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Field work with Nature Live

25 Posts tagged with the holger_thues tag
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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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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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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 flights back to the UK this afternoon, there was time this morning for a final visit to the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) campus.  Dan, Kerry and I took the opportunity to have a closer look behind the scenes of the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation, part of UMS.

 

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The insect collections at the Institute, kept in row upon row of cupboards and drawers.

 

The Institute has an insect collection of more than 10 000 specimens, kept in sealed drawers and cabinets, in a room where the temperature and humidity is carefully monitored. They also have a wet collection (where specimens are preserved in alcohol) including fish, amphibians and snakes, and a botanical collection of more than 6000 specimens of plants and fungi. The majority of specimens kept at the Institute were collected from various locations in Sabah, and it is here that our specimens of invertebrates and lichens will have a permanent home in the future.

 

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Dan admires the collections at the Institute.

 

It has been a tiring but memorable six weeks for Pat, Holger, Dan, Kerry and Keiron in Borneo. They’ve visited, collected from and sampled three different areas in Sabah and have a lot of hard work and study still to come.  I asked each of them about their memories and experiences of the trip.

 

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Holger

 

I asked Holger if anything had surprised him during his time in Borneo…  ‘I had very low expectations for my area of special interest, which is aquatic lichens.  Lowland tropical areas tend to have very few of them.  But here there were quite a lot and even in the secondary forest, where there are properly managed fragments preserved along the rivers, the river lichens looked pretty good and there was an amazing species diversity.  There is quite a lot of damage in the forest but if habitats are managed properly there’s hope to save quite a significant number of this unique diversity.’

 

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Kerry 

 

Kerry told me about her highlight of the trip…  ‘At home I work with tropical butterflies and seeing them in the wild, flying around, has been the best part for me.’

 

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Keiron

 

I asked Keiron what had struck him most about the differences between Borneo and the UK…  ‘There are the obvious things like the different trees and mammals, like the monkeys, that we don’t get back home.  But what I’ve really enjoyed is the all the big invertebrates that we get in the forest, like the scorpions and the stick insects, the praying mantids and the beautiful fulgorids.  It’s been a real pleasure to see them.’

 

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Tony

 

Tony has been busy following and filming the scientists over the past two weeks.  Here’s what he had to say… ‘It’s been an amazing experience, seeing the rainforest and working in that environment.  It’s been tough, carrying equipment and filming in those conditions, but it was worth it.  The highlight for me has been seeing and filming the gibbon, gibbons don’t get enough attention!  I’ve also really enjoyed working with the scientists, they’re a great group of people and a pleasure to work with.’

 

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Pat

 

Pat has done a lot of fieldwork in the tropics over the years, I asked if anything had really struck her about this trip… ‘I’ve never been to Maliau before, so this forest has been amazing to me.  It’s a forest that you can really work and move in, despite it being so diverse and such a huge amount of species.  It really contrasted with the terrible SAFE site where there are all these spiny rattans and lots of vines and the slippery mud….I really thought I wasn’t going to survive!’

 

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Charlotte

 

For me, I have had an incredible and memorable couple of weeks.  I have learnt so much about tropical rainforests and the species that live there, and the enthusiasm and passion of the scientists I have had the privilege to work with has been contagious.  I would like to thank all the people at the Natural History Museum who have helped support me over the past few months and have made this blog and the various public and school events possible.  It’s been a real team effort and I couldn’t have done it without you! I will miss the rainforest, it’s smells and sounds, it’s towering trees and incredible wildlife, but I have lots of wonderful memories to last me a lifetime!

 

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Dan

 

One of the things Dan is most looking forward to on returning home is food!  We’ve had a lot of rice in Borneo and Dan can’t wait to dig into lasagne, bangers and mash, and cottage pie.  I asked him to sum up the past six weeks and what the future holds…

 

 

 

Dan has the final word.

 

Don’t forget, you can read more about Dan’s experiences in Borneo on his blog.  We’ll have a final Nature Live event with Dan in November, giving you the opportunity to ask him your questions and hear first hand about the highs and lows of his time in Borneo.

 

Thank you for following the blog and for all of your comments and questions – keep them coming!

 

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From the city of Kota Kinabalu, on a clear day, you can see a mighty mountain rising up on the horizon. This is Mount Kinabalu – the tallest peak in South East Asia at 4095m above sea level. 

 

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Up in the clouds in can be difficult to see anything!

