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Tropical botany researcher

8 Posts tagged with the vascular_plants tag
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Terry Pennington and I, together with Bolivian botanist Alejandro Araujo and Herencia Director, Juan-Fernando Reyes have spent the last few days visiting the communities that we would like to work with to guage their interest and support as part of our Darwin Initiative project. It was also an opportunity to see what species of Inga trees they have growing in the vicinity of their villages. We went to the communities of Motacusal and Palacios - about 150 km of dirt-track east of Cobija - all of which is bordered by cattle ranches. Their giant fields punctuated by the beautiful and eery, still-upright-remains of what once must have been canopy trees.

 

image 1 copy.jpgCattle pasture on Cobija-Puerto Rico road

 

In the Pando, rural communities comprising several families are granted 500 ha each communally, most of which is Brazil nut and rubber forest and some of which they clear for agriculture by slash-and-burn. This requires constant clearing as soil fertility drops rapidly. Our aim is to reduce slash-and-burn by converting exhausted pastures and cultivated land into Inga agroforest. For this to work we need to have the trust of the communities, also they have to see this as a sensible approach for them. For this reason we are working with Herencia and specifically their 'Bosque de Ninos' (Children's Forests) project. This provides us with a site that has already been set aside by communties for communal use. It means that we can work with the future generation to develop and run our demonstration plots, providing educational and project opportunties for the children, and it also places our agroforest at the heart of the community.

 

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Left: Alex introducing the Inga agroforest system. Right: Small boy with pet Agouti

 

Our presentation of the project and how we saw it integrating with their development plan was well received and we got plenty of questions. As everywhere the future of their children is paramount to them and so they were very keen for us to involve them and their teachers as much as possible. The children themselves attended the presentation and seemed very confident and happy, many brought their pets too. Including a little boy with his pet Agouti (above) and a little girl with a small pet parrot. These communities currently live from Brazil nuts which they collect in the new year. Brazil nut trees can produce 500 to 1000 capsules each a season. Wild rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) are tapped for about six months of the year and sold as blocks of about 3 kg for about £1.40 a kilo. Finding a market for this rubber abroad that they can connect with should greatly increase their income from these trees and so the economic value of this forest.

 

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Left: Block of raw coagulated rubber. Right: Boots made from smoked rubber.

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Since September 2012 Anaité López (Instituto Nacional de Bosques, Guatemala), Tim Marks (Millennium Seed Bank) and Wolfgang Stuppy (Millennium Seed Bank, do visit his amazing blog) have been working at the Millennium Seed Bank to develop a long-term storage protocol for the seed of the Maya Nut tree (Brosimum alicastrum).

 

This is important because Maya Nut is a significant famine food for the rural poor in northern Central America and is being actively used in reforestation projects as it is fast growing and relatively tolerant of disturbance.  At the moment, however, it is not possible to store the seed for more than a couple of weeks making it very difficult to deploy seed as and when it is needed outside of the fruiting season.

 

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Left: Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) fruit - Fruit as it is when still on the tree

 

Right: Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) seed - Seed once stripped of the fleshy outer layer by bats or birds (left), with both papery coverings removed (centre), with only the outer of the two papery covering removed (right)

 

The work involved collecting about 5,000 seeds from Maya Nut forests in the Peten of north eastern Guatemala. The seed was then shipped to the Millennium Seed Bank by courier where it was unpacked and studied by Anaité who had flown over from Guatemala for six weeks to undertake the work under the supervision of Tim Marks and Hugh Pritchard, specialists in seed research and storage. This was an opportunity for her to take back the skills and knowledge that she had learnt to Guatemala. The work has been funded by Defra through the Darwin Initiative (project 18-010) and is taking place incollaboration with the Maya Nut Institute.

 

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A batch of Maya Nut seeds being germinated following controlled storage. Image courtesy of Anaité López.

