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Day 10 was our last full day on the Isles of Scilly; the weather was glorious and everyone took the chance to finish off any things that needed to be collected. Over the past few days Nature Live host Ana Rita has been linking live to the Museum from the top of the bunker and today was our final event. With all of our responsibilities taken care of we could think about the past two weeks on the islands and how the trip has gone.

 

 

Mark and Tom wrap up the Scilly 2013 trip

 

I have loved being on the Isles of Scilly, we have been welcomed warmly by everyone we’ve encountered and, walking around the islands, the scenery is spectacular and the ocean an amazing mix of colours.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGThe Scilly sea

 

I have loved the roadside shops that operate of a strict trust system, selling local produce ...

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGMrs Watt’s ‘Shop’

 

... and some more exotic goods ...

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGA lovely bunch?

 

We have eaten like kings, Vanessa being the chief chef, and I think every meal has included something foraged (usually by Mark), even if it is simply the humble, ubiquitous three-cornered leek.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGGrows everywhere and gives a garlicky kick to anything you add it to!

 

Everyone is the team has been fantastic and despite sleeping 6 to a room, everyone has got on exceptionally well. For all their help and fun times, I’d like to especially thank my colleagues Ana Rita:

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGAna Rita Claro Rodrigues

 

And Tony (Grillmaster) Vinhas:

 

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Tony

 

It has been such an enjoyable trip as well as an educational one.

 

Finally, I would like to thank Mark Spencer for organising the trip and getting us all to the islands. Mark has been an excellent guide, fantastic company and reliable provider of foraged ingredients, and a brilliant team leader.

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGMark in his element

 

Spending time with Mark and the other scientists is an education in the natural world, it opens up and changes your view of what is living on the planet and I feel very fortunate to work at such an extraordinary place as the Natural History Museum.

 

Tom

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGGoodnight from the Isles of Scilly

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Our last day in the field arrived sunny and, with it, our last live-link to a Nature Live event in the Attenborough Studio. Mark Spencer, curator of botany and team leader of this field trip told us about why the Isles of Scilly are special for wildlife and why he wanted to bring curators of other specialities here to collect and enhance the Museum's collections.

 

Picture1.jpgAn example of the outstanding natural beauty of the Isles of Scilly

 

Of course, we also talked about very small flowers, the elm trees, and ate the three corned garlic live - all things that our readers might recognise by now. Scilly is also famous for farmed and wild flowers, Mark told us about both, and how the bulb farms are important not only to local people but also to other organisms. Wildlife thrives in these fields, and of course, our scientists have been collecting there, everything from insects to slugs.

 

picture 2.JPGLinking live to the Attenborough Studio at the Museum, with a audience of local people from St Mary's

 

As usual, we had an audience with us in Scilly, including a blub farmer. It was a pleasure to share our excitement at seeing the material collected already. They left us with a wave and a smile, looking forward to meeting the next scientists visiting the islands later on this year.

 

Ana Rita

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With the weather still glorious on Sunday I was very happy to hear that Mark had arranged a trip to the island of Bryher, north west of St Mary's.

 

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Bryher

 

The habitat here was a lot more sandy and less rocky than previous sites and also there were beds of sea-grass which provide an excellent nursery ground for young fishes. With the seine net we soon managed to get some nice specimens; a 15-spined stickleback (a marine relative of the 3-spined variety often found in freshwater), some sandeels, some baby plaice and a female dragonet. This last specimen was beautifully camouflaged and we were lucky to spot it.

 

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Dragonet (not sure which species yet)

 

After we had denuded the sea-grass of its inhabitants we transferred our attentions to some of the large stones amongst the seaweed. Lifting a few of these uncovered a wealth of invertebrates, including the most furious crab I've yet seen. As soon its rock was raised it scuttled forth with claws snapping and, although I have seen a lot of crabs come and go, this particular one really spooked me.

 

I mentioned it to one of the locals who had come to see us collect and they immediately asked, did it have red eyes? Yes, I said and they laughed and told me it was a velvet swimming crab - aka the devil crab - and they are renowned for being especially radge (dangerously mad) as they say in Scotland. Very gingerly I managed to grab both its claws and thus obtained the photograph below (you can see its swimming paddles on its lower legs):

 

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Devil crab (Necora puber)

 

Thankfully we managed to get some nice fish specimens too, including our first rockling and some butterfish.

 

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Shore rockling (Gaidropsarus mediterraneus)

 

 

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Butterfish (Pholis gunnellus) and head of 15-spined stickleback (Spinachia spinachia)

 

The following day Andreia Salvador and I stayed on St Mary's and went to the town beach near Hugh Town to look for molluscs, fishes and anything else interesting. As always, the first fish I found was a shanny but with a bit more effort a few nice rock gobies were captured.

 

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Rock gobies (Gobius paganellus) - how many can you see in this picture? *

 

After some more boulder hefting I found another fish that at first sight I thought was just another shanny but turned out to be the much more elusive Montagu's blenny.

 

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Montagu's Blenny (Coryphoblennius galerita)

 

These can be distinguished from the shanny by the small bristles on the top of the head, which shannies don't have.

 

On our final day of collecting, we went to Porth Wreck and back to Porth Hellick on the south-east of St Mary's. Porth Wreck was fairly barren apart from a decent sized rockling and a clingfish but Porth Hellick was much more productive. Using the seine net with deadly effect we got sand gobies, two-spot gobies, baby pollock and a big sandeel.

 

Previously sandeels never really meant that much to me other than as fishing bait and something that puffins like to eat but I have a whole new respect for them now. Firstly, they are beautiful to look at, a dark blue top blending into iridescent green and shining silvery flanks, but also extremely tenacious. Our specimen took a long time to capture as every time we had it cornered it would burrow down into the sand and we would have to dig it up and go after it again. Of all the fish I collected this trip, apart from maybe the wrasse, this was the one I felt saddest about consigning to the collecting pot. The photograph below doesn't begin to do it justice.

