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Tropical botany researcher

11 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag
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When I joined Kew on secondment as a botanist last year I hadn't really expected to be negotiating the sourcing and planting of ca. 25,000 tree seedlings in the Bolivian Amazon. Many possibilities went through my mind, but not that one. That is what makes being a botanist so much fun! Contrary to the stereotype, you never know where your knowledge and contacts will lead you next.

 

Terry Pennington, Bente Klitgaard and myself are now in the Bolivian Amazon as part of a Kew Garden's Darwin Initiative project to reduce pressure on the incredibly biodiverse forests of the Bolivian Amazon, amongst the richest in Amazonia.

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The opening of new roads - an initiative by the Bolivian Government to give land to the landless rural poor of the Andes - and pressure on the land from Brazil are important threats to the future of much of the forest. Devising approaches to agriculture and forest use, and raising awareness of the economic and ecological value of these forests are tools that can reduce and mitigate some of these threats.

 

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View from the air of the Cobija area of the Bolivian Amazon.

 

As part of this aim we plan to introduce a very old but largely abandoned type of agroforest farming based on a group of trees in the bean family known as Inga. These trees grow very quickly (3m in the first year) and are able to tolerate very damaged and degraded soils such as those found in cattle farms or abandoned soya or pineapple plantations. These forms of farming are very profitable in the short-term but soon exhaust the ancient soils often found in the tropics and on which the tropical forest grows.

 

The result is that a farmer or agribusiness needs to clear forest on a regular basis to maintain an economic yield and leaves degraded pasture, a kind of grassy desert, in its wake. What we are aiming to do is provide a technique whereby farmers can restore this exhausted land to productivity, for growing food, fruit trees, cash crops, timber or even fodder and at the same time obtain a plentiful supply of fuelwood for cooking. This is known as Inga agroforest.

 

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Left: A two-year old Inga tree near Cobija. Right: Inga fruit with seeds below (click images to see them full size)
Inga has a pod within which are seeds (green) covered in a white, fluffy, very sweet and juicy flesh. The tree is commonly grown for its fruit but also has tremendous potential for the restoration of degraded land in Latin America, as it is very fast growing and tolerant of damaged soils.

 

The Inga agroforest approach involves planting dense alleys of Inga seedlings spaced several metres apart and letting them grow for 2 years, by which time they are about 6 metres tall (see photo above). Then all their branches are removed and a crop of beans, cassava, maize, Cacao or whatever is wanted is planted.

 

The Inga branches grow back very quickly and need to be cut every 6 months, providing a valuable source of fuel wood for cooking. The key to this system is that once the Inga trees are about 6 metres tall their side branches meet and so completely cover the alley, thereby suppressing weeds. And, just as importantly, they generate a rich leaf-litter that forms the basis of a nutritious soil for whatever crop is to be planted subsequently.

 

So far we have identified a number of trees that could act as sources of seed from three or four species, including one community that could probably provide all of the seed that we need, a good sign for our first day out in the field!

 

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Inga fruit with its seeds exposed to show their covering of edible white flesh.

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Terry Pennington, world expert on Inga trees, and I arrived in Cobija in the Bolivian Amazon after almost two days travelling from London. We seem to have tracked down the English summer that never was and are rapidly getting used to the warm temperatures and high humidity. Cobija is a small town on the Brazilian border with a population of ca. 55,000.

 

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The town of Cobija in the Bolivian Amazon

 

It lives mainly from cross-border trade in Brazil nuts. It is the capital of the Departamento de Pando region of Bolivia and I was last here in 1988 when I participated in an undergraduate expedition organized by Terry’s son. It was quite emotional to be back after so long and I was really surprised at how little it has changed since then.

 

We have come here to meet our main partners - the local communities of Palacios, San José and Motacusal and Herencia - to revise and fine-tune our proposal so as to ensure that it remains viable and succeeds. No mean feat when you think that we are planning to plant 25,000 trees over the next two years and that we have yet to source seed.

 

Juan-Fernando Reyes of Herencia will be our main partner on the agroforest side of the project and has been working in the Pando for 16 years. The communities we are working with are mainly Brazil nut harvesters and the one that we are thinking of working with comprises migrants from the Andes.

 

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Juan Fernando Reyes and Toby Pennington in the Herencia Offices

 

One of the reasons for this project is the very recent and rapid colonisation of the Bolivian Amazon by landless Andean farmers. As you can imagine, a farmer who is used to farming at 3,000 m elevation in the grassland dominated Andes will struggle when faced with a 50 m high tropical forest close to sea-level. Finding farming techniques that are not too destructive and relatively simple will help support their successful integration.

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It has been a while since my last post, but here's some news I'd like to announce:

 

Darwin Initiative project 20-021 - Forest Futures: Livelihoods and sustainable forest management in Bolivian Amazon

 

Who we are

We are a team of scientists, development workers and businesses in Bolivia and the UK lead by The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and comprising the Bolivian NGO, Herencia, the Noel Kempf Mercado Natural History Museum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia and the Edinburgh based company Freeworld Trading, together with a number of subsidiary partners who include brazil nut harvesters, rural communities and regional universities.

 

Where we are working

We are working in the Pando Department of the Bolivian Amazon an area of tropical rain forest that is rich in biodiversity and an important source of brazil nuts:

 

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Project area and communities currently engaged in our project (click images to see the full size version)

 

Why we are working there?