 

Unfortunately, for most of today the mountain was hidden from view due to low lying cloud, and it was into this cloud that we all drove in search of more lichens (for Holger, Pat and Charles) and a chance to experience Gunung Kinabalu National Park.

 

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The conditions in Gunung Kinabalu National Park are far less hot and humid than we have been used to in Maliau.

 

A World Heritage Site, the park stretches for 754km2 (an area larger than Singapore) and surrounds Mount Kinabalu.  In a far cooler climate (due to the altitude) than Maliau Basin, the forest feels distinctly different.  There are lots of ferns and mosses and cream coloured orchids.

 

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A wonderful purple toadstool that we spotted in the forest.

 

Because the park is so massive, we only had time to see a small part of it.  We briefly visited an area that has natural hot springs and a tree-top walk that attracts a lot of visitors.  Just like in Maliau, it was wonderful to view the forest from a different perspective, although a little nerve-racking…I’m sure it was higher up than before and the walkway was certainly a lot narrower!

 

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Wonderful views but not for those who suffer from vertigo!

 

With the cloud still hanging low and the rain coming and going, we chanced upon something very special, the opportunity to see a Rafflesia in bloom.  There are 17 different species of Rafflesia plant, all of them endemic to Borneo.  They are also known as the ‘corpse flower’, because of the smell of rotting flesh that they give off when in bloom. 

 

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A fly briefly settles inside the flower of the Rafflesia.

 

The flower blooms for several days, letting off a pungent smell that attracts carrion flies (that pollinate it).  After this short period, the petals become blemished and the flesh darkens and rots. Our flower wasn’t smelling very strongly when we saw it…perhaps a good thing, it doesn’t sound very pleasant!

 

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Up close and personal, fortunately this flower didn’t smell too badly during our visit!

 

Content and happy at our chance viewing of such a famous flower, we made our way back towards the city. Pausing on the way to sample some barbequed Bearded Pig (particularly tasty!) the clouds finally parted to reveal a picturesque view of Mount Kinabalu in the late afternoon light.

 

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Mount Kinabalu

 

Having spent the day with Charles (one of our main collaborators from Universiti Malaysia Sabah), he introduced us to one of the best places in Kota Kinabalu to go for dinner.

 

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A huge area full of table and chairs and lots of fish!

 

In a massive almost warehouse sized area, we found ourselves surrounded by several different fish restaurants.  Here, tank upon tank housed live fish and shellfish of almost every variety imaginable. Charles picked out the scallops, prawns, soft-shelled crabs and grouper (a type of fish) we were to have for dinner.  You don’t get much fresher than that!  Delicious.

 

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Charles picks out the fish we are to have for dinner while Dan and Pat look on eagerly.

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Yesterday, our collaborators at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) warned Dan that some of his specimens were leaking.  Not good news!

 

All of the lichen and invertebrate specimens (collected over the past 6 weeks of sampling in the forests of Borneo) are now at UMS, waiting to be sorted and packed and eventually loaned to the Natural History Museum (NHM) for further study and identification.

 

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But the invertebrate specimens cannot be transported or stored safely while they are leaking alcohol (which acts to preserve the specimens) so it was all hands on deck this morning at UMS.

 

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The container the specimens had been stored in was swimming in alcohol.

 

On arriving at the university we discovered it was one container in particular that was causing the trouble.  Inside were specimens that had been collected by other NHM scientists in Danum Valley, but instead of being stored in tubes they had been sealed in plastic bags…that were meant to be leak-proof.  But the bags had failed and now there was alcohol swilling around the container producing a particularly bad smell!  Left in this condition the specimens would soon rot.

 

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The painstaking task of carefully emptying the bags and putting the contents into tubes.

 

So, one by one, the bags were opened and the contents removed and resealed in plastic, screw-top tubes.  A valuable lesson in the importance of reliable storing methods, without which weeks of collecting and hard work can be for nothing.  On the upside, it did give us the opportunity to see some different and interesting specimens including various ‘horned’ beetles, large cicadas and a crab!  The latter presumably having been collected close to a fresh water river.

 

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An unexpected discovery amongst the collected specimens.

 

But it wasn’t just Dan, Kerry and Keiron (with the added help of Tony) who were kept busy with attending to specimens today.  Elsewhere in the university, Pat and Holger had discovered one of the main difficulties with storing specimens in the tropics – humidity.   The specimens of lichens had been left in closed, plastic bags, and consequently moisture had collected and was causing the lichens to become damp.  A dangerous situation that can lead to the growth of mould and the loss of entire collections of samples.  Needless to say, everyone was kept busy for most of the day.