 

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Lesser sandeel (Ammodytes tobianus)

 

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Pollock (Pollachius pollachius)

 

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Two-spot goby (Gobiusculus flavescens)

 

And a couple of non-fish pictures to finish on. Maybe I really am getting too sentimental but I found the parental care shown by this centipede (I think) rather touching. We found it while helping my friend and colleague Jonathan Ablett look for snails.

 

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A centipede demonstrating rather touching parental care

 

 

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One of our toilet swallows, who will be very happy to see us go

 

So that's about it from me, it's been a pleasure and a privilege to take part in this field trip and have seen so many amazing things, not all of which were fish. If anything interesting turns up when I go through all the specimens back in London I'll let you know.

 

* There are 10 gobies in the picture

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On day 9 the sun was out, but it was complemented with rain showers and a strong wind, which meant the satellite link for Nature Live was indoors. Still, a great opportunity to show the table where we sort specimens in the evening, and to have a sneaky peak at what everyone has been finding.

 

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In the Attenborough Studio we had Pat Wolseley, hosted by Aoife Glass, and here in Scilly, my colleague Tom Simpson was joined by curator of Lichens, Holger Thues.

 

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Holger’s smile and enthusiasm really shows how well this field work trip is going in terms of lichen collection. It’s the job of a curator not only to take care of the existing collections and provide access to researchers from around the world that want to use it, but also to enrich it and make sure any gaps in the knowledge are fully filled.

 

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Locals have been coming to our base, the Woolpack, to watch the Nature Live events and to have a cup of tea with the scientists. It’s an opportunity to show what we have been collecting, why we are here and to engage them with the amazing diversity of their own islands, what it means for science and what it can mean for them.

 

Ana Rita

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After the wash out that was yesterday’s bad weather, today the scientists have been returning with amazing finds left, right and centre. Mark and Rosemary found this Linum bienne, described scientifically by Mark, as a stonker! It is probably the ancestor of the domesticated flax and today he rediscovered a wild population of it on St Mary’s.

 

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Linum bienne also known as Pale flax

 

It is known historically but has not been seen recently and was feared extinct on the islands. It is also exceptionally pretty.

 

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A stonker indeed

 

Rosemary Parslow (literally) wrote the book on The Natural History of the Isles of Scilly and she has been a great asset to the project. She has spent years studying practically every aspect of the nature on the islands and she also used to work at the Museum.

 

James came back from the beach with a brilliant find. Sea spiders (pycnogonids) are in an order of their own, they are remarkable and weird and unlike anything else in the sea.

 

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Sea spider

 

James explained his find.

 

 

 

Two pycnogonids

 

Ana Rita made a welcome discovery on top of our bunker, a flush of St George’s Mushrooms.

 

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Calocybe gambosa and Ana Rita

 

After a positive identification by mycology expert Mark (on top of being potentially fatal, it would be very embarrassing to poison Museum staff with mushrooms) these gorgeous fungi were turned into a spanish omelet. Delicious.

 

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A St George’s omelette

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I am very happy to reveal that I have now finally had success with obtaining some decent specimens. Over the past three days myself and various assistants have used a variety of methods (seine nets, fishing rods, hands) on three different islands (St Mary's, St Agnes and Bryher) and have collected at least 16 different species of fish. It's hard to say for for sure exactly how many until I can get back to the Museum and look at some of them under a microscope.

 

Most of them are on the list of fishes I made before I left but there are a few which will be new records for our collection from this locality. It's been a great pleasure to meet naturalist and local legend Rosemary Parslow, who collected most of our Scillonian fish specimens back in the 1970s and compare notes and get some advice about where to get certain species.

 

On Friday, despite grim weather conditions, we headed down to Porth Hellick on the southern side of St Mary's. At this point all I had to show was one baby sandeel so my joy was unconfined when our first drag of the seine net through a large rock pool produced tens of little bodies flopping about.  Most of these were sand gobies - some of the fattest I've ever seen - but there were also some juvenile flatfish.

 

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Fat sand gobies (Pomatoschistus minutus)

 

A few more drags produced some other species of goby and a very dark looking shanny.

 

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Shanny (Lipophrys pholis)

 

The best find of the day for me was a worm pipefish which I found underneath a rock. These are not very fast swimmers but are hard to spot as they look just like a bit of seaweed. A closer look at the specimen revealed something interesting, a cluster of orange eggs stuck to the belly of the fish indicating that this was a male specimen.

 

Pipefishes are in the same family as seahorses (syngnathidae), and like them, the male takes care of the eggs after they have been laid by the female.  I felt a bit guilty taking this specimen but I had never seen one like this before. I should point out that all the fish I collect are anaesthetised using clove oil before preservation so the process is as painless as possible (this also makes for nicer looking specimens).

 

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Male worm pipefish (Nerophis lumbriciformis) with eggs

 

The following day the weather had improved vastly and we boarded a boat for St Agnes, the island to the south of St Mary's. Rosemary had recommended a particular bay called Porth Killier so we headed there full of optimism. Upon looking at it my heart fell slightly as the whole area was thickly blanketed in various kinds of seaweed - lots of places for fish to escape and tricky to use the seine. Nevertheless, Tom and I carefully ventured forth and after about half an hour of rummaging about in the kelp I found my first ever clingfish!

 

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Porth Killier, St Agnes

 

Sadly this escaped a bit later due to an incident with the bucket and I did my best to be philosophical about this. We got some more pipefish and some rock gobies so all was not lost but then Tom developed some kind of clingfish sixth sense and within half an hour or so we had seven specimens of two different species (shore clingfish and small-headed clingfish).

