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Posted on behalf of Ranee Prakash, Curator of Flowering Plants in the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences.

 

Wadakam (Hello!),

 

We are happy to share our recent journey to the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu, southern India in March - April 2015.

 

Our team from the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences includes: >

 

The aim of the visit was to consult the herbaria of Botanical Survey of India (BSI) at Coimbatore, and Pune and also to visit Blatter Herbarium, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. We looked at the Solanaceae collections.

 

Apart from visiting BSI’s regional offices, we also visited Madras Christian College (MCC), Presidency College, National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), The Eco Park and the Theosophical Society in Chennai.

 

Xavier also made a brief visit to the French Institute in Pondicherry. The aim of this visit was to investigate the botanical collections of the herbarium of the French Institute, as well as to liaise with the French and Indian researchers working on the Indian flora. They are known to be particularly well curated and informative for the region of Mumbai and Pondicherry, from where Solanum trilobatum L. is native.

 

The Botanical Survey of India (BSI)

 

The BSI was established in 1890, with the main aim of surveying the plant resources and identifying plant species of economic value within the countr. With headquarters in Kolkata, it has ten regional offices in various states of India. It comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.

 

We visited regional offices in Coimbatore and Pune. Coimbatore office has important collections of R.Wight (b. 6 July 1796 – d. 26 May 1872) and other collectors of the Honorable East India Company (EIC).

 

We databased around 400 specimens from both the regional offices. This data will be repatriated back to India. During the visit, Xavier identified Solanum species and recurated the species. For example Solanum xanthocarpum Schrad. & H. Wendl. is now Solanum virginianum L.

 

A detailed list of synonyms, correct taxonomy and pictures of Solanceae species is available on the Solanaceae Source website.

 

Madras Christian College (MCC)

 

Madras Christian College has a beautiful campus spread over 360 acres area with a rich flora and fauna (see Fig. 1). Originally founded by Rev. John Anderson, a Missionary from the Church of Scotland, on April 3, 1837, the college recently celebrated its 178th anniversary. Anderson is known for introducing English medium education in Southern India. MCC is an autonomous college and is renowned for academic excellence and for social commitment.

 

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Fig 1. Madras Christian College, Chennai.

 

We met the faculty staff members: Dr M. Baluswami (Head-Department of Botany), Dr D Narasimhan (Associate Professor), Leslie Lawrence (Assistant Professor) and Sheeba Irwin (Research Assistant). We also had a brief chat with undergraduates and post graduate students and listened to their views on career aspirations.

 

Presidency College

 

Established in 1840, Presidency College is one of the oldest Arts College in Chennai, India. Located opposite the Marina beach in Karmalai area in Chennai, the building has very beautiful architecture (see Fig. 2). The college has various streams viz. Arts, Science, Commerce and has facilities for research leading to Ph.D. degree.

 

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Fig 2. Presidency College, Chennai Ravichandar84.

 

We looked at P.F. Fyson’s (1877–1947) botanical collections stored in the College’s herbarium (see Fig.3). Fyson was a noted botanist and educator who worked in Southern India. During the period of 1920-1925, he served as Inspector of Schools for Vishakapatnam and Ganjam districts (Andhra Pradesh). He later returned to the Presidency College and served as Principal from 1925-1932.

 

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Fig 3. PF Fyson.

 

Fyson is famous for many books and illustrated volumes that he wrote from 1912-1932.In 1912, he wrote a textbook of Botany for college students.

 

He is renowned for the first illustrated volumes of the South Indian Hills, 'The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney Hill-tops' which was published in 1915. This book has 286 illustrated pages and 483 species. This book was followed with a book on plant species from the lower elevations and notes on the Shevaory Hills in 1921. In 1932, he published 'The Flora of the South Indian Hill Stations', which covered 877 species.  Besides these, he also wrote a book on Madras flowers - illustrated 100 plates, a monograph on the genus Eriocaulon and a Flora of the South Indian Hills.

 

In his honour, the Presidency College, Chennai has instituted 'The Fyson Prize' for work in the area of Natural Sciences. 

 

Theosophical Society at Adyar, Chennai

 

Founded in 1875 in New York, the International Headquarters moved to Adyar, Chennai in 1882. The main aim of this body is universal brotherhood and the members are united to learn the purpose of existence through, self-responsibility, study, reflection and loving service.

