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Art is only nature operating with the aid of the instruments she has made


Paul Henri, Baron d'Holbach; French philosopher


Rarely have I come across a quote more fitting, than the above to the subject of this month's blog: a carved hornbill skull held in the bird collection at Tring.


By the accounts of all those who have had the pleasure of viewing the skull in the flesh (or in the bone, I should say) it is a truly remarkable thing. While other Museums do have examples of carved hornbill skulls, most are just etched, rather than actually carved in relief like the specimen I'm featuring today.


Jo Cooper, Senior Curator of the Avian Anatomical Collections at Tring, says:

It's a rather spectacular thing, and it's quite a rare piece.


Our specimen is crafted from a helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a species found on the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. It is the bird's casque - an ivory-like plate at the front of the head which it uses for fighting, or jousting - that features our intricate artwork. The helmeted hornbill is the only hornbill with a solid casque (and therefore the only one suitable for carving). The composition of other species' is more spongey or honeycomb-like. Such is the density of the helmeted hornbill's casque, it is said to make up around a third of the weight of the bird.



A helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) with it's large and heavy casque. © Citron, CC BY-SA 3.0


The carving on our skull depicts a Chinese battle scene, set in a town by a river. There is also a figure holding a flag bearing the Chinese wén character, which can be translated to mean literature and culture. Jo says:

The level of detail is extraordinary, to the point there's a tiny bird, a kingfisher, which can be seen diving.




The solid casque of the helmeted hornbill is the only one suitable for carving, which is exquisitely intricate and detailed in our specimen of the month.


The specimen was acquired by Tring several years ago and was presented to the Museum by former curator Philip Burton, following his retirement. Burton had been given it by an eminent ornithologist.


Its origin dates to the 19th century, but Burton's and the Museum's records can only account for it up to the 1950s. Jo says:

Before that, we just don't know its history, but it is an antique object that goes back well into the 1800s.


The Museum consulted with experts at the Victoria & Albert Museum to help establish the specimen's provenance, and they confirmed that it was most likely created in China because the country had an established trade out of Borneo of the rare hornbill ivory. The Chinese often used it to make decorative belt buckles, snuff boxes and other small accoutrements.


Our beautiful hornbill specimen is not on public display, but Jo says it is very much at home at Tring:

This is the kind of thing you'd expect to see in the V&A or the British Museum, but actually it has a zoological interest too, so I think it's a good fit for Tring. It's also about cultural use and cultural relations, and that's what a lot of our collection is about as well.


We have a few (other similar) artifacts, in terms of things that have been modified, but nothing on par with this.



Spot the kingfisher?


Flora Sinensis, fructus floresque Humillime Porrigens, ... &c. / R. P. Michaele Boym

Matthaeus Rictius, Vienna, 1656.


The Flora Sinensis is one of the rarest and earliest European works on the natural history of China. It was published in Vienna in 1656 by the Polish Jesuit missionary Father Michael Piotr Boym (1612-1659), who spent over a decade in China as a successful missionary scientist.


Boym first travelled to China in 1643, after the fall of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the new Qing dynasty, to study, promote Christianity and introduce Chinese science to Europe. However his diplomatic mission to convert the court of the last Chinese ruler of the Ming dynasty to Christianity was seen as a threat to the relations with the Manchus, and in 1651, upon his return to Europe, he was placed under house arrest in Goa. Boym escaped and travelled back to Europe: to Venice, and then Lisbon. In 1656 he returned to China to continue his work, but died three years later in the province of Kuang si.


During his travels he corresponded and reported on the various flora, fauna and customs of the numerous countries through which he travelled. An excellent cartographer, Boym also prepared many maps of mainland China and South-East Asia. All of his efforts contributing greatly to Sinology (the study of China and Chinese topics).


