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We arrived in Cuc Phuong National Park on Friday afternoon. Set up in 1962, the park is the oldest in Vietnam and covers an area of over 22,200 ha. It is home to more than 2,000 species of trees, 110 species of reptiles and amphibians, 308 species of bird and 125 species of mammal, including the Clouded Leopard, Delacour's Langur, Owston's Civet and the Asian Black Bear.

 

Since the national park is so rich in snail diversity we could barely wait to start collecting and bagged our first few specimens as we excitedly stepped out of our van. After a hearty meal (more later) and a good night's sleep under our mosquito nets we were ready to head out into the field. Our first collecting site was a limestone outcrop, which also contains an archaeological cave where human tools and remains dating to over 7,500 years ago have been recovered.

 

Chasing Snails

 

Collecting snails is harder than it sounds, as we have to make sure we get specimens that live in soil and leaf litter, on the rocks and stones, in the trees and on vegetation. In the hot and humid conditions of the tropics this is difficult and sweaty work, but at least when we do find them they aren't too hard to catch.

instructer Frd.jpgFred Naggs (R) gives Hao Luongvan (L), Mr Kiem, our driver (C), and myself a quick Iecture.

 

On our first day we found an amazing variety of specimens, from microsnails less than 1mm tall that hide in the crevices of the limestone rock face, to larger and often strikingly coloured species. One of my favouites was the white form of Camaena gabriellae (pictured below left) which we found crawling on the bark of trees and managed to catch by knocking them with a stick in to a traditional conical Vietnamese hat, which did the job perfectly.

 

I am also particularly fond of the elongate group of snails called the Clausiliidae (pictured below right), which are found on limestone in large numbers, their bodies barely peaking beyond the shells as they graze on lichens and algae.

 

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Species found on day one include Camaena gabriellae (L) and Tropidauchenia sp. from the Clausillidae (R).

 

Today I would like to introduce you to another Vietnamese member of our team, Mr Hao Luongvan (pictured in first image). Hao works for the Forestry Commision and is based in Hoang Lien National Park, Sapa in northen Vietnam. He has been studying molluscs for the last ten years.

 

We first met Hao on our visit to Cuc Phuong in 2007 and have worked closely with him ever since. Not only does he a have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the variety of habitats, plants and animals across Vietnam, but he has been instrumental in helping us gain access to different national parks and make vital links with important government and conservation departments.

 

Turtle Power

 

After a hard day's work we managed to fit in a visit to the Cuc Phuong Turtle Sanctuary. The centre was set up in 1998 as a safe area to house and breed the 19 native species of Vietnames turtles (of which 3 are found in Cuc Phuong), as well as to increase public awareness of the threats poaching poses to these amazing creatures.

 

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Terrapin in Cuc Phuong Sanctuary. Poaching is the main source of their decline.

 

The centre was really inspiring, as to date over 900 turtles have been born there from animals confiscated from illegal traders. Plus we got to sit on a life-size model of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swingoei), which can reach over a metre in length.

 

Specimen Sorting, Identification and Preservation

 

After our brief foray in to the world of chelonians it was time to get back to work. The first job is to sort all the snails into species based on shell and body shape, colour and sculpture (sculpture means the 3D surface - is it ridged, smooth or bumpy etc.). Once we have done this we choose one specimen to take a tissue sample from, and preserve this in 100% ethanol for molecular analysis.

 

snail-sorting.jpgSorting snails in the sunshine, it's a hard life ... honest.

 

We then split the remainder of the individuals into those to be preserved in 80% ethanol for anatomical analysis and those to be taken back to Hanoi alive for viable cell preservation (more on this in a future blog post). This is my favourite part of the collecting day as we get to compare what we have found and there is always something unusual or unexpected - this time we had both aplenty! On our first haul we could not believe the diversity and volume of species we managed to collect - this really is an amazing habitat for molluscs and even more exciting than usual as we think in our first day we not only have a new species or two but possibly even a new genus .... so watch this space.

 

Food For Thought

 

After a long but fruitful day it was time to retire for dinner and no blog post of mine would be complete without some mention of food. Tonight was the first time on this trip that I got to have some of my favourite Vietnamese food; a green vegetable called Morning Glory (rau muống in Vietnamese or Ipomoea aquatica in science speak). The spinach-like stems and leaves are fried in garlic and chilli and are bitter but wonderfully moreish. I ate more than I should have with fried chicken, sesame roasted pork and sumptuous sticky rice washed down with locally made Vietnamese brandy (don't ask!).

 

DSC_1016_small.JPGMorning Glory (Ipomoea aquatica) the green stuff on the left ... much nicer than it looks!

 

As I write this (in the courtyard of our accomodation with toads barking and cicadas chirping) I have just finished sorting out Sunday's specimen haul, also an impressive bounty, and I will be reporting back shortly on some new and exciting discoveries along with some of our further adventures in Cuc Phuong.

 

Biting animals update

 

As of Sunday evening (our time) I have;

0 leech bites

3 Mosquito Bites

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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.

 

sang-sorting.jpg

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.

