Adrian in the Amazon - part 4
We have now settled into a routine at the Yanayacu Biological Station. Our days are spent out in the forest collecting flies and in the evenings we examine the results of the days efforts, preserving the specimens and collating data about where and how we found them. Josenir and I are especially interested in a group of flies known as Hemerodromiinae and in our fieldwork efforts we mostly target streams, rivers and springs where we expect to find them.
The terrain in this part of the Andes is generally very steep and many of the stream banks have washed-out and slipped allowing a dense understorey of bamboo to grow. Because of this, simply getting into the streams can involve much machete work hacking through the vegetation and a slithering half-controlled descent of muddy slopes until we finally splash into the stream bed and can begin work. Our general procedure is to wade upstream using a net to sweep insects off surrounding vegetation, or selectively picking flies off wet rocks, wet moss etc. It is hard, dirty and wet work and we inevitably return soaked to the skin and mud-splattered but we have been rewarded by many interesting finds.
Yesterday we found perhaps 30-50 species (it’s not really possible to be more precise until we begin detailed examinations back in Cardiff and Manaus) and we think that around 90% of these will be completely new species that have yet to be described. I was particularly delighted to find no less than 5 new species of the genus Chelipoda. I have studied this genus intensively in the past and attempted to construct a ‘phylogenetic tree’ showing the systematic relationships between the living species and inferring the sequence of their evolution.
It is not yet clear if most South American species of Chelipoda evolved from ancestors that migrated south from North America in the distant past or if they have developed from so-called ‘Gondwanan’ species - ones which originated on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana before it broke apart and its fragments drifted apart to form modern day New Zealand, South Africa and Patagonia for example. Careful examination of the Ecuadorian species should reveal clues hidden in their anatomy as to which theory (if any) is correct.
Adrian in the Amazon - part 3
In Quito we met up with the third member of our team Eduardo Carlo Amat Garcia, a specialist in blow-flies from Bogota, Columbia and together travelled with surprising ease to the Estacion Biologica Yanayacu, a biological research station on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Here the field work starts in earnest. This morning we were up early and after a breakfast punctuated by hummingbirds hovering around the outside breakfast table, headed off into the forest.
A couple of hours heavy machete work through steep dense bamboo-choked forest lead us to a high ridge covered with thick lush Andean forest, festooned with various creepers and epiphytic plants. This made an ideal place to place our first Malaise trap. These traps are constructed rather like a tent, insects flying or blown onto a central vane move up to a central ridge and are collected by placing a receiving bottle across a small hole at the top. While Josenir and I set out traps, Eduardo was placing a different kind of trap to catch his blow-flies - traps baited with a disgusting mixture of decomposing fish-heads and chicken giblets to which blow-flies are attracted to lay their eggs.
For the rest of the day we made/cut our way through the forest setting traps in different kinds of habitat in the hope that we will catch a greater variety of flies by sampling different areas. Now the traps are set, they will continue to work until we bring them down in a week’s time. They will continue to work even in the pouring rain when other means of sampling are difficult. And it has been raining all day, but despite this we have made a few early discoveries such as a very little-known genus of flies called Chvalaeae which none of us had seen before. And of course the other wildlife provided some consolation - including numerous spectacular birds and recent signs (tree scratching) of an Andean Bear. What a pity we did not see the actual animal. Maybe tomorrow! Now with traps set and forecast of better weather tomorrow, we are hopeful of an exciting time in the days ahead.
Adrian in the Amazon - part 2
Ecuador at last! Josemir Camara and I have now arrived in Quito, after a long dog-legging flight from Manaus up to Panama City and back down to Ecuador. While we arrange the logistics of our onward travels, we have a little time to explore some of the sights of the world’s highest capital city and to visit the insect collections at the museum of Quito’s Catholic University. The collections of museums around the World house a vast treasure-trove of knowledge and visits between curators of different museums can be significant in unlocking this knowledge for wider appreciation and usefulness.
Specialists such as myself and my Brazilian colleagues José Albertino Rafael and Josenir Câmara are able to provide insight into the significance of these collections, promote wider recognition of their value and significance as well as provide pointers to how their importance may be communicated to their own nationals. Of course we have a vested interest too - we get to see specimens of animals we have only ever dreamed of!