 

Our plan was to devise a regime of cooling and drying the seed that would enable it to be cryogenically stored (frozen) and so stored for many years. To do this we needed to identify the best rate at which to drop the temperature and humidity whilst keeping the seed viable. This involved storing the seed at different temperatures and humidities and taking a batch out and germinating it every month.

 

Given that this seed does not survive for long in the wild and that it is protected by two very thin, papery coverings (see above) we expected it to be very prone to dessication and so sensitive to low humidity. In fact we found quite the reverse. Six months later we are still germinating seed that has retained most of its moisture after having being stored in a dessicant for all this time!

 

In order to understand how this could happen we contacted seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy, world expert on seed morphology. He made the following images of sections through the seed which show a thin but dense layer of cells that control waterloss from the seed:

 

 

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Section through Maya Nut seed showing the dark outer layer that might reduce water loss. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Stuppy.

 

So we now have a partial explanation as to how the seeds can show such remarkable tolerance to drying out. It does, however beg two questions:

 

  1. Why do seeds not survive under the conditions of the forest floor?
  2. Why would a tropical tree that grows in the humid tropics develop such a remarkable resistance to drying out?

 

To be continued maybe...

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Tonya Lander (Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum) has just completed her analyses of the population structure of the Maya Nut tree (Brosimum alicastrum). The results are based on the use of genetic markers and are really interesting. They tell us something about not only the history of this species but how best the species can be managed. This is important because Maya Nut is a significant famine food for the rural poor in northern Central America and is being actively used in reforestation projects as it is fast growing and relatively tolerant of disturbance. The work has been funded by Defra through the Darwin Initiative (project 18-010).

 

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Brosimum alicastrum forest in Mexico

 

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Female flower of Brosimum alicastrum

 

The tree is relatively common throught Central America and South America north of the Amazon. The markers that we have used are from the chlroroplast and nuclear ribosome genomes of the plant and were collected from 34 populations across Central and South America. Many of the samples were collected by the women who harvest the Maya Nut. which provided us with the opportunity to connect rural communities with scientists the other side of the World.

 

Tonya's results provide evidence for distinct northern and southern genetic types (Figure 1), and possibly for Atlantic and Pacific genetic types (Figure 2). These results still need to be tested for statistical significance but will help to clarify whether B. alicastrum fits into the broadly recognized historical pattern of retreat into the Amazon basin during the last glacial maximum followed by post-glacial expansion north into Central America. Each grouping represents a potential land race or ecotype and if confirmed will represent the framework within which seeds can deployed for reforestation.Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Five distinct sub-groups of Brosimum alicastrum:  (1) Peru (dark pink), (2)Panama (bright pink), (3) ‘Southern’: Brazil,  Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Cuba, Mexico  (light blue), (4) Costa Rica (dark blue), and (5) ‘Northern’: El  Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico (pale pink)


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Figure 2. Three distinct sub-groups of Brosimum alicastrum : (1) ‘Pacific’, from Peru to Cuba (dark pink), (2) Panama and Costa Rica (light blue), and (3) ‘Atlantic’, from Brazil to Mexico (dark blue)
1

I have just spent a week collecting samples of Brosimum alicastrum (Maya Nut) with colleague Tonya Lander in Panama. It was a bit scary at first as we were not sure that we would find it, or recognise it in the field. Although it is relatively common, tropical forests have a lot more different species of tree than you would find at home. It is not uncommon to find over 100 species of tree in a 100 m x 100 m patch of forest. Fortunately the leaves have quite distinctive venation (see below) and we were able to collect samples from most of the places that we went to.

 

Brosimum-alicastrum.jpg

 

Tonya and I are documenting geographical patterns in the populations of this tree across Central and South America with the aim of making reforestation with this species sustainable. We were especially keen to collect samples from both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts as further north in Mexico there appear to be physical differences in the bark and branching between these coasts. This involved a lot of driving, over 1,500 km and at one site in the Pacific province of Los Santos, avoiding a large number of crocodiles that were basking on the river bank close to which our tree was growing. Although to be fair to them they seem a lot more scared of us than we were of them!

