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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.



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


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


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.


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.




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 (


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



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!


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

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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


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


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

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