Tag Archives: Brazil

How many trees are there in Amazonia: two recent studies reached very different conclusions – UPDATED

The region of South America that we know as “Amazonia” has arguably the greatest biological diversity of any part of the planet, certainly as far as plants are concerned.  In some places the number of tree species per hectare exceeds 400, an order of magnitude greater than the number for the whole of the British Isles.  However estimating the total number of even the described plant species in this vast area has proven controversial, as two recent studies exemplify.  The first study was by ter Steege et al. (2016) and entitled “The discovery of the Amazonian tree flora with an updated checklist of all known tree taxa“, whilst the second is from just last month: Cardoso et al. (2017) “Amazon plant diversity revealed by a taxonomically verified species list“.  Both of them are open access so click on the links if you want to read the full studies.

One might expect that two such studies focused on Amazonia, both using vouchered herbarium records, would reach broadly similar conclusions as to the number of tree species in the region.  Not a bit of it: ter Steege et al. (2016) report 11,676 species, whilst Cardoso et al. (2017) say that the figure is 6,727.  That’s almost a two-fold difference!  Why the discrepancy?  Inspired by an initial tweet by University of Glasgow taxonomist Roderic Page, I downloaded the data from both studies and looked at it closely.

Here’s a scatter plot of the number of tree species per plant family reported by both studies:

Amazon tree diversity

 

The red line shows where we would expect the data points to lie if both studies had reported the same number of tree species per family.  Clearly few families lie on this line and most are above it as we might expect: as I’ve said, ter Steege et al. (2016) concluded that there were far more tree species overall and this is reflected at the family level.  Note that I’ve graphed this using a log scale and what might seem to be small differences are actually very large indeed.

Although the findings from two studies are highly correlated (diverse families are diverse in both studies, ditto families with low diversity) the actual level of that species richness is very different.  For example, in the Annonaceae, ter Steege et al. report  480 species, Cardoso et al. report 388; in the Clusiaceae the figures are 247 versus 135.  Other families are excluded from one data set or the other: ter Steege et al. reckon there 7 species of trees in the Dilleniaceae whereas Cardoso et al. cite zero.  Here’s a link to the data set if you want to explore further.  

So what’s going on here?  Why do two studies with similar aims, published about 12 months apart, come to such different conclusions.  As far as I can see there are three reasons for this.

First of all, the studies used slightly different taxonomies when it came to considering families and species.  So for example, Cardoso et al. recognise the family Peraceae which ter Steege et al. do not.  Although I haven’t done it, I’m sure that if one were to dig down to the species level there would be differences in which species were accepted and which were considered synonyms.

Secondly, the exact definition of what constitutes a “tree” varies between botanists, and the non-botanists who are no doubt responsible for some of the plant collections: some consider anything to be woody and tall-ish to be a “tree”, others have more strict definitions.  Notes about growth form taken in the field consequently get included in herbarium databases and may be inaccurate, especially for the uncommon species that have rarely been seen in the field.

The final reason, and the one that seems to be responsible for most of the discrepancy, is the definition of what constitutes “Amazonia”.  In the first study ter Steege et al. defined it as including the “forests and savannahs of the Amazon basin and Guiana Shield”.  In contrast Cardoso et al. considered only “lowland Amazon rain forests”.  That’s a big difference as there’s lot of savannah in this region, as well as other habitat types.  When we did field work in Guyana some years ago we could travel very quickly between savannah and rainforest.  It was clear to us that there is a range of trees that are restricted to one habitat or another, including species of Dilleniaceae (mentioned above) that are savannah specialists (hence the family’s exclusion from the Cardoso et al. study).

Now neither of these studies is “wrong” in the sense of being inaccurate or misguided: both are great studies involving a huge effort on the part of the authors.  But the limitations and definitions of geography and taxonomy that I’ve highlighted do mean that they need to be treated as rather different and not directly comparable.