 

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Shore clingfish (Lepadogaster lepadogaster)

 

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Two rock gobies (Gobius paganellus) and a small-headed clingfish (Apletodon dentatus)

 

If there's one thing I have really got out of this trip it's a greater appreciation of other people's specialities. Suddenly I find myself looking at flies and plants and shellfish in a whole new way (one of the other nice results from our trip to St Agnes were the discoveries of blue-rayed limpets and spotted cowries in the kelp). But in particular crabs.

 

Previously I thought there were shore crabs (the browny-green ones) and edible crabs (the pinky-purple ones) and that was probably about it, but my crab universe has now expanded exponentially. On St Agnes I found what I think were five or six different species, some of which were relatively benign when disturbed, some of which were furious. Every rock we turned over also revealed a wealth of fascinating creatures, and at times I almost forgot about fish.

 

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A strange crab

 

Returning home triumphant we decided to round off the day with a spot of fishing at Penninis Head. This was initially extremely successful and I caught a nice big ballan wrasse on a fishing rod that telescopes into something the size of a pen and Tom got a fine pollock. Although both of these are edible (although opinions vary about the wrasse) the national collection trumps our stomachs and they were placed in the freezer when we got back. I have never before seen the attractive blue inner lips of the ballan wrasse, another first for our trip.

 

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Ballan wrasse (Labrus bergylta)

 

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The blue inner lips of the ballan wrasse

 

I'm afraid I have now run out of time and I think the limpet risotto is just about ready. More soon and I will leave you with this, one of the black rabbits - descended from escaped pets - that live just outside our bunker.

 

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Black rabbit of St Mary's

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It has been a great day for snails and slugs collecting - it's pouring with rain! Jon Ablett, who did the previous Nature Live satellite link, is happy that the land snails will be out and about, making the most of the wet weather.

 

For our event on day 8, we were joined by James Maclaine, curator of fish at the Museum, who showed some of the specimens he has found. James brought a list of the fish we already had in the Museum collection prior to the trip and is trying to match the species he finds on this trip to the ones on the list. It is important to collect at different times in the same location, to spot any changes. He's also blogging about his work on the trip and his first post is here.

 

picture 1 (Custom).JPGJames Maclaine and Rosemary Parslow (who in the 70s collected the fish and echinoderms from the Isles of Scilly for the Museum's collections)

 

picture 2 (Custom).jpgIn the Museum's Attenborough Studio, Charlotte Coales and Wai-Yee Cooper show some of the dry and wet specimens from the fish collection, while James and I listen in the background

 

The visitors asked some great questions about the different habitats of fishes, how to catch them and the route James took to become a fish scientist.

 

picture 3 (Custom).JPGAs well as the audience in the studio at the Museum, this live-link also featured an audience here in the Woolpack, headquarters of this field trip

 

We have also been inviting people from the town to come and see what the Museum scientists have been doing here on the Isles of Scilly. Quite a few came to chat with James about the fish while receiving - and giving - good tips to each other about where to look for more species and how to catch them. It appears to be paying off for James as you will be able to read later today on the blog.

 

Ana-Rita

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I spent day 8 of our trip with Andreia Salvador, curator of marine molluscs, looking at some of the stunning creatures she has found here in Scilly.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGAndreia Salvador collecting marine molluscs

 

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGMarvellous marine molluscs

 

A curator’s job is to ‘future proof’ their collection; in the future, a specimen may be researched using techniques we don’t yet know of and Andreia is keen to perfect preservation methods that allow for as much of a mollusc to be accessible as possible. The molluscs known as gastropods, (things like top shells and winkles) have a trap door called an operculum which completely seals the animal inside.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGA firmly shut operculum

 

In the past, researchers who needed the soft parts of molluscs may have had to break the shell open, destroying the specimen. Andreia is keen to work out the best way to preserve both the shell and the soft parts intact. The process of encouraging the animal out of its shell is called relaxing. This may take anything up to 12 hours to do, but it is crucial in providing future researchers with the specimens they may need.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGA specimen beginning to ‘relax’

 

We have found some exceptionally beautiful molluscs over the past few days. When I was out with James, we found these spotted cowries and blue-rayed limpets.

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGSpotted cowrie

 

PIC 6 (Custom).JPGBlue-rayed limpets

 

The limpets in particular, were exciting for Andreia because, in her native Portugal, they are know as beijinho, a ‘little kiss’. We found them inside the kelp forests and they have absolutely stunning, electric colors. Although not rare, they provided quite a challenge to locate, as they lived in the 'hold fasts' at the base of the kelp.

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGA blue-rayed limpet living in the hold fast of kelp

 

Andreia was delighted when we returned with the good news that we had got some. I felt a little left out but, as the bigger man, kept my feelings to myself ...

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGBitter? Me?

 

Last night we had a BBQ - organised by Jon and Tony, it was to make the most of the nice weather that has now turned for the worse. It was a very serious affair...

 

PIC 9 (Custom).jpgWho has a hat specifically for BBQ? Tony Vinhas!

 

... Tony put on his ‘BBQ hat’ and began to refer to himself, in the 3rd person, as the grillmaster.

 

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The grillmaster in the world's biggest barbecue pit - how long ‘til it’s ready?

 

He expertly worked his way through various meats and veggie options and as the sun set behind us we enjoyed a lovely evening all together.

 

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Relaxing on the Woolpack

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This morning I followed Holger Thues (Curator of Lichens) to a remarkable place.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGNot just any old trees ...

 

At first glance this short row of trees looks little more than a typical, beautiful countryside scene. However, these are elm trees and trees like these are a sight that has become exceptionally rare across Europe.

