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Nightshades: the paradoxical plants

Solanaum sanchez vegae

The Solanaceae are the nightshade family whose members comprise some of our favourite foods like potato and tomato, and some dangerous drugs like tobacco and deadly nightshade.

Nightshades grow all over the world and, as scientists at the Museum, we are working to understand their diversity and evolution. Come and join us in our explorations!

Nightshades: the paradoxical plants is taken from the book by our late colleague Charles B. Heiser, published in 1969.

Discover more about our favourite family of plants in the Solanaceae Source.

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Mar 13, 2015 The final Journey - last words from Peru

Here is the final installment of Dave's account of the fieldtrip to Peru. I have to say that it has been really interesting reading his musings on the trip. All of the things that we take for normal - the weird looks, the entertaining facilities, the near-death experiences, the discovery of new species - seen through new eyes has been a pleasure. So for the last time, over to Dave:

 

Out of the frying pan and back along the mighty Marañon and up, following a tributary that irrigates lush orchards - very much the oasis in the desert. Bursting through the tops of the orange trees, and we were climbing again, up the other side of the valley. Not having to drive I could enjoy the views of where we'd come from, and the ribbon of green where the little river had ploughed a green furrow in the dusty gorge.

 

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Enjoying the views.

 

Sandy's keen eye spotted something clinging to a cliff and we stopped smartly. A single specimen of Nicotiniana glutinosa clinging lonesomely to a roadside crag. This variant of nightshade is a species of tobacco, as the name suggests, and is important as a "model organism" as it's resistant to the the tobacco mosaic virus. Useful therefore to the tobacco industry (so possibly best to leave it alone).

 

But there's no stopping the Sweep Sisters, who were already unpacked and sampling the area. The plant itself was out of reach to safely take a sweep at it, but there was no escape from The Mac, who began her assault with the hoover. She was just able to reach the tiny yellow-flowered specimen to get a suction sample. How unlucky was the fly that, of all the plants available, chose to alight on this lonely specimen that morning.

 

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that it was quite convenient for us that Solanaceae tend to colonise disturbed ground readily, as on our numerous stops we were often able to park the car and sample the area without having to hike too far into the brush.

 

Unfortunate invertebrates stashed once more, on we went. Higher, greener... greyer the skies. The prospect of rain? The road narrower still, and presently there came a tight right-hand corner, a loop where the high cliff was divided by one of the many deep, overgrown ravines where streams sliced the steep mountainsides. We stopped at Sandy's direction and wandered into the bush. So much lusher at this altitude, and to my untrained eye must be a much better prospect for mini-critters.

 

Sandy had also been employing me these past days in "DNA" duties, which consisted of picking the fruits from various solanaceae and carefully extracting the seeds for use by boffins back in London, which I did here to the best of my abilities.

 

Meanwhile, Sandy showed me a sapling - a young Solenum albidum - that to me looked a bit like a rubber plant, with its huge succulent dark-green leaves. The species grows well at mid-elevations (1,000m plus or so) round these parts. Sandy then showed me the adult plant nearby. Frankly, if this had been a human specimen I'd have suspected mummy had been a bit friendly with the milkman: the parent looked nothing like its offspring; this was a small, woody tree with small, veined, oak-shaped leaves. Sandy couldn't understand my surprise at the difference. But I suppose I have come to expect such metamorphoses in certain pupating insects - why not plants?

 

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Sandy pointing out some interesting species.

 

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Evelyn's arachnids.

 

Evelyn turned out her net to reveal two colourful-looking arachnids of respectable size.

 

Back in London the first was identified by Museum spiderwoman Jan Beccaloni as an orb-weaver, but the other remains tantalisingly unidentified many months later:

 

"That's a very interesting spider!" says Beccaloni. "It's in the family Nephilidae and most closely resembles the genus Clitaetra (one of only 4 genera), but it isn't one of the 6 species in that genus - given that they are from Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka. I don't suppose you collected it did you?"

 

We didn't - as far as we know. Perhaps Evelyn did and it is preserved in Peru rather than in Blighty. What if it was a new species? Perhaps a target for the next trip.

 

Erica was well pleased in any case with her catch, which revealed plenty of interesting new pipunculids (literally "big-headed flies"). They like hanging around plants, laying eggs in other flies (useful in pest control) and the adults dine on honeydew (like Kubla Khan). Their bulbous "holoptic" eyes take up their whole heads: they look ridiculous and frankly should be ashamed of themselves. Because of the sheer weight of their eyeballs, pipunculids have to fly head-down-tail up, like a flying exclamation mark.

 

Now it began to rain. It was extraordinary how quick the weather had changed with elevation: an hour ago we were in a dustbowl. We headed upwards as the chasms to our right yawned at us anew. Erica was on the left-hand side of the vehicle so mercifully couldn't see the juicy drops we were narrowly avoiding. As we emerged into sun-dappled uplands and mist again, we came upon a tiny, adobe and-tin-roofed cafe with a rickety balcony overlooking the valleys, where we sat out the showers and had lunch. But it turned out the day's sampling was done. By 2pm! Turns out the insects don't like the rain either.