Sometimes we can arrange loans between our institutions to support our own research or to facilitate contact with others who have something to contribute to the understanding or interpretation of the collections. While it is certainly true that most of insect biodiversity has never been seen (or knowingly seen) by a human being, it is also true that a proportion of that unknown diversity is represented in museum collections and people like me and my Brazilian colleagues are in the very special situation of being able to recognize its importance.
Adrian in the Amazon - part 1
I’m now in the enigmatic central Amazonian city of Manaus (of World Cup fame) situated where the white waters of the Rio Solimões converge with the inky black Rio Negro to form the Amazon proper. This is my third visit as part of a project in collaboration with my colleague José Albertino Rafael at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA) and our PhD student Josenir Câmara. Our Project is describing the diversity of a particular group of flies in the Amazon using classical taxonomic approaches and relating it to Global evolutionary and biogeographic patterns using, for example, emerging molecular-genetic methodology. In order to do this we first have had to travel to remote areas of the Amazon, collecting flies to be brought back to the labs in Manaus and Cardiff - where the hard work really starts.
On previous visits we have surveyed remote areas on the Rio Negro close to Venezuela, way up the Solimões along the Colombian and Peruvian borders as well as downstream in Amapa State between the mouth of the great river and French Guiana. During this visit we intend to leave the Brazilian Amazon behind and explore fly diversity in some of the upper reaches of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. We are all keyed up and excited by the imminent prospect of getting out into the forest again and trying to anticipate some of the discoveries we might make.
Of course, we cannot really know exactly what we are going to find but our past experiences suggest that much of what we discover will be completely new. That is one of the great delights of being an entomologist in the tropics as the diversity of insects is so vast and our knowledge so sparse that exciting discoveries are virtually inevitable. You would have to walk around the Amazon with your eyes and mind closed not to find something totally and often bewilderingly novel! But for the time being we must contain our excitement as we spend our time sorting the field equipment we will take with us, pouring over maps and satellite imagery and speculating about finds we might make. I can’t wait for our flight to Quito!
Solar eclipse 2015
The days before Friday 20th March, had staff in the Department of Natural Sciences watching the weather forecast with great attention. Friday 20th March 2015 was a really special day as we had the opportunity in Cardiff, weather permitting, to see a partial eclipse of the Sun. This does not happen very often, the next one won’t be until 12th August 2026.
On the Thursday we had a great start to the celebration by hosting an evening of talks on eclipses at the Museum. These were given by Dr Chris North, Dr Rhodri Evans, Dr Mark Hannam, astronomers and physicists from Cardiff University; and we all felt much better informed as to what we knew about the sun, why an eclipse was occurring, and what eclipses tell us about gravity. Equally important was a talk by Jenni Millard, an undergraduate student but experienced astronomer, on how to view the sun safely. Having listened intently the audience were issued with free solar eclipse viewing glasses.
Friday morning and we were in luck, a perfect sunny morning and all that worry about the weather had paid off! By 8.00 a few people had already arrived outside the Museum, by 8.20 there were many more. At 8.22 we saw the first contact of the eclipse. For a short while the sun was almost obscured by the trees in the Gorsedd Gardens, but not for long. With colleagues from Cardiff University and the Institute of Physics we provided a range of methods to view the eclipse safely. These included a solar telescope that provided the greatest detail of the sun’s surface, pinhole viewers, ranging from boxes and tubes to simple card and paper, solar viewing boxes, colanders and eclipse glasses. Most visitors had noted the warnings about safe eye protection, only a few needed reminding that two pairs of sunglasses wouldn’t do the job!
Over the 126 minutes of the eclipse from first contact of the moon until we saw the entire sun once again, over 1000 people viewed the eclipse on the Museum steps with the viewing glasses provided. In total we estimate that over this period nearly 2000 people joined the event. At one point the queue disappeared round the corner of the Museum into Park Place almost to the University! However this was a great event with a fantastic atmosphere of participation and patient queuing.
For more astronomy linked events please see Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales What’s On pages, next one is on 18th April, and for education resources check out the Museum’s partnership Down2Earth Project web site
For more information on our Eclipse 2015 activities see our Storify Story.
