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Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have been extremely busy since our last blog post, here's Mike Waller with an update on what they have been getting up to!


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The trainees puzzle over their latest capture (L-R: Sally, Anthony, Mike and Katy)


Our timetables, until now a collage of various colours, have become a very busy reality over the last two months. We got our teeth into another batch of long-anticipated ID workshops - Flowering Plants, Beetles, Flies and Earthworms. I think I speak for everyone when I say the skills and knowledge we've been passed by some of the leading scientific experts in the Museum have been rich, extensive and unique. Developing techniques to hoard as much of this golden information as possible have become paramount.


I've already gathered a thick stack of mixed ID keys, notes, powerpoint handouts and even the odd specimen - usually midway through the processing to go into my personal collection. Sally has taken her learning consolidation to a new level and is producing an incredible assemblage of annotated line drawings and intricate watercolours in her note book. She'll be blogging about that separately, but we're all a little jealous!


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An extract from Sallys notebook


The first of these workshops was a one-day instalment of flowering plants out in the wilds of East London with Mark Spencer. We met promptly for 9.00 at Mile End tube station before heading out in the company of other trainees from a similar scheme called Wild Talent being run by the London Wildlife Trust (also funded by the HLF's Skills for the Future programme), and people who narrowly missed out on getting the traineeship during the first round. Indeed, several places have been made available on all workshops for the other 20 trainee applicants as an opportunity to maximise the skills-base across the board. It was great to see them again!


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Mark Spencer highlighting some of the finer points of plant identification


After a scorching day keying out Fabacae and crucifers, dodging cyclists and discussing the horror of path-side 'tidying', we finished in Mark's local pub for a well-earned pint. As always, Mark's casual ability to blend good science, humour and memorable anecdotes always makes for a superb time. We all very much look forward to our next sessions with him in July.


Next up was our very first invertebrate workshop, and what better to start with than beetles - the group within which both Katy and Anthony find their true passion. This workshop was a solid four-day stretch that began with Roger Booth taking us through the depths of beetle anatomy followed by some family keying. Max Barclay provided a two-part lecture on world beetle families that, for me, gave a fascinating insight into the truly spectacular speciation and morphological diversity of the group acoss the planet.


As our confidence grew, we began to use specific familiy keys to make accurate species identifications of some of the more challenging groups such as Elateridae or the 'click' beetles. Michael Geiser and Roger offered invaluable help during this process as their oceans of knowledge were repeatedly called upon.


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A small selection of beetles for identification


Just as we thought we were getting to understand insects, BOOM, in swept the seemingly impenetrable order of flies - a group with unfathomable diversity! Luckily we were in very good hands as we were led through the array of sub-orders by Erica McAlister, Duncan Sivell, Zoe Adams, Daniel Whitemore and the AMC's very own Chris Raper.


In similar style to the beetles, we used familiy keys to start with then slowly graduated to species identifications where possible. This workshop however came with a difference and on the second day, we all met at Wimbledon Common for a day out collecting.


With nets, pooters and pots at the ready, we were unleased on the varied mix of heathland, pastures and oak woodlands to capture what we could. The weather couldn't have been better and gave us a golden opportunity to use collecting techniques in the field. Once back in the Museum we were then able to pin and mount our specimens for our personal collections.


Wimbledon Common.jpgChloe learning slide preparation for diptera ID.jpg

Left: Out on Wimbledon Common with the Diptera team. Right: Chloe back in the lab working on her diptera slide preparation


Our most recent workshop went subterranean with Emma Sherlock as we dug up seemingly half of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trusts London Wetland Centre in the pursuit of earthworms. Using our trusty spades, and encouraged with the possibility of encountering a rare species, we sampled different habitats around the reserve to gain a good range of species which we then took back to the lab for identification the following day. Emma's unbridled passion for earthworms is infections and we all developed a new-found interest to take forward.



If that wasn't enough, we all packed our walking boots and set out for our placements with the Field Studies Council where we were based at various FSC Centres scattered up and down the country.


During May, I made my way north to Malham Tarn, whilst Chloe took heading north to the extreme with a week at Kindrogan and Milport on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. Meanwhile, Anthony settled at Flatford Mill in Suffolk. Sally followed the South Wales coast to Dale Fort and Katy battled her way through the winding roads of North Wales to Rhyd-y-Creau in the mists of Snowdonia.


The focus of each of our placements was 2-fold: to observe the identification courses each centre was running and to assist with the outdoor teaching for which the FSC is renowned. I got to observe a beginners course called 'Spring Wildflowers of the Dales' which, as you'd expect, concentrated on the botanical.


It was led by local botanist Judith Allinson who taught a mixture of plant structure and lineage with a good dose of field visits to observe some of the specialist plants of the stunning limestone pastures, pavements and hay meadows. Having not been to the Dales proper before, I was continually stunned by this landscape of dramatic limestone cliffs and thick green meadows chequered by moss-drenched dry stone walls where the only sounds were the melancholy warbles of distant curlews. Highlights for me were the rafts of early purple orchids, adder's-tongue ferns and a hungry peregrine attempting to snatch Lapwing chicks on the tarn shore


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Malham Tarn FSC Centre


The second part of my stay saw a sudden shift from pupil to teacher as various school groups, ranging from 8-14 year olds, visited for day trips and longer stays. This meant hanging out with the tireless field teachers who work extremely long hours to meet the educational needs of over-excited children!


It was a real privilege to see the field teacher's skills in action, but equally how challenging their roles can be. Trying to deliver a range of syllabus-based content that is relevant and exciting to different age groups, whilst trying to avoid the hazards of controlling a large group of children in an unpredicatable environment is very hard indeed. These observations were echoed by the other trainees who also gained immesurably from their experiences.


To round off our teaching and learning, Sally, Anthony and I also got stuck into some more people engagement at Big Nature Day here at the Museum. This is a coming together of over 50 different specialist wildlife organisations from across the UK. These included the more familiar groups such as the BSBI and iSpot, but it also provided an opportunity for some of the lesser-known societies such as the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Pteridological Society to get their name out there.


Like Lyme Regis, this was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the work of the Angela Marmont Centre while also browsing and networking with some fascinating wildlife groups. As trainees, we ran our own table providing microscopes to observe lichens and several drawers filled with UK insects and bee mimics. I also spent some of my time at the Orchid Observers stand where I helped answer questions about the project alongside Kath Castillo, Fred Rumsey and Mark Spencer.


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Mike, Sally and Anthony at Big Nature Day


All in all, an inspiring day, and an inspiring, and hectic couple of months! As the traineeship progresses, we're all looking forward to our next few workshops, which include Freshwater Invertebrates, Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera, as well as our short field trip down to the Isle of Purbeck before we all set sail in September for our three month curation placements at various departments around the Museum. Make sure you stay tuned for the next instalment of the Identification Trainees saga!


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Your blog author, Mike Waller


Thanks Mike! Don't forget you can find out more about the Identification Trainers for the Future project at, including how and when to apply for next years traineeship positions.


Posted on behalf of Ranee Prakash, Curator of Flowering Plants in the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences.


Wadakam (Hello!),


We are happy to share our recent journey to the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu, southern India in March - April 2015.


Our team from the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences includes: >


The aim of the visit was to consult the herbaria of Botanical Survey of India (BSI) at Coimbatore, and Pune and also to visit Blatter Herbarium, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. We looked at the Solanaceae collections.


