Summer in Bolivia-Fieldwork experience


A sunset in the field. Richard and Frank returning at sunset from coring Laguna San Jose

This summer I went on my first fieldwork season to the tropics. It was definitely an experience! Since I’ve come back everyone who I’ve spoken to about it has said how wonderful it must have been, and how lucky I am to be able to do this as a job. And I completely agree; it was an amazing opportunity to work in such a different and exciting environment, and to see/touch the vegetation that I study and discuss all the time from afar. I also got the chance to experience Bolivian culture and improve my Spanish speaking skills (which really needed it!).



Sunlight on Laguna San Jose


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The road to one of our sites, Tumichucua

However it was also a lot of hard work, and definitely not a free holiday. We were often up early and working in the 34 degree heat and humidity all day, staying out as long as the sun was up and then sometimes processing samples in the evenings. But I knew that was going to happen. I think the most important lesson I learnt about fieldwork, especially in the tropics, is the amount of time that needs to be spent on logistics, organisation and communication once you’re out there. You can’t set out on your fieldwork with a completely fixed idea of what you’re going to sample and where. Of course it is important to have a plan, but you need to accept that everything can change once you’re out there. You can’t hope to understand the logistics of accessing a site using googlemaps alone! Local knowledge and co-operation are absolutely key, and we were lucky enough on our trip to have some great help from colleagues and locals.



Richard and I covered in orange road dust after riding on the back of the truck

We are out there to do work, and get the samples that will form the backbone of our research for the next few years (hopefully!), but it is also easy to get lost in the work and forget how beautiful the place you are working in really is. One day after a hot day digging a soil pit in the dry forest near Concepcion we decided to go swimming in a local lake as the sun set. It was beautiful and cold(ish) but sadly we didn’t pay quite enough attention to the large sign with a sad face on it next to the lakeside. We paid for it dearly the next day, when I came down with a pretty rough intestinal infection and left the others to dig the soil pit without me!

So my first experience of tropical fieldwork was challenging, but also incredibly inspiring and enjoyable. I hope I get the chance to go again!


Commuting to work…

by Heather Plumpton

Swapping Amazon fieldwork stories with Sir Ghillean Prance


Front of the Kew Millennium Seed Bank (courtesy of Frank Mayle)


On 26th October I gave a talk at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at their symposium entitled ‘Amazing Amazon – seed biology and the bio-economics of native species’.  While there I had the great privilege of fulfilling a long-term ambition of mine – to finally meet Sir Ghillean Prance – the world-renowned expert on Amazonian botany.  Over a rack of ribs and a few pints at a local village pub I really enjoyed chatting with him about our respective fieldtrip adventures in the Amazon over the years.  I was also delighted to receive a signed copy of his latest book ‘That Glorious Forest’ where Ghillean regales us with his field expeditions in the Amazon, dating back to his first trip in 1963!  Great bedtime reading for me at the moment.


by Frank Mayle 


Antarctic temperatures, tropical research: Presenting at the QRA postgraduate conference

Between the 2nd and 4th of September, Heather and I attended the 2015 QRA Postgraduate Symposium at the University of Cambridge. As this was a conference only for PhD students, we saw this as a great opportunity to go and present for the first time in a relaxed environment and in front of a friendly crowd!

On the first day we had a guided tour of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) headquarters. These headquarters contain research facilities, laboratories, mapping facilities, geological stores and offices that support the research activities that BAS carry out in Antartica. We saw their marine biological research aquarium, where marine creatures are kept and studied after being bought back from Antartica. The logistics of transporting these creatures made getting samples back from the Amazon seem easy! We visited their mapping department, who produce bespoke maps for the Antarctic region. The researchers on field visits are dependent on these maps, especially the pilots of the aircraft that transport people and equipment across the region to various research stations and outposts. We then nearly froze to death after visiting one of their ice core laboratories! Finally, we saw their geology store where they have thousands of rocks and fossils. Overall, it was fascinating to see the work being carried out in a different field of research to our own – though I think I’m glad of getting to work in the 30-40˚C heat of the Amazon rather than the -20˚C of Antartica! In the evening, we had an ice breaker at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. It was quite novel to be eating and drinking wine in the company of some dinosaur skeletons.

The second day saw the start of the main conference. The conference was split into 5 sessions: 1. Ice Cores/Antartica, 2. Ocean Circulation, 3. Palaeoclimate reconstruction of UK/Ireland, 4. Palaeoclimate reconstruction of Eurasia, and 5. Palaeoclimate reconstructions of equatorial regions. We heard some really interesting talks on a wide range of topics such as reconstructing ocean circulations over 1.5 million years, reconstructing postglacial landscapes, looking at climatic impact of anthropogenic land use change, and many more! Mine and Heather’s talks were in the last session, so we had to wait till late afternoon on the second day. Although our projects are quite similar, I felt we successfully gave two complimentary presentations (and I don’t think the audience were too bored after hearing about the Amazon twice in a row!). Heather also got 2nd place in the ‘best presentation’ prize which was great!


Richard Smith

Richard at the conference talking about future climate predictions


Heather Plumpton

Heather talking at the conference about her sites in the Bolivian Amazon

Overall, it was a great conference to attend. It was the first time we had presented at a conference and the relaxed atmosphere made the whole experience much less stressful than it could have been. Everybody was very friendly and it’s always nice to hear about the interesting research that people are doing.


By Richard Smith