 

 

An increasingly rare sight in Britain and much of Europe, elm trees

 

Dutch elm disease has destroyed virtually all of the adult elm population in lower land Britain and much of Europe, and now many people only know elms from paintings and pictures.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGThe open canopy and twisted branches of elm trees

 

The elm has an open canopy and the trees bend and twist in a magical way that leaves a wonderfully spooky shadow. The Isles of Scilly are one of the last places you can see adult elms - the tree still survives on the mainland as a shrub, but as soon as it gets to a certain size the beetle which transmits dutch elm disease, can burrow into the bark and pass on the infection. Of course, Dutch elm disease has effected much more than just the elms themselves. These trees supported other life, including lichens and Holger showed me one of the rarer lichens that live on elm.

 

 

It isn't just the trees that are affected when they succumb to Dutch elm disease.

 

Tragically, this lichen also lives on ash and with ash dieback destroying so many trees, it has a bleak future. Holger described it as the ‘dodo of the lichen world’, forced into making bad decisions that ultimately could be it’s downfall.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGBacidia incompta (elm lichen), whose existence is linked to the under threat elms and ash trees

 

More optimistically, Holger found a very healthy population of a species that has declined dramatically over the last 100 years in the rest of the UK.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGHeterodermia leucomela

 

 

This is a tropical lichen that now has the south west of Cornwall as it’s most northerly outpost. It is very rare in the rest of Britain but it seems the population here is doing very well.

 

Holger also showed me this photo of a specimen collected 100 years ago on Scilly - he was keen to find out if it was still here and if it was still so large! The size of the lichen is a sign of it’s vitality and it only occurs in a few local parts of the Uk and on Scilly.

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGRoccella fuciformis, collected 100 years ago on the Isles of Scilly

 

You can see it is still doing well on the islands.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).jpgRoccella fuciformis, still doing well on the Isles of Scilly

 

 

It goes to show how important collections are, specimens tell us so much much more than absence or presence. They tell us about the strength of a plant at a given time, what it looked like and how it was living and this means we can make judgments on it’s role in the ecosystem.

 

It really is a treat spending time with Holger; as a lichenologist he looks at the world in a completely different way to other scientists and the things that normally pass unnoticed become much larger and more interesting.

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGHolger sees the world in a different way

 

Although I have spent each day following different scientists, I think some of the most memorable moments have been in the evenings when the scientists come together, talk about what they have found and go through their specimens. I took this photo after dinner

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGThe evening sort

 

The table is turned into a mess of equipment, specimens and reference books and exciting finds are shared amongst the group. It’s not possible to know everything about the natural world but it is possible to try and become friends with enough experts to give you a good idea!

 

By the way, if you would like to do some science of your own and help an important study, find out how to take part in the OPAL project's Tree Health Survey.

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7.30 am and the beginning of another beautiful day. While most of the scientists were preparing for a collection trip to the nearby island of Bryher, the molluscs curators were preparing to talk live via satellite link with visitors attending one of our daily Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

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Meet the scientists: Jon Ablett (left) feeling the heat and covered in sun screen, me - Ana Rita (middle) - shivering in the mild climate of the Isles of Scilly, and Andreia Salvador (right) feeling confident before her first ever Nature Live.

 

In the Attenborough Studio, Miranda Lowe, Invertebrates Collections Leader and Senior Curator of Crustaceans, showed some gems from the Museum's collection: huge barnacles studied by Darwin himself, pretty shells from the Isles of Scilly collected more than one hundred years ago, and a cute hermit crab (that steals the shells of dead molluscs to live in). And, live from Scilly, we showed some of the highlights’ of what curators have been finding:

 

P1020629nl (Custom).JPGAmazing coloured marine snails, periwinkles, which paint the white sand with red, black, green, yellow

 

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Blue rayed limpets collect from the inside of very big kelp

 

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Dino-slug, a species that has been around since the time of T. rex, and still displays a small vestigial shell, that most species of slugs have lost

 

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Left: The garlic snail, which smells of garlic when disturbed. Right: The dinner table in the evening.

 

We also talked about the joy of the evenings in our field work headquarters, with scientists sorting out their catches of the day and preserving the specimens for the collections. Every evening Jon Ablett needs to overcome the challenge of trying to make his snails and slugs crawl across a special paper designed to preserve DNA from their mucous. Jon also deep freezes part of his land molluscs in a container at -200 degC, which is not good fun on very cold evenings ... but the vapours coming out of the container look really cool!

 

The visitors at the Attenborough Studio asked lots of interesting questions. From big, to slow and tasty slugs and snails and tips about what to look for in rock pools, to how to become a scientist and, finally, why and how collections at the Museum are used by researchers from all over the world - we hope that everyone has had a slugtastic and a shell of a good time!

 

P1170550 (Custom).JPGA moment's relaxation turns into an opportunity to showcase the size of a kelp

 

Ana-Rita

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On day 6 of our trip I followed James Maclaine, Curator of fish at the Museum. James has a variety of tools he uses to make his collections including a 25m seine net. A few nights ago we went out to test the net and made a short video. Please note the temperature of the water is not as tropical as it looks! James has had some good success with the seine net in the past and you can read about what he found on this trip in his own post to the blog.