 

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Back at INBio Herbarium

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 22, 2012

We arrived back at INBio and our dormitory last night, a little euphoric, very tired and having feasted at Taco Bell! Today we had a very interesting meeting with the Director of INBio, Carlos Hernández and later lunch with the vice rectors of the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (Costa Rica's and Latin Americas's biggest equivalent of the Open University) to talk about a training course Neil Brummit and I are giving tomorrow on Species Conservation Assessments.

 

This is Neil's main area of work and my role will be mainly to translate from English into Spanish. There has been a lot of interest and we will be working with participants from Costa Rica's Conservation Areas Network (including National Parks), INBio, the University of Costa Rica and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia.

 

We were finally able to make it back to the herbarium to try and identify some of the 'mystery' plants we had collected. Top of the list for being striking was the dark flowered epiphyte in the potatoe family:

 

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We were pretty sure it was in the genus Schultesianthus but could not remember ever having seen such a dark flowered species. Well, five minutes in the herbarium and we had located it! It is Schultesianthus crosbyanus, first collected in Panama in 1966, described in 1973 as in the genus Markea and moved to the genus Schultesianthus in 1995. Strangely, the only known locality for this species in Costa Rica was where we have just been collecting.

 

 

 

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On our way out

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 22, 2012

Our last day in the mountains. Mixed emotions really. We have made some great collections, enjoyed each other’s company (I hope), learnt a lot, had great support from our porters and field team and have been very lucky with the weather. We are a bit tired though and beginning to lose some of our enthusiasm. I even caught myself not being amazed at seeing a Quetzal so it is probably time for us to head home.

 

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Oak forest at 8 in the morning, light streaming through the foliage

 

For me the highlight of the fieldtrip has been camping on top of one of the Cerros Tararias, almost certainly the first Europeans to have made it to the top of one of these 200 m high blocks of gneiss rock each with its mini paramó atop. Not only did we get the first plant collections from here but we also enjoyed spectacular views between Cerros Kamuk and Fábrega and down the valley of the Río Jet. A completely unexplored part of the Park and the focus of another trip should we get the funds.

 

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View of one of the Cerros Tararias and out across to the Río Jet valley

 

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Carlos ‘Leña’ and his son Josué. Carlos has been our guide and lead porter for much of our work in La Amistad Binational Park and has been a key player in our exploration of the Park.

 

It has also been a real privilege to be able to share some of what we have done and seen with visitors to the Museum as part of the Nature Live programme. For that a big thank you should go to Stephen Roberts and Jo Kessler from the Museum’s Nature Live team, Lee, Adam, Alex, Eddie, Ken and Tony from our Special Effects Department and Erica McAllister and Gavin Broad from our Entomology Department.

 

Also to Tom Simpson, who although was of course very lucky to come with us and whose feet in no way smell (no really they don’t), was incredibly professional and did everything possible to make sure that the live video links went well and answered as many of the questions on the schools blog as possible. Last but not least Jon from our Interactive Media team who has been assembling and editing this blog and to Grace from our Learning Programme who set up the events for schools.

 

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Tom uploading his blog from the base of the Cerros Tararias

 

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Our camp at the base of the Cerros Tararias

 

The plan today was to walk from our main camp at the Albuerge (see the map on Tom's blog) at 2,500 m to a smaller one, Casa Coca, at 1900 m so that tomorrow morning we can get back to the park entrance in good time for the eight hour drive back to San José. It was a beautiful sunny morning, the light streaming through the trees as we set off.

 

The plan was to interrupt our walk and sneak in a sample point half way, in the Pacific drainage. It was really amazing how dramatically the forest changed once we had crossed the main pide between the Caribbean and the much drier Pacific, the understory becoming more open and the canopy lower, possibly because of less rain and more wind?

