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Last week I and several colleagues (including Daniel Whitmore and Mindy Syfert) arrived back from deepest, darkest Peru. This is not the first time that I have been on a museum trip to Peru; in fact it is part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sandy Knapp and she joined us for part of it (read her blog about it).

 

So instead of telling you about the project (which Sandy has already covered) or about the amazing exciting insects there, I thought I would take time out to explain some of the less glamorous things associated with fieldwork. This little blog will detail the annoyances and the downright bizarre things involved.

 

First there are the 3 am drives to the airport; or rather the 2:30 drive because the taxi had arrived early. And so, on the day of travel, you find that your consumption of coffee increases exponentially... so, before I have left my flat I have my first coffee. Then your driver is Jensen Button and as such has broken every speed limit on the way to the airport and is exceptionally pleased with himself in the process. Consequently, you arrive at the airport way too early and there is nothing to do. An hour of twiddling thumbs sitting on my rucksack before the bag drop desk opens. I get through and have some more coffee.

 

Finally a few hours later, we board and depart during the most glorious sunset (ok, so that was nice). Then we arrive in Madrid, which I have to say is one of the worst airports in terms of having something to do; I have another coffee and wait a further four hours for my long haul flight. There is nothing to say about a flight that takes 12 hours apart from that it is not fun. Not at all. Especially when there is turbulence for half of it ... several glasses of wine and more coffee sorts that out though. My colleague Dan's flight was slightly more traumatic as he was surrounded by many children under the age of 2 :-)

 

So that was just the start of the trip - I wrote most of this blog sitting in my hotel room at the end with decidedly dodgy insides. I can't decide if it was the food, the altitude, a parasite or just the tiredness from these crazy roads but, at the time I was writing, all was not well in the land of Erica. I missed the last full day of fieldwork as well which was annoying, but just couldn't risk it.

 

The last time I was in Peru, we were on the road less travelled (as the Lonely Planet described our route). This time around, we didn't even make that! A few places that we were planning to stay were in the guide but often just with a passing reference. It was all up to Paul - our intrepid Peruvian Botanist - to lead us on our potato quest. Not always so easy in a country that does not really do road signs.

 

Let me continue with the less glamorous side to fieldwork. There are always the early starts (and not just the flight). Potatoes and tomatoes have to be sorted out...

 

So, the main reason why the team are in Peru is that at the Museum there is a group of us trying to establish what species of insects are associated with the wild relatives of potatoes and tomatoes. The collections of both the plants (Solanacea) and the known associated insects at the Museum are being digitised at the moment and that information will help us model the distributions. The fieldwork side, though, is to see what is actually there - there are many new species waiting to be described for both the insects and plants!

 

I never thought, however, that this would lead to me scrambling around cliff faces 4,000m up, looking for tiny potatoes, but that is what has happened. But the problem with these high altitude loving species is that we have to get up there in the first place. And this is why we have upsettingly early starts, to enable us to get high enough to find them.

 

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Striking landscapes at high altitude, but don't try pootering here when you can barely breath...

 

For our first base of the trip we stayed in a town called Canta. We were only 2,800m above sea level but we could feel it - even walking up the stairs at this altitude was odd. And this was one of the lower altitudes of the trip!

 

We collected up to 4,800m - trying to pooter at this altitude is almost impossible – you have no ability to breath and so the fly just sits there on the leaf wondering what you are doing whilst you are desperately trying to suck the little thing up into a tube. If you have never experienced high altitudes it is like strapping an enormous rugby player to your chest as they hold on with an overpowering squeeze.

 

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Canta and other high altitude towns were often shrowded in mist from about 3pm onwards, giving them a surreal appeal.

 

The accommodation is often not the most glamorous of hotels or field stations that you think of most of the time. Here we are all sleeping in one large room that felt like we had stepped out of a Enid Blyton novel ... except with added snoring ...

 

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Not the Ritz Hotel

 

Now, please, add ontop of the snoring: dogs barking, car horns and alarms, and weird South American pop music for the entire night, to truely immerse yourself in the experience.

 

So, if the early starts are not going to kill you, then the roads definitely will. As I have already mentioned above, these plants like to get up and around in the mountains which meant some long and sometimes dangerous journeys on less than great roads - I had my stomach in my mouth many a time ... And that's assuming that you could see the roads in the first place ...

 

13133787504_56f530d7f1_o.jpgThere's a road along the edge of the cliff here somewhere...

 

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Not sure where the road goes here ...

 

Then there was the traffic - there are crazy drivers over here. We learnt that road signs, regulations etc. are generally just there for their purely aesthetic qualities rather than anything else:

 

No adelantar (don't overtake): translation - of course you can overtake and the less you can see in front of you the better! Blind bend you say; we laugh in its face, haha.

 

40km speed restriction: translation - surely that is just for mototaxi? I am a car/lorry/bus and I laugh at that speed restriction; if I am not going double then I am not happy!

 

One-way: translation - really? I am sure that it will be fine if I go 'my' one way, they will move.

 

Solo carril (single lane): translation - surely you are joking? I know it is a mountain pass but I must get through now ...

 

No Mototaxi (on main road): translation - then I shall use the hard shoulder instead, that is not the main road ...

 

And as for livestock...

 

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Charging bulls can be a little intimidating, even in a car

 

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... however, goats were better behaved

 

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... never trust animals with long eyelashes when they are on the road ...

 

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And, as for the llamas ... the guy was wearing a safety helmet!!

 

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And then there were the petrol stations ...

 

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... but at least that one had a hose ... and a wall.

 

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"I nonchalantly lean at the possibility of a road existing here..."
We saw this a lot on the road too. Usually it meant that either there was no road to drive on, or that it had lots of potholes, or they were creating avalanches...

 

And more annoyingly sometimes there were good roads but we couldn't take them:

 

Me: Paul, why can't we take that road?
Paul: It's not good
Me: ... but it's much quicker
Paul: ... it's dangerous
Me (thinking about all crazy roads so far): Really?
Paul: Men with guns
Me: Oh... ok, let's go on other road

 

And what about the diet? Some of the food was a tad rich for my liking - check out these cakes...

 

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Ummm, cakes. Rich, rich cakes.

 

This was a country that eats guinea pig, both the populous and their pets. We came across a dog eating a guinea pig and I thought of how my sister would feel if she knew that my childhood pet was feasting upon hers!

 

We shopped everywhere for food. Street corners were a must but receipts for the inevitable claim forms at the end of the trip were often scraps of paper if anything!

 

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Then of course there is the Health and Safety aspect of the trip. Not forgetting the dodgy stomachs resulting from god knows what there are the other things that we must consider.

 

You had to remember the repellent before collecting near a river or your life becomes a living hell. Dan (modelling the mere handful of bites) had to sit through several days of Mindy and I complaining about the couple we had ourselves, knowing that we were being smug in our irritations.

 

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Dan's legs model the latest must have fashion, just a 'few' bites

 

So next time you think that we are all swanning around having a lovely time remember that ... it is mostly true :-)

 

Even all the things that make fieldwork hard are also the things that we reminisce over and smile about! It is an amazing experience to be able to collect new material including new species from such remote and challenging places! You will often here us hidden in the corner of a pub trying to outcompete each other over who had the worst fieldwork belly or internal parasite. Sadly, my next tall pub tales will not be quite so good ... I did not get a human botfly this time!

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From Canta, a road goes up the Río Chillon to Cerro de Pasco and the eastern side of the Andes – crossing over the high elevation grassland habitat called the puna. Several wild potatoes grow in these extreme habitats above or around 4,000 metres elevation – these were our targets for the day. We leave the tomatoes behind for the day - none grow this high!

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Looking back down the valley we saw Canta perched on its hill, plus the line of dusty, smoggy air from Lima and the coast... we were pleased to be up in the fresh air!