 

We still had a ways to go, but we were able wind along the tricky bends at a relaxed pace. Erica became relatively comfortable with the precipitous drops, and we were able to plan possible sampling sites the next day. I was just enjoying the views. We breached a pass in the Cordillera de Calla Calla at 3,600m. Sandy says the pass is so named because, before the road was built, "calla calla" is what locals, carts laden with booty for the market in Celendin, would call out before turning the narrow blind bends.

 

…..

 

I now see I was playing a bit fast and loose with the task of record-keeper. I remember fondly my Dad once recounting how he and his school mates would wind up the science teacher by recording the effects of experiments in florid prose: "the aluminium lit up like brimstone, its fiery refulgence white-hot" and so on.

 

My notes, too, were drifting into the arena of the unscientific. Under the "conditions" column it reads: "sun and stratocumulus; v warm; humid, but stiff breeze; like a tart's hairdryer". Elsewhere I seem to dabble with amateur meteorology: "Hot and sunny; but some shade. Good-natured cumulus flit across the sky heading west at about 3,800m asl." "Overcast, dull, but now warm (20C+) stratus dominates. All is grey. It is like Mordor. There is a little offshore breeze."

 

Under the column method of collection, "suction" evolves into "suck", "sucking", "sucky", "socktions" and even "suctionez". I'd thought no harm could come of this, thinking it was for Erica's eyes only.  But apparently it was given to a record keeper at the Museum who wrote it all down verbatim.

 

It was my way of amusing myself in the evenings while I copied my handwritten notes into spreadsheets. What I haven't mentioned yet, scandalously, is that every evening after a day of driving and sampling we unpacked the van and that was when the real work started. Every night I did the spreadsheets, while Sandy erected her plant drier and stared sorting her haul, carefully arranging the samples and layering them in paper sheets ready to dry the sample overnight. Erica and Evelyn sorted through the numerous bags and 'kill jars' from the day's sampling, emptying each one separately on to plastic trays, the thousands upon thousands of insects in each tray then to be sorted that night and either pinned individually with microscopic pins or preserved carefully in alcohol, noting species, date, time, location in lat/longitude, then slotted carefully into little polystyrene boxes, ready for the next day.

 

This red-eyed ritual happened every night before and after dinner till about 11.30pm, sometimes later. At around 6.30am the next morning, we would repack everything into the van (my job chiefly), Sandy having been up for an hour or so already, dismantling the plant drier and packing her samples with scrupulous care. All to be loaded into other boxes for transport eventually to the UK where the real work of identification, classification, labelling and record-keeping begins. And that's just the start - when the real science starts and the project begins to bear fruit. Erica and Sandy can tell you about that in various sober academic journals, I should wager.

 

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Work continues into the evening...


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Sandy packing samples with great care.


We arrived in Leymebamba in the late afternoon.  It is a quiet and friendly country village with a tiny well-kept plaza de armas, with narrow streets leading off, lined with with adobe-brick houses with renaissance-style balconies and big weathered wooden shutters. And a lovely stone church. It had a contended feel.

 

We found a little guesthouse up a side street. It knocked all the others we'd stayed at into a cocked fedora. The accommodation we'd been staying at, taxpayers, was more than comfortable, and very cheap - about $10 a night. This was only marginally more expensive, and not what you'd call luxury,  but the rooms were more modern - clean, and with the benefit of warm water. The hostel centred round a carefully tended courtyard stuffed with pot plants and rustic local knick-knacks. In one corner a pair of hummingbirds sucked nectar from a feeder. I kid you not. The upstairs balcony opened on to an idyllic view of the higgledy-piggledy red-clay rooftops, with the Andes tumbling into the distance beyond.

 

Someone very clever decided we should stay two nights this time and use Leymebamba as a base to strike out, and I didn't complain. I could have stayed there for a week or more.

 

This would be useful as a base to discover more sampling areas in a comparatively verdant habitat. We had in any case realised that we were now about as far east as we were going to get in the time available, and any further progress would have to be north and then westward to the coast again, on rather faster roads, to complete the 700-mile loop out of the Andes - the journey overall being about 1500 miles in all.

 

But I can't recount that here. I have to cut this short or I'll be here all year... oh wait: I have been already. Such is the curse of the day job, which I am sure you will now be hoping I'll stick to.

 

But in the days that followed if there was less in the way of climbing, offroading and hair-raising cliffhugging, there was no less incident. I got behind the wheel again, so of course the driving got better (...) My notes got worse if anything. There's a lot more to tell in a separate blog, which I'll share later elsewhere. If people are nice. It shall tell of exploding hotwater tanks, ancient ruins and getting caught in landslips. There may be mention of waterfalls, crooked cops, giant wasps, pelicans and bandits. And I lost my special stick.

