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Field work with Nature Live

5 Posts tagged with the botanist tag
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Today I am observing the fieldwork methods of Museum scientists Jo Wilbraham (algae, including seaweed) and Mary Spencer Jones (bryozoans). We depart on the boat from St.Mary's to St. Agnes at 10.15am in calm waters, under clear blue skies.

 

St. Agnes is a beautiful island, with many interesting locations to collect specimens. We arrive at low tide, which is ideal for finding a diverse range of seaweed and bryozoan specimens. Jo chooses a beach 10 minutes walk east of the quay, where it is possible to wade far out. It takes a while, and some skilled rock climbing to reach where we are going but once we arrive at the tidal interface the diverse range of species is quickly apparent. We see a wide range of seaweeds, sea anemones and polychetes patiently waiting for the tide to come back in and relieve them from the stress of exposure to the mid-day August sunshine.

st-agnes-seaweed.jpgJo Wilbraham examines seaweeds great and small at the beach on St. Agnes.

 

Jo seems quite happy with the spot and comments on the range of species whilst pulling collecting bags and knife out of her pocket and rucksack to begin collecting, making the most of the low tide. The method of exploring and collecting are surprisingly similar to the methods that I use when working in the landscape or on a residency, although the selection criteria and motivation differ considerably. Some of the specimens collected are Furcellaria, Bifurcaria bifurcata and Palmaria palmata.

 

By this point my walking shoes have flooded after being submerged in shin deep seawater and I am inspired to draw some of the collected species on dry land. I am also preparing for the drawing workshop of creative morphology (a method inspired by Goethe’s ‘Delicate Empiricism’) at Phoenix art studios in the evening.

seaweed-field-drawing.jpgDrying out my feet and drawing seaweed specimens on the beach.

 

The free drawing workshop is fully booked, and attendees will be almost exactly half Museum scientists and half St.Marys residents or visitors. Due to the demands of fieldwork some of the Museum scientists are late, which means they have a bit of catching up to do. The workshop builds up observational drawing techniques that prepare the individual for a creative exploration of the morphology of the specimen.

 

Creative morphology drawing workshop

 

The group produce some very interesting drawings and discussions. One scientist remarks that they did not expect drawing to have method, rather that it was something they associated with scientific work. This point was important as it helped the scientist to acknowledge artistic research and methodology.

 

Another scientist remarks that drawing helped them to identify important characters of the specimen, and to engage with it. This was helpful as it led to a discussion of the values of drawing and photography/SEM technologies in scientific work. We end the workshop by considering the relationship between the practice of creative morphology and creative evolutionary processes. 

herbarium-sheet-specimen.jpgSpecimens collected at the beach on St. Agnes are arranged on a herbarium sheet, ready for entering the Museum's collections.

 

After the drawing workshop I put a few questions to Jasmin Perera, an entomologist at the Museum:

GA: Do you feel the method helped you to 'know' or think about the specimen in a new or different way? If so, could you try to describe this difference?

JP: Yes the method did make me think a lot more about the specimen. It made it far more memorable structurally. There are parts that I would never have thought of analysing so much that I now know exist, which is great because I would feel far more confident in identifying the specimen if I came across it in future.

 

GA: Do you feel that the method helped you to deepen your engagement with the specimen?

JP: I think I did engage a lot with the specimen, however I feel I get a similar experience when identifying flies under the microscope as the keys we have to follow go into details as little as the length and direction of the little hairs on their body.

 

GA: Do you think this method could be useful in your scientific or artistic work? If so, how?

JP: I would find this method useful in a scientific environment as it would really make me remember any specimen I came across. Especially by pulling the specimen apart, figuring out all the bits that put it together.

 

After the drawing workshop I visit the Museum field station at the Garrison, St.Mary’s, where I find Jo sorting through the day's collections, soaking and pressing before carefully arranging on a herbarium sheet. The sun is setting, the team is tired and tomorrow awaits...the marvellous world of insects!

