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I have been away alot recently (that sounds familiar to all that know me) and one of those trips was a field trip to Peru. In fact I brought my partner with me to be our driver and field assistant. This is a big gamble - would we be able to cope without killing each other; would he understand and enjoy what we were doing; would he drive us off the cliff? These were all considerations that we pondered but eventually decided that it would be great - if we couldn't explain to him the value of our work then we reallly needed to work on our communication skills.

 

However it wasn't a holiday for him - as well as the driving we made him press plants, collect insects, take DNA samples, transcribe field data and also I made him write my blog . There was a lot so he will be doing it in instalments as he also has a day job . It has been enlightening reading it and seeing what we do through the eyes of another.

 

Without much further ado, I give you Dave:

 

For reasons best known to herself, The Doc thought it would be a good idea for me to come with her to Peru for two weeks as her field assistant/driver/Odd Job man. Part of the deal was to see if I could write her blog for a few days. Folly! The idea is that I might provide an outsider's perspective on what Erica does, as prior to this I had little experience with fieldwork beyond high-school geography. So I gave up two precious weeks of holiday and relented.

 

I've never been to South America. It's not something you pass up. I paid the air fare, but much of the (admittedly inexpensive) rest came free. As an editor in my job, at the very least this would be an opportunity for me to ask some awkward questions! So I'll be filling in for Erica and revealing what she and Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist extraordinaire and leader of this expedition, find in Darkest Peru (© Paddington Bear).

 

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The gang.

 

It took 20 hours of flying and 14 hours (más o menos) of driving to get our first sample, so let it be known that the Museum goes far for our money. We were joined by two wonderful spirits of the insect and plant world: Evelyn Gamboa of the entomology dept of the University of San Marcos in Lima (the oldest in the Americas) and later by botanist Segundo Leiva Gonzales, Director of the herbarium at Antenoar Orrego University in Trujillo.

 

First question: what are we doing here? Is it worth it? Is this some sort of jolly? I'd suspected Erica led a charmed life coming on these trips, which she called work. But I had to keep an open mind. So of course we're here to collect plant and insect samples. Specifically it's plants of the Solenacaea family (i.e. nightshades - wild relatives of our cultivated tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes and tobacco) - and the pollinators, pests and associated microfauna thereof. In particular, we'll be collecting diptera - true flies, which you'll all by now know about already if you follow Erica's blog.

 

Sandy says this is the first study we know of that samples both the plant and associated insect population together, in situ. The success of this trip - or otherwise - could have extensive repercussions for future study. Naturally, this trip will also add to the Museum's (and by extension, the world's) knowledge of these species, and will boost Segundo's university's collection. We'll also be able to tell what's happening to the distribution, prevalence and range of these species over time (many records go back decades).

 

And the data they find here could have a wide variety of applications. For example, a changing climate might put stress on current cultivars of tomatoes. Crossing these staples with certain varieties of their hardier Peruvian cousins might increase pest resistance, or tolerance to drier conditions for instance - agricultural benefits with with knock-on effects for food security, natural pest control, biodiversity and species distribution.

 

But, before all that can happen, we had to find them first. That meant a day of driving up the Panamericana north from Lima. We had the right car for it - a 4x4 Toyota the crew likes to call Freddie. It is owned by a man called Martin, who has never learned to drive it. I will be happy to test-drive it on this occasion. I will not be calling it Freddie...

 

 

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Dave and Freddy.


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Away from the sprawl of the capital

 

Once Freddie had escaped the sprawl and grubby winter permafog of the capital, we hugged the coast up the Panamericana and the fog lifted. The scenery slowly evolved from apocalyptic ashen desert into drifting caramel dunes, lonely pastel mountainscapes and roads that vanish on the horizon. We stopped in a roadside café made of reeds with a toilet located tellingly far from the main building that had no water, no toilet paper - but did have a colourful penguin collage painted optimistically on the outside. Yet here they served us the freshest and tastiest ceviche - perfect fodder when the thermometer is climbing above 30degC.

