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Natural History

April 2015

Adrian in the Amazon - part 7

Posted by Adrian Plant on 27 April 2015

We have made it to the Estación Científica San Francisco in Podocarpus National Park, Loja Province. Well, we made it but one of our bags didn’t, apparently having been left behind in Quito. We are hopeful that it will arrive tomorrow in Loja and we can arrange for a taxi to bring it the hour or so’s drive to the Estación. Meanwhile we are getting to know our new home for the next week.

The Estación is perched on the side of a narrow ravine in dense forest through which flows the Rio San Fransisco. All our routes into the forest start with a spectacular crossing of the river using a wire cradle suspended from a rope running through pulleys at either end high over the water. Progress is made by pulling hand over hand on the opposing rope until the other side is reached. Once over, the ground is very steep and densely forested. Our intial forrays into the near reaches of this wilderness indicate a spectacularly diverse fly fauna. . . and that is what we are here for. We have set our Malaise traps but the incessant rain is making other fieldwork difficult so we will have to wait for better weather to get further afield and explore more.

You can read more about Adrian's travels on our blog page

Adrian in the Amazon - part 6

Posted by Adrian Plant on 24 April 2015

Having completed our work at Yanayacu we have moved further down the eastern slopes of the Andes to the town of Tena in Napo Province. Here at only 500m above sea level it is much hotter than in the mountains - a truly tropical climate. The town is placed on the last slight hills before the Andes sweep down and merge onto the flatlands of the Amazon Basin. West of here, the rivers are fast and furious having dropped 3000m or more in just 50km through the mountains whereas to the east they become sluggish and it will take another 3000km for them to drop the remaining 500m to the sea.

Our visit to Tena is necessary to complete administrative formalities and to obtain permits allowing us to move the specimens we have collected between different provinces within Ecuador. After three visits to the Ministry of Environment, numerous phone calls, support from a well-connected colleague at the newly established university in Tena and from colleagues in Quito we are still waiting for a positive outcome!

Josenir and I have to move on to our next study site in Loja Province and we have no chance or getting the permits through in time. Fortunately, Eduardo has to remain in the town to deliver a 3-day entomology course to the students at the university. The hope is that he can complete the formalities and bring our specimens with him when he moves back to Quito next week and we can take them from him when we pass through Quito on our way out of the country. Meanwhile Josy and I have a plane to catch….

Find out more about what Adrian has been up to by reading his past blogs.

Adrian in the Amazon - part 5

Posted by Adrian Plant on 22 April 2015

Our time at Yanayacu has drawn to a close. The final days fieldwork saw us collecting in the Malaise traps we had previously set and making several forays to a particularly good stream site where we had hoped to find more species of Hemerodromia. Hemerodromia is the focus of Josenir’s PhD work at INPA and we have been searching hard for specimens to help her studies.

Alas, many hours of wading up streambeds, sloshing through mud and slithering over mossy spring sources has yielded but a handful. These will be valuable for her studies but we can’t help but feel a bit disappointed by the results on this aspect of our expedition. We have speculated long and hard as to why Hemerodromia has been so hard to find. Perhaps these aquatic insects have been washed out of their streams by the unusually strong rains we are experiencing? It seems that a particularly strong El Nino event has commenced bringing late rains throughout Ecuador.

During the evenings we have been running an ultraviolet light to attract nocturnal insects to the Biological Station. A couple of nights ago we were absolutely inundated by insects with vast numbers of hawk moths, tiger moths, giant Hercules beetles and enormous stoneflies (Plecoptera) known as Dobson Flies in the US, coming to the light. It’s odd but the best nights for attracting insects are not warm balmy ones but those with torrential rain and enveloping cloud. And such were the conditions on this particular occasion.

To read more about Adrian's expedition - read his past blog posts.

Adrian in the Amazon - part 4

Posted by Adrian Plant on 8 April 2015

Josenir and Eduardo studying collected samples

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

Posted by Adrian Plant on 7 April 2015

Yanayacu Research Station

Hummingbird feeders in front of Yanayacu Station

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.

March 2015

Adrian in the Amazon - part 2

Posted by Adrian Plant on 31 March 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

Posted by Adrian Plant on 27 March 2015

Josenir Camara & Adrian Plant in the lab at INPA

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

Posted by Jana Horak on 26 March 2015

Crowds gathering outside the museum

Making sure we all wear our safety glasses!

Using binoculars to project the image on to a pillar

Using a solar telescope

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

Posted by Katie Mortimer-Jones on 24 March 2015

Viewing lichens with OPAL community scientist

I Spy...Nature workshops at Cogan Primary School

I Spy...Nature workshops at National Museum Cardiff on fossils

Exploring our 3D rocky shore model

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

Posted by Katherine Slade on 5 March 2015

Collecting Laver (Porphyra species), making sure the holdfast is collected for identification purposes

Some of the seaweeds recorded and collected from the lower shore

Reproductive features of Winged Weed (Membranoptera alata) recorded down the microscope

A pressed specimen of Stalked Leaf Bearer (Phyllophora pseudoceranoides)

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.

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