 

fred-collecting.jpg

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.

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Today I am heading off on a plane to Vietnam. Not for a sumptuous seaside sojourn or a historic amble around Hanoi, no instead I will be on fieldwork collecting terrestrial slugs and snails in the national parks of Vietnam.


I'm Jon Ablett, curator of non-marine Mollusca and Cephalopoda at the Museum. I've been on collecting trips to Vietnam before in 2007, 2011 and 2012, but I'm really looking forward to heading back there not only for the wonderful food, landscape and people (and did I mention the food?), but also for the interesting slugs and snails that we hope to find.

Picture1_forblog.jpgCollecting snails in Vienam in 2011; definitely not a competition to see who has found the best specimen.

 

Why Vietnam? Well, Vietnam is an amazingly diverse country with a broad latitudinal range - from north to south it is over 1,000 miles long. It also has a wide altitudinal range, from over 3,000m in the Hoang Lien Mountains in northern Vietnam, to coastal lowlands and the Mekong Valley.

 

The Annamese Mountains, which run north to south between Vietnam, Laos and NE Cambodia, are the most extensive limestone hill ranges in Asia. Snails require calcium to form their shells, and as a rule snail diversity increases as the amount of calcium in the environment increases. The rich calcium limestone in these mountains provides incredibly diverse habitats for a highly diverse range of molluscan species that, until now, have barely been studied.

 

Why snails?


Apart from the fact that I am the curator in charge of the land snail (and cephalopod...) collections at the Museum, there are more recorded extinctions of land snails than for all other animal groups combined. This makes land snails a key group for recognising why and where extinctions are taking place. It also means that snails could be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of various conservation measures, by acting as sensitive indicators of environmental change.

 

Also, since the Museum has a large historical collection of slugs and snails from Vietnam, by collecting specimens over a variety of timescales we can look at changes within and between species.

Cyclophorus for blog.jpgCyclophorus sp. in leaf litter. Notice the trap door like operculum by the tail.


The aim of our work in Vietnam is to collect new terrestrial land snail material to enhance the collections of both the Natural History Museum and the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, to provide tissue samples for molecular work, and to test new collection and storage techniques for our frozen tissue collections.

 

My colleagues and co-conspirators for our fieldwork include Museum staff and students as well as scientists from Nottingham University, the Zoological Society of London, the Vietnam National Museum of Nature and the Vietnam National Park Service. I hope that throughout my time in Vietnam I can tell you a little bit about the work that will be done by me and the team, explain some of the collection and preservation techniques we use and also a little about the trials and tribulations, highlights (and lowlights?) that occur along the way.

 

I'm just off to finish up packing up my collection equipment, suncream and mosquito repellent and hopefully the next time I blog I will be settled in Hanoi with a few new stories to tell.

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IMG_0065.jpgI am excited to announce the launch of Deep Sea ID, an app for the iPhone and iPad that provides taxonomic information on over 20,000 species, over 350 beautiful high resolution images of deep-sea specimens as well as links to online taxonomic tools, sources and important references. The app is completely free and I encourage interested users to download it here.

 

The deep sea is the largest yet least-explored ecosystem on the planet. Despite low temperatures, the absence of light and limited food availability, it is home to a remarkable diversity of marine life. Deep Sea ID is designed to enable faster access to important taxonomic information on these deep-sea animals and by including high quality specimen photos we are creating a field guide that can be used to identify specimens from collected samples or from video survey.

 

The app uses the species database at the World Register of Deep Sea Species (WoRDSS) which is itself a thematic database of the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), the most up-to-date source of taxonomic information on marine life. When we update Deep Sea ID, changes from the WoRDSS and WoRMS websites will be automatically included.

 

The images in the app have been individually sourced and include many beautiful specimen photographs from both researchers and professional photographers. All copyright images are used with permission from the authors, and contact details for the photographers are provided with all images.

 

One of the most important features of the app is that all the data and images are available offline, and at high speed. This allows it to be used by deep-sea researchers during their long voyages at sea where internet access is limited. We plan to regularly update the app with more images as they become available, and we welcome any potential contributors to contact the team at the WoRDSS, the database that the app is built around.

 

The creation of this app would not have been possible without our partner organisations, including the WoRMS, and the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Funding has come from the International Network for Scientific Investigation of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP). We are also extremely grateful to all those who have contributed images so far.

 

The taxonomic information held in the WoRDSS is sourced directly from the WoRMS, which is managed by an international Steering Committee, a Board of Editors and the IT team at the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) in Belgium. Both the WoRMS and WoRDSS websites are hosted at VLIZ.

 

The species lists and images that are used to create Deep Sea ID are currently maintained at the Museum by me, Dr Adrian Glover, and at the University of Plymouth, by Dr Nicholas Higgs. At the National Oceanography Centre, Dr Tammy Horton is contributing to the species lists and co-ordinating the collation of taxonomic identification resources.

 

This is an ongoing project, and we plan regular updates to the app. We welcome corrections and contributions for the next version and if you are able to help, please get in touch.

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