Apart from visiting BSI’s regional offices, we also visited Madras Christian College (MCC), Presidency College, National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), The Eco Park and the Theosophical Society in Chennai.


Xavier also made a brief visit to the French Institute in Pondicherry. The aim of this visit was to investigate the botanical collections of the herbarium of the French Institute, as well as to liaise with the French and Indian researchers working on the Indian flora. They are known to be particularly well curated and informative for the region of Mumbai and Pondicherry, from where Solanum trilobatum L. is native.


The Botanical Survey of India (BSI)


The BSI was established in 1890, with the main aim of surveying the plant resources and identifying plant species of economic value within the countr. With headquarters in Kolkata, it has ten regional offices in various states of India. It comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.


We visited regional offices in Coimbatore and Pune. Coimbatore office has important collections of R.Wight (b. 6 July 1796 – d. 26 May 1872) and other collectors of the Honorable East India Company (EIC).


We databased around 400 specimens from both the regional offices. This data will be repatriated back to India. During the visit, Xavier identified Solanum species and recurated the species. For example Solanum xanthocarpum Schrad. & H. Wendl. is now Solanum virginianum L.


A detailed list of synonyms, correct taxonomy and pictures of Solanceae species is available on the Solanaceae Source website.


Madras Christian College (MCC)


Madras Christian College has a beautiful campus spread over 360 acres area with a rich flora and fauna (see Fig. 1). Originally founded by Rev. John Anderson, a Missionary from the Church of Scotland, on April 3, 1837, the college recently celebrated its 178th anniversary. Anderson is known for introducing English medium education in Southern India. MCC is an autonomous college and is renowned for academic excellence and for social commitment.



Fig 1. Madras Christian College, Chennai.


We met the faculty staff members: Dr M. Baluswami (Head-Department of Botany), Dr D Narasimhan (Associate Professor), Leslie Lawrence (Assistant Professor) and Sheeba Irwin (Research Assistant). We also had a brief chat with undergraduates and post graduate students and listened to their views on career aspirations.


Presidency College


Established in 1840, Presidency College is one of the oldest Arts College in Chennai, India. Located opposite the Marina beach in Karmalai area in Chennai, the building has very beautiful architecture (see Fig. 2). The college has various streams viz. Arts, Science, Commerce and has facilities for research leading to Ph.D. degree.



Fig 2. Presidency College, Chennai Ravichandar84.


We looked at P.F. Fyson’s (1877–1947) botanical collections stored in the College’s herbarium (see Fig.3). Fyson was a noted botanist and educator who worked in Southern India. During the period of 1920-1925, he served as Inspector of Schools for Vishakapatnam and Ganjam districts (Andhra Pradesh). He later returned to the Presidency College and served as Principal from 1925-1932.



Fig 3. PF Fyson.


Fyson is famous for many books and illustrated volumes that he wrote from 1912-1932.In 1912, he wrote a textbook of Botany for college students.


He is renowned for the first illustrated volumes of the South Indian Hills, 'The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney Hill-tops' which was published in 1915. This book has 286 illustrated pages and 483 species. This book was followed with a book on plant species from the lower elevations and notes on the Shevaory Hills in 1921. In 1932, he published 'The Flora of the South Indian Hill Stations', which covered 877 species.  Besides these, he also wrote a book on Madras flowers - illustrated 100 plates, a monograph on the genus Eriocaulon and a Flora of the South Indian Hills.


In his honour, the Presidency College, Chennai has instituted 'The Fyson Prize' for work in the area of Natural Sciences. 


Theosophical Society at Adyar, Chennai


Founded in 1875 in New York, the International Headquarters moved to Adyar, Chennai in 1882. The main aim of this body is universal brotherhood and the members are united to learn the purpose of existence through, self-responsibility, study, reflection and loving service.


Located between the Adyar River and the coast, the society is spread in 100-hectare grounds and provide a green, peaceful, vehicle-free retreat from the city. One can wander through the native and introduced flora, including a 400 year old banyan tree. Some of the plants that we saw in the garden and will not forget include the Sandbox tree, also known as Dynamite tree (see Fig. 4).



Fig 4. Hura crepitans, commonly known as sandbox tree.


Botanically, this plant is known as Hura crepitans belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family and the Cannon Ball tree - botanically known as Couroupita guianensis belonging to Lecthidaceae family (see Fig. 5a, b).



Fig 5a. Fruits of Couroupita guianensis, commonly known as cannon ball tree.


Fig 5b. Flower of Couroupita guianensis commonly known as cannon ball tree.


The French Institute at Pondicherry


Inaugurated after the cessation of French Territories to India in 1955 (i.e. the 5 cities of Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanaon, Mahé and Chandannagar), the French Institute of Pondicherry is very active in the study of South Indian civilisation and culture. Since the 60s, it has also developed an important ecology department, specialised in collecting information on the evolution of the environment in South India. From this time, the researchers of the Institute have constituted a herbarium which counts today more than 24,000 specimens.


Xavier visited the herbarium, annotated and databased all the Solanacae specimens present in the collections (more than a 100). This trip to Pondicherry has been also an ideal occasion to exchange contacts with the French and Indian researchers working there on various aspect of the Indian flora (mostly forest ecology), and Xavier has presented his research project during a conference. During a short tour at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden with Soupramanien Aravajy, the most knowledgeable botanist of the IFP, we were happy to find, hidden in the bushes, the small (and terribly spiny!) Solanum trilobatum L. (see Fig. 10).


After three days of work in this quiet and beautiful “Petite France”, it was difficult to come back to busy Chennai…


Besides visiting the Institutes, we also visited some historic temples in Chennai, Coimbatore, Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) and Madurai belonging to the Chola and Pallava dynasty (around 3rd to 6th century C.E.). We were amazed with the absolute beauty of architectural designs. It was sweltering hot in India with temperatures around 38-40 degrees centigrade but the food was delicious with so many varieties of Kathrik kai (brinjal) (see Figs. 6a & 6b), Valai palam (banana) and the lovely chutneys made from Takali (tomatoes) and puli (tamarind).  We had rice Arisi (rice) for lunch and dinner, lots of keerai (leafy vegetables) and tanni (water) to keep us hydrated!



Fig. 6a. Solanum torvum( sundaikkai) sold in the market.



Fig 6b. Brinjal varieties sold in the market.


As our journey came to an end, we would like to reflect on the memorable wander to the Nilgiris, the picturesque memories for years to linger including the highest Peak Point 'Doddabetta' in the Nilgiri Mountains at 2367 metres (8650 feet). This is where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet (see Fig. 7). The endless vibrant greenery of the tea estates (see Fig. 8) (wonder what it must be like when there were undisturbed forests) and the beautiful architectural buildings of the various temples and palaces.



Fig. 7. Doddabetta Peak (highest point 2637m, where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet).



Fig. 8. Tea plantation in the Nilgiris.


We would like to convey our warm Nandri (Thank you- in Tamil) and gratitude to all the staff at various Institutes. A special Nandri to Dr D.Narasimhan at MCC, Dr V Sampath Kumar, Dr G V S Murthy, Dr Beniamim, G. Gyanansekaharan and Kannamani at BSI for all the hospitality and help (see Fig. 9).



Fig. 9. Staff at BSI Coimbatore office.



Great way to collaborate and open the boundaries! Come on India.



Fig. 10. Solanum trilobatum L., growing along the path, Pondicherry Botanical Garden.