 

As we climbed up the switchbacks (ubiquitious in the Andes) we spotted our first Solanaceae of the day – and it was a new distribution record for the valley…

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Salpichroa microloba is endemic to central Peru but had never before been collected in this valley – Paul was excited – this genus is the topic of his Master’s thesis. He also managed to spot a hummingbird visiting the flowers…


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A colleague had told us that the diversity of insects above 1,000 metres elevation was poor – so here is a photo of the GPS (registering 3,327m elevation) and vial of insects to prove the point. Insect life teems at high elevations, and it is usually interesting and often endemic.

 

Further up the valley opened out, and the Río Chillon rushed through – along the banks we found Solanum amblophyllum, previously thought to be an endemic of Lima department, but recently found in neighbouring Ancash by our colleague from the Museo, Asunción Cano.

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Solanum amblophyllum is a member of the Geminata clade that I revised last in 2008 – there are several new species to describe (I wrote about some of these from Brazil last year), but it is great to see ones that I recognise in the field. It was VERY common along the river amongst boulders and grass…


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The Río Chillon is a typical mountain river, crashing through gorges and with extremely rapid flow. Along the banks we saw Andean torrent ducks – two males posturing to each other… the female was being swept downstream (apparently, although she was probably completely under control) and the males seemed too busy to notice.

 

We had a forced stop at the small village of Cullhuay where pipes were being installed – we had to wait about half an hour then drive across a ditch over two very narrow planks – Dan was the driver for the day and he managed with great aplomb. 

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Putting in the pipes involves a lot of manual labour – pipes in lengths of 5-8 metres being carried from the village below (by hand of course) and a lot of shovel work, but by the time we came down they were done and the ditch was all filled in!

 

Cullhauy was the last village on the road, further up there were only isolated houses and stone corrals where livestock are kept overnight. The whole grassy area operates like a common, where local people take their cattle or llamas out for the day to graze and then bring them back at night to protect them from pumas. Other exciting wildlife exists in these high mountains as well – much to our excitement we saw a huge bird circling the valley – an Andean condor – as big as the cattle on the slopes! So amazing – I have been to Peru many times and have never seen a condor there before…

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The picture is a bit fuzzy (sorry about that but it was a long way away across the valley) but the white collar and huge wingspan is unmistakeable – it was HUGE.

 

About where we saw the condor we found populations of our target potato species – so had a nice long collecting stop. The sun was still out so the insects were plentiful and Erica found that the aspirator worked a treat on the small, flat rosettes of these high elevation species. We were near the treeline, although the trees were long gone, mostly cut for firewood. These areas were at one time probably forested with small patches of Polylepis (a member of the rose family) woodland in sheltered valleys – very few of these forest patches remain in these populated valleys.

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Solanum acaule is a relatively common potato species at these high elevations – we have collected it before in southern Peru; the leaves hug tightly to the ground and the tiny flowers have big, bright green stigmas.


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We are not quite sure what species this is – the flowers are much bigger than those of Solanum acaule, and the leaves are different as well. When collecting it is important to keep things you think are different apart, even if they turn out to be the same in the end. This one is a different species though… I am sending a photo (and later the specimen) to my colleague David Spooner in Wisconsin to see if he can help!

 

Further up the road, the mountains proper began to show themselves – this range is called the Cordillera de la Viuda (Window’s Range - the name makes you wonder...) and the tallest peaks are all above 5,000 metres in elevation (the tallest, Rajuntay, is 5,475 m).

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Cordillera de la Viuda -  this range extends for about 50 miles and has several very tall peaks that are permanently snow-covered.

 

This high up there is little vegetation over a few centimetres tall, the plants are either grasses, or small and hugging the ground as rosettes or hidden in the shelter of rocks. The lack of vegetation cover allows one to really appreciate the complex and totally breath-taking geology of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the result of the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental margin and was pushed up and crumpled over the course of millions of years. The southern Andes are older than the ranges to the north – in Canta we were about in the middle. The range is between 10-30 million years old, relatively young in geological terms.

 

Driving along high mountain roads you can pass sections that are crumpled one way, then around the corner, other sections going in the opposite direction – this really brings home the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the earth we live on – it is not static and unchanging in the least!

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Paul, Dan and Mindy with nearly vertical strata behind…

 

The scenery in these high elevation habitats is not to be believed – I love the jungle and the dense forest, but the sense of space and openness at high elevation is special. At this point we were about 4,700 metres above sea level – the air is pretty thin up that high so running about is not to be recommended.

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The region in the Cordillera de la Viuda is peppered with tiny (and not so tiny) lakes with the most extraordinary colours and perfectly clear water.


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We were lucky to see viscachas – a lagomorph (rabbit relative) endemic to South America. This species is the northern viscachaLagidium peruanum) – known only from these high elevation habitats from central Peru to northern Chile. They look a bit like giant kangaroo rats, or gerbils. Again, like the condor, this picture is a bit fuzzy, they were hard to get close to!


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Sadly, even along this remote road you can still find the traces of humans – not just archeological remains, but more prosaic garbage. What in heaven’s name is a broom head doing far from the road amongst the cushion plants? In this climate it will be there for a long, long time…

 

The road climbed ever higher, but at about 4,800 metres it flattened out and began to go down – we decided to turn back – it was rumbling with thunder and began to hail. Erica and Dan had enough insects to keep them busy for hours and hours…

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The “pass” was more like a broad flat area; llamas and alpacas were grazing here, it was a bit high for cattle.

 

The hail on the top was a portent of things to come. The valley on the way back down was completely under cloud – in fact, it felt like we were IN the cloud, which I suppose we were in fact. At times the road wasn’t really visible, good job there was absolutely no traffic.

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The road was dirt and usually a single lane with drop-offs on one side and cliffs on the other, so the lack of traffic was actually a good thing. This is the view of the road (you can see it, can't you?) from the front seat. We saw several rock slides that I don’t remember from the way up… our mascot (San Martin de Porres I think) was clearly helping...


Back at the Hostal Santa Catalina Erica and Dan had several hours of insect prep to do, Paul, Mindy and I had the plants to prepare and put on the dryer – so we had a busy last evening in Canta. Tomorrow I return to Lima to fly out the next day back to London – the rest of the team is headed into the next valley north to go up again. That is travel in the Andes for you; up and down, up and down. They will drop me off on the Panamerican Highway near the coast and I will catch a bus or taxi back into Lima.

 

I wish I were going with them...

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Having survived the public transport ride up to the village of Canta and joined the rest of the team, we set off bright and early to look for more Solanaceae and their critters. Since Mindy, Dan, Erica and Paul had gone down the valley the day before, we decided to go up to the town of Obrajillo – worth a teensy mention in Dan’s guidebook as “oozing with colonial charm”.

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Definitely a colonial village, but pretty run down at the heels – this Merc was up on posts and had bags of grain in the front seat. There must be action here though during the foggy, cold season in Lima (September-October time) – hip hop is being advertised in the door behind the car!

 

We drove up beyond the town on a small dirt track that suddenly became a non-road – no harm done, but a bit of pushing was involved! The sun was shining and the insects were out – perfect conditions. Also perfect for sunburn… the sun at 2,900 metres elevation is pretty intense, and without sunscreen we pallid Europeans burn fast!

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Mindy and Paul looking for plants behind a somewhat random-seeming monument to the battle fought on the 2nd of May… Not in Obrajillo of course, but somewhere far away (in Callao on the coast near Lima in 1866 to be exact).

 

Since it had rained early in the afternoon the day before we decided to walk up spotting targets, then come back down collecting. The entomologists got to try out all their methods…

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Erica sweeping with wild abandon in a patch of potato wild relatives…

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Dan and Erica peering into their nets to see what they caught on the Solanum basendopogon that was creeping through the shrub on the right of the path…

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Erica sussing out just where to start suctioning up insects from a Jaltomata species growing against some rocks by the trail – the aspirator is basically a small, gentle hoover that sucks up anything on the leaves into a cup with a filter of gauze in the bottom, pop the top on and then sort it out in the evening!

 

One of the species we found here was Solanum habrochaites – a wild tomato relative – that the team had also collected from last year. This will be great for looking at the geographical distribution of insect communities on the same species – will the locality or the host species be the most important determinant of the insect communities association with the plants? Only by collecting from the same species in different localities (ideally at the same time of year) will we be able to start teasing apart these patterns.

