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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.

View the Solanaceae Source database

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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!

Jul 3, 2014 An existential experience - my fieldwork through the eyes of another

I have been away alot recently (that sounds familiar to all that know me) and one of those trips was a field trip to Peru. In fact I brought my partner with me to be our driver and field assistant. This is a big gamble - would we be able to cope without killing each other; would he understand and enjoy what we were doing; would he drive us off the cliff? These were all considerations that we pondered but eventually decided that it would be great - if we couldn't explain to him the value of our work then we reallly needed to work on our communication skills.

 

However it wasn't a holiday for him - as well as the driving we made him press plants, collect insects, take DNA samples, transcribe field data and also I made him write my blog . There was a lot so he will be doing it in instalments as he also has a day job . It has been enlightening reading it and seeing what we do through the eyes of another.

 

Without much further ado, I give you Dave:

 

For reasons best known to herself, The Doc thought it would be a good idea for me to come with her to Peru for two weeks as her field assistant/driver/Odd Job man. Part of the deal was to see if I could write her blog for a few days. Folly! The idea is that I might provide an outsider's perspective on what Erica does, as prior to this I had little experience with fieldwork beyond high-school geography. So I gave up two precious weeks of holiday and relented.

 

I've never been to South America. It's not something you pass up. I paid the air fare, but much of the (admittedly inexpensive) rest came free. As an editor in my job, at the very least this would be an opportunity for me to ask some awkward questions! So I'll be filling in for Erica and revealing what she and Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist extraordinaire and leader of this expedition, find in Darkest Peru (© Paddington Bear).

 

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The gang.

 

It took 20 hours of flying and 14 hours (más o menos) of driving to get our first sample, so let it be known that the Museum goes far for our money. We were joined by two wonderful spirits of the insect and plant world: Evelyn Gamboa of the entomology dept of the University of San Marcos in Lima (the oldest in the Americas) and later by botanist Segundo Leiva Gonzales, Director of the herbarium at Antenoar Orrego University in Trujillo.

 

First question: what are we doing here? Is it worth it? Is this some sort of jolly? I'd suspected Erica led a charmed life coming on these trips, which she called work. But I had to keep an open mind. So of course we're here to collect plant and insect samples. Specifically it's plants of the Solenacaea family (i.e. nightshades - wild relatives of our cultivated tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes and tobacco) - and the pollinators, pests and associated microfauna thereof. In particular, we'll be collecting diptera - true flies, which you'll all by now know about already if you follow Erica's blog.

 

Sandy says this is the first study we know of that samples both the plant and associated insect population together, in situ. The success of this trip - or otherwise - could have extensive repercussions for future study. Naturally, this trip will also add to the Museum's (and by extension, the world's) knowledge of these species, and will boost Segundo's university's collection. We'll also be able to tell what's happening to the distribution, prevalence and range of these species over time (many records go back decades).

 

And the data they find here could have a wide variety of applications. For example, a changing climate might put stress on current cultivars of tomatoes. Crossing these staples with certain varieties of their hardier Peruvian cousins might increase pest resistance, or tolerance to drier conditions for instance - agricultural benefits with with knock-on effects for food security, natural pest control, biodiversity and species distribution.

 

But, before all that can happen, we had to find them first. That meant a day of driving up the Panamericana north from Lima. We had the right car for it - a 4x4 Toyota the crew likes to call Freddie. It is owned by a man called Martin, who has never learned to drive it. I will be happy to test-drive it on this occasion. I will not be calling it Freddie...

 

 

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Dave and Freddy.


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Away from the sprawl of the capital

 

Once Freddie had escaped the sprawl and grubby winter permafog of the capital, we hugged the coast up the Panamericana and the fog lifted. The scenery slowly evolved from apocalyptic ashen desert into drifting caramel dunes, lonely pastel mountainscapes and roads that vanish on the horizon. We stopped in a roadside café made of reeds with a toilet located tellingly far from the main building that had no water, no toilet paper - but did have a colourful penguin collage painted optimistically on the outside. Yet here they served us the freshest and tastiest ceviche - perfect fodder when the thermometer is climbing above 30degC.

