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As you read this I will be flying back to London and I will have filled up on greasy food in Newark airport on the way… I have had a wonderful time; an experience that I will never forget and I hope you have enjoyed the blog so thank you for reading it!

 

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It's Oscars time so please forgive me but it has to be done... the trip would not have been possible without the following people at the Museum:

 

The Learning Department and specifically Honor, Abigail, Martin and Stephen for letting me leave the office for a couple of weeks. Thanks!

 

The Nature Live team, particularly Jo Kessler for hosting the live-video-link events so expertly, and Ivvet Modinou, Natalie Mills and Ana Rita Claro Rodrigues for your support and good ideas. Also, thanks to Museum scientists Erica McAlister and Gavin Broad for being in the Studio to help prepare the ground with the audience for the live-video-links.

 

Tony and Adam in Special Effects for training me to use the satellite phone and other kit, coming to the realisation that I was likely to break it yet still letting me take it into a remote area of tropical forest in a completely different country (I hope you now feel it has been tested properly!).

 

To Jonathan for posting my blogs every day (even at the weekend) and for providing a forum for the live-chats we’ve held with UK school children as part of Nature Live in the Field - and also thanks to them and their teachers for some great questions and comments!

 

To Grace for developing the schools side of the project and for keeping me busy

 

In Costa Rica, a huge thank you to:

 

Our porters and guides in the La Amistad National Park, and Frank Gonzales at INBIO for sorting out the logistics of the trip and for providing me with a filming permit.

 

The rest of the botany team: Holger Thues, Jo Wilbraham and Neil Brummit - I hope I have been at least a little bit useful and that I have not wound you up too much with endless questions?

 

Daniel Santa Maria for my new nick name!

 

Finally, to Alex Monro for organising the trip and my part in it. I have had a wonderful time and I am so thankful to you for giving me this opportunity to follow science as it happens in the field. Thank you!

 

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I asked the scientists what they thought….

 

 

P.S. This is not the end for Field work with Nature Live as, starting from the 7 March my Nature Live colleague Ivvet Modinou will arrive in the Bahamas with a team of scientists to report on a field trip exploring the life in our oceans. It should have some great footage as they'll be using a mini-submersible in their research!

 

Keep in touch with the Field work with Nature Live community and subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog and you will receive updates whenever a new post appears.

 

And remember, you can meet more Museum scientists every day at Nature Live events held in the Museum’s Attenborough studio at 14:30 (and also 12:30 every weekend and throughout the holidays).

 

I hope to see you at a Nature Live event soon!

 

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Tom Simpson, Costa Rica, 2012.

 

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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

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Our last day in the mountains. Mixed emotions really. We have made some great collections, enjoyed each other’s company (I hope), learnt a lot, had great support from our porters and field team and have been very lucky with the weather. We are a bit tired though and beginning to lose some of our enthusiasm. I even caught myself not being amazed at seeing a Quetzal so it is probably time for us to head home.

 

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Oak forest at 8 in the morning, light streaming through the foliage

 

For me the highlight of the fieldtrip has been camping on top of one of the Cerros Tararias, almost certainly the first Europeans to have made it to the top of one of these 200 m high blocks of gneiss rock each with its mini paramó atop. Not only did we get the first plant collections from here but we also enjoyed spectacular views between Cerros Kamuk and Fábrega and down the valley of the Río Jet. A completely unexplored part of the Park and the focus of another trip should we get the funds.

 

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View of one of the Cerros Tararias and out across to the Río Jet valley

 

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Carlos ‘Leña’ and his son Josué. Carlos has been our guide and lead porter for much of our work in La Amistad Binational Park and has been a key player in our exploration of the Park.

 

It has also been a real privilege to be able to share some of what we have done and seen with visitors to the Museum as part of the Nature Live programme. For that a big thank you should go to Stephen Roberts and Jo Kessler from the Museum’s Nature Live team, Lee, Adam, Alex, Eddie, Ken and Tony from our Special Effects Department and Erica McAllister and Gavin Broad from our Entomology Department.

 

Also to Tom Simpson, who although was of course very lucky to come with us and whose feet in no way smell (no really they don’t), was incredibly professional and did everything possible to make sure that the live video links went well and answered as many of the questions on the schools blog as possible. Last but not least Jon from our Interactive Media team who has been assembling and editing this blog and to Grace from our Learning Programme who set up the events for schools.

 

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Tom uploading his blog from the base of the Cerros Tararias

 

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Our camp at the base of the Cerros Tararias

 

The plan today was to walk from our main camp at the Albuerge (see the map on Tom's blog) at 2,500 m to a smaller one, Casa Coca, at 1900 m so that tomorrow morning we can get back to the park entrance in good time for the eight hour drive back to San José. It was a beautiful sunny morning, the light streaming through the trees as we set off.