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Solanum habrochaites occurs from Ecuador to central Peru and is quite variable in elevation and habit. It is an important wild tomato relative and has been used in the past to introduce new variation in the cultivated tomato for fruit sugar content. The sticky hairs all over the plant have a distinctive smell and could also be useful for plant breeders for insect resistance (the white dot on the flower is a white fly!).

 

About lunchtime a group of local people assembled in the valley below for a barbeque and dance/sing-along – Andean flute music and dancing. It was pretty atmospheric…

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The men on the rock in brightly colored ponchos did a sort of hand-waving dance – it looked good fun!

 

Well – it began to rain… earlier than the day before – so we headed back. Insect collecting with wet nets is just not possible. I begged though, and we went back to a spot we had seen a tomato relative not yet collected in the morning – it wasn’t actually raining (my logic ran…).

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Mindy showing just how big some of these tomato wild relatives can get – this one is Solanum corneliomulleri, a species that occurs in central Peru at higher elevations that we had not yet sampled from – so I was glad we had tried! We had collected this species in 2012, but no insects were collected on that trip…

 

Paul and Mindy pressed these last specimens and then we headed back to the hotel to sort the day’s catch, write up the notes, check our localities on Google Earth and otherwise get the plants onto the drier.

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Paul and Mindy emerging from the mist with the press full of solanums.

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The kind people in the hotel let us use the restaurant to sort out insects – amazingly even while other guests were ordering dinner…  we definitely recommend the Hostal Santa Catarina in Canta for biological field work!

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We set up our trusty gas plant drier (repaired by Tiina and Maria after our slight fire incident last year) in an unused communal bathroom… it works just a well as ever!

 

Tomorrow it is up to the puna – to find the high elevation potato wild relatives, and for me, to see if I can find some more interesting Solanum endemics… We will have to start out early to avoid the rain… can’t wait!

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In the bad old days, biologists from places like the Museum would just go to a country, collect and then bring everything home. This was great for building our collections, but bad for the country involved. It didn’t help build up capacity in-country for biological inventory and understanding at all; many of the places the early explorers went were only just beginning to develop academic communities of their own. Things are different now though – and for the better.

IMG_7282_resized.jpgMy colleague Asunción Cano and his some of his students at the meeting of the Peruvian Botanical Society – academic life is certainly vibrant in Perú!

 

The Convention on Biological Diversity that was negotiated by the world’s governments in 1992 and subsequently ratified by most countries has meant, among other things, that permission to collect in countries not your own must be sought from the relevant authorities. This might seem like a bit of a pain – but what it does is gets you in contact with local scientists and tends to lead to some great collaborations! In Peru we have our research and collecting permits for both of our projects from the Dirección Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre of the Ministerio de Agricultura y de Rienda (Ministry of Agriculture and Water). The process is very straightforward; it involves a project plan, a list of people involved, and a promise to leave half the collected material in Peru. Sensible.

 

DNA permits - a different beast

 

For much of our work, however, we want to use DNA sequence data to look at evolutionary relationships for both the plants and the insects. This means we need a different and additional permit – a permit for use of genetic resources. All DNA has been identified as 'genetic resource' regardless of use. In a way this has created a huge problem for evolutionary biologists like us. Our use of DNA data has been equated with the plant samples kept in gene banks. So genetic resources permits can be notoriously difficult to negotiate and obtain.

 

We submitted our application of the DNA extraction from all Solanaceae and all insects associated with them in early December of last year, made some corrections based on observations from the people in the Ministry, and to my amazement and total surprise we were granted permission to extract DNA from specimens of Solanaceae and their associated insects we collect in Peru for evolutionary analysis! I signed a contract with the Ministry affirming each other’s rights and responsibilities in Lima, then headed for the mountains to join the team.

 

We really appreciate the efforts our colleagues at the Museo in Lima have made to help guide all these permissions through the system, and the efforts our colleagues at the Ministry have made to allow the genetic resources permit to be granted. I am really excited about the future collaborations we will have, and the new data and hypotheses we can generate. Doing all the permissions the right way has taken time, but I feel it has us all on a good solid, collaborative base for developing the research in the future.

 

Off into the field

 

The next day off I went to join the rest of the team – Erica, Mindy, Dan and Paul had gone to Canta the same day I had to stay in Lima to sign the genetic resources contract – so I followed by public transport, always exciting in Peru.

 

The car I got a seat in was old, bottomed out at every bump in the dirt road, and had a completely cracked windscreen. I might know why… the road from Lima to Canta was being repaired and widened in a number of places so there were lots of stops – at one of them several men were up the side of the hill pushing rocks down with sticks – no dynamite here, just manpower!

 

IMG_7312_resized.jpgI suspect the windscreen has taken a few knocks along the way … our driver and the one from the car in front discussing the delays.

 

IMG_7309_resized.jpgIf you squint you can see the tiny men on the slope – they are pushing the slope down with sticks, levering rocks out so the roll down the hill in clouds of dust…

 

The driver of our 'colectivo' got a bit impatient, and zoomed through – despite rocks skittering down the slope. Not great. But we made it to Canta, I found the team, whose day had been Solanum-filled and wonderful. I can’t wait to go out tomorrow!!

 

IMG_7318_resized.jpgErica (with Dan’s hands) sorting some of the day’s catch – it’s looking good!

 

 

Posted on behalf of Sandy Knapp, Museum botanist on a research and collecting trip to Peru.

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Before leaving London I was given a shopping list of field items to obtain in Peru prior to the arrival of the rest of the team. This makes a lot of sense, as things like plastic sheeting, pots, Styrofoam ice coolboxes and string are a lot cheaper here than in the UK and we save on bulk as well. So I was on a mission…

 

First though, we had another morning in the herbarium – checking on potato distributions after our visit to CIP on Friday where the scientists shared potato distribution data with us, we needed to check to be sure there weren’t collections they needed lurking in the cupboards of the herbarium. And there were! Many of the herbarium specimens that represent unique collecting points were not in the data set – we will now share this back with the scientists at CIP and everyone wins!

 

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Mindy, Tiina and our colleague Reinhard Simon in front of the spectactular CIP logo.

 

While working away at the database the floor suddenly did a lurch, the cabinets rattled and Johanny, who works with us doing data entry, ran for the door. It was a small earth tremor – not even big enough to register on the US Geological Survey’s earthquake map (they only map those over 2.5 on the Richter scale), but the Peruvian authorities registered it as 4.0 on the scale and with an epicentre just N of Lima but causing no damage. We hadn’t even felt the much bigger event (5.7 on the Richter scale) earlier on in the week the epicentre was far to the south – the internet went off, so we reckon that was the cause! Peru is at the edge of the subducting Pacific plate, and so earthquakes and tremors are common occurrences – it is good to have these little ones, it lessens the probability of a major catastrophic event I guess. I will definitely be visiting the newly-refurbished volcanoes and earthquakes gallery back in South Kensington with a new appreciation!

 

It was open day at the museum and the staff all had rows of specimens on display and both students and staff members alike were out talking with gusto to the many members of the public who came for the day. It was sunny and nice and everyone was having a great time! Museums really depend on the public visiting and open days like this are so important for letting visitors catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

 

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The botany display...

 

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Here's the way to the reptiles and amphibians!!

 

Noontime came and a friend and colleague, Emilio Perales from the Agrarian University (near CIP), came to help me with the shopping. The Central Market in Lima is not the safest place to be as a foreign woman alone, anyway, shopping is better as a group activity! Off we went into the heart of colonial Lima...

 

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The central part of Lima still has many old colonial churches and buildings... this one is the Iglesia San Martin (I think)...

 

The market itself is not a building or an area along the street – it covers several city blocks and is composed of shops selling anything you can imagine… Specialism is highly developed and there are tiny shops selling only plastic containers, others selling only paper products, still others with only coolboxes and yet more with only plastic sheeting and rubber bands. The whole area heaves with people – Saturday afternoon might not have been the best time to do this particular task!