 

We spent that evening in Trujillo, where the crumbling colonial mansions and old courtyards of the old town seemed to me to be a vast improvement on what I'd seen of Lima at that point (which to be fair, was not much). Yet I felt I had been in the country for some time - a result of that temporal illusion you get when you're a bit jetlagged and you've crammed so much into a short period. But as Erica and I shared a beer at the end of a dusty day, I realised we hadn't even taken our first sample.

 

At 6.30 the next day we were off. We headed north again on the Panamericana and after an hour or two, turned right towards the distant mountains, roughly following the river Chicama. After a brief stop for grub in a charming market village called Roma we wound our way up a dry valley interspersed with fertile arable land into the foothills of the Andes. The dunes had given way to scrub - semi desert - where stately cacti pointed skyward and the road deteriorated into a dirt track full of entertaining potholes (n.b. not entertaining for everyone in the car). We stopped occasionally to sample the plants, and Erica showed Evelyn the ropes of how to collect with nets and Erica's primary weapon - the suction sampler. Basically this is a handheld vacuum cleaner with a net and container for catching the insects. Anyone wielding it looks like That Fourth Bloke in Ghostbusters. It looks daft, but it does its job. Vultures hovered hopefully in the blue as we inched inadvisably on.

 

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The variety of landscapes.

 

Hours of lurching later, Sandy bade us stop at a loop in the road, an unconvincing turnoff to a place called Colbot, having seen a likely candidate. Her instincts were correct - a single specimen of Solanum habrochaites clung defiantly to a cleft in the bend. This is a wild tomato species that is found on the western slopes of the Andes from central Ecuador to central Peru. This species is notable partly because, with a bit of crafty crossbreeding, it yields 20 times more sugar than the cultivated tomato - a matter of keen interest to the Heinz family.

 

Erica and Evelyn got out and swept their nets gamely - Erica performing a more detailed local sample and, as had been decided, Evelyn with a more free role, performing a general sweep in all the sites we encountered. Sandy cropped herself a small sample when they'd finished swishing. Here Erica discovered a beefly among the other unfortunate captives in her killing jar. As we know, Erica gets soppy about beeflies. But not so soppy as to let them go.

 

Segundo took a sample of Capparis scabrida - a relative of the caper plant - sprouting in the dry riverbed. Then Erica and Evelyn swept the hell out of this area with their nets and Erica seemed interested to have caught a micropezidae - stalky, stick-legged flies, which she feels are "quite funky".

 

We stopped for lunch here. A local cowherd came and joined us and he told us that there hadn't been any rain that year, and that it was making life difficult. I can but try and imagine. I was finding it hard to believe we would find much in this environment. But not for the first time I would be proven wrong.

 

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Life finds a way

 

A single mototaxi - a tuktuk - wobbled past us carting an old lady, probably from the market in Roma. We'd passed it several times and when we'd stopped to look for specimens and it had crawled past us, the tortoise to our hare.

 

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The 'tortoise' to our hare

 

The vegetation became more abundant, as the road gathered height, along with my spirits. Not that I wasn't fascinated with the desert but, given a choice, I much prefer the mountains and greenery to deserts, and the scenery was becoming more and more preferable.

 

Several stops and samples later, we made a final stop in a bend where a stream passed under the road a mile on from a charming mountain village called San Benito. This location was teeming with life. Humans included. Children from the nearby village came to say hello, all curious to see what these gringos were doing on their patch. All except one young lad, who was having a bad day and preferred to throw stones at his friends. For this, his big brother took him home upside down.

 

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Where there's water

 

 

Meanwhile, we swept for various insects, and I carried on my supplementary job of detailing the GPS location, weather conditions and general description of the sample site. I was also given the seed-collecting detail. Lots was found here.

 

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Sandy found three different kinds of wild tomato and then casually announced she had discovered  a new species of Browalia - a Solanacaea species sometimes grown ornamentally like petunias. This was something I found astonishing but to the experienced botanist, it was merely very interesting. And Erica discovered a few snail-killing Scyomyzids -the presence of moist liking flies was presumably testament to the damper conditions.

