“Nobody but a person fond of natural history can imagine the pleasure of strolling under cocoa-nuts, in a thicket of bananas and coffee plants, and an endless number of wild flowers”
Charles Darwin – letter to his father; Brazil, February 1832
When Darwin wrote this letter he was 23 years old and was experiencing the tropics for the first time in his life. It’s a typically understated, 19th Century view of the sheer unfamiliarity and exuberance that tropical environments impress upon the traveller from north temperate climes. In actuality Darwin was probably initially overwhelmed by the whole experience: I’m 48 and have made many such trips, and the first few days in the tropics never fail to overwhelm and excite me. Last Friday I arrived in Brazil for a month of teaching, lecturing and research funded by a grant from FAPESP awarded to my Brazilian collaborators, Professor Marlies Sazima and André Rodrigo Rech. This week, with André’s help, I am running a course for graduate students entitled: “Pollination: ecology, evolution and conservation” at the University of Campinas, which everyone refers to as Unicamp, one of the most prestigious and research active universities in Latin America. The following week we head to Belo Horizonte where I’m giving a talk at the National Botanical Congress, and a lecture at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.
Following all these teaching and lecturing engagements, I head out into the field with André and some of the other Unicamp postgrads for two weeks of data collection on the ecology of Brazilian plants and their pollinators. The field work starts in the Serra do Cipó National Park, then moves on to the Serra do Mar State Park, one of the largest remaining areas of Atlantic Rainforest.
We’re half way through the pollination course and the students have been just great; there are 28 of them, including some postdocs and professors from other universities, which is very flattering. Each day is structured around a lecture, plus papers to read and the students bring questions to pitch to the group for discussion. We’re also doing a little field work around the campus though the weather has been rather wet the last couple of days, which has limited what we can do.
As well as interacting with the students, a real highlight of the trip so far has been the diversity of bird species on the campus. After checking into my hotel on 1st November I took a stroll around the grounds and immediately spotted bird after bird that I’d never seen before, but which are common in this area. No sooner had I started to identify one species (initially using Ber van Perlo’s Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil, which I soon augmented by a locally produced guide to the birds on campus ) than another hove into view and I’d have to remember its features in order to identify it next; and then another; and then another. Information overload and, as I said, overwhelming!
Bird of the Week has been the Southern Crested Caracara which I first saw sitting at the top of a tree from my bedroom window. By the 2nd November I had counted 21 bird species; this went up to 36 the next day which included a walk around a small lake on campus. Current total is about 40, but there are others which I’ve yet to identify and have been too busy with the course to spend much time birding. But I’ve also added two new plant families to my life list of those I’ve eaten: Aquifoliaceae, the holly family, which provides the popular South American drink maté. And Dilleniaceae, via the introduced species Dillenia indica the fruit of which is edible and popular in South East Asia, though is hopefully better cooked than raw: to me it tastes of lemon infused with car tyres.
Note to my family, students and colleagues back in Northampton: whilst it’s true that my hotel is called FUNCAMP, this actually stands for Fundação de Desenvolvimento da Unicamp. It in no way implies that I’m not working hard!