 

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Packing specimens for transportation involves lots of cardboard boxes and bubble-wrap!

 

Finally, once re-sealed and re-labelled, the invertebrate specimens were carefully packed by a removal company, ready for transportation to the UK.  Not the most common of courier requests!

 

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Dan was particularly pleased when the last box was sealed!

 

Having rinsed the smell of alcohol and dung beetles off of our hands, we decided to spend what was left of the day exploring the city.  Kota Kinabalu is clearly a busy and bustling city and well set-up for tourists, with a multitude of restaurants to choose from and markets selling memorabilia and gifts. And it doesn’t all stop when the sun goes down…in fact it gets better!  By the waterfront is a massive, open-air night market, selling vast quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables and a wide array of fish.   At some stalls, you can choose the fish you want and they will cook it for you, there and then.  We had to give it a try!

 

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One of the many stalls cooking fresh fish and seafood. 

 

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I think Kerry managed to trump my tasty but tiny prawn!

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Our final morning in Maliau. Our last time hearing frogs call in the middle of the night, waking up to the sound of gibbons and cicadas, and watching the hornbills congregate in the Strangling Fig tree to feast on the ripened fruit.

 

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Pat soaks up the view while we have breakfast in the Rest House.

 

With bags packed and specimens safely stored in large holdalls, we loaded the vehicles after breakfast, ready for a 7-hour car journey to Kota Kinabalu. 

 

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The team, just before getting in the vehicles to leave.  Left to right: myself, Tony, Kerry, Kishneth, Dan, Holger, Pat and Keiron.

 

Driving along the track from Maliau Basin Studies Centre back to the entrance of the reserve, it became clear why it’s important to a) travel in in a four-wheel drive vehicle and b) travel in convoy.  This is because the track can become INCREDIBLY muddy and it’s not uncommon to get stuck.  If there are other vehicles travelling with you, they can at least help to pull you out!

 

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Travelling in convoy.  Note the deep ruts in the road.

 

Fortunately, when we did get stuck, we managed to get out of the mud ourselves….with a fair bit of revving and a lot of wheel spinning!

 

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Thick mud and trying to drive up a slope = a sticky situation.

 

We paused at a lookout point for a final view of Maliau Basin.  A very special rainforest (the scientists all agreeing that it’s been their favourite place to work during this trip), untouched by logging and plantations, and a haven for some incredible plant and animal species.

 

A few of the smaller animals that we encountered during our stay in Maliau.

 

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Looking out over the Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

 

Once out of the reserve and on more definite roads, we came across lots of logging vehicles and vans containing the harvested fruit of Oil Palms. 

 

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Logging vehicles are a common sight outside of the forest reserve.

 

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Malaysia and Indonesia are the world leaders in palm oil production, supplying over 80% of the market. The oil extracted from the crushed fruit of Oil Palms (seen here in the back of a vehicle) is used in a variety of products including biofuels, shampoo, biscuits, chocolate, cosmetics, toothpaste etc.

 

We also passed villages, schools, mosques and churches, all lining the road and set against a backdrop of wooded hills. 

 

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Many of the houses we passed were raised above the ground, on stilts.  This is to help protect them from flooding when it rains.

 

As we approached Kota Kinabalu and crossed over a mountain range, we found ourselves driving through low-lying cloud and fierce rain.  Interestingly, when the rain stopped, you could immediately see the water evaporating off the hot tarmac.  A sight rarely seen in the UK!

 

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The rain was so heavy that at times that you could barely see the traffic in the road up ahead.

 

After a long and tiring journey, the majority of which was thankfully on tarmacked roads, we finally arrived at our destination.  Some of the team were eager to enjoy the opportunity of a hot shower at the hotel (all of our showers having been cold in Maliau).  Others were looking forward to wearing normal clothes (rather than leech socks and trekking attire).  But at the forefront of everyone’s mind was food.

 

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Keiron has been looking forward to eating fast food...but without the side order of rice!

 

Although the food at Maliau was very good, having rice at almost every meal had lost it’s appeal and we were all looking forward to going to a restaurant and having a cold drink and a choice of food!

