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Adrian in the Amazon - part 4

Adrian Plant, 8 Ebrill 2015

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

Adrian Plant, 7 Ebrill 2015

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

Adrian Plant, 31 Mawrth 2015

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

Adrian Plant, 27 Mawrth 2015

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

Jana Horak, 26 Mawrth 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.