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Field work with Nature Live

February 2012
1

Now that Tom has returned safely from his botanical trip to Costa Rica, I'll be heading off to the Bahamas with scientists from the Museum and the University of Southampton. Our destination is the remote island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas and most of our time will be spent on a boat.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

We’ll be using a Remotely-Operated Vehicle (ROV), called REX, to survey the fauna that live in this little explored part of the Caribbean. The really exciting bit is that in some cases this will be the first time that scientists have dropped a camera into these waters.

 

Aside from the observatory work, the team are also looking for a particular worm that likes to live on whale bones. Osedax worms have been found in every ocean in which scientists have looked for them, including the Antarctic, but will they also be found in the tropical waters of the Caribbean?

 

As part of the Museum’s Nature Live programme, I’m lucky enough be joining the trip and I’ll be sending back daily reports in the form of blog posts, pictures and videos. Get in touch with the field trip by using the comments section at the end of each blog.

 

For a chance to experience the trip come to the Museum's Attenborough Studio at 14:30 on 8, 9 and 10 March to see us in a live-video-link to the Bahamas.

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Ivvet Modinou

0

As you read this I will be flying back to London and I will have filled up on greasy food in Newark airport on the way… I have had a wonderful time; an experience that I will never forget and I hope you have enjoyed the blog so thank you for reading it!

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

It's Oscars time so please forgive me but it has to be done... the trip would not have been possible without the following people at the Museum:

 

The Learning Department and specifically Honor, Abigail, Martin and Stephen for letting me leave the office for a couple of weeks. Thanks!

 

The Nature Live team, particularly Jo Kessler for hosting the live-video-link events so expertly, and Ivvet Modinou, Natalie Mills and Ana Rita Claro Rodrigues for your support and good ideas. Also, thanks to Museum scientists Erica McAlister and Gavin Broad for being in the Studio to help prepare the ground with the audience for the live-video-links.

 

Tony and Adam in Special Effects for training me to use the satellite phone and other kit, coming to the realisation that I was likely to break it yet still letting me take it into a remote area of tropical forest in a completely different country (I hope you now feel it has been tested properly!).

 

To Jonathan for posting my blogs every day (even at the weekend) and for providing a forum for the live-chats we’ve held with UK school children as part of Nature Live in the Field - and also thanks to them and their teachers for some great questions and comments!

 

To Grace for developing the schools side of the project and for keeping me busy

 

In Costa Rica, a huge thank you to:

 

Our porters and guides in the La Amistad National Park, and Frank Gonzales at INBIO for sorting out the logistics of the trip and for providing me with a filming permit.

 

The rest of the botany team: Holger Thues, Jo Wilbraham and Neil Brummit - I hope I have been at least a little bit useful and that I have not wound you up too much with endless questions?

 

Daniel Santa Maria for my new nick name!

 

Finally, to Alex Monro for organising the trip and my part in it. I have had a wonderful time and I am so thankful to you for giving me this opportunity to follow science as it happens in the field. Thank you!

 

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I asked the scientists what they thought….

 

 

P.S. This is not the end for Field work with Nature Live as, starting from the 7 March my Nature Live colleague Ivvet Modinou will arrive in the Bahamas with a team of scientists to report on a field trip exploring the life in our oceans. It should have some great footage as they'll be using a mini-submersible in their research!

 

Keep in touch with the Field work with Nature Live community and subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog and you will receive updates whenever a new post appears.

 

And remember, you can meet more Museum scientists every day at Nature Live events held in the Museum’s Attenborough studio at 14:30 (and also 12:30 every weekend and throughout the holidays).

 

I hope to see you at a Nature Live event soon!

 

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Tom Simpson, Costa Rica, 2012.

 

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Note: Tom is currently on his way back to the UK, so I am posting his final blogs from Costa Rica on his behalf.
Jonathan - NaturePlus host

0

Today I had a meeting with the INBIO education department - they are doing some amazing things over here and I’m really looking forward to working with them in the future!

 

INBIO parque is a great place to visit - a botanical garden designed to reflect the whole (enormous) biodiversity of Costa Rica.

 

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They also have some really cool animals living in the parque – I saw this iguana crossing the car park!

 

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Over the past few weeks we have received some great questions from schools all over the UK, which hopefully we have answered! We received the following early on:

 

Hello everyone,

 

We are from a School in Camden, London. We have been working with Holger Thüs on an exciting project on air quality and lichen distribution in our local area. With help from Holger and Pat Wolseley from the Natural History Museum, we surveyed lichens growing on trees in the school grounds and adjacent Hampstead Heath.

 

We wanted to investigate the relationship between differences in air quality, particularly the levels of NO2 and the lichen species found. We monitored NO2 over 5 months with diffusion tubes placed along a transect either side of Highgate Road, which is a busy road and likely to be a major source of nitrogen pollution, and included locations in the school grounds and on Hampstead Heath.

 

We identified the lichens on trees within the vicinity of the school and on the adjacent Hampstead Heath. We tested and found evidence for our hypothesis that there was a correlation between the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the diffusion tubes and biological data from the lichens distribution.