 

Located between the Adyar River and the coast, the society is spread in 100-hectare grounds and provide a green, peaceful, vehicle-free retreat from the city. One can wander through the native and introduced flora, including a 400 year old banyan tree. Some of the plants that we saw in the garden and will not forget include the Sandbox tree, also known as Dynamite tree (see Fig. 4).

 

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Fig 4. Hura crepitans, commonly known as sandbox tree.

 

Botanically, this plant is known as Hura crepitans belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family and the Cannon Ball tree - botanically known as Couroupita guianensis belonging to Lecthidaceae family (see Fig. 5a, b).

 

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Fig 5a. Fruits of Couroupita guianensis, commonly known as cannon ball tree.


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Fig 5b. Flower of Couroupita guianensis commonly known as cannon ball tree.

 

The French Institute at Pondicherry

 

Inaugurated after the cessation of French Territories to India in 1955 (i.e. the 5 cities of Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanaon, Mahé and Chandannagar), the French Institute of Pondicherry is very active in the study of South Indian civilisation and culture. Since the 60s, it has also developed an important ecology department, specialised in collecting information on the evolution of the environment in South India. From this time, the researchers of the Institute have constituted a herbarium which counts today more than 24,000 specimens.

 

Xavier visited the herbarium, annotated and databased all the Solanacae specimens present in the collections (more than a 100). This trip to Pondicherry has been also an ideal occasion to exchange contacts with the French and Indian researchers working there on various aspect of the Indian flora (mostly forest ecology), and Xavier has presented his research project during a conference. During a short tour at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden with Soupramanien Aravajy, the most knowledgeable botanist of the IFP, we were happy to find, hidden in the bushes, the small (and terribly spiny!) Solanum trilobatum L. (see Fig. 10).

 

After three days of work in this quiet and beautiful “Petite France”, it was difficult to come back to busy Chennai…

 

Besides visiting the Institutes, we also visited some historic temples in Chennai, Coimbatore, Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) and Madurai belonging to the Chola and Pallava dynasty (around 3rd to 6th century C.E.). We were amazed with the absolute beauty of architectural designs. It was sweltering hot in India with temperatures around 38-40 degrees centigrade but the food was delicious with so many varieties of Kathrik kai (brinjal) (see Figs. 6a & 6b), Valai palam (banana) and the lovely chutneys made from Takali (tomatoes) and puli (tamarind).  We had rice Arisi (rice) for lunch and dinner, lots of keerai (leafy vegetables) and tanni (water) to keep us hydrated!

 

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Fig. 6a. Solanum torvum( sundaikkai) sold in the market.

 

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Fig 6b. Brinjal varieties sold in the market.

 

As our journey came to an end, we would like to reflect on the memorable wander to the Nilgiris, the picturesque memories for years to linger including the highest Peak Point 'Doddabetta' in the Nilgiri Mountains at 2367 metres (8650 feet). This is where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet (see Fig. 7). The endless vibrant greenery of the tea estates (see Fig. 8) (wonder what it must be like when there were undisturbed forests) and the beautiful architectural buildings of the various temples and palaces.

 

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Fig. 7. Doddabetta Peak (highest point 2637m, where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet).

 

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Fig. 8. Tea plantation in the Nilgiris.

 

We would like to convey our warm Nandri (Thank you- in Tamil) and gratitude to all the staff at various Institutes. A special Nandri to Dr D.Narasimhan at MCC, Dr V Sampath Kumar, Dr G V S Murthy, Dr Beniamim, G. Gyanansekaharan and Kannamani at BSI for all the hospitality and help (see Fig. 9).

 

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Fig. 9. Staff at BSI Coimbatore office.

 

 

Great way to collaborate and open the boundaries! Come on India.

 

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Fig. 10. Solanum trilobatum L., growing along the path, Pondicherry Botanical Garden.

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Our trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have now finished Phase 1 of their programme and are busy working on Phase 2. During Phase 1 they had the opportunity for a fantastic introduction to the work and collections of the Museum as well as an introduction to biological recording and collections principles.

 

In Phase 2 they will be focussing more on their identification skills through a series of workshops as well as getting involved in the work of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. In this blog post Anthony gives an overview of their experiences in Phase 1 as well as looking forward to some of the work he will be doing in Phase 2.

 

Prior to starting on the ID Trainers for the Future programme, I have already been lucky enough to work at the Museum as a Science Educator for over 4 years and, through my new role as a trainee in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, I have been given the opportunity to develop new skills, gain experience of practical field work and wildlife recording. Most of all, I have glimpsed the wonderful - exploring the Museum's scientifically, historically and culturally significant collections behind the scenes.