 

We spent that evening in Trujillo, where the crumbling colonial mansions and old courtyards of the old town seemed to me to be a vast improvement on what I'd seen of Lima at that point (which to be fair, was not much). Yet I felt I had been in the country for some time - a result of that temporal illusion you get when you're a bit jetlagged and you've crammed so much into a short period. But as Erica and I shared a beer at the end of a dusty day, I realised we hadn't even taken our first sample.

 

At 6.30 the next day we were off. We headed north again on the Panamericana and after an hour or two, turned right towards the distant mountains, roughly following the river Chicama. After a brief stop for grub in a charming market village called Roma we wound our way up a dry valley interspersed with fertile arable land into the foothills of the Andes. The dunes had given way to scrub - semi desert - where stately cacti pointed skyward and the road deteriorated into a dirt track full of entertaining potholes (n.b. not entertaining for everyone in the car). We stopped occasionally to sample the plants, and Erica showed Evelyn the ropes of how to collect with nets and Erica's primary weapon - the suction sampler. Basically this is a handheld vacuum cleaner with a net and container for catching the insects. Anyone wielding it looks like That Fourth Bloke in Ghostbusters. It looks daft, but it does its job. Vultures hovered hopefully in the blue as we inched inadvisably on.

 

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The variety of landscapes.

 

Hours of lurching later, Sandy bade us stop at a loop in the road, an unconvincing turnoff to a place called Colbot, having seen a likely candidate. Her instincts were correct - a single specimen of Solanum habrochaites clung defiantly to a cleft in the bend. This is a wild tomato species that is found on the western slopes of the Andes from central Ecuador to central Peru. This species is notable partly because, with a bit of crafty crossbreeding, it yields 20 times more sugar than the cultivated tomato - a matter of keen interest to the Heinz family.

 

Erica and Evelyn got out and swept their nets gamely - Erica performing a more detailed local sample and, as had been decided, Evelyn with a more free role, performing a general sweep in all the sites we encountered. Sandy cropped herself a small sample when they'd finished swishing. Here Erica discovered a beefly among the other unfortunate captives in her killing jar. As we know, Erica gets soppy about beeflies. But not so soppy as to let them go.

 

Segundo took a sample of Capparis scabrida - a relative of the caper plant - sprouting in the dry riverbed. Then Erica and Evelyn swept the hell out of this area with their nets and Erica seemed interested to have caught a micropezidae - stalky, stick-legged flies, which she feels are "quite funky".

 

We stopped for lunch here. A local cowherd came and joined us and he told us that there hadn't been any rain that year, and that it was making life difficult. I can but try and imagine. I was finding it hard to believe we would find much in this environment. But not for the first time I would be proven wrong.

 

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Life finds a way

 

A single mototaxi - a tuktuk - wobbled past us carting an old lady, probably from the market in Roma. We'd passed it several times and when we'd stopped to look for specimens and it had crawled past us, the tortoise to our hare.

 

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The 'tortoise' to our hare

 

The vegetation became more abundant, as the road gathered height, along with my spirits. Not that I wasn't fascinated with the desert but, given a choice, I much prefer the mountains and greenery to deserts, and the scenery was becoming more and more preferable.

 

Several stops and samples later, we made a final stop in a bend where a stream passed under the road a mile on from a charming mountain village called San Benito. This location was teeming with life. Humans included. Children from the nearby village came to say hello, all curious to see what these gringos were doing on their patch. All except one young lad, who was having a bad day and preferred to throw stones at his friends. For this, his big brother took him home upside down.

 

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Where there's water

 

 

Meanwhile, we swept for various insects, and I carried on my supplementary job of detailing the GPS location, weather conditions and general description of the sample site. I was also given the seed-collecting detail. Lots was found here.