 

Although, we managed to find and identify Nitrogen loving and intermediate lichen but we didn’t find any Nitrogen sensitive lichens. We are really excited about Holger being in Costa Rica and want to know if Holger has found Nitrogen sensitive lichens there. Are there many fructose lichens? Did you find any new species of lichens? Are the lichens really colourful and exotic?

 

We initially thought the NHM team was going to be somewhere really lovely and hot but Holger told us that although it would be lovely it would be very cold because they would be up in the mountains. The air must be very clean. We really want to know about the lichens there.

 

Good Luck with the rest of the trip.

 

LSU

 

 

And today we had a chance to answer in detail…

 

 

Back at INBIO I have been flicking through the photos I (and the others) took while in the park. It seems a common theme amongst my photos is food. Pictures of all of the meals I ate in the field - I can practically hear myself salivating over the camera. I’ve put them together in a film. Bon appetite!

 

 

 

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Note: Tom is currently on his way back to the UK, so I am posting his final blogs from Costa Rica on his behalf.
Jonathan - NaturePlus host

0

We rose early and packed up all of our stuff for the short walk to the entrance of the park. It was a last chance to enjoy trekking in the forest and we had glorious sun and spectacular views all the way down.

 

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In dribs and drabs we arrived at the entrance to the park.

 

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It took a few hours to get everything sorted, we loaded up our truck and after a spot of lunch hit the road for the 5 hour drive back to Santa Domingo and INBIO.

 

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Soon we hit the pineapple plantations that border the park, and the road is dusty and dry.

 

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We are much lower down now and the air is hotter and it is difficult not to miss the cool of the forest.

 

Driving up to reach Santa Domingo we had to cross Cerro de la Muerte and we drove up through the clouds.

 

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Tomorrow, I am going to try and explore the herbarium at INBIO but, mainly, I am going to wash and sleep! Back in civilization I look a complete state…

 

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Note: Tom is currently on his way back to the UK, so I am posting his final blogs from Costa Rica on his behalf.
Jonathan - NaturePlus host

0

Today we trekked back down the mountain to the first hut we stayed in on our trip, Casa Coca. It was a stunning walk, the weather changing all the time.

 

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And we stopped off half way to collect. We were told to be careful of a snake that had been seen on the route the day before. I didn’t see it but I did spot this strange mammal up a tree.

 

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We are now only a short walk from the entrance to the park and our lift back to INBIO. We are sleeping on mats on the floor surrounded by beastly horse flies.

 

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And amazing fireflies.

 

 

As a last supper (for this trip, rather than in the biblical sense) we have had some chicken so spirits are high! Equally, Casa Coca provided a new forum for moth spotting - our favorite evening past-time. They really are amazing!

 

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Tomorrow we leave the forest and drive back to INBIO. I wonder what it will be like back in the normal world?!

0

The weather today was glorious…

 

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… and I followed the vascular plant (flowering plants and ferns) team of Neil, Daniel and Alex to a site about an hour and a half away from the hut. I decided to record each of the species they found and turn it into a film to give you an idea of the variety that we’ve been able to collect.

 

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In the film below, I’ve listed the family, genus and species (where possible). This highlights why it is so important to collect samples of the plants - without taking them to a herbarium and comparing them with other specimens it can be difficult to identify exactly what is there.

 

The top line is the family and the bottom is the genus and species (if we knew it straight away, of course!) Please note, I made this video so if anything is wrong it is my fault not Alex’s!

 

 

Just my luck - this site only provided 44 species which was quite a poor haul compared to the others we have had. Our best day has had over a hundred different species of vascular plant and that’s not counting the lichens and bryophytes Holger and Jo are also collecting.

 

On days where more species are collected, we sometimes have to do the pressing back at the hut and the dinner table is transformed into a mass of newspaper and plants

 

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But today we got home early so Alex made us a pasta dinner.

 

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Species of the day – take your pick from any of the ones in the film above!

 

Tomorrow we are walking back down the mountain to the first hut we stayed in before heading back to the entrance to the park and the drive back to INBIO.

 

I feel quite sad to be leaving our hut in the Valley of Silence as my time here in Costa Rica nears its end. It has been an amazing place to be based and I feel very attached to the forest and our place in it.

2

I was just about to submit today’s blog when Holger rushed back from a walk to say he had seen a huge Tapir – maybe 1.2 metres tall. He said it caused the earth to vibrate! I ran down to the river to catch it crossing - have a look, it’s a bit shaky but I was very excited. It’s very rare to see a Tapir here so I am very chuffed with myself for catching it on film.

 

I also filmed the others’ reaction back at the hut.

 

 

(If you listen carefully you can hear Daniel, once the camera had swung away from the Tapir and was showing my feet on the computer screen, saying, ‘Wow, A Yeti!’)