So how many tree species are there in Amazonia?  If we consider just the rainforest then it’s 6,727 (Cardoso et al. 2017).  If we consider all habitats in the region, including rainforest plus savannah etc., then the figure is 11,676 species (ter Steege et al. 2016).  One of the implications of this is that the non-rainforest “Amazonian” habitats collectively contain 4949 tree species.  Thus a large proportion of the diversity of the region is in habitats, such as savannah, which are less of a focus for conservation efforts and not as well known to the general public, but are at least as threatened by agriculture and mining as rainforest.

Thanks to Roderic Page for initially highlighting this on Twitter, and Sandy Knapp for discussion.

UPDATE:  In retrospect my conclusion above regarding the proportion of trees in non-lowland rainforest habitats was much too high, as a couple of commenters have noted below.  It’s worth reading what they have to say, and my responses.  It’s likely that the taxonomic differences between the two studies are at least as great as the geographical ones, but then taxonomic opinions vary hugely.  Just serves to emphasise what a controversial and problematic question this is!

 

 

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Generalist pollination can evolve from more specialised interactions: a new study just published

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There’s a long-standing idea in biology that ecological specialisation is an evolutionary “dead end” from which species can never emerge.  In other words, if a species becomes so adapted to a particular ecological strategy (could be feeding or habitat requirements or how it interacts with other species ) then no amount of natural selection will result in its descendants evolving different strategies, thereby diversifying into new species.  In particular it’s traditionally thought that evolving broader, “generalist” strategies from narrower, “specialised” ones is highly unlikely.

This has been much discussed in the literature on the ecology and evolution of pollination systems, where traditionally this “dead end” scenario has been accepted.  However a small number of case studies have shown that generalised pollination systems can evolve within much more specialised clades, beginning with Scott Armbruster and Bruce Baldwin’s study of Madagascan Dalechampia (Euphorbiaceae), published in Nature in 1998.

To this limited body of examples we can now add another case study: in the genus Miconia (Melastomataceae), generalist nectar/pollen rewarding strategies can evolve within a clade of plants that predominantly uses a more specialised, buzz-pollinated strategy involving just bees.

The work is part of the PhD research of Vinicius de Brito who is one of the researchers I was privileged to do some field work with in Brazil when I was there in 2013 – see my post: “It’s called rainforest for a reason, right?  Brazil Diary 6“.  Vini is the guy on the left of the photo accompanying this post.  Here’s the citation and a link:

de Brito, V.L.G., Rech, A.R., Ollerton, J., Sazima, M. (2017) Nectar production, reproductive success and the evolution of generalised pollination within a specialised pollen-rewarding plant family: a case study using Miconia theizans. Plant Systematics and Evolution doi:10.1007/s00606-017-1405-z 

Here’s the abstract:

Generalist plant–pollinator interactions are prevalent in nature. Here, we untangle the role of nectar production in the visitation and pollen release/deposition in Miconia theizans, a nectar-rewarding plant within the specialised pollen-rewarding plant family Melastomataceae. We described the visitation rate, nectar dynamics and pollen release from the poricidal anthers and deposition onto stigmas during flower anthesis. Afterwards, we used a linear mixed model selection approach to understand the relationship between pollen and nectar availability and insect visitation rate and the relationship between visitation rate and reproductive success. Miconia theizans was visited by 86 insect species, including buzzing and non-buzzing bees, wasps, flies, hoverflies, ants, beetles, hemipterans, cockroaches and butterflies. The nectar produced explained the visitation rate, and the pollen release from the anthers was best explained by the visitation rate of pollinivorous species. However, the visitation rates could not predict pollen deposition onto stigmas. Nectar production may explain the high insect diversity and led to an increase in reproductive success, even with unpredictable pollen deposition, indicating the adaptive value of a generalised pollination system.

As always, I’m happy to send a PDF to anyone who wants a copy, just drop me an email.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Brazil, Butterflies, Evolution, Hoverflies, Mutualism, Pollination, Wasps

How do artificial nectar feeders affect hummingbird abundance and pollination of nearby plants? A new study in the Journal of Ornithology

Hummingbirds on feeds in Brazil

Back in November 2013, during my research and teaching trip to Brazil, I discussed an amazing garden that we visited in which the owner had set up around a dozen hummingbird feeders that were attracting hundreds of individual birds from over 20 species.  As I mentioned, one of the owner’s concerns was that by feeding the birds he might be negatively affecting the reproduction of hummingbird-pollinated plants in the surrounding forest.  I thought it unlikely but there have been very few tests of this idea, and none in that part of South America.