I Spy…Nature out and about
Last year Staff from the Departments of Natural Sciences, and Learning, Participation and Interpretation took their I Spy…Nature themed pop-up museum out into the community. This year we have been delivering I Spy…Nature related workshops throughout March as part of the I Spy…Nature Exhibition outreach programme. Workshops at National Museum Cardiff allowed members of the public to carry out fieldwork within the museum, bringing the outside in! Visitors were able to explore the miniature world of British Slugs and Snails, go pond dipping, explore a rocky shore (utilising our brand new portable 3D Rocky shore) and go worm charming with our OPAL Community Science officer. During the middle part of March, staff ran a series of school workshops both at National Museum Cardiff and within a local primary school, where pupils could explore the seafloor, Fossils and Minerals before trying their hand at scientific illustration with a local artist. The aim of these sessions was to inspire children to explore their natural environment and also to give them a chance to experience the work that museum scientists do. For British Science and Engineering Week, staff held an I Spy…Nature Open day in the main Hall at National Museum Cardiff, with a plethora of specimens from our collections and even a giant lobster, fly and squirrel!
For more information on the I Spy…Nature activities see our Storify Story.
Seaweeds in Northumberland
On 19th February, I joined science curator Kate Mortimer-Jones to study marine life on the shores around Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, not far from the border with Scotland. While Kate hunted for magalonid marine bristleworms, I looked at seaweeds. Much of England’s east coast is not particularly suitable for seaweeds; however, the rocky shores around Northumberland form plenty of ideal habitats.
It was early in the year, so I wasn’t expecting to see the seaweeds that die down for the winter (similar to annual and perennial flowering plants). I was also expecting a lower diversity here when compared with Welsh shores due to the colder climate. Species with south-western distributions that prefer a relatively warmer climate, such as Brown Tuning Fork Weed (Bifurcaria bifurcata), relatively common in Wales, do not grow as far north and east as Northumberland. With climate change, however, there is always the possibility that these southern species may expand their range further north. This is more likely for non-native species that are in the process of establishing in the UK, so I was on the look-out.
There are some seaweeds that only grow in the north of the UK, such as the Northern Tooth Weed (Odonthalia dentata) which is absent from Wales. I wanted to become familiar with these in the field rather than just seeing them as pressed specimens in our collections. It’s always exciting to find a species for the first time in the wild too.
Despite the time of year and the north-eastern location, the very sheltered shore was an excellent one for seaweeds and I documented a wide range of species. While it was important to collect specimens as a permanent back-up for records and for future research, I had to remind myself not to collect too many as they take a long time to process and I didn’t want to be up until the ‘wee hours’.
Preservation of the seaweeds involves several techniques depending on future use. To preserve the seaweed’s DNA for molecular analysis, the seaweed needs to be dried as quickly as possible in a bag with silica gel. Combining DNA characters with morphological ones (such as shape and colour) is sometimes the only way to be sure of an identification. To preserve 3D structure and some microscopic details well, a sample is placed in a tube with formaldehyde for fixation. Finally, the traditional and still most effective method for overall preservation is to press and dry the specimen, unfortunately this is the most time consuming process. You float each seaweed out onto paper, place nappy liners on top (a crucial part to stop the seaweed sticking to the paper above it), then place a piece of blotting paper underneath and on top and put it into a plant press. At least once a day, I swapped the wet blotting paper for dry and made sure the wet paper dried out quickly enough to be used in the next cycle. A lengthy procedure, but worth it for excellently preserved specimens that will be invaluable for future research.
I had access to a microscope with a camera attached and so was able to take close-up images of the seaweeds while they were fresh. These will be useful when looking at dried specimens back in the museum. Characters such as colour and 3D structure can be altered in the drying process, but will show up well in these photos. I also took lots of photos with a waterproof camera (it is too terrifying to take a non-waterproof camera onto the shore!) and I will share some more of these in my next blog.
Welcome to Umberto Fiordaliso, a postgraduate student from the University of Florence who will be working at the museum for 3 months with the Erasmus Programme, which helps students to study abroad. Umberto has previous experience working on Mediterranean molluscs and will be curating the marine molluscs collected by Monterosato, part of our extensive shell collection. He will be working closely with Anna Holmes and Harriet Wood in the Invertebrate Biodiversity section to produce a published handlist on this historical collection.
Dyddiadau blodeuo cyntaf!
Helo Gyfeillion y Gwanwyn,
Mae gen i newyddion cyffrous! Mae'r dyddiadau blodeuo cyntaf wedi eu cofnodi ar y wefan!
Llongyfarchiadau i Ysgol Deganwy – blodeuodd eu Crocws cyntaf nhw ar y 21ain o Chwefror, yn 90mm o uchder. Blodeuodd Crocws cyntaf Ysgol Tal Y Bont a Ysgol Bancyfelin ar y 23ain o Chwefror yn 65mm o uchder. A blodeuodd Crocws cyntaf Ysgol Gynradd Ynysddu ar y 25ain o Chwefror yn 50mm o uchder. Maent yn disgwyl i ddau arall flodeuo unrhyw ddiwrnod nawr!