 

The plan was to interrupt our walk and sneak in a sample point half way, in the Pacific drainage. It was really amazing how dramatically the forest changed once we had crossed the main pide between the Caribbean and the much drier Pacific, the understory becoming more open and the canopy lower, possibly because of less rain and more wind?

 

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Holger at the Continental pide collecting a sneaky lichen from the back of the Park sign

 

Scientifically the trip has been a great success, Jo Wilbraham made about 340 moss collections, Holger Thues about 500 lichen collections and Daniel Santamaría (from Costa Rica), Neil Brummit and myself about 640 vascular plants collections.

 

I think that Holger has certainly been the most enthusiastic about his finds with new records not just for Costa Rica but the whole of Tropical America. We are quietly confident of having collected some new species but will need to wait until we get back to a herbarium to be sure. This highlights the importance of global reference collections, such as our own, to identifying new species.

 

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Jo with the bulk of our collections, bagged up and ready to be transported
to the INBio herbarium for drying, sorting and identification

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The weather today was glorious…

 

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… and I followed the vascular plant (flowering plants and ferns) team of Neil, Daniel and Alex to a site about an hour and a half away from the hut. I decided to record each of the species they found and turn it into a film to give you an idea of the variety that we’ve been able to collect.

 

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In the film below, I’ve listed the family, genus and species (where possible). This highlights why it is so important to collect samples of the plants - without taking them to a herbarium and comparing them with other specimens it can be difficult to identify exactly what is there.

 

The top line is the family and the bottom is the genus and species (if we knew it straight away, of course!) Please note, I made this video so if anything is wrong it is my fault not Alex’s!

 

 

Just my luck - this site only provided 44 species which was quite a poor haul compared to the others we have had. Our best day has had over a hundred different species of vascular plant and that’s not counting the lichens and bryophytes Holger and Jo are also collecting.

 

On days where more species are collected, we sometimes have to do the pressing back at the hut and the dinner table is transformed into a mass of newspaper and plants

 

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But today we got home early so Alex made us a pasta dinner.

 

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Species of the day – take your pick from any of the ones in the film above!

 

Tomorrow we are walking back down the mountain to the first hut we stayed in before heading back to the entrance to the park and the drive back to INBIO.

 

I feel quite sad to be leaving our hut in the Valley of Silence as my time here in Costa Rica nears its end. It has been an amazing place to be based and I feel very attached to the forest and our place in it.

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I am writing this blog while chomping on a delicious, freshly-fried pork scratching! Amazing.

 

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Today we did a live-video-link to the Museum's Attenborough Studio (our last two will be at 12.30 and 14.30 on Saturday 18 Feb) from the middle of a river near our hut – Rio Terbi. Perched on top of a rock we spoke to an audience in London about our trip and answered their questions about our time here.

 

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One young member of the audience asked about the weight of an acorn we held to camera – we actually don't have any scales so we can't tell for certain, but we estimate it as being about 4 to 5 times bigger than your average UK acorn. Sorry we can't be more accurate!

 

The river is the lifeblood of the forest and our hut - we get our water supply directly from it and use it to cook, wash and drink.

 

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Today we waked for about an hour to a site downstream and by the river.

 

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Holger showed me how he collects aquatic lichens...

 

 

And Alex, Daniel and Neil set up beside the river and went about collecting a huge amount of different plants.

 

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I have been promoted from simply being a weight to hold down specimens to pressing plants and collecting samples for DNA. I also came in useful for a particularly high orchid. We have poles that we normally use to cut specimens that are out of arms reach but we thought this was quicker and more fun. It's nice to know that I am helping out!

 

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Species of the day goes to Jo and it is a carnivorous liverwort! It's in the genus Colura and lives on leaves.

 

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It’s lobes form water sacs, which could be an adaptation to retain moisture, and people have found tiny microscopic creatures called nematodes in these water sacs. It has been suggested that the liverwort dissolves theses tiny creatures and eats them! As Jo says, when you live on only a leaf, every little helps. She also says that up close they look like tiny teapots which made Holger laugh – 'so British', he exclaimed!

 

I can't get close enough to see if I agree with the teapot analogy - have a search for Colura and tell me what you think!

 

Until tomorrow

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An amazing day’s collecting on the 10 February! It took us over two and a half hours to walk less than 2 km to that day's site. The trail wound its way through swamps, around and under fallen trees and through dense thickets of bamboo.

