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Where did the time go?

Posted by Sandy Knapp Jun 18, 2014

I am not sure what happened this field trip to Peru – I never seemed to have time to write the blog… but now I am on the plane back to the Museum, there’s not a lot else to do. Maybe I thought my relatively random scrawls about daily events were not necessary, as we had Erica McAlister's partner, Dave Hall, along to help with the driving – he is, after all, a real journalist! But here goes…

 

Seeing the coast of Peru from the air reminds one of what an amazing environment we have had the privilege of travelling in - the blanket of fog and cloud on the coast gives way abruptly to the steep slopes of the western slope of the Andes, then you can see the Amazon basin stretching out into the distance.

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Waving goodbye to Peru from the air.

 

The fog is the reason that Lima has been grey, misty and just plain not very nice for the last week while I have been negotiating export permits, giving talks and working the collections. The cold Humboldt Current flows north along the coast, combined with the rain shadow from the Andes, this creates the dry coastal deserts where many of the wild tomato species grow. In the winter, the fog comes in to the coast, and in El Niño years (of which 2014 is predicted to be one) it rains – seems like a good thing, but these strong rains cause incredible devastation in a landscape that is not used to having any precipitation at all.

 

The species of wild tomatoes are concentrated in these coastal deserts – chief among them and a real find for us between Chiclayo and Trujillo was Solanum pimpinellifolium – the wild ancestor of our cultivated monsters. The fruits are tiny and bright red – each has only 5-10 seeds – tomatoes in miniature!

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The plants grew along a wind break by the edge of the Panamerican Highway – but the desolate landscape did not stop our intrepid entomology team of Erica and Evelyn Gamboa (a student from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos who came with us – a great help and good companion!) from sampling to their hearts content.

 

This field trip was another in the series we are undertaking for the Natural Resources Initiative, collecting insects from wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes in Peru. We didn’t do well with potatoes on this trip – not a single plant did we see – but the tomatoes were in fine form. Not going up the valleys from the coast, as it has been a very dry year – this was a bit disappointing. But the vegetation soon made up for it. For the first couple of days out of Trujillo (a town about 10 hours drive N of Lima) we were joined by my colleague and friend Segundo Leiva of the Universidad Privada Antenor Orrego.

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Segundo and his family kindly took us out for a lovely meal in town before we went – much needed after the long drive up the Panamerican highway from Lima!

 

Segundo specializes in other genera of Solanaceae – and we had an amazing harvest of Browallia – several new species, but we missed seeing Browallia sandrae, it was just too dry. The photo I posted before we left was in fact NOT the species he named for me but ANOTHER new one!! The diversity of this small genus in these dry valleys on the western Andean slopes is quite incredible.

 

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This tiny species with white flowers was growing on a bare road bank, right next to an even tinier one with purple flowers – names needed for both!

 

One of our targets for this trip was the valley of the Río Marañon – a deep, dry valley where Solanum arcanum, another wild tomato species, grows. The Marañon is said to be the source of the Amazon – it flows north for hundreds of kilometres, then turns to the east at about Bagua, where it then joins up with other large rivers from Ecuador and Peru. Along its journey from the highlands it travels through as many different habitats as there are in Peru – glacial valleys, dry cactus scrub, paddy rice, lowland rainforest. The descent into the Marañon valley from Celendín is billed as a heartstopper – I had been on this road in the 1980s, but didn’t really remember much. Why not I wonder! It was amazing…

 

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The road is narrow and corkscrew-like – Erica drove it and she was amazing, I’m not sure I could have done it… the drop from top to bottom is more than 2,000 metres, I think that’s almost as deep as the Grand Canyon, but not quite…


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The sign says “Slow traffic keep right” – keep right? There isn’t anywhere to go to the right but over the edge!

 

On the dry cliffs we indeed found Solanum arcanum, hanging on for dear life. Novel collecting methods were needed, given the narrowness of the road and the steepness of the cliffs...

 

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Wild tomatoes are woody at the base, but grow new herbaceous stems every year it seems. Even our cultivated tomatoes would be short-lived perennials if we didn’t have such harsh winters.

 

We had a day off – to go and see the amazing ruins of Kuélap, fortress of the Chachapoyas. The Chachapoyas were a people who lived in the northern mountains before the Incas, were conquered by the Incas, and adopted many Inca customs while blending them with their own culture. The archaeological sites were hidden for a long time – they are high in the mountainous valleys, in forest and very difficult to access. A wonderful museum in the town of Leimebamba displayed the mummies found high above a lake – hundreds of ancestors preserved for veneration by the Chachapoyas; it is amazing that they were preserved in such an environment.

 

Kuélap itself is reached by a winding dirt road, some 40km from the main highway – not many people there! The structures are different to those Inca ruins in Macchu Picchu and further south – but every bit as impressive. The fortress itself sits atop a ridge and from far away just looks like a layer of rock, unless you know it is there. We had it to ourselves, except for a few other hardy souls and a couple of llamas.

 

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Some parts of the site have been restored using the original stones – there were more than 200 of these round dwellings inside the fortress walls.

 

Almost as exciting for me was finding Solanum ochranthum growing in the trees around Kuélap – it is a distant tomato relative with very large fruits (up to 5cm across). The fruits have a very thick rind (about half a centimetre) but the pulp is green and sweet. The rind though is terribly astringent! It was all over the area and we sampled it several times the next day.

 

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Solanum ochranthum and its relative Solanum juglandifolium are both large woody vines that can reach the canopy of cloud forest – very unlike the wild tomatoes from the desert!

 

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As is often the case in field work, plans change from day to day. We had thought of going back through the Marañon, but decided instead to cross it further north, near its junction with the Río Utcubamba near the town of Bagua and come down the coast from Chiclayo. The river is a much bigger beast this much further north, and these valleys are not as steep – paddy rice was being cultivated in the flat river terraces – it was hot and sticky down here in the relative lowlands.