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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Breakfast was sausages – yes! Salty and oily they took my good friends rice and beans to a whole new level.

 

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Today we set off from our hut, to the camp we are going to stay at for the next two days – N 09 08 09.4, W 082 57 38.4 are the co-ordinates: view on a map.

 

Our route took us along the river.

 

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We walked for a couple of hours before climbing up to a point called Jardin. This area is completely different from anything I have seen so far on the trip – it’s a peat bog and is dominated by tree ferns that have islands of mosses, lichens and sedges growing around them. It was a rare break in the forest canopy and there were some spectacular views.

 

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It was a really challenging crossing - impossible to know whether your next step was going to hold fast or leave you knee deep in the bog.

 

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We then dipped backed down through the forest – not so much a trail as a thrash through the bush!

 

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Once at the camp, I set up the equipment for sending you my post - solar charger and satellite phone - and made a little tour of the camp.

 

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On the way here I saw the first sign of a wild cat – this is Ocelot poo, apparently!

 

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Species of the day goes to Neil (though Alex is making a spurious claim!). It is in the genus Pilea (in the nettle family) and Alex thinks it may be a new species! He is a world expert in the nettle family and, in particular, this genus - although this looks similar to another species of Pilea it has a key difference in that the leaves are of equal size to each other as opposed to being different sizes.

 

If it is a new species Alex will be able to publish a description of it and give it a name, but he can only be sure that this is a new species once he has checked it against similar species housed in herbaria.

 

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This really highlights the importance of the trip and of collecting in general. In order to know exactly what is in the park and make as complete a check-list of the species as possible, we have to know what lives here. These specimens will be available for future generations, who may have other uses for the data they provide.

 

Of course, it is important not to collect too much, we rarely collect a whole plant and always make sure we don’t collect without the correct permits which are provided by the Costa Rican government.

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Continuing my food theme... Today we had pancakes for breakfast (not rice and beans) and they were about an inch thick and flavoured with vanilla. I had mine with maple syrup and am feeling very happy with myself!

 

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After a few days of staying around the hut, today I got the chance to go out with the botanists into the field and experience collecting. We went to a place called Laguna.

 

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There are several specific sights of interest that the botanists target each day – we had a live-link back to the Museum to do in the morning so chose a site nearby (see the map below - we are staying at Albergue Valle del Silencio and Laguna is due East-South-East from there).

 

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I am going to blog about the specifics of collecting tomorrow but today wanted to focus on the trails cut for us in order to reach the collection sites. Some trails are clear, well worn by the porters ferrying supplies and specimens to and from the camp, others are cut specifically for us and are much less easy to follow.

 

The forest is so dense it is easy to lose ones bearings. Today I tried to keep my orientation between a river and mountain but soon the dense foliage span me around and I felt completely at the mercy of the forest. It is a wonderful feeling to be lost - as long as you’re with someone who isn’t!

 

Because the forest is so dense sound doesn’t travel too far so Alex and Daniel Santa Maria (a botanist from INBIO - The National Institute for Biodiversity in Costa Rica) use calls to locate each other.

 

 

 

Daniel has an amazing knowledge of the local plants and is invaluable to the trip. Here he is having a rest after lunch in the field.

 

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Species of the day today is Conopholis alipna and was collected by Daniel and the flowering plant team (Alex and Neil). It is a parasite that targets the roots of oak trees which are the predominately tree in the surrounding forests.

 

It gets all of it’s nutrients from it’s host and is found at altitudes of between 2,000 and 2,700 metres. It's my species of the day because I think it looks really cool:

 

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Until tomorrow!

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Today we rose early! By 7.00 we had left base camp and were beginning the 6-8 hour trek [I sit here smug, we did it in just over 6] to the hut that is to be our home for the next week and a bit. Breakfast was rice and beans (a theme is emerging!).

 

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(Click the images to see them full size)

 

The first half of the trek was uphill (i.e. absolutely knackering) but the views from the occasional break in the canopy were breathtaking and kept us pushing on.