 

The weather today was sunny and warm – a glorious day, so with my life in my hands, I ventured up a very rickety ladder on to the roof of the hut, which gave me a good view of the forest near by.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

I spent the day with Holger, who is a lichenologist. He talked me through some of the things he has found so far on the trip and why lichens are such an amazing tool to understand an environment such as the one here in the Talamanca Mountains.

 

(My apologies for the low quality of the film but I had to make it smaller to be able to upload it - I'll see if I can update it to a higher resolution version later)

 

At night, once the generator has been turned off we our at the mercy of our head lamps.

 

We enter the world of things that flutter in the night. Beautiful and bizarre, I made a short clip from photos Alex took last night, after lights out.

 

 

And speaking of flutterers – I had a visitor to the laptop today.

 

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My keyboard must be pretty filthy and he/she spent a good 5 mins tasting it!

 

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Species of the day goes to Holger and joins up today’s themes nicely! It is a lichen in the genus Dictyonema (most probably D. sericeum)

 

 

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And it is species of the day because it could be confused (or vice versa) with one of the moths from last night. What amazing camouflage!

 

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Tomorrow, I am going to report on a day with the florwering plant team and attempt a tropical bioblitz.

0

I am writing this blog while chomping on a delicious, freshly-fried pork scratching! Amazing.

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

Today we did a live-video-link to the Museum's Attenborough Studio (our last two will be at 12.30 and 14.30 on Saturday 18 Feb) from the middle of a river near our hut – Rio Terbi. Perched on top of a rock we spoke to an audience in London about our trip and answered their questions about our time here.

 

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One young member of the audience asked about the weight of an acorn we held to camera – we actually don't have any scales so we can't tell for certain, but we estimate it as being about 4 to 5 times bigger than your average UK acorn. Sorry we can't be more accurate!

 

The river is the lifeblood of the forest and our hut - we get our water supply directly from it and use it to cook, wash and drink.

 

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Today we waked for about an hour to a site downstream and by the river.

 

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Holger showed me how he collects aquatic lichens...

 

 

And Alex, Daniel and Neil set up beside the river and went about collecting a huge amount of different plants.

 

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I have been promoted from simply being a weight to hold down specimens to pressing plants and collecting samples for DNA. I also came in useful for a particularly high orchid. We have poles that we normally use to cut specimens that are out of arms reach but we thought this was quicker and more fun. It's nice to know that I am helping out!

 

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Species of the day goes to Jo and it is a carnivorous liverwort! It's in the genus Colura and lives on leaves.

 

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It’s lobes form water sacs, which could be an adaptation to retain moisture, and people have found tiny microscopic creatures called nematodes in these water sacs. It has been suggested that the liverwort dissolves theses tiny creatures and eats them! As Jo says, when you live on only a leaf, every little helps. She also says that up close they look like tiny teapots which made Holger laugh – 'so British', he exclaimed!

 

I can't get close enough to see if I agree with the teapot analogy - have a search for Colura and tell me what you think!

 

Until tomorrow

2

Last night, we arrived back at the hut just before dark and ate a dinner of soup (chicken) and rice (sin bean). Over dinner we learnt that, in our absence, Holger and Jo had a productive time (more on that below) and it was nice to be all back together again.

 

Today I stayed at the hut (checking everything was working for our next live-video-link back to the Museum which will be happening just as this is published) so I had the chance to chat to one of the porters assisting our trip.

 

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(From left to right) Leandro Vargas Astavia and Greyner Vargas Astavia
Daniel Lezcano Arguello and Carlos Godinez Cardenas

 

Daniel Lezcano Arguello started off by apologising for laughing at my new nickname - which has morphed from Yeti via Crouchy (as in Peter, the lanky, robot-dancing footballer) to Pie-Grande. I pointed out that Yeti and Pie-Grande are absolutely fine but Crouchy has most definitely got to go - I am an Arsenal FC fan!

 

He told me about his life when he is not working as a guide or porter. He is a farmer and has 5 hectares near the entrance to Amistad National Park where he grows coffee and bananas and keeps pigs and cows. The coffee he sells to a large Costa Rican company although he keeps a bit back for personal use as he prefers to know what is in his morning cuppa. The bananas are used to feed the cows and pigs.

 

The cows are for milk and he makes cheese, and the pigs are for meat. He also grows some vegetables and we swapped allotment stories although he seemed pretty unconvinced it was possible to grow anything in British temperatures.

 

He said he is typical of the porters in that they all farm when not guiding people through the park. This trip (like most field work, I imagine) would be impossible without the help of the porters.

 

They prepare trails and camps and ferry specimens and food to and from the field, and they carry extraordinary amounts and move incredibly quickly through the forest. This is the head porter and our guide Carlos.

 

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Head porter Carlos making his work look easy while I struggle to keep up (hence the blurry photo!)

 

He is carrying a backpack, a few litres of water, camping equipment for 4 and - if that wasn’t enough already - a shovel.

 

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Leandro taking a breather

 

I am in awe of their strength and athletic ability at this altitude and their commitment to our trip. They have an invaluable knowledge of the forest and are key in helping us find interesting sites and species. Also, they are vital for the conservation of the park so we are doubly thankful for what they do.