 

Erica and Sandy are planning their final trip for the project (with an extra botanist as driver this time). Meanwhile, Erica and her team at the Museum are still going through the samples we took on our trip nine months later. Now I know what they're doing over there I see it's worth every penny. Their dedication and expertise impressed me endlessly.

 

If I had to take away one thing from the trip it would be that how astonishingly common it was for the scientists to identify new types of both plant and animal. As Erica says: "It's so nice you get to experience this. Every time I look down a microscope of my foreign material I know that realistically, I have new species. Right now in my study I have new species. God it rocks!"

 

That's under a trained eye: how often must inexperienced eyes come across new species without knowing it? It hammered home the fact that there must be species we haven't even seen yet becoming extinct through human activity every day. The work of Sandy and Erica and others at the Museum is just a small part of the important work being done to prevent this.

 

I count myself fortunate indeed that I was invited to take part in this trip with such distinguished scientists for the world's best natural history museum (and humbled that they entrusted me with their wellbeing on roads like those). Also, thanks to Erica for allowing me to hijack her blog for the best part of a year. But that's quite enough from me. Sorry it took so long. But don't blame me - I'm just the driver.

 

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Feb 18, 2015 The penultimate journey...

It's been a while but we have now the penultimate installment of the Peruvian Adventure by Dave the driver Hall...enjoy.

 

I think that fourth night must have been the first one I've spent at 2,700m and I didn't seem any the worse for it. I tugged at the wooden shutters to see what day five on the road might have in store. Weather: acceptable for driving on dodgy roads. High, thin clouds cut with watery pastels. A shabby old town in diluted blue and sunbleached turquoise. The plaza mayor was just creaking into life. A cluster of women in straw hats held conference outside a grocer's. A policeman heaved open the giant wooden double doors of an eroded old police station, yawned, and spat.

 

I took a cold shower, dressed and started lugging trunks and sample boxes from last night's sorting. Prof. Knapp was already up (of course) dismantling the drier. The daily task of packing seemed a little more arduous this morning. Either the altitude, or the shin-barkingly steep antique stairs. The van was parked in a square pound at the back of the hotel, which looked appealingly like the OK Corral. Sandy had been a little concerned that the truck might not still be there this morning, but the locals seemed harmless enough to me, if not exactly chummy.

 

The growing light revealed our hotel to be of a certain vintage; much of the rear was semi-derelict and empty. I creaked back and forth with my boxes through creepy cavernous dusty backrooms, using the return trips to investigate dark passages and musty staircases leading nowhere, the only sounds my wheezing and the drip of an old tap. And here an appealingly dilapidated old dining room-dance hall I could imagine thronging with local revellers.

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Morning in Celendin.

 

After breakfast I took a few moments to explore the town, too. It might be old hat for the Dr Livingstones in our midst but I was unlikely to set eyes on the place again. Erica likes telling me how amusing it is reading my rhapsodic perspective on what she sees as routine grubby fieldwork: I see cascades of mountains; she sees dirty socks drying on the dashboard.

 

(Erica here - not exactly how I phrased it - he was bemoaning us for failing to see the beauty all around us - Sandy and I were concentrating on flies and spuds )

 

The market was already open for a day's easygoing trade. I ambled over. Three schoolboys kicked a burst ball to each other on the way to classes. The policeman hadn't moved. Stallholders unhurriedly erected awnings and set out their wares along the narrow thoroughfares, the alley-tunnels filled with the pungent aroma of meat, overripe fruit and hawker-stall breakfasts. I bought plump oranges and tomatoes for lunch from one of the impassively leather-faced vendors and wandered back to the hotel, ready for another day behind the wheel.

 

But no! Erica announced she'd be driving today, to 'give me a break'. The cheek. I protested firmly, in my quietest voice. This felt like cheating, but I was anticipating incredible scenery, ahead so I didn't flap.

 

(Erica again - they are long days driving- even we are not that nasty to make him drive continuously)

 

In contrast to other towns thus far it was a fair doddle finding the route out of town. Without at least two simultaneous sets of directions being offered in each ear, the going seemed somehow easier. Being fair, it wasn't hard to navigate. There was little traffic, and thanks to the colonial grid system we simply had to find the edge of the town and keep going until we hit a road going east.

 

Nevertheless, this road looked unpromising – a narrow back-street cluttered with the detritus of townsfolk's lives: bits of motorbike, smashed agricultural implements, underfed dogs...

 

But here a sign, which told us it was a mere 150km to our next stop, Leymebamba, and presently we started climbing.

 

The narrow road wound up again through foothills scarred with gold-mining quarries, many illegal. The locals had been protesting for some time, largely to deaf ears, that these mines – many sponsored by American multinationals – are polluting the water supply.