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Proper shopping involves going to several stalls and bargaining for the best deal for the best product – this is a highly interactive sport. Getting receipts for purchases can also be a challenge – seems strange to be asking for a receipt for something that cost two and half Peruvian soles (the equivalent of 50 pence) – but it is necessary to justify expenditure.

 

Finally, laden with two coolboxes, many metres of plastic sheeting, a large roll of fabric, several hundred plastic pots and a huge plastic storage box, we had a freshly squeezed orange juice in the fruit section of the inside market – my favourite part of any of these local markets. Beautiful…you just can’t beat it!

 

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Maize in Peru is called choclo and has huge grains - it is served boiled or roasted and is delicious!

 

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Native (the cracked open green ones in the right hand side are lucuma) and imported (pomegranates) fruits all side by side for sale in hundreds of competing stalls - it is grape season in coastal Peru and many varieties are grown...

 

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The duck aisle right down from the fruits...

 

Shopping done we caught a taxi back to the museum to put our haul ready for the field on Tuesday. It took us ten minutes to get into the tiny car; it was like a puzzle getting all that stuff (plus us!) into the small space. Everything got put away, and now there are just a few more tiny bits and pieces (like a mobile phone I can use in Peru!) to get before we go… we await the rest of the team with anticipation...

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The easy answer to that one is – lots!

 

Seriously though, this is a harder target to hit than one might think. As part of our project on Peruvian endemics, Tiina, Paul and I decided that a checklist of the species of Solanum in Peru would be something botanists here would find useful – so we set about generating this from the Solanaceae Source database. Sounds easy…

 

Solanum is one of only a handful of flowering plant genera with more than 1,000 accepted species, and applying the general rule of thumb that there are about 3 names for every accepted species (a result found by my colleagues at Kew Gardens in a paper in 2008) means we have a lot of names to look at! I have written about synonymy before, but just to recap –a species might have more than one name for various reasons:

 

  • communication in the early years of science was not so hot and botanists might not have known that the species had been described already
  • or so few specimens were available that botanists described the extremes of variation as different species and now with more collections we can see a continuous range of variation
  • or opinions can differ as to what constitutes a species!
  • or …

 

This doesn’t mean earlier botanists were wrong, it just means we need to reassess the evidence from time to time, especially as more collections are made in previously poorly collected areas.

 

This plethora of names means that without some sort of ordering and rationalization the day-to-day identification of plants for tasks such as environmental assessments or national park inventories can become inconsistent. Hence the checklist…

 

So now having generated a list from the database (and Maria Baden, our dapper driver from last year’s trip - having edited it and tidied it up!!) we are now checking the list against the entire national herbarium – species by species. It’s a big job.

 

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Besides checking, we are adding new data points to the database, especially for common species, so we can get accurate estimates of range size and distribution in-country - here is Tiina puzzling over the VPN connection as the day begins...

 

As we go, we find that some species that appear in the list are there due to misidentifications – like Solanum aturense, a name put on a couple of collections that are really the related Solanum leucopogon – and out they go. On the other hand, new records here mean that species are added to the list – like Solanum cajanumense, that for some reason just wasn’t in there.

 

Tiina began at Z and I began at A – yesterday we met in the middle at about Solanum multifidum. Done… a complete marathon of identification, databasing and comparing – but the list is now backed up by data from the national herbarium and we have re-identified and re-curated most of the Solanum collection in this, the Peruvian national herbarium. Now I just need to look at the unidentified specimens some more and then we can move on to the next phase of the work – more tidying up … It is almost ready for publication now.

 

So how many specimens are there? We’ll count and get back on that, but as we work here there are new Peruvian species being described by other workers – so it’s a moving target. One of my goals is to find specimens in the unidentified piles that correspond to these new ones so the holotype specimen (the gold standard) can be deposited in a Peruvian herbarium – this is one important way botanists from northern institutions can help our colleagues in South America prove the value of their collections to their government sponsors.

 

Marathon over for now, tomorrow is our day for visiting the folks at the Environment Ministry to discuss our permits and to see colleagues at CIP (International Potato Center) to discuss future work on crop wild relatives. Should be a good day…

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Well, here I am again – back in South America and back on the hunt for Solanaceae. This time the trip will focus on tomato and potato wild relatives for the Museum’s Natural Resources Initiative - we will be collecting the plants and their associated insects to look at patterns of distribution through a variety of lenses. I have joined Tiina Särkinen from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for a week of work in the herbarium on our massive checklist of Peruvian Solanum species before the rest of the Museum team arrives. I’ll be joined this time by

  • Mindy Syfert, who began to work with the team in September, but hasn't been in the field yet!
  • Erica McAlister (aka FlyGirl), who has been here before...
  • Dan Whitmore, another newbie to the team and to Peru.. he also does flies...

 

Our aim is the mountains of Central Peru; we will be accompanied by Paul Gonzales (who you might remember from the 2012 southern Peru trip…) whose bachelor’s thesis was done in our first target area, so we are in good hands!

 

Our aim for this field work is to collect all the insects associated with individual Solanaceae plants (concentrating on the wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes) – this will give us a data set that can be sliced in many ways – by geography for example, are the insects the same in any given area? Or do they differ between species in a locality? Is locality more important than host plant?

 

Or maybe the evolutionary relatedness of the plants influences the insect community – are close relatives hosting similar insect communities? I am sure you can think of more questions, as I am sure we will once in the field.

 

Meanwhile, however, I am in Lima with Tiina, working hard in the herbarium on compiling an updated list of all the Solanum species that occur in Peru. Yesterday I went through all the unidentified specimens and thankfully managed to identify many if not most, so we are getting there! Tomorrow we start at opposite ends of the alphabet and work through the list to the middle, checking distributions against the collections in the herbarium to be sure we have not missed anything. Oh, and we will certainly be writing a few new species descriptions and making some decisions about what to call the new species we have found… more about that tomorrow.

 

Today though is Sunday and a day for visiting old friends. It is autumn in Lima and the sun is out and skies are clear, so after a great lunch with my old friends Blanca León and Ken Young of the University of Texas who live in Peru part-time (Ken is on sabbatical now and is fortunate to be living here full time for the moment!) and Asunción Cano of the Floristics section of the Peruvian national herbarium, a walk on the cliffs over the Pacific seemed a good idea.

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Ken, Blanca and Asuncion on the cliff tops with the blue Pacific behind!

 

This area is called Miraflores and is growing fast – particularly with high rise apartment buildings. A few old houses remain though, nestled amongst the towers...

 

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The land is so valuable that few old houses remain - the tower block on the left is unfinished - the contractor ran out of money... Sometimes the owners of these lovely old houses sell and then get a flat in the new block.

 

The cliffs down to the Pacific from this part of Lima are precipitous; at the bottom is a shingle “beach” – but the sea is full of people, all beginning surfers learning to ride the beautiful long waves that crash on this shore. When I lived in Peru many years ago, this seafront was not a very salubrious place to be, but it is now totally transformed – a cliff-top park full of families and people out strolling in the sunshine. What better way to pass a Sunday afternoon!

 

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Lots of surfers in the sea, a shingle beach and cormorants on a lamp post - I could be in England but for the blue of the sea and the warmth of the sun...

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by Hayley Dunning, Science Web Editor

 

A species of nightshade  thought to be restricted to one area of Peru has been found in 17 other  locations with the aid of habitat modelling.

 

Museum botanists Dr Tiina Särkinen (now at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) and Dr Sandra Knapp discovered the new species of nightshade, named this week as Solanum pseudoamericanum,  in 2012 in the Andes. When they first found it, they thought this  species only occurred in two river valleys in southern Peru. By using a  method known as species distribution modelling, they predicted other  regions of Peru where the plant might also be found, based on the  environmental conditions at the original collection sites.

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An example of the newly discovered Solanum pseudoamericanum, collected on 7 March 2012.

The flowers are on the left and the berries on the right.

 

A  collecting field trip to northern Peru the following year uncovered the  nightshade in 17 new locations predicted by the model. The success of  the project proves the method of species distribution modelling can work  in complex climatic regions such as the Andes, where there is an  abundance of undiscovered species and data coverage is generally poor.

