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100 Year old taxi driver

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 27, 2012

Arrived in Panama to collect populations of a widespread tropical tree known locally as Casique or Berba and scientifically as Brosimum alicastrum. The taxi driver to my hotel was quite old, his eyes well cataraxed and very grumpy. A little surprised but realising that taxi permits are probably applied as loosely as they are with respect to Mini Cabs in London I got in. Polite conversation resulted in me asking him how long he had been a taxi driver, "eighty years" he replied sullenly. "No I meant how long have you been driving a cab? Not how old you are" I replied. "I am 100 years old and have been driving a cab for 80". So there you have it, albeit self certified, I could have ridden with the oldest cab driver in the World!

 

Onto business today. We had to withdraw our collection permit and apply for an export permit. A bureacratic feast that took all day. It entailed visiting four offices, paying two fees, one at one office and one at an office the other side of town follwoing after an hours queue. Despite the need to fill out many forms and procedures, everybody I met was very polite, friendly and helpful. At the National Authority for the Environment office I was even given a desk and computer to write out some of the forms I had forgotten or didn't realise I needed. I would be very surprised if any Government Office in the UK would do the same for a visiting researcher. So a big thank you to Alexander Montero, Dario Luque and Israel Tejada of the ANAM Office!

 

As a consequence I made it to the National Herbarium quite late but with enough time to chat with Mireya Correa, legend in her own right with the Panamanian scientific and Neotropical botanical communities. She very kindly invited me to give a talk this Thursday but also mentioned that one of my collections from Panama in 2006 looks like it is a new species of Verbesina (Sun-flower family, Asteraceae). Below is a picture I took of it at the time of collection. I remember it quite well as I was surprised to see this genus including trees (below):

 

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Below, a ship passing through the Panama Canal close to a potential collecting site for our project:

 

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Back at INBio Herbarium

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 22, 2012

We arrived back at INBio and our dormitory last night, a little euphoric, very tired and having feasted at Taco Bell! Today we had a very interesting meeting with the Director of INBio, Carlos Hernández and later lunch with the vice rectors of the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (Costa Rica's and Latin Americas's biggest equivalent of the Open University) to talk about a training course Neil Brummit and I are giving tomorrow on Species Conservation Assessments.

 

This is Neil's main area of work and my role will be mainly to translate from English into Spanish. There has been a lot of interest and we will be working with participants from Costa Rica's Conservation Areas Network (including National Parks), INBio, the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia.

 

We were finally able to make it back to the herbarium to try and identify some of the 'mystery' plants we had collected. Top of the list for being striking was the dark flowered epiphyte in the potatoe family:

 

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We were pretty sure it was in the genus Schultesianthus but could not remember ever having seen such a dark flowered species. Well, five minutes in the herbarium and we had located it! It is Schultesianthus crosbyanus, first collected in Panama in 1966, described in 1973 as in the genus Markea and moved to the genus Schultesianthus in 1995. Strangely, the only known locality for this species in Costa Rica was where we have just been collecting.

 

 

 

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On our way out

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 22, 2012

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Tom uploading his blog from the base of the Cerros Tararias

 

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Our camp at the base of the Cerros Tararias

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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One hundred and three species

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 17, 2012

As I write this it is 16 February and we collected 103 species of vascular plants and we are exhausted, actually we were pretty tired to start with.

 

There is something a little annoying about waking up and getting dressed in 4°C when you are only 9° north of the equator. In fact our coordinates for today were 09°07’56.4”N, 082°57’30.4”W , not sure what that gives on Google Earth but here it is on Google Maps.

 

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Some of the more unusual plants were from the potatoe family, Solanaceae. Firstly we had a Schultesianthus, apparently bat-pollinated, with very dark purple flowers

 

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Next we collected a really interesting Cestrum, the leaves of which looked like a very common species whereas the flowers were quite distinct

 

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And then a really unusual looking but not uncommon species, Larnax sylvarum, again with dark purple flowers and orange Physalis-like fruits

 

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We got back to the hut just before dark; I hadn’t had a shower for a few days as the water is freezing but decided to make the effort for the sake of everyone else! I think I have just about recovered two hours later...

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Well no valentine’s day cards…sniff. Tom from Nature Live has been showing off his card for the last week and I was tempted to write one for myself. Today was another beautiful day though; bright blue skies and a light breeze.

 

After having separated into two groups for the past three days it felt good for us all to be working together again. We walked along the river on a very accident-inducing, slippery trail, with stunning views every few minutes.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

Our site for the day was an area of ‘turbera’ or peat bog - an open expanse of lichen dominated ground with scattered tree ferns (Blechnum buchtienii) around whose base are even more lichens, epiphytes and shrubs.

 

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Overlooking the bog was a loan, probably a dead oak tree, which despite having died is home to a mini forest of it’s own on each branch. I spent more time than I should have trying to work out how many species were in the tree and the logistics of climbing up to collect them.

 

 

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It was hard work pressing in the bright sun but we collected 58 species of vascular plants and Holger and Jo made some more fantastic aquatic lichen and moss discoveries.

 

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It makes a real difference having the perspective of a different group of organisms. Holger was able to identify substantial amounts of basalt rock in the river bed which helps keep the pH close to neutral and so favour a rich and perse lichen community. This also gives us some clues to the history of these mountains.

 

He also very conveniently measures the temperature of the river (12°C) which encouraged me to have a quick dip before we headed back to camp.

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Nature Live - from the field

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 14, 2012

On (our) Sunday morning we did the first Field work with Nature Live events, featuring live-video-links direct to the Museum from Costa Rica. In fact it was the first ever live-link at the Museum using a satellite phone from the field.