The Flora Sinensis remains his best known publication. It contains seventeen botanical plates of cultivated fruits of south-eastern China, five zoological plates of animals (including a hippopotamus!) and a plate depicting a Chinese stele (an inscribed monument). For each of the plates Boym gives the names of the species in both Chinese and Latin. He also provides an accurate description of each plant, including their medicinal properties, in the Latin text that accompanies each plate. Originally published uncoloured, hand-coloured copies such as this one are of great rarity.



Lychee (Li-Ci, Lum-yen)

Rhubarb (Rhabarbarum)

Pineapple (Fan-Po-Lo-Mie)

pepper.jpgpepper text.jpgleopard.jpg
Pepper (Piper)

Latin text description of Boym's

accompanying Pepper illustration

A stylised leopard



Boym's published works were influential and frequently cited by other authors who wrote about China, including Athanasius Kircher's 1667 publication titled China monumentis in which similarities in the plates can be seen. It is interesting to note the anthropomorphic (human-like) features that the animal illustrations have been given.


hippo.jpgkircher hippo.jpg
Boym's hippopotamus Kircher's hippopotamus
squirrel.jpgkircher 1.jpg
Boym's squirrel-type animal chasing a turtleKircher's squirrel-type animal





title page.jpg


The NHM Library copy is bound in an old vellum binding which has warped quite significantly overtime due to its age and sensitivity to temperature and humidity. However the quality of the paper remains excellent, considering it is such an old book. That said, the numerous tiny holes scattered over the front and inside board look like they may have made a tasty lunch for an insect at some point .....




Life Sciences Seminar

Inferring the diversification of land plants at and in the shadow of the Roof of the World


Harald Schneider

Plants, Dept. of Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 12 of December 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Orogenic events in earth history, e.g. mountain formation, have made a profound impact on the assembly of biological diversity. For example, recent studies of the biodiversity of South America recovered strong evidence that the Cenozoic rise of the Andeans triggered the rapid diversification of many lineages of vascular plants.


However, relatively little attention has been given to the effect of the rise of the Himalaya on plant diversity. The rise of this mountain chains were triggered by the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Eurasian continent 70 million years ago but major uplifts date back to more recent times. Especially the rather recent formation of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, around 3-4 million years ago, had a considerable impact on the monsoon climates in South East Asia. Thus the rise of this plateau affected not only the evolution of plants adapted to the alpine conditions at the high altitudes of the Himalaya but also the expansion of xeric habitats in central Asia and the enhanced monsoons affecting South East Asia and South Asia.


The hypothesis of the impact of the rise of the Himalaya on plant diversity in South East Asia is studied employing mainly phylogenetic approaches that incorporate divergence time estimates, ancestral area reconstruction, inference of niche evolution, and estimates of diversification rates. The analyses also incorporate evidence from micro-paleontological research.


Comparative assessment of the existing and newly generated phylogenetic hypotheses for a wide range of angiosperms and ferns recovered evidence supporting the hypothesis of a substantial impact of the rise of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau on the assembly of lineage diversity. This result is consistent with palaeoclimate reconstructions that are based on pollen and spore record. In comparison, the recovered patterns indicate the involvement of different processes in response to the Cenozoic mountain formations in South America and South East Asia.


The presentation summarises research that was carried out during my time as a senior visiting professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Besides the presentation of the results of the research, I will also touch on issues related to the current research conditions in China.


Harald Schneider




For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


Department of Life Sciences seminar


Insect diversity and pest control in the anthropogenic habitats of NE China


Jan Axmacher

Department of Geography, University College London


Friday 7 December 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)



The natural environment of NE China has been altered by humans for thousands of years. Nonetheless, both intensity and spatial extend of these alterations have greatly increased since the middle of the last century. Agricultural production was greatly intensified, while the remaining natural forest cover was widely cleared. The severe environmental degradation which followed has led to an increased awareness of the importance of environmental issues in the last few decades, with re- and afforestation projects being currently established throughout China at an unprecedented scale. At the same time, agricultural practices following the maxim ‘the more, the better’ are also increasingly questioned, with the importance of biological pest control recognized as a potential cheap and less environmentally detrimental alternative to chemical pesticides.


