell can’t you by the lovely flowers!

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On and up we drove, racing to get onto the paved road before dark – we saw the locals bringing in their llamas, single file along a ridge…

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We made it back to Pisac just as the entire two was closing down at 8pm – a good final meal, a hot shower (the best we have had in Peru yet, in the Hotel Pisac Ayllu) and plant dryer organising finished the day. I will be really sad to leave the team here for the next set of adventures – they are hoping to take a route I have long wanted to go on, but life elsewhere is calling. I wonder what they will find, and I wonder if I will be able to resurface into the NHM again?

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From Tiina:

Today we started early again – destination was Paucartambo and beyond. Paucartambo is on the western side of the Andes west of Cusco, and beyond Paucartambo in the Amazon lowlands is Pilcopata. We wanted to collect on the montane forests again on the western side (Solanum heaven!), but in order to do this we needed to drive over a pass to cross the mountains to the other side.

 

The slope to the east from Pisac to Paucartambo is not as steep as in Abra de Malaga. The pass this time is ONLY 4000m high (everything is relative!).

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The road from the pass down to Paucartambo descents slowly, and past Paucartambo the forest is still relatively dry. Paucartambo itself is a lovely village with a really organised looking market – labelled as to types of produce – here is the “tuber section” – where they sell potatoes and other Andean tuber crops – Sandy went in and had a long conversation with a woman about her potatoes – so many different types!

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It only gets really humid once you get to the point where the road forks to Tres Cruces, where the Manu National Park begins. We got as far as the forking point and had to turn back in order to get home in time. We did find Solanum “morel-malaga” again – a sign that we had reached the humid eastern slopes again.  This individual of “morel-malaga” was a giant: the stem was 2.5 cm in diameter at the base. Again it was growing in a landslide site in very disturbed rocky soil. Everything was the same as in the previous collection we had made in Abra de Malaga, but just bigger!

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Manu  National Park is wonderful. It’s massive, stretching from the high elevation moist pre-puna to the lowland Amazonian rain forest. We couldn’t collect in Manu despite how wonderful it looked – collecting in Peruvian national parks requires a special collecting permit, which we don’t have, so instead of collecting we chatted to the park rangers that were at the main reception were we stopped to turn around. They recognised Sandy by her name, as she has collected along the Paucartambo – Pilcopata road before. What a temptation to be that close to the park and not to be able to go in and collect! Maybe we’ll get to see it one day… we promised the rangers we would be back…..

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Crossing the Apurimac

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 16, 2012

from Tiina:

Yesterday’s landslides were scary. This morning we thought we have seen it all, but today we saw something different. We were driving down the valley of Apurimac, when we came across a bit of road next to the river where the cliff side was hanging over us – not under like in most landslides! The river had clearly eaten away rock underneath the hillside during a flood some time ago. Now what was remaining was a whole cliff side loosely hanging on to the mountain, and a road going underneath it. We had to take it, there was no detour. We did not even stop to take a photo – trust me, better that way.

 

Once pass the scary cliff side, we came to a bridge to cross Rio Apurimac. Sandy thought the bridge would make a nice lunch spot, so we stopped to enjoy the scenery, to take photos and to eat a watermelon we had bought earlier. We found Solanum americanum growing at the bridge site just as Sandy had predicted earlier that morning – her philosophy is that every stop brings new discoveries. She is right: whenever we have stopped to take a photo, we have also managed to find good solanums!

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The trouble with this plant at the bridge was that it was growing out of the bridge. In order to get it, Andrew had to lower himself down one of the bollards of the bridge. Luckily we did get a photo of this!

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Later that day we took a side road to Mollepata. This detour was recommended to us by Alberto Salas who is expert on potatoes. We met him before heading to our trip in Lima, and we were following his great recommendations to check out some good side roads. Mollepata turned out to be a great side road. We found a new population of Solanum anomalostemon as well as Solanum physalifolium.

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We left the humming town of Abancay – having first sorted out how to get the plant presses we had managed to forget in Andahuaylas the day before (it always happens at some point!) sent on to Cusco.  Peruvians have a great system for this, called “encomienda” – we sent money by bus company to the hotel keeper in Andahuaylas, then he kindly packed up the presses and sent them by bus to Cusco – all very efficient and easy.

 

As usual in the Andes the day began with a steep climb over a mountain pass – this time in dense fog – but we still managed to see some great plants. We stopped to look back at Abancay in the distance and Paul found a lovely Jaltomata (another genus in the Solanaceae) with densely furry filaments that were deep purple, a beautiful contrast to the pearly white flowers. We are not sure what species it is – but colleagues will let us know once we can send them the specimens!

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As has been the case for a few days on this not-so-well-travelled part of the Andean range, we ran into a bit of road trouble – another huaico had covered the road in at least three metres of mud – but the machines were out there sorting it out. We only had to wait about 20 minutes or so – nothing really in the grand scheme of things!

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Descending into the valley of the Río Apurimac we began to find new and interesting solanums – among them the wonderful species Solanum iltisii – named for the American botanist Hugh Iltis by one of his graduate students. It is a rather large tree with pretty white flowers, but its most peculiar feature is its warty fruits – the “warts” are the bases of hairs that fall off as the fruit matures. I have seen this species in the harbarium – it was great to see it in the flesh!

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As we descended twoards the town of Curahuasi, where we intended to spend the night, we began to look for Solanum anomalostemon, a species I had described with my colleague from the New York Botanical Garden Michael Nee in 2009 from herbarium specimens – I was really keen to see it alive! We called in anomalostemon for its very peculiar (for a solanum) heart-shaped anthers; found nowhere else in the genus. Well, we looked and looked, found lots of other things, so were about to give up – but- decided to have a look along the roadside in the landslips to see if we could find it there.  And – amazingly – there it was! Inconspicously sitting at the base of a landslide…  when he saw it Paul yelled out loud; we thought he had fallen and hurt himself….

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And it is as odd and I expected –what a strange plant. Tiny and flat, but with large (for a solanum) flowers with these most strange-shaped anthers. We fell to speculating as to what pollinated it….

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What a wonderful way to end the day – and just as we got into the car to head into Curahuasi, the snowy peak of Salkantay decided to reveal itself. All was right in the world.

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In Curahuasi the townspeople were celebrating Carnaval still (during Lent it seems to be a continual celebration rather than a time of abstinence – a good idea I think!) with the ceremony of cutting a tree decorated with presents.. same sort of thing we saw in Andahuaylas a few days back.  We agreed – a celebration was in order – for the wierdest solanum ever!!

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Off for the mountains

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 2, 2012

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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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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