 

Tom, the Nature Live host who is accompanying us on our trip (see his own blog), was really nervous despite having spent the last three days getting every last detail right. He had woken up during the night worrying about it, although you wouldn’t have known once everything got going.

 

It was early for us, 6.30 am and bitterly cold (4°C according to the slightly dodgy looking thermometer in the hut) but the shows went well; it was really strange hearing the familiar voices of our colleagues Lee, Jo and Erica back in London in the Museum’s Attenborough Studio whilst we were huddled with a cup of coffee on the veranda of a hut in Costa Rica and desperately trying to keep warm.

 

I’m not sure what the audience made of us: by chance we had the Costa Rican park ranger responsible for this part of the park, Fabricio Carbonal, staying and it meant that he was able to make a surprise appearance.

 

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Tom positioning the satellite phone for our video-link on a boulder in the river to
test the location for our next Nature Live event on Thursday 16 February.

 

After the two Field work with Nature Live events, we sneaked an extra cup of coffee and went to the day's collecting site, a recently discovered ‘lake.’ Well, more of a large pond in the middle of the forest.

 

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The ‘Laguna’

 

To be honest, in terms of vascular plants it was a bit boring. We collected only 43 species, but for mosses and lichens it was much more rewarding with lichenologist Holger Thues getting very excited by a myxomycetes (or true slime mould) which he discovered forming fruiting bodies on a liverwort.

 

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The myxomycete that so excited Holger

 

 

 

Come and see Tom and me at the next Field work with Nature Live events held at 12.30 and 14.30 at the Museum on Thursday 16 February or Saturday 18 February.

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

 

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

 

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View from Cerro Asidbeta looking across to Cerro Kamuk

 

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

 

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Flower of Vaccinium bocatorense, a species endemic to the Park

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Neil Brummit and Daniel Santamaria pressing plants

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Our first day's collecting

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 13, 2012

We left camp at 7.30 am on 9 February to go and collect at a point we had identified the day before, a large open flat area of inundated soils and swamp with very few - but very large - oak trees festooned with mosses, orchids, bromeliads and even small trees.

 

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‘El Plano’ our first field site

 

Each day we collect for the same number of hours within a radius of 100 m from a specific point. Most of the points have been located through a combination of satellite images and a ground survey undertaken three weeks ago.

 

This should enable us to compare the species composition of each of our sample points and maybe to identify some of the factors that determine the species persity in the Talamanca Mountains. Over the past nine years we have surveyed over 150 such points and so today’s point can be compared to these.

 

The species we found today were pretty much as expected so nothing very exciting. We did, however, collect a beautiful pink-flowered tree called Styrax warscewiczii, a species found from Mexico to Bolivia above 1,800 m altitude.

 

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Styrax warscewiczii

 

When we got back to camp two snail and slug specialists from a local Costa Rican university, who are staying with us, had been sampling leaf litter all day and had found some very small but beautiful snails and slugs, many of which they had never seen before! It seems that this area is very important for snails and slug persity.

 

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Slug from the Arionidae / Limacidae group:
possibly a new record for Costa Rica, maybe even a new species

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Some familiar faces

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 10, 2012

It is 7 pm and I am in my sleeping bag as it is already really cold. Today we walked from our temporary camp where we spent last night up to our main camp in ‘El Valle de Silencio’ at 2,500 m. At this altitude we are in oak forest where the trees are up to 50 m in height, festooned with epiphytes, lichens and mosses and with a groundstory dominated by bamboo.

 

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Oak tree with Tom Simpson of Nature Live for scale

 

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View of oak forest interior

 

It occurred to me as we were walking through the forest that a surprising number of the trees we were seeing would be familiar in a forest back home: oak (Quercus), alder (Alnus), holly (Ilex), buckthorn (Rhamnus) and Cherry (Prunus), not the same species of course, but the same genera.

 

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Quercus costaricensis

 

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Rhamnus sp.

 

As I sit huddled in my sleeping bag I realise that there is a certain affinity with the climate back home too and also a physical one as many of these species, or at least their ancestors would have come from North America at a time when there was a land-bridge between our Continent and North America. So presumably these high elevation forests were colonised by trees coming from North America rather than South America, a phenomenon documented already by several authors.

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After a year's planning we are finally heading off! I spent saturday and much of sunday tidying up my house and packing my suitcase. Trying to fit my equipment and field clothes within the 23 kg of luggage allowance is not easy. Especially as I have brought my alpine sleeping bag just in case we make it up to the top of the mountain which is at an altitude of 3,400 m. Decided not to pack my wellies as they weigh too much. I may end up regretting this though....

 

Tomorrow I leave home at about 6.30 in the morning, get the Tube to Heathrow from where we will fly to New York, change planes and arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica at 9.30 in the evening (their time) all in all about 21 hours travelling. And in case you were wondering, yes we travel economy.

 

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I have just finished doing a videoconference with a group of schools who will be following our field trip to the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica next week. It was really fun and as usual we had some very good (and difficult) questions.

 

The plan is that we will share our scientific field work, which to be honest is one of the must fun parts of our work at the Museum, with the public and a pre-arranged group of schools. We will be running Nature Live sessions from the forest using an Inmarsat video satellite link, which will let us talk to visitors in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

As well as blogging about the trip we'll also be answering the questions of teachers and school children who have been invited to sign-up for our schools link. If you know any teachers who might want to get involved and get access then please get them to contact Grace from the Museum's Learning Programme by email (videoconferencing@nhm.ac.uk).

 

So, we leave here Monday morning and by Wednesday we should be collecting our first moss, lichen, algae and plant specimens!

 

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