 

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ID Trainees and colleagues from the AMC discovering the Hans Sloane Herbarium

 

I couldn't have asked for a better welcome in the AMC, and the programme for the first phase has been a thoroughly engaging mix of professional development and collections-based training. Besides learning the craft of pinning and identifying insects, I have recieved training on organising field work, field work first aid and how to handle and use biological data with expertise from the National Biodiversity Network.

 

Online recording systems such as iSpot and iRecord encourage the public to share and record their wildlife sightings and, through a practical session with Martin Harvey from the Open University, I created a working identification key to Damselflies, one of my favourite insect groups. You can use the identification keys on iSpot to identify anything from butterflies to lichens, so go on and have a go yourself at www.ispotnature.org.

 

With such lovely Spring weather recently we've been let loose to collect and record wildlfie from the Museum's own Wildlife Garden which is currently buzzing with insects and the melodies of British songbirds. Late night newt surveying in the Garden was a real highlight so far. The Garden is a haven for thousands of British plants and animals and demonstrates wildlife conservation in the inner city. Over 2,000 species have been identified in the Garden since it opened in 1995.

 

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Katy Potts, an ID Trainee, surveying for newts in the Wildlife Garden

 

The AMC works hard to encourage people to become 'citizen scientists' to explore, identify and record the wildlife they see, and this plays a key role in the monitoring of and recording of UK biodiversity. This helps researchers see how species are adapting with climate change and human activity. There are several brilliant Citizen Science projects that you yourself can get involved with, the most recent from the Museum being The Microverse and Orchid Observers. If you want to find out more and see new projects when they come on stream, keep an eye on the Take Part section of the website.

 

Part of my traineeship will involve championing a Citizen Science project. Growing up near the sea in Devon I have a passion for exploring marine life so I was delighted to find out that I'll be working as part of a team to enhance the Museum's Big Seaweed Search. The UK's coast is rich in seaweeds because of its geographical position and warming by the gulf stream, which means it is in a perfect 'golidlocks' zone.

 

An astounding 650 seaweed species can be found off the UK coastline and according to Professor Juliet Brodie, an expert on seaweeds at the Museum, seaweed coverage is so great that they are as abundant as the entire broadleaf forests combined. Seaweeds - like plants on land - photosynthesise; turning the sun's energy into food, removing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Seaweeds therefore play a vital role in the functioning of the marine environment.

 

The Big Seaweed Search was launched in 2009 and we aim to inform scientific research by allowing the public to record and identify seaweeds that they find. By mapping the national distribution of 12 seaweed species, we hope to see changes over time, perhaps in response to climate change, or the spread of non-native species. With the weather and tides at this time of year it's perfect for exploring rock pools, so download our survey and join our Big Seaweed Search!

 

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Anthony inspiring others about seaweeds at this year's Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, which took place on the first weekend of May

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A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Rachel Clark writes about their final day in the field.


25 July 2014

 

Today was the last day of sampling and we all loved it! Unfortunately Sara had to leave today, so we took the final photograph of us all together before we set off for sampling.

 

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All of us looking a little more tanned than when we arrived. Front row (left to right): Jan, Ryan, Fez, Georgie and Sara. Back row (left to right): Rachel, Thomas, George, Miranda and Beau.

 

Every evening this week we've been preparing the specimens we collected back at the field centre, and it's fiddly work!

 

The new age of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

 

Some of the specimens collected during our fieldwork are destined for the Museum’s new Molecular Collections Facility (MRF), where they will be stored in liquid nitrogen at −150 °C to form a collection that can be used by scientists worldwide who want to study the DNA and other cellular contents of the species in question.

 

Over three evenings, after our lovely cooked meal served by Shaun from the FSC, two groups of four carefully collected tissue samples from freshly killed specimens.

 

The sample tissue (often the legs) were put into special small plastic vials then placed into liquid nitrogen vapour in a dry shipper, which freezes and preserves them.

 

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Left: the small vials which contain tissue samples. Right: a dry shipper with nitrogen vapour inside.

 

In total we spent 49.5 person-hours over three days preparing the samples from 220 specimens, each sample taking on average 14 minutes to process. We tried to ensure that we only collected a maximum of two of each species - all being larger invertebrates (flies, grasshoppers, wasps, spiders etc).

 

Our last site!