 

Species of the day today goes to Holger - the result of 2 hours hard work, blood, sweat and tears!

 

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Holger found three different stream lichens with a high likelihood that they may be new for Costa Rica and maybe even new to science.

 

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This lichen is a representative of the family Lichinacae and fresh water species of this family are commonly found in Nordic countries.

 

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Holger didn’t expect to find something like this here and all of the lichens Holger has found reflect a climate far, far colder than would have been expected - something we can vouch for during the long cold nights!

 

This is why lichens are so important in that that they tell us so much about our environment. Sadly, no video today – I hope to get back to business tomorrow.

 

(Just a quick reminder that Alex is also writing his own blog about our trip and you can read it here and that our next live-video-links with the Museum are at 12.30 and 14.30 on Saturday 18 February)

2

At the end of day 8, in order to be nearer our site for the next day's work and to finish pressing, we did decide to camp out on the peak (see yesterday's post).

 

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(Click images to see them full size)

 

We set up our tent at the top and set about making a dinner of soup and pasta.

 

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This was the most incredible place to eat and sleep - on top of a rock, the forest floor hundreds of metres below on either side of us. The picture below shows the peak.

 

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Over dinner we watched the weather, which was better than any TV programme. It was amazing to see clouds form below us and then race up the side of the mountains and roll by while turning the color of the setting sun to orange and then grey.

 

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I tried to capture it on film.

 

 

The next day, having been buffeted by the wind all night, we rose early and made some coffee and scrambled eggs. Someone (either Daniel or Alex ) took this horrific photo of me in the night!

 

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What is it? A Yeti?

 

We had a tin of tuna going spare, but couldn’t face it that early!

 

Today we are collecting on the neighbouring peak and after lunch we will walk back to our hut for the remainder of our stay. The descent and climb between the two peaks was dramatic. I did most of it on my backside! Sliding down the mountain holding on to anything that didn’t come away in my hand.

 

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Every time we venture further into the forest, all the places we’ve already been to seem to feel less wild and more hospitable.

 

Coming down the peak from our camp last night, the forest below began to feel familiar and safe (I promptly fell between two trees, bringing me back down to earth, metaphorically and literally - with a bump) and I completely understand why visiting places like this can become addictive.

 

Apologies for waxing (poorly) philosophical - it is Valentine's Day as I write this and I’m feeling whimsical!

 

Back to why we're here... Species of the day goes to Daniel and is a new species (probably)!

 

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It is a member of the genus Blackea and normally this genus is epiphytic (i.e. it would grow on other plants) but this one is a small tree, three metres high and has pale translucent green flowers unlike any other species in the genus that we're aware of.

 

Daniel is pretty sure it is a new species but we can’t be 100% until it has been checked.

 

Also, I should have said a few days ago, Holger and Jo stayed back at the hut as there are more sites of interest to them in that area than up the peaks, so we’ll catch up with them this evening.

0

Last night we had lentils instead of beans and I almost cried with joy. They were amazing and had small pieces of pork nestling in the juice. Yum...

 

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A bit of yeti red-eye going on there!
(Click images to see them full size)

 

I have been given a nickname by Daniel, our Costa Rican collaborator. He is known as Santa - to be fair, that is his actual name (he’s Daniel Santa Maria) - and I am now known as ‘Yeti’ - due to my large boots.

 

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Daniel amused himself no end with jokes about collecting Yeti footprints for the Museum. My Spanish is too poor to be clever in the response so I’m accepting my fate: I am the mythical giant of the Himalayas with huge boots.

 

In the night we were woken by an earthquake - it felt quite gentle (we were sleeping on the floor) but this report shows it was actually quite strong!

 

I was sleeping so deeply that my main emotion was one of annoyance at being awoken rather than fear. Still, an experience none the less!

 

We got up early, had a second bash at the lentils and set off for our collecting site for the day – Cerro Tararia. The walk was incredible, a lot of scrambling up and down.

 

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This place is amazing, a rocky outcrop with views that stretch for miles.

 

 

We are 2,730 metres above sea level and our coordinates today are N 09 08 52.0 W 082 58 02.7 (click to see on a map).

 

The sound is a little obscured at times in the film above due to the wind (sorry about that), but you can make out Alex saying that Panama isn't far from where we are, and the border is visible on the map linked above.

 

The views from the top are stunning.

 

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Species of the day is a member of the genus Schultesia. Daniel is not sure whether it is a new species or not but he has never before seen a Schultesia with purple flowers as they are normally white.

 

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Alex and Neil were discussing what it could be pollinated by and decided it was probably bats. The flower’s pistil and stamen are quite a long way apart from each other and it has a long tubular corolla, so a bat’s long tongue would be the perfect tool!

 

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We are just debating whether to sleep on the rock or walk back to the camp. Sleeping out here would be incredible. I’ll let you know if we did or not tomorrow!

0

Breakfast was sausages – yes! Salty and oily they took my good friends rice and beans to a whole new level.

