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We arrived in Cuc Phuong National Park on Friday afternoon. Set up in 1962, the park is the oldest in Vietnam and covers an area of over 22,200 ha. It is home to more than 2,000 species of trees, 110 species of reptiles and amphibians, 308 species of bird and 125 species of mammal, including the Clouded Leopard, Delacour's Langur, Owston's Civet and the Asian Black Bear.


Since the national park is so rich in snail diversity we could barely wait to start collecting and bagged our first few specimens as we excitedly stepped out of our van. After a hearty meal (more later) and a good night's sleep under our mosquito nets we were ready to head out into the field. Our first collecting site was a limestone outcrop, which also contains an archaeological cave where human tools and remains dating to over 7,500 years ago have been recovered.


Chasing Snails


Collecting snails is harder than it sounds, as we have to make sure we get specimens that live in soil and leaf litter, on the rocks and stones, in the trees and on vegetation. In the hot and humid conditions of the tropics this is difficult and sweaty work, but at least when we do find them they aren't too hard to catch.

instructer Frd.jpgFred Naggs (R) gives Hao Luongvan (L), Mr Kiem, our driver (C), and myself a quick Iecture.


On our first day we found an amazing variety of specimens, from microsnails less than 1mm tall that hide in the crevices of the limestone rock face, to larger and often strikingly coloured species. One of my favouites was the white form of Camaena gabriellae (pictured below left) which we found crawling on the bark of trees and managed to catch by knocking them with a stick in to a traditional conical Vietnamese hat, which did the job perfectly.


I am also particularly fond of the elongate group of snails called the Clausiliidae (pictured below right), which are found on limestone in large numbers, their bodies barely peaking beyond the shells as they graze on lichens and algae.


2  snails small.JPG

Species found on day one include Camaena gabriellae (L) and Tropidauchenia sp. from the Clausillidae (R).


Today I would like to introduce you to another Vietnamese member of our team, Mr Hao Luongvan (pictured in first image). Hao works for the Forestry Commision and is based in Hoang Lien National Park, Sapa in northen Vietnam. He has been studying molluscs for the last ten years.


We first met Hao on our visit to Cuc Phuong in 2007 and have worked closely with him ever since. Not only does he a have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the variety of habitats, plants and animals across Vietnam, but he has been instrumental in helping us gain access to different national parks and make vital links with important government and conservation departments.


Turtle Power


After a hard day's work we managed to fit in a visit to the Cuc Phuong Turtle Sanctuary. The centre was set up in 1998 as a safe area to house and breed the 19 native species of Vietnames turtles (of which 3 are found in Cuc Phuong), as well as to increase public awareness of the threats poaching poses to these amazing creatures.



Terrapin in Cuc Phuong Sanctuary. Poaching is the main source of their decline.


The centre was really inspiring, as to date over 900 turtles have been born there from animals confiscated from illegal traders. Plus we got to sit on a life-size model of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swingoei), which can reach over a metre in length.


Specimen Sorting, Identification and Preservation


After our brief foray in to the world of chelonians it was time to get back to work. The first job is to sort all the snails into species based on shell and body shape, colour and sculpture (sculpture means the 3D surface - is it ridged, smooth or bumpy etc.). Once we have done this we choose one specimen to take a tissue sample from, and preserve this in 100% ethanol for molecular analysis.


snail-sorting.jpgSorting snails in the sunshine, it's a hard life ... honest.


We then split the remainder of the individuals into those to be preserved in 80% ethanol for anatomical analysis and those to be taken back to Hanoi alive for viable cell preservation (more on this in a future blog post). This is my favourite part of the collecting day as we get to compare what we have found and there is always something unusual or unexpected - this time we had both aplenty! On our first haul we could not believe the diversity and volume of species we managed to collect - this really is an amazing habitat for molluscs and even more exciting than usual as we think in our first day we not only have a new species or two but possibly even a new genus .... so watch this space.