 

While some enjoyed sweeping, pootering and collecting butterflies, two of us (Miranda and I) went in search for a new site on the lake to put down yellow pan traps. We ended up on the edge of Slapton village - a four-mile round trip!

 

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The large, miles-long Slapton Ley!

 

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The beautiful walkway created by the FSC, which runs through the swamp fen in the south grounds of the Nature Reserve.

 

We did get some amazing views and got to sample right in the middle of Slapton’s Swamp Fen, which is something we would not have achieved! The photograph above shows just how big the Ley is: miles!

 

Our last Supper


In the evening we headed off to our last dinner together before we packed up to head home. This was held in the main FSC centre in Slapton.

We would like to say a massive thank you for the staff that looked after our stomachs during our time in Slapton, and particularly Shaun who was there every day serving us breakfast and dinner!

 

Thank you for reading - I hope you have enjoyed our blogging!

Rachel

 

Goodbye beautiful Slapton!

 

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The sun setting over Devon, from the field across from our base, Start Bay Centre.

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A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Rachel Clark writes about their second day in the field, including the range of traps they use to collect insects.


For the last two nights we have been putting out Ryan’s light trap. The trap runs all night and collects invertebrates such as moths, flies, beetles and wasps, which are especially attracted to the bright light - with a high ultraviolet component it is much more powerful than a household light bulb.

 

You can pooter specimens from around the trap while it is on, but you can also leave the insects in the trap overnight and take a look in the morning.

 

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Ryan and Thomas looking at what is flying around the light trap.

 

During our moth-trapping we collected a range of species, including Poplar and elephant hawk-moths, rosy footman, buff-tip, common footman, drinker moth and magpie moth... to name a few.

 

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Left to right; buff-tip, rosy footman and poplar hawk-moth which were found in the light trap.

 

We also used a method known as sweeping, which as the name suggests is sweeping a net in a figure-of-eight through vegetation. The net catches the invertebrates and they can then be pootered out of the net bag.

 

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Left: Jan teaching us how to use a sweep net. Right: Jan demonstrating how to pooter/aspirate effectively.

 

Jan provided an excellent demonstration for all of us on our first day of sampling; we are all now brilliant at sweeping in a figure-of-eight!

 

Later on some of us went to great lengths to collect some samples, including taking a paddle in the lake, which contains leeches!

 

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Left: some adventurous collectors searching the reeds for specimens. Right: a mass of leeches found under a rock (as well as on our skin).

 

With that I will leave you with a beautiful scenic picture from the Ley!

Thank you for reading.

Rachel

 

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Taken at the lake as the day draws in.

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A team of Museum scientists and volunteers visited Slapton Ley Nature Reserve between 21-25 July to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Volunteer Rachel Clark reports back on their first day in the field.

 

Our first day of fieldwork mainly focused on a range of microhabitats in Slapton Woods, which is a short 10 minute walk from our base camp (Start Bay Centre).

 

Slapton Woods is ancient woodland located on the edge of Slapton Ley Nature Reserve, inland from the lake and the sea. The woodland has been around so long that is it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Before the Field Studies Council (FSC) started to maintain the woodland (which they do only for public safety), it was largely unmanaged.

 

img1.jpgAnd so our first day of collecting started, deep in the amazing ancient woodland of Slapton Woods.

 

Now personally at this moment I felt like I was walking in the footsteps of great biologists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, and Henry Walter Bates... there are so many! I was so excited I could have danced through the woods. Raring to go with my backpack, pooter (that’s a suction device) and net, I caught up with everyone and we began to sample.

 

Working with creepy crawlies of the soil


Now this is an area which I know a lot more about, the sampling of invertebrates in the leaf litter and soil. Before we had a chance to get our bearings in the woods, Miranda, Georgie, Beau and myself got to work on some rotting logs.

 

img2.jpgBeau searching under some rotting logs for some good specimens for us to collect.

 

We were looking for groups like isopods (woodlice) and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes). This is done by opening up the rotting wood to expose the species which have burrowed into the wood.

 

It's all about the unknown - Malaise traps and yellow pan traps


So today, after a good few years sorting Malaise trap specimens in the Museum’s Soil Biodiversity lab, I finally got to see how Malaise traps work, which for me was really useful, as it means I can understand how the specimens were collected. 

 

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Thomas putting the final peg in the Malaise trap, a device that captures winged insects.