 

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For dinner we visited an Indian restaurant close to our hotel.  Although I voluntarily chose rice to go with my meal we were spoilt with a selection of sauces and accompaniments, squid and chicken in hot masala sauces, and everything served up on a banana leaf!  Delicious.

 

Walking around Kota Kinabalu, with the sun having already set, I caught my first glimpse of the sea (the city lies on the coast of Northern Sabah).  Small islands can be seen in the distance and boats bob up and down in the water.  Tomorrow, once we have paid a visit to Universiti Malaysia Sabah to check on our samples, we shall explore the city.

 

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Looking out over the sea towards a nearby island.

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Following an early start watching Hornbills yesterday and a late night linking live (via satellite) to the Museum in London, everyone was looking forward to a lie-in this morning….but no-one had explained this to the local Bearded Pigs.  At about 5am there was a huge commotion with snorting and bellowing right outside our bunkhouse, goodness knows what about, but Kerry was the only person not to be woken by it!

 

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A regular visitor to the Studies Centre, the Bearded Pigs are aptly named.

 

Today is our final day in Maliau and everyone has been busy packing and preparing for the journey to Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah.  Not only do we need to worry about how everything will fit back in our suitcases/bags, the samples of invertebrates and lichens need to be carefully sorted and packed, to ensure they are not damaged on the long (inevitably bumpy) car journey tomorrow. 

 

 

Lichens that are going to be used by Holger and Pat, who will identify and describe them, need to be carefully prepared and packed.  I asked Pat how she goes about doing this…

 

The lichens will all be added to collections held at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and then those that require further study will be sent to the Natural History Museum (in London) for Pat and Holger to identify and where necessary describe new species to science.

 

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Kishneth’s bark samples cover the floor of the laboratory, ready to be packed and transported back to Kota Kinabalu.

 

Meanwhile, the sections of tree bark and further (cross-referenced) samples of lichens will be analysed by Charles and his team of chemists, including Kishneth, at UMS and their chemistry studied.

 

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Kishneth gets to grips with the intricate structure of some of the lichens the team have collected.

 

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Keiron empties the containers that have been collecting material at the bottom of the Winkler bags.

 

Elsewhere, Dan, Kerry and Keiron have been emptying the final Winkler bags and gathering their various samples together.  There’s a noticeable difference in the volume of material that the different traps have collected.

 

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A ‘line-up’ of samples – a pair of Malaise trap samples on the left, SLAM traps, pitfall traps, and finally a pair of leaf litter samples on the far right.

 

The Malaise traps have been particularly successful in sampling a large number of forest invertebrates, while the pitfall traps have caught some of the larger specimens.

 

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A Whip Scorpion found in one of the pitfall traps.

 

While walking towards the forest today for a final stroll beneath the mighty Dipterocarp trees, I couldn’t help but notice a small flowering plant on the side of the road.  Particularly memorable because of what happens when you touch it….

 

 

The leaves of Mimosa pudica quickly fold inwards or droop when touched.

 

Mimosa pudica, while intriguing, shouldn’t be here.  It is a species native to South and Central America, but is an invasive weed across much of the tropics.  It seems incredible that such a small plant could have made it all the way from South America to the depths of Sabah in Borneo, and yet it’s not an uncommon tale.

 

We’re looking forward to a change of scenery when we get to Kota Kinabalu tomorrow but for now, with the closest village 2 hours drive away, games of cards and charades are the mainstay of our evening’s entertainment.

 

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It’s a film…..four words….

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An early start today. Tony, Kerry, Dan and I wanted to stake out the Strangling Fig tree near our accommodation, in the hope of seeing gibbons feeding on the fruit.  We arrived at 5.30am, just as it was beginning to get light, and sat patiently watching the tree.

 

It was fascinating to watch as different groups of animals took it in turn to gather and feed from the tree.  First it was the hornbills, various different species including the Rhinoceros Hornbill (a MASSIVE bird with a bright red and yellow bill and a horn shaped ‘casque’) and the Asian Black Hornbill (where the bill of the male is white in contrast to the bill of the female which is black).

 

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A Rhinoceros Hornbill in captivity.  Photo by Jim Bowen.

 

Dozens of Hornbills filled the branches of the tree, with Dan counting 56 or more.  But two by two (Hornbills pair for life and are rarely seen on their own) they gradually left, with a sudden final exodus marking the arrival of the next group of animals, the Macaques.  We saw both Pig-Tailed Macaques and Long-Tailed Macaques in the tree today, deftly clambering and jumping from branch to branch.