 

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Today we set off from our hut, to the camp we are going to stay at for the next two days – N 09 08 09.4, W 082 57 38.4 are the co-ordinates: view on a map.

 

Our route took us along the river.

 

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We walked for a couple of hours before climbing up to a point called Jardin. This area is completely different from anything I have seen so far on the trip – it’s a peat bog and is dominated by tree ferns that have islands of mosses, lichens and sedges growing around them. It was a rare break in the forest canopy and there were some spectacular views.

 

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It was a really challenging crossing - impossible to know whether your next step was going to hold fast or leave you knee deep in the bog.

 

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We then dipped backed down through the forest – not so much a trail as a thrash through the bush!

 

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Once at the camp, I set up the equipment for sending you my post - solar charger and satellite phone - and made a little tour of the camp.

 

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On the way here I saw the first sign of a wild cat – this is Ocelot poo, apparently!

 

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Species of the day goes to Neil (though Alex is making a spurious claim!). It is in the genus Pilea (in the nettle family) and Alex thinks it may be a new species! He is a world expert in the nettle family and, in particular, this genus - although this looks similar to another species of Pilea it has a key difference in that the leaves are of equal size to each other as opposed to being different sizes.

 

If it is a new species Alex will be able to publish a description of it and give it a name, but he can only be sure that this is a new species once he has checked it against similar species housed in herbaria.

 

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This really highlights the importance of the trip and of collecting in general. In order to know exactly what is in the park and make as complete a check-list of the species as possible, we have to know what lives here. These specimens will be available for future generations, who may have other uses for the data they provide.

 

Of course, it is important not to collect too much, we rarely collect a whole plant and always make sure we don’t collect without the correct permits which are provided by the Costa Rican government.

1

Food update! We have been brought a butchered pig to add to the holy duo of rice and beans – this is a gruesome picture of the skin but the meat was delicious! I have also spied some sausages amongst the supplies and wait eagerly for their appearance at the dinner table!

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The main aim of our trip is to document the biodiversity of the area and collect different species of plants. We take five copies of each species – one goes to INBIO, one to the Missouri Botanical Garden, one each to the National Herbarium of Panama and the National Museum of Costa Rica and one to the Natural History Museum.

 

Collecting is a meditative process and it is wonderful to be in the field as a team, finding out what the environment holds. Amongst the flowering plant team (Daniel, Alex and Neil) the duties of collecting are split: today, Daniel searched out the different species in the area and collected them, Neil and Alex set up a small processing area - one photographing and taking DNA samples of each species and the other pressing the five copies of each species between sheets of newspaper.

 

I had a go at pressing but my main duty was the honourable task of pressing down on the pile of specimens, a job that you may think could be done by a rock or gravity but Neil described my contribution as very useful, so here I am hard at work:

 

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These specimens are bagged up and brought back to the hut at the end of the day where they are placed in sealed bags full of 70% alcohol, which stops them rotting. These specimens will be carried down the mountain and dried on heaters before being sent to the various institutes to be mounted and added to their collections (a collection of pressed plants is called a herbarium).

 

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Neil explained the process to me in the field:

 

 

The DNA is stored in silica gel which keeps the samples dry by absorbing the moisture in the atmosphere. I have lots of the stuff (which I keep in tied-up tights) to try and keep all my equipment - kindly lent to me by the museum - free from moisture.

 

I made what could be the 'driest' video of all time about how you dehydrate the silica once it has done it’s job and is saturated with liquid - dry-fried next to the omnipresent beans, so worth watching for that scene if nothing else. My silica is dark blue when saturated with moisture and orange when dehydrated:

 

 

Species of the day – Vaccinium bocatorense (collected by the flowering plants team) is very closely related to the blueberry and grows between 1.5 to 2 metres tall. It’s endemic to the national park so is not found anywhere else in the world and it’s a beauty!

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Tomorrow we set off to spend a couple of nights camping at a location a few hours walk form our hut - I will try and blog from there but if things go quiet due to lack of internet access, I’ll be back on Wednesday.

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Continuing my food theme... Today we had pancakes for breakfast (not rice and beans) and they were about an inch thick and flavoured with vanilla. I had mine with maple syrup and am feeling very happy with myself!

 

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(Click the images to see them full size)

 

After a few days of staying around the hut, today I got the chance to go out with the botanists into the field and experience collecting. We went to a place called Laguna.

 

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There are several specific sights of interest that the botanists target each day – we had a live-link back to the Museum to do in the morning so chose a site nearby (see the map below - we are staying at Albergue Valle del Silencio and Laguna is due East-South-East from there).

 

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I am going to blog about the specifics of collecting tomorrow but today wanted to focus on the trails cut for us in order to reach the collection sites. Some trails are clear, well worn by the porters ferrying supplies and specimens to and from the camp, others are cut specifically for us and are much less easy to follow.

 

The forest is so dense it is easy to lose ones bearings. Today I tried to keep my orientation between a river and mountain but soon the dense foliage span me around and I felt completely at the mercy of the forest. It is a wonderful feeling to be lost - as long as you’re with someone who isn’t!