 

 

 

Seine net fishing

 

This morning we went to the nearby island of St Agnes. This is one of the most remote of the inhabited islands in Scilly and faces out bravely into the Atlantic. When the wind is blowing it can be a very extreme environment but today there was only a slight breeze, the sea was a flat as a pancake and the island felt very balmy. This was a good thing as spent most of the morning wading through the falling tide, turning over rocks and trying to find some very elusive fish.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGSt Agnes in the sun

 

 

 

 

Looking for elusive fish in rock pools on the shore of St Agnes

 

In the Museum collection there are two species of clingfish that had already been collected from the Isles of Scilly, Lepadogaster lepadogaster (shore clingfish) and Apleton dentatus (small-headed clingfish). However, these were obtained in the 1970s and James was keen to find out if both species were still here. The two fish seemed to have very specific and quite distinct habitats and it took a few hours to crack the code of where to find them. We found the small-headed variety in the hold fasts of kelp.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGJames finds a likely home for the small-headed clingfish

 

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGApleton dentatus (small-headed clingfish)

 

The shore clingfish seemed to live under particularly large rocks that were sitting in water.

 

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PIC 5 (Custom).jpgThe underside 'sucker' of the clingfish

 

It was great to find both species of fish still living in the bay where they were also found about 40 years ago, and also to be able to add a couple of modern specimens to our collection that can be used to extract samples of their DNA.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).JPGThe flora of one of the rock pools on St Agnes

 

It was great fun working in the rock pools and we found some fascinating things.

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGOne of our finds, a starfish ...

 

This starfish was a particular menace to the other specimens in our bucket so had to be separated - here you can see it working it's way through a tiny squat lobster.

 

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... mostly harmless to us but not so nice if you are a squat lobster

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After all that build up in my first post, the Scillionian boat trip wasn't that good and it wasn't that bad. So no sharks, whales, sunfish, etc but also no vomiting and I ended up spending most of the journey asleep.

 

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The Scillonian after our arrival at St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

 

[I'm going to have to go off at a tangent slightly now and say that I've just this second been recognised by a small blonde lad as I sit here in the pub typing this. I will explain why in a bit.]

 

Anyway, we disembarked and trudged up and over a hill to the most western part of St Mary's which is called the Garrison or Woolpack. I've stayed in a few interesting places in my time but our current lodgings are the first that look like they could withstand a direct hit from a scud missile, being in an old military bunker. However, they are comfortable enough and we soon feel at home, although I can't help but feel sorry for the poor swallows who foolishly decided to raise their family in the corridor leading to the showers and toilets.

 

[I've just been recognised again, this 'fame' will start to go to my head if it carries on.]

 

Once we'd settled ourselves in, Mark Spencer, experienced botanist and exhibition leader took us for a walk around the island in the sunshine and points out all the parts of it that we can graze upon. Particularly nice are plants called three cornered leeks which have a spring onion/garlic taste.

 

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The lighthouse at Peninnis Head.

 

The next day we rise early as one of my first obligations is to help with three talks for children (who seem to still remember me, hence the recognitions tonight as I write this) at the local Five Islands School. These go really well and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs, steals the show with his squid dissection.

 

I don't have any props myself (apart from a baby pollock which is deemed unsuitable for hacking up in front of six-year olds, having proper red blood as opposed to the squid's green variety) so we find a few pictures of deep-sea anglerfish and sharks and I tell the children about those, and then attempt to identify various fishes that they tell me they've seen. I'm also getting a bit worried about the success - or potential lack of it - of my fish collecting at this point so I ask them to bring anything they can find up to our lodgings and give it to me.

 

My worries increase later as we spend a couple of hours fishing beside a sewer pipe with no results. Meanwhile everyone else is gathering buckets full of material - molluscs, plants - and diligently sitting around scribbling in notebooks and writing labels. Determined to get something - anything - of the fish variety, Jon, Tom Simpson and I head down to the beach at Hugh Town with our seine net, and after a lot of mucking about we finally catch our first, a baby sandeel. I hope things improve tomorrow...

 

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Jon and Tom attempting to seine

 

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My first fish, a sandeel

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As well as taking part in video conferences with schools back on the mainland this morning, we visited the local The Five Island School, to talk to some of the classes about our trip and why we we’re here. James Maclaine and Jon Ablett are seasoned Nature Live speakers but three classes of thirty 6-10 year olds is a daunting prospect for anyone. However, the pupils were superb - enthusiastic and interested and full of great questions.

 

I don't have any photos of the sessions to put up here, but I think it is safe to say that the the pupils enjoyed hearing from our scientists. I saw that two of them, Hafwen and Amelie, had drawn a quick (but very detailed and accurate) picture in the playtime after we had finished and had to get a picture of it. Well done to them for doing such a good picture and to Jon; the mollusc message clearly struck home.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGAmelie and Hafwen's brilliant molluscs

 

I spent the rest of the day with Jon, back at the bulb fields head-down looking for snails and slugs.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGSnail and slug hunt

 

This was really hard work but great fun. Finding a slug in a field of bulbs can be a harder task than finding a needle in a haystack. However, I did fin myself getting extraordinarily excited by the tiny molluscs, and they are very beautiful close up.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGWe have a winner

 

If you look closely you can see the breathing hole. All slugs and snails breathe through a hole in the side of their body and - in slugs - the position of this hole can determine what family they are in.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGLook closely and you can see the hole in the slug that it uses to breathe

 

After a good search we had found some really cool stuff, including Oxycailus alliarius.


 

 

Collecting slugs and snails

 

It is interesting in itself that there are any terrestrial molluscs on the islands. The soil here has very little naturally occurring calcium in it and molluscs require this element to build their shells. In Scilly, the high winds and high humidity mean the calcium is effectively ‘blown’ across the islands and dissolved into the soil, and it is this that allows the molluscs to build their shells.

 

Back at the ranch Jon explained some of techniques he uses to preserve the specimens.

 

 

 

How to join the snail preservation society

 

Today was also my birthday, and the team prepared a great meal and baked me a cake which was brilliant.

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGMy birthday cake ... thanks guys!