 

After an hour or so of sweeping, the mototaxi pottered round the corner, passed us again and disappeared round the corner for the last time. 

 

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Colourful buildings of San Benito.

 

 

After a welcome supper in a very rustic kitchen in San Benito, where Segundo secured us berths in a municipal hotel, Erica and Evelyn started pinning the specimens, Sandy set up her plant-dryer - an insulated stack of card and wood heated overnight by a small gas flame - and I started logging the samples we had found on Erica's ancient laptop. By the time we had finished it was time for bed.

 

 

But first I felt I should at least reacquaint myself with the night skies of the southern hemisphere and say hello to the Southern Cross. I avoid the overused word 'awesome' if I can, but it seems perfectly fitting here. I've never seen the stars quite as clear as that night in San Benito. I thought I had made some sort of mistake - but no, it wasn't low cloud, but the distinct ghostly veil of the Milky Way. '

 

To be continued....

 

 

So that was Dave's first thoughts on fieldwork with us..More blog pieces to follow....

Jun 18, 2014 Where did the time go?

I am not sure what happened this field trip to Peru – I never seemed to have time to write the blog… but now I am on the plane back to the Museum, there’s not a lot else to do. Maybe I thought my relatively random scrawls about daily events were not necessary, as we had Erica McAlister's partner, Dave Hall, along to help with the driving – he is, after all, a real journalist! But here goes…

 

Seeing the coast of Peru from the air reminds one of what an amazing environment we have had the privilege of travelling in - the blanket of fog and cloud on the coast gives way abruptly to the steep slopes of the western slope of the Andes, then you can see the Amazon basin stretching out into the distance.

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Waving goodbye to Peru from the air.

 

The fog is the reason that Lima has been grey, misty and just plain not very nice for the last week while I have been negotiating export permits, giving talks and working the collections. The cold Humboldt Current flows north along the coast, combined with the rain shadow from the Andes, this creates the dry coastal deserts where many of the wild tomato species grow. In the winter, the fog comes in to the coast, and in El Niño years (of which 2014 is predicted to be one) it rains – seems like a good thing, but these strong rains cause incredible devastation in a landscape that is not used to having any precipitation at all.

 

The species of wild tomatoes are concentrated in these coastal deserts – chief among them and a real find for us between Chiclayo and Trujillo was Solanum pimpinellifolium – the wild ancestor of our cultivated monsters. The fruits are tiny and bright red – each has only 5-10 seeds – tomatoes in miniature!

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The plants grew along a wind break by the edge of the Panamerican Highway – but the desolate landscape did not stop our intrepid entomology team of Erica and Evelyn Gamboa (a student from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos who came with us – a great help and good companion!) from sampling to their hearts content.

 

This field trip was another in the series we are undertaking for the Natural Resources Initiative, collecting insects from wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes in Peru. We didn’t do well with potatoes on this trip – not a single plant did we see – but the tomatoes were in fine form. Not going up the valleys from the coast, as it has been a very dry year – this was a bit disappointing. But the vegetation soon made up for it. For the first couple of days out of Trujillo (a town about 10 hours drive N of Lima) we were joined by my colleague and friend Segundo Leiva of the Universidad Privada Antenor Orrego.

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Segundo and his family kindly took us out for a lovely meal in town before we went – much needed after the long drive up the Panamerican highway from Lima!

 

Segundo specializes in other genera of Solanaceae – and we had an amazing harvest of Browallia – several new species, but we missed seeing Browallia sandrae, it was just too dry. The photo I posted before we left was in fact NOT the species he named for me but ANOTHER new one!! The diversity of this small genus in these dry valleys on the western Andean slopes is quite incredible.

 

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This tiny species with white flowers was growing on a bare road bank, right next to an even tinier one with purple flowers – names needed for both!