 

We also lost the trail a couple of times but finally we stepped out into a small patch of open vegetation on the top of a rock outcrop and were stunned by a clear blue sky and an amazing panorama looking out over a large chunk of unexplored park.

 

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View from Cerro Asidbeta looking across to Cerro Kamuk

 

It was really worth the walk, one of our first collections was the beautiful and rarely collected shrub Vaccinium bocatorense (in the Blueberry group of the heather family), a species endemic to La Amistad Binational Park.

 

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Flower of Vaccinium bocatorense, a species endemic to the Park

 

Surprisingly, compared to the other sites we have collected, there were many species of orchid in flower, including a couple of what we believe to be Epidendrum (we don’t know much about orchids though).

 

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A likely Epidendrum sp. whose tiny beautiful white flowers sport three purple dots

 

By 3.30 pm, the clouds had rolled in and it started to rain so we headed back, all of us very happy with the day’s collecting and our three bags of pressed plants.

 

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Neil Brummit and Daniel Santamaria pressing plants

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Food update! We have been brought a butchered pig to add to the holy duo of rice and beans – this is a gruesome picture of the skin but the meat was delicious! I have also spied some sausages amongst the supplies and wait eagerly for their appearance at the dinner table!

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The main aim of our trip is to document the biodiversity of the area and collect different species of plants. We take five copies of each species – one goes to INBIO, one to the Missouri Botanical Garden, one each to the National Herbarium of Panama and the National Museum of Costa Rica and one to the Natural History Museum.

 

Collecting is a meditative process and it is wonderful to be in the field as a team, finding out what the environment holds. Amongst the flowering plant team (Daniel, Alex and Neil) the duties of collecting are split: today, Daniel searched out the different species in the area and collected them, Neil and Alex set up a small processing area - one photographing and taking DNA samples of each species and the other pressing the five copies of each species between sheets of newspaper.

 

I had a go at pressing but my main duty was the honourable task of pressing down on the pile of specimens, a job that you may think could be done by a rock or gravity but Neil described my contribution as very useful, so here I am hard at work:

 

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These specimens are bagged up and brought back to the hut at the end of the day where they are placed in sealed bags full of 70% alcohol, which stops them rotting. These specimens will be carried down the mountain and dried on heaters before being sent to the various institutes to be mounted and added to their collections (a collection of pressed plants is called a herbarium).

 

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Neil explained the process to me in the field:

 

 

The DNA is stored in silica gel which keeps the samples dry by absorbing the moisture in the atmosphere. I have lots of the stuff (which I keep in tied-up tights) to try and keep all my equipment - kindly lent to me by the museum - free from moisture.

 

I made what could be the 'driest' video of all time about how you dehydrate the silica once it has done it’s job and is saturated with liquid - dry-fried next to the omnipresent beans, so worth watching for that scene if nothing else. My silica is dark blue when saturated with moisture and orange when dehydrated:

 

 

Species of the day – Vaccinium bocatorense (collected by the flowering plants team) is very closely related to the blueberry and grows between 1.5 to 2 metres tall. It’s endemic to the national park so is not found anywhere else in the world and it’s a beauty!

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Tomorrow we set off to spend a couple of nights camping at a location a few hours walk form our hut - I will try and blog from there but if things go quiet due to lack of internet access, I’ll be back on Wednesday.

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Continuing my food theme... Today we had pancakes for breakfast (not rice and beans) and they were about an inch thick and flavoured with vanilla. I had mine with maple syrup and am feeling very happy with myself!

 

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After a few days of staying around the hut, today I got the chance to go out with the botanists into the field and experience collecting. We went to a place called Laguna.

 

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There are several specific sights of interest that the botanists target each day – we had a live-link back to the Museum to do in the morning so chose a site nearby (see the map below - we are staying at Albergue Valle del Silencio and Laguna is due East-South-East from there).

 

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I am going to blog about the specifics of collecting tomorrow but today wanted to focus on the trails cut for us in order to reach the collection sites. Some trails are clear, well worn by the porters ferrying supplies and specimens to and from the camp, others are cut specifically for us and are much less easy to follow.

 

The forest is so dense it is easy to lose ones bearings. Today I tried to keep my orientation between a river and mountain but soon the dense foliage span me around and I felt completely at the mercy of the forest. It is a wonderful feeling to be lost - as long as you’re with someone who isn’t!

 

Because the forest is so dense sound doesn’t travel too far so Alex and Daniel Santa Maria (a botanist from INBIO - The National Institute for Biodiversity in Costa Rica) use calls to locate each other.