After I left, a Master’s student called Jesper Sonne, based at the Center for Macroecology and Climate in Copenhagen, worked with my Brazilian and Danish colleagues on collecting data to address this question.  Between us we analysed and wrote up the results, and have recently published the paper in the Journal of Ornithology under the title “Spatial effects of artificial feeders on hummingbird abundance, floral visitation and pollen deposition“.

The abstract is below and if anyone wants a PDF, please drop me a line.  But the take home message is that although these feeders have a significant local effect on hummingbird abundance, there’s no evidence that they affect plant reproduction in the vicinity.  It’s nice when predictions prove correct….

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Abstract

Providing hummingbirds with artificial feeders containing sugar solution is common practice throughout the Americas. Although feeders can affect hummingbird foraging behavior and abundance, it is poorly understood how far this effect may extend. Moreover, it remains debated whether nectar-feeders have a negative impact on hummingbird-pollinated plants by reducing flower visitation rates and pollen transfer close to the feeders. Here, we investigated the effects of distance to nectar-feeders on a local hummingbird assemblage and the pollination of Psychotria nuda (Rubiaceae), a hummingbird-pollinated plant endemic to the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest. At increasing distance (0–1000 m) from a feeding-station, where hummingbirds have been fed continuously for the past 13 years, we quantified hummingbird abundance, and rates of flower visitation and pollen deposition on P. nuda. We found that hummingbird abundance was unrelated to distance from the feeders beyond ca. 75 m, but increased steeply closer to the feeders; the only exception was the small hummingbird Phaethornis ruber, which remained absent from the feeders. Plants of P. nuda within ca.125 m from the feeders received increasingly more visits, coinciding with the higher hummingbird abundance, whereas visitation rate beyond 125 m showed no distance-related trend. Despite this, pollen deposition was not associated with distance from the feeders. Our findings illustrate that artificial nectar-feeders may locally increase hummingbird abundance, and possibly affect species composition and pollination redundancy, without necessarily having a disruptive effect on pollination services and plants’ reproductive fitness. This may apply not only to hummingbirds, but also to other animal pollinators.

Hummingbirds on feeds in Brazil 2

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Something for the weekend #2

The second in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week**.

 

 

  • If you’d like to help raise money for bird conservation projects, please consider sponsoring Northants County Bird Recorder Mike Alibone’s team in the Champions of the Flyway event

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Finally, if you’re the only person on the planet who has not seen a weasel riding on the back of a woodpecker, would you like to?  Of course you would!
*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related links.
**Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

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The strange and the familiar….. (back from) Brazil Diary 8

Monty and the collared dove - Sept 2013

The first bird I identified when I arrived in Brazil on 1st November was a feral pigeon (Columba livia) foraging around the airport; the first bee I spotted, visiting flowers around FUNCAMP, was a honey bee (Apis mellifera).  This tells you a lot about the widespread, near ubiquitous distribution of such species, which have been moved across much of the planet, accidentally and on purpose, by human activities.  For someone who is deeply interested in biodiversity, seeing these species is both humdrum and interesting.  Humdrum because they are so familiar, we see them everywhere we go, they are not exciting and exotic.  Interesting because they tell us a lot about the effects that humans have on their environment, how we are altering it by the introduction of non-native species.

Away from the large cities I saw introduced species such as these less and less frequently, such is their association with humans.  But of course there were also plenty of native Brazilian species that have become associated with human activities.  Some of these had a familiarity about them which transcended the fact that they were species I’d never see in Britain.  Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) are the best example.  I would frequently observe them perched on lamp posts in towns, scanning for food or squabbling amongst themselves, and also spotted a huge number feeding on the refuse being piled into a landfill site.  Back home I associate this sort of behaviour with various species of gulls.  Strange and familiar.