 

One of our targets for this trip was the valley of the Río Marañon – a deep, dry valley where Solanum arcanum, another wild tomato species, grows. The Marañon is said to be the source of the Amazon – it flows north for hundreds of kilometres, then turns to the east at about Bagua, where it then joins up with other large rivers from Ecuador and Peru. Along its journey from the highlands it travels through as many different habitats as there are in Peru – glacial valleys, dry cactus scrub, paddy rice, lowland rainforest. The descent into the Marañon valley from Celendín is billed as a heartstopper – I had been on this road in the 1980s, but didn’t really remember much. Why not I wonder! It was amazing…

 

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The road is narrow and corkscrew-like – Erica drove it and she was amazing, I’m not sure I could have done it… the drop from top to bottom is more than 2,000 metres, I think that’s almost as deep as the Grand Canyon, but not quite…


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The sign says “Slow traffic keep right” – keep right? There isn’t anywhere to go to the right but over the edge!

 

On the dry cliffs we indeed found Solanum arcanum, hanging on for dear life. Novel collecting methods were needed, given the narrowness of the road and the steepness of the cliffs...

 

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Wild tomatoes are woody at the base, but grow new herbaceous stems every year it seems. Even our cultivated tomatoes would be short-lived perennials if we didn’t have such harsh winters.

 

We had a day off – to go and see the amazing ruins of Kuélap, fortress of the Chachapoyas. The Chachapoyas were a people who lived in the northern mountains before the Incas, were conquered by the Incas, and adopted many Inca customs while blending them with their own culture. The archaeological sites were hidden for a long time – they are high in the mountainous valleys, in forest and very difficult to access. A wonderful museum in the town of Leimebamba displayed the mummies found high above a lake – hundreds of ancestors preserved for veneration by the Chachapoyas; it is amazing that they were preserved in such an environment.

 

Kuélap itself is reached by a winding dirt road, some 40km from the main highway – not many people there! The structures are different to those Inca ruins in Macchu Picchu and further south – but every bit as impressive. The fortress itself sits atop a ridge and from far away just looks like a layer of rock, unless you know it is there. We had it to ourselves, except for a few other hardy souls and a couple of llamas.

 

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Some parts of the site have been restored using the original stones – there were more than 200 of these round dwellings inside the fortress walls.

 

Almost as exciting for me was finding Solanum ochranthum growing in the trees around Kuélap – it is a distant tomato relative with very large fruits (up to 5cm across). The fruits have a very thick rind (about half a centimetre) but the pulp is green and sweet. The rind though is terribly astringent! It was all over the area and we sampled it several times the next day.

 

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Solanum ochranthum and its relative Solanum juglandifolium are both large woody vines that can reach the canopy of cloud forest – very unlike the wild tomatoes from the desert!

 

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As is often the case in field work, plans change from day to day. We had thought of going back through the Marañon, but decided instead to cross it further north, near its junction with the Río Utcubamba near the town of Bagua and come down the coast from Chiclayo. The river is a much bigger beast this much further north, and these valleys are not as steep – paddy rice was being cultivated in the flat river terraces – it was hot and sticky down here in the relative lowlands.

 

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The way back to the coast went up and over the Abra de Porculla – a famous collecting locality from the last century. I was really glad we went that way – a new range extension for yet another wild tomato species, Solanum neorickii, in the rocky cliffs ascending the pass. Solanum neorickii has one of the widest distributions of any wild tomato, from southern Peru to southern Ecuador, but collections are scattered in dry valleys and these new records will help us to predict better its actual distribution and its relation to the environment.

 

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Solanum neorickii has the smallest flowers of any wild tomato species and the style is always included within the anther cone (compare this with the picture of Solanum ochranthum above). It is almost entirely self-fertilizing (or so we suspect), which might account for its broad distribution north to south.

 

Cresting the pass we had an amazing sight of a cloud bank – it began at approximately 2,000m and dissipated at exactly 1,000m elevation – it was as if we had driven through a layer on a layer cake! In the cloud on the way down we found Solanum habrochaites – quite possibly my favourite wild tomato.