 

Above the scarred hillsides we rose... the road surface was perfect and I couldn't help thinking what an epic bike ride this would make for the stout of heart. Eventually the treeline gave way to rousing views of Celendin far below, where the light-blue double steeple of the church in the town square poked above the ramshackle rooftops. The town nestled in a half-bowl surrounded by hills. It must have looked attractive to the early Inca settlers and, unfortunately for them, the Spanish too. The head of the valley ended in an unseen drop, and far beyond were mountains whose peaks seemed oddly level with the town itself... now it was clear how high up the town was.

 

Still we climbed, this time without finding any locals to pester about their potatoes. Spying as yet no specimens, we meandered upward and upward, through rugged moorland, ever closer to the clouds that before had seemed so far off. As the sun finally renewed hostilities and the clouds began to leak a bit of sunshine, we reached a high pass of about 3,500m where a tiny village sat incongruously amid the rugged landscape, complete with a tiny football pitch and neatly planted conifers. The place had a strangely manicured feel.

 

Then, suddenly, the other side. As we breached the other side of the pass, a completely different panorama opened up. A dramatic series of valleys and mountain ranges rolled into the east, rib upon rib wreathed in mist, multiple horizons fading toward the Amazon. Somewhere to our right, far below and well beyond view, the Marañón River was thundering on its 1,700km looping journey toward the king of rivers. My head span at the spectacle. Sandy and Evelyn discussed tomatoes. Erica drove on without comment.

 

Our way wasn't getting any wider. As we wound downwards, hugging the cliffsides, the road only narrowed further. The bends were like fishhooks, and here and there were patches where the roadworks had not reached or where recent repairs had simply slid down the cliff. There were no barriers to protect motorists from the yawning 1,000-foot drops a matter of inches from the wheels. Superfluous roadsigns warned us to slow down and keep right. Erica didn't need much encouragement. Everyone in the car seemed to become silent. I tried to look far ahead to see if anything was coming the other way. We could only imagine what it must be like for lorry and bus drivers.

 

I was beginning to enjoy myself.

 

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A yawning 1,000-foot drop inches to the left.

 

In the clouds now. I like being in clouds, but it doesn't help with the driving. Breaks in the mist revealed teasing glimpses of dark, sheer mountainsides. Here and there the sun poked through and a rainbow made a perfect technicolor arch over the road.

 

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Driving through the Peruvian mountains.

 

Then just as suddenly, out of the mist, full sunshine, the scenery changing from hairpin to hairpin. We were descending toward a lush shoulder of high land, an upper valley nestled in a crown of mountains far below, dotted with tiny farmhouses and quiltwork cornfields, into which the road descended in a series of insane switchbacks. It was a perfect lost valley; a prime spot for Eldorado.

 

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A prime spot for Eldorado.

 

I still have no idea how Sandy spots specimens from the car even at the modest speeds we were achieving. But at last Prof Knapp bade us stop for our first samples amid a gradually drier landscape.

 

The sun was melting the clouds away and the morning was mellowing nicely. Nearby, an allotment of sorts, a small bungalow and what I thought were petrol pumps. The immediate area was lush, catching runoff rainwater in a small series of irrigation ditches. Prime mozzie territory, I thought. Again, parts of the area had been cleared recently – the solanum species again proving keener than mustard to move in quick on new space.

 

My ridiculous sample notes about the sampling area – for 'twas my job – read: “A small irrigation ditch is nearby and a 'petrol station' nearby also.”  I see now it was not a petrol station, but someone's dwelling, but their toilets seemed public enough at the time.

 

Sandy and the Fly Girls exited, rummaged in the back for Sucky and Sweep, then set off into the undergrowth. Evelyn swished gamely. Erica bothered a bush. I made notes. Sandy snagged some excellent samples of Solanum dilleni. I went to the toilet again.

 

(Erica once more - many conversations on fieldtrips revolve around toilets - how often you need to go, the facilities etc)

 

On we went. As we sank riverwards, hopes rose in the back of the truck that the ever-more arid terrain may harbour the tomato relatives we had encountered in similar habitats earlier in the trip: habrochaites perhaps. It was getting drier and drier. I prefer the lush stuff up in the mountains.

 

We fairly freewheeled to the next stop a couple of miles hence, where a sharp bend in the road concealed a small clutch of solenum arcanum known from Sandy's notes to be in this location many years previously. It was still there. All manner of insects waited to be sucked from the bushes, but nearby sat a sizeable troop of Homosapiens Peruensis, taking a break from mending the road. They were much animated by the sight of Erica's immense suction apparatus. We had disturbed the species in its natural habitat, so had to bear with good grace the sniggering and what I imagined to be Spanish double entendres. The Challenges of Fieldwork.