 

Mapping species


Species  distribution modelling uses climatic data to help map the range of a  new species, speeding up the process of cataloguing it worldwide and  providing a way to accurately predict where that species might be found  again.

 

The approach may be particularly useful when dealing with critically endangered species, where there is an urgent need to find and conserve remaining populations.

The work is part of a larger project to map the distribution patterns of all the endemic Solanaceae species in Peru, and to look for components of rarity; what sorts of  things make plant species rare. With this information, researchers hope  to be able to better describe, and then conserve, plant diversity in  Peru.

 

Hidden diversity


Species  distribution modelling has been used successfully for vertebrates  before, but has not been widely tested in plants. Dr Knapp belives this  may be because collecting plants is seen as reasonably straightforward,  but this case study suggests that it is not always true.

 

Solanum pseudoamericanum was not originally collected because it looks a lot like a common weed.  ‘Collecting is extremely biased, and this raises the question of how we  deal with absences,’ Knapp said. The new species represents a category  of ‘hidden diversity’, where new discoveries can be obscured by their  physical similarity to known, common species.

 

Open data


The research, and all its associated geographical and specimen data, is published this week in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.  By publishing the results and original specimens as open data, said  Knapp, large specimen datasets can be combined by other researchers  globally to produce more general analyses of diversity.

 

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A species of nightshade thought to be restricted to one area of Peru has been found in 17 other locations with the aid of habitat modelling.

 

Museum botanists Dr Tiina Särkinen (now at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) and Dr Sandra Knapp discovered the new species of nightshade, named this week as Solanum pseudoamericanum, in 2012 in the Andes. When they first found it, they thought this species only occurred in two river valleys in southern Peru. By using a method known as species distribution modelling, they predicted other regions of Peru where the plant might also be found, based on the environmental conditions at the original collection sites.

knapp-combined.jpg

An example of the newly discovered Solanum pseudoamericanum, collected on 7 March 2012.

The flowers are on the left and the berries on the right.

 

A collecting field trip to northern Peru the following year uncovered the nightshade in 17 new locations predicted by the model. The success of the project proves the method of species distribution modelling can work in complex climatic regions such as the Andes, where there is an abundance of undiscovered species and data coverage is generally poor.

 

Mapping species


Species distribution modelling uses climatic data to help map the range of a new species, speeding up the process of cataloguing it worldwide and providing a way to accurately predict where that species might be found again.

 

The approach may be particularly useful when dealing with critically endangered species, where there is an urgent need to find and conserve remaining populations.

The work is part of a larger project to map the distribution patterns of all the endemic Solanaceae species in Peru, and to look for components of rarity; what sorts of things make plant species rare. With this information, researchers hope to be able to better describe, and then conserve, plant diversity in Peru.

 

Hidden diversity


Species distribution modelling has been used successfully for vertebrates before, but has not been widely tested in plants. Dr Knapp belives this may be because collecting plants is seen as reasonably straightforward, but this case study suggests that it is not always true.

 

Solanum pseudoamericanum was not originally collected because it looks a lot like a common weed. ‘Collecting is extremely biased, and this raises the question of how we deal with absences,’ Knapp said. The new species represents a category of ‘hidden diversity’, where new discoveries can be obscured by their physical similarity to known, common species.

 

Open data


The research, and all its associated geographical and specimen data, is published this week in the open-access journal PhytoKeys. By publishing the results and original specimens as open data, said Knapp, large specimen datasets can be combined by other researchers globally to produce more general analyses of diversity.

 

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I am in a hotel lobby in Lima, Peru (OK, that’s a bit of a lie - I was when I wrote this but now I'm back in UK…). There is, as with most cities globally, a high level of chaos around me involving road works, building works, giggling and cleaning. However I am in a happy place - mainly because I am in Peru and it is lovely to be back, but also because today I spent most of my time in the International Potato Centre (CIP) discussing a project and our projected findings with incredibly well informed folks (the Man of Potatoes below).  So let me fill you in with a few details...

 

Erica-1.jpgThe Man of Potatoes at CIP, Peru

 

This field trip is the first of many, which is part of a larger project looking at potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines, their wild relatives and their associated insect fauna. Botanists, entomologists, modellers and digitisers at the Museum have got together to look through the collections, mine them for data and then go out into the field to fill in the gaps in our knowledge to enable us to start to map what will happen to our economically important species in the future.

 

A couple of days ago, after months of planning, Dr Diana Percy (aka Psyllid lady; Psyllids are very, very, very small jumping bugs) and myself flew from a cold and rainy UK to a muggy and hot Lima to join various colleagues who where already there. 

 

Sandy Knapp, our intrepid leader, potato queen and lover of all things South American, was in Lima having come back from the field and took us this morning to the Institute. She has been working with various people at the Institute for a long time looking at the Solanaceae distribution in Peru but as well as working with the plants the Institute is also looking at the pest and pollinator species and their predators and parasitoids. This was great to hear as this was something that we were investigating too. The Centre consists of many plant workers, modellers, etc. and more importantly for me at this precise moment – entomologists.

 

We had a brief tour and then it was time for a very enlightening seminar (in Spanish) by Sandy to the group of scientists about Solanaceae and the work that she and other collaborators were performing involving the phylogentics of the group, as well as the project that we were undertaking over the next couple of years.

 

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Sandy Knapp thanks collaborators on her project and shows a lovely photo of Tiina Saarkinen, who is in the field waiting for us to join her!

 

(Did you know that there are only 29 fossil records for the whole of Solanaceae? Which in laymen’s terms could mean that we have no real idea of where the potato came from…?)

 

Entomologists that we met were Dr Jurgen Kroschel as well as Veronica Cañedo Torres and Norma who were working on various agroecology and biodiversity studies focusing on potatoes and their associated insect communities. The facilities were great and we first walked into a lab where there were tiny pots containing one of the moth pest species.

 

Erica-3.jpgPots containing moth pest species of solanaceae

 

As well as looking at what species attack the potatoes they are looking at where on the plant the damage is occurring - i.e. is it the tuber (the lovely edible part) or is it the leaves, the stems etc; what part of the life cycle of the pest species is causing the damage (with the moths it is the caterpillar but with the beetles it is the larvae and the adult); but also which species are the most important and does it depend on where the plants are located (potatoes can be found thousands of meters up a mountain). So as well as the preserved material that they have caught out in the field through sweeping the plants, leaving out potatoes as bait, laying down pitfall traps etc they have reared material in the lab and have now colonies of the different insects.

 

We move past the living pots and head into the collection space proper. A lovely air conditioned room containing sealed cabinets full of wonderfully curated specimens. Veronica had prepared most of the material herself as well as identifying many of the species. There are, as with all collections, many more that had not been identified and this is where the collaborations between the institutes becomes fun - we can help each other out in terms of specimens and identifications and everyone benefits!

 

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The fatties at the bottom of this drawer are tachinids which are fab parasitic flies.

 

Diana and I poked through the collections to gain insight into the types of species that they were collecting from the potatoes. Many of our preconceptions about which species would be present or would be more important were disbanded and the information that we gathered would help us strengthen our sampling strategy once we were in the field. (This is often the way of fieldwork - best laid plans and all that… flexibility is the name of the game... as well as entomological training; we have been trained by both the A-team and Blue Peter to enable us to build objects from a toilet roll and spare tyres to enable us to capture that elusive fly…)

 

We were then shown the rearing facilities - I could work here. We walked past carefully manicured gardens and trees with brilliant red tanager, the massive greenhouses that were chock full of potatoes, past the courts where dancing lessons were given on Wednesdays and into the new rearing facilities. Rooms with pots of insects in always makes me smile. Little containers, medium containers, large containers, all with potatoes and all with one species or another that is trying to maim or kill something.

 

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Wounded potatoes

 

As well as the moths and the beetles, the major pests were the leaf mining flies which are easily recognisable by the excavated passage ways that they leave behind in the leaves.

 

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Damage caused to leaves by leaf mining flies

 

These flies do not directly harm the tubers but reduce the overall fitness of the plant and so reduce the overall size and numbers of the potatoes.