Food For Thought


After a long but fruitful day it was time to retire for dinner and no blog post of mine would be complete without some mention of food. Tonight was the first time on this trip that I got to have some of my favourite Vietnamese food; a green vegetable called Morning Glory (rau muống in Vietnamese or Ipomoea aquatica in science speak). The spinach-like stems and leaves are fried in garlic and chilli and are bitter but wonderfully moreish. I ate more than I should have with fried chicken, sesame roasted pork and sumptuous sticky rice washed down with locally made Vietnamese brandy (don't ask!).


DSC_1016_small.JPGMorning Glory (Ipomoea aquatica) the green stuff on the left ... much nicer than it looks!


As I write this (in the courtyard of our accomodation with toads barking and cicadas chirping) I have just finished sorting out Sunday's specimen haul, also an impressive bounty, and I will be reporting back shortly on some new and exciting discoveries along with some of our further adventures in Cuc Phuong.


Biting animals update


As of Sunday evening (our time) I have;

0 leech bites

3 Mosquito Bites


Hello again - I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that we have all arrived safely in Hanoi. It's a hot and humid 25 degrees here but there has been constant heavy rain since we arrived and it looks set to continue for the next week or so. Whilst this may not sound ideal it is great weather for collecting slugs and snails as the wet weather tends to bring them out of their hiding places in the soil and the leaf litter, making them far less difficult to find and collect.



jackie rain.JPGJackie and Jonathan walk back in the rain .. how Hanoi-ing (sorry I love a bad pun).


Our first visit of today was to the Vietnam National Museum of Nature where we met the new director, Profesor Nguyen Dinh Cong and other senior staff members, and were given a tour of the new and soon to be opened exhibition spaces.


The museum opened in 2004, and houses over 40,000 animal, plant, fossil and geologicical specimens. The staff are heavily involved in studying the biodivertsity of Vietnam and promoting its importance for science and conservation, as well as in educating the local community about the natural history of Vietnam, the research and the collections that it houses.


We spent the afternoon sorting out all our collecting equipment that we need when working in the field. It's a bit like moving house packing boxes, and labeling them so that we can find everything easily when we arrive. It's good to find that everything we needed has arrived safely but I'm a bit worried about how we are going to fit it all in to our van.


Expert collectors


This seems as good place as ever to introduce you to one of the members of our team, Sang van Pham, who has previously joined us on our collecting trips in 2011 and 2012. Sang works in the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, primarily on the preservation and preparation of specimens for the collections and exhibitions, but on our trips he has become an expert in finding the smaller species that are often missed by the untrained eye.


During previous visits we have been helping to train Sang in the collection, identification and preservation of land snails, and Sang's knowledge of the biodiversity and ecology of Vietnam has been a great help in helping us to plan where we should sample on our various trips in Vietnam.



Sang van Pham sorting and preserving specimen in Vietnam in 2011.


The second member of our team I would like to introduce is Fred Naggs. Fred is the leader of the expedition and Biodiversity Officer at the Natural History Museum. His main area of interest is the diversity of terrestrial land snails in south-east Asia and India, and finding out how these species have spread over time and the factors which ave influenced their distribution.


Fred has a lot of experience in identifying and collecting snails in the tropics and always seems to know the best places to search. Although it seems to me that if this 'best place' is in an area that is hard to reach or excessively muddy it is me who is sent off to do the collecting whilst Fred stands in the dry shouting "left a bit" ... "no not that one" ... "just a bit higher" and other useful phrases.



Fred Naggs collecting snails in Sri Lanka.


Tomorrow we have an early start as we are traveling to Cuc Phuong National Park, 100 miles south-west of Hanoi, where we can start our fieldwork proper. I'm a little hesitant as the constant rain means the likelihood of being intimately attached (literally) to the local leech population is a likely occurrence.