 

Malaise traps collect species of insects which fly such as Diptera (flies) and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps). They work by allowing the insects to fly under a tented area. They hit the netting that runs down the middle of the trap and then fall to the floor or hang on the netting. All winged insects after falling to the floor want to fly or climb upwards The Malaise trap directs them up towards the highest point where there is a funnel leading into to a pot containing ethanol – which quickly kills them.

 

We will be keeping our Malaise traps up until Thursday evening, when we will take them down and hopefully have an amazing bounty which will take very many hours to sort to order (Diptera, Hymenoptera etc).

 

What we did after we finished sampling for the day

 

After all the excitement and seriousness of sampling in the heat all day, we all have to find a way to relax and unwind… my personal favourite for celebrating a first successful day of sampling is to jump into the sea… fully clothed!

 

img4.jpgGoing, going, gone! Running in to the clear beautiful sea at Slapton Beach… yes, fully clothed!

 

img5.jpgGeorgie enjoying the entertainment and me having a relaxing moment floating in the warm sea.

 

Moth traps and sweep net collecting in the next blog piece, so stay tuned.

 

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

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A team of Museum scientists and volunteers are in Slapton Ley Nature Reserve this week to sample invertebrates from a variety of habitats. Volunteer Rachel Clark reports back on their first day and plans for the week ahead.

 

Day one - the road to Slapton


An early start was made by all ten of us today to arrive at the Museum nice and early. Before 10am it's still a place buzzing with activity as scientists work and front-of-house and retail staff prepare for some of the 4 million people who come through our doors into the Museum.

 

Soon enough we were leaving London behind and heading off for the sunny coasts of Devon and our field site.

 

All about Slapton Ley Nature Reserve


Slapton Ley Nature Reserve is in Devon, near Dartmouth in the South West of England. The reserve is an area of biodiversity importance as it is a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) with a rich coastal heritage. The lake in the nature reserve is separated from the sea by a thin band of land, with a lovely beach too!

 

With this in mind and the recent headlines during the winter, sampling places like Slapton Ley Nature Reserve is more important than ever as sooner rather than later the environment will be claimed by the sea.

 

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A view of the Slapton Ley Nature Reserve to the right showing the size of the lake and the surrounding woodland and cliffs (some of which we will survey this week), and the gorgeous blue sea to the left.


Slapton Ley Nature Reserve has been studied well by scientists in certain areas such as bats and birds, but the invertebrates in the area are under-recorded. Jan Beccaloni found this out earlier in the year and believed it was time to do something about it!

 

Why and what we're sampling

 

We are sampling for collections enhancement and to provide species records to the Fields Studies Council (FSC). The habitats we will be sampling are a range of natural and semi-natural habitats, including woodland, cliffs, grassland, open water and banks.

 

The invertebrates we are collecting include:

  • Arachnids (spiders and their relatives)
  • Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps)
  • Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)
  • Diptera (flies)
  • Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets)
  • Isopoda (woodlice)
  • Myriapods (millipedes and centipedes)

 

Now the serious explaining is over, time for the fun of the adventure! 

 

The long journey


First I must say a big thank you to Jan Beccaloni for driving us down to Slapton, Thomas our Hymenoptera specialist for driving down the bags and equipment in his amazing 40-year-old Land Rover, and last but not least Georgie for directing us.  

 

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Georgie navigating while enjoying a ride in a classic Land Rover.

 

I personally tried to use the time to catch up on some podcasts on my iPhone which are over a year old, including one on Alfred Russel Wallace and the Birds of Paradise... I fell asleep twice! It was a 8 hour drive, though we all had a brilliant laugh in the mini bus throughout the day and got to know each other.

 

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The bright and breezy (at a petrol station!). Left to right: Beau, Fevziye (Fez), Sara, Thomas, Ryan, Jan, Georgie, George, Miranda and Rachel).

 

We passed one famous landmark, Stonehenge, very slowly which gave everyone a chance to take photos and we also passed some impressive fields with what looked to be hundreds of bales waiting to be taken into storage. We finally arrived in Slapton at our base camp of Start Bay FSC Centre at 19:00 (ish) hours with a lovely meal waiting for us ready prepared by the amazing staff at Slapton.

 

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A busy Stonehenge on a sunny summers day, it wasn’t only busy there... it was busy on the road running past!

 

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The mass of hay bales we encountered on our travels.

 

Some of us (myself included) were so eager to start collecting we set up a moth trap before heading off to bed. Well, that was the plan, some of us stayed up until gone past midnight looking at our catch. We plan to set it up tomorrow night and will write about it in a following post.