 

My notes say we came away with some samples of “Solanum simplefolium” but, according to Google, this doesn't exist. That's a shame – I liked that name. I can only imagine it was Solanum pimpenellifolium. This sports little purple flowers and tiny tomatoes – tomatillos – which are edible. It's a really close relative of our tomatoes. Indeed, it is sometimes called a wild tomato.

 

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Some Peruvian geology.

 

Further we sank toward the Marañón in our search for tomato and potato data, through spectacular peaks and pyramids of twisted volcanic rock where lava seams poked through like ribcages, past abandoned pasture and the occasional hungry-looking donkey picking through the brush.

 

At last we reached the valley floor, at the village of Chacanto in the district of Las Balsas – gateway to the Amazonas region. It was now all firmly semi-desert, reminiscent of parts of Nevada or Utah, catching the full ferocity of the sun. It felt like being stir-fried. The river looked inviting, but the Marañón slides through at a good clip here even in the dry season. It is a mere stream compared with what it would become downstream, but the bridge that spans it is a good 100m in length. We rolled over the bridge, stopped only a few minutes for a coffee in the sleepy village, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go...

 

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The Marañón River at the bottom of the valley.

 

Erica - since writing these blog pieces we have been analysing some of the data and trying to figure out what some of the insects that we sampled are. It has taken months to do this and there have been at least 9 people so far going through the insects. many are about to be sent of to specialists across the globe. Upstairs from where I am typing this at my desk we have two people imaging some of the specimens before they are sequenced for their DNA....its a very exciting time for this project.

Jan 23, 2015 Digital Herbarium pilot - step by step

We introduced our new digital herbarium project in a previous post: with the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, we are moving 70,000 plant specimens temporarily to Picturae, a specialist company in the Netherlands, so that the herbarium sheets can be imaged in the most speedy and effective way. 

 

The images will then be sent to Suriname for transcription of the typed and hand-written information on the sheets into electronic form.  The information includes the species identification, the place and date of collection and often the collector, that can link to field notebooks and other resources. The images and data will then be accessible via online databases to scientists and conservation biologists and others for research and better understanding of plant distribution and biogeography.

 

This is what it all looked like as we packed up and got ready to go - not many people see this, so worth showing:

 

NHM_JAJ_DSC_7974.jpgThe NHM herbarium compactors

 

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and the grey cupboards on the compactors

 

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Jacek Wajer removing specimens of Dioscoreaceae (yams and related plants)

 

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And wheeling them away on a trolley

 

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Steve Cafferty preparing the transport boxes for the specimens

 

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Jacek putting the specimens into the boxes

 

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with colleague Jonathan Gregson

 

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And Jonathan fitting the boxes onto the trolleys on which they will travel to Picturae in the Netherlands

 

 

More blogs to follow as the project progresses!  #DigitalHerbarium #NHM #Kew

 

 

@KewScience @NHM_Science

 


 


Nov 18, 2014 More Peruvian adventures

So here is the next blog installment from Dave 'Dave' Hall', who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year. He apologises again for the lateness of the blog but once more his actual work got in the way of writing my blog . So without any further delay here you go...

 

Day 4: Cajamarca to Celendin

 

I would first like to reiterate that the account expressed herein is my own. My amateurish observations are a flimsy scientific account that probably fails to demonstrate either these samples’ importance or what further work subsequently will be made possible by Sandy and Erica’s project. It will leave a rich permanent legacy for generations to build on. In digging up background information on some of the species we found, I keep coming across Sandy, Segundo and Erica’s names in academic work. It goes deep.

 

I am not a morning person. Normally I creak wearily into life long after the flowers unfurl. But I began to be grateful we made such good use of our days. Being on the road by 8am began to feel like a late start. Given the distances we had to cover and the frequent stops for samples, it was essential. 

 

This Is Fieldwork, soldier.

 

Everyone seemed to have slept well, and we were in high spirits loading up. But I remembered sadly that we were a man down. We had said goodbye to Segundo at the end of the previous day. Sandy in particular had been grateful of his expertise, and we were all glad of his extraordinarily broad knowledge of the terrain. He seemed to know the entire region; all the best sampling spots – even some of the local people – intimately. Would we cope without him?

 

After a great coffee and a bad omelette, we were off.

 

We were in for a shorter ride than the previous day, so we could take our time over the samples. We negotiated the baffling one-way grid system out of Cajamarca, weaving the narrow streets between bread sellers and campesinos, mixed incongruously with smart office workers in sharp suits picking their way through the building traffic, eventually threading our way through Banos de los Incas upward into hills once again.

 

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Difficult to press: Solanum oblongifolium.

 

It was still slightly overcast as we stopped to take our first sample. Here Knapp bagged a Solanum oblongifolium – which sports “young stems and leaves variously pubescent with loose, translucent dendritic trichomes”, according to Solanaceaesource.org, (and therefore possibly Sandy, whose pictures are there from a previous Peruvian visit). It’s a fairly common shrub at altitudes above 2,000m and likes open places near pastures and roadsides. Its fruit looked to me like tiny, hard tomatoes, which they are, sort of, and they are difficult to press.