Given these recent developments, I have started a number of collaborative research projects with the Chinese Agricultural University and the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences to investigate diversity and species composition of ground beetle assemblages in reforested habitats and the agricultural landscapes of the Hebei province, looking at both the diversity and potential pest control function of these mostly predatory beetles. Our research shows that the diversity of ground beetles varies strongly between different types of forest ecosystems, with naturally regenerating birch forests and open larch plantations showing a high abundance, but low diversity in carabids. Plantations of native oak and pine monocultures, as well as forests composed of a mixture of planted and naturally regenerating trees harbour distinctly higher diversity levels.


In the agricultural landscape, even very intensively managed double-cropping systems comprising of summer maize and winter wheat monocultures can support surprisingly high levels of ground beetle diversity, while cotton monocultures were found to harbour distinctly lower levels of carabid diversity. Landscape elements like the diversity of land-use types were found to have only a limited effect on the diversity of the ground beetle community at least in some of our study areas. A comparison of diversity patterns in ground beetles and geometrid moths finally showed that links between these highly diverse herbivore and insectivore taxa are highly complex, with distinctly different spatial patterns observed in these two families.




For additional details on attending this or other seminars see




Snow overnight! It snowed about 4-5 cm ....  very beautiful, but the Chinese cope with snow similarly to people in London - not particularly well, it does not happen that often - so I am lucky. Here though people were out in force from early one - sweeping away the snow with twig brooms as it fell! My plane takes off in a few hours - if it is clear the view over Mongolia will be spectacular!





Early in the morning I found the fishing boats came in close to shore and tourists from the high rise hotels flocked to buy fish – about an hour later they chugged off to the next door bay, presumably to do the same thing.



Yalong Bay


After our exciting success yesterday with Solanum nienkui, Mr. Huang decided we needed to see the tropical rainforest resort where he had provided botanical help, labelling trees and providing environmental impact support. It is great to see trees in a place like this labelled with names (scientific and Chinese), distribution and uses – really possible to learn something.


Tree label


It was truly a wonder and could only be in China – a luxury hotel with cabins (“camping”!!) set in lovely forest, all accessible and ready to host hundreds of guests. One of the (many) swimming pools just dropped off into nowhere – stunning. I did find a solanum - Solanum procumbens, a spiny vine I had only seen once before, so I was pleased!



We then returned to Sanya to stock up on fruit from the local open air fruit market before our return to Beijing in the evening – what a place! Mangoes from tiny to huge, jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus, related to the breadfruit of Captain Bligh fame) [jackfruit] – and bedlam from bargaining, card playing and general motorcycle plus human traffic.



Fruit seller


Many of the vendors were local people from mountain villages – their lips and teeth were stained red from chewing what is often called “betel nut”. The nut is the area but, from the palm Areca catechu, and it is sold together with betel leaves – the leaves of the black pepper (Piper nigrum). The nuts are a mild stimulant with vasoconstricting properties, causing a hot sensation and heightened alertness. The red staining is from the coloured seed inside the palm fruit. The nut is important (in conjunction with the pepper leaves) in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine and is widely used in Southeast Asia.



Betel nuts


At 8pm we took off for Beijing, laden with fruits, and arrived nearly 5 hours later – China is a huge country, and we even flew the short axis! The shock was considerable, coming to 0 degrees centigrade from 39 a few hours before – snow on the ground and ponds frozen over. Thank goodness the herbarium is heated!



Dry forest


Today was devoted to searching for Solanum nienkui, first described from Hainan and until recently thought to be endemic there (now it is known from Vietnam as well). It is known from very few specimens, all of which look very ratty. We had no idea what sort of habitat to look for it in, or what it looked like, so thankfully Mr. Huang was along to help – he had seen it before! After a frustrating morning in the heat and sun (35 degrees and rising to 39 eventually!), we headed off to JianFeng on the west coast.