 

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Sandy found three different kinds of wild tomato and then casually announced she had discovered  a new species of Browalia - a Solanacaea species sometimes grown ornamentally like petunias. This was something I found astonishing but to the experienced botanist, it was merely very interesting. And Erica discovered a few snail-killing Scyomyzids -the presence of moist liking flies was presumably testament to the damper conditions.

 

After an hour or so of sweeping, the mototaxi pottered round the corner, passed us again and disappeared round the corner for the last time. 

 

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Colourful buildings of San Benito.

 

 

After a welcome supper in a very rustic kitchen in San Benito, where Segundo secured us berths in a municipal hotel, Erica and Evelyn started pinning the specimens, Sandy set up her plant-dryer - an insulated stack of card and wood heated overnight by a small gas flame - and I started logging the samples we had found on Erica's ancient laptop. By the time we had finished it was time for bed.

 

 

But first I felt I should at least reacquaint myself with the night skies of the southern hemisphere and say hello to the Southern Cross. I avoid the overused word 'awesome' if I can, but it seems perfectly fitting here. I've never seen the stars quite as clear as that night in San Benito. I thought I had made some sort of mistake - but no, it wasn't low cloud, but the distinct ghostly veil of the Milky Way. '

 

To be continued....

 

 

So that was Dave's first thoughts on fieldwork with us..More blog pieces to follow....

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I am in Berlin - home of Checkpoint Charlie and the ex-Wall - at a Biodiversity networking meeting, talking with a totally new set of colleagues about how to connect the science we do with government policy in Europe and at home. Really interesting and has opened my eyes to a new world where nightshades are important (of course!), but where people and how they connect across cultures, languages and ways of working are even more important.

 

But while sitting in the talks and workshops, in the back of my mind I am thinking about Friday this week and the annual Science Uncovered event in London. Fortunately, I will be back in time.....  just.

 

This year, in addition to being part of the Food station with an array of potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines and their friends and relatives, I will be part of Science Fess Up - where a couple of us at a time will talk with people about what WE don't know about science. Challenging? You bet! Not because there is a lack of things to talk about, but just where to start, the depths of my ignorance about lots of things is so profound........ 

 

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An array of eggplants in Avignon - all but the red one in the centre are members of the same species, Solanum melongena - the aubergine.

 

This event has been a great opportunity for me to reflect on just why I love science so much - and why I feel so lucky to be doing it as a daily job - it is a constant adventure, something new around every corner. So come along and let's talk about why its good not to know everything, and why exploring what you don't know is so exciting...oh and of course there will be lots of nightshades - thanks to new colleague Xavier Aubriot, who has just joined the team to study the nightshades of Asia - a big area where we know very little.

 

Part of the Food station will be a pile of however many different sorts of edible nightshades we have been able to find in the markets of London - we hope lots!! These crops are so much a part of our daily lives we often forget about their wild relatives that harbour important genetic diversity that will be key to improving agriculture in the face of environmental change - including that of our climate - that we know lies ahead. The taxonomic work we do here at the Museum into these species is key to unlocking this treasure trove.... come and hear about our latest ideas and adventures, and share what you think we should be thinking about!

 

See you there!

 

Science Uncovered takes place tomorrow, Friday 27 September at the Natural History Museum, London. Join us from 4pm to midnight.

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Author: Stefan

Date: 12 June 2016

Temperature: - 31C

Wind speed: 5 kts

Temp with wind chill: -40C

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http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/library/pictures/catalogue/article/p2005.5.477/

 

Above is the obituary of one Thomas C. Clissold, taken from The Polar Record.  Having worked as a Chef for many years it always amuses me when if I happen to mention Clissold's name, my work space neighbor (Jaime) retorts, "Oh! Mr Grumpy ". Although Clissold can seem very stern of expression in Ponting's photographs, if you have worked in catering it's very easy to understand why the rigours of life might give you a furrowed brow.