Back in Northampton I’ve been reflecting on my month-long visit to Brazil, catching up with colleagues, telling stories that get more impressive with each iteration.  It’s been a packed couple of weeks and Brazil seems a long way away, not just geographically.

The Biodiversity Index did not win the Green Gown Award that it was short listed for, as I previously reported, but it did receive a Highly Commended citation.  Green Gown have asked us to produce a video, so a few days after I returned home, and still with a bit of my brain in Brazil, I took part in a short recording session about the Biodiversity Index, which will be released shortly.  The video is produced by Jo Burns and her company Amplitude Media.  Jo is a graduate of the University of Northampton and this is a nice example of how the University is supporting former students as they develop their careers.

At the end of last week we also got the news that the Biodiversity Index has been shortlisted for a Guardian newspaper University Award in the sustainability category.  More recognition for the work we’ve done on that project, and we are very pleased!  The result will be known early next year.

As of this week our paper on “How many plants are pollinated by animal?“, published in the journal Oikos in 2011, has notched up its 100th citation according to Web of Knowledge.  The less conservative Google Scholar puts it at 164, so the true answer will be somewhere in between.   Clearly peers think it’s a useful bit of work.  And to think it was almost rejected by Oikos, saved only by an appeal.  The idea for the paper arose when I was trying to find a solid figure in the literature for the proportion of plants that are biotically pollinated.  Lots of figures were being bandied about, but once you follow the reference chain back through the papers that cite them you find that numbers which are cited as solid facts disappear into speculation and guestimates.  Like many of the simple and obvious questions, the assumption is that we “know” the answer.  That’s no basis for science-informed policy, but I suspect that it happens all too frequently.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Birds, Honey bees, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Cockroach with a hint of lemon – Brazil Diary 7

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Hummingbirds have been a continuous feature of my travels around south-east Brazil since day one when I ticked off the Sword-tailed hummingbird from my list at FUNCAMP.  Since then I’ve kept a special ear and eye out for their whirring wing beats and rapid, darting movements, partly because they are significant pollinators in these Neotropical plant communities, but also because members of our research group have a long-standing interest in their ecology.  Stella Watts for example has worked on hummingbird-flower interactions in Peru, and our friend and colleague Bo Dalsgaard spent a year in Northampton during his PhD research on Caribbean hummingbirds, and we now collaborate on some macroecological questions about hummingbird specialization in relation to current and past climates.  And I did some work on their role as (probable) pollinators of some forest Apocynaceae in Guyana during field work in the late 1990s, which remains unpublished.  Must write up those data one day… 

The bird guide I’m using for this trip lists more than 80 hummingbird species for Brazil, many of which are found within the Atlantic Forest system.  Over the last few days we’ve seen several of them in the lowland rainforest around Ubatuba, which proved to be a lot drier and warmer than the montane forest I described last time.  It’s been good to have Pietro Maruyama on hand to identify the birds as they flash past.  Pietro’s been studying the interactions between these birds and the flowers on which they feed as part of his PhD work, and has recently published a great paper on the subject.

On most days of field work we might see two or three species, but the day before yesterday we saw 11 species in just an hour.  We were visiting a private garden belonging to a retired gentleman named Jonas who has been feeding the hummingbirds in and around his property constantly for about 12 years.  The day we visited, Jonas had 13 bottles of sugar solution hung up around the house and we estimated that over 100 individual birds were using them.  It’s hard to be more accurate as these birds move so fast, disappearing and re-appearing without warning, like hyperactive kids on a outing to a chocolate factory.  It’s a quite stunning sight.

