Exploring remote and little known parts of the world makes being a botanist a very exciting and rewarding job. The camping that comes with explorationt is also rewarding but comes with its share of challenges, which make you appreciate how divorced from nature we have become. A lot of my fieldwork has been in the La Amistad world heritage site, where the absence of roads, settlements and steep terrain mean that most of the park’s 4,000 km2 remain totally unexplored.
The biggest challenges are establishing routes, finding water and maintaining a supply line for food and specimens. We need water for drinking, cooking, and occasionally, washing. Given the high rainfall in wet tropical forests such as these it is probably surprising to think of water as being hard to find. The steep terrain and well developed root-mat, however, mean that much of the rain is absorbed or runs off very quickly and so we are often limited to where we can set up camp.
Although we have a GPS, maps for the area are not of sufficient resolution for us to orientate ourselves accurately beneath the canopy. We therefore rely on line-of-sight observations of sometimes quite distant landmarks, such as a hilltops or large rivers. We then have to guesstimate the best way to locate a ridge that will take us to where we need to go. It is much easier to follow ridges up and down, going from one to another where they intersect, than to hike into and then out of a series of treacherously steep valleys. Where we do need to cross a valley and river then it is important to choose the right place to cross. The dense forest and very slopes mean that you cannot see the river until very close. Choose the wrong place and you can find yourself at the top of a 20 m cliff overlooking an unpassable gorge. Our guide, Elio Altamirano, had an ingenious way for doing this. He would descend a ridge at an oblique angle until we could hear the river below, at this point he would guage that we were above a very steep gorge that was amplifying the sound upwards and so we would continue on until we could no longer hear the river, at this point we would head down at another oblique angle and continue like this until we were close enough to identify a good crossing point.
Collecting is a productive business. We average about 50 collections a day, each comprising five duplicates meaning we quickly accumulate bundles of specimens. Far more than we could carry out ourselves. Camping for two to three weeks also makes it impossible to bring in enough food for the duration. For both these reasons we need to establish a supply line between us and the outside world. To do so we hire local people as porters so that they can bring in food and newspaper and leave with bags of specimens.
Costa Rican botanist Daniel Santamaría, guide Elio Altamirano, some very valiant porters and myself have just completed our latest exploration of the La Amistad binational park, the bulk of the Talamanca mountain range in Costa Rica and Panama. We made 529 collections of almost 300 species, several of which are new to science. Given that we collected between 2 and 7 duplicates of each collection that is over 2,000 sheets that we will need to dry, label, identify and distribute. After almost three weeks hiking and camping in wet, muddy and cold conditions we had all lost a lot of weight, I lost 8 kg, and were exhausted. The justification for this trip is that together with the Darien in Panama, La Amistad remains one of the biggest tracts of largely unexplored forest in Central America. It is also home to some of the most beautiful forests in the World and dozens of undiscovered plant species remain.Despite being a world heritage site in recognition of its outstanding species-richness La Amistad has been largely abandoned by the Costa Rican and Panamanian authorities, and UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission. This has left it vulnerable to hydroelectric dams and mining. We therefore hope that our collections and discoveries will help raise the Park’s profile within the scientific community and respective national authorities.
We had been planning this expedition for over two years with the Universidad Estatal a Distancia of Costa Rica (UNED), and were lucky enough to get financial support from UNED, the Bentham Moxon Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society. The main challenges were getting to our chosen locality given that maps of the area are based on aerial images and so of limited value for locating ridges and streams. Second we had to establish supply lines so that we could get food to our camps and our specimens out for drying. This meant that our valiant porters spent several hours a day hiking steep muddy paths or cutting trails through dense vegetation under the guidance of our guide Elio Altamirano. Very steep slopes, high rainfall and frequent tree-falls made our trails obstacle courses rather than paths, requiring a degree of acrobatics when hauling a heavily packed rucksack and long-arm pruners.
This combined with our limited budget meant that whilst we were able to inventory two unexplored valleys and an un-named mountain range, over an elevation range of 2,200 to 2,800 m. We were not, however, able to get to our target locality which would have required many more porters than we could afford or source. This is one of the risks of doing fieldwork in very remote areas on a relatively small budget and I would not consider this trip to have been a failure, not only did we make over 500 collections, almost certainly including some new to science, but we also undertook inventories in an hitherto unexplored area and documented some new records of threatened habitats for Costa Rica.