 

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The way back to the coast went up and over the Abra de Porculla – a famous collecting locality from the last century. I was really glad we went that way – a new range extension for yet another wild tomato species, Solanum neorickii, in the rocky cliffs ascending the pass. Solanum neorickii has one of the widest distributions of any wild tomato, from southern Peru to southern Ecuador, but collections are scattered in dry valleys and these new records will help us to predict better its actual distribution and its relation to the environment.

 

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Solanum neorickii has the smallest flowers of any wild tomato species and the style is always included within the anther cone (compare this with the picture of Solanum ochranthum above). It is almost entirely self-fertilizing (or so we suspect), which might account for its broad distribution north to south.

 

Cresting the pass we had an amazing sight of a cloud bank – it began at approximately 2,000m and dissipated at exactly 1,000m elevation – it was as if we had driven through a layer on a layer cake! In the cloud on the way down we found Solanum habrochaites – quite possibly my favourite wild tomato.

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Solanum habrochaites seems to be able to grow almost everywhere - the dry coastal valleys, the fog forests of the coast, inter-Andean valleys… Its ecological tolerances must be huge.

 

Of all the wild tomato species this is the one I am really interested in from an ecological perspective and where the ability to sequence DNA that our genetic resource permit allows us will  reveal new information. Collecting Solanum habrochaites and its associated insects in such different places raises all sorts of questions:

  • Are these populations very distinct in terms of genetics?
  • How do their associated insects differ with habitat?
  • Are there subtle differences in form of plants that we can measure from our herbarium specimens and then correlate with differences in the genome?

 

And the list goes on… this is why field work is so important. Without seeing this species in the field many of these ideas might not have occurred to us – now we have some new things to test once we are back in the Museum and get all the samples sorted.

 

We broke our long drive down the coast with a stop at the museum in Lambayeque devoted to the incredible finds of Sipán, a famous burial site of the Moche culture. The Moche people inhabited the coastal deserts before the Inca, and buried their kings with phenomenal treasure – gold and silver work of exquisite quality, huge bead collars and an amazing array of artefacts rivalling those found in the pyramids of Egypt. The museum was a wonder – the visitor descends through the finds just as the archaeologists found them, and the sheer number of things on display is staggering. No photos allowed, so you will just have to look it up on line or, even better, visit Peru! The discovery of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán is a real life Indiana Jones adventure, and its preservation for posterity is down to the energy of Walter Alva, a Peruvian archaeologist whose work prevented these treasures from all going into the hands of private collectors who bought them on the black market.

 

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Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán.

 

Coming into Lima was an adventure in itself… We looked like mad for tomatoes along the road, but they were gone… The traffic though was something else. Imagine the M25 or a major ring road with bumper to bumper traffic, lorries, cars etc., then add mototaxis, people selling things from the central reservation and drivers trying to cut perpendicularly across the main flow. All accompanied by a concerto of horn tooting and brake squealing. It is amazing there are not more accidents! But we made it.

 

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He is a taxi so he can go wherever he wants!!

 

Erica and Dave left for London, while I sorted out the dried plants, export permits and all the other things one needs to do at the end of a field trip. I always have mixed feelings about this time – on the one had I enjoy spending time with Peruvian colleagues and I actually really like Lima, grubby as it is, but on the other hand, there are a lot of things waiting for me back in London...

 

So another field trip ends – but as usual, it is only another beginning. I will look forward to seeing the specimens we collected, finding out how the insects differed from place to place and combining these results with those from previous field work on the Initiative. We are now getting enough collections to begin to formulate the next set of projects and to think about the papers we will begin to write using these data. We need some time in the Museum now though, sorting out what we have, and then planning the next trip. Field work is an essential part of understanding how the natural world works – seeing it in action brings the collections we already have to life and generates new questions. It always seems like the more you know, the more you realise how little you really do understand!

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Somehow it seems to take longer to get here every time I come… is it me or the journey? I had forgotten that it is the beginning of Lima’s winter, foggy season – no fog yet, but it is cold, grey and a fine mist falls at night. The herbarium cheered me right up though! As usual, colleagues here are welcoming and helpful – there was a lot of new material to look through, many specimens we had left unidentified to puzzle over and the plants from last trip in February to sort out and get ready for export.


Friday was a special night – it was Noche de los Museos (night of the museums), where all of Lima’s many museums (ranging from natural history to art to archaeology) open until 10pm. This may sound pretty commonplace to us in London, where we have open evening events on a regular basis, but for a country like Peru this is a special deal, it has only been done for the past few years. When I lived here in the 1980s there was a curfew, and no one was even allowed out after dark. So having a night out in museums all over the city feels like real progress indeed.

 

The Museo de Historia Natural, our sister institution, of course participated, and the place was heaving with people. Families, singles, retired couples – all were given special tours and the whole place was open, grounds and all.

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The spectacular whale skeletons in the garden were brightly lit…


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Children pretending to be dinosaurs and walking in the footprints in the cement near the entrance…


I got further into the public part of the Museo that I had ever gone, and even discovered their dinosaur gallery (I usually rush right by the galleries on my way to the collections). There were some real characters there, all set in the South American context – making it all completely relevant for the local visitor. Here are a couple of my favourites…

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A slightly crazed looking Velociraptor


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What I think might be a local tyrannosaur relative with a winning expression and completely ridiculous arms!

 

Deep in the mammal gallery was this face that only a mother could love…

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Perhaps this one should make a visit to the new mammoth exhibition in the Natural History Museum London!


Sunday came and with it the now traditional closing of Avenida Arequipa to vehicle traffic to allow local people to bike, run, walk, roller blade, whatever… this is the equivalent of closing the Strand in London to cars and buses for the day – chaos on the rest of the roads, but loads of Limeños enjoying the space and each other.

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With the street shut to traffic people bicycle, walk or just sit in the middle of what on an ordinary day is an environment full of hooting horns and belching smoke.


I managed to sort through all the plants from last time in order to apply for an export permit; I’ll do it together with the plants we will collect this trip, so it will all be a bit of a rush at the end. I’m glad I have had the time to sort things out here in Lima though, there is still of course the shopping for the trip to get done – we need the usual things like plastic sheeting, burlap bags and batteries! I also need to find something special for the Museum of Curiosity where I am invited the day after I get back. What shall I deposit there?