 

We had (foraged) watercress soup to start, then an amazing fisherman's pie - I caught the pollock and Vanessa turned them into this spectacular creation complete with (foraged, again) samphire.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).JPGMy catch of pollock

 

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGFisherman's (pollock) pie made by Vanessa Pike, yum!

 

Thanks so much to all the team but especially Mark and Vanessa for making such a lovely meal!

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGWhat better way to end my birthday than a sight like this?

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Today started dull and overcast - grey and gloomy - but we weren’t going to let the weather get us down because this morning we did our first, live video conference from the field with schools. Students from all over the country get to talk with our scientists and ask questions about what they are doing here in the Isles of Scilly.

 

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Tom chatting to Mark during a video conference with students at a primary school.

 

In the first VC, primary school students got to meet Mark Spencer, the botanist of the group and team leader, and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs. Mark did a small tour of the wild flowers we can find here, explaining that the Isles are located at a crossroads between Mediterranean plants and northern ones.

 

The relatively mild climate of the islands mean that plants that are usually more typical of Mediterranean countries find a home here, while for other species, the Isles mark their southern-most limit. It’s an overlapping landscape, which is a delight for us to experience, and a joy for the many species of insects and birds who pollinate these plants.

 

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Museum scientists taking in the beautiful scenery, while Holger Thues (far left) is distracted by a rock covered in lichen!

 

Jon Ablett showed some of his slugs and talked about innovative ways of preserving specimens for the Museum’s collection, while the white vapours of liquid nitrogen made Mark and Tom (who was hosting the event) feel even more cold. Jon is looking mainly for land snails, but will also try to fish for some octopus and squid as we are not sure which species live in these waters. Keep an eye on this blog to find out what he discovers!

 

The secondary school students had the chance to meet lichen curator Holger Thues. Holger explained that lichens are composite organisms (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. they both benefit from one another). Lichens are incredibly important indicators of the environment around them and are often used to study changes in the atmosphere and air pollution.

 

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Orange lichen on a rock, but how did it get its nutrients?

 

The orange lichen in the photo above only exists in places with high levels of nutrients, you will see them near the sea where the wind itself is loaded with nutrients. However, if you see them on a rock in land, wait and with time you’re more than likely to see a bird arrive ...  you’ll soon find out how the nutrients arrived there!

 

Thanks to all the schools for their many questions during the video conferences, it was great to speak to you all!

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The rest of the team arrived today - in total there are now 11 of us and over the next few days I’ll introduce you to them so that you can get a idea of the full range of work and research that will going on during trip.

 

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Standing (l-r): Tony Vinhas (media tech), Jonathan Fenn (molluscs), Holger Thues (lichens), Daniel Whitmore (flies), Jon Ablett (molluscs-terrestrial), Mark Spencer (team leader and botanist), James Maclaine (fishes).

Sitting (l-r): Andreia Salvador (molluscs-marine), Ana Rita Rodrigues (Nature Live) and Vanessa Pike (helping with all of the above!)

 

We’re staying in the south west corner of St Mary’s in a building called The Woolpack. It’s a rather unique structure, a former gunning station that has been converted into accommodation for up to 14. Tony and I made a short film to give you an idea...

 

 

 

Where we're staying on St Mary's - the Woolpack

 

We’re beaming back live to the Museum's Attenborough Studio for four days of Nature Live events starting on Sunday (see the listing on the right had side of the blog homepage) using a satellite we have set up on the roof of an out-building. You can come to the Museum to see them in person, but if you can't make it, the Wednesday's will be webcast live online.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGLive and direct (via a satellite)

 

Within 10 mins of arriving, the scientists had spread out in the green area around the building and were bringing back things for us to look at.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGScilly slugs

 

Jon Ablett (molluscs, terrestrial) found a couple of beautiful slugs but the sharp-eyed quick-fire award goes to Holger Thues, who found a new record for the Isles of Scilly. It’s a parasitic fungus that lives inside the fungal fruiting body of a lichen. We have no records for this kind of fungus from the Isles of Scilly and it shows how important trips like these are in order to enhance our understanding of the islands’ biodiversity.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGHolger found this new record just a few metres away from the Woolpack on his first day on St Mary's

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGYou’re looking for the black ‘pepper’ bits within the rest of the lichen

 

The group then headed off to have a look around the local town before beginning the serious work of collecting tomorrow.

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With the state of the UK's wildlife making the headlines on today's International Day for Biological Diversity, I think yesterday's tiny flowers are a real symbol of the spirit needed to forge a life on one of the country's most distant lands, the Isles of Scilly. The islands are so exposed and remote that constant ingenuity and resourcefulness are vital for survival.

 

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A dwarf pansy looking spectacular next to a five pence piece

 

This is as true for the agriculture that occurs on these islands as for the flowers and plants that live in the wild here. Below is a photo of some allotments on St Mary's, the plots divided up into small boxes by high borders in order to keep out the howling Atlantic winds. If the bushes weren't there, the plants would be destroyed by the high winds which can be so strong they actually burn the plants.

 

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Allotments in St Mary's with high borders to protect the plants from Atlantic winds

 

Once the wind has been dealt with, the general climate is so mild on the islands that it is possible to grow things that would freeze in other parts of the British Isles, and the roadsides and hedgerows are full of incredible plants.

 

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I call this one the elephant plant! Note: not its real common or scientific name

 

Because of their climate, the Isles of Scilly are famous for bulb fields - the flowers these bulbs produce are shipped to the rest of Britain to be sold as cut flowers. The climate here means it is possible to produce flowers during times of the year when the rest of the UK is simply too cold. The bulb fields are a key part of the local environment and a fascinating and important habitat in their own right. We went to meet Farmer Mike Brown, a 4th generation Scillonian bulb farmer and he explained more about the industry.