Food update


On a side note, as someone who is mildly obssessed with food, good things I have eaten in the last 24 hours include:


  • Bun-Cha: A Hanoian delicacy of grilled pork and noodles flavoured with mint, basil and a sweet sticky sauce.
  • Bánh xèo: A Vietnamese pancake of pork, prawns, bean sprouts and rice batter wrapped up in a lettuce leaf - messy but delicious.
  • Pho: Traditional beef noodle soup for breakfast, one of the (non-science) things I was most looking forward to on this trip (much tastier than cereal!).


Anyway, internet-availability depending, I hope to report back soon on our first day in the national park and let you know how our initial collecting went.


I spent day 8 of our trip with Andreia Salvador, curator of marine molluscs, looking at some of the stunning creatures she has found here in Scilly.


PIC 1 (Custom).JPGAndreia Salvador collecting marine molluscs



PIC 2 (Custom).JPGMarvellous marine molluscs


A curator’s job is to ‘future proof’ their collection; in the future, a specimen may be researched using techniques we don’t yet know of and Andreia is keen to perfect preservation methods that allow for as much of a mollusc to be accessible as possible. The molluscs known as gastropods, (things like top shells and winkles) have a trap door called an operculum which completely seals the animal inside.


PIC 3 (Custom).JPGA firmly shut operculum


In the past, researchers who needed the soft parts of molluscs may have had to break the shell open, destroying the specimen. Andreia is keen to work out the best way to preserve both the shell and the soft parts intact. The process of encouraging the animal out of its shell is called relaxing. This may take anything up to 12 hours to do, but it is crucial in providing future researchers with the specimens they may need.


PIC 4 (Custom).JPGA specimen beginning to ‘relax’


We have found some exceptionally beautiful molluscs over the past few days. When I was out with James, we found these spotted cowries and blue-rayed limpets.


PIC 5 (Custom).JPGSpotted cowrie


PIC 6 (Custom).JPGBlue-rayed limpets


The limpets in particular, were exciting for Andreia because, in her native Portugal, they are know as beijinho, a ‘little kiss’. We found them inside the kelp forests and they have absolutely stunning, electric colors. Although not rare, they provided quite a challenge to locate, as they lived in the 'hold fasts' at the base of the kelp.


PIC 7 (Custom).JPGA blue-rayed limpet living in the hold fast of kelp


Andreia was delighted when we returned with the good news that we had got some. I felt a little left out but, as the bigger man, kept my feelings to myself ...


PIC 8 (Custom).JPGBitter? Me?


Last night we had a BBQ - organised by Jon and Tony, it was to make the most of the nice weather that has now turned for the worse. It was a very serious affair...


PIC 9 (Custom).jpgWho has a hat specifically for BBQ? Tony Vinhas!


... Tony put on his ‘BBQ hat’ and began to refer to himself, in the 3rd person, as the grillmaster.


PIC 11 (Custom).JPG

The grillmaster in the world's biggest barbecue pit - how long ‘til it’s ready?


He expertly worked his way through various meats and veggie options and as the sun set behind us we enjoyed a lovely evening all together.


PIC 10 (Custom).JPG

Relaxing on the Woolpack


After collecting so many samples over the last few days it was now time to sit down and sift and sort through all of them to see what species we found.


Diva spent the morning looking over the bits of wood that were brought up yesterday. She picked off as much of the fauna as she could and put them directly into salt water and alcohol to preserve them for the journey back to London. So far she has found crabs, shrimps, polychaetes and some hydroids growing on the worms.



Above: Diva is trying to pick off all the animals she can see living on the wood

(Click on images to see them full size)


She also put the pieces of wood out to dry in the sun so that she can take those back with her and put them in the CT scanner. She will be looking for wood-boring molluscs but won’t have the results for a while.


We all got slightly preoccupied by seeing a grass snake in the bushes...




Helena spent most of the day going over the only piece of whale bone the shark left behind. She has found lots of polychaete worms living on the bones but no evidence of any whale fall specialists, like Osedax, yet.