 

Peru is full of wonderful things; I am definitely spoiled for choice!

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Back to nightshade heaven...

Posted by Sandy Knapp May 20, 2014

Well, I am off to Peru again, this time with entomologist and blogger Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM) to look for insects on Solanaceae in the north of Peru.

 

We plan to go north from Lima to Trujillo, then over the mountains to the Marañon River, then a sort of unplanned meander through valleys and over peaks. I’ve been on some of these roads before, but never to collect insects, so we are anticipating exciting things! From my previous experience these slopes are Solanaceae heaven – full of endemics and we hope to find some good things.

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Prime wild tomato habitat on the road to San Benito.

 

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Further up the road we might just see Browallia sandrae S.Leiva, Farruggia & Tepe - named after me by my good Solanaceae colleagues Segundo Leiva, Frank Farruggia and Eric Tepe; last time I saw it I didn't realise what this plant was, so I now want to pay a return visit!!

 

This work is a continuation of the field component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relative strand of the Natural Resources and Hazards Initiative at the Museum and with it we will further improve our method for collecting the insects that are resident, using or otherwise interacting with individual populations of nightshade species. Our targets are the wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes, but we rarely pass a nightshade by, and there are lots where we intend to go.

 

But first I will be in Lima for about a week before Erica joins me – there are things that need sorting out from the last trip and people to see. There will be further herbarium work (every time we go to Peru more collections have been deposited in the national herbarium) and more visits to the International Potato Center (CIP) to talk about future project ideas. These human interactions are as important as the collecting – every scientist here at the Museum is usually doing a piece of scientific work while at the same time thinking about the next thing; it often seems we think several years in advance, I suppose that is good planning! Some ideas work, some don’t, but the process of mulling them over and talking to colleagues is a big part of what makes being the sort of scientist I am a real pleasure.

 

So I have my GPS, my plant press and my herbarium identification annotating things (glue and labels, terribly high tech). I have the permits, and will give a seminar at the Ministry about our work when we come back to Lima from the field. I have probably forgotten a lot of things, but that is what shops are for, and besides, shopping in Peru is a real adventure in itself when you shop for the things I need (like metres of plastic sheeting). So off I go...

 

Let’s see what transpires over the next month – what will we find? It’s bound to be fun…

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From Canta, a road goes up the Río Chillon to Cerro de Pasco and the eastern side of the Andes – crossing over the high elevation grassland habitat called the puna. Several wild potatoes grow in these extreme habitats above or around 4,000 metres elevation – these were our targets for the day. We leave the tomatoes behind for the day - none grow this high!

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Looking back down the valley we saw Canta perched on its hill, plus the line of dusty, smoggy air from Lima and the coast... we were pleased to be up in the fresh air!

 

As we climbed up the switchbacks (ubiquitious in the Andes) we spotted our first Solanaceae of the day – and it was a new distribution record for the valley…

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Salpichroa microloba is endemic to central Peru but had never before been collected in this valley – Paul was excited – this genus is the topic of his Master’s thesis. He also managed to spot a hummingbird visiting the flowers…


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A colleague had told us that the diversity of insects above 1,000 metres elevation was poor – so here is a photo of the GPS (registering 3,327m elevation) and vial of insects to prove the point. Insect life teems at high elevations, and it is usually interesting and often endemic.

 

Further up the valley opened out, and the Río Chillon rushed through – along the banks we found Solanum amblophyllum, previously thought to be an endemic of Lima department, but recently found in neighbouring Ancash by our colleague from the Museo, Asunción Cano.

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Solanum amblophyllum is a member of the Geminata clade that I revised last in 2008 – there are several new species to describe (I wrote about some of these from Brazil last year), but it is great to see ones that I recognise in the field. It was VERY common along the river amongst boulders and grass…


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The Río Chillon is a typical mountain river, crashing through gorges and with extremely rapid flow. Along the banks we saw Andean torrent ducks – two males posturing to each other… the female was being swept downstream (apparently, although she was probably completely under control) and the males seemed too busy to notice.

 

We had a forced stop at the small village of Cullhuay where pipes were being installed – we had to wait about half an hour then drive across a ditch over two very narrow planks – Dan was the driver for the day and he managed with great aplomb. 

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Putting in the pipes involves a lot of manual labour – pipes in lengths of 5-8 metres being carried from the village below (by hand of course) and a lot of shovel work, but by the time we came down they were done and the ditch was all filled in!

 

Cullhauy was the last village on the road, further up there were only isolated houses and stone corrals where livestock are kept overnight. The whole grassy area operates like a common, where local people take their cattle or llamas out for the day to graze and then bring them back at night to protect them from pumas. Other exciting wildlife exists in these high mountains as well – much to our excitement we saw a huge bird circling the valley – an Andean condor – as big as the cattle on the slopes! So amazing – I have been to Peru many times and have never seen a condor there before…

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The picture is a bit fuzzy (sorry about that but it was a long way away across the valley) but the white collar and huge wingspan is unmistakeable – it was HUGE.

 

About where we saw the condor we found populations of our target potato species – so had a nice long collecting stop. The sun was still out so the insects were plentiful and Erica found that the aspirator worked a treat on the small, flat rosettes of these high elevation species. We were near the treeline, although the trees were long gone, mostly cut for firewood. These areas were at one time probably forested with small patches of Polylepis (a member of the rose family) woodland in sheltered valleys – very few of these forest patches remain in these populated valleys.

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Solanum acaule is a relatively common potato species at these high elevations – we have collected it before in southern Peru; the leaves hug tightly to the ground and the tiny flowers have big, bright green stigmas.


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We are not quite sure what species this is – the flowers are much bigger than those of Solanum acaule, and the leaves are different as well. When collecting it is important to keep things you think are different apart, even if they turn out to be the same in the end. This one is a different species though… I am sending a photo (and later the specimen) to my colleague David Spooner in Wisconsin to see if he can help!

 

Further up the road, the mountains proper began to show themselves – this range is called the Cordillera de la Viuda (Window’s Range - the name makes you wonder...) and the tallest peaks are all above 5,000 metres in elevation (the tallest, Rajuntay, is 5,475 m).