The 11 species we observed are about half of the total number Jonas has recorded since he began feeding the birds and there’s a regular annual rhythm to their appearance, presumably in response to temperature and plant flowering in other parts of the country.  The density and richness of birds in this one small property is clearly artificial and we saw nothing like it out in the forest.   Jonas is concerned that by feeding the birds so frequently (he uses 5kg of sugar a day and replenishes each feeder several times) he might be negatively affecting plant pollination in the surrounding forest.  I doubt that this is the case and reassured him that his efforts were probably positive, certainly compared to some of the other activities that go on around the area, such as building, clearing forest, agriculture, and so on.  Assuming that food availability limits the population size of these birds (which may or may not be the case) then feeding the hummingbirds should result in a population increase in that area which will spill out into the wider forest.  Similar arguments apply to feeding garden birds in the UK, particularly in the winter.

As I watched the birds crowd and jostle around the feeders, frequently erupting into conflict and chase, I reflected that my trip to Brazil was passing as swiftly as the waft from a hummingbird’s wing on my skin.  These last few days in lowland rainforest and restinga vegetation were spent conducting another two surveys of wind versus animal pollination, to add to the previous ones.  This lowland forest is very similar in structure to the montane forest 1000 m higher, whilst the coastal restinga forest has rather shorter trees and is also drier.  The coastline is stunningly beautiful but there’s a clear tension between its roles as a tourist destination and as an area of rich biodiversity.  Humans are often drawn to such places and may unintentionally destroy what they so value, one of the ironic aspects to ecotourism as an ecosystem service.

Over the last few days I’ve been talking a lot with the students who are accompanying us, about their research data and what it means.  One of our ongoing themes is the idea of flower colour, shape, smell, etc., as hypotheses about the likely pollinators of those flowers, a notion captured in the idea of “pollination syndromes”.  For some flowers the syndromes are probably good predictors, for example the red tubular hummingbird-pollinated species of Fuchsia, Aeschynanthus and other Atlantic Forest plants.  But there are also lots of examples of plants with flowers that don’t fit the conventional, “classic” syndromes.  Yesterday on a 6km hike we encountered a species of Piper with very oddly smelling flowers, which by general agreement we described as “cockroach with a hint of lemon”.  We have no idea what pollinates this plant, though we have some predictions.  The genus Piper with its deceptively simple flowers has long fascinated me, ever since I undertook a short postdoctoral project on some Australian species in 1993-94.  Hopefully Andre and Coquinho will spend some time observing the plants with their digital movie camera when they are in the forest next month; the results could be fascinating.  

The Brazilian students I have met are a committed, passionate bunch who believe strongly in the importance of the natural heritage they are studying and trying to conserve.  Though I’ve come and gone from their country like a hummingbird to a feeder, I hope I’ve made some impression on them.  They’ve certainly impressed me and I’ve learned a lot from them, from their professors, and from the places we’ve visited.  It’s been an amazing adventure but it’s time to come home now and see my family and friends, and colleagues.  Over-and-out from Brazil.

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It’s called rainforest for a reason, right? Brazil Diary 6

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Tropical rainforest is not glamorous.  The sanitised, technicolour, televisual view of rainforest that we see in nature documentaries, of whizzing butterflies, flash-dancing birds, and flamboyant flowers, presents only part of the story.  Rainforest is dirty, wet, and it smells, of mould and mud, and dead leaves and flowers, and rotting wood.  By day it hums and chimes and fizzes with a thousand animal conversations, and green dominates all: colour is as rare as it is welcome.  By night those conversations, of insects, frogs, mammals, and birds, increase one hundred-fold.  With the night come also the insects (silent or whining) that bite and suck your blood, while above your head in the roof space of your bedroom, bats awaken and chirp and scuttle, flitting out to hunt.

Always, day and night, there is water in the form of rivers, streams, ponds, and pools.  And rain; or the threat of rain; or the aftermath of rain.  For the four days we have spent in Santa Virginia field station in the Serra do Mar state park it has rained every day, all day, all night.  It’s called rainforest for a reason, right?

For the persistent habitué of the rainforest, nothing remains dry for long, clothes and bedding are constantly damp, wood and leather obtains a greyish grape-bloom.  It is a difficult environment in which to live and work, particularly for a European used to a particular climate and situation.  No, rainforest is not glamorous.  But it has a glamor, in the old English sense of casting a spell over those it has charmed into visiting its depths and trying to know its ways.  The visitor to tropical rainforest who appreciates its biological richness and functioning is always charmed, and returning to it feels like a return to something very special indeed.