Since 2003 I have been working with colleagues in Costa Rica and Panama to document the diversity of one of the most species-rich and beautiful places in Central America, the La Amistad Binational Park. During this time I have lead ten expeditions, the last of which was in 2012 and that have resulted in the disovery of over 50 species of plant and amphibian and the collection of several thousand plant collections and a Checklist to the vascular plants of La Amistad. After a six year gap in which I have changed jobs, got married and had a son, we are about to go back. This time to explore an area whose biological diversity remains totally unexplored. It will be a big challenge for me. For a start it is a four day hike to get to our target area, there are no proper maps and we have had to clear a trail and locate a camp. The main challenge will be to not get lost in this very mountainous area. Also it will be very difficult to be away from my family for four weeks. We are prepared though and have local guides, a satellite phone and lots of food.
The route starts at about 1200 m above sea-level on the Pacific slopes, goes up to 2400 m and through the majestic oak forests, then past the Cerros Tararia, three inselbergs that rise out of the forest, and down through a trail that we will cut, that drops down to about 1500 m and the confluence of two medium-sized rivers. Here we plan to set up a makeshift camp. Our team comprises Frank Gonzalez, by far the most effective expedition planner that I have worked with, and lecturer at the Costa Rican equivalent of the Open University, UNED, Costa Rican botanist, Daniel Santamaria who is the most gifted field botanist that I know, myself, and a team of porters, who will spend the whole time supplying our camp and taking specimens back to the park entrance. We hope to get 10 days solid collecting done. This will involve two techniques new to me, the use of a catapult to launch a rope and chainsaw chain across the branches of trees that we want to collect, and of a drone to capture footage of the surrounding area to get an idea of the surrounding vegetation and capture images of the forest.
Whilst we hope to discover several new species to science, our real aim is to collect new locality records for 200 or more species. These records will help us to better predict these species ranges and support their conservation. We were very lucky to get financial support from the Bentham Moxon Trust and the RHS.
Finally, and after many years of fieldwork, identification, writing, checking, editing and correcting our checklist to the vascular pants of La Amistad Binational Park, produced by a team of Costa Rican and Panamanian botanists, and myself, has been published! It has been a challenging and protracted undertaking which at several times I thought would never be completed and special thanks go to a very patient and dedicated editor, Maarten Christenhusz. Checklists are generally not highly regarded in scientific circles as they are effectively lists of what has been documented at particular place. They are though, incredibly important as they represent verified and falsifiable lists synthesising data from several sources and are often the building blocks of other scientific research and much more highly cited publications. They also provide a baseline for conservation and future exploration.
La Amistad itself is a UNESCO World Heritage property and Binational Park shared by Costa Rica and Panama. It covers about 4,000 km2 and contains an incredible 3,046 species of vascular plants, of which 73 are found nowhere else. This makes La Amistad one of the most species-rich places on earth for vascular plants and of great importance for conservation. Part of the reason for this high diversity is the number of contrasting habitats from Paramo, natural grasslands to evergreen oak forest, cloud forest and tropical wet forest.
The plan to do a checklist to the park followed several years of field exploration undertaken as part of Flora Mesoamericana and then a Darwin Initiative project to generate baseline information for the park’s management. This involved hiking and camping for two to three weeks at a time and was some of the most exhilirating fieldwork that I have done. Once we had our collections identified we then used inventories of local herbaria in Costa Rica and Panama, existing taxonomic treatments combined with reliable online resources such as Tropicos to compile a more exhaustive list. We then compared this to a vegetation map which we had produced and elevation ranges from specimen labels to associate each species with a particular vegetation type and in the interests of verifiability we cite all of the known colections of each species made in the park. I am sure there are several errors waiting to be uncovered in the list but despite this, and its relatively low impact factor, it is probably the paper that I am most proud of having been involved with. Firstly because for several years I feared it would never get finished, and secondly because most of the authors are Costa Rican or Panamanian.
As a scientist employed for all of my career in institutions partially funded by the British state it might seem that I would have a good understanding of how the UK Government gets the scientific information it needs and what science goes on within it. The reality is that I had very little idea, based on a few assumptions, what I read in the media, and not very flattering television series such as The Thick of it. It was because of this, and an interest in how the science I and my colleagues do might influence policy, that I applied for the Royal Society Pairing Scheme. The scheme involves a scientist being paired with an MP or Civil Servant. The scientist spends two days shadowing their pair, preceded by an introduction to Westminster and followed by a half day of seminars on science in government. I can honestly say that it was one of the best things I have done! Not just because I was paired with a very dynamic and welcoming Chief Plant Officer at Defra but because the whole experience gave me far greater confidence and belief in Government, as we enter a turbulent time for our Country and the World.