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Cordillera de la Viuda -  this range extends for about 50 miles and has several very tall peaks that are permanently snow-covered.

 

This high up there is little vegetation over a few centimetres tall, the plants are either grasses, or small and hugging the ground as rosettes or hidden in the shelter of rocks. The lack of vegetation cover allows one to really appreciate the complex and totally breath-taking geology of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the result of the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental margin and was pushed up and crumpled over the course of millions of years. The southern Andes are older than the ranges to the north – in Canta we were about in the middle. The range is between 10-30 million years old, relatively young in geological terms.

 

Driving along high mountain roads you can pass sections that are crumpled one way, then around the corner, other sections going in the opposite direction – this really brings home the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the earth we live on – it is not static and unchanging in the least!

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Paul, Dan and Mindy with nearly vertical strata behind…

 

The scenery in these high elevation habitats is not to be believed – I love the jungle and the dense forest, but the sense of space and openness at high elevation is special. At this point we were about 4,700 metres above sea level – the air is pretty thin up that high so running about is not to be recommended.

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The region in the Cordillera de la Viuda is peppered with tiny (and not so tiny) lakes with the most extraordinary colours and perfectly clear water.


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We were lucky to see viscachas – a lagomorph (rabbit relative) endemic to South America. This species is the northern viscachaLagidium peruanum) – known only from these high elevation habitats from central Peru to northern Chile. They look a bit like giant kangaroo rats, or gerbils. Again, like the condor, this picture is a bit fuzzy, they were hard to get close to!


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Sadly, even along this remote road you can still find the traces of humans – not just archeological remains, but more prosaic garbage. What in heaven’s name is a broom head doing far from the road amongst the cushion plants? In this climate it will be there for a long, long time…

 

The road climbed ever higher, but at about 4,800 metres it flattened out and began to go down – we decided to turn back – it was rumbling with thunder and began to hail. Erica and Dan had enough insects to keep them busy for hours and hours…

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The “pass” was more like a broad flat area; llamas and alpacas were grazing here, it was a bit high for cattle.

 

The hail on the top was a portent of things to come. The valley on the way back down was completely under cloud – in fact, it felt like we were IN the cloud, which I suppose we were in fact. At times the road wasn’t really visible, good job there was absolutely no traffic.

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The road was dirt and usually a single lane with drop-offs on one side and cliffs on the other, so the lack of traffic was actually a good thing. This is the view of the road (you can see it, can't you?) from the front seat. We saw several rock slides that I don’t remember from the way up… our mascot (San Martin de Porres I think) was clearly helping...


Back at the Hostal Santa Catalina Erica and Dan had several hours of insect prep to do, Paul, Mindy and I had the plants to prepare and put on the dryer – so we had a busy last evening in Canta. Tomorrow I return to Lima to fly out the next day back to London – the rest of the team is headed into the next valley north to go up again. That is travel in the Andes for you; up and down, up and down. They will drop me off on the Panamerican Highway near the coast and I will catch a bus or taxi back into Lima.

 

I wish I were going with them...

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Into the Valley of Canta

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 4, 2014

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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So, I have been back for almost a month and only now have had a chance to settle in. Field work is fantastic, but sometimes re-entry can be a bit of a challenge! But it is great to be back and in the collection again – lots of ideas from being out in the forest that need checking in the herbarium – I spent a good few days just re-identifying things and generally tidying up the Brazilian Solanum collections.

 

Just after I returned, an interview I did for the Global Plants project (where I am a member of the current Steering Committee) was posted on their website. I felt quite nostalgic for summer as it poured with rain in the London winter – it was HOT in New York City when we were filming!

 

 

The Global Plants project began as the African Plants Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose objective was to provide African botanists with access to images of type specimens of plants from Africa. The project expanded over the years (you can read the history on the Global Plants website) and with generous funding from the Mellon Foundation and logistical support from JSTOR has become one of the indispensable resources for botanists worldwide.

 

The Museum has been participating in the project since the early years, and our type specimens are scanned to become part of the Global Plants resource. When I began as a botanist in the 1980s, to see a type specimen you either had to borrow it (but they often weren’t available on loan for security reasons) or travel to many different collections to see the real things.

 

The importance of type specimens

 

Type specimens are critical for scientists like me – they are the specimens to which names are tied. They are usually not typical (one of those funny English words that gives the wrong impression), but instead are used to determine what name to apply to a particular species concept.

 

Imagine you have a stack of specimens – you sort them into piles, those are the species, then figure out into which pile each type specimen goes. Then, to figure out what species name each pile should be called by, the type specimen of the first published name takes priority, the rest are synonyms. So – if the types specimens for Solanum corumbense (described in 1895) and Solanum tumescens (described in 1986) fall in the same pile – Solanum corumbense is the correct name for the species and Solanum tumescens becomes a synonym.

 

To be able to compare type specimens online at the click of a button has truly changed the way in which we do our science – I cannot know imagine life without a resource like Global Plants!!  Thank you, Mellon Foundation... I can even check types in the field (so maybe next time I needn't come back at all!! - although I'd miss South Kensington...)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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


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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

 

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

 

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

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The 64th Brazilian National Botanical Congress ended today after five pretty amazing days of talks, posters and conversations. The theme of the congress was “botany, always alive” – a clever play on the universality and persistence of the science and the members of the plant family Eriocaulaceae – called sempre vivas (live-forevers) here in Brazil. The flowers and stems of Eriocaulaceae are sold as dry flowers; one stand at the congress venue was selling them made up into small trees and wonderfully elaborate arrangements. The flower stalks are also used as a thin, wiry straw to make jewellery – it looks like thin bronze wire… very beautiful.

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The congress was held in the downtown part of Belo Horizonte, in a venue called Minascentro – an old building, with a very modern interior.

 

The week was jam-packed full of wonderful talks – there was never a dull moment. My two talks were on the first day, so I got to relax and really enjoy the science for the rest of the week. What was mind-boggling to me was the sheer number of botanists attending the congress – more than 1000 people were registered, more than half of them Master’s degree or undergraduate students. This to me shows that botany and the study of plants is alive and well in Brazil, one of the mega-diverse countries of the world. This is quite right – this is where the study of plants should be thriving. And it is…..