Although I have conducted field work in tropical rainforests in Africa, Australia and other parts of South America, one reason why I have long wished to visit the Atlantic Rainforests of Brazil is that John Tweedie, whose life and career I am researching,  wrote frequently in his letters to William Hooker about his love of the forest in South Brazil.  And the forest has not disappointed me: it is beautiful and wonderful, even if wet and, because of its altitude of around 1000 metres a.s.l., quite cold.

One of the most spectacular aspects of the Atlantic Rainforest is the sheer abundance and diversity of epiphytic plants, a sub-type of rainforest communities that can only be supported in areas of high rainfall such as this.   Over the last couple of days, Andre, Coquinho, Vini and I have hiked a couple of forest trails despite the rain, and orchids and ferns, bromeliads and forest cacti were more abundant than I’ve ever previously seen.  These plants are generally thick and complex in form, as they store water internally in leaves and stems, or within tanks formed of overlapping leaf bases.  On one short section of trunk, up to waist height, we counted six different orchid species mixed together, and saw at least 20 species along a 3km trail on Sunday.  Coquinho has been putting together a checklist of the orchids around the field station and it currently numbers 130 species.  Astounding diversity!

As we walked and slid and macheted our way through a 9km trail on Sunday, the ringing calls of male Bare-throated bellbirds (Procnias nudicollis) were resounding through the forest, whilst smaller birds played hide and seek from our binoculars.  Still scoring plants for wind and animal pollination, as I previously described, we recorded 75 plant species in flower along the trail, but most of them we encountered only once or twice.  Diversity and rarity go together in these plant communities.  No wonder Tweedie loved the Atlantic Rainforest; there is always something new to collect and the climate under the trees is cooler than in the open pampas grasslands of Argentina, where he was based.  Perhaps the rain made him think of his home in Scotland?  It’s called rainforest for a reason, right?

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, History of science, John Tweedie

No Sleep ’til Ubatuba – Brazil Diary 5

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The food in Brazil has been great, as diverse and abundant as the biological richness of this huge country, and I’ve had an adventurous diet so far, trying everything that was recommended to me (and a few things that weren’t).  This includes bits of animal I’ve never eaten before (chicken stomach, chicken blood stew, and cow hump) and five new plant families to add to my life list. So what gave me food poisoning a few days ago in Botucatu? A f**king pizza!  I plan to stick to the exotic stuff in future, though a few people have told me that the pizzas in Sao Paulo are the best in the world.  We’ll see.

The food poisoning didn’t prevent me spending a morning in the field collecting more data on the proportion of wind pollinated plants in cerrado vegetation, but in the afternoon I went to bed, sick and exhausted.  The title of this Brazil Diary post is an homage to the classic live album by Motörhead because at times this trip has felt like a relentless tour of different venues, with André as my trusty road manager, sorting out accommodation and places to eat as we go along.  I owe him a big thank you at the end of the month!  I estimate that we’ve travelled over 2,500 km so far and, including the pollination biology course at Unicamp, I’ve presented 10 lectures in 20 days.

The lecture at the university campus in Botucatu was attended by staff and students,  plus a lot of people from the local council environmental department.  They have an issue with honey bee colonies setting up in peoples’ houses, which they remove if possible and take out to an agricultural area.  So they were interested in finding out more about pollination as an ecosystem service.  It was great to have that kind of outreach, but none of them spoke English.  André translated each of my slides as we went along, turning a 50 minute lecture into a two and a half hour session, including some interesting discussion at the end.

