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One Planet

Back in December I took part in a radio programme being produced by the BBC World Service series 'One Planet'. Fellow interviewees were polar explorer Paul Rose and marine biologist Katrin Linse. The programme marked 100 years since Amundsen had reached the South Pole and the premise was that this marked the ending of a golden age of exploration and that since then mankind had touched every corner of the planet - leaving nowhere in the world left to explore.

 

Well given that I spend several weeks a year exploring the Talamanca Mountains on the Costa Rica/Panama border and caves in the south western Chinese province of Guangxi this seemd a bit of a provocation. To Katrin and Paul who continue to visit places never seen by people before (Antarctica is very big!) I think that this also jarred a little. I suppose it's true that there are maybe fewer people heading off into the unknown for years at a time but it depends on what you consider exploration to be - setting foot on never before seen places or documenting the biodiversity, geology, cultures of a place for the first time.

 

Given that the point of most exploration has been to discover and amass new knowledge with the aim of feeding the scientific process or to make money (think rubber, chocolate, quinine), exploration probably represents never ending cycles of discovery that form a key part of the scientific process and the development of our civilisation. For example, improvements in DNA sequencing technology and the tools to analyse DNA data means that we are now discovering whole rafts of microscopic organisms that we were just not able to discover before (see the article in this link). Well that's my feeling anyway!

 

The programme was broadcast at 3 am on 30 December, so probably not many people in the UK got to listen. The podcast for this edition is, however, available online until 30 January so if you are interested in hearing how the discussion went then go for it!

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I have just published eight new species of shrub in the potato family, Solanaceae in the freely available journal Phytokeys. In the article I describe new species from the genus Cestrum from Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. Central America is one of the most densely populated and best explored parts of Latin America and it is amazing that even here we are still coming across new species. In this case most of the species were first collected years ago and had sat in plant collections unidentified since then. This is not an unusual phenomenon in botany (see this article published in 2010). In fact in the case of Cestrum about a third of the specimens in Musuem and Botanical Garden collections had never been identified! Cestrum is a genus of about 150 species of woody shrubs and small trees which occurr in Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. They have beautiful trumpet shaped flowers which range in colour from purple, pink, yellow ornage or white and which can be very fragrant. You may know one species, Cestrum aurantiacum, which although not common can be seen in gardens across the UK and USA. One of the species (see below) was named after a close friend and colleague, Gill Stevens, who died last year after a long illness and so is of special importance to me.

 

Cestrum gilliae

Cestrum gilliae PhytoKeys-008-049-g005.jpg

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In collaboration with the US NGO the Maya Nut Institute and women's cooperatives in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Natural History Museum is hosting a project to produce tools for the sustainable use of the tropical forest tree Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum). A project funded by Defra through the Darwin Inititiative. This will involve providing training to cooperatives in the collection and interpretation of harvest data with the aim of helping them to calculate sustainable harvest levels, developing a protocol for the long term storage of the seed and discovering the genetic structure of this species with a view to supporting the sustainable reforestation using this species. Tonya Lander, formerly at INRA Avignon has joined the Museum to study the population structure of this species across Central America. Tonya has a background in population, landscape and pollination molecular ecology and we are very excited that she has joined us.

 

 

Tonya  on fieldwork in ChileMaya Nut fruit 
Tonya at the Reserva Nacional Los Queules small.jpgbrosimum fruit small.jpg

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Had a meeting with Tom Simpson of the Nature Live Team to plan our outreach activities for the trip. We are planning a two-pronged approach:

 

For the public...

For schools...

School pupils of a wide range of ages will be engaged with the trip through the 'Nature Live Adventurer' Nature+ page (closed to the public) where they can discover what is happening on the trip, post questions and engage in live chat room sessions with Tom while he is in the field. They will also have the chance to meet Alex and Tom with pre and post trip Video Conferencing sessions from the museum/s Attenborough Studio.

 

We are taking a mobile video broadcasting system and communicating using a satellite over Ecuador. This is a first for us and it will be interesting to see how it works. We are hoping to be able to iron out any snags and use this as an opportunity to develop a system for deployment on other Museum trips. Below is a picture taken last year of myself and very gifted Costa Rican botanist Daniel Santamaria. We hope to be able to broadcast from sites such as this next month! punto 2.JPG