 

Our Chef, Damian is a joy to have on base.  He's a true talent and manages to maintain a very laidback and jolly disposition.  But as the long Antarctic winter marches on you can see why someone like Clissold would have been in a unique position. Whilst many of the men would be finding differences in behavior and working practices endlessly grating and annoying, it’s an entirely different prospect to cook a hot dinner for someone you might not like day in, day out.

 

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Cooking pot before treatment

 

Food and its quality determines so much of what happens with morale on base, and in reading how miserable a poor cook made life on the Discovery expedition, you can see how much of an impact Clissold's service was to a happy life in the Cape Evans hut.

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Cooking pot after treatment

 

I've recently been lucky enough to work on one of the cooking pots, (famously featured in a Ponting photograph), with Clissold at the stove………….looking grumpy.

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Author: Jana

Date: 24 October 2012

Temperature: -18

Wind Speed: 15 knots

Temp with wind chill: -32

Sunrise: None!

Sunset: None!

 

 

Well, the time has come for us to wrap up our conservation work here at Scott Base and pour all of our energy into preparing for our imminent deployment out to our field camps at the historic huts. 

 

As you might imagine, this is slightly more involved than preparing for a weekend camping trip:  it will take several days for the four of us to inventory, sort, test and pack the hundreds of pounds of food, tents, stoves, safety equipment, sleep kits, sleds, shovels, toilet supplies, fuel and timber, not to mention all of the specialized conservation and carpentry tools and material that we will require during the three months we spend out in the field.  

 

We also have to pack up the hundreds of artefacts that were conserved here over the winter season, and then there is our personal gear as well; the handful of clothes, boots, tools and books that will see us each through the season are definitely an important part of the equation! 

 

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Wading through a small portion of our field gear © AHT/Jana

 

We’re excited enough to be counting down the days until we move out to the field though, so we find the work quite enjoyable, especially since it gives us a chance to make sure we don’t overlook anything important.  We also like to think about the fact that explorers of the heroic age would relate to our current flurry of activity; they too spent a good portion of their winters sorting, repairing and packing the vast amounts of food and gear needed for the sledging trips they undertook in the summer seasons.

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Today I had a meeting with the INBIO education department - they are doing some amazing things over here and I’m really looking forward to working with them in the future!

 

INBIO parque is a great place to visit - a botanical garden designed to reflect the whole (enormous) biodiversity of Costa Rica.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

They also have some really cool animals living in the parque – I saw this iguana crossing the car park!

 

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Over the past few weeks we have received some great questions from schools all over the UK, which hopefully we have answered! We received the following early on:

 

Hello everyone,

 

We are from a School in Camden, London. We have been working with Holger Thüs on an exciting project on air quality and lichen distribution in our local area. With help from Holger and Pat Wolseley from the Natural History Museum, we surveyed lichens growing on trees in the school grounds and adjacent Hampstead Heath.

 

We wanted to investigate the relationship between differences in air quality, particularly the levels of NO2 and the lichen species found. We monitored NO2 over 5 months with diffusion tubes placed along a transect either side of Highgate Road, which is a busy road and likely to be a major source of nitrogen pollution, and included locations in the school grounds and on Hampstead Heath.

 

We identified the lichens on trees within the vicinity of the school and on the adjacent Hampstead Heath. We tested and found evidence for our hypothesis that there was a correlation between the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the diffusion tubes and biological data from the lichens distribution.

 

Although, we managed to find and identify Nitrogen loving and intermediate lichen but we didn’t find any Nitrogen sensitive lichens. We are really excited about Holger being in Costa Rica and want to know if Holger has found Nitrogen sensitive lichens there. Are there many fructose lichens? Did you find any new species of lichens? Are the lichens really colourful and exotic?

 

We initially thought the NHM team was going to be somewhere really lovely and hot but Holger told us that although it would be lovely it would be very cold because they would be up in the mountains. The air must be very clean. We really want to know about the lichens there.

 

Good Luck with the rest of the trip.