 

They had large containers that housed either only flies or flies with different parasitoids to observe the affect of just pests or plant/pest interactions on the potatoes health. All very interesting stuff.

 

We left the Institute armed with scientific papers, species lists, sterilised sand (for rearing in the field ) and with more impatience to get into the field and see what was out there. Hopefully we will stop there once we are back from the field armed with more questions but sweetened with many specimens to look at and compare.

 

Good times lay ahead. more to follow on the search for wild potatoes and the joys of pootering at an altitude of 4,000m.....

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'Flygirl' Erica McAlister and 'Psyllid lady' Diana Percy arrived in Lima without a hitch, and I handed the initiative field work baton on to them; they will carry on the blogging through Erica’s blog stream, so I’ll watch there for adventures and progress – they go by bus to meet Tiina in Huaraz in the Callejón de Huaylas, where mountains await them, while apparently snow in May lies in wait for me!


We had a productive day at the Centro Internacional de la Papa (International Potato Center, one of the 17 CGIAR centres worldwide and the one responsible for potatoes and other Andean tuber crops, as the name suggests). Here I gave a talk – foolishly I had the audience vote whether to have it in English or Spanish; they chose Spanish and I probably made all kinds of mistakes! But never mind – it was fun.

 

Erica will be blogging about their day – new contacts for the insect component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relatives Initiative and we are now completely rethinking our approach to the collecting. I had long and very good discussions about permitting and the new Peruvian laws with respect to collecting and using genetic resources. Perfect – just what I had hoped for this trip.

 

Now that I am on the plane on the first leg of my many-hour return to the Museum, I thought I might just share a few of the things that I love about field work and its ups and downs.

 

The people

The people you meet on the road in different countries are wonderful – so often generous, kind and friendly – they are really part of what makes travelling so rewarding. We scientists often write about our work in the field as an unending series of scientific thoughts, actions and discoveries – all of this is true of course, field work does let you think about your scientific work in different ways – but it is all underpinned by interactions with local people, whether local scientific counterparts or countryfolk.

 

Take the gentleman from a small village high above Caraz discussing the differences between plants with Emilio, or the man who proudly showed me his recent potato harvest, or this woman who discussed her garden in detail with Paul and gave us some lovely fruits – if one takes a little time, the human interactions can be great.

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People in small rural villages also tend to know a heck of a lot about plants and the environment as well! And they are usually very happy to talk about them with someone who is interested.

 

The food

Food – you can’t do without it (as I found this trip after several days of battling parasites before finding a pharmacy!). You can take all your own food, as do astronauts or high mountain trekkers, but that spoils half the fun. Partaking of local fare is much more fun, and besides, it helps support the local economy. Wondering what the 'Menú' (or standard fare) might be is half the fun of stopping in a small village for a meal. Will it be stewed chicken? Ullucu with tripe? Beans and rice? Nothing at all? Sometimes there is even the luxury of choice.

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These women in Cabanas were making a sort of fry bread and 'papas rellenas' – deep fried mashed potato with an egg inside

 

I have eaten all sorts of things in the field, some I liked and some I didn’t – but they were all fun to try out. In the Andes I like to try to eat the traditional crops like quinoa, and the Andean tuber crops ullucu (Basellus ullucus, a spinach relative whose tubers are slightly slimy, but delicious), oca (Oxalis tuberosa, whose tubers are multi-coloured and slightly acid) or mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum, a relative of our garden nasturtium).

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Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is probably (after potatoes of course!) my favourite Andean tuber – these tubers are about 5 cm long and the diameter of your thumb or a bit bigger

 

But villages are not always close at hand, and you don’t always drive through them at the right time of day. So snacks and road food are always necessary.

 

This trip Tiina and I had a slightly silly shopping expedition in which we bought snacks for their amusing (to us) names – resulting in a mish-mash that no one else was particularly keen on. But we ate them – when you are hungry, it doesn’t matter if you are eating something called a Bimbolete really.

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Water too is essential – although there are streams, it is best to either purify it or drink bottled water – the risk of parasites from the large numbers of animals like sheep and llamas in the areas we were travelling through is just too great.

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But there is always Inca Kola to fall back on if you are desperate – said to be flavoured with lemon grass; it is the sticky sweetest stuff I have ever tasted!

 

The facilities

Since we usually travel through populated areas we tend to stay in small hotels rather than camp – it makes drying the plants easier and you can work a bit longer during the day. Hotels vary from pretty basic – a bed and blanket and that’s it (like in Mollepata), to more comfortable with hot water and electricity and sometimes even good coffee!

 

A common denominator in Peruvian hotels though is the lack of electricity sockets. This means charging up all the devices we carry with us these days can be a challenge. Whose batteries are likely to run out first, the GPS or the camera? How do we both work on the computer at the same time and charge all the kit? It can be a real challenge.

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Maria and Tiina’s hotel room in Cabanas had a single wall socket – they used it to the max!

 

Toilet facilities can also be a challenge – I won’t go into it, but sometimes a tussock of grass has to be enough. And in Peru, travel without your own toilet paper in your pocket at your peril!

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Small disasters

Flat tyres, small bumps – car hiccups are common. Less common are more dramatic things, like the plant presses catching on fire. We use a dryer in the field that consists of a set of metal shelves with a gas burner underneath. On top we put the plant press, with the plants pressed in newspaper alternating with blotters and either cardboard or aluminium corrugates through which the heat passes, drying the specimens. The whole thing is wrapped in a sort of blanket contraption that keeps the heat from escaping out the sides and channels it up through the press.

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Paul with the plant dryer on a good day on last year’s trip in southern Peru

 

This system works really well, and specimens dried in the field are much nicer than those preserved and dried later – they keep their colour better and are just prettier. A day’s worth of collecting usually fills (usually a bit more than, so we are always a bit behind) the press and dries overnight.

 

In Caraz though, the top shelf collapsed – letting the press fall down onto the flame from the burner. Not good. Fortunately I woke up really early and went to check the dryer and found it smoking gently, not yet truly on fire. Phew! We managed to get all the plants out and stamp out the smouldering cardboard corrugates – only a little half-moon shaped area was really charred, and we only had a couple of quite charred specimens. All in all a lucky escape!

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The aftermath of our almost-fire – not too bad considering!

 

Getting plants for making specimens can also lead to hiccups – sometimes it is easier to climb up a steep bank than to get back down again!

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Emilio got up to this specimen of Solanum huaylasense, but once up there realised it was quite a way back down!

 

The roads

I’ve written about roads a lot on these Andean field work blog posts – they are one of the striking things about working in such a mountainous region. How they built some of these roads I cannot imagine, but they did, and they all have traffic. Meeting a large Volvo lorry head-on on a hairpin turn is a heart-stopper; someone has to back up to let the other pass. The general rule is that the person going up has right of way (it is more dangerous to back down the hill than up), but sometimes size matters.

 

Couple this with dirt, mud and ruts and it is pretty exciting. Our general rule is that the driver is not supposed to look out for plants – that is the passengers’ duty.

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If you look closely you can just see the amazing switchbacks snaking up the seemingly vertical bank opposite

 

The lorries are amazing too – they range from monsters belching black smoke to works of art. An endless parade of semi-hidden design talent exists on Peruvian roads.

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In all but the smallest, most remote villages there are swarms of mototaxis – like rickshaws, but motorised. They are used to carry everything from passengers to chickens and pigs. This one seemed to be carrying a full load of grass and alfalfa harvested to feed the owners livestock, but we didn’t stop him to ask. They too are often spectacularly decorated – I even saw one with angel wings on the top!

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Last but definitely not least, the plants

This is what I come in the field for – I’ve never been good at travelling for holidays, I feel I am missing something. There is nothing quite like the rush of seeing something you haven’t seen before, even if it is a species already described. I’ve written about why field study is so important before, but I’ll say it again – seeing plants (and insects) in their native habitats give a whole new dimension to the work we taxonomists do at the Museum, and allows us to go beyond just what they are to what we think they are doing.