 

 

 

Daniel has an amazing knowledge of the local plants and is invaluable to the trip. Here he is having a rest after lunch in the field.

 

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Species of the day today is Conopholis alipna and was collected by Daniel and the flowering plant team (Alex and Neil). It is a parasite that targets the roots of oak trees which are the predominately tree in the surrounding forests.

 

It gets all of it’s nutrients from it’s host and is found at altitudes of between 2,000 and 2,700 metres. It's my species of the day because I think it looks really cool:

 

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Until tomorrow!

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So today I have had the chance to spend a bit of time at the hut - I made a video to hopefully give you an idea of what it’s like! (Also I meant the water is clean enough to drink, not eat! Sorry it must be the altitude, which is 2,500 metres - you can see on Google Maps the exact location of where we are.)

 

 

For breakfast the ubiquitous rice and beans made a welcome appearance - last night was really cold (definitely in the lower single figures!) so some hot food and drink was more than welcome. By mid-day it had warmed up considerably and the sun was hot.

 

(I should make it clear that I am in no way complaining about rice and beans - I love them! Last night they were joined by a hot, steaming pot of chicken soup and dinner was great.)

 

The scientists went out collecting today (the first chance to have a proper explore since they arrived) and they found some great stuff! However, Neil has already suffered some really nasty sandfly bites.

 

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N.B. I've enhanced the colour of this photo a little so that you can see the bites more clearly.

 

Species of the day goes to Holger (although he found it yesterday). It’s on this stone, which he found in a nearby stream 30 cm below the water level. He had to chisel the lump off with both hands underwater and he described it as the single most difficult specimen he has ever collected.

 

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It’s a representative of the genus Hydropunctaria and this is the first time it has ever been recorded in tropical America - it is found widespread in more temperate areas and in cold mountain streams in SE Asia and South Africa.

 

It is one of the best indicators of a stable stream bed and only lives in constantly cold water. Therefore it is an important species to know about when considering climate change. Now that Holger has found this specimen future generations will know that it was living here in 2012.

 

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Now it may look like a dark patch on a dirty rock (Alex’s words not mine!) but Holger gave the following quote:

 

‘Perfect circular shape, a beautiful olive green hue and a texture of half solid jelly which is just amazing.’

 

Wow, I’m going to have a cold shower ... which is good news as we don’t have any hot water! I’m going to blog more about lichens next week.

 

With one new discovery under our belts, I hope the photos from my previous posts give you an indication of just how rich the plant life is here. Alex tells me that there are more than twice as many species of plant in this park alone than in the whole of the UK.

 

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He has written a really nice piece on his own blog about the forest here - do have a read.

 

Finally, if you want to experience a live video-link direct from our hut to London tomorrow (and also on the 16 and 18 Feb) please come to the Nature Live event in the Museum's Attenborough Studio to say hello! They'll be held at 12:30 and 14:30 and (barring any technical issues) we're going to be joining the event to answer questions from the Studio and to show you a few specimens.

 

Jo (Nature Live host) and Erica McAlister from the Department of Entomology will be in the Studio to talk about field work, why it’s so important, what it’s like and how you do it, etc., so please do pop down to South Kensington.

 

Also, I wanted to let you know that, unfortunately, due to my limited internet connection I can't see your comments until they are e-mailed to me, so my apologies if you have had any questions which remain unanswered – I’ll do my best to respond in the next few days.

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The trip to Costa Rica is led by Dr. Alex Monro who has his own blog where you can learn about his interests and research. But here is some information about the other scientists, and their expectations for the trip:

 

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Dr. Neil Brummit is Researcher in Botanical Diversity

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

My main botanical interest has always been in biogeography - working out why some distant areas of the world have the same plants, while other areas close to each other have different plants. Also, I study why some areas of the world have so many more plant species than other areas do, and try to identify these areas and the threatened species they contain accurately enough to help with plans for their conservation.

 

Best thing about being a Botanist

When you can see that your work has been useful to someone else, especially someone outside of botany, it gives you a sense that your efforts have been worthwhile. For example, a big project that I have been involved in for several years has estimated how many plant species worldwide are threatened with extinction, and when we announced results from this project in 2010, it was covered in hundreds of media outlets around the world and we also travelled to the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to make a presentation there. At the end of the meeting there was a renewed determination by the world's governments to take positive conservation actions in the next few years, and I did feel that, in our own small way, we were a part of the scientific response to the loss of global biodiversity that had helped to galvanise the political will to make that happen.