 

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We are working alongside Costa Rican botanists, one of whom is Daniel. He has an incredible knowledge of the local environment and found this plant, Satyria warszewiczii on our trek.

 

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The flower’s corolla (a corolla is when all of the flower’s petals have fused into a tube) is edible and tastes a little bit like bitter lemon or blueberries (or vinegar depending on who you ask!):

 

 

After 4 hours we reached the continental divide, the point at which Costa Rica splits between Atlantic and Pacific forest. Water that falls either side of this divide ends up in either the Pacific or Atlantic ocean. Alex had a unique way of explaining this:

 

 

The forest changed dramatically once we were on the Atlantic side - on the Pacific side our path had been dry and dusty but once we crossed over, the forest was damper, darker, cooler and wetter. This is because the prevailing wind blows from the West.

 

The wind picks up moisture from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and carries it to the western Atlantic slopes of the forest before dumping it there. Therefore, because less water reaches the Pacific side, it’s much drier.

 

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The rain increased as we got closer to our hut. We arrived damp and tired but very excited about the days ahead.

 

The camp is made from naturally fallen trees from the forest and the roof is corrugated iron - the sound of the rain drumming above me as I sit inside with a coffee is wonderful!

 

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I’ll post some more pictures of the camp tomorrow - the battery in my camera has run out of juice and our generator is not yet up and running.

However, we found some really nice things on the way, this is a beetle grub:

 

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And this beautiful moth:

 

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I'll have to see if the Museum's enotmologists know what species they are...

 

Tomorrow we start collecting and the hard work begins but Holger has already had success after popping down to a nearby stream and finding two species of lichen never recorded in Costa Rica before.

 

Tonight, more beans and rice and early to bed.

 

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Remember we'll be live-linking from Costa Rica to the Museum's Attenborough Studio at 12:30 and 14:30 on Saturday 11, Sunday 16 and Saturday 18 February so, if you are in London, come along to see how we are getting on!


The Attenborough Studio is located in the Darwin Centre in the Museum's Orange Zone.

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The trip to Costa Rica is led by Dr. Alex Monro who has his own blog where you can learn about his interests and research. But here is some information about the other scientists, and their expectations for the trip:

 

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Dr. Neil Brummit is Researcher in Botanical Diversity

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

My main botanical interest has always been in biogeography - working out why some distant areas of the world have the same plants, while other areas close to each other have different plants. Also, I study why some areas of the world have so many more plant species than other areas do, and try to identify these areas and the threatened species they contain accurately enough to help with plans for their conservation.

 

Best thing about being a Botanist

When you can see that your work has been useful to someone else, especially someone outside of botany, it gives you a sense that your efforts have been worthwhile. For example, a big project that I have been involved in for several years has estimated how many plant species worldwide are threatened with extinction, and when we announced results from this project in 2010, it was covered in hundreds of media outlets around the world and we also travelled to the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to make a presentation there. At the end of the meeting there was a renewed determination by the world's governments to take positive conservation actions in the next few years, and I did feel that, in our own small way, we were a part of the scientific response to the loss of global biodiversity that had helped to galvanise the political will to make that happen.

 

Previous field work

A little bit of everywhere; I´ve done fieldwork on each continent, but I´m always keen to visit new places. For me there is always something special about being in Africa, perhaps because that was my first experience in the tropics. I think once you´ve been collecting in the tropics, everywhere else seems a bit boring by comparison. I was still at school when I first went on a proper field trip, to Malawi with my father (who is also a botanist); I loved it, and remember thinking that he was paid to do this!

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Seeing new plants, and thinking to myself "Wow, what on earth is that?". If I can attempt an identification that is somewhere close to what it is, even better.

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Leeches and mosquitos; Listening to rats running around you in the dark when you are trying to sleep at night; Never being clean; Missing being at home with my wife;

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

Hopefully I will have the opportunity for more fieldwork in Costa Rica, so for me this is a chance to experience the country but, perhaps more importantly, get to know the people working there and start to build relationships with them. I´m grateful to be going with someone like Alex who has already had a lot of experience there, and I´m looking forward to working in the field with him.