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Solanum habrochaites seems to be able to grow almost everywhere - the dry coastal valleys, the fog forests of the coast, inter-Andean valleys… Its ecological tolerances must be huge.

 

Of all the wild tomato species this is the one I am really interested in from an ecological perspective and where the ability to sequence DNA that our genetic resource permit allows us will  reveal new information. Collecting Solanum habrochaites and its associated insects in such different places raises all sorts of questions:

  • Are these populations very distinct in terms of genetics?
  • How do their associated insects differ with habitat?
  • Are there subtle differences in form of plants that we can measure from our herbarium specimens and then correlate with differences in the genome?

 

And the list goes on… this is why field work is so important. Without seeing this species in the field many of these ideas might not have occurred to us – now we have some new things to test once we are back in the Museum and get all the samples sorted.

 

We broke our long drive down the coast with a stop at the museum in Lambayeque devoted to the incredible finds of Sipán, a famous burial site of the Moche culture. The Moche people inhabited the coastal deserts before the Inca, and buried their kings with phenomenal treasure – gold and silver work of exquisite quality, huge bead collars and an amazing array of artefacts rivalling those found in the pyramids of Egypt. The museum was a wonder – the visitor descends through the finds just as the archaeologists found them, and the sheer number of things on display is staggering. No photos allowed, so you will just have to look it up on line or, even better, visit Peru! The discovery of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán is a real life Indiana Jones adventure, and its preservation for posterity is down to the energy of Walter Alva, a Peruvian archaeologist whose work prevented these treasures from all going into the hands of private collectors who bought them on the black market.

 

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Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán.

 

Coming into Lima was an adventure in itself… We looked like mad for tomatoes along the road, but they were gone… The traffic though was something else. Imagine the M25 or a major ring road with bumper to bumper traffic, lorries, cars etc., then add mototaxis, people selling things from the central reservation and drivers trying to cut perpendicularly across the main flow. All accompanied by a concerto of horn tooting and brake squealing. It is amazing there are not more accidents! But we made it.

 

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He is a taxi so he can go wherever he wants!!

 

Erica and Dave left for London, while I sorted out the dried plants, export permits and all the other things one needs to do at the end of a field trip. I always have mixed feelings about this time – on the one had I enjoy spending time with Peruvian colleagues and I actually really like Lima, grubby as it is, but on the other hand, there are a lot of things waiting for me back in London...

 

So another field trip ends – but as usual, it is only another beginning. I will look forward to seeing the specimens we collected, finding out how the insects differed from place to place and combining these results with those from previous field work on the Initiative. We are now getting enough collections to begin to formulate the next set of projects and to think about the papers we will begin to write using these data. We need some time in the Museum now though, sorting out what we have, and then planning the next trip. Field work is an essential part of understanding how the natural world works – seeing it in action brings the collections we already have to life and generates new questions. It always seems like the more you know, the more you realise how little you really do understand!

May 20, 2014 Back to nightshade heaven...

Well, I am off to Peru again, this time with entomologist and blogger Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM) to look for insects on Solanaceae in the north of Peru.

 

We plan to go north from Lima to Trujillo, then over the mountains to the Marañon River, then a sort of unplanned meander through valleys and over peaks. I’ve been on some of these roads before, but never to collect insects, so we are anticipating exciting things! From my previous experience these slopes are Solanaceae heaven – full of endemics and we hope to find some good things.

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Prime wild tomato habitat on the road to San Benito.

 

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Further up the road we might just see Browallia sandrae S.Leiva, Farruggia & Tepe - named after me by my good Solanaceae colleagues Segundo Leiva, Frank Farruggia and Eric Tepe; last time I saw it I didn't realise what this plant was, so I now want to pay a return visit!!

 

This work is a continuation of the field component of the Crop and Pest Wild Relative strand of the Natural Resources and Hazards Initiative at the Museum and with it we will further improve our method for collecting the insects that are resident, using or otherwise interacting with individual populations of nightshade species. Our targets are the wild relatives of tomatoes and potatoes, but we rarely pass a nightshade by, and there are lots where we intend to go.