Yesterday was a morning pollination mini-symposium at the Federal University of Sao Carlos, at which I spoke along with Felipe Amorim and Daniel Carstensen, both passionate and creative early career scientists with lots to say and some great studies published and in progress.   It’s been a real pleasure to discuss biodiversity with these guys, with André, and with all the students and professors I’ve met along the way.  There’s now less than 10 days to go before I return, and the tour rolls on.  In about 20 minutes we leave for a six hour drive down to Santa Virginia in the Atlantic Rainforest of Serro do Mar, where we will do more field work in a vegetation type that’s a huge contrast to the cerrado we’ve been looking at so far.  When I get a chance I’ll report back, though internet may be sporadic there, and might have to wait until we reach our final destination of Ubatuba.

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If your ears aren’t dirty, you’re not doing it correctly – Brazil Diary 4

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The first part of this post was written on a long car journey down through Minas Gerais State to Botucatu, with Andre, Felipe Amorim and Ana Moraes.  It’s more than a 1000 km drive from Serra do Cipo state park, so we have done the journey in two parts, beginning at 5.30pm Saturday night, driving for over 3 hours, back through Belo Horizonte to the small town of Igarapé.  Arriving at 9pm, we looked for a hotel in which to spend the night.  The first one was a flea pit and Ana was sure she’d seen an insect running from the light when we assessed the rooms.  All of us love biodiversity, but not that much, so we politely declined.  The second place we tried was the Marketing Palace Hotel and was basic but clean.  After a quick dinner and a few beers we retired to bed.  I dreamt of magic and suicide in vivid technicolour, but fortunately didn’t wake Andre with whom I was sharing.

With little supporting evidence, I put the dreams down to secondary compounds in the Miconia fruit I’d been eating during field work earlier that day.  The morning had started early with a trip into the State Park in search of a population of an orchid that Ana is studying for her postdoctoral project, the species Epidendrum campestre.  Ana has already assessed several populations for their genetic and morphological variability and was keen to add another to her data set.  There is a herbarium collection from this area from 1978 but it’s not been relocated since.  The park is over 33,000 ha in area, soon to increase to about 39,000 ha with the purchase of an adjacent farm that will become part of the park.

Once we had left the main trail and headed for the low, rocky hills, the walking (really scrambling) became tough, slow going.  As we picked our way from rock to rock, pushing through the less dense patches of vegetation, it was clear that this is an area of incredible plant diversity.  Rocky outcrops and ravines are always good for plant diversity as species that cannot survive the greater competition found in richer soils are able to hang on in crevices and in shallow, humus-filled depressions.  But we had no luck; the orchids were not in that part of the park.

As well as helping Ana and Felipe to search for these legendary orchids, Andre and I recorded all of the plant species that were in flower, and scored them for animal or wind pollination, based on the type of flowers, pollen release, flower visitors, etc.  Over the day we recorded about 60 species in flower (perhaps one quarter of the total flora, as many species were not flowering), of which 10% were wind pollinated.  This fits with the prediction of a study I published in 2011 of around 90% animal pollinated species for these tropical communities, compared to 70-80% on average in the temperate zone.  It’s satisfying when ecology is a predictive science in this way, though understanding why these patterns exist is less straightforward; is it because there are more animals in the tropics that can act as pollinators?  Perhaps, though bee diversity actually peaks in subtropical latitudes, in seasonally dry Mediterranean vegetation rather than in the tropics.

As well as scoring pollination systems, I was also looking out for species from my favourite plant family, Apocynaceae.  And I wasn’t disappointed; not only did we see at least 10 species (most of them flowering) but I was able to taste the fruit of one species, Hancornia speciosa, adding another family to my life list of those that I’ve eaten.

Following a quick lunch of apples, local cheese bread and small pies, it was clear that we were running out of water.   So we decided to follow a small stream up to a point where it was fast flowing and potable.  The community here was low gallery forest, cool and welcoming and with a succession of shallow pools, the humidity allowing the growth of epiphytic sundews, ferns, and a few bromeliads.  Tired by the climb, I sat and watched as a Green Kingfisher bobbed and displayed on a branch.  Although dirty, hot, and aching, I felt myself very fortunate indeed to be in such a special place.  The title of this posting comes from a comment that Andre had made the previous day as we scrumped ripe mangos from a roadside tree; according to his father, when eating mangos, “if your ears aren’t dirty, you’re not doing it correctly”.  The same notion applies to field work; if by the end of a day of tropical field work you are not dripping in sweat, filthy, with insect bites and stressed muscles, and desperate for a shower and a cold beer, you’re not doing it right.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Pollination