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

It´s hard work! Don´t expect too much, as all the best laid plans can go out of the window very quickly; be prepared to adapt.

 

 

Jo Wilbraham.jpgJo Wilbraham is Senior Curator, Algae

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

Non-flowering / cryptogamic plants, particularly bryophytes

 

Best thing about being a Botanist / Curator

Being able to spend time obsessing about your favourite plant group as part of your ‘proper job’ and being able to work with the wonderful collections here at the Natural History Museum.

 

Previous field work

My more recent fieldwork has been around the beautiful British coastline looking at seaweeds.  I’ve also been on fieldwork trips to Reunion Island, Ecuador, Belize and Sulawesi, so Central America is new territory for me.

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Exciting times looking for plants (and no access to work email).

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Sharing a camping hut with vampire bats wasn’t very nice, but mostly I’d say missing the folks back home.

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

My underlying goal is to contribute more data to the question ‘what grows where’, hopefully increasing knowledge of rare / poorly understood species and the habitats they live in.  I will be collecting specimens for long term preservation in the NHM herbarium where they will be available to researchers around the world who are studying these groups – both now and in the future!

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

Remember to pack your sense of humour… and a hand lens!

 

Holger_LymeRegis.jpgDr. Holger Thues is Curator – Lichens

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

All the oddities traditionally studied by botanists but which are in fact not related to plants (eg. fungi, slime-molds etc.). Within “Green Botany” my current main interest is in lichenised algae (photosynthetic symbiotic partners in lichens) and particularly their compatibility with various lichens in different habitats.

 

Best thing about being a Botanist

I regard myself as a biologist. In my current role as curator at the NHM my focus is on lichenised fungi and their associated algae – this makes me a part mycologist / part botanist. Before I came to the NHM I was working partly as a researcher and partly as an environmental consultant. This included work with lichens, mosses and seed plants but also with various animal groups: from aquatic invertebrates, leafhoppers to hamsters and salmon. I like the constant change of the profession “biologist”  - although the fundamental questions have remained surprisingly similar over thousands of years: from the stone age to the time of worldwide industrialisation: biologists always look for answers to the questions: what to eat (and what not?)  what is harmful?  what is beneficial? And what does it all mean in a wider context? I can hardly imagine a more interesting profession!

 

Previous field work

Mostly all over Europe (particularly “rocky” habitats from coastal cliffs to alpine peaks – you can easily locate me in the field by the sound of my chisel). In the tropics so far two field trips to the Venezuelan part of the Andes (focussed on freshwater habitats in open areas with Paramo-vegetation).

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Asking questions directly to the living organism in its environment, physical activity, absence of paperwork

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Travelling to the study sites, paperwork in advance of a field trip

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

As a curator my main hope is to collect a rich selection of fresh lichen material from little studied habitats and poorly known taxonomic groups which will become a relevant resource for further studies by researchers in Costa Rica, at our museum and for other collaborators across the world.

 

One personal research focus for me will be a comparison of the freshwater lichens in the Talamanca Mountains with those in streams of other tropical and temperate areas. For temperate areas lichens were shown to be valuable indicators of water level fluctuations and stream bed stability, but we still know to little on the species diversity and the distribution patterns of freshwater lichens in the tropics to make them useful tools for the assessment of streams in these areas as well.

 

A second area of interest is an assessment of the lichen diversity on rock outcrops and the light rich and open Paramo-vegetation at the highest elevations of the Talamanca Mountains. These habitat types cover huge areas in the South American Andes but occur in relative isolation and at a much smaller scale in Costa Rica, separated by large densely forested areas. Together with my research colleague Cecile Gueidan we want to find out how this isolation affects the diversity of lichens. This habitat type is also likely to be among the first to be affected by climate change.

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

Try to get in contact with local people, appreciate and follow their advice.