 

LSU

 

 

And today we had a chance to answer in detail…

 

 

Back at INBIO I have been flicking through the photos I (and the others) took while in the park. It seems a common theme amongst my photos is food. Pictures of all of the meals I ate in the field - I can practically hear myself salivating over the camera. I’ve put them together in a film. Bon appetite!

 

 

 

------------------

 

Note: Tom is currently on his way back to the UK, so I am posting his final blogs from Costa Rica on his behalf.
Jonathan - NaturePlus host

3

We all like eating tomatoes and potatoes - what could be better than chips with ketchup ! But did you know tomatoes and potatoes are extremely closely related? Although a red juicy tomato looks totally different to a pale yellow potato, the two plants share much of their DNA.

 

Potato and tomato belong to a group of plants known as Solanaceae - the nightshade family. In actual fact, they are so closely related they belong to the same genus within Solanaceae, known as Solanum. Tomato is called Solanum lycopersicum L. in scientific latin, whilst potato is known as Solanum tuberosum L.

 

 

Other well known species in the group include the bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplants, petunias, and tobacco - yes, incredibly this strongly flavoured plant is related to commonly eaten yummy things! South Americans might know more fruits from the family, such as naranjilla (Solanum quitoense Lam.), or tamarillo (Cyphomandra betacea Sendt.) used for making preserves and juice. If you visit Mexico and indulge in local food culture, you come across another species from the family, tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica Lam.) which is used to prepare salsa for buritos, tacos and tortillas.

 

Below is a lovely phylogeny of the nighshades which illustrates how the species are related within the family. It's based on a small set of DNA data. It is still not complete as it only includes roughly 30% of all the species in the family. Our aim is to add more species as our research progresses. What you can see is that eggplant, tomato, potato and pepino are really closely related, and tobacco is the furthest relative of them all. Solanaceae_large_phylogeny_SMALL_for_blog.jpg

 

 

The nightshades were known to be a group of closely related plants before anybody even knew they are related based on their DNA. This is because all species in the group share a set of morphological characters. Some of these are very obvious such as flowers which are generally stellate, with five corolla lobes, and five stamens. The most clear character that unites the family is seeds. Seeds are small – think of tomato seeds! – flattened, kidney-shaped, and have puzzle-piece shaped cells if looked under a microscope. Most of seeds in the nightshade family have curled embryos. If you are curious, try looking at dried tomato seeds closely! You will see the impression of the curled embryo on the seed quite easily.

 

 

Other characters of the nightshade family are more hidden. For example, all nightshades have internal phloem which means that sugars produced in leaves via photosynthesis are transported down to roots inside the water transport system known as xylem. Most plants have an opposite type transport system where sugars are transported outside the waterpipe system.

 

 

Anyways, why all this ramble? Well, the thing is that we are about to go hunting for nightshades in the Andes! There are an estimated 4,500 species of nightshades in the world, and large number of these is found in the Andes. These are wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes and such likes, some weirder than other, some with tubers, whilst other climb trees! There are still species remaining to be described, waiting in the forests and mountain sides for discovery. We will be travelling in the northern part of Argentina and in Peru over the next coming 3 months – our aim is to collect as many species of Solanaceae on our way. This time we are targeting the particularly poorly known species of the Morelloid clade in the genus Solanum, a set of roughly 60 species.

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Pemmican in Antarctic conservation

Posted by Conservators Apr 15, 2011

Posted by Julie

 

A can of pemmican from Captain Scott’s Cape Evans hut  © AHT

 

In “The Worst Journey In the World.” Apsley Cherry-Garrard describes a vaguely masochistic experiment undertaken during an already torturous winter expedition: “By taking individually different quantities of biscuit, pemmican and butter we were able to roughly test the proportions of proteids, fats and carbohydrates wanted by the human body under such extreme circumstances.” He reports that Bowers, eating excess pemmican “was all right (this was usual with him) but he did not eat all his extra pemmican.  Bill could not eat all his extra butter, but was satisfied.  I got hungry, certainly got more frost-bitten than the others, and wanted more fat.  I also got heartburn.”  The conclusion?  Pemmican: better than biscuits!