 

Previous field work

A little bit of everywhere; I´ve done fieldwork on each continent, but I´m always keen to visit new places. For me there is always something special about being in Africa, perhaps because that was my first experience in the tropics. I think once you´ve been collecting in the tropics, everywhere else seems a bit boring by comparison. I was still at school when I first went on a proper field trip, to Malawi with my father (who is also a botanist); I loved it, and remember thinking that he was paid to do this!

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Seeing new plants, and thinking to myself "Wow, what on earth is that?". If I can attempt an identification that is somewhere close to what it is, even better.

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Leeches and mosquitos; Listening to rats running around you in the dark when you are trying to sleep at night; Never being clean; Missing being at home with my wife;

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

Hopefully I will have the opportunity for more fieldwork in Costa Rica, so for me this is a chance to experience the country but, perhaps more importantly, get to know the people working there and start to build relationships with them. I´m grateful to be going with someone like Alex who has already had a lot of experience there, and I´m looking forward to working in the field with him.

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

It´s hard work! Don´t expect too much, as all the best laid plans can go out of the window very quickly; be prepared to adapt.

 

 

Jo Wilbraham.jpgJo Wilbraham is Senior Curator, Algae

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

Non-flowering / cryptogamic plants, particularly bryophytes

 

Best thing about being a Botanist / Curator

Being able to spend time obsessing about your favourite plant group as part of your ‘proper job’ and being able to work with the wonderful collections here at the Natural History Museum.

 

Previous field work

My more recent fieldwork has been around the beautiful British coastline looking at seaweeds.  I’ve also been on fieldwork trips to Reunion Island, Ecuador, Belize and Sulawesi, so Central America is new territory for me.

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Exciting times looking for plants (and no access to work email).

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Sharing a camping hut with vampire bats wasn’t very nice, but mostly I’d say missing the folks back home.

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

My underlying goal is to contribute more data to the question ‘what grows where’, hopefully increasing knowledge of rare / poorly understood species and the habitats they live in.  I will be collecting specimens for long term preservation in the NHM herbarium where they will be available to researchers around the world who are studying these groups – both now and in the future!

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

Remember to pack your sense of humour… and a hand lens!

 

Holger_LymeRegis.jpgDr. Holger Thues is Curator – Lichens

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

All the oddities traditionally studied by botanists but which are in fact not related to plants (eg. fungi, slime-molds etc.). Within “Green Botany” my current main interest is in lichenised algae (photosynthetic symbiotic partners in lichens) and particularly their compatibility with various lichens in different habitats.

 

Best thing about being a Botanist

I regard myself as a biologist. In my current role as curator at the NHM my focus is on lichenised fungi and their associated algae – this makes me a part mycologist / part botanist. Before I came to the NHM I was working partly as a researcher and partly as an environmental consultant. This included work with lichens, mosses and seed plants but also with various animal groups: from aquatic invertebrates, leafhoppers to hamsters and salmon. I like the constant change of the profession “biologist”  - although the fundamental questions have remained surprisingly similar over thousands of years: from the stone age to the time of worldwide industrialisation: biologists always look for answers to the questions: what to eat (and what not?)  what is harmful?  what is beneficial? And what does it all mean in a wider context? I can hardly imagine a more interesting profession!

 

Previous field work

Mostly all over Europe (particularly “rocky” habitats from coastal cliffs to alpine peaks – you can easily locate me in the field by the sound of my chisel). In the tropics so far two field trips to the Venezuelan part of the Andes (focussed on freshwater habitats in open areas with Paramo-vegetation).

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Asking questions directly to the living organism in its environment, physical activity, absence of paperwork

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Travelling to the study sites, paperwork in advance of a field trip

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

As a curator my main hope is to collect a rich selection of fresh lichen material from little studied habitats and poorly known taxonomic groups which will become a relevant resource for further studies by researchers in Costa Rica, at our museum and for other collaborators across the world.

 

One personal research focus for me will be a comparison of the freshwater lichens in the Talamanca Mountains with those in streams of other tropical and temperate areas. For temperate areas lichens were shown to be valuable indicators of water level fluctuations and stream bed stability, but we still know to little on the species diversity and the distribution patterns of freshwater lichens in the tropics to make them useful tools for the assessment of streams in these areas as well.

 

A second area of interest is an assessment of the lichen diversity on rock outcrops and the light rich and open Paramo-vegetation at the highest elevations of the Talamanca Mountains. These habitat types cover huge areas in the South American Andes but occur in relative isolation and at a much smaller scale in Costa Rica, separated by large densely forested areas. Together with my research colleague Cecile Gueidan we want to find out how this isolation affects the diversity of lichens. This habitat type is also likely to be among the first to be affected by climate change.

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

Try to get in contact with local people, appreciate and follow their advice.