 

I for one really appreciate the support the Museum gives to its staff to go in the field and collect – not only do we improve our collections with new material collected using modern methods, but I think we improve our interpretation of those and other collections as well. It might seem a luxury to allow staff to travel all over the world acquiring new specimens for an already large collection, but it is not a luxury, it is essential. The collecting we do is part of a global monitoring system for biodiversity; these specimens will provide future generations with the data and baseline for today. They allow us to see how organisms grow and co-exist in wild nature and provide a valuable record of where things occur.

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Solanum huaylasense flowers being buzz-pollinated by a small green bee – the brown matches on the anther cone are from where she has bitten to hang on

 

I always come back from the field buzzing with new ideas – for projects, about the plants themselves, about ways to look at data we have collected. Field work might not suit everyone, but for people like me, it pushes the science in exciting new directions.

 

Besides – it’s great fun!

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So, waking up in Caraz we were greeted with the amazing sight of the Cordillera Blanca – the White Range – so named for its high, snowy peaks. The highest one is Huascarán, the fourth tallest mountain in South America after Aconcagua in Argentina (you can see pictures of that on the Patagonia blog from a couple of months ago!), and a couple of other more southerly peaks.

 

The Cordillera Blanca is granite and not volcanic like the rest of the Andes, although it does suffer earthquakes, one of which caused a landslide that completely buried the town of Yungay in the 1970s.

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Nevado Huascarán - at 6,768 metres tall the peak to the left is one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere

 

The high peaks and surrounding forests are a national park, preserving their unique flora and fauna, and of course the spectacular landscapes. There are some solanums there I would dearly love to see, but since we have not got a permit to collect in national parks this time – we decided to go to the other side of the wide valley called the Callejón de Huaylas and collect in the Cordillera Negra (Black Range – so called because there are no snow-capped peaks in it!).

 

Our journey began with an exciting river crossing – the main bridge was out over the Río Santa, so all traffic was directed (by way of a few oil barrels painted orange and a small sign saying 'PELIGRO' [danger]) to an old bridge where we thought the traffic was behaving in a peculiar fashion.

 

It turned out that the bridge was in danger of collapse toward one of the ends, so the etiquette was that all the passengers in the bus or taxi or car got out, walked across the dodgy bit of the bridge, then waited for their vehicle to come across to a secure part in the middle. Everyone then piled into the vehicles again and set off. One vehicle at a time, passengers first. Very organised.

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This is the only bridge to cross the Río Santa and gives access to many communities in the foothills of the Cordillera Negra – people were being very careful indeed with it!

 

In the rich, fertile valley bottom there was extensive agriculture – the usual barley, wheat, peas, but with a new twist – kiwicha. This is the native grain Amaranthus caudatus, a health food craze for Europeans and Americans, but a traditional staple for Andean peoples. I haven’t seen much of it cultivated in Peru in my last few trips, but here it was quite common.

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Kiwicha is high in protein and in Peru is often 'popped' and made into sugary bars a bit like flapjacks, only lighter

 

As usual, the road was steep and twisty – we ascended from about 2000 to nearly 4000 metres in only about 20 kilometres. The road is two-way, but really only one car-width wide, in places not even that – the uphill traffic always has priority, but if you blink, you lose your rights. Fortunately for us, even though Maria is an amazing mountain driver, there wasn’t much traffic.

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The road up and over the Cordillera Negra snakes around incredible switchbacks, always with the Cordillera Blanca clearly in the distance

 

As we got near to the top of the pass one of Peru’s iconic plants began to appear. Puya raimondii is celebrated all over the country wherever it occurs. This member of the pineapple family is a true giant – the spiky puffball-looking plants are taller than a person, and the inflorescence (branches) on which the blue-green flowers are borne can be a much as 10 metres tall!

 

The plant blooms once and then dies – botanists call this monocarpic. Apparently the life span of an individual plant is around 30 to 40 years and they bloom erratically, so it is hard to catch them in flower. The ones we saw here had bloomed and were now dead – one even had a woodpecker nest hole in the inflorescence stalk.

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Every single plant in this Puya raimondii population was counted for a population study done by Peruvian botanists a few years ago

 

In the high elevation puna we found a Nicotiana (tobacco) species we had not yet seen – Nicotiana undulata. It is a really sticky, smelly plant – covered with glandular hairs. It is one of the parents of Nicotiana rustica, one of the allotetraploid cultivated tobaccos.

 

Allotetraploids are formed by the fusion of two genomes to create a new entity. Nicotiana is rife with allotetraploidy, something I have been working on with Andrew Leitch of Queen Mary and Mark Chase of Kew for many years. Many of our cultivated plants are tetraploids – they are usually self-fertilizing and vigorous.

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Nicotiana undulata has dirty cream-colored flowers, but up close they are quite beautiful

 

We stopped in a village to try to buy water (we had forgotten to do so further down….) and a lovely man proudly showed us his recently harvested potato crop. He had a good year and grew a variety he had obtained from the Callejón de Huaylas called 'yungaysina' – presumably after the town of Yungay. We asked about wild potatoes and he said no, there weren’t any in the hills any more, they were all eaten by animals like goats and cattle.

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Most of this farmer’s crop was already stored in the back ready for sale – these were just the last bits of the crop


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He was wrong about wild potatoes though – Paul found one up amongst the rocks! Potatoes are not my best group, but this one I ought to be able to identify once back in the herbarium

 

We eventually – many Solanaceae collections later – made it to the village of Pamparomas, where we found another tobacco (the other parent of Nicotiana rustica called Nicotiana paniculata) and could see far down the dry valleys and hills to the coast almost 100 kilometres away. I could feel the wild tomatoes calling from those valleys – but by this time it was 4pm and time to return to Caraz. So we snaked back up and over, and as we descended into the Callejón de Huaylas again were treated to the sunset over the Cordillera Blanca. What a last day of Solanaceae collecting in Peru for me!

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Although this has been a short trip for me – longer for Tiina and Maria – we have collected more than 100 new locality records for Solanaceae in northern Peru, filling some of the gaps in the collections from the country. We found exciting plants I have never seen before in the field, and had lots of theories about why things grew where they did.

 

Seeing plants in the wild, in their native haunts is so important to achieving a deeper understanding of their evolution; they do quite unexpected things sometimes. I am looking forward to reports from Tiina and Maria from their next journey with Museum entomologists!

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Mother’s Day came, and we left Cabanas on the road for more surprises! Every woman in the town greeted me with a hug for Mother’s Day – it is a big deal here, and taken very seriously – even football teams were dedicating their games to mothers everywhere. Quite nice actually!

 

Cabanas is at about 3000 metres elevation (or a bit more) and is relatively humid – lots of lovely crops. Leaving town in the early morning (after managing to get the pickup out of the hotel courtyard – this involved finding a truck driver, persuading him to move his truck then backing out of a very narrow doorway!) we found the hillsides covered again the same wild tomato from the day before – Solanum habrochaites.

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Solanum habrochaites – we learned the day before that it was used for lung problems – the leaves are burned and the aromatic smoke inhaled

 

The hillsides around Cabanas are a patchwork of fields; this area has been cultivated for a very long time, and there is little if any undisturbed vegetation left.

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Fields on the road from Cabanas

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Common crops at these elevations are quinoa, wheat, barley and of course potatoes – in these fields there is quinoa to the left and barley to the right

 

We had formed a theory the day before that elevation made a difference in the distribution of these tomato species, but much to our surprise we found Solanum huaylasense growing at similar elevations as we began our descent into the Río Chuquicara valley. Just like yesterday there was a long stretch with no wild tomatoes – but here aridity seems to be playing a role.

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Solanum huaylasense appeared once we began our descent into the dry valley

 

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The Río Chuquicara valley is very dry, a rather abrupt change from the slopes around Cabanas – the vegetation there is full of cacti and thorny shrubs

 

As we descended the valley the habitat got drier and drier, until we were in the same sort of deserts we had been in several days ago near the coast. But this time we were far inland; the complex interdigitating valleys of the Andes make for some quite spectacular changes in vegetation in very short distances. It is not as simple as mountain chain with rainshadow.