 

 

 

Farmer Mike Brown, a 4th generation Scillonian bulb farmer

 

 

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A flower bulb grown on the Isles of Scilly

 

Huge thanks to Mike - he was incredibly enthusiastic and helpful and his fields were a real treat to visit. Farms like these are not only an example of how agriculture can support important biodiversity, but also a crucial piece of cultural heritage - a part of a local industry that has been going for hundreds of years. (Note, you can visit Farmer Brown's Bulb Shop and also stay in an adjoining cottage - there is more information here).

 

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Farmer Brown's Bulb Shop

 

Walking back from the farm, Mark spotted an unbelievably rare variant of a plant called Silene gallica. The variant is called Silene gallica var quinqueuulneraria (a lot of people say scientific names are inaccessible, pah I say!). It is now extinct in the wild in mainland Britain but is still found on the Isles of Scilly.

 

 

 

Mark finds the rare Silene gallica var quinqueuulneraria

 

We also saw the more common variant Silene gallica var gallica, growing in a nearby verge.

 

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The more common Silene gallica var gallica

 

It is incredible how many amazing plants the Isles of Scilly support and how easy it is to spot them just walking around the islands. You can sit on a bench to eat your fish and chips and be sat next to a plant normally found on the Canaries or in the Mediterranean.

 

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Malva pseudolavatera

 

Again, Scilly is practically the last only place in the UK you can find this (Malva pseudolavatera) - and we found it happily growing on a roadside wall.

 

It has been really good fun following Mark around the islands over the past coupe of days, finding out about the plant life here (and, to be fair, tasting quite a lot of it) and tomorrow the rest of the scientists arrive so I think things will take a turn towards the animal kingdom.

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Today we took the short ferry to Bryher, about 15 mins across the bay from our home island of St Mary’s.

 

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Hiking across Bryher

 

 

Bryher faces out in to the Atlantic and feels the full effect of the ocean, yet it still has some unique and exquisite flowers, tiny things that seem to stand defiant against the wind and rain that smashes into them. Looking for these minute darlings means leaving your modesty at the door.

 

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Good thing no one is watching...

 

But we were rewarded with some close encounters with some of the most perfectly formed little plants I have ever seen. Mark’s enthusiasm for these flowers was infectious and soon we were all face down, searching for more and attracting others who were visiting the island.

 

 

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... oh, wait, no they are!

 

In order to give you an idea of the absolute tinyness and fantasticness of these things - we got as close as we could...

 

 

Tom and Mark find some small wonders: the dwarf pansy, orange birdfoot and subterranean clover

 

It’s difficult not to marvel at the things that have made a life for themselves on these islands thrust out in to the Atlantic and I really admire these small, resolute plants. It goes to show how important it is to really explore and examine an environment to take in the full extent of the the things living in it. We didn’t collect any of these plants, but I hope the film and pictures give you an idea of how wonderful they are.

 

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Another tiny beauty

 

Last night's foraged meal made for a great evening and once we had finished our Wild Watercress Soup and and Sea Shore Pasta, we went up onto the roof of our bunker to take in the sunset ...

 

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It's nice here

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And so dear reader, here it is, my first ever blog post. Until last week I thought there was more chance of me giving birth than ever blogging but when I was asked I thought well why not, it might be educational, for me and for you. As one of two fish curators here at the Museum it’s one of my jobs to enhance our already massive collection of fish specimens, and when the opportunity arose to do some collecting on the Isles of Scilly I leapt at the chance like a randy salmon. I hope, if you bear with me, I can give you an idea of what it's like to carry out field work for the Museum and also with any luck tell you a little bit about some of the fishes found on and around the islands.

 

James-maclaine-pufferfish-copyright-natural-history-museum.jpgMe with one of the Museum's fish specimens in storage.

 

If (like me until recently) you are not familiar with the location of the Isles of Scilly, then I can now enlighten you. They are, I think, the most south-westerly part of the UK and lie about 30 miles to the west of Land's End, out in the Atlantic where relatively warm oceanic currents ensure that the climate is generally very mild compared to the rest of the country. This also means that they are potentially very interesting in terms of marine life. The last big collections of Scilly fishes that the Museum acquired were made in the 1970s and it's possible that things may have changed since then. The islands are likely to be one of the first ports of call for any species migrating north as oceanic temperatures rise.

 

I have compiled a list of all the fish species the Museum currently has from that locality (26 in total) and the aim of the trip will be to collect anything not already on that list, especially anything that has never been recorded before in any literature as being found on Scilly. However, it would still nice to get fresh specimens of those already listed as these can now be used for DNA analysis or for exchange with other museums. I particularly want to see clingfish, which are found, as the name suggests, clinging to boulders in rock-pools. What would be really exciting is to see a seahorse but as these are very special and protected I'm not permitted to interfere with them in any way so don't expect any pictures. We (me and my various assistants) are highly motivated and have small handnets, a 25m seine net and five fishing rods so nothing will escape us.

 

The main way of getting to the islands is on a boat called the Scillonian. I have to confess to being slightly nervous about this as I had a bad experience on a boat a few years ago from which I still bear the mental scars. On a really good day the trip takes about two and half hours and the passengers can expect to see whales, dolphins, ocean sunfish and basking sharks frolicking alongside the boat. On a bad day things aren't so jolly. I just Googled "scillonian vomit" and got 6,110 results, the first of which is titled "Scillonian Pukefest" and apparently the boat is also known as the "Vomit Rocket". Ah, how bad can it be? It'll be fine I'm sure when we sail on Tuesday.

 

Ok, that's it for now. Hopefully next time there will be some nice pictures of dolphins from the boat and fishes from the islands. Until the next time ...