Poverty drives the unsustainable use of forested landscapes as it is difficult and impractical for people to sacrifice their immediate and basic needs for the long-term benefits of sustainable agriculture. 69% of the forest-dependent population of the Pando are unable to satisfy these basic needs and 34% of them live in extreme poverty.

 

This combined with immigration to Amazonia, driven by economic, political and environmental factors, has placed increasing pressure on the tropical forests there. The Pando forests are important as they support a large forest-dependent population, are a significant source of biodiversity and ecosystem services and constitute important buffers for the eastern Andean catchments from predicted impacts of climate-change.

 

Losing these forest will not only lead to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, it will also reduce Bolivia’s ability to meet its Millennium Development Goals and increase vulnerability to climate change among the rural poor. This work is funded by the Darwin Initiative (Award 20-021).

 

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Slash and burn agriculture in the Bolivia Amazon. Image: Bente Klitgaard, 2010

What we plan to do

By September 2016 we plan to mitigate the threats to the tropical forest of the Pando by supporting the development of sustainable practices that reduce forest conversion, coupled with increasing the awareness of how forests reduce poverty and provide ecosystem services amongst the population and government of the Pando.

 

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Ingaagroforest: we are planning to establish similar agricultural systems on abandoned or exhausted pasture in Bolivia. Image from Honduras, courtesy of the Inga foundation.

 

Specifically, we aim to establish Inga tree-based agriculture on degraded cattle pasture, diversify the number of non-timber forest products that can be sustainably extracted from the Pando’s forests and exported, and raise awareness amongst local rural and urban communities and government as to the economic value of their forests and the role that they do and can play in reducing poverty and providing ecosystem services.

 

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Tonya Lander (Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum) has just completed her analyses of the population structure of the Maya Nut tree (Brosimum alicastrum). The results are based on the use of genetic markers and are really interesting. They tell us something about not only the history of this species but how best the species can be managed. This is important because Maya Nut is a significant famine food for the rural poor in northern Central America and is being actively used in reforestation projects as it is fast growing and relatively tolerant of disturbance. The work has been funded by Defra through the Darwin Initiative (project 18-010).

 

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Brosimum alicastrum forest in Mexico

 

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Female flower of Brosimum alicastrum

 

The tree is relatively common throught Central America and South America north of the Amazon. The markers that we have used are from the chlroroplast and nuclear ribosome genomes of the plant and were collected from 34 populations across Central and South America. Many of the samples were collected by the women who harvest the Maya Nut. which provided us with the opportunity to connect rural communities with scientists the other side of the World.

 

Tonya's results provide evidence for distinct northern and southern genetic types (Figure 1), and possibly for Atlantic and Pacific genetic types (Figure 2). These results still need to be tested for statistical significance but will help to clarify whether B. alicastrum fits into the broadly recognized historical pattern of retreat into the Amazon basin during the last glacial maximum followed by post-glacial expansion north into Central America. Each grouping represents a potential land race or ecotype and if confirmed will represent the framework within which seeds can deployed for reforestation.Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Five distinct sub-groups of Brosimum alicastrum:  (1) Peru (dark pink), (2)Panama (bright pink), (3) ‘Southern’: Brazil,  Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Cuba, Mexico  (light blue), (4) Costa Rica (dark blue), and (5) ‘Northern’: El  Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico (pale pink)


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Figure 2. Three distinct sub-groups of Brosimum alicastrum : (1) ‘Pacific’, from Peru to Cuba (dark pink), (2) Panama and Costa Rica (light blue), and (3) ‘Atlantic’, from Brazil to Mexico (dark blue)
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I have just spent a week collecting samples of Brosimum alicastrum (Maya Nut) with colleague Tonya Lander in Panama. It was a bit scary at first as we were not sure that we would find it, or recognise it in the field. Although it is relatively common, tropical forests have a lot more different species of tree than you would find at home. It is not uncommon to find over 100 species of tree in a 100 m x 100 m patch of forest. Fortunately the leaves have quite distinctive venation (see below) and we were able to collect samples from most of the places that we went to.

 

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Tonya and I are documenting geographical patterns in the populations of this tree across Central and South America with the aim of making reforestation with this species sustainable. We were especially keen to collect samples from both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts as further north in Mexico there appear to be physical differences in the bark and branching between these coasts. This involved a lot of driving, over 1,500 km and at one site in the Pacific province of Los Santos, avoiding a large number of crocodiles that were basking on the river bank close to which our tree was growing. Although to be fair to them they seem a lot more scared of us than we were of them!

 

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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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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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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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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

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On February 6 a team of us, four botanists and a host of the Museum's Nature Live programme are heading off to Costa Rica to explore the flanks a remote area of tropical forest known as 'El Valle de Silencio' (The Valley of Silence). This area forms part of the La Amistad Binational Park that is shared between Costa Rica and Panama and within which the Natural History Museum has been working for almost 10 years! We will be spending about two weeks camping and making collections of flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and algae in an area of unspoilt forest at an altitude of between 1800 and 3400 m. So far we have obtained our collection permit, permission to film in the Park, plane tickets and located a team of porters to help us get our food and equipment into place and we are getting very excited! Below is a picture of the forest taken on a visit last year.DSC_9387.JPG