Examining Solanum nienkui


There we found Solanum nienkui in the very dry forest at the back of the Hainan University research station! Very exciting – and we now know why the specimens look the way they do – it is a pretty unprepossessing plant – sticks with a few leaves and flowers. The flowers have unequal anthers, something not mentioned in any of the descriptions of the species – I will have to check this carefully against the few specimens I have back at the Museum.


Solanum nienkui


As a reward to ourselves, we stopped at the beach at the edge of Sanya on the way back – partly to go to the beach, but also to see the coastal vegetation restoration. There were several species of spiny shrubs, a screwpine (Pandanus) and Spinifex littoreus, an extraordinary grass whose female inflorescences for great tumbling balls that are blown about in the wind. We had races with these on the sand – great fun!



Sanya beach  (click to enlarge images)                      Spinifex



Wuzhishan (click to enlarge images)                                         Steep trail with Jiang


Today we split up – Jiang and I went to climb Wuzhishan (at 1871 m, the tallest point on Hainan Island) and JinXiu and Gao went to villages to look at plants around there. Wuzhishan is called “Five Finger Mountain” for the five peaks; the trail up to the top begins at about 800 m elevation and basically goes straight up the ridge. To climb you have to pull yourself up by trees and roots – near the top there is a series of rickety ladders. The plants were beautiful – this Rhododendron had flowers about 3 cm across. We didn’t quite make it – we had to be back down by 1 pm to go on, so had to turn back. I could see, however, that the last 200 m climb was straight up and very precarious!


Rhododendron                                                                  The pigsty

We then went on to a small village in the next mountain range – the centre of Hainan is inhabited by people of the Li ethnic group. There we were excited to find a purple semi-wild aubergine or aubergine relative! The villagers had brought it with them from their previous village, but the younger people said they were not interested in it – it was for old people only. It was growing in a pigsty, alongside the normal yellow-fruited sorts of plants we had been collecting all along the way. It will be fascinating to see where this purple-fruited plant fits genetically.


Purple aubergine

After collecting until neraly dark, we sped on to Sanya, the southernmost city in China. It is a real tourist haven - for Chinese tourists! Lots of people come here in the winter as it is nice and warm (34 degrees C at 7 pm after dark). We were taken to a special seafood place by Mr. Huang from the Forestry Bureau who will collect with us tomorrow - you got to choose your dinner from tanks! The variety was astounding.


Dinner from a tank


Rice paddies


Left Haikou through the most amazing traffic jam of people going back to school, work, you name it. After a few more roadside solanum collections, we entered the central part of the island. It is essentially a huge garden – mostly cultivated in neat squares. Here the rice has been planted in paddies – it is the most luminescent green, and every field has a person in it weeding, planting or just generally tending to things.





In the little roadside face where we ate lunch a poster of Mao, Zhou and Liu and their Marshals was on the wall – it reminded me of the horsemen of the apocalypse! On the facing wall was one of the generals similarly astride horse with flowing manes all rushing headlong to somewhere.





Our destination for today was Limushan Nature Reserve in the mountainous part of Hainan; here the peaks are up to 1400 metres above sea level and although they look completely clothed with forest, they were heavily logged all the way to the tops in the early part of the 20th century. Now, however, the area is a provincial reserve and the loggers have new jobs as park rangers. The forest is interesting, with an understory of bamboo and rattans and some very big trees of Podocarpus (a timber tree) and others. Given time, it will probably recover, especially if the protection continues. Rubber is planted right up to the edge of the Reserve, and Caribbean pines – so the edge is at risk.



Firecracker tree


The forest was incredibly dry – it is dry season and it has been a very dry year, so it was a bit disappointing on the solanum front, but we did see some rather lovely other plants, like the firecracker tree – a tree first described from Hainan (Rademachera hainanensis) in the Bignoniaceae, or catalpa family).