Above: Helena shows us on the big screen the creatures she is looking at under the microscope


Helena has already spotted 2 potential new species of worm from the mangrove samples and once she's back at the Museum she’ll be able to say for certain. If they are, then that leaves one more thing. The name…



Tomorrow we're hoping to go over to Ocean Hole on Eleuthera to drop REX down to 200m and hopefully see lots of animals using the HD camera. Maybe sharks too. We’ll also be collecting some copeopods that Geoff asked us to collect for him from the Attenborough Studio during the Nature Live event last week! All weather dependent, of course...


By Frank Wesselingh, Naturalis Museum, Leiden

What a torture: the whole group moving up north there where the fossils are and me staying in Samarinda for another few days where the fossils, at least our fossil mollusks, definitely are not. You have met me before: I am Frank Wesselingh, a mollusk palaeontologist from the Naturalis museum in Leiden, the Netherlands.

And a few days later, we are off to Bontang! Excitement rose in our car when the GPS’s marked the approach of the equator, but before we knew we had passed it. No line, no nothing! We arrived completely astonished into the northern hemisphere. Not even daylightsavingtime! (Luckily no icy weather and dark days either).

We saw the first group on the side of the road. The young researchers were carrying heavy bags full of fossils. We jumped out the car to have a very brief look in the small quarry. Between the zillions of corals, there were the …… shells and snails! Beautiful, this was what we were hoping for! Great reef faunas very well preserved. Delicate forms just waiting to be found and admired.


The first shells lying there waiting to be picked

The hotel itself turned out to be brand and brand new. For example there were not yet any knifes to come with the otherwise excellent beef ordered by several of us. It ended with a joint swiss army knife exercise, geologist can do anything! After the first afternoon in the field together with Sonja, my PhD researcher, and Aries, a geologist from Bandung, it was time to search for food. At six it gets rapidly dark so you find your way with a car through the dark city to spot a nice place. Once out of the car, the place turned out not to be that nice. Our Indonesian colleague asked a waiting police officer who stood next to us. Before we knew our three cars were chasing the police car with lights and sirens through the city to a beautiful restaurant. That was an unexpected hilarious start for me in Bontang.

The forthcoming days I hope to see with Sonja and Aries and Sonia from Bandung a lot of more fossil shells. As you can imagine I am very happy now!


And there are monkeys too!



By Elena Lo Giudice, University of Kiel


This is Elena, a PhD student at the University of Kiel, in Germany. I’m an oceanographer so this is my first time on land and I never thought that the life of a geologist could be so exciting.


Our adventure started early in the morning trying to communicate with our driver, a very nice, patient and always-smiling guy. After a couple of misunderstandings we arrived at the outcrop and we started the initial investigation of the area. Our curiosity about a missing part of the rock succession drove us at first to the playground of a school, which was built in the middle of the section. Here we were accepted as rockstars - everybody wanted a picture of us - and then we reached the base of the outcrop, a very important point for our work. We were working on the edge of a mining area - there are lots of coal mines here. We will work on mined outcrops higher up in the section later this week but first we need to have health and safety training so we can be safe around the mining roads.


Nathan and Elena school.JPG

Nathan and me with students at the local school


Our work today consisted of logging the outcrop, for instance defining the different rocks and geological structures present in the strata – from the base to the top - and measuring them. We make this information into a diagram (a log) so that other people on our trip can use them when they want to collect from the section. This way they will know where their fossil or rock samples came from and when we work out the ages and palaeoenvironments of the sections, they can relate that information back to the fossil faunas and floras they have identified and have more information on how they lived.


stadium section.jpg

Layers of clay, silt and sandstone at the Stadion Section near Samarinda


So, after this amazing day, I came back to the hotel with our driver’s smile impressed in my mind, a lot of pictures with the school guys and, of course, 80m of logged section, what can I ask more for just a single day?