Game of three halves – Brazil Diary 3

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Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opium of the masses.  Nowadays I think that role has been usurped by soccer; or at least it has here in the city of Belo Horizonte.  For two nights (Sunday and Wednesday) the streets around my hotel have been full of fans of the local team, Cruzeiro Esporte Clube, which seems to have won at least one Brazilian championship title or other, possibly two (my grasp of football being almost as tenuous as my understanding of Portuguese).  The symbol of the team is the Southern Cross, a great song by Crosby, Stills & Nash, providing a likewise tenuous link back to a recent post of mine.

Both nights I suffered from lack of sleep, but last night was particularly bad. I had hoped that by 2am the fans would have run out of fireworks, voice and energy; but no, they were still going strong at 3.30am as I drifted into restless sleep. Today the city has been punctuated by the sound of contagious car horns; as soon as one person starts parping away, it’s followed by the rest of the poor bastards stuck in another of this city’s many traffic jams.  They remind me of the cicadas I’ve been hearing during the more suburban legs of my journey – once one starts, the others follow; a species at FUNCAMP sounds like it’s having the best insect orgasm ever as it delivers a high-pitched “yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes”!

The contrast between the urban, suburban and rural aspects of this trip so far has resulted in different joys and excitements, and has provided the title of this post, an almost fitting soccer idiom.  The Botanical Congress here in Belo Horizonte has been a very urban experience, being based in the centre of the city, over the road to the central covered market, a dense and diverse shopping experience.  On Tuesday I delivered my conference lecture which seemed to go down well with the audience, though it was hard to follow two talks on hummingbird pollinated flowers (by Leandro Freitas and Paulo Eugênio Oliveira) with a lecture on Ceropegia, the flowers of which are bizarre and pollinated by flies that are less than 2mm in length on average.  But I did my best, though it was noticeable that the audience dropped from about 250 to 150 during my talk, however that may have been due to the fact that I delivered it in English.  Maybe…..

The conference has been an opportunity to catch up with Sandy Knapp, a Solanum taxonomist from the Natural History Museum in London.  Sandy delivered two thought-provoking talks in one day, an impressive feat, and has been blogging about her field work in Brazil.  This has whetted my desire to get out of the city and start seeing more of this country’s biodiversity.  So yesterday I travelled with Andre and some of the other Unicamp postgrads to the pretty and historic town of Ouro Preto, then on to a protected State Park at Itacolomi.

At the visitors centre we looked at a small exhibition on the early natural history explorers of the region who followed the Estrada Real (“Royal Road”) into the hinterland of this part of Brazil.  Then we walked a little in the cerrado vegetation, admiring the diversity of plants in flower and talking about their pollination systems.  In an hour we had also spotted 20 bird species, including lekking males of the lovely little White-bearded manakin, which make a very distinct snapping sound with their wings.  The cerrado is a fabulously rich biome and I enjoyed discussing its formation and definition with the postgrads, and look forward to exploring it further in the next few days, as we head out of the city and on to some field work.

Today I headed up to UFMG at the invitation of Marco Mello to give a talk to students and colleagues in his department about our research on pollinator conservation in the UK.  An interesting contrast of perspectives was apparent in the discussion that followed.   The afternoon ended with a walk around the campus nature reserve; few birds, perhaps because of the noise of the nearby traffic and military shooting range in the area where we strolled, but some interesting plants including at least four Piperaceae, a favourite family of mine.

Back home the news is that our Biodiversity Index has picked up a “Highly Commended” citation in the annual Green Gown Awards, another accolade to add to the one we won earlier this year.  I’m glad my colleagues were there to pick it up and look forward to hearing more about it when I return.  It’s now 11pm and the city is quieter than it was last night; time for bed and hopefully sleep, as long as there are no more football prizes to be won.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Birds, History of science, University of Northampton