 

In these dry areas we began to find similar plants to the ones we had found in the coastal desert – one exciting find was a species of Exodeconus that has before today been known only from the coastal fog forests (lomas) – and here it was in the valley of the Chuquicara far inland.

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Exodeconus prostratus grew amongst rocks and had very fleshy leaves

 

Our aim had been to get to the town of Corongo – back up in the highlands again, but as we descended into the dry valleys – we went from more than 3000 metres elevation to less than 700 in a matter of hours!  - we realised that once again we had overestimated the distance we could travel while still doing our job of collecting. So we went to plan B.

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The extremely dry valley of the Río Santa has small areas of cultivation, but the hills are almost devoid of vegetation – unless you look closely. We found Solanum huaylasense here at 700 metres elevation! Quite an elevational range for a plant species

 

Plan B involved entering the Callejon de Huaylas and cutting Corongo off the route for this leg of the trip. This huge valley is bordered on the east by the Cordillera Blanca, with snow-capped peaks, and on the west by the Cordillera Negra, whose peaks do not have snow and ice.

 

To enter the valley one must pass through the Cañon del Pato – a steep and narrow gorge. Through the Cañon del Pato there are 35 tunnels in a distance of some 35 kilometres! The road is a real feat of engineering.

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Cañon del Pato with one of the many tunnels on the right

 

So we ended up in the town of Caraz, with glimpse of snow-capped peaks through the clouds. Tomorrow is my last day in the field – I will return on the bus to Lima to meet Erica McAlister and Diana Percy, who will be joining Tiina, Maria and Paul for the next leg. I wonder what new habitats we will see tomorrow? Every day in Peru brings something new – a new species for me, a new distribution record, and even new species for science.

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Mollepata looked a lot better by daylight, even though we were all a bit groggy from lack of sleep.

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Mollepata – the plaza and church


To get to today’s destination, we had to descend to the Río Tablachaca, and then climb back out of the valley again – 1000 metres in elevation each time. The switchbacks were tremendous.

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Switchbacks down from Mollepata on the top of the hill – you can just see the river at the bottom


Although the area around Mollepata was somewhat humid as we descended into the river valley, the vegetation changed completely to dry arid scrubland with cacti and spiny shrubs. This is the sort of habitat the wild tomatoes love, and sure enough we saw one when we hit about 2500 metres elevation. What was exciting about it was that it was Solanum huaylasense – a species we previously thought only grew in the Callejón de Huaylas in the Department of Ancash. We were in the Department of La Libertad so this is a range extension for this species – another one described by my colleague Iris Peralta.

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Solanum huaylasense – not in the Callejón de Huaylas!


Since this trip is all about gathering data to investigate how range sizes and extinction risk correlate, we were keen to look at just what the altitudinal range of this species was in this particular valley. We found it on the way down – again at the bridge over the river, and then again on the way back up, until about 2500 metres elevation.

 

Above that elevation it was replaced by the wild tomato species we saw yesterday – Solanum habrochaites. It was almost as if they swapped places, the change was so sudden. We didn’t see them together anywhere, but once Solanum huaylasense stopped appearing along the road, the next wild tomato we saw was Solanum habrochaites.

 

The ranges of plant species are highly complex, especially in the Andes, where river valleys can be dry or humid, sometimes differing on either slope. The collections we make this trip, combined with the data we have gathered from herbarium specimens, will allow us to accurately map distributions so we can see how climate and slope affect them.

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This Lycianthes species we found on the way up the river valley has flowers that look just like Solanum, but the calyx lobes are like a brittle stars' arms – what species could this be?


We stopped for lunch – not wanting to risk another Mollepata evening! – in the town of Pallasca, where the church was built in 1650 and still had what looked like original frescoes on the front. Many of the old churches in the mountains of Peru have been destroyed by earthquakes – this one escaped.

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Pallasca – on the plaza


We had to decide in Pallasca which route to take to Cabana – up and over, or down the river and around. Both apparently took longer than we had expected (you’d think we would learn!) – so we chose up and over. It turned out to be up and down and up and down and over, but never mind – we arrived in Cabana in great time. In time, in fact, to join another Mother’s Day celebration, this time with a man dressed as a bull, chased by a small boy dressed as what looked like a pirate and a band with flutes and drums.

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The bull and his entourage danced all over town several times, all the while accompanied by the special music of the Andes – huaynos, repetitive and sung in highpitched voices, I like them, but they can take getting used to!


It was great to get somewhere before dark and to be able to enjoy the town, especially one in the grips of cheerful celebration. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day for real – so we wonder what we will find after all our ups and downs and overs and plants in the next town we end up in. It is always a surprise!

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We left Huamachuco – joined by Emilio Perales, a friend of Tiina’s from the Agrarian University in Lima – so we were packed into the truck like sardines – something that got us rather hysterical towards the end of this long long day.

 

The area around Huamachuco, and this part of northern Peru in general, is home to a huge number of mines – mostly mining for gold, and sometimes copper as well. The method involves basically taking down the mountain bit by bit, mixing the earth with mercury and then evaporating off the mercury to extract the gold. This is definitely not gold mining Klondike style where nuggets are found – it involves big machinery!

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These mines are all pretty high up, often in the puna, or Andean grassland


We intended to go to our next destination, the town of Mollepata, via a road that crossed the puna and went into valleys that are big collecting gaps. So up into the puna we went – the pass we crossed and then began to descend was called Altos de la Flor – and it was spectacular.

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This area of puna was full of huge rocks, under which grew really interesting vegetation – but only where it could not be grazed by animals


Under one of these rocks we found what for me was the plant of the day – Saracha quitensis. One often sees the more common Saracha punctata, but this one was new for all of us. Solanaceae are fantastic plants – they come in all shapes and sizes, this flower looks nothing like a Solanum!

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Saracha quitensis differs from the only other species in the genus, Saracha punctata, in its spines and narrower flowers


Climbing up some of the rocks we also found a species of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae) genus Puya flowering high on the cliffs. The flower spikes of Puya can be very large indeed – last year in southern Peru we saw Puya raimondii, whose spikes reach several metres.

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We don’t know what species of Puya this one is – but the close ups of the blue-green flowers will help with its identification (we don’t have permits to collect any plants other than Solanaceae, so we collected with photos only)


We tried one road down, and then another – no way down at all. Wither the roads stopped dead at tiny houses, or were so bad that no vehicles could pass. So we moved to plan B - well, really by that time it was plan D or E, but we had to go back to the main road and go another way. As we left the puna, an alpaca superciliously looked us in the eyes as if to say “Well, what do you expect, this is my territory!”

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These high elevation grasslands are grazed by herds of llamas, alpacas and sheep – often seriously overgrazed


So on the road we went – one great aspect of travelling by road in Peru are the lorries. Each has a distinct painting on the back – we followed this one for a while, until he let us pass. The sign on the back says 'Imagine your destination, we will take you there' - quite a claim!!

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The road to Mollepata passed through several Andean valleys – this means going up and down several hundred to a thousand metres in elevation each time, and twisting and turning on switchbacks. So a distance that might look like 20 kilometres on a map can be 50 or more! But all this up and down means going through lots of habitats were different plants grow – near a town called Santiago de Chuco we hit a real Solanaceae gold mine.

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We think this is the species Browallia dilloniana – it had extraordinary black hairs tipped with orange glands


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The wild tomato Solanum habrochaites literally covered hillsides in the valley just below Santiago de Chuco at elevations between 2500 and 3000 metres


We collected like mad, and then drove for Mollepata on a terrible road – and drove, and drove. We arrived after dark, always a tricky thing in Peru, but found a hotel of sorts. No one was available to cook food and there were no restaurants – so a crisis loomed. Fortunately for us, the lovely store owner who also managed the hotel organised someone to cook us a few eggs with bread, so things started to look a bit better.

 

The town of Mollepata was celebrating Mother’s Day a bit early though, and the party started at 9pm at the school just opposite the hotel; it went on until 4am – complete with loud music, dancing and general mayhem. It did sound like everyone was having a good time though!