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Mar 27, 2014 Wildlife Garden springs into action

See what's bursting into life and who's out and about in the Museum's Wildlife Garden in our spring photo gallery below. Everyone who works behind the scenes in the Wildlife Garden team, including some very shaggy helpers, is busy getting the meadows, pathways, ponds, sheds and greenhouses ready for the garden's opening to the public once more, from 1 April.

 

It's also the time of year that the garden and its different habitats require special attention with all the new life in abundance. Frogs have been getting matey and mallards have been checking out the pond's moorhen island.

 

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The Museum's Wildlife Garden opens its gates to the public once again from 1 April with its first public event, Spring Widllife, on 5 April to herald the start of the Easter holidays.

 

The garden will be the focus of lots of fun and nature-filled activities, planned through the coming spring, summer and autumn seasons. And as usual we'll be hosting regular, free monthly weekend events starting with Spring Wildlife on Saturday 5 April.

 

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Pretty red crab apple blossom caught on camera a couple of weeks ago.

 

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Glowing cowslips appearing in the meadows.

 

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Our Greyface Dartmoor sheep, who usually visit from the Wetland Centre in the autumn, have been staying for a few days to graze down the meadow grass. It's the last chance to do this before wild flowers start coming up. By nipping the spring grass in the bud there will be more light for the flowers to come through.

 

mallards-bird-island-1500.jpgMallard visitors exploring the moorhen island lookout on the pond.

 

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Frogspawn was spotted in the garden's pond around 17 March.

 

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Wood anemones have recently come into flower.

 

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Violets on the hedge banks.

 

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Sweet-smelling gorse bushes in the early morning spring sunshine.

 

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White blackthorn blossom perks up the pathways.

 

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Behind the scenes in the garden's greenhouse, staff and volunteers have been preparing seedlings.

 

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The latest green roof in the garden atop the sheep shed was created last autumn. The sloping roof is planted with stonecrops and plants such as thrift, sea campion and sea lavender. More about green roofs coming later in the season.

 

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Alfred Russel Wallace the collector stands watch in front of the Wildlife Garden. His statue was unveiled here last November to commemorate his centenary.

 

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...

Jan 2, 2014 Modelling finds new range for rare plant

by Hayley Dunning, Science Web Editor

 

A species of nightshade  thought to be restricted to one area of Peru has been found in 17 other  locations with the aid of habitat modelling.

 

Museum botanists Dr Tiina Särkinen (now at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) and Dr Sandra Knapp discovered the new species of nightshade, named this week as Solanum pseudoamericanum,  in 2012 in the Andes. When they first found it, they thought this  species only occurred in two river valleys in southern Peru. By using a  method known as species distribution modelling, they predicted other  regions of Peru where the plant might also be found, based on the  environmental conditions at the original collection sites.

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An example of the newly discovered Solanum pseudoamericanum, collected on 7 March 2012.

The flowers are on the left and the berries on the right.

 

A  collecting field trip to northern Peru the following year uncovered the  nightshade in 17 new locations predicted by the model. The success of  the project proves the method of species distribution modelling can work  in complex climatic regions such as the Andes, where there is an  abundance of undiscovered species and data coverage is generally poor.

 

Mapping species


Species  distribution modelling uses climatic data to help map the range of a  new species, speeding up the process of cataloguing it worldwide and  providing a way to accurately predict where that species might be found  again.

 

The approach may be particularly useful when dealing with critically endangered species, where there is an urgent need to find and conserve remaining populations.

The work is part of a larger project to map the distribution patterns of all the endemic Solanaceae species in Peru, and to look for components of rarity; what sorts of  things make plant species rare. With this information, researchers hope  to be able to better describe, and then conserve, plant diversity in  Peru.

 

Hidden diversity


Species  distribution modelling has been used successfully for vertebrates  before, but has not been widely tested in plants. Dr Knapp belives this  may be because collecting plants is seen as reasonably straightforward,  but this case study suggests that it is not always true.

 

Solanum pseudoamericanum was not originally collected because it looks a lot like a common weed.  ‘Collecting is extremely biased, and this raises the question of how we  deal with absences,’ Knapp said. The new species represents a category  of ‘hidden diversity’, where new discoveries can be obscured by their  physical similarity to known, common species.

 

Open data


The research, and all its associated geographical and specimen data, is published this week in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.  By publishing the results and original specimens as open data, said  Knapp, large specimen datasets can be combined by other researchers  globally to produce more general analyses of diversity.

 

Biodiversity staff

Research

Alfried Vogler (lead)

Paul Eggleton (tropical entomology)

Alex Monro (tropical botany)

Neil Brummitt (spatial biodiversity)

Martijn Timmermans (genomics)

 

Collections

Max Barclay (entomology)

Beulah Garner (entomology)

Jackie Mackenzie-Dodds (molecular collections facility)

 

UK Biodiversity

Angela Marmont Centre

John Tweddle (citizen science)

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