Blodeuodd planhigion Swiss Valley CP School yn gynharach fyth, dros y gwyliau hanner tymor.
Mae Silverdale St John's CE School wedi adrodd bod rhai o'r crocws gafodd eu plannu mewn teiars wedi blodeuo. Mae un yn 110mm o daldra!
A heddiw, cefais dystiolaeth ffotograffig drwy Twitter i dangos bod Ysgol Gynradd Llanharan o leiaf dau blanhigyn Crocws sef wedi tyfu'n llawn! Gwelodd y dosbarth un ohonyn nhw ar agor heddiw!
Cofiwch gofnodi'r diwrnod blodeuo ac uchder eich planhigyn ar wefan Amgueddfa Cymru. Ond, peidiwch â gwneud hyn tan mae'r petalau yn gwbl weladwy a chofiwch fesur taldra mewn milimedrau!
Byddwn wrth fy modd yn cael lluniau o'ch blodau i’w rhoi ar wefan yr Amgueddfa a fy nhudalen Twitter. Gofynnwch i'ch athrawon i anfon y rhain ataf os yn bosib!
Hoffwn hefyd weld pa mor artistig ydych chi! Felly, mae gennyf weithgaredd i chi ei gwneud unwaith y bydd eich blodau wedi agor! Hoffwn i chi i dynnu darlun manwl o'ch planhigyn a labelu ei wahanol rannau. Mae hon yn ffordd wych o ddod i adnabod eich blodau yn well ac i weld pa mor gymhleth y gall pethau bach o'r fath fod. Mae hefyd yn ddiddorol iawn i gymharu Cennin Pedr a'r Crocws – allwch chi weld y tebygrwydd a'r gwahaniaethau? Mewn sawl ffordd mae pob blodyn yn debyg iawn, er eu bod yn edrych yn hollol wahanol ar yr olwg gyntaf!
Dyma gêm hwyliog yn ymwneud â labelu planhigion o wefan Bitesize y BBC.
Edrychaf ymlaen at weld eich lluniau.
Daliwch ati Gyfeillion y Gwanwyn,
Stanford in the Vale Primary School: We had snow on Tuesday! Bitter cold all week. Prof P: Wow Stanford in the Vale Primary, you have had cold weather! -2 on Tuesday – burrr!
Rivington Foundation Primary School: Our daffodils in pots started sprouting last week, now between 1 and 4 cms. Daffodils in pots no sign yet. Probably too cold in the ground. Professor Plant: Hi Rivington Foundation Primary, I’m glad to hear your bulbs are sprouting! It is exciting to see how fast they grow once they start to show above the soil. Usually, the plants in the ground would grow first because they are slightly warmer than your plants in pots. But this depends on a number of things, such as how much frost you have had! I’m sure they will show themselves soon, maybe they are waiting for it to get a little warmer!
Chryston Primary School: Sorry but we were off for 3 days and sadly a bulb got squished because it is near the playground and a ball landed of top of it. The good news is the bulbs are starting to grow. Next week we will start recording the height of the bulbs. Prof P: Oh I am sorry to hear that you lost one of your bulbs! I hope you are all sharing so that no one is too upset – these things do happen! I’m glad to hear that your bulbs have started growing though! It’s interesting to document how quickly they grow, and to see that each one grows at its own pace!
Saint Anthony's Primary School: We are enjoying taking the measurements and are delighted at how well our bulbs are progressing. Prof P: Hi Saint Anthony’s Primary, I’m glad to hear you are enjoying the project. I very much enjoy studying all the weather records that are sent in. And I especially like receiving lovely comments that show me others enjoy this project as much as I do! Keep up the good work Bulb Buddies.
Glyncollen Primary School: We have had good fun so far doing spring bulbs investigation! Prof P: I’m glad you are enjoying the project Bulb Buddies! There are lots more experiments and investigations you can do if you are enjoying this one, why not have a look at the MET Office website for idea!
Saint Anthony's Primary School: We have noticed that the temperatures have recently been rising and falling. Prof P: Hi Saint Anthony’s Primary, I’m glad to hear that you are studying and comparing your weather records. You have had a bit of a jump, from -2 on Wednesday to 11 on Thursday! Differences like this can result from taking readings at different times of day, as the temperature will be consistently lower in the morning than in the afternoon! This is why it’s important to always try to take the readings at around the same time. However, this can also result from changes in the weather. I’m guessing it was a lot sunnier and less cloudy on Thursday compared to the rest of the week!