This month it is the turn of Katy Potts to give us an update on the progress of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. Since Anthony's review of their first month with us the trainees have progressed onto Phase 2 of their programme, where their species identification training really starts in earnest and we've certainly been keeping them busy!


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Trainees puzzling over an identification (l-r: Sally Hyslop, Anthony Roach, Mike Waller & Katy Potts)


The past two months have been both exciting and enlightening in educating us about the world of biological recording and species identification. It was while I was at Plymouth University that I first discovered species identification in an invertebrate taxonomy module with the ever inspiring entomologist Peter Smithers. It was under Peter's guidance and teaching that I fell in love with the six legged insects that run our world. Moreover, it was the passion for taxonomy from Peter that inspired me to delve into this field of biology.


The past two months have been fantastic. We are currently in Phase 2 of our programme where the core identification workshops, Field Studies Council placements and project work are taking place.


We have been welcomed into the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) in the warmest way possible. After we settled in we were each given a role in one of five citizen science projects: The Microverse (me), Orchid Observers (Mike Waller), The Urban Tree Survey (Chloe Rose), The Big Seaweed Search (Anthony Roach) and The Bluebell Survey (Sally Hyslop). You might have seen posts from some of us on about our projects on the Citizen Science blog.


My role was to work on the Microverse project, which looks at discovering what species of micro-organisms live on buildings in the UK and what environmental factors affect their diversity. In this project, schools are asked to swab buildings made of different materials. They then send the DNA to us at the Museum for analysis. My role in this project is to carry out the DNA extraction in the microbiology labs and then help collate the results to send back out to the schools. Whilst working on this project, I have gained invaluable experience in current methodologies used for DNA extraction, something I was keen to learn but never anticipated doing through the traineeship!


My personal highlight of the traineeship is the identification workshops, which began in April with a two day Bryophyte ID course with Dr Fred Rumsey. During this course we looked at the anatomy of bryophytes, learning about their distributions and status as a group in the UK. We used microscopy to become familiar with a wide selection of species, focusing on the features that define their identification. There was also a field trip organised to Burnham Beeches where we observed a range of bryophytes in the field, from sphagnum mosses to the rare Zygodon forseri (knothole moss).


Katy & Sally looking for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches.jpg

Sally & Katy hunting for bryophytes at Burnham Beeches


The second identification workshop was on Lichens with Lichenologist Holger Thues. To begin this course we explored the biology of lichens, their anatomy and distributions in the UK. We then went on a field trip to Hampstead Heath to look at a range of lichens that are present in this area, some of which are important indicators of pollution levels.


Personally, I found this an eye opening experience as I come from a part of Devon that is not far from Dartmoor, where I have spent many days walking along the River Dart. Along the riverside and some of the woodlands (such as Whistmans Wood) there is an abundance of lichen species, many growing to be large specimens due to the quality of the habitat. Seeing the effect that pollution has on the growth forms of the same species of lichen in London was very interesting.


When back in the museum, we spent some time in the cryptogrammic herbarium where we used a range of keys to begin learning lichen taxonomy and microscopy for identification. This included using chemical tests and cross-section microscopy to aid species identifications.


Chloe & Katy finding lichens.jpg

Chloe and Katy looking for lichens


Mike & Chloe back in the lab working on their lichen ID.jpg

Mike and Chloe back in the lab working on their lichen identification


As the weather begins to warm and the field season begins, many different wildlife groups are emerging and buzzing around. This ignited the desire in all of us to learn field survey techniques. As part of our environmental consulancy module we looked at methods for surveying different groups of wildlife. We were lucky enough to have the chance to survey newts in the Wildlife Garden here at the Museum. Steph West (the Project Manager for the ID Trainers project who has previously worked as an ecological consultant) supervised us while we undertook dusk and dawn newt surveys where we learnt key methods for newt trapping and releases as well has how to identifiy the different species.


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Collecting our newt bottle traps in the Wildlife Garden.


During the sunnier days in London when we have some free time we are able to retreat into the Wildlife Garden to observe and collect insects. The garden is very diverse with a wide range of UK habitats that support a number of different wildlife groups. This valuable resource allows us to collect specimens and gain experience in identifying them. We are then able to incorporate them into our own collections which we can use as an identification reference. When out in the field we are also encouraged to collect specimens to support our work in identification. I have recently been working on identifying a wood ant I collected whilst out on a field trip:


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Formica sp. ant I have been identifying


There are many more workshops and events to look forward to over the next month: Coleoptera, Flowering Plants, Dipetera and Earthworms are all coming up. For the last part of May however we are all on placements with the Field Studies Council for one week. I will be heading to the FSC centre in Rhyd-y-creuau in Snowdonia at the end of May assisting on courses on tree identification, arctic alpine flowers and a school Geography field trip.


Thank you Katy! Next month we'll be getting an update from Mike Waller on how those placements have gone, as well as some of the workshops and events that the trainees have been working on.


It's been a while but we have now the penultimate installment of the Peruvian Adventure by Dave the driver Hall...enjoy.


I think that fourth night must have been the first one I've spent at 2,700m and I didn't seem any the worse for it. I tugged at the wooden shutters to see what day five on the road might have in store. Weather: acceptable for driving on dodgy roads. High, thin clouds cut with watery pastels. A shabby old town in diluted blue and sunbleached turquoise. The plaza mayor was just creaking into life. A cluster of women in straw hats held conference outside a grocer's. A policeman heaved open the giant wooden double doors of an eroded old police station, yawned, and spat.


I took a cold shower, dressed and started lugging trunks and sample boxes from last night's sorting. Prof. Knapp was already up (of course) dismantling the drier. The daily task of packing seemed a little more arduous this morning. Either the altitude, or the shin-barkingly steep antique stairs. The van was parked in a square pound at the back of the hotel, which looked appealingly like the OK Corral. Sandy had been a little concerned that the truck might not still be there this morning, but the locals seemed harmless enough to me, if not exactly chummy.


The growing light revealed our hotel to be of a certain vintage; much of the rear was semi-derelict and empty. I creaked back and forth with my boxes through creepy cavernous dusty backrooms, using the return trips to investigate dark passages and musty staircases leading nowhere, the only sounds my wheezing and the drip of an old tap. And here an appealingly dilapidated old dining room-dance hall I could imagine thronging with local revellers.


Morning in Celendin.


After breakfast I took a few moments to explore the town, too. It might be old hat for the Dr Livingstones in our midst but I was unlikely to set eyes on the place again. Erica likes telling me how amusing it is reading my rhapsodic perspective on what she sees as routine grubby fieldwork: I see cascades of mountains; she sees dirty socks drying on the dashboard.


(Erica here - not exactly how I phrased it - he was bemoaning us for failing to see the beauty all around us - Sandy and I were concentrating on flies and spuds )


The market was already open for a day's easygoing trade. I ambled over. Three schoolboys kicked a burst ball to each other on the way to classes. The policeman hadn't moved. Stallholders unhurriedly erected awnings and set out their wares along the narrow thoroughfares, the alley-tunnels filled with the pungent aroma of meat, overripe fruit and hawker-stall breakfasts. I bought plump oranges and tomatoes for lunch from one of the impassively leather-faced vendors and wandered back to the hotel, ready for another day behind the wheel.


But no! Erica announced she'd be driving today, to 'give me a break'. The cheek. I protested firmly, in my quietest voice. This felt like cheating, but I was anticipating incredible scenery, ahead so I didn't flap.