Well, the end of the Chinese Spring Festival (New Year holiday) sure puts Guy Fawkes night to shame! In the week I have been here firecrackers have been everywhere, but this evening the really big guns came out. For an full hour and a half (and maybe a bit longer) spectacular fireworks went off in a park by the Hainan Government buildings near Century Bridge - it is obvious these are a Chinese invention. Several hours later I still hear booms and bangs from all directions - it will go on all night. This is really ending things with a bang!


Hainan University

The solanums of Hainan are still awaiting us; we ended up staying in Haikou as the park we were going to was closed for the holiday. So we spent the day in the herbarium of Hainan University instead. The collection is tiny, eaten by insects and kept in a very poor condition, but what the botanists lack in facilities they make up in enthusiasm. We were treated very kindly by Professor Yang; it was a real pleasure to have the day in town - something I usually would never say! Tomorrow we head for the mountains in the centre of the island, one of the few places native vegetation remains.



View from Pao Tai (click to enlarge pictures)


More amazing karst formations all day long - such spectacular landscapes make up for no solanums! We climbed several mountains to see the truly endemic and interesting forest that grows only on these karst mountains - not easy, as there are often no trails! It is wonderful to be in forest that feels familiar (to a person more used to South America), but with camellias in the understory. Mr Lu, from the forest protection unit, showed us places to go - he also went with us to make sure we did not stray into any mined areas left over from the war in the 1980s. The border between Vietnam and China was heavily mined and this was part of the front line.



Sugarcane, Yao village


In our last stop of the day, to climb Pao Tai mountain, we were greeted upon our return by the truly inebriated chief of the village (Yao people, a minority group), who was thrilled to have an English person (the niceties of my actually being American as well we decided to leave out!) in his village and made me photograph the mud walls of the houses to show the world - so here they are!


As in the rest of this area - farming is carried out on every available surface - all done by hand or with water buffalo. It is planting season so the fields are filled with people - mind-boggling.



Manganese mine


As we approached the border with Vietnam we passed a truly gigantic open pit manganese mine - hopefully restoration ecology will take hold in China soon. The border in this region is a river - red flags with one large golden star and four smaller ones (China) on one side, red flags with a single golden star (Vietnam) on the other.




China/Vietnam border



Some of the spectacular scenery that Sandy Knapp has photographed on her fieldtrip to China


Sandy Knapp continues to search for aubergines (Solanum melongena) and other interesting Solanum species in China, and I've been reading her blog with interest.


Aubergine varieties seem to have evaded discovery so far - a farmer in one of the locations she visited said his crop had failed due to the cold weather, but there are apparently lots of other interesting crops and plant life to be seen, and in some cases eaten.


On Monday Sandy was served the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, which is a common weed in Britain and thought to be poisonous! She says it was obviously not very, at least in China. A braver approach than I'd have, and I was relieved to read from her blog posts later in the week that she didn't seem to be any the worse for it.


Sandy's not just exploring fields, brush and spectacular limestone mountains: she found another species, Solanum torvum, growing in a rubbish dump in the north of China. Who said fieldwork isn't glamorous!



It's worth it though. Yesterday she wrote that they'd found their first exciting Solanum species - Solanum violaceum (shown right). Although it's a common species, she wants to compare it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.


Not all of her observations have been positive. She has seen first-hand evidence of habitat destruction in the beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills near Gansu. She says mining for stone and gravel will have destroyed many of them by next year, along with the native flora that grows there.


I look forward to finding out more about Sandy's travels, including whether she finds the elusive aubergine and whether she's served up any other risky dishes.


Read Sandy's blog, Investigating aubergines in China.


From Nanning we went north (backwards!) to try to find a locality where an old collection of Solanum macaonense, an enigmatic aubergine relative, had been collected. We failed in that, but did find Solanum torvum (pea eggplant commonly used in Thai cooking) growing in the rubbish dump of Gansu – solanums often grow in the most unsalubrious places!