Our Lady of Peace Primary School: We hope our bulbs flower soon. We enjoyed planting them. Prof P: I’m sure it won’t be long now Our Lady of Peace Primary! One of my Crocus plants is nearly big enough, but it will be a while yet before my other plants flower! Isn’t it interesting to see that all of our plants are developing differently even though we planted them on the same day!
Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School: We have started to see that our bulbs are starting to grow. Some of our bulbs during the extremely windy weather blew over and were nearly out of the plant box and plant pot. However, we have seen some growth in a number of our plant pots and are hoping they will grow further. For the other ones that had blew over, we replanted them just in case there is any hope. This was a few weeks ago so hopefully we will see some change. Prof P: Hi Keir Hardie Memorial Primary, you did the right thing by re-planting your bulbs. I have my fingers crossed that they will still grow for you! I’m glad to hear that some of your plants have started to grow and that you are monitoring them so closely. Keep up the good work!
Glyncollen Primary School: We have had a broken thermometer on Monday and Tuesday. Professor Plant: Hi Glyncollen Primary. I’m sorry that your thermometer wasn’t working. But I’m glad to see that you fixed it or got a new one, and that you still took your rain fall readings. Good work!
The Blessed Sacrament Catholic Primary School: Nearly all our bulbs have shoots now the weather is a bit warmer and the mystery bulbs have buds so it looks like we may have some flowers soon. E and O. Prof P: Ooo this is exciting! Once your mystery bulbs have flowered let me know what type of plant you think they might be! Keep up the god work!
Stanford in the Vale Primary School: Another strange week with the weather....high winds, cold and heavy rain, then beautiful sunshine! Our plants in the ground look as if they could be showing signs of opening.....but the one in pots seem rather behind....so we are on constant watch! Kind Regards, Gardening Club. Prof P: Hi Stanford in the Vale Primary Gardening Club! I’m glad to hear that your plants are doing well, and that you are comparing the growth of the plants in the ground to the plants in pots. It’s very interesting that these are developing differently, can you think of reasons why this might be?
Glyncollen Primary School: Some of our spring bulbs are starting to grow and our crocus! Prof P: That’s good news Glyncollen Primary, keep a close eye on them now because they’ll grow quickly!
Worms that Dig
Our trip to collect shovelhead worms (a type of marine bristleworm called a magelonid) at Berwick-upon-Tweed started last Thursday (19th) at 06.30, giving us plenty of time on the shore before low tide. We were extremely lucky with the weather, as although it was only 7 degrees, the sun was out and it wasn’t raining. Staff at the museum specialize in this fascinating group and this particular trip was aimed at collecting animals to further our understanding of the biology of the group but also to gain specimens for the Museum’s natural history collections. Magelonids are extremely abundant on this shore and material used in the description of the British species, Magelona johnstoni was collected here by Head of Invertebrate Biodiversity Andy Mackie, who was one of the team who described the species back in 2000. The species was given its name in honour of the work carried out by the naturalist Dr George Johnston in this region.
Although, abundant on this shore, finding and collecting animals which are less than 1 mm in width can be tricky! These animals are rather long and fragile and a great deal of care has to be taken when collecting them. Animals are gently removed from the sand using a water bottle and soft forceps and placed into a cool box to keep them cool on the journey home. Once back to our makeshift laboratory I was able to identify and observe them for our research. We have designed a specialist tank in order to observe them over longer periods of time as well. We have successfully kept animals in this tank for nearly two years. We are hoping to observe the difference between three species, which can be found on this shore, Magelona johnstoni, Magelona mirabilis and Magelona filiformis. A fourth species is known to occur in low numbers on this shore, however, we were unable to locate any specimens for study this time.
We spent four days on the shore at Berwick-upon-Tweed collecting animals and although the weather did turn and temperatures on the beach dipped significantly it is a lovely shore to collect on. The tank and the animals have now made the long trip back to Cardiff and are now in the marine laboratory at National Museum Cardiff. We will continue to observe and publish research on these fascinating and also beautiful creatures (although may be I am somewhat biased, I shall leave it up to you whether you agree or not!).
Watch this video, to see how we sample shovelhead worms.
- Pob cofnod