 

Students are encouraged, if not required, to present posters, and posters there were! Every day there was a new poster session with hundreds of really interesting studies on show – in total nearly 2000 posters were displayed (1809 to be exact), giving the students a chance to show off their work and talk with the crowds who came to look at the work being done.

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For me this was a challenge – but my Portuguese improved greatly! Students were so kind about understanding my fractured attempts to ask questions about their work….. the best bit was everyone having a great time – the noise level was astounding!


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The opportunity to talk with students was great – many of them, like Luiza Fonseca de Paula here talking with Lynn about the phylogeny of a small group of really fascinating Brazilian solanums in which she has discovered a peculiar new species, have made some really interesting discoveries.


The range of topics covered spanned the gamut of organismal plant sciences – ecology, taxonomy, anatomy, conservation, floristics. My personal (highly personal and idiosyncratic) highlights were talks on the future of forests and on the Flora of Brazil. Each plenary talk was held in the main lecture hall – huge and almost always packed out. Lots of time was allowed for questions and discussion and the student participants really participated – even with talks given in English (translation services were provided).

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Paulo Motinho answering the many questions from the very interested audience.

 

Paulo Motinho of IPAM (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, or Amazon Environmental Research Institute) gave a thought-provoking talk about the future of Amazonia, looking at trends in deforestation and the increase in fire risk. He summarised some truly amazing experiments that involved covering hectares of the forest floor with plastic to see the effects of drought… headline answer, it really matters! The news that deforestation in the Amazon had increased and the newly published interactive map of world deforestation brought his talk into fresh relief.

 

But Brazil is more than “just” the Amazon – the habitat diversity here is extraordinary (as you can see in previous posts from this trip), part of what makes the flora here so diverse. Toby Pennington of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh gave another thought-provoking talk (in Portuguese, making it even more impressive) about the seasonally dry forests, often neglected in favour of the Amazon, but very diverse and evolutionarily very important for the generation of diversity in the tropics (Särkinen et al 2011). I was reminded of a talk I heard earlier this year at another conference where a speaker showed a map of agriculture and said that it was good that the area south of the Amazon basin was being used for widespread intensive agriculture because the Amazon was being “spared”. The area is the cerrado, an amazingly diverse and evolutionarily important dry grassland/tree habitat. There isn’t a one for one trade – all habitats hold unique elements and no one is more important than another. Nor can a country like Brazil put a fence around all natural habitats. The sheer diversity of forests here means the “agony of choice” is ever present.

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Caatinga is another example of a seasonally dry forest, a bit spiky and maybe not as romantic sounding as the Amazonian “jungle”, but important just the same – and highly understudied!

 

For me, the most exciting part of the week was discussions about the Flora of Brazil. A flora can be two different things – flora with a little f is usually used as a collective noun for the plant diversity of a country, while Flora with a big F refers to a publication describing and documenting the plant diversity of an entire country or region. The last Flora of Brazil was published in the nineteenth century by the great German botanist Carl von Martius, and remains a key reference work still. But knowledge of the diversity of the Brazilian flora has moved a long way since then!

 

A series of talks over one entire day of the Congresso set the Brazilian flora in context and laid out plans and tools for pulling the community together to make a 21st century Flora of Brazil. Inspiring.

 

Eimear Nic Lughadha of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (whose talk was given by her colleague Marli Morim from the Jardim Bôtanico do Rio de Janeiro as she couldn’t attend) set the flora in context. Brazil contains about 9% of the total plant diversity of the world, some 33,000 species, of these, 56% are endemic to Brazil and occur nowhere else. Wow.

 

Other talks in the symposium outlined

 

Though this seems like a daunting task, producing a compilation of all the plants (including fungi and bryophytes – not just flowering plants) of Brazil, the mood was so positive that this was really doable by 2020 – linking the effort to the targets set by the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Lots of arguments about how to do it and how to measure the impact of such work were had in satellite meetings in the evenings – but the dedication and positivity of this community was really inspiring. You know, even if only half of the Flora of Brazil is completed by 2020 a huge amount will have been achieved – but I would be willing to bet more is done.

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Vinicius Castro Souza leading a discussion of how a Flora of Brazil might be achieved, with others of the organizing committee looking on.

 

The congress was punctuated by the ascent of one of the local football teams, Cruzeiro Esporte Clube, to the top of Série A of the Brazilian league.

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The streets were full of people selling flags and banners – bought and hung out of car windows and draped around supporter’s shoulders.

 

The bars and restaurants all over town filled with excited supporters decked out in blue and white to watch the games on tv screens in the streets. So far, so normal – a bit like my neighbourhood in Highbury when Arsenal plays, although the noise here is on a different level altogether – car horns hooting, constant fireworks in the streets. When Cruzeiro won midweek to claim the league for the third time in history (with 4 games to go!) Belo Horizonte exploded – all night. The chap I bought a banner from was slightly mystified with my comment that 1966, the year Cruzeiro first won the league was the same year that England won the World Cup – it didn’t register, or perhaps it was my fractured Portuguese! Jeff Ollerton, a colleague for Northampton also here for the congress, likened the horn tooting to cicadas – it got to be background noise after a while, but the big booms were startling, especially during talks!

 

Another high point of the Congresso was its location – right across the street from the central market of Belo Horizonte. The pepper stalls were truly amazing – fresh and pickled peppers like I have never before seen. I could have spent days wandering through the stalls and small shops – everything and anything was for sale from brooms and kitchen pots, to herbal medicines, to pets.

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In this Aladdin’s cave peppers preserved in oil and in cachaça – all sorts, all sizes, all colours – were for sale.


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Each variety in this shop (called Paraiso da Pimenta – pepper paradise!) was rated for spiciness.


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Cachaça, a spirit distilled from fresh sugarcane juice and a key ingredient of the famous cocktail caipirinha, is a speciality of Minas Gerais – and the sheer variety of types was amazing. Just like whiskey it is cured in wooden barrels, with age and method important for achieving the very different tastes – tasting was tempting, but there were talks to go to in the afternoon!