 

Hope you have enjoyed the excitement of our long journey! Bigger and better things to come!

 

Thank you for reading

Rachel 

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Before I tell you about our time in the lab, I thought I would share with you another video taken by Paul Pearce Kelly in Cuc-Phuong. The video below is of a predatory slug species from the genus Atopos. These slugs either eat small microsnails whole or bore through larger snails' shells using their toothed, tongue-like radula.

 

 

 

After our exciting and productive time in Cuc Phuong National Park we headed back to Hanoi to process the material for frozen tissue collections. Our expedition has been jointly funded by the Natural History Museum and the Frozen Ark, and one of our aims is to collect frozen tissue material and viable cells.

 

The Frozen Ark was set up in 1996 and is run by a consortium of 22 universities, museums, zoos and aquaria from 8 different countries, with the aim to conserve frozen cells containing DNA from endangered animals before they go extinct. Since many limestone habitats are under threat from the construction industry (the limestone is used in the manufacture of cement and other building materials), we decided that terrestrial molluscs would be a great addition to the Frozen Ark collections.

 

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Chris preparing tissue whilst Jackie puts the samples on ice.

 

The specimens used for these processess have been brought back from Cuc-Phuong live, to be processed in the laboratory. For the frozen tissue samples, small slices of the foot of the snail (the part it moves on) are placed in sterile tubes and frozen at -80 degrees Celsius. These samples will hopefully yield high quality DNA. Five multiple sets are stored for our current research, long term Museum storage, the Frozen Ark in London, the Frozen Ark in Nottingham and for the Frozen Ark in Vietnam.

 

The viable cell preparations are also taken from tissue samples but they are mashed up in an antibiotic solution (to prevent damage by bacteria etc.), and then mixed with a buffer chemical so that as the tissues are frozen, again at -80 degres Celcius, the cells will not fracture and will remain whole. It is hoped that future technology will allow us to use these cells and the genetic content within to re-create and re-introduce extinct species.

 

lab.JPG(L-R) Jackie, Chris and Fred hard at work on the cold-chain-gang (sorry terrible molecular joke).

 

The two experts in our group helping us with these processes are Jackie Mackenzie-Dodds and Dr. Chris Wade, who are both on the advisory board of the Frozen Ark. Jackie is the collections manager of the molecular and frozen tissue collections at the Museum, and Chris is a lecturer of genetics and a molecular biologist at Nottingham University. I'm glad they are both here as the frozen tissue preparations are complex and intricate and I have never done anything like this before.

 

We have spent the last few days collecting in Huu Lien Nature Reserve and tomorrow will be our last day collecting in the field so in my next blog I'll be telling you all about the strange and wonderful things we have found, and a little about our last few days in Hanoi.

 

Fruit for Thought

 

As well as the delicious savoury dishes we have been sampling a wealth of unusual (at least to me) fruit. My favourite has to be the Rambutan, a egg-sized red fruit covered in green hairs. I'm afraid I don't have any pictures because I ate them all before I thought to take a photo so you'll have to Google them. They taste a bit like a grape but are sweeter and juicier - delicious.

 

fruit.JPGPersimmon (the red fruit) and Guava's (the green ones) with a little lotus tea - what a lovely afternoon treat.

 

We've also been eating ...

 

Pomelo - a sharp citrus fruit with a grapefruit-like taste

Guava - like a tropical quince

Persimmon - a bit like across bewteen a plum and a tomato, much nicer than it sounds

Longans - like large lychees but sweeter

Forest Bananas - shorter but wider than our usual bananas, tastes earthier and banana-ery if that makes any sense

Jicama - a tuber that tastes like apple and is often served with savoury courses

 

Bite Me

 

0 Leech bites ... all though I have a funny feeling this may change tomorrow as it is due to be a stormy evening

12 mosquito bites

Ant bites, fading and almost gone

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We've been amazed by the amount and diversity of snail species in Cuc Phuong. We knew it was rich but we have found so many new and exciting species that we are struggling to process all the material (a good problem to have). The weather has improved slightly (good for us) but the ground and leaf litter is still really damp for collecting (good for the snails, everyone wins!).

 

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Limestone outcrops in Cuc Phuong National Park, the perfect habitat for a snail hunt.

 

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Megaustenia sp. is a semi-slug, see how the body (also called the mantle) almost completely covers the shell.

 

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I can't wait to get back to the Museum to try and identify this large, keeled Camaenid.