 

Because the forest is so dense sound doesn’t travel too far so Alex and Daniel Santa Maria (a botanist from INBIO - The National Institute for Biodiversity in Costa Rica) use calls to locate each other.

 

 

 

Daniel has an amazing knowledge of the local plants and is invaluable to the trip. Here he is having a rest after lunch in the field.

 

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Species of the day today is Conopholis alipna and was collected by Daniel and the flowering plant team (Alex and Neil). It is a parasite that targets the roots of oak trees which are the predominately tree in the surrounding forests.

 

It gets all of it’s nutrients from it’s host and is found at altitudes of between 2,000 and 2,700 metres. It's my species of the day because I think it looks really cool:

 

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Until tomorrow!

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So today I have had the chance to spend a bit of time at the hut - I made a video to hopefully give you an idea of what it’s like! (Also I meant the water is clean enough to drink, not eat! Sorry it must be the altitude, which is 2,500 metres - you can see on Google Maps the exact location of where we are.)

 

 

For breakfast the ubiquitous rice and beans made a welcome appearance - last night was really cold (definitely in the lower single figures!) so some hot food and drink was more than welcome. By mid-day it had warmed up considerably and the sun was hot.

 

(I should make it clear that I am in no way complaining about rice and beans - I love them! Last night they were joined by a hot, steaming pot of chicken soup and dinner was great.)

 

The scientists went out collecting today (the first chance to have a proper explore since they arrived) and they found some great stuff! However, Neil has already suffered some really nasty sandfly bites.

 

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(Click the images to see them full-sized)


N.B. I've enhanced the colour of this photo a little so that you can see the bites more clearly.

 

Species of the day goes to Holger (although he found it yesterday). It’s on this stone, which he found in a nearby stream 30 cm below the water level. He had to chisel the lump off with both hands underwater and he described it as the single most difficult specimen he has ever collected.

 

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It’s a representative of the genus Hydropunctaria and this is the first time it has ever been recorded in tropical America - it is found widespread in more temperate areas and in cold mountain streams in SE Asia and South Africa.

 

It is one of the best indicators of a stable stream bed and only lives in constantly cold water. Therefore it is an important species to know about when considering climate change. Now that Holger has found this specimen future generations will know that it was living here in 2012.

 

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Now it may look like a dark patch on a dirty rock (Alex’s words not mine!) but Holger gave the following quote:

 

‘Perfect circular shape, a beautiful olive green hue and a texture of half solid jelly which is just amazing.’

 

Wow, I’m going to have a cold shower ... which is good news as we don’t have any hot water! I’m going to blog more about lichens next week.

 

With one new discovery under our belts, I hope the photos from my previous posts give you an indication of just how rich the plant life is here. Alex tells me that there are more than twice as many species of plant in this park alone than in the whole of the UK.

 

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He has written a really nice piece on his own blog about the forest here - do have a read.

 

Finally, if you want to experience a live video-link direct from our hut to London tomorrow (and also on the 16 and 18 Feb) please come to the Nature Live event in the Museum's Attenborough Studio to say hello! They'll be held at 12:30 and 14:30 and (barring any technical issues) we're going to be joining the event to answer questions from the Studio and to show you a few specimens.

 

Jo (Nature Live host) and Erica McAlister from the Department of Entomology will be in the Studio to talk about field work, why it’s so important, what it’s like and how you do it, etc., so please do pop down to South Kensington.

 

Also, I wanted to let you know that, unfortunately, due to my limited internet connection I can't see your comments until they are e-mailed to me, so my apologies if you have had any questions which remain unanswered – I’ll do my best to respond in the next few days.

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Today we rose early! By 7.00 we had left base camp and were beginning the 6-8 hour trek [I sit here smug, we did it in just over 6] to the hut that is to be our home for the next week and a bit. Breakfast was rice and beans (a theme is emerging!).

 

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(Click the images to see them full size)

 

The first half of the trek was uphill (i.e. absolutely knackering) but the views from the occasional break in the canopy were breathtaking and kept us pushing on.

 

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We are working alongside Costa Rican botanists, one of whom is Daniel. He has an incredible knowledge of the local environment and found this plant, Satyria warszewiczii on our trek.

 

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The flower’s corolla (a corolla is when all of the flower’s petals have fused into a tube) is edible and tastes a little bit like bitter lemon or blueberries (or vinegar depending on who you ask!):

 

 

After 4 hours we reached the continental divide, the point at which Costa Rica splits between Atlantic and Pacific forest. Water that falls either side of this divide ends up in either the Pacific or Atlantic ocean. Alex had a unique way of explaining this:

 

 

The forest changed dramatically once we were on the Atlantic side - on the Pacific side our path had been dry and dusty but once we crossed over, the forest was damper, darker, cooler and wetter. This is because the prevailing wind blows from the West.

 

The wind picks up moisture from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and carries it to the western Atlantic slopes of the forest before dumping it there. Therefore, because less water reaches the Pacific side, it’s much drier.