 

Once the Macaques had gone, the tree remained fairly quiet and we decided to have our own breakfast. But when Tony and I returned half an hour later, we spotted a small, round, hairy rump protruding from amongst a clump of leaves.  As the animal moved and gracefully swung between the branches, we realised it was a Bornean Gibbon, the final morning feeder at the tree. 

 

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The Bornean Gibbon (also known as Mueller’s Gibbon) is endemic to Borneo.  Photo by Ltshears.

 

We’ve seen gibbons a couple of times over the past few days, but only ever from a distance and always fleetingly as they disappear off into the dense vegetation of the forest.  This one was unusual because it appeared to be on it’s own (Bornean Gibbons are more commonly seen in pairs or family groups).

 

 

Our Gibbon sighting today, coupled with the soulful morning call of local Bornean Gibbons (which they make to mark their territory).

 

While looking for large animals in the rainforest can be time consuming and frequently unsuccessful, looking for lichens is easy – they’re everywhere!  The trees are often covered in them, on their bark and on their leaves. 

 

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Lichens of the Physma genus, seen up close, with brown fruiting bodies that produce spores. Photo taken by Kishneth Palaniveloo, one of our local collaborators at the University of Malaysia, Sabah.

 

 

Holger compares temperate and tropical forests, and the differences he has seen in the lichens that can be found there.

 

The majority of the trees in the Lowland Dipterocarp Rainforests of Borneo are evergreen. This means that instead of dropping their leaves in the Autumn (as many British species do) they retain them for several years.  This gives lichens time to colonise the leaves, with some species specialising in growing on this surface (rather than tree bark). 

 

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Various species of lichens have colonised this leaf.

 

In the UK, Pat uses the lichens growing on twigs as indicators of short-term environmental changes. Similarly, lichens growing on leaves in the tropics can be used to study short-term patterns and changes in the atmosphere, as opposed to the lichens growing on tree trunks, which have been there longer and reflect a greater period in time.

 

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These brightly coloured ‘Script’ lichens, so called because of the patterning of the fruiting bodies, are reminiscent of raspberry ripple ice-cream!  Photo taken by Kishneth.

 

Today was the last day in the field for Dan, Kerry and Keiron (although Pat and Holger will continue to collect lichens for a while longer).  Tomorrow they must pack up their samples in the Studies Centre laboratory and organise all their kit, ready for the journey back to Kota Kinabalu (where we will be based for the final couple of days of our trip).  Working in the laboratory is a far cry from the heat and humidity of the rainforest, and is far easier to move around in! With heavy rainfall daily, the paths and trails in the forest quickly become muddy and slippery. 

 

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Good balance and plenty of stamina are needed for trekking in the jungle.

 

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A Parang (a large Bornean knife) is vital for cutting through thick undergrowth in the rainforest.

 

Walking in thick mud can be tricky at the best times, but combined with thick undergrowth, exposed tree roots and steep ridges, going for a walk in the rainforest is not for the faint-hearted.  But it’s worth the effort, you never know what you might stumble across….

 

 

Dan makes an interesting discovery in the forest.

 

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A torrent of worker termites (of the Hospitalitermes genus) march along a fallen branch.  At the edges, the soldier termites stand guard, protecting the colony from marauding ants (seen at the edge of the photo).

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Last night we had thunder and lightning, almost directly overhead.  It rains most evenings/nights here but last night’s down pour was particularly heavy.  Most of us were consequently woken up in the small hours of this morning by the sound of frogs!  It sounds like there are hundreds of them surrounding our bunkhouse, although it’s too dark to go out and count, but their constant calling and croaking creates a deafening noise.  I will try and get a recording for you to listen to!

 

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Keiron with an earthworm he found in one of the soil samples.

 

Soil sampling is a simple but effective way of discovering some of the numerous species of invertebrate that are living in the rainforest.  Keiron showed me how he digs a hole at set points along the transect line (a line running 100 metres through the site/plot being studied) and then sifts through it looking for animals.

 

 

Keiron demonstrates how the team sample the soil in the rainforest.

 

Dan, Kerry and Keiron have found a variety of animals living in the soil.  The majority tend to be ants and termites, which dominate the soil habitat of tropical rainforests, but they’ve also found centipedes, beetle larvae and earthworms (amongst other things). 

 

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A large beetle larva found in one of the soil samples.  They have sharp jaws so it’s best not to handle them!