 

But first I will be in Lima for about a week before Erica joins me – there are things that need sorting out from the last trip and people to see. There will be further herbarium work (every time we go to Peru more collections have been deposited in the national herbarium) and more visits to the International Potato Center (CIP) to talk about future project ideas. These human interactions are as important as the collecting – every scientist here at the Museum is usually doing a piece of scientific work while at the same time thinking about the next thing; it often seems we think several years in advance, I suppose that is good planning! Some ideas work, some don’t, but the process of mulling them over and talking to colleagues is a big part of what makes being the sort of scientist I am a real pleasure.

 

So I have my GPS, my plant press and my herbarium identification annotating things (glue and labels, terribly high tech). I have the permits, and will give a seminar at the Ministry about our work when we come back to Lima from the field. I have probably forgotten a lot of things, but that is what shops are for, and besides, shopping in Peru is a real adventure in itself when you shop for the things I need (like metres of plastic sheeting). So off I go...

 

Let’s see what transpires over the next month – what will we find? It’s bound to be fun…

Mar 4, 2014 Up, up, up, and up… into the puna on the border of Junín and Lima

From Canta, a road goes up the Río Chillon to Cerro de Pasco and the eastern side of the Andes – crossing over the high elevation grassland habitat called the puna. Several wild potatoes grow in these extreme habitats above or around 4,000 metres elevation – these were our targets for the day. We leave the tomatoes behind for the day - none grow this high!

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Looking back down the valley we saw Canta perched on its hill, plus the line of dusty, smoggy air from Lima and the coast... we were pleased to be up in the fresh air!

 

As we climbed up the switchbacks (ubiquitious in the Andes) we spotted our first Solanaceae of the day – and it was a new distribution record for the valley…

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Salpichroa microloba is endemic to central Peru but had never before been collected in this valley – Paul was excited – this genus is the topic of his Master’s thesis. He also managed to spot a hummingbird visiting the flowers…


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A colleague had told us that the diversity of insects above 1,000 metres elevation was poor – so here is a photo of the GPS (registering 3,327m elevation) and vial of insects to prove the point. Insect life teems at high elevations, and it is usually interesting and often endemic.

 

Further up the valley opened out, and the Río Chillon rushed through – along the banks we found Solanum amblophyllum, previously thought to be an endemic of Lima department, but recently found in neighbouring Ancash by our colleague from the Museo, Asunción Cano.

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Solanum amblophyllum is a member of the Geminata clade that I revised last in 2008 – there are several new species to describe (I wrote about some of these from Brazil last year), but it is great to see ones that I recognise in the field. It was VERY common along the river amongst boulders and grass…


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The Río Chillon is a typical mountain river, crashing through gorges and with extremely rapid flow. Along the banks we saw Andean torrent ducks – two males posturing to each other… the female was being swept downstream (apparently, although she was probably completely under control) and the males seemed too busy to notice.

 

We had a forced stop at the small village of Cullhuay where pipes were being installed – we had to wait about half an hour then drive across a ditch over two very narrow planks – Dan was the driver for the day and he managed with great aplomb. 

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Putting in the pipes involves a lot of manual labour – pipes in lengths of 5-8 metres being carried from the village below (by hand of course) and a lot of shovel work, but by the time we came down they were done and the ditch was all filled in!

 

Cullhauy was the last village on the road, further up there were only isolated houses and stone corrals where livestock are kept overnight. The whole grassy area operates like a common, where local people take their cattle or llamas out for the day to graze and then bring them back at night to protect them from pumas. Other exciting wildlife exists in these high mountains as well – much to our excitement we saw a huge bird circling the valley – an Andean condor – as big as the cattle on the slopes! So amazing – I have been to Peru many times and have never seen a condor there before…

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The picture is a bit fuzzy (sorry about that but it was a long way away across the valley) but the white collar and huge wingspan is unmistakeable – it was HUGE.