(Erica again - they are long days driving- even we are not that nasty to make him drive continuously)


In contrast to other towns thus far it was a fair doddle finding the route out of town. Without at least two simultaneous sets of directions being offered in each ear, the going seemed somehow easier. Being fair, it wasn't hard to navigate. There was little traffic, and thanks to the colonial grid system we simply had to find the edge of the town and keep going until we hit a road going east.


Nevertheless, this road looked unpromising – a narrow back-street cluttered with the detritus of townsfolk's lives: bits of motorbike, smashed agricultural implements, underfed dogs...


But here a sign, which told us it was a mere 150km to our next stop, Leymebamba, and presently we started climbing.


The narrow road wound up again through foothills scarred with gold-mining quarries, many illegal. The locals had been protesting for some time, largely to deaf ears, that these mines – many sponsored by American multinationals – are polluting the water supply.


Above the scarred hillsides we rose... the road surface was perfect and I couldn't help thinking what an epic bike ride this would make for the stout of heart. Eventually the treeline gave way to rousing views of Celendin far below, where the light-blue double steeple of the church in the town square poked above the ramshackle rooftops. The town nestled in a half-bowl surrounded by hills. It must have looked attractive to the early Inca settlers and, unfortunately for them, the Spanish too. The head of the valley ended in an unseen drop, and far beyond were mountains whose peaks seemed oddly level with the town itself... now it was clear how high up the town was.


Still we climbed, this time without finding any locals to pester about their potatoes. Spying as yet no specimens, we meandered upward and upward, through rugged moorland, ever closer to the clouds that before had seemed so far off. As the sun finally renewed hostilities and the clouds began to leak a bit of sunshine, we reached a high pass of about 3,500m where a tiny village sat incongruously amid the rugged landscape, complete with a tiny football pitch and neatly planted conifers. The place had a strangely manicured feel.


Then, suddenly, the other side. As we breached the other side of the pass, a completely different panorama opened up. A dramatic series of valleys and mountain ranges rolled into the east, rib upon rib wreathed in mist, multiple horizons fading toward the Amazon. Somewhere to our right, far below and well beyond view, the Marañón River was thundering on its 1,700km looping journey toward the king of rivers. My head span at the spectacle. Sandy and Evelyn discussed tomatoes. Erica drove on without comment.


Our way wasn't getting any wider. As we wound downwards, hugging the cliffsides, the road only narrowed further. The bends were like fishhooks, and here and there were patches where the roadworks had not reached or where recent repairs had simply slid down the cliff. There were no barriers to protect motorists from the yawning 1,000-foot drops a matter of inches from the wheels. Superfluous roadsigns warned us to slow down and keep right. Erica didn't need much encouragement. Everyone in the car seemed to become silent. I tried to look far ahead to see if anything was coming the other way. We could only imagine what it must be like for lorry and bus drivers.


I was beginning to enjoy myself.



A yawning 1,000-foot drop inches to the left.


In the clouds now. I like being in clouds, but it doesn't help with the driving. Breaks in the mist revealed teasing glimpses of dark, sheer mountainsides. Here and there the sun poked through and a rainbow made a perfect technicolor arch over the road.



Driving through the Peruvian mountains.


Then just as suddenly, out of the mist, full sunshine, the scenery changing from hairpin to hairpin. We were descending toward a lush shoulder of high land, an upper valley nestled in a crown of mountains far below, dotted with tiny farmhouses and quiltwork cornfields, into which the road descended in a series of insane switchbacks. It was a perfect lost valley; a prime spot for Eldorado.



A prime spot for Eldorado.


I still have no idea how Sandy spots specimens from the car even at the modest speeds we were achieving. But at last Prof Knapp bade us stop for our first samples amid a gradually drier landscape.


The sun was melting the clouds away and the morning was mellowing nicely. Nearby, an allotment of sorts, a small bungalow and what I thought were petrol pumps. The immediate area was lush, catching runoff rainwater in a small series of irrigation ditches. Prime mozzie territory, I thought. Again, parts of the area had been cleared recently – the solanum species again proving keener than mustard to move in quick on new space.


My ridiculous sample notes about the sampling area – for 'twas my job – read: “A small irrigation ditch is nearby and a 'petrol station' nearby also.”  I see now it was not a petrol station, but someone's dwelling, but their toilets seemed public enough at the time.


Sandy and the Fly Girls exited, rummaged in the back for Sucky and Sweep, then set off into the undergrowth. Evelyn swished gamely. Erica bothered a bush. I made notes. Sandy snagged some excellent samples of Solanum dilleni. I went to the toilet again.


(Erica once more - many conversations on fieldtrips revolve around toilets - how often you need to go, the facilities etc)


On we went. As we sank riverwards, hopes rose in the back of the truck that the ever-more arid terrain may harbour the tomato relatives we had encountered in similar habitats earlier in the trip: habrochaites perhaps. It was getting drier and drier. I prefer the lush stuff up in the mountains.


We fairly freewheeled to the next stop a couple of miles hence, where a sharp bend in the road concealed a small clutch of solenum arcanum known from Sandy's notes to be in this location many years previously. It was still there. All manner of insects waited to be sucked from the bushes, but nearby sat a sizeable troop of Homosapiens Peruensis, taking a break from mending the road. They were much animated by the sight of Erica's immense suction apparatus. We had disturbed the species in its natural habitat, so had to bear with good grace the sniggering and what I imagined to be Spanish double entendres. The Challenges of Fieldwork.


My notes say we came away with some samples of “Solanum simplefolium” but, according to Google, this doesn't exist. That's a shame – I liked that name. I can only imagine it was Solanum pimpenellifolium. This sports little purple flowers and tiny tomatoes – tomatillos – which are edible. It's a really close relative of our tomatoes. Indeed, it is sometimes called a wild tomato.



Some Peruvian geology.


Further we sank toward the Marañón in our search for tomato and potato data, through spectacular peaks and pyramids of twisted volcanic rock where lava seams poked through like ribcages, past abandoned pasture and the occasional hungry-looking donkey picking through the brush.


At last we reached the valley floor, at the village of Chacanto in the district of Las Balsas – gateway to the Amazonas region. It was now all firmly semi-desert, reminiscent of parts of Nevada or Utah, catching the full ferocity of the sun. It felt like being stir-fried. The river looked inviting, but the Marañón slides through at a good clip here even in the dry season. It is a mere stream compared with what it would become downstream, but the bridge that spans it is a good 100m in length. We rolled over the bridge, stopped only a few minutes for a coffee in the sleepy village, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go...



The Marañón River at the bottom of the valley.


Erica - since writing these blog pieces we have been analysing some of the data and trying to figure out what some of the insects that we sampled are. It has taken months to do this and there have been at least 9 people so far going through the insects. many are about to be sent of to specialists across the globe. Upstairs from where I am typing this at my desk we have two people imaging some of the specimens before they are sequenced for their DNA....its a very exciting time for this project.


So here is the next blog installment from Dave 'Dave' Hall', who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year. He apologises again for the lateness of the blog but once more his actual work got in the way of writing my blog . So without any further delay here you go...


Day 4: Cajamarca to Celendin


I would first like to reiterate that the account expressed herein is my own. My amateurish observations are a flimsy scientific account that probably fails to demonstrate either these samples’ importance or what further work subsequently will be made possible by Sandy and Erica’s project. It will leave a rich permanent legacy for generations to build on. In digging up background information on some of the species we found, I keep coming across Sandy, Segundo and Erica’s names in academic work. It goes deep.