 

 

Paul Pearce Kelly, the Senior Curator of Invertebrates and Lower Vertebrates at London Zoo, is joining us on field work for the first time. His aim (apart from helping us to collect snails) is to build up links with different groups in Vietnam to help conserve and study threatened species.

 

After finding some thought-to-be-extinct snails on our Vietnam trip in 2012, we hope that Paul, in conjunction with the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, will be able to set up a breeding programme to protect them against threats in future. As well as helping us collect, Paul took some great videos of animals alive in the field and he has kindly let me share them with you in my blog. In this one you can see the as yet unidentified  'looping snail':

 

 

 

The as yet unidentified 'looping snail'. See how only a small portion of the foot is in contact with the rock at any one time.

 

Another member of our group I'd like to introduce to you to is Jonathan Fenn, a biology placement student from Manchester University. Jonathan has been working with Fred and I for the past year on producing an illustrated guide of the slugs and snails of Northern Vietnam, as well as a species list with distribution data for terrestrial molluscs across the whole of Vietnam. The aim of the trip is to teach Jonathan more about fieldwork, collecting and preserving snails, and to gain experience in preserving viable cells (which I will discuss in my next blog).

 

sang-paul-jonathan.jpgSang van Pham and Paul Pearce Kelly (left) in the national park, and Jonathan Fenn in collecting mode.

 

As well as snails, the forests and local areas are home to an amazing array of different animals. One of my favourites (not including the enormous spider that lives in my toilet, didn't think you would want a picture of that) was the praying mantis species I found outside my bedroom (see below). Sadly I missed the Vine Snake (Ahaetulla sp.) that my co-workers found when searching the trees for snails.

 

Praying mantis.

"What you lookin' at?"

 

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So gutted I missed this Vine Snake (Ahaetulla sp.), what a beauty!

 

Since we'd all been working so hard we decided we deserved a visit to the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC) in Cuc Phuong National Park. The centre was established in 1993 and is dedicated to the rehabilitation, breeding and research of endangered primates as well as the protection of their habitats. The EPRC is home to over 150 primates from 15 Vietnamese species, including lorises, langurs and gibbons. My favourites were the wonderfully playful Gray Shanked Douc Langurs.


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Grey Shanked Douc Langur family (Pygathrix cinerea), a critically endangered species endemic to Vietnam.


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Some of the team with Liam Shepheard (centre in Green T-shirt), one of the head animal keepers at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center.

 

Our guide for the afternoon was Liam Shepheard, head animal keeper, who showed us the remarkable centre and told us about the amazing work they do in rescuing and when possible re-introducing animals back in to the wild. One species of Laotian Langur (Trachypithecus laotum) named 'Airport' is the only individual of its kind in captivity and is thought to be critically endangered in the wild. At times the stories were a sad and sobering experience but the success they are having is remarkable and it was real treat to be able to see these beautiful creatures up close.

 

Carnivore and Pangolin Rescue Center

 

After meeting the directors of Cuc Phong National Park over dinner the previous evening, we were invited to visit the Carnivore and Pangolin Rescue Center, a massive privilege as this is not normally open to the public. Many mammal species are being hunted for meat, the pet trade and in the case of the Pangolin, for Chinese medicine (the scales are used in medicines and the meat is regarded as a, ahem, male performance enhancer). The centre was set up to rescue illegally found animals and to develop techniques and procedures to allow the rehabilitation, breeding and reintroduction of such species back in to the wild.

 

We visited the centre at night, which is the best time to see the majority of the animals. Pangolins are my favourite mammal and I have never seen one before so this was a real highlight for me. The animal we met was called 'Lucky', a Sunda Pangolin who had been saved from captivity but who was sadly too tame to be re-introduced.

 

A Binturong.

The Binturong (Arctictis binturong) - the cutest thing I have ever seen. Numbers have dropped due to hunting.

 

Sunda Pangolin.

A Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) rescued from an illegal trader but sadly too tame to be released.

 

I also got to see another favourite of mine, the Binturong, a south-east Asian mammal related to civets whose numbers have been declining in the region due to threats from poachers.

 

A Few Thoughts from my Stomach

 

We have had some delicious and some challenging food in the last few days. Fried mixed mushrooms and chilli roasted chicken have been superb, whereas mixed offal and pak choi soup was something I am keen to avoid in the future (and I like offal). But today I thought I would tell you a bit about some of the mealtime extras I have enjoyed.