 

About where we saw the condor we found populations of our target potato species – so had a nice long collecting stop. The sun was still out so the insects were plentiful and Erica found that the aspirator worked a treat on the small, flat rosettes of these high elevation species. We were near the treeline, although the trees were long gone, mostly cut for firewood. These areas were at one time probably forested with small patches of Polylepis (a member of the rose family) woodland in sheltered valleys – very few of these forest patches remain in these populated valleys.

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Solanum acaule is a relatively common potato species at these high elevations – we have collected it before in southern Peru; the leaves hug tightly to the ground and the tiny flowers have big, bright green stigmas.


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We are not quite sure what species this is – the flowers are much bigger than those of Solanum acaule, and the leaves are different as well. When collecting it is important to keep things you think are different apart, even if they turn out to be the same in the end. This one is a different species though… I am sending a photo (and later the specimen) to my colleague David Spooner in Wisconsin to see if he can help!

 

Further up the road, the mountains proper began to show themselves – this range is called the Cordillera de la Viuda (Window’s Range - the name makes you wonder...) and the tallest peaks are all above 5,000 metres in elevation (the tallest, Rajuntay, is 5,475 m).

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Cordillera de la Viuda -  this range extends for about 50 miles and has several very tall peaks that are permanently snow-covered.

 

This high up there is little vegetation over a few centimetres tall, the plants are either grasses, or small and hugging the ground as rosettes or hidden in the shelter of rocks. The lack of vegetation cover allows one to really appreciate the complex and totally breath-taking geology of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the result of the subduction of the Pacific plate under the continental margin and was pushed up and crumpled over the course of millions of years. The southern Andes are older than the ranges to the north – in Canta we were about in the middle. The range is between 10-30 million years old, relatively young in geological terms.

 

Driving along high mountain roads you can pass sections that are crumpled one way, then around the corner, other sections going in the opposite direction – this really brings home the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the earth we live on – it is not static and unchanging in the least!

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Paul, Dan and Mindy with nearly vertical strata behind…

 

The scenery in these high elevation habitats is not to be believed – I love the jungle and the dense forest, but the sense of space and openness at high elevation is special. At this point we were about 4,700 metres above sea level – the air is pretty thin up that high so running about is not to be recommended.

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The region in the Cordillera de la Viuda is peppered with tiny (and not so tiny) lakes with the most extraordinary colours and perfectly clear water.


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We were lucky to see viscachas – a lagomorph (rabbit relative) endemic to South America. This species is the northern viscachaLagidium peruanum) – known only from these high elevation habitats from central Peru to northern Chile. They look a bit like giant kangaroo rats, or gerbils. Again, like the condor, this picture is a bit fuzzy, they were hard to get close to!


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Sadly, even along this remote road you can still find the traces of humans – not just archeological remains, but more prosaic garbage. What in heaven’s name is a broom head doing far from the road amongst the cushion plants? In this climate it will be there for a long, long time…

 

The road climbed ever higher, but at about 4,800 metres it flattened out and began to go down – we decided to turn back – it was rumbling with thunder and began to hail. Erica and Dan had enough insects to keep them busy for hours and hours…

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The “pass” was more like a broad flat area; llamas and alpacas were grazing here, it was a bit high for cattle.

 

The hail on the top was a portent of things to come. The valley on the way back down was completely under cloud – in fact, it felt like we were IN the cloud, which I suppose we were in fact. At times the road wasn’t really visible, good job there was absolutely no traffic.

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The road was dirt and usually a single lane with drop-offs on one side and cliffs on the other, so the lack of traffic was actually a good thing. This is the view of the road (you can see it, can't you?) from the front seat. We saw several rock slides that I don’t remember from the way up… our mascot (San Martin de Porres I think) was clearly helping...


Back at the Hostal Santa Catalina Erica and Dan had several hours of insect prep to do, Paul, Mindy and I had the plants to prepare and put on the dryer – so we had a busy last evening in Canta. Tomorrow I return to Lima to fly out the next day back to London – the rest of the team is headed into the next valley north to go up again. That is travel in the Andes for you; up and down, up and down. They will drop me off on the Panamerican Highway near the coast and I will catch a bus or taxi back into Lima.

 

I wish I were going with them...

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