 

Any animals that are found in the soil samples are picked up (using tweezers) and popped into a tube of alcohol.  This kills and preserves them (stopping them from decomposing).  Some of the ants can move particularly fast, meaning you end up chasing them around the tray with the tweezers….I certainly need to practice more before I’m up to Kerry and Keiron’s standard of tweezer/ant control.

 

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Kerry, with tweezers and tube of alcohol at the ready, carefully studies her soil sample.

 

Pat, Holger and Kishneth were collecting lichens at the final site today.  I had heard that tree diversity in tropical rainforests was high, but I was still surprised when Pat counted up the number of species they have sampled from.  Of 84 trees they have sampled, there are 49 different species of tree.  And that’s still only a handful of what’s living in the forest here.

 

 

Pat explains more about the trees and lichens that she and the lichenologists have been studying.

 

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A good hand lens reveals the colourful and intricate world of lichens on a whole new scale.

 

Today has been a particularly memorable one because of the ‘monkey action’ we all witnessed this morning taking place in a massive Strangling Fig tree, close to the Studies Centre buildings. 

 

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The Strangling Fig tree, viewed from the veranda of the Rest House.

 

For the best chance of seeing birds and mammals in the rainforest, you want to find a tree that is in flower or fruit.  In the last couple of days the figs on this mighty tree have been ripening, and everything is taking advantage of this ready food source! 

 

Yesterday we saw lots of birds, including species of Hornbill, flying into the upper branches. This morning, we caught a quick glimpse of a Bornean Gibbon before it swung swiftly away….which was probably due to the arrival of a troop of Pig-Tailed Macaques.  The Macaques managed to get right up into the highest branches, maybe 40 – 50 metres above the ground, and Tony filmed them as they skilfully moved through the branches and seemingly catapulted down the tree!

 

 

Despite being so perilously high above the ground, the Macaques are clearly far better adapted to life in the trees than we are!

 

Needless to say, as sat having dinner this evening (on the veranda outside because it never gets cold here), we all had smiles on our faces following another magical day in the jungle.

 

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Meals of rice, meat and vegetables are supplemented by the odd box of biscuits!

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Kerry and I got up at 5am this morning in the hope of seeing gibbons! Brandishing torches, we stumbled out of our dormitory and into the darkness, heading towards the swing bridge that crosses the Maliau River.  We’d heard gibbons calling from this area before, and thought we might have a better chance of seeing them in the early morning, when it’s a little cooler and wildlife in general tends to be more active.

 

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The Maliau River.

 

No such luck.  We sat on the bridge for over an hour, with a no sign of the elusive gibbons.  But it did give us the opportunity to hear all the other animals waking up and producing their morning calls. 

 

After breakfast (a mixture of cereal, rice, chicken nuggets and small sausages) I followed Kerry as she sampled the dead wood along the transect line on today’s site/plot.  The transect line is laid out at each site and is 100 metres long.  It is along this line that the scientists sample the leaf litter and soil at set intervals, as well as studying any dead wood found between the start and end point.

 

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Kerry holds onto one end of the measuring tape as the team lay out their transect line.

 

Dan and his team also measure the temperature and water content of the soil (how much moisture is in it) and look carefully at what type of soil is found along the transect line. These are all important factors that will influence the type of plants and animals that are found in a given area.

 

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Keiron uses a thermometer and a soil moisture meter.

 

 

Dead wood provides an important shelter and food source for some species of invertebrate.

 

Amongst the numerous animals that Kerry found in her dead wood samples, there was a particularly bold soldier termite that tried to bite her finger! 

 

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Fortunately Kerry’s gloves gave her some protection against this feisty soldier termite.

 

Kerry also found a scorpion in a piece of dead wood further down the transect line.  Good reason for always being cautious when sampling!

 

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It’s not unusual to find scorpions sheltering in dead wood.


 

Also joining us in the field today were local collaborators from the University of Malaysia, Sabah (UMS). They are working closely with Pat and Holger to study the lichens here.  Professor Charles Vairappan is a Natural Product Chemist and interested in analysing the chemicals that different species of lichens produce. 

 

Research suggests that Lichens produce chemicals for various reasons.  Some chemicals help lichens avoid predation from animals (such as springtails, mites, snails, slugs and caterpillars), while other substances protect the lichens from UV light or excessive light intensities.  A unique property of some lichen chemicals is their water repellent function (like a biological Gortex) which helps to prevent them from ‘drowning’ (remember the film footage of the rain in my Day 5 blog?)!