I was very impressed by the quality of the science and engagement that takes place at the UK Plant Health laboratories near York. Also with the dedicated and friendly atmosphere. On our first day the agency launched the UK Plant Health Information Portal, a searchable database of the highest risk plant pest and diseases to UK farming, horticulture and forestry that includes over 900 reported pests that are scanned Worldwide. On our second day I was able to sit-in on the Plant Health Forum, a forum between government, trade bodies, NGOs such as the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission which meets regularly to discuss new concerns, pests and solutions. It was a very open and frank meeting and not really what I expected from Government.
Our science in government seminars provided an overview of how Government gets scientific information and the contrasts between the executive, Members for Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Lords. Government has three well established and connected sources of scientific information, advisors and an extensive network of contacts in academia. In contrast, MPs, who have very little time and minimal administrative support depend on their researchers to source scientific information. Unfortunately, the researchers themselves are very poorly paid and often recent graduates who stay a few months before moving on to another job and also have very little time themselves. The result is that MPs are very poorly briefed compared to civil servants and the executive. The Lords, fit somewhere in-between the two, having more time to devote to sourcing information but little dedicated support. This might be one of the reasons that the Royal Society started the pairing scheme sixteen years ago which I feel very privileged to have participated in.
Haiti is infamous for extensive deforestation, less tha 4% of its original forest cover remains, which in addition to threatening many of its endemic trees with extinction has also increased the destructive impact of natural disasters of which there have been several in the last couple of decades. Deforestation is widely recognized as a significant threat to the well-being and security of Haitians and as a consequence many projects have been set up to plant trees, some more successful than others. Probably the biggest challenge to reforestation is to ensure that the communities involved are engaged and that they feel that the benefits of protecting and looking after a tree outweigh the sacrifice involved in not converting it to charcoal for cooking. Charcoal is the main fuel in rural areas and demand for it is high, a small bucket costing up to US$2 leading people to burn cacti to produce it. One NGO which seems to have been successful in engaging rural communities to grow and protect useful tree species has been Sadhana Forest Haiti
One of the difficulties for NGOs reforesting in any country is access to the scientific information necessary to make choices about what is grown: will a species grow in the chosen sites? How quickly will it grow? Will local people recognise it as a species of value to be protected? Will it support livelihoods? Where can seed be obtained from? How does it germinate? Is it native? What is its conservation value? This information can be tricky to get hold of, especially in countries with little botanical capacity or knowledge repositories. Often the result is that the species selected are those for which seed can be obtained and that are very well known to be of livelihood value, normally non-native species such as avocado, mango, eucalyptus of little conservation or biodiversity value but highly recognizable. Some native and especially endemic species for which knowledge of livelihood value is likely to be restricted to older members of a community or a small number of botanists and whose propagation and germination requirements are less well known will be harder for NGOs to incorporate.
RBG Kew has been working in neighboring Dominincan Republic for several years and has developed a strong relationship with the Dr. Rafael Moscoso National Botanical Garden, an institution with an active botanical community and seed bank. This represents an opportunity to share some of the knowledge and expertise on additional potential native plants with Sadhana Forest and the households that they work with. To this end I spent a few days visiting Sadhana Forest Haiti and some of the households. I was struck with the commitment and planning behind Sadhana Forest, who with few resources have provided several thousand seedlings to thousands of households in a region spanning Haiti’s south eastern border with the Dominican Republic. Hopefully, in collaboration with the Dr. Rafael Moscoso National Botanical Garden and Kew we will be able to introduce more native species of livelihood value to be planted in the future.
Since the start of our Forest Futures project I had been thinking about the best way to support the production of agroforests once we have left. We had committed to produce a manual but my initial thoughts were that this is a little old-fashioned and that an electronic publication formatted for mobile phones would be a good option. The reality, however, is that Bolivia has very poor internet access. Even in Cobija, the capital of the Pando, internet acesss is sporadic and poor. Once in the field it is only available at a few points along the main road . We therefore decided to opt for a printed manual, of the size that it will fit on a narrow shelf or somebody’s day pack and on high quality paper that will resist the high humidity of the tropics.
The next decision was how to best communicate to the people we working with. I believe that a majority text-based format would not be of great interest or very accessible for the communities we work with. I decided on an image-rich poster-like format. This was because posters remain a major communication tool by Government and NGOs in the region and so local people will be familiar with them, secondly I assumed that Governments and NGOs know what they are doing! Following this I had to think quite hard about content. Whilst the mechanics of establishing a plot are relatively straightforward to explain what has struck me working with rural people is that communicating the underlying principles of agroforestry as we practice it is very challenging.