 

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Holger at the Continental pide collecting a sneaky lichen from the back of the Park sign

 

Scientifically the trip has been a great success, Jo Wilbraham made about 340 moss collections, Holger Thues about 500 lichen collections and Daniel Santamaría (from Costa Rica), Neil Brummit and myself about 640 vascular plants collections.

 

I think that Holger has certainly been the most enthusiastic about his finds with new records not just for Costa Rica but the whole of Tropical America. We are quietly confident of having collected some new species but will need to wait until we get back to a herbarium to be sure. This highlights the importance of global reference collections, such as our own, to identifying new species.

 

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Jo with the bulk of our collections, bagged up and ready to be transported
to the INBio herbarium for drying, sorting and identification

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Well no valentine’s day cards…sniff. Tom from Nature Live has been showing off his card for the last week and I was tempted to write one for myself. Today was another beautiful day though; bright blue skies and a light breeze.

 

After having separated into two groups for the past three days it felt good for us all to be working together again. We walked along the river on a very accident-inducing, slippery trail, with stunning views every few minutes.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

Our site for the day was an area of ‘turbera’ or peat bog - an open expanse of lichen dominated ground with scattered tree ferns (Blechnum buchtienii) around whose base are even more lichens, epiphytes and shrubs.

 

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Overlooking the bog was a loan, probably a dead oak tree, which despite having died is home to a mini forest of it’s own on each branch. I spent more time than I should have trying to work out how many species were in the tree and the logistics of climbing up to collect them.

 

 

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It was hard work pressing in the bright sun but we collected 58 species of vascular plants and Holger and Jo made some more fantastic aquatic lichen and moss discoveries.

 

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It makes a real difference having the perspective of a different group of organisms. Holger was able to identify substantial amounts of basalt rock in the river bed which helps keep the pH close to neutral and so favour a rich and perse lichen community. This also gives us some clues to the history of these mountains.

 

He also very conveniently measures the temperature of the river (12°C) which encouraged me to have a quick dip before we headed back to camp.

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Nature Live - from the field

Posted by Alex Monro Feb 14, 2012

On (our) Sunday morning we did the first Field work with Nature Live events, featuring live-video-links direct to the Museum from Costa Rica. In fact it was the first ever live-link at the Museum using a satellite phone from the field.

 

Tom, the Nature Live host who is accompanying us on our trip (see his own blog), was really nervous despite having spent the last three days getting every last detail right. He had woken up during the night worrying about it, although you wouldn’t have known once everything got going.

 

It was early for us, 6.30 am and bitterly cold (4°C according to the slightly dodgy looking thermometer in the hut) but the shows went well; it was really strange hearing the familiar voices of our colleagues Lee, Jo and Erica back in London in the Museum’s Attenborough Studio whilst we were huddled with a cup of coffee on the veranda of a hut in Costa Rica and desperately trying to keep warm.

 

I’m not sure what the audience made of us: by chance we had the Costa Rican park ranger responsible for this part of the park, Fabricio Carbonal, staying and it meant that he was able to make a surprise appearance.

 

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Tom positioning the satellite phone for our video-link on a boulder in the river to
test the location for our next Nature Live event on Thursday 16 February.

 

After the two Field work with Nature Live events, we sneaked an extra cup of coffee and went to the day's collecting site, a recently discovered ‘lake.’ Well, more of a large pond in the middle of the forest.

 

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The ‘Laguna’

 

To be honest, in terms of vascular plants it was a bit boring. We collected only 43 species, but for mosses and lichens it was much more rewarding with lichenologist Holger Thues getting very excited by a myxomycetes (or true slime mould) which he discovered forming fruiting bodies on a liverwort.

 

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The myxomycete that so excited Holger

 

 

 

Come and see Tom and me at the next Field work with Nature Live events held at 12.30 and 14.30 at the Museum on Thursday 16 February or Saturday 18 February.