I am not a morning person. Normally I creak wearily into life long after the flowers unfurl. But I began to be grateful we made such good use of our days. Being on the road by 8am began to feel like a late start. Given the distances we had to cover and the frequent stops for samples, it was essential. 


This Is Fieldwork, soldier.


Everyone seemed to have slept well, and we were in high spirits loading up. But I remembered sadly that we were a man down. We had said goodbye to Segundo at the end of the previous day. Sandy in particular had been grateful of his expertise, and we were all glad of his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the terrain. He seemed to know the entire region; all the best sampling spots – even some of the local people – intimately. Would we cope without him?


After a great coffee and a bad omelette, we were off.


We were in for a shorter ride than the previous day, so we could take our time over the samples. We negotiated the baffling one-way grid system out of Cajamarca, weaving the narrow streets between bread sellers and campesinos, mixed incongruously with smart office workers in sharp suits picking their way through the building traffic, eventually threading our way through Banos de los Incas upward into hills once again.



Difficult to press: Solanum oblongifolium.


It was still slightly overcast as we stopped to take our first sample. Here Knapp bagged a Solanum oblongifolium – which sports “young stems and leaves variously pubescent with loose, translucent dendritic trichomes”, according to, (and therefore possibly Sandy, whose pictures are there from a previous Peruvian visit). It’s a fairly common shrub at altitudes above 2,000m and likes open places near pastures and roadsides. Its fruit looked to me like tiny, hard tomatoes, which they are, sort of, and they are difficult to press.


Sandy also bagged an Iochroma umbellatum - a rareish purple-flowered plant that has poisonous sap, rarely recorded but successfully so by one Segundo Leiva I see from one record. To top it off we snipped off a few samples from a species of Cestrum. which isn’t bad at at all for a single sample location.


The fly camp did equally as well here; Erica and Evelyn showing great dedication as they scrambled down a steep bank after their quarry, rummaging in the bushes, pooter wheezing. Dozens of fly species met their doom (which they are still sorting out I might add) along with numerous parasitic wasps, beetles and even a stick insect, which escaped.



The bushes sometimes have a habit of fighting back...


Erica reemerged covered in matter, mostly insects, seeds and pollen.


I contented myself record-keeping and observing a striking hummingbird fluttering about the treetops. 


On we went, winding steadily upwards through quite fertile, mostly arable landscape at a gentle, solanum-spotting pace until, barely an hour later, above the little town of Encanada, Sandy loudly expressed an interest in stopping. I did so smartly. Sandy had spotted what we thought must be another rarity – could this be a new species again?


She soon emerged from a farmer’s field with what appeared to me to be a domestic potato. As if to confirm this, on the other side of the road, three local people in Quechua gear were tending to their very own field of potatoes, filling hessian sacks full of plump spuds. While Sandy went to talk tubers with the locals, the ‘E’-team whipped out the nets and the positron collider for a short suction sample.



Sandy talking tubers with the locals.


Then Evelyn and Erica joined Sandy for a jolly chat and a rummage about the spuds. Apparently if we wanted a sample of potatoes, the two women wanted sweets. Erica obliged. Later I discovered Erica had obliged with the sweets I had bought for the office. Bargaining “chips” if you will.


Meanwhile I, as the least-accomplished Spanish speaker among us, “guarded” the car, while nearby, a solemn tethered bull chewed dispassionately.


The sun was breaking through as we set off again. The sun was well past halfway; intermittent bursts of it felt quite powerful when the clouds broke. The arable land was giving way to more typical high Andean scrub and grassland. The scenery was as spectacular as the roads were narrow.


Did I mention the roads were narrow? And in sections, bits of it were falling away at the edges. Must be why the guide book, with its entire half-page devoted to this route, deters tourists from taking this “road less travelled” in the wet season.


Yet, in fairness, efforts had recently been made to patch it up. As we progressed, we often passed workmen replacing the surface. Nevertheless, the drops on Erica’s side of the vehicle were exhilarating, but Erica had a funny way of expressing it, especially when I suggested getting a closer look.


My “field notes” record “periods of bright sunshine; v warm, but clumps of cumulus congestus aren’t far away.” We found ourselves in the congestus before long as we reached a pass some 3,700m up. That’s about as high as I’ve been without a fuselage around me – how exciting. 


the pass.jpg


Following historical data on previous locations of solanum, Sandy directed us off the road and up a muddy track. After I had backed The Beast (aka Freddy - Erica Here - both Sandy and I tried to win Dave around to Freddy but Dave was not having it and referred the whole time to him as the Beast - jealousy is ugly) clumsily into an open gate, the equipment was once again unpacked and the entomologas poked around the foliage as a little brook babbled nearby.


I busied myself with lunch duties, piling up the now-ubiquitous avocado, cheese and tomato buns with a liberal application of the local relish – a somewhat energetic Peruvian salsa called rojo.


Erica sidled up with a few samples, one of which I swear she called a black-and-yellow blackfly. “Why isn’t it simply called a yellow and blackfly? I asked. “Or a yellow-striped blackfly? It looks like a hoverfly. Why not a black yellow-fly?”


She now denies this ever happened, but I swear it annoyed her at the time. I suppose this is why you should never confuse entomology and etymology.



C3PO impression?


I distributed the butties from the back of the truck. Unfortunately, I had overestimated the average tolerance for rojo. Even Evelyn, who I had imagined would have polished hers off with local panache, seemed a little agitated. As the three teary-eyed scientists scraped off the lion’s share of the salsa from their buns, a mystery dog, which had appeared out of nowhere to share our lunch, also went in search of a drink in the stream. Some don’t like it hot.


At the risk of ridicule, can I say here that I thought the topography up here was not that dissimilar to parts of the Peak District. Rolling, rough pasture, grazing material, moorland – though not as managed, or as wet. And about 15 times the altitude.



Peak District or Peruvian highlands?


Sandy made the comment that all the vegetation I was seeing would have been quite different as recently as 500-600 years ago - that is, preconquest – when there would have been more native scrub: small shrubs, berberis, vemonia.


Chiefly, the difference was the grass – the land use here chiefly “calafatal” grazing vegetation – which had been imported for domestic use and had then spread. Spread? Given that we were on an isolated moorland some 3,000 metres up and grass was chiefly what the eye could see for 40 miles in any direction, I found the idea this was all alien to Peru a bit challenging. What had happened to the original flora and fauna? How had grass been so successful in such a short time? And why then was I having such a hard time getting it to grow on our lawn?


A further three stops on our gradual descent yielded bounty of both flora and fauna; a triumphant Sandy found a healthy clump of Solanum zahlbruckneri first found in this area in 1936, according to records. This clump was found just outside the rather, um, rustic-smelling village of Cruz Campo.


A gleeful Erica applied her suck machine on a clump of modest shrubbery festooned with interesting pests for her to dispatch in the name of Science. And once again Sandy took a healthy sample of S.dilonii on the roadside near to human habitation and irrigation, proving once again that the solanum species do like a nice bit of disturbed soil.   


As we gently descended on the other side to the valley floor, we remarked on the gaudy but colourful election slogans that adorn every wall, even in the remotest habitations. All this for an election that is over a year away. I understand the owners get a small fee to allow parties to do the daubings. Imagine if ‘Dave’ Cameron came a-knocking and offered you a tenner to paint graffiti on your house?