 

Sandy also bagged an Iochroma umbellatum - a rareish purple-flowered plant that has poisonous sap, rarely recorded but successfully so by one Segundo Leiva I see from one record. To top it off we snipped off a few samples from a species of Cestrum. which isn’t bad at at all for a single sample location.

 

The fly camp did equally as well here; Erica and Evelyn showing great dedication as they scrambled down a steep bank after their quarry, rummaging in the bushes, pooter wheezing. Dozens of fly species met their doom (which they are still sorting out I might add) along with numerous parasitic wasps, beetles and even a stick insect, which escaped.

 

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The bushes sometimes have a habit of fighting back...


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Erica reemerged covered in matter, mostly insects, seeds and pollen.

 

I contented myself record-keeping and observing a striking hummingbird fluttering about the treetops. 

 

On we went, winding steadily upwards through quite fertile, mostly arable landscape at a gentle, solanum-spotting pace until, barely an hour later, above the little town of Encanada, Sandy loudly expressed an interest in stopping. I did so smartly. Sandy had spotted what we thought must be another rarity – could this be a new species again?

 

She soon emerged from a farmer’s field with what appeared to me to be a domestic potato. As if to confirm this, on the other side of the road, three local people in Quechua gear were tending to their very own field of potatoes, filling hessian sacks full of plump spuds. While Sandy went to talk tubers with the locals, the ‘E’-team whipped out the nets and the positron collider for a short suction sample.

 

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Sandy talking tubers with the locals.

 

Then Evelyn and Erica joined Sandy for a jolly chat and a rummage about the spuds. Apparently if we wanted a sample of potatoes, the two women wanted sweets. Erica obliged. Later I discovered Erica had obliged with the sweets I had bought for the office. Bargaining “chips” if you will.

 

Meanwhile I, as the least-accomplished Spanish speaker among us, “guarded” the car, while nearby, a solemn tethered bull chewed dispassionately.

 

The sun was breaking through as we set off again. The sun was well past halfway; intermittent bursts of it felt quite powerful when the clouds broke. The arable land was giving way to more typical high Andean scrub and grassland. The scenery was as spectacular as the roads were narrow.

 

Did I mention the roads were narrow? And in sections, bits of it were falling away at the edges. Must be why the guide book, with its entire half-page devoted to this route, deters tourists from taking this “road less travelled” in the wet season.

 

Yet, in fairness, efforts had recently been made to patch it up. As we progressed, we often passed workmen replacing the surface. Nevertheless, the drops on Erica’s side of the vehicle were exhilarating, but Erica had a funny way of expressing it, especially when I suggested getting a closer look.

 

My “field notes” record “periods of bright sunshine; v warm, but clumps of cumulus congestus aren’t far away.” We found ourselves in the congestus before long as we reached a pass some 3,700m up. That’s about as high as I’ve been without a fuselage around me – how exciting. 

 

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Following historical data on previous locations of solanum, Sandy directed us off the road and up a muddy track. After I had backed The Beast (aka Freddy - Erica Here - both Sandy and I tried to win Dave around to Freddy but Dave was not having it and referred the whole time to him as the Beast - jealousy is ugly) clumsily into an open gate, the equipment was once again unpacked and the entomologas poked around the foliage as a little brook babbled nearby.

 

I busied myself with lunch duties, piling up the now-ubiquitous avocado, cheese and tomato buns with a liberal application of the local relish – a somewhat energetic Peruvian salsa called rojo.

 

Erica sidled up with a few samples, one of which I swear she called a black-and-yellow blackfly. “Why isn’t it simply called a yellow and blackfly? I asked. “Or a yellow-striped blackfly? It looks like a hoverfly. Why not a black yellow-fly?”

 

She now denies this ever happened, but I swear it annoyed her at the time. I suppose this is why you should never confuse entomology and etymology.

 

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C3PO impression?

 

I distributed the butties from the back of the truck. Unfortunately, I had overestimated the average tolerance for rojo. Even Evelyn, who I had imagined would have polished hers off with local panache, seemed a little agitated. As the three teary-eyed scientists scraped off the lion’s share of the salsa from their buns, a mystery dog, which had appeared out of nowhere to share our lunch, also went in search of a drink in the stream. Some don’t like it hot.

 

At the risk of ridicule, can I say here that I thought the topography up here was not that dissimilar to parts of the Peak District. Rolling, rough pasture, grazing material, moorland – though not as managed, or as wet. And about 15 times the altitude.

 

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Peak District or Peruvian highlands?

 

Sandy made the comment that all the vegetation I was seeing would have been quite different as recently as 500-600 years ago - that is, preconquest – when there would have been more native scrub: small shrubs, berberis, vemonia.