 

The congress dinner involved great conversation and samba music – Brazil really knows how to throw a party. João Renato Stehmann, the president of the congress, summed up the event in numbers

  • 1461 botanists registered
  • 1809 posters
  • 156 speakers
  • 11 keynote lectures
  • 20 training courses…..

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My colleague from the Universidade Federal do Minas Gerais João Renato Stehmann did an incredible job begin the president of this event while all the while being cheerful and a great colleague – he had even been in the field with us a few days before the event began! He deserves his halo…


All in all an inspiring week of botany in a country whose botanical community is vibrant, young and who are all really going places. This week has reminded me of why I study plants, and how lucky I am to be doing so.

 

I’ll miss walking from my hotel past the beautiful architecture of Belo Horizonte – but the field beckons again.

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This apartment block on the Praça da Liberdade was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, one of the key figures in modernism and the designer of many buildings in Belo Horizonte (most notably in Pampulha, where I had seen the capybaras early on in my stay).

 

A new species from the state of São Paulo and the enigmatic Solanum enantiophyllanthum are calling to us now, and tomorrow we set off to the south for a few days in the forest and in the really important herbarium of the Instituto de Bôtanica de São Paulo, where I am sure treasures await…. I’m glad I don’t have to leave Brazil quite yet!

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After our great collecting in Bahia (even though we did miss seeing Heteranthia!) – it was time to go back to Belo Horizonte for the 64th National Brazilian Botanical Congress, where I would be giving the opening lecture. So we set off early to connect with BR 116 – the main road inland to the south.

 

The vegetation along the road out of the valley between the Serra da Jibóia and Serra do Timbo was completely different to the forest in which we had been collecting in the mountains – this is the caatinga – a dry forest dominated by spiny shrubs (often members of the pea family) and home to spectacular columnar cacti. I love this sort of habitat, it reminds of the western part of the USA, where I grew up – but it is hot and inhospitable for the most part, and here, in Bahia, there had been little rain for the last two years, so everything was tinder dry.

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Cereus jamacaru, known locally as mandacarú, can grow to 5 metres tall; it is an iconic plant of the caatinga regions of Brazil and has some non-spiny varieties that are used as animal feed. The huge white flowers open at night and are pollinated by bats - it was one of the very first cacti to be widely cultivated in greenhouses in Europe, in the Museum Library there are some amazing paintings of this species that I used in my book Potted Histories (soon to be released as Flora in late 2014).

 

We left Lucas in the town of Itatim, which is surrounded by inselbergs, some with extraordinary caves. He will return home to the town of Feira de Santana, then come back south to Belo Horizonte a few days after us. We will pick up another student on the way in the town of Vitoria da Conquista, so life is never dull!

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Lucas setting off to catch the bus to Feira de Santana, plants in hand – he was home a couple of hours later, while we were still on the road and far from our destination!


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This inselberg (right in the middle of the picture) at the outskirts of Itatim has two huge caves on the side – it almost looks man-made, but isn’t.


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This barber shop called to mind the insects from the forest, but also my entomologist colleagues back at the Museum – its name was the “Fly Barber”, must ask Museum fly curator Erica McAlister if flies often need a shave...

 

Our colleague from Argentina, Gloria Barboza, has found some new pepper species here near Itatim – but we had no time to stop, we had to get back to Belo Horizonte...

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The distances in Brazil are huge – this wall in a truck stop along the way (whose name I have completely forgotten!) tells the kilometres to various places –it was a late lunchtime and we were still more than 1,000km from Belo Horizonte AC.

 

Even though the distances are large and it takes ages, driving is worth it – one sees the vegetation and habitats in a new way. I had never really understood what caatinga was before – I had seen it on herbarium specimen labels, but now I understand better what sort of habitat those plants live in.

 

The distance was complicated by the enormous amount of traffic on the hilly roads, and further still by roadworks all along the privately owned and operated highway. Every so often the traffic would be stopped in one direction when the road went down to a single lane; the lorries then backed up and when the road became two, or even miraculously three, lanes again there was a lot of quite frenzied overtaking. At one stopping place I counted 64 lorries all waiting to go…

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When the opportunity to overtake presented itself everyone tried to go at once, but it all seemed to work out in the end, we didn’t see a single accident.


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Along the road in small Bahian towns we often saw amazing displays of auto parts – Lynn called them “muffler art”. Wherever the traffic was stopped loads of people selling things ran up and down the queue – it was hot, so I suspect they were doing a booming trade in water.

 

Google calculated it would take us about 4 hours to get to Vitoria da Conquista to collect Cleiton, another student of Andre Amorim’s from Bahia, but instead it took us almost 8 hours! But we got there, and Cleiton was patiently waiting… Once we got into Minas Gerais the road got better and the lorries turned off. We stopped for the night more than 13 hours after we had begun… in a mining town called Teófilo Otoni.

 

This part of Minas Gerais is famous for semi-precious stones and the hotel lobby had cases of jewellery with tourmaline, agate and other nice local stones. The state of Minas Gerais has a huge mining industry (minas means mines in Portuguese) - mostly iron ore sent to China to make car parts that are then shipped back to Brazil for assembly. In Minas we saw many trains full of iron ore heading out to the coast. Along with the iron there are semi-precious stones, but only in certain placees. Our hotel was across from the main town party place, and it was a Friday night, so not a lot of sleep… but we had less than 800km to go.

 

We hadn’t stopped for any plants on our first day – so bad was the traffic and so far had we to travel. But once close to Belo Horizonte I couldn’t resist a stop to see Solanum lycocarpon – the wolf fruit. This species is related to Solanum crinitum, the species we saw on the road to Una few days ago, and has big purple flowers and green fruit. These fruit though are whoppers – up to 15cm in diameter – they are eaten by Amazonian maned wolves supposedly as a vermifuge (a medicine to expel intestinal worms).

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This fruit was about 10cm in diameter and not at all ripe; once ripe the flesh is creamy yellow and smells nice, the seeds are very large and dark brown.