Unfortunate political decoration.


As we meandered into the outskirts of Celendin, Sandy bade us stop one last time, as she had spied a species of tobacco plant. She strode off into a nearby field.


Hold on, isn’t that someone’s garden? I hope she doesn’t get caught. What is one of the world’s foremost botanists doing hedgehopping in a Peruvian veg patch? Answer: science, pal.


As we sunk lower into our seats, a lovely scene unfolded on the other side of the road, as a young Quechua woman, strapped into a giant loom as if flying a giant kite, wove an enormous carpet from a mountain of llama wool at her side.



A young Quechua woman weaving a giant llama wool carpet.


Her fingers working deftly and nimbly, body strained against the many strands hitched to the roof of her house. Weaving of this type has been practised for centuries in the Andes, and girls start learning their craft from age 6 or 7.


We found our way to a Plaza de Armas in the little provincial capital Celendin with little fuss. We checked into a charming tumbledown ex-colonial hotel on the square, where creaky wooden galleries looked broodily on to a dusty courtyard with fading art-deco tiles. 



Plaza de Armas in Celendin.


As we unpacked and set up gear for another evening of recording, pinning and plant-drying, a school parade passed by as if to welcome us, breaking the silence of the sleepy town with a dash of local colour.



A school parade welcomes us to Celendin.


I woke up strangely out of breath that night – a novel sensation I hadn’t experienced before. Elevation. How quaint.


But we slept soundly, ready for the next leg where we would be heading into the mysterious-sounding Marañon (means cashew fruit in Spanish, oddly enough!!) valley – gateway to the Amazon. 


Erica again - It is just as well that you are getting this blog piece in parts as it is giving us time back home to go through some specimens! Hopefully by the time we are leaving Peru in this blog I will be able to amaze you with some of the great finds that we collected along the way.


Sorry folks – my fault on the delay. Five million visitors and a conference have waylaid me in posting this! Worth the wait though…here's the next installment from my partner Dave, who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year.


Day 3: San Benito to Cajamarca


Another early start. As the mountains began to blush with colour, we (I) loaded up the van with samples and sweepers and the ubiquitous “Fanny” trout and tomato sandwich materials. The idea was to get to Cajamarca, 150km away, by the end of the day. It is the main town in the region, and the only road for us was over a mountain pass some 50km away and then down by a similarly circuitous route. In all, some 150km away, which sounds a doddle, but by now I had an inkling what 150K would be like up here.


Erica here - just thought I would interupt at this point. On the previous trip Dave decided to track our movements. We had to travel 100km in a day and he informed us that Google said that this would take maybe two hours...10 hours later...


With the van wrapped, packed and strapped, we lurched once more upward on the dusty track in the cool morning air. Our pace was slow, all the better to spot more of the introverted nightshade family. Our first landmark was a village called Guzmango, where we might have stayed in had we made better progress the previous day. It looked close on a map, but it was also above us by some stretch – mile upon mile of precipitous mountain track with yawning roadside drops. I enjoyed this very much. Erica enjoyed it less – Erica’s happier when she’s driving, but seems to be quite a nervous passenger, even if my driving is impeccable.


Erica - ...


The scenery became more and more spectacular – much more like the prior idea I’d had in my head of Peru. We were now above 2,000m, and the vegetation was more varied – still dry, but with pines and deciduous trees dotting well-cultivated land. San Benito was far below us.



Driving up into the moutains, with San Benito far below us.


As the road rose and we turned yet another hairpin bend, Sandy called for a stop – she’d spotted something. There was a good clump of Solanum habrochaites, the wild tomato we saw yesterday with its distinctive yellow flowers, nestled in the shady bend. I parked the beast, and the science people took up their weapons of choice, while I padded about enjoying the breathtaking views, taking field notes and observing the cows. Cows mean faeces and faeces means flies. I was learning.



Erica and the team searching for specimens by the roadside.


Sandy interrupted my reverie with a job – collecting the seeds for DNA sequencing from another Solanaceae species – possibly a S. neorickii  – she had spotted on the verge. This was a wild relative of tobacco. Like many of the Solanum genus, it appears to like disturbed ground, and these plants were clinging to a road cutting. It has sticky ova protecting hundreds of tiny seeds. I collected a small handful, feeling pleased with myself, until Segundo revealed his fistful.


Meanwhile Erica and Evelyn flapped about filling flasks and baggies full of lovely winged beasties of every description – already enough for several hours’ pinning. We were ready to get a wiggle on, but all hopes of further progress were abandoned when Erica spied a lonely Bombyliid (beefly) minding its business on a roadside leaf. An excited Erica stalked clumsily upon it through the treacherous underbrush, I felt it polite to point out that there were clouds of them in the air above her head.


Erica - I would like to have thought as myself as an elegant creature of the countryside...


As Erica’s knickers eventually become untwisted, she was able to explain that this was a rather exciting beefly mating display. Other minibeasts flitted about in jubilant swarms enjoying the early sunshine, including a very handsome black bumble bee displaying unusual hovering behaviour.


No matter: all were swept into the nets with gruesome efficiency and inhaled into the killing jars. Many of the unfortunate beeflies were rewarded for their display with a dose of deadly ethyl acetate. Science is a cruel mistress.



Animals obstacles on the dirt roads.


Eventually we were able to make further (slow) progress, every lurch of the truck met with protest, as I swerved goats and pigs and ambitious wheelchasing mutts, all the while stopping for samples along the way. We picked up more Solanaceae of various description, and an interesting purple Iochroma.



A purple Iochroma found at the side of the road.


Our last morning stop was off the main “highway” and down an even narrower mud track, where I had to drop the crew off and keep driving in order to find a place to turn round. I don’t know how Segundo finds these sites, but you can bet we wouldn’t have without him. It was in the lee of a hill, facing a fantastic valley full of cornfields and grassland, some crops perched at seemingly impossible angles on the side of mountains. Here oxen will beat your tractor any day in a ploughing competition.



We made slow progress along hillside tracks.


I noticed there were quite a few gum trees prevalent in the area. As they aren’t native I couldn’t fathom what they were doing up here, but Sandy says they were planted for firewood – quick growing and very flammable. I could have worked that out if I’d tried. Altitude?


We reached the top of the pass about noon. Time for a sandwich stop, and for me to properly take in the views at the top of the mountain. Some steps had been carved into the hillside where vegetables were growing. I ventured up, and soon started to feel how the altitude – about 3,400m – was indeed affecting my progress. Everything seemed a little a bit harder.



After a climb up the hillside the effects of high altitude were more obvious than ever.


The steps began to peter out. Then they disappeared into a maelstrom of brambles. But as I reached the brow of the hill a hint of a way seemed to reveal itself. I followed it for a few metres, scratching the hell out of my legs then vaulted an ancient wall at the top to reveal a grassy oasis at the summit, surrounded by an unforgettable panorama.


Worth the effort. Driving, you don’t always get to appreciate the view until you stop.





View from the top - well worth the climb.


Now it was a bumpy, dusty ride mostly downhill all the way to Cajamarca, still some way off.


I was expecting a smallish town, but it’s a sizeable settlement with some style – it has a lovely cathedral and church either side of a spacious Plaza de Armas, and atmospheric, narrow streets lined with colourful colonial mansions where campesinos in traditional dress mix comfortably with sharp-suited 9-5ers. Also, plenty of cheese shops. I found it bizarre that we reached such a place by dirt track.



