Tag Archives: Bentham Moxon Trust

Exploring the Carribean flanks of the La Amistad National Park, Costa Rica

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At 2700 m above sea-level on the northern slopes of an un-named mountain. This elfin forest is very humid and any available space is rapidly colonised by liverworts and mosses

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.

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Oak forest at 2300 m above sea-level. The oak trees in the background reach 60 m in height, there is also a 40 m high Magnolia. The grass in the foreground (left) is Nuerolepis pittieri, a giant grass rarely collected in Costa Rica.

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.

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One of our many camps. This one at 2800 m above sea-level. We slept in the open but the ground was so wet and waterlogged that a plastic sheet was essential. Our guide, Elio Altamirano was very skilled at designing and erecting camps.

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.

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Daniel Santamaría standing by the Terbe river in Costa Rica.
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Exploring a remote and unexplored part of Costa Rica’s La Amistad National Park

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The view from the top of Cerro Tararia. The area that we plan to explore is behind the ridge that traverses the  back of the image.

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.

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Our field site is just to the right of the cloud. Only a few kilometres from the Panama border. You can see the Cerros Tararias in the middle of the image about a third of the way from the bottom

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.

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A flower of Symplocos pittieriana Steyerm., a scarce but widely distributed tree above 2500 m asl.

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.

Caves explored last month


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Yin Jia cave close to Gu Lin village in Yunnan. This is the 37th cave we have explored. At 1600 m above sea-level this is also one of highest elevations that we have collected in caves. Click to see a clip of the cave entrance

Thanks to funding from the Bentham Moxon Trust and the Guilin Botanical Garden, myself and colleagues explored five caves for plants in October of this year (2014). There are likely thousands of caves in the limestone karsts of south-east asia which contain plants. Whilst of great interest botanically and for conservation they are also beautiful in their own right and each cave is unique. I thought I would provide a portrait of each one to show how varied they are in their form, where plants grow in them and their size.

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Cave #40. We spotted this cave from the road and getting to it involved climbing onto an aquaduct that ran along the base of a large cliff and then jumping off into the cave. The elevation of this cave is 660 m above sea-level and it is located in the province of Guizhou.

The cave above was one of the few that we spotted from the road and then were able to get to. It is also one of the few that had little evidence of human disturbance, very few footprints and areas of pure white travertine that had fallen from the roof had not been walked on or collected. The main plant-bearing cavern of the cave was about 25 m deep and the roof 15 m high and it had a well developed flora, you can see plants from the african-violet family (Gesneriaceae) in the foreground and we collected five species of nettle here.

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This is the enormous Xiangshuidong Tian Keng cave in Guizhou, known to us as cave#38. Click to see a panorama from within the cave

Xiangshuidong Tian Keng cave in Guizhou was one of the largest caves that we have collected in, but also one of the most impacted by tourism and use by local communities. The main cavern is about 250 m deep with a roof between 45 and 30 m high and it is set within a huge cliff forming the side of a mountain. It also has a waterfall and river running across the back of it. It is in this cave that we found a very rare and unusual form of Elatostema oblongifolium that has its male flowers borne on specialised shoots but overall the plant diversity of the cave was quite low, presumably because of the large numbers of local tourists and associated trampling of much of the ground available for plants

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This is Cave #36, Yuen Ja cave close to Mahi Po Niochan village in Yunnan. The cave has two main chambers, each with their own entrance and which come together at their back where a new and unexplored chamber continues on. Each of the main chambers is 30 to 40 deep and the entrances 3 to 6 m high.

This was the first cave that we encountered on this field trip. We found it after first being taken to a hole in the ground as what must have been a mistranslation from Mandarin into the local dialect. The cave was relatively big and had a trail running inside. The main cavern shelves very steeply meaning that very little light penetrates into the cave. Despite this and the relatively high altitude, 1500 m, we collected seven species of nettle from here.

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Unfortunately I didn’t record the local name of this cave so it is known only as Cave 39. It is in the province of Guizhou at an elevation of 600 m. The main cavern was about 40m deep and  the entrance about 10m high and 30m wide. Click to see a panorama of the interior of the cave.

This cave should have been perfect as it shelved gently meaning that light penetrated quite deep, it also had plenty of places for plants to grow, such as boulders and rocks. We only collected four species of nettle here, probably because the cave was heavily impacted by farmers using it as a barn to keep their water buffalo in at night. Evidenced by lots of hoof prints and dung. This is a very common use of caves and the trampling of buffalo and their herders can have a significant impact on the plants in the caves (see below).

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