 

Nước chấm is the name of a group of dipping sauces that are commonly served with meals that have a fish sauce base, often mixed with garlic, bird's eye chillis, garlic and sugar, with the precise mixture depending on the region. This sauce is, I think, delicious with morning glory and .. well, actually pretty much anything although a few of our group find it a bit overpowering (I would take some home but it is prohibited by most airlines as if it leaks it tends to smell forever!)

 

At the behest of our Vietnamese colleagues of course, we like to round the day off with a glass or two of Mountain Apple Brandy. The precise ingredients of this sour but delicious beverage are a closely guarded secret, and it is homemade by the wife of our driver, Mr. Kiem. I have however managed to find out that it contains a sour apple-like fruit, rice wine, mixed berries and a selection of herbs and bark. Whatever it is I'm sold!

 

Bite Count

0 Leech Bites (I cannot tell you how happy this makes me)

8 Mosquito Bites (in total, 5 new ones)

More Ant bites than a man should ever have to deal with! Itchy does not even come close.

1

Hello again - I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that we have all arrived safely in Hanoi. It's a hot and humid 25 degrees here but there has been constant heavy rain since we arrived and it looks set to continue for the next week or so. Whilst this may not sound ideal it is great weather for collecting slugs and snails as the wet weather tends to bring them out of their hiding places in the soil and the leaf litter, making them far less difficult to find and collect.

 

 

jackie rain.JPGJackie and Jonathan walk back in the rain .. how Hanoi-ing (sorry I love a bad pun).

 

Our first visit of today was to the Vietnam National Museum of Nature where we met the new director, Profesor Nguyen Dinh Cong and other senior staff members, and were given a tour of the new and soon to be opened exhibition spaces.

 

The museum opened in 2004, and houses over 40,000 animal, plant, fossil and geologicical specimens. The staff are heavily involved in studying the biodivertsity of Vietnam and promoting its importance for science and conservation, as well as in educating the local community about the natural history of Vietnam, the research and the collections that it houses.

 

We spent the afternoon sorting out all our collecting equipment that we need when working in the field. It's a bit like moving house packing boxes, and labeling them so that we can find everything easily when we arrive. It's good to find that everything we needed has arrived safely but I'm a bit worried about how we are going to fit it all in to our van.

 

Expert collectors

 

This seems as good place as ever to introduce you to one of the members of our team, Sang van Pham, who has previously joined us on our collecting trips in 2011 and 2012. Sang works in the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, primarily on the preservation and preparation of specimens for the collections and exhibitions, but on our trips he has become an expert in finding the smaller species that are often missed by the untrained eye.

 

During previous visits we have been helping to train Sang in the collection, identification and preservation of land snails, and Sang's knowledge of the biodiversity and ecology of Vietnam has been a great help in helping us to plan where we should sample on our various trips in Vietnam.

 

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Sang van Pham sorting and preserving specimen in Vietnam in 2011.

 

The second member of our team I would like to introduce is Fred Naggs. Fred is the leader of the expedition and Biodiversity Officer at the Natural History Museum. His main area of interest is the diversity of terrestrial land snails in south-east Asia and India, and finding out how these species have spread over time and the factors which ave influenced their distribution.

 

Fred has a lot of experience in identifying and collecting snails in the tropics and always seems to know the best places to search. Although it seems to me that if this 'best place' is in an area that is hard to reach or excessively muddy it is me who is sent off to do the collecting whilst Fred stands in the dry shouting "left a bit" ... "no not that one" ... "just a bit higher" and other useful phrases.

 

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Fred Naggs collecting snails in Sri Lanka.

 

Tomorrow we have an early start as we are traveling to Cuc Phuong National Park, 100 miles south-west of Hanoi, where we can start our fieldwork proper. I'm a little hesitant as the constant rain means the likelihood of being intimately attached (literally) to the local leech population is a likely occurrence.

 

Food update

 

On a side note, as someone who is mildly obssessed with food, good things I have eaten in the last 24 hours include:

 

  • Bun-Cha: A Hanoian delicacy of grilled pork and noodles flavoured with mint, basil and a sweet sticky sauce.
  • Bánh xèo: A Vietnamese pancake of pork, prawns, bean sprouts and rice batter wrapped up in a lettuce leaf - messy but delicious.
  • Pho: Traditional beef noodle soup for breakfast, one of the (non-science) things I was most looking forward to on this trip (much tastier than cereal!).

 

Anyway, internet-availability depending, I hope to report back soon on our first day in the national park and let you know how our initial collecting went.