This is in part because a lot of their knowledge on soils and and nutrient cycling is based on temperate systems, either in Europe or the Andes where soils are replenished by the action of frost or weathering of rock. Amazonian soils have been leached over millions of years and hold few nutrients for plants but this is not obvious looking at the lush dense forest growing on them. So not only do we need to explain that the soils are very poor but then explain how such rich forest grows on them. Similarly, it is less challenging for people living away from the Amazon to accept that cutting forest is not sustainable, but quite a different thing when it is your livelihood that depends on slash-and-burn and when you have always been surrounded by forest for as far as the eye can see and that this has been the case for as long as anyone can remember. The upshot of these considerations are a substantial introduction that attempts to explain all of the background and context whilst assuming little prior knowledge.
Working with Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh student Jia Dong and plant anatomist Louis Ronse De Craene has resulted in some exciting and thought-provoking images of nettle flowers. The aim of our collaboration is to understand how nettle flowers develop and in the process work out what parts they have in common and which they don’t. The samples used were from living collections at Edinburgh and RBG Kew, together with my own collections in alcohol made over several years. The results are some beautiful and very informative scanning electron micrographs which show that the part of the female flower which recieves pollen (stigma) and conducts it to the egg (style) is characterised by two classes of hairs, one comprising defensive tusk-like hairs (above) and the other receptive tubular like hairs (above & below).
Tubular hairs associated with the stigma are characteristic of all nettle flowers. They also appear very early in development. Combined this makes us think that they might have a role in pollination. Specifically in the reception of pollen. Being wind-pollinated, nettles don’t have a lot of control as to whose pollen reaches their female flowers and so there needs to be a way for them to control which pollen grains develop and fertilise the single egg. It seems likely that these hairs play a role and hopefully Jia will be able provide some more great images to test some hypotheses about this.
As part of my job I give talks to students or colleagues on aspects of my research and botany. Generally the less scientifically literate the audience the better and more insightful the questions. For this reason I was a little nervous and excited at meeting two classes at the St Keyna Primary School in Keynsham near Bath. I had been invited by my old friend Larissa Roberts who works at the school. After over 20 years working for a major museum I was also very honoured to be inaugurating their natural history museum! It might seem a poor use of resources for scientists to go and meet schoolchildren half way across the country and we struggled to find any resources to support for my visit. For me though it is very important. Botany is rarely taught in UK schools, there is no university degree in Botany in the UK anymore (imagine if that was the case for zoology or paleontology) and so the routes for recruiting young enthusiastic people from a variety of backgrounds into botany are somewhat limited. If visits such as mine inspire just one pupil to consider a career in botany then it would have a tremendous impact on our discipline.
Some of the questions were quite a challenge. Mainly because although I should have I had not thought about them before. I was almost thrown by questions such as, ‘what is the rarest plant that you have collected?’, ‘what is the oldest plant that you have collected?’ and ‘how many new species have you discovered?’. On the basis of my answers I am not sure how well I would fair in a job interview. I was very pleasantly surprised to meet so many children with a spontaneous enthusiasm and interest in natural history and plants! I was also very impressed with how friendly and polite the children (and staff) were and of how well supported learning seemed to be at St Keyna’s. So all in all a very positive experience that I would gladly repeat.
I first came these majestic and mysterious forests in 2003 whilst collecting on the summit of Cerro Fabrega in Panama. We had hiked through montane tropical forest and cloud forest and suddenly we came into a forest consisting almost only of massive oak trees, covered in dark maroon liverworts and bright red bromeliads. It was a magical and unexpected experience. I had no idea that there were oak forests in the wet tropics and whilst I had seen small oak trees growing in semideciduous forests in Belize and El Salvador they could not be said to constitute a forest. Later on subsequent expeditions we came across these forests at between 1,900 and 3,100 m in Costa Rica and Panama, always characterised by tall trees festooned with epiphytes and very quiet. Indeed an oak forested portion of the La Amistad World Heritage site is known as the ‘Valley of Silence’.
What surprised me about these forests was their stature growing at such high altitudes, well above the stunted and gnarled cloud forests below them. Secondly, they have a rich diversity of plants associated with them, we documented over 500 species. Thirdly, in Latin America, they are restricted to mountains in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. They are also relatively unknown, both amongst botanists, ecologists and conservationists. Having done some more work analysing the patterns of species in these forests with Nadia Bystriakova and discussions with Dutch ecologist Maarten Kappelle we are planning a research programme on these high elevation oak forests. One which will seek to document and establish their importance as a source of plant diversity, both for conservation and science but also to evaluate the threats they experience across their range.
Alex Monro's blog about the documenting and conservation of biodiversity