On the rubbish heap  (click to enlarge images)           Fields, Naling



Near Gansu there was ample evidence of the threats to these beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills – mining for stone and gravel is all but destroying many of them, by next year these will be completely gone, along with the endemic flora that grows there.


We carried on, passing fields with many people working to prepare for planting, harvesting sugarcane and manioc. Manioc is grown as a starch crop here, where I know it better in South America it is a staple food crop. My companions were surprised at this and asked an elderly man if they ever ate it - he replied something like only if we have to! It is amazing that fields of such extent are all prepared, fertilized and planted by hand, and ploughed by water buffalo.



Solanum violaceum                                                                      Collecting Solanum violaceum

We went to look at the base of some cliffs, found a cave tomb with the deceased in a jar so he/she could be moved if necessary and in the brush found our first exciting solanum – Solanum violaceum. This is a common species, but I am interested in comparing it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.



Field in rocks                                                                                         Polytunnels

Turning south off the main road to head for the Jing Xi, a town near the Vietnamese border, we went through a region of extensive banana cultivation, where many of the crops were being grown as seedlings in polytunnels – the fields looked white striped. This is not only to increase the heat, but to save water – we saw a man with a funnel and a bucket watering each seedling in the tunnel by hand. There has been a severe drought in this region this year – it shows.


Near Long Ho


We then crossed some spectacular limestone mountains, where the Long Ha Nature Reserve is said to be home to monkeys. In these mountains every square inch of cultivatable land is cultivated – between rocks and in spectacular terraces in all the valleys (like near Naling, where the rice paddies were being readied for planting and followed the contours of the land beautifully).


Staying in the Nanning Public Security Bureau's Science and Technology Hotel and guess what - there is free Internet in the room! We drove from Guilin to Nanning today via Liuzhou, and big industrial (very polluted - you could cut the air with a knife) city. In Liuzhou we went to a protected area, which turned out to the a public park with limestone karst hills - full of people celebrating the New Year! It always amazes me how the concept of wilderness is so foreign in China; in this park, on the top of one of the hills is an endemic species of the Aster family (Asteraceae) found nowhere else. Nature does its best to co-exist alongside people here, and sometimes does quite well in places one might not expect. These public scenic parks are heavily visited, but respected and loved.


Fireworks in a shop


From Liuzhou we drove through kilometre after kilometre of sugar cane fields, all being harvested - by hand. This part of China is a main sugar growing region; we crossed over the Tropic of Cancer, so are now officially in the tropics. Nanning is a very large, thoroughly modern and amazingly clean city - the cleanliness of its streets puts London to shame. Still New Year - the firecrackers go off all night and everyone is having a great time.

We ate the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum (a common British weed, thought to be poisonous, but obviously not very, at least in China), at supper tonight - still no aubergines, but I am hopeful for tomorrow!

GPS coordinates of Nanning: 22 deg 49.075 min N, 108 deg 20.330' E


Approximately twenty four  hours after I left London, I am at the first  destination in China! Tiangang and Jin Xiu met me in  the Beijing airport and we transfered to a (very)  late internal flight to Guilin in Guangxi Province. Everywhere is full of people, it  is the end of spring festival and Chinese New Year, a time when people go to see  their families and relatives in far-flung parts of China – everyone  is on the move and everywhere is brightly decorated in red and gold.



Guangxi Botanical Garden


Guilin used to be  the capital of the province, but as it is in the NW corner, the provincial seat  was moved to Nanning, which occupies a more central  position. Flying into Guilin the most extraordinary landscape unrolled beneath  us – sharp, pointed bare rock mountains interspersed with paddy rice fields; all  very green, even though it is what feels incredibly cold (only about 12 degrees  C). It got dark shortly after we arrived, so we went to the Botanical Institute  where we have been given rooms within the grounds – tomorrow it is the herbarium  and a bit of planning.