 

Chiefly, the difference was the grass – the land use here chiefly “calafatal” grazing vegetation – which had been imported for domestic use and had then spread. Spread? Given that we were on an isolated moorland some 3,000 metres up and grass was chiefly what the eye could see for 40 miles in any direction, I found the idea this was all alien to Peru a bit challenging. What had happened to the original flora and fauna? How had grass been so successful in such a short time? And why then was I having such a hard time getting it to grow on our lawn?

 

A further three stops on our gradual descent yielded bounty of both flora and fauna; a triumphant Sandy found a healthy clump of Solanum zahlbruckneri first found in this area in 1936, according to records. This clump was found just outside the rather, um, rustic-smelling village of Cruz Campo.

 

A gleeful Erica applied her suck machine on a clump of modest shrubbery festooned with interesting pests for her to dispatch in the name of Science. And once again Sandy took a healthy sample of S.dilonii on the roadside near to human habitation and irrigation, proving once again that the solanum species do like a nice bit of disturbed soil.   

 

As we gently descended on the other side to the valley floor, we remarked on the gaudy but colourful election slogans that adorn every wall, even in the remotest habitations. All this for an election that is over a year away. I understand the owners get a small fee to allow parties to do the daubings. Imagine if ‘Dave’ Cameron came a-knocking and offered you a tenner to paint graffiti on your house?

 

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Unfortunate political decoration.

 

As we meandered into the outskirts of Celendin, Sandy bade us stop one last time, as she had spied a species of tobacco plant. She strode off into a nearby field.

 

Hold on, isn’t that someone’s garden? I hope she doesn’t get caught. What is one of the world’s foremost botanists doing hedgehopping in a Peruvian veg patch? Answer: science, pal.

 

As we sunk lower into our seats, a lovely scene unfolded on the other side of the road, as a young Quechua woman, strapped into a giant loom as if flying a giant kite, wove an enormous carpet from a mountain of llama wool at her side.

 

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A young Quechua woman weaving a giant llama wool carpet.

 

Her fingers working deftly and nimbly, body strained against the many strands hitched to the roof of her house. Weaving of this type has been practised for centuries in the Andes, and girls start learning their craft from age 6 or 7.

 

We found our way to a Plaza de Armas in the little provincial capital Celendin with little fuss. We checked into a charming tumbledown ex-colonial hotel on the square, where creaky wooden galleries looked broodily on to a dusty courtyard with fading art-deco tiles. 

 

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Plaza de Armas in Celendin.

 

As we unpacked and set up gear for another evening of recording, pinning and plant-drying, a school parade passed by as if to welcome us, breaking the silence of the sleepy town with a dash of local colour.

 

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A school parade welcomes us to Celendin.

 

I woke up strangely out of breath that night – a novel sensation I hadn’t experienced before. Elevation. How quaint.

 

But we slept soundly, ready for the next leg where we would be heading into the mysterious-sounding Marañon (means cashew fruit in Spanish, oddly enough!!) valley – gateway to the Amazon. 

 

Erica again - It is just as well that you are getting this blog piece in parts as it is giving us time back home to go through some specimens! Hopefully by the time we are leaving Peru in this blog I will be able to amaze you with some of the great finds that we collected along the way.

Aug 20, 2014 Peru - part two by Dave 'the civilian' Hall

Sorry folks – my fault on the delay. Five million visitors and a conference have waylaid me in posting this! Worth the wait though…here's the next installment from my partner Dave, who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year.

 

Day 3: San Benito to Cajamarca

 

Another early start. As the mountains began to blush with colour, we (I) loaded up the van with samples and sweepers and the ubiquitous “Fanny” trout and tomato sandwich materials. The idea was to get to Cajamarca, 150km away, by the end of the day. It is the main town in the region, and the only road for us was over a mountain pass some 50km away and then down by a similarly circuitous route. In all, some 150km away, which sounds a doddle, but by now I had an inkling what 150K would be like up here.

 

Erica here - just thought I would interupt at this point. On the previous trip Dave decided to track our movements. We had to travel 100km in a day and he informed us that Google said that this would take maybe two hours...10 hours later...

 

With the van wrapped, packed and strapped, we lurched once more upward on the dusty track in the cool morning air. Our pace was slow, all the better to spot more of the introverted nightshade family. Our first landmark was a village called Guzmango, where we might have stayed in had we made better progress the previous day. It looked close on a map, but it was also above us by some stretch – mile upon mile of precipitous mountain track with yawning roadside drops. I enjoyed this very much. Erica enjoyed it less – Erica’s happier when she’s driving, but seems to be quite a nervous passenger, even if my driving is impeccable.

 

Erica - ...