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We have settled in to island life on the Isles of Scilly. Our digs for the next two weeks are an old bunker in the south western corner of St Mary’s with a wonderful view across to St Agnes. It is quiet and beautiful and we are surround by the spectacular atlantic ocean.

 

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The view out onto the Atlantic Ocean

 

Our trip is part of a project led by Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum. The Isles of Scilly are a unique and stunning environment and they contain common and rare and (in some cases) invasive species - Mark’s work here aims to enrich the Museum's collection of British and European plants and animals with recent material.

 

This will fill gaps in our collections and make sure they cover a continuous span of time right up to the present day. Often, we don’t know how a collection will be used in future and they can play a key role in research. By keeping a collection like the one at the Museum, we have access to the information locked inside the specimens which could be used to answer questions on environmental change and other, similarly huge issues in the future.

 

The rest of the science team are arriving later in the week so, as an introduction to the island (and to find something to eat), Mark led us on a foraging tour of St Mary’s.

 

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Mark Spencer looking for plants on St. Mary's to cook for supper

 

We found a whole host of amazing (and delicious) species, more than enough for supper. It should be said that we found a lot more edible species that we didn’t collect. It is important to understand a plant's role in the ecosystem and environment and some plants were too rare, or delicate to collect. Mark has an excellent knowledge of the local flora and it is important to really understand an area before harvesting anything from the wild as well as having permission for anything you want to collect.

 

 

I think it is safe to say if you’re in doubt, leave it in the ground. Not only does this protect the environment but also saves any potential poisoning (so don't try this at home unless you know what you are doing!). We passed lots of species that are absolutely deadly including whole fields of hemlock water dropwort, which is exceptionally poisonous.

 

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The exceptionally poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) - not part of our supper later in the day!

 

Having said that, when in the company of an expert like Mark, the natural world explodes with interest and intrigue. Every plant has story and history and a whole world of edible possibilities is opened up.

 

scilly-day-1-image-4.jpgThe basis of our supper, all harvested from the wild.

 

Later in the day we cooked up our foraged plants - finding things that are good, or interesting, to eat is always great fun and the meal at the end of the day was blooming delicious.

 

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For the next two weeks I am fortunate to be joining a Museum field trip to the Isles of Scilly, 30 miles off the southwest corner of Cornwall. Alongside my Nature Live colleague Ana Rita Rodrigues and Media Technician Tony Vinhas, we will be reporting back from the trip in daily posts and organizing live-video-links to for 4-days-worth of Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

If you want to experience the project live and direct come to the Attenborough Studio for one of the following events, and keep checking the blog for updates:

 

 

All the events are are free to attend (as is entry to the Museum) and each will last 30 mins. You’ll be able to see and talk live to scientists in the field, see specimens collected during the trip and meet a Museum scientist in the studio.

 

The team in the Isles of Scilly comprises scientists studying topics as varied as flowering plants, fishes, lichens and flies! I will introduce the different scientists and their areas of specialism over the coming days but for now - to set the scene - here are some photos the trip's leader, Mark Spencer, took last time he visited the islands.

 

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They are clearly exceptionally beautiful, a fact that makes the involvement of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty even more pertinent and this collaborative project will strive to further our understanding of these incredible islands.

 

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I am so excited to be visiting the islands and to be accompanying the team. Spending any time with our scientists is an education in the natural world and two weeks exploring a stunning part of the world with such experts is a very exiting prospect. On a more personal note, I am also very pleased to be able to relive one of my Dad’s dinner time stories. Many a family meal have been the forum for a retelling of the old man’s ‘best ever, EVER dream. In his own words ...

 

‘At some point it the 70s, or was it the 80s(?), I was in Bryher in the Isles of Scilly. Half way through a walk around the island I lay down on the beach for a nap. During the dream that followed I became a professional tennis player and managed, against all odds, to win Wimbledon. Having raised the trophy and flushed with pride, I woke up and finished my walk.'

 

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Some say he [my dad] never fully woke up from that nap on the Isles of Scilly ...

 

See you again next week when we will all have arrived!

 

Tom

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It was only a matter of time: yesterday morning CENAPRED (Mexico's National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters) raised the alert level on Popo from yellow phase 2 to 3. This is the third highest warning on the seven step scale.

 

The Mexican newspaper, La Jornada reported almost a week of 'high amplitude tremors, with persistent emission of ash and gas that reached over 3.5m above the crater.' Incandescent fragments rising up to a kilometre high issue from Popo at present, where our team stood 5,000m up back in February. I ponder this as I type to you from the safety of the terracotta 'womb' of our beloved Museum.

 

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Popo during quieter times in February. Dave, Chiara and Hugo survey their impending climb.

 

Who best to contact than Chiara, who knows more than most about the psychology of this restless giant? Following the recent activity of volcanic tremors and earthquakes she explained that, 'In the last couple of weeks, the dome has been destroyed. The caldera [a cauldron like feature, formed by the land collapsing after an eruption] is full to the brim and the fear is that lava may begin to flow outside the rim.'

 

There are currently no plans to evacuate but she said, ' The area within which you cannot go has been extended. At least until we know which of the two scenarios will now happen.'  By this, Chiara refers to Popo returning to a normal level of activity or continuing this temptestuous episode.

 

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A letter to Popo. If you're going to erupt, don't do it without me. 

 

'It's very hard to tell what will happen at the moment. Popo is a very dangerous volcano.' It's here that despite being on the telephone in another part of the Museum, I sense that smile crossing her lips. The one I remember from our fieldwork in Mexico in February. ' I sent an article about this to Dave last week,' she continues, 'I told him what we need to do right now. Is to go back ...'

 

Watch this space to see how things develop!

 

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