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Lance checks the drying beef and berries © AHT/Julie

Luckily for us, our excellent cook, Lance, decided to make us some pemmican, using a secret recipe which I promised to never divulge.  Okay, I’ll tell you.  Slice thin some lean, grass-fed shoulder roast, and salt and pepper liberally.  Dry the meat along with some wild blueberries for 15 hours in a warm oven.  Pulverize.  Render some fat.  Strain the fat.  Mix it all together, and let it firm up.  Cut into squares or roll into balls.  The recipe concludes, “Pemmican will keep almost forever.”  (Ha – we conservators will be the judge of that.) Being vegetarian, I of course can’t comment on the taste.  Okay, it was delicious.

Date: 11/4/11
Temperature: -20
Wind Speed: 30 knots
Temp with wind chill: -37
Sunrise: 09:19
Sunset 16:28

Sledging rations on Scott’s 1910-1912 expedition included canned pemmican, a mixture of fat, dried meat, and dried fruit ground together.
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Posted by Cricket

 

Date: 27 October 2010
Temperature: -20C
Wind Speed: 0 knots
Temp with wind chill: -20C
Sunrise: NA
Sunset NA


This week, Diana and I started preparing for the second phase of our 6-month summer term, which involves camping and working at historic British expedition huts.  Our target deployment date is next Tuesday, 2 November 2010, if everyone arrives from New Zealand in time and the weather permits.  Our schedule for the next three months begins with two weeks at R.F. Scott’s Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans, a brief return to Scott Base to resupply, then a month-long session at E. Shackelton’s Nimrod Hut at Cape Royds, a two week re-group period back at Scott Base for Christmas, and, in January, a final month back at Cape Evans.  It’s a lot of movement, which requires careful planning on everyone’s part, including the engineers, carpenters, mechanics and field support staff at Scott Base.

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Sorting food boxes © AHT/Cricket 

For us, one of our tasks is to organize the 35 food boxes.  Each box contains provisions for one person for 20 days and includes a range of quick, high-energy food such as peanut butter, honey, jam, pasta, rice, spice packets, dehydrated meals, cookies, crackers, chocolate bars, oat bars, powdered milk, energy drinks, coffee, tea and cereal.  Yesterday we unpacked each box, parceled everything out and repacked placing one food type per box.  In the field, we’ll each rotate through cooking duty, and since our average group size is 10, having the boxes arranged by food type makes it easier to pull in bulk what’s needed for each meal.  Seeing all this food got me thinking about what meals I could make.  I’m certain about one thing, cereal will trump the dehydrated fish pie dinner.

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At about midday my mind drifts from the numerous emails and office politics and starts to consider my lunch options. Do I fancy a hot meal, a quick sandwich, healthy salad or maybe something a little more exotic? Sushi perhaps? Well not after speaking to Eileen Harris who works on parasitic worms! She’s doing a Nature Live event on the 31st August and I just met her to find out more about what her work involves. It’s fascinating, but you do need a strong, and preferably empty, stomach.

 

Parasitic worms live in everything from the largest whale to the smallest insects. Eileen will be bringing out a whole host (no pun intended!) of parasites to the event including her personal favourite, Eric; the 7m long tapeworm…definitely not one to be missed!

 

Back to sushi and let me introduce you to Anisakis simplex. This marine roundworm can be found in fish, eel and octopus and when you eat raw, unprepared seafood you could be also be swallowing live larval forms of this parasite. Needless to say once inside your system you’re going to know about it but the good news is that they usually die after a few weeks.

 

If, like myself, you’re a big sushi fan then rest assured that high-street sushi is safe as chefs are trained to identify these little parasites but they’re definitely something to look out for if you’re making it at home. Luckily Anisakis simplex is visible to the naked eye so happy hunting!

 

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Above: Anisakis simplex is commonly known as "herringworm"