 

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This is the lichen I mentioned yesterday, Herpothallon ‘woolly’, which contains interesting chemicals that are essential for identification.

 

But what’s particularly interesting is the diversity of these chemicals. Different lichens produce different chemicals, and this information could therefore be used to assist with the identification of lichens (alongside morphological descriptions (what a species of lichen looks like, both the outer and inner structure) and DNA analysis. 

 

By identifying the unique chemicals of the different lichens, Charles will contribute to the description and identification of tropical lichens that Pat and Holger are working on.

 

Charles is also interested in why some species of tree in the rainforest have very few lichens living on their bark, while other species are covered in lichens.  This may be due to chemicals that are produced in the bark of the tree, but no-one has studied what these chemicals are. 

 

 

Charles explains the two areas of lichen research that he is focusing on.

 

One of Charles’ students, Kishneth, is collecting sections of tree bark (from the same trees that Pat and Holger are sampling), so that they can be analysed in the laboratory.  Requiring a chisel and hammer and a good deal of strength, it’s hard work, but the results from the chemical analysis should be fascinating.

 

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Kishneth removes a small piece of bark from each tree for analysis.

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Although the rainforest is full of wildlife, it can be easy to miss.  Many of the animals that live here, especially the invertebrates, are well camouflaged or spend their time hidden in rotting wood, buried in the soil or under the leaf litter that carpets the floor of the forest.  That’s why Dan and the team are being so thorough and using a variety of methods to find these animals.

 

Dan and Kerry sampling the leaf litter.

 

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The sieve inside the bag.

 

Dan’s project involves sampling at three different locations in Sabah, Borneo.  You can find out about the first two locations and what Dan experienced there by reading his blog

 

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Lichenologist Holger Thus walking through the rainforest in Maliau.

 

By sampling in these three areas, Dan hopes to gain a better understanding of the diversity of invertebrates and lichens found in these rainforests, and how similar or different they are between locations eg whether Maliau rainforest and Danum Valley rainforest (a previous sample location) share many of the same species of termite.  By understanding how different a rainforest is, and whether many of its species are unique to that forest, conservationists can start to prioritise the protection of certain areas.

 

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An amazingly well camouflaged insect that we spotted hiding against some lichen in the rainforest.

 

It’s hard work setting up traps and sifting through leaf litter.  If we sit still for a moment, for a quick snack or a drink, we find ourselves surrounded by small flying insects.  These are sweat bees and, as the name suggests, they are attracted to our sweat (which in these conditions is copious!)  Sweat Bees collect the sebaceous secretions of other animals, such as sweat or tears, and take it back to their nest to make it into honey!

 

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Sweat Bees on Dan’s back.

 

Once back at the Studies Centre, the team have to put the leaf litter samples into Winkler Bags. This allows them to collect (in a pot at the bottom of the bag) any invertebrates that are amongst the litter.

 

Leaf litter material is left in Winkler Bags for three days.

 

One animal often found in the leaf litter, and in many of the other traps, is the largest species of ant in Borneo – Camponotus gigas.  A massive ant, but not at all aggressive.

 

A Camponotus gigas ant on my hand.

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The scientists I will be following over the next couple of weeks are already out in Borneo and working hard.....

 

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Dan Carpenter likes soil, so it is lucky that he works in the Soil Biodiversity Group in the Life Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum. Having completed a BSc in Wildlife Conservation, he went on to do a PhD in Soil Science jointly at the University of Reading and the Museum and studied earthworms and their effects on mineral weathering in soils.  He is now a Post-doctoral Research Assistant and he has been studying diversity patterns of soil invertebrates and their role in ecosystem processes.

Dan is particularly fond of earthworms, so much so that he played a large part in setting up the Earthworm Society of Britain and sits on its committee.  When he isn’t digging holes, Dan likes running around in mountains and swimming. He is also a member of the Berkshire Lowland Search and Rescue team, so he is a handy person to know if you get lost!

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Kerry Leigh studied Biology at university before moving to London.  After originally volunteering in the tropical butterfly house at the Natural History Museum, she began volunteering with the Soil Biodiversity Group, spending time in the New Forest with Dan and his team sampling different habitats. The enthusiasm of everyone in the group rubbed off on her and she’s been helping out in the lab ever since, sorting and identifying various invertebrates that the group have collected.