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Solanum lycocarpon flowers have slightly curved anthers, just like Solanum crinitum - if you look closely you can see the hairy anthers characteristic of this group of solanums. Special sets of characters like this are clues about evolutionary relationships, but must be tested against other characters to be sure they are in fact indicators of relationship and not just superficial similarity.

 

As we drew nearer to Belo Horizonte it became obvious that it had rained a lot – in a couple of places the road had collapsed and the traffic was back to one lane. But we made it home by late afternoon. We had driven more than 1,500 kilometres – but it was worth it, the plants were fantastically interesting and we had found real treasures. Now comes the work in the herbarium checking the ones we think are new against previously collected samples. But first, we put the specimens to dry on the dryer at the university, and then got ready for the Congresso – the annual get-together for all Brazilian botanists and a truly great occasion! Now to get my talks ready...

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After our fantastic day in Serra da Jibóia we decided to go west to the small bit of protected forest in Serra do Timbo, where Lynn had been in 2009 and seen the very narrowly distributed and quite peculiar genus Heteranthia (PDF 103KB), long thought to not be a member of the Solanaceae. In fact it is a perfectly good member of the family, as Lynn has shown using DNA sequencing and phylogenetic reconstruction.

 

First we had to go into the small town of Amargosa to check in with the NGO who manage the land. They were a bit discouraging - there hadn’t been anyone up there for ages and there were no trails, and lots of roads. But we thought, what could the problem be? We have our GPS…and the coordinates of Lynn’s previous collection…what can possibly go wrong?

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I love the Brazilian flag – what I didn’t know until now was that the stars represent the state capitals, only one of which (Amapá) is north of the equator – the banner says “Ordem e Progreso” (Order and Progress).

 

In Amargosa we were given a note and a rough map – the note to hand to the manager of the huge farm Fazenda do Timbo, in which the forest patch sits, the map to help us find it. We duly checked in at the farm, where the manager was out, but we spoke to one of his deputies and all was well.

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These women were separating beans from the bits of husk and dirt left behind from shelling – all by hand. In the house next door was a huge skip-sized container full of the ones they had left to do.

 

We could see the forest on the top of the ridges so headed up – confusingly the directions given to us at the farm were slightly different to those given to us in town – we should have had an inkling of trouble then! But up we went.

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In the stream-bottom in cultivated land we saw these Mauritia palms – I usually associate these with the Amazon, it was odd to see them here; these forests in Bahia share many elements with Amazonian forests further north, but have many endemic elements as well.

 

Back in the ridges there was an absolute maze of tiny dirt roads – junctions everywhere you turned – incredibly confusing! None of them connected either, so we would see a road on the next ridge over that seemed to be going into forest, but had to go all the way back to the bottom to go up it… the GPS kept telling us we were a bit wrong, and we kept going away from the forest. This is when a GPS can be so irritating, always pointing in slightly the other direction; the roads were so small that none of them were on the road layer either! But at least the sun was shining...

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Eventually we found one edge of the protected area we were looking for, but the GPS said the Heteranthia was to the south – we reckoned we were on one edge of the forest, but needed another road to get into the middle of it.

 

We did find some nice Solanum species in this forest patch, including the lovely species Leandro had just published – Solanum anisocladum (PDF 460KB). It only had tiny buds though.

 

We found another road in and went back up, this time into a bigger patch of forest, where we all leapt out of the car and walked up a small trail along a stream. It didn’t look right to Lynn for Heteranthia, but we were all really sick of driving around and around!

 

In the understory Lucas found a real prize – Solanum restingae – another of the species of section Geminata I described from Brazil in the late 1980s. Just like Solanum cordioides, it usually occurs on the coast and an enigmatic collection from this forest patch had me wondering. I hadn’t expected to find it in this spot though, the coordinates I had were some 10 kilometres to the southwest.

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Solanum restingae is a small tree about 4 metres high, with the characteristic geminate (twinned) leaves of the group. I always think these plants are beautiful, but I guess it is an acquired taste.

 

Solanum restingae was the other target for the day – in herbaria people had been identifying specimens of any Solanum from Bahia with non-hairy leaves and stems as this, while it seemed there might be two very similar species. One of these we had collected at Fazenda Duas Barras – it was a little tiny forest shrub with green fruits, but the leaf bases and stems looked different to me in the herbarium. Seeing true Solanum restingae in the field would confirm or deny my suspicions about these – were they two species or just one variable one?

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Our Fazenda Duas Barras specimen is a new species! It was also exciting to see Solanum restingae from the field – another one I can now imagine as a real plant and not just herbarium sheets.

 

Solanum restingae was indeed quite different – so our Fazenda Duas Barras is a new species! The differences between the two species are many, including:

      • Tree versus small shrub
      • Stems winged versus smooth
      • Leaves tapering at the base versus slightly heart-shaped
      • Calyx tiny and almost absent versus long and swollen

So now I will just need to be sure I can see these on herbarium specimens, and write an identification guide that allows others to do so as well!

 

Solanum restingae is a good example of the pitfalls of naming new species… when I first named it this species was known from only two or three collections from the very particular coastal habitat in Bahia called “restinga arborea” – so I named it for what I thought at the time was its specialised habitat. Oh, how wrong can one be!! Solanum is such a big genus that new names are hard to come up with – most obvious epithets referring to the plant form or colour have already been used. So – Solanum restingae is a misnomer, it certainly does not only occur in the restinga. It is the oldest name, however, so we will have to live with it – and besides it rather trips off the tongue, so is not so bad. 

 

Habitats under pressure

 

The new collecting that has been done in these Atlantic forests of southern Brazil has really increased our knowledge of the diversity of the plants in them – so species we thought were highly restricted a decade or so ago are now known from more collections so we have a better idea of their ecology and habitat preferences.

 

Still, these deep forest solanums like Solanum restingae have less and less habitat all the time as the forest is cut down, so small protected areas like that in the Serra do Timbo are essential for their survival. Once they might have occurred all the way from the coast inland where now there are only agricultural fields; we are unlikely to ever know for sure, our human footprint on the landscape is so big.