Cajamarca, our next stop.


Beautiful old buildings in Cajamarca.


We checked into our hostel dead beat, dusty and desirous of a beer, but we’d had a good day and a terrific haul.


Erica - it was a great haul. Today (20 August) - all the material that I and evelyn collected and put into ethanol every night has only just been sorted into Order Level (beetles, bugs, flies etc)...As Dave comes to the end of the journey I may have some results to tell you about the amazing insects we found. Till next time!


A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Rachel Clark writes about their final day in the field.

25 July 2014


Today was the last day of sampling and we all loved it! Unfortunately Sara had to leave today, so we took the final photograph of us all together before we set off for sampling.



All of us looking a little more tanned than when we arrived. Front row (left to right): Jan, Ryan, Fez, Georgie and Sara. Back row (left to right): Rachel, Thomas, George, Miranda and Beau.


Every evening this week we've been preparing the specimens we collected back at the field centre, and it's fiddly work!


The new age of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)


Some of the specimens collected during our fieldwork are destined for the Museum’s new Molecular Collections Facility (MRF), where they will be stored in liquid nitrogen at −150 °C to form a collection that can be used by scientists worldwide who want to study the DNA and other cellular contents of the species in question.


Over three evenings, after our lovely cooked meal served by Shaun from the FSC, two groups of four carefully collected tissue samples from freshly killed specimens.


The sample tissue (often the legs) were put into special small plastic vials then placed into liquid nitrogen vapour in a dry shipper, which freezes and preserves them.



Left: the small vials which contain tissue samples. Right: a dry shipper with nitrogen vapour inside.


In total we spent 49.5 person-hours over three days preparing the samples from 220 specimens, each sample taking on average 14 minutes to process. We tried to ensure that we only collected a maximum of two of each species - all being larger invertebrates (flies, grasshoppers, wasps, spiders etc).


Our last site!


While some enjoyed sweeping, pootering and collecting butterflies, two of us (Miranda and I) went in search for a new site on the lake to put down yellow pan traps. We ended up on the edge of Slapton village - a four-mile round trip!



The large, miles-long Slapton Ley!



The beautiful walkway created by the FSC, which runs through the swamp fen in the south grounds of the Nature Reserve.


We did get some amazing views and got to sample right in the middle of Slapton’s Swamp Fen, which is something we would not have achieved! The photograph above shows just how big the Ley is: miles!


Our last Supper

In the evening we headed off to our last dinner together before we packed up to head home. This was held in the main FSC centre in Slapton.

We would like to say a massive thank you for the staff that looked after our stomachs during our time in Slapton, and particularly Shaun who was there every day serving us breakfast and dinner!


Thank you for reading - I hope you have enjoyed our blogging!



Goodbye beautiful Slapton!



The sun setting over Devon, from the field across from our base, Start Bay Centre.


A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Rachel Clark writes about their second day in the field, including the range of traps they use to collect insects.

For the last two nights we have been putting out Ryan’s light trap. The trap runs all night and collects invertebrates such as moths, flies, beetles and wasps, which are especially attracted to the bright light - with a high ultraviolet component it is much more powerful than a household light bulb.


You can pooter specimens from around the trap while it is on, but you can also leave the insects in the trap overnight and take a look in the morning.



Ryan and Thomas looking at what is flying around the light trap.


During our moth-trapping we collected a range of species, including Poplar and elephant hawk-moths, rosy footman, buff-tip, common footman, drinker moth and magpie moth... to name a few.



Left to right; buff-tip, rosy footman and poplar hawk-moth which were found in the light trap.


We also used a method known as sweeping, which as the name suggests is sweeping a net in a figure-of-eight through vegetation. The net catches the invertebrates and they can then be pootered out of the net bag.



Left: Jan teaching us how to use a sweep net. Right: Jan demonstrating how to pooter/aspirate effectively.


Jan provided an excellent demonstration for all of us on our first day of sampling; we are all now brilliant at sweeping in a figure-of-eight!


Later on some of us went to great lengths to collect some samples, including taking a paddle in the lake, which contains leeches!



Left: some adventurous collectors searching the reeds for specimens. Right: a mass of leeches found under a rock (as well as on our skin).


With that I will leave you with a beautiful scenic picture from the Ley!

Thank you for reading.




Taken at the lake as the day draws in.


A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Volunteer Rachel Clark reports back on their first day in the field.


Our first day of fieldwork mainly focused on a range of microhabitats in Slapton Woods, which is a short 10 minute walk from our base camp (Start Bay Centre).


Slapton Woods is ancient woodland located on the edge of Slapton Ley Nature Reserve, inland from the lake and the sea. The woodland has been around so long that is it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Before the Field Studies Council (FSC) started to maintain the woodland (which they do only for public safety), it was largely unmanaged.


img1.jpgAnd so our first day of collecting started, deep in the amazing ancient woodland of Slapton Woods.


Now personally at this moment I felt like I was walking in the footsteps of great biologists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, and Henry Walter Bates... there are so many! I was so excited I could have danced through the woods. Raring to go with my backpack, pooter (that’s a suction device) and net, I caught up with everyone and we began to sample.


Working with creepy crawlies of the soil

Now this is an area which I know a lot more about, the sampling of invertebrates in the leaf litter and soil. Before we had a chance to get our bearings in the woods, Miranda, Georgie, Beau and myself got to work on some rotting logs.


img2.jpgBeau searching under some rotting logs for some good specimens for us to collect.


We were looking for groups like isopods (woodlice) and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes). This is done by opening up the rotting wood to expose the species which have burrowed into the wood.


It's all about the unknown - Malaise traps and yellow pan traps

So today, after a good few years sorting Malaise trap specimens in the Museum’s Soil Biodiversity lab, I finally got to see how Malaise traps work, which for me was really useful, as it means I can understand how the specimens were collected. 



Thomas putting the final peg in the Malaise trap, a device that captures winged insects.


Malaise traps collect species of insects which fly such as Diptera (flies) and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps). They work by allowing the insects to fly under a tented area. They hit the netting that runs down the middle of the trap and then fall to the floor or hang on the netting. All winged insects after falling to the floor want to fly or climb upwards The Malaise trap directs them up towards the highest point where there is a funnel leading into to a pot containing ethanol – which quickly kills them.


We will be keeping our Malaise traps up until Thursday evening, when we will take them down and hopefully have an amazing bounty which will take very many hours to sort to order (Diptera, Hymenoptera etc).


What we did after we finished sampling for the day


After all the excitement and seriousness of sampling in the heat all day, we all have to find a way to relax and unwind… my personal favourite for celebrating a first successful day of sampling is to jump into the sea… fully clothed!


img4.jpgGoing, going, gone! Running in to the clear beautiful sea at Slapton Beach… yes, fully clothed!


img5.jpgGeorgie enjoying the entertainment and me having a relaxing moment floating in the warm sea.


Moth traps and sweep net collecting in the next blog piece, so stay tuned.


Thanks for reading!



A team of Museum scientists and volunteers are in Slapton Ley Nature Reserve this week to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Volunteer Rachel Clark reports back on their first day and plans for the week ahead.


Day one - the road to Slapton

An early start was made by all ten of us today to arrive at the Museum nice and early. Before 10am it's still a place buzzing with activity as scientists work and front-of-house and retail staff prepare for some of the 4 million people who come through our doors into the Museum.


Soon enough we were leaving London behind and heading off for the sunny coasts of Devon and our field site.