 

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The rain increased as we got closer to our hut. We arrived damp and tired but very excited about the days ahead.

 

The camp is made from naturally fallen trees from the forest and the roof is corrugated iron - the sound of the rain drumming above me as I sit inside with a coffee is wonderful!

 

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I’ll post some more pictures of the camp tomorrow - the battery in my camera has run out of juice and our generator is not yet up and running.

However, we found some really nice things on the way, this is a beetle grub:

 

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And this beautiful moth:

 

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I'll have to see if the Museum's enotmologists know what species they are...

 

Tomorrow we start collecting and the hard work begins but Holger has already had success after popping down to a nearby stream and finding two species of lichen never recorded in Costa Rica before.

 

Tonight, more beans and rice and early to bed.

 

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Remember we'll be live-linking from Costa Rica to the Museum's Attenborough Studio at 12:30 and 14:30 on Saturday 11, Sunday 16 and Saturday 18 February so, if you are in London, come along to see how we are getting on!


The Attenborough Studio is located in the Darwin Centre in the Museum's Orange Zone.

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After our first night in Costa Rica, it was a breakfast of pastries (spicy cheese – delicious!) before we packed up and headed off from INBIO.

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(Click the images to see them full size)

 

The drive was 6 hours and was spectacular from start to finish. We drove higher and higher along the ridge that cuts down Costa Rica until we reached Everest - not the mountain (wrong continent!) but the name of a rest stop - for a mid-morning snack. Fried cheese and tortilla (equally delicious).

 

We then enjoyed and took full advantage of the greatest view from a urinal probably anywhere in the world.

 

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I took some footage of the drive - please excuse the jumpiness as it was very bouncy and I had to edit the film in the back of the jeep! Better will follow, I promise.

 

 

Soon the road turned to dirt track and we entered the Amistad National park.

 

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We stopped at Asoprola for a beautiful lunch of beans, fried chicken, plantain, rice and salad. Asoprola is a wonderful hostel run by a co-op and was decked out in a wonderful mosaic.

 

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I also saw a really cool lizard that put on a nice little show!

 

 

After lunch and a short drive we reached the end of our journey by jeep and the beginning of our first trek.

 

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Two hours later and I am writing from a hut as dusk falls on a very cloudy evening.

 

The trek was amazing the air and forest is thick and everything buzzes with life. Tomorrow we will trek for another 8 hours to reach our second (and final camp) so I’ll be able to post more then.

 

It’s dark now and we only have a few petrol lamps and some fireflies for light. Amazing!

 

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We have arrived in Costa Rica!

 

From a snowy North London...

 

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Via some beautiful skies over America…

 

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... to spending the night at INBIO (Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) - the Costa Rican National Institute for Biodiversity.

 

And already my botanical education has got underway - this is Holger outside Newark airport...

 

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This is what he is looking at...

 

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... which is a moss (the green bits, that is). Holger says you can tell this is a new pavement and not just a very clean one because there are mosses but no lichens. Lichens are slow to grow, apparently! Here’s hoping for some more spectacular specimens in the tropics.

 

I'm off to bed as it's very late here in Costa Rica but tomorrow we will drive for most of the day to reach Altamira. If we get there early enough, we will climb to our first camp, otherwise we will have to wait until the next morning for our first hike.

 

See you again tomorrow.

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The trip to Costa Rica is led by Dr. Alex Monro who has his own blog where you can learn about his interests and research. But here is some information about the other scientists, and their expectations for the trip:

 

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Dr. Neil Brummit is Researcher in Botanical Diversity

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

My main botanical interest has always been in biogeography - working out why some distant areas of the world have the same plants, while other areas close to each other have different plants. Also, I study why some areas of the world have so many more plant species than other areas do, and try to identify these areas and the threatened species they contain accurately enough to help with plans for their conservation.

 

Best thing about being a Botanist

When you can see that your work has been useful to someone else, especially someone outside of botany, it gives you a sense that your efforts have been worthwhile. For example, a big project that I have been involved in for several years has estimated how many plant species worldwide are threatened with extinction, and when we announced results from this project in 2010, it was covered in hundreds of media outlets around the world and we also travelled to the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to make a presentation there. At the end of the meeting there was a renewed determination by the world's governments to take positive conservation actions in the next few years, and I did feel that, in our own small way, we were a part of the scientific response to the loss of global biodiversity that had helped to galvanise the political will to make that happen.

 

Previous field work

A little bit of everywhere; I´ve done fieldwork on each continent, but I´m always keen to visit new places. For me there is always something special about being in Africa, perhaps because that was my first experience in the tropics. I think once you´ve been collecting in the tropics, everywhere else seems a bit boring by comparison. I was still at school when I first went on a proper field trip, to Malawi with my father (who is also a botanist); I loved it, and remember thinking that he was paid to do this!

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Seeing new plants, and thinking to myself "Wow, what on earth is that?". If I can attempt an identification that is somewhere close to what it is, even better.