 

The scenery became more and more spectacular – much more like the prior idea I’d had in my head of Peru. We were now above 2,000m, and the vegetation was more varied – still dry, but with pines and deciduous trees dotting well-cultivated land. San Benito was far below us.

 

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Driving up into the moutains, with San Benito far below us.

 

As the road rose and we turned yet another hairpin bend, Sandy called for a stop – she’d spotted something. There was a good clump of Solanum habrochaites, the wild tomato we saw yesterday with its distinctive yellow flowers, nestled in the shady bend. I parked the beast, and the science people took up their weapons of choice, while I padded about enjoying the breathtaking views, taking field notes and observing the cows. Cows mean faeces and faeces means flies. I was learning.

 

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Erica and the team searching for specimens by the roadside.

 

Sandy interrupted my reverie with a job – collecting the seeds for DNA sequencing from another Solanaceae species – possibly a S. neorickii  – she had spotted on the verge. This was a wild relative of tobacco. Like many of the Solanum genus, it appears to like disturbed ground, and these plants were clinging to a road cutting. It has sticky ova protecting hundreds of tiny seeds. I collected a small handful, feeling pleased with myself, until Segundo revealed his fistful.

 

Meanwhile Erica and Evelyn flapped about filling flasks and baggies full of lovely winged beasties of every description – already enough for several hours’ pinning. We were ready to get a wiggle on, but all hopes of further progress were abandoned when Erica spied a lonely Bombyliid (beefly) minding its business on a roadside leaf. An excited Erica stalked clumsily upon it through the treacherous underbrush, I felt it polite to point out that there were clouds of them in the air above her head.

 

Erica - I would like to have thought as myself as an elegant creature of the countryside...

 

As Erica’s knickers eventually become untwisted, she was able to explain that this was a rather exciting beefly mating display. Other minibeasts flitted about in jubilant swarms enjoying the early sunshine, including a very handsome black bumble bee displaying unusual hovering behaviour.

 

No matter: all were swept into the nets with gruesome efficiency and inhaled into the killing jars. Many of the unfortunate beeflies were rewarded for their display with a dose of deadly ethyl acetate. Science is a cruel mistress.

 

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Animals obstacles on the dirt roads.

 

Eventually we were able to make further (slow) progress, every lurch of the truck met with protest, as I swerved goats and pigs and ambitious wheelchasing mutts, all the while stopping for samples along the way. We picked up more Solanaceae of various description, and an interesting purple Iochroma.

 

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A purple Iochroma found at the side of the road.

 

Our last morning stop was off the main “highway” and down an even narrower mud track, where I had to drop the crew off and keep driving in order to find a place to turn round. I don’t know how Segundo finds these sites, but you can bet we wouldn’t have without him. It was in the lee of a hill, facing a fantastic valley full of cornfields and grassland, some crops perched at seemingly impossible angles on the side of mountains. Here oxen will beat your tractor any day in a ploughing competition.

 

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We made slow progress along hillside tracks.

 

I noticed there were quite a few gum trees prevalent in the area. As they aren’t native I couldn’t fathom what they were doing up here, but Sandy says they were planted for firewood – quick growing and very flammable. I could have worked that out if I’d tried. Altitude?

 

We reached the top of the pass about noon. Time for a sandwich stop, and for me to properly take in the views at the top of the mountain. Some steps had been carved into the hillside where vegetables were growing. I ventured up, and soon started to feel how the altitude – about 3,400m – was indeed affecting my progress. Everything seemed a little a bit harder.

 

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After a climb up the hillside the effects of high altitude were more obvious than ever.

 

The steps began to peter out. Then they disappeared into a maelstrom of brambles. But as I reached the brow of the hill a hint of a way seemed to reveal itself. I followed it for a few metres, scratching the hell out of my legs then vaulted an ancient wall at the top to reveal a grassy oasis at the summit, surrounded by an unforgettable panorama.

 

Worth the effort. Driving, you don’t always get to appreciate the view until you stop.

 

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View from the top - well worth the climb.

 

Now it was a bumpy, dusty ride mostly downhill all the way to Cajamarca, still some way off.

 

I was expecting a smallish town, but it’s a sizeable settlement with some style – it has a lovely cathedral and church either side of a spacious Plaza de Armas, and atmospheric, narrow streets lined with colourful colonial mansions where campesinos in traditional dress mix comfortably with sharp-suited 9-5ers. Also, plenty of cheese shops. I found it bizarre that we reached such a place by dirt track.

 

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Cajamarca, our next stop.


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Beautiful old buildings in Cajamarca.

 

We checked into our hostel dead beat, dusty and desirous of a beer, but we’d had a good day and a terrific haul.

 

Erica - it was a great haul. Today (20 August) - all the material that I and evelyn collected and put into ethanol every night has only just been sorted into Order Level (beetles, bugs, flies etc)...As Dave comes to the end of the journey I may have some results to tell you about the amazing insects we found. Till next time!

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