When not in the Museum, Kerry  works in a little butterfly house in West London where she looks after caterpillars, pupae and butterflies, and sends some of them off to other exhibitions. She loves travelling (particularly in Africa) and her favourite country is Sierra Leone, she hopes to move there one day and build a hostel and restaurant on a beautiful beach! 

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Keiron Derek Brown has been volunteering in the Soil Biodiversity Group of the Natural History Museum for over 2 years.  A biology granduate, with field work experience in the tropics, Keiron decided his dream was to work in the field on zoological projects and conservation.


Keiron's time at the museum has been spent looking down a microscope to sort and identify invertebrate samples that he helped collect on field trips to the New Forest.  In his spare time he enjoys going on courses to learn more about the amazing wildlife that live across Great Britain and is also a member of the Earthworm Society of Britain. Over the summer he has been working for the Bat Conservation Trust where he provides advice to many different kinds of people for all things bat-related! Keiron has always wanted to visit the island of Borneo and is excited about experiencing life in the rainforest.

 

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Holger Thues is a curator at the Natural History Museum. His focus is on lichenised fungi and their associated algae which makes him a part mycologist / part-botanist. Before he came to the NHM , he 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.


Holger's previous fieldwork has been mostly all over Europe (particularly “rocky” habitats from coastal cliffs to alpine peaks – you can easily locate him in the field by the sound of his 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) and earlier this year a month in the mountains of Costa Rica.


One of his hopes for this trip is to collect a rich selection of fresh lichen material from areas which have never been studied by lichenologists before such as the Maliau Basin and to enhance the collections both in Sabah and for our museum with poorly known taxonomic groups which will become a resource for further studies by researchers in Malaysia, at our museum and for other collaborators across the world.

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As you read this I will be flying back to London and I will have filled up on greasy food in Newark airport on the way… I have had a wonderful time; an experience that I will never forget and I hope you have enjoyed the blog so thank you for reading it!

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

It's Oscars time so please forgive me but it has to be done... the trip would not have been possible without the following people at the Museum:

 

The Learning Department and specifically Honor, Abigail, Martin and Stephen for letting me leave the office for a couple of weeks. Thanks!

 

The Nature Live team, particularly Jo Kessler for hosting the live-video-link events so expertly, and Ivvet Modinou, Natalie Mills and Ana Rita Claro Rodrigues for your support and good ideas. Also, thanks to Museum scientists Erica McAlister and Gavin Broad for being in the Studio to help prepare the ground with the audience for the live-video-links.

 

Tony and Adam in Special Effects for training me to use the satellite phone and other kit, coming to the realisation that I was likely to break it yet still letting me take it into a remote area of tropical forest in a completely different country (I hope you now feel it has been tested properly!).

 

To Jonathan for posting my blogs every day (even at the weekend) and for providing a forum for the live-chats we’ve held with UK school children as part of Nature Live in the Field - and also thanks to them and their teachers for some great questions and comments!

 

To Grace for developing the schools side of the project and for keeping me busy

 

In Costa Rica, a huge thank you to:

 

Our porters and guides in the La Amistad National Park, and Frank Gonzales at INBIO for sorting out the logistics of the trip and for providing me with a filming permit.

 

The rest of the botany team: Holger Thues, Jo Wilbraham and Neil Brummit - I hope I have been at least a little bit useful and that I have not wound you up too much with endless questions?

 

Daniel Santa Maria for my new nick name!

 

Finally, to Alex Monro for organising the trip and my part in it. I have had a wonderful time and I am so thankful to you for giving me this opportunity to follow science as it happens in the field. Thank you!

 

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I asked the scientists what they thought….

 

 

P.S. This is not the end for Field work with Nature Live as, starting from the 7 March my Nature Live colleague Ivvet Modinou will arrive in the Bahamas with a team of scientists to report on a field trip exploring the life in our oceans. It should have some great footage as they'll be using a mini-submersible in their research!

 

Keep in touch with the Field work with Nature Live community and subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog and you will receive updates whenever a new post appears.

 

And remember, you can meet more Museum scientists every day at Nature Live events held in the Museum’s Attenborough studio at 14:30 (and also 12:30 every weekend and throughout the holidays).

 

I hope to see you at a Nature Live event soon!

 

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Tom Simpson, Costa Rica, 2012.

 

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Note: Tom is currently on his way back to the UK, so I am posting his final blogs from Costa Rica on his behalf.
Jonathan - NaturePlus host

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