All about Slapton Ley Nature Reserve

Slapton Ley Nature Reserve is in Devon, near Dartmouth in the South West of England. The reserve is an area of biodiversity importance as it is a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) with a rich coastal heritage. The lake in the nature reserve is separated from the sea by a thin band of land, with a lovely beach too!


With this in mind and the recent headlines during the winter, sampling places like Slapton Ley Nature Reserve is more important than ever as sooner rather than later the environment will be claimed by the sea.



A view of the Slapton Ley Nature Reserve to the right showing the size of the lake and the surrounding woodland and cliffs (some of which we will survey this week), and the gorgeous blue sea to the left.

Slapton Ley Nature Reserve has been studied well by scientists in certain areas such as bats and birds, but the invertebrates in the area are under-recorded. Jan Beccaloni found this out earlier in the year and believed it was time to do something about it!


Why and what we're sampling


We are sampling for collections enhancement and to provide species records to the Fields Studies Council (FSC). The habitats we will be sampling are a range of natural and semi-natural habitats, including woodland, cliffs, grassland, open water and banks.


The invertebrates we are collecting include:

  • Arachnids (spiders and their relatives)
  • Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps)
  • Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)
  • Diptera (flies)
  • Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets)
  • Isopoda (woodlice)
  • Myriapods (millipedes and centipedes)


Now the serious explaining is over, time for the fun of the adventure! 


The long journey

First I must say a big thank you to Jan Beccaloni for driving us down to Slapton, Thomas our Hymenoptera specialist for driving down the bags and equipment in his amazing 40-year-old Land Rover, and last but not least Georgie for directing us.  



Georgie navigating while enjoying a ride in a classic Land Rover.


I personally tried to use the time to catch up on some podcasts on my iPhone which are over a year old, including one on Alfred Russel Wallace and the Birds of Paradise... I fell asleep twice! It was a 8 hour drive, though we all had a brilliant laugh in the mini bus throughout the day and got to know each other.



The bright and breezy (at a petrol station!). Left to right: Beau, Fevziye (Fez), Sara, Thomas, Ryan, Jan, Georgie, George, Miranda and Rachel).


We passed one famous landmark, Stonehenge, very slowly which gave everyone a chance to take photos and we also passed some impressive fields with what looked to be hundreds of bales waiting to be taken into storage. We finally arrived in Slapton at our base camp of Start Bay FSC Centre at 19:00 (ish) hours with a lovely meal waiting for us ready prepared by the amazing staff at Slapton.



A busy Stonehenge on a sunny summers day, it wasn’t only busy there... it was busy on the road running past!



The mass of hay bales we encountered on our travels.


Some of us (myself included) were so eager to start collecting we set up a moth trap before heading off to bed. Well, that was the plan, some of us stayed up until gone past midnight looking at our catch. We plan to set it up tomorrow night and will write about it in a following post.


Hope you have enjoyed the excitement of our long journey! Bigger and better things to come!


Thank you for reading



After filling our water tanks and having breakfast, the Halton left Bergen harbor for our first diving site in Vatlestraumen on Sunday morning.


Leaving Bergen.JPGLeaving Bergen on Sunday morning.


This location is of interest to the bryozoan team because a species list was done in the area by Professor John Ryland (University of Swansea) back in the late 1950s. After dive checks are completed the bryozoan team jumps in.


checks_before_dive.JPGHamish supervising dive checks with Piotr.


Bryo_team in water.JPG

Joanne, Piotr and Sally about to dive.


As the Halton circles, waiting for the divers the return to the surface, the Norwegian coastguard arrives and asks us to move from the area as the police are undertaking a missing persons search. With bryozoans and rocks on board, the days dive plan is hastily revised and we head for Åskenset, a short steam away.


The horse mussel team, which consists of Dr William (Bill) Sanderson, Prof Hamish Mair and Rebecca Grieves from Heriot Watt University, are looking for maerl (coralline red algae) and horse mussel beds as part of their biogenic reef project.


mussel team.JPGBill and Rebecca waiting to dive while Hamish supervises.


After half an hour down, the divers come to the surface – it has proved unsuccessful and we move on. After a 2 hour steam through some narrow fjordic passages, we arrive in Herdlefjorden at a site commonly known as the Shark Wall. This vertical wall is unusual due to the shoals of tope (a small shark species), which congregate in these waters.


Piotr ready to go.JPGPiotr clutching his camera about to go down to the Shark Wall.


This would finish off the day’s underwater activities before the Halton started to steam north through wonderful Nordic scenery. Several hours later, we moor up overnight. The work for the day has not finished, however, as microscopes come out and Mary and Joanne review the days samples.



Bryozoans on rocks from Vatlestraumen.



Bryozoan zooids seen down the microscope.


More diving in the coming days. Check back for more soon!


Saturday brought another sunny day in Bergen. During the morning, all the luggage and equipment had to be transferred from the hotel to the boat. Amazingly we got everything, including the buckets and ourselves, into a large taxi for the short journey to the quay where the MV Halton was moored.


The luggage-blog.JPGJoanne and Sally with the luggage outside the hotel.


MV Halton-blog.JPG

The MV Halton at the quayside in Bergen.


After loading, Mary, Joanne and Sally went through the Bergen Fish Market to catch a bus bound for the cable car up to Mount Ulriken. The market sells everything from live crustaceans, such as king crabs through to cavier and dried fish.


Fish stall-blog.JPGFish stall in Bergen Fish Market.


King crabs-blog.JPGKing crabs for sale.


The bus dropped us off at the cable car where we found ourselves in the middle of a wedding party, who were heading up the mountain for the wedding ceremony! At the top, we got great views out across Bergen, looking down towards our first proposed sampling area for the next day, Vatlestruamen.


View from Mount Ulriken-blog.JPGView from Mount Ulriken.


By the time we returned to the Halton, the rest of the expedition party had arrived, including the eminent Norwegian underwater photographer, Erling Svensen.


Loading gas tanks-blog.JPG

Loading the gas tanks onto the Halton.


The evening was spent settling in, loading, arranging and checking all the equipment for the following day, and listening to the sounds of Iron Maiden drifting across the water from their open air concert in the city!


Wednesday 2 July 11:00


Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)



Insects of Porton Down


Duncan Sivell, Curator of Diptera, NHM


Porton Down, in Wiltshire, is a wildlife-rich site that is, unsurprisingly, poorly collected.  We have been on several collecting trips to Porton Down and involved in training staff there in collecting and sorting insects. Here I present some preliminary results from the first two years of this collaboration.


Sampling insects from wild potatoes and tomatoes in Peru


Daniel Whitmore, Curator of Diptera, NHM

One of the goals of the NHM’s Crops Wild Relatives Initiative is to map and model the distributions of plant wild relatives and their potential insect pests, based on the digitisation of museum collections and on the collection of new data from the wild. In late February-early March 2014 I participated in one of the CWR field trips in Peru. We explored four valleys in the Lima and Ancash departments from sea level up to 4700 m, sampling from ca. 30 sites and 130 plants. In this talk I will present an overview of the habitats we visited, the plants we sampled from, the collecting methods used and some (very) preliminary results, as well as a few entomological highlights from the trip.


More information on attending seminars at


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.


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!



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.


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.



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…



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…


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...




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.



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.



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!




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.




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.



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.


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.



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.



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!


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.


Prime wild tomato habitat on the road to San Benito.



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…