By Simone Arragoni, University of Granada, Spain


Indonesia… Just the sound of this word is enough to excite every geologist’s fantasy!! And that’s the place where we are right now!


Here the geology is something living, not just strange and boring words on a book: Indonesia is the hot and restless daughter of the convergence between the Indo-Pacific and Australian plates, animated by earthquakes, tsunamis, giant slides and….volcanoes, of course!!



We are now in Bandung, 140 km east of Jakarta, close to the Tangkuban Perahu Volcano (the “overturned boat-shaped” volcano), so we have enjoyed a “wet” tour in the lush rainforest which covers the flanks of the mountain, reaching a small crater with steam and boiling water springs. There you can even cook an egg and eat it in the foggy atmosphere created by the hot steams and the showery rains.



But the best is yet to come… through a slippery and narrow “natural staircase” we eventually reach the top of the volcano and have a look inside the main crater. And there you do feel that the mountain is alive, blowing its white fumes and quietly sleeping before the next eruption…Towards the east endless and mysterious mountains form the backbone of Java, while thousands meters below your feet the Australian plate is being pushed northwards and downwards in the mantle. The emotion is too strong (and the humidity too!), so we have to go away and eat something.


8 Simone volcano.JPG

The Tangkuban Perahu Volcano


We go down to Lembang, stopping at a typical Indonesian restaurant, where you can eat the famous ayam goreng (fried chicken). This is the real “Indonesian experience”, eating strange and spicy things and drinking hot tea and mango juice while the rain is hitting the roof.


9 Simone chickens.JPG

Javanese ayam goreng


The best conclusion for such a nice day would be a crazy ride on a rollercoaster-like road, packed up in a small van that will carry us to the hotel and the desired hot shower.


Hello, over the next couple of months me and other scientists from the Natural History Museum are going to tell you about our field trip to Indonesia. We're going there to look at fossil tropical marine creatures from 20 million years ago and we will try to work out how they lived and how environmental change might have effected them.


At the moment we are getting our equipment together, having our injections, applying for visas and buying trousers-for-explorers (the ones that turn into shorts - yikes!). It's all quite exciting and we hope we'll be ready in time to fly out ion the 18th September.


We'll fly via Singapore to Jakarta in Java and then spend a week learning about stratigraphy in Bandung, just south of Jakarta. This is a teaching trip for Marie Curie Early Stage Researchers, so I'm looking forward to learning with them. Stratigraphy, for example, is the study of when and how rocks were laid down and what you can say about past environments by studying them.


After Java we'll fly to Balikpapan, which is a city in Kalimantan, western Borneo. From there we will travel north to Samarinda and start our field work. As far as I know, this will involve travelling to wherever rocks of the right age are exposed and looking to see what they contain, like corals or molluscs.


We will be posting pictures, video and text to this page throughout our trip, so log in to Nature Plus to hear the news of our adventures!


Meet the Natural History Museum explorers:


            Dr Ken Johnson                                      Dr Jeremy Young                     Dr Jon Todd

           Corals researcher                                Microfossils researcher          Molluscs researcher

Nadia.bmp Emanuela.bmpLil.jpg

Miss Nadia Santodomingo      Miss Emanuela Di Martino         Dr Lil Stevens

      Corals researcher                    Bryozoans researcher       Curator and palaeobotanist


The Mission:

We will work with people from other European and Indonesian institutions looking at how changes in the environment have affected coral reefs and shallow tropical marine ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrasses. This area has been a marine diversity hotspot for the last 20 million years and we want to look at the corals, molluscs, bryozoans, algae, and microfossils to understand how these organisms have interacted, evolved and adapted over that time. We will also study the dynamic geology of the area and the effects of ocean currents that flow from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Our discoveries will help us to understand why tropical marine ecosystems host a high biodiversity,and will be used to address issues associated with human disturbance and global climate change.


If you would like to read more about the project, go to the Indo-Pacific Ancient Ecosystems Group