 

Exhausted from the to-and-fro driving, but pleased to have found at least one exciting thing, we gave up on Heteranthia for this year. Maybe another time…all in all not a bad last day in the field for a while.

 

On our way out we stopped for one last Solanum – and collected a prickly monster from the roadside with dark burgundy colored thorns about 1cm wide at the base. In the key it comes out as Solanum jabrense, described by our colleague Fatima Agra – but that species is supposed to have straight prickles, not these flattened monsters. We will have to save a piece for her to look at when we get back to Belo Horizonte.

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Yet another mystery – another new species or just variation that hasn’t been recorded yet? Either is just fine and an increase in knowledge.

 

Our GPS track around the Serra do Timbo must look like spaghetti junction – it seems we went everywhere but where to find Heteranthia! Next time for sure…

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Leaving Itabuna we wound our way up through cacao country along the main road, through long stops due to road repairs, villages full of roadside stands and mile after mile of cacao planted in the understory of large trees. From the air it looks like forest and retains many of its functions - it is good for birds, for example (like shade coffee), but not good for the understory Solanum species I am interested in.

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These roadside stands in small villages sell everything – this one has oranges, pottery, chopping boards in the shape of cashew fruits, cacao pods, and lots of bags of beijú, a sort of cracker made from cassava flour.

 

We stopped in the town of São Antonio de Conquista to collect a Masters student from Bahia who will be with us for this stretch of the journey – Lucas Marinho. He is studying the genus Tovomita in the family Clusiaceae, and works with André Amorim, the curator of the CEPEC herbarium, where we were a few days ago in Ilhéus. We also did some shopping – we will be camping (sort of) for the next few days.

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Another brand name amusing for English ears – this juice drink comes in all sorts of flavours – but they all basically tasted the same – sweet, although I think I liked pineapple (abacaxi) best!

 

We are staying in a small house in the protected area run by Gambá (Group Ambientalista de Bahia) – they do great work managing the forest, providing native trees for reforestation projects and rehabilitating animals for release back into the wild.

 

One of these is unlikely to go back any time soon though – a tame guan (jacú) immediately found us and begged for food with a soft, but incredibly irritating (after a while) cooing noise. Lynn tried, rather unsuccessfully, to train her to perch on her (Lynn’s) arm by offering bits of papaya, but Tonia liked crackers better and refused.

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Her name is Tonia and she is a species of the genus Penelope, we are not sure which, the bird book here is not the best.

 

Although birds are great, we were after plants so off we went into the forest along the small river coming out of the mountains. This was a much drier area than places we had been, some of the trees were deciduous and the understory was much vinier. We came here to find Leandro’s new species – called by us now the “fan thing” and we were not disappointed! It was everywhere along the trail… But no flowers or fruits…

 

That (momentary) disappointment was made up for though by finding what is certainly a new species related to the Solanum polytrichum we collected along the road to Una, much closer to the coast! Its relationship to that species is clear in its intense prickliness, very star-shaped flowers and fruits that are enclosed in the prickly calyx that grows a lot after flowering. We are sure this is different – how exciting!

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The star-shaped flowers of this new species are pink, rather than green.

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The calyx lobes that enclose the white fruit are thinner than those of the Solanum polytrichum we found close to the coast.

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We stopped at a little waterfall, an oasis of wet vegetation amidst the drier (but pretty wet all the same) slopes.

 

We came back to the house for lunch and a bit of interim plant pressing before going up to the microwave towers on the top of the ridge - these are called La Pionera as well as Serra da Jibóia apparently – this can be why plant labels are so confusing, these sorts of double namings are never on maps or in atlases or gazetteers.

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Leandro and Lucas pressing in front of the house with an audience (you can see Lynn in the background trying to train Tonia)!

 

The road up to the top of Serra da Jibóia was chock-full of solanums – including the “fan thing” in fruit! Now we can see why it has this temporary name…

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This new species appears to only flower and fruit sparingly – or perhaps we are in the wrong season. The calyx in fruit expands to look like a little miniature ceiling fan – hence the name; it needs a good scientific name now…

 

We also found another one of the incredibly prickly vines with hairy fruits related to the Solanum rupincola we collected in Fazanda Duas Barras. This one had white flowers and a smaller fruit that was dark burgundy red outside and with only a very few black seeds inside – it tasted good though!

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Another species in this group, Solanum depauperatum, had been collected along the same road, but this plant is not that – maybe it is another new one!

 

The top of the ridge was amazing – the quartzite rock was covered with huge terrestrial bromeliads (pineapple family) with inflorescences that were taller than I am – about 2m tall! These rocky outcrops have a special flora …  But we were still on the hunt for the one species that had been recorded from here that I couldn’t believe actually grew here…

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The view from the top towards the west – the huge rocky outcrops are inselbergs.

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A member of the Velloziaceae, a family most diverse in these habitats on inselbergs and a Brazilian speciality; the flowers are about 3-4cm across. At the foot of this plant we also saw tiny sundews (Drosera) – this is very nutrient-poor soil.

 

After some time looking around the top and climbing down the slopes, we decided to go back before it got dark, giving up on finding Solanum cordioides, a species I had described in 2002 from areas near Una on the coast. I thought that perhaps the label had been in error or something – until Lynn sang her Bob Marley Solanum-finding song, and then a few minutes later shouted out STOP!! And there it was, a 7m tall tree of Solanum cordioides – I had wanted to see this in field ever since first seeing it in the herbarium, and oh how lovely! This has got to be one of the most beautiful solanums I have described… but what a strange distribution…

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Our working idea is that Solanum cordioides occurs in nutrient poor soils, like the sandy soils of the coast and these inland inselbergs, but I need to do some more mapping and looking at specimens to see. The flowers are only about 6cm across, but are very conspicuous in upright groups amidst the shiny dark green leathery leaves…

 

What a way to end the day… I am not sure I have ever been more excited to see a plant in the field – it is great when you see something you are seeking that in turn generates new ideas about how nature works. We left agreeing with the sign we found at the top – it says “Nature is the only book all of whose pages (leaves) have value” – so very true.

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