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Leeches and mosquitos; Listening to rats running around you in the dark when you are trying to sleep at night; Never being clean; Missing being at home with my wife;

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

Hopefully I will have the opportunity for more fieldwork in Costa Rica, so for me this is a chance to experience the country but, perhaps more importantly, get to know the people working there and start to build relationships with them. I´m grateful to be going with someone like Alex who has already had a lot of experience there, and I´m looking forward to working in the field with him.

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

It´s hard work! Don´t expect too much, as all the best laid plans can go out of the window very quickly; be prepared to adapt.

 

 

Jo Wilbraham.jpgJo Wilbraham is Senior Curator, Algae

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

Non-flowering / cryptogamic plants, particularly bryophytes

 

Best thing about being a Botanist / Curator

Being able to spend time obsessing about your favourite plant group as part of your ‘proper job’ and being able to work with the wonderful collections here at the Natural History Museum.

 

Previous field work

My more recent fieldwork has been around the beautiful British coastline looking at seaweeds.  I’ve also been on fieldwork trips to Reunion Island, Ecuador, Belize and Sulawesi, so Central America is new territory for me.

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Exciting times looking for plants (and no access to work email).

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Sharing a camping hut with vampire bats wasn’t very nice, but mostly I’d say missing the folks back home.

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

My underlying goal is to contribute more data to the question ‘what grows where’, hopefully increasing knowledge of rare / poorly understood species and the habitats they live in.  I will be collecting specimens for long term preservation in the NHM herbarium where they will be available to researchers around the world who are studying these groups – both now and in the future!

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

Remember to pack your sense of humour… and a hand lens!

 

Holger_LymeRegis.jpgDr. Holger Thues is Curator – Lichens

 

Area of Botany you’re most interested in

All the oddities traditionally studied by botanists but which are in fact not related to plants (eg. fungi, slime-molds etc.). Within “Green Botany” my current main interest is in lichenised algae (photosynthetic symbiotic partners in lichens) and particularly their compatibility with various lichens in different habitats.

 

Best thing about being a Botanist

I regard myself as a biologist. In my current role as curator at the NHM my focus is on lichenised fungi and their associated algae – this makes me a part mycologist / part botanist. Before I came to the NHM I was working partly as a researcher and partly as an environmental consultant. This included work with lichens, mosses and seed plants but also with various animal groups: from aquatic invertebrates, leafhoppers to hamsters and salmon. I like the constant change of the profession “biologist”  - although the fundamental questions have remained surprisingly similar over thousands of years: from the stone age to the time of worldwide industrialisation: biologists always look for answers to the questions: what to eat (and what not?)  what is harmful?  what is beneficial? And what does it all mean in a wider context? I can hardly imagine a more interesting profession!

 

Previous field work

Mostly all over Europe (particularly “rocky” habitats from coastal cliffs to alpine peaks – you can easily locate me in the field by the sound of my chisel). In the tropics so far two field trips to the Venezuelan part of the Andes (focussed on freshwater habitats in open areas with Paramo-vegetation).

 

Favourite thing about working in the field

Asking questions directly to the living organism in its environment, physical activity, absence of paperwork

 

Least favourite thing about working in the field

Travelling to the study sites, paperwork in advance of a field trip

 

What are your hopes for this trip?

As a curator my main hope is to collect a rich selection of fresh lichen material from little studied habitats and poorly known taxonomic groups which will become a relevant resource for further studies by researchers in Costa Rica, at our museum and for other collaborators across the world.

 

One personal research focus for me will be a comparison of the freshwater lichens in the Talamanca Mountains with those in streams of other tropical and temperate areas. For temperate areas lichens were shown to be valuable indicators of water level fluctuations and stream bed stability, but we still know to little on the species diversity and the distribution patterns of freshwater lichens in the tropics to make them useful tools for the assessment of streams in these areas as well.

 

A second area of interest is an assessment of the lichen diversity on rock outcrops and the light rich and open Paramo-vegetation at the highest elevations of the Talamanca Mountains. These habitat types cover huge areas in the South American Andes but occur in relative isolation and at a much smaller scale in Costa Rica, separated by large densely forested areas. Together with my research colleague Cecile Gueidan we want to find out how this isolation affects the diversity of lichens. This habitat type is also likely to be among the first to be affected by climate change.

 

What one piece of advice would you give someone going on field work for the first time?

Try to get in contact with local people, appreciate and follow their advice.

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20120131-Costa-Rica-Valley-of-Silence-copyright-Natural-History-Museum.jpgIn February 2012 a team of 4 Natural History Museum botanists will be travelling to a remote area of tropical forest known as 'El Valle de Silencio' (The Valley of Silence) in Costa Rica. The team will be camping and collecting flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and algae.

 

As part of the Museum’s Nature Live programme, I’m lucky enough be joining the trip and I’ll be sending back daily reports from Costa Rica in the form of blog posts, pictures and video.  If you'd like to get in touch with the field trip you can use the comments sections at the end of each blog.

 

For a chance to experience the trip come to the Attenborough Studio in the Museum on 11, 16 and 18 February for 12:30 or 14:30 to see a live video link to Costa Rica.