Biodiversity

Mallorcan orchids

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Ophrys lutea

 

There’s still time for one final post before it’s time to say goodbye to the Mallorca field course for another year. With two orchid fans on the staff, it’s not surprising that a good few hours each day were spent orchid spotting, but this year we had an up-and-coming orchid specialist amongst the students too. Head over to the FrogBlog to check out Tom’s thoughtful account of his Mallorcan orchid-hunting experiences.

 

Sunset over the port of Alcudia
Sunset over the port of Alcudia

 

 

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Palm oil: The Good, the Bad and a History

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by Jemma

 

Elaeis guineensis is a single-stemmed palm tree in the Arecaceae family that can reach up to 20 metres in height. It is native to West and Southwest Africa and thrives on open, flat land with plenty of water. The palm’s plum-sized palm fruit grow in bunches of around 1,000 and are reddish in colour. The fruit is a drupe, which means it has a fleshy outer layer surrounding a single seed. Both the flesh and seed are rich in oil, which can be extracted. Elaeis guineensis is the primary source of palm oil and is closely related to the American species Elaeis oleifera.

The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil). Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
The parts of an Elaeis guineensis plant (African palm oil).
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

History

In the late 1800s, archaeologists showed that humans have used Elaeis guineensis for the past 5,000 years. They found the plant in a tomb dating from 3,000 BCE in the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos. It is widely believed that Arab traders brought the palm to Egypt from Africa.

Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm
Fruit and seeds of Elaeis guineensis oil palm

Europeans were introduced the palm sometime during the 16th-17th centuries. They originally traded for palm oil in the ‘palm oil coast’ (the southern coast of Nigeria) before growing the plant in their colonies. One such colony was the British-occupied Malaysia. Elaeis guineensis became established in Malaysian plantations in the early 1900s. For the most part, these plantations were owned and run by the British until the late 1900s when the Malaysian government took control.

Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds
Materia Medica jar containing Elaeis guineensis seeds

The government set up the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) in 1956 to operate their plantations. The main aim of Felda was to use the plantations as a means of eradicating poverty in the area. Those wishing to be involved were given 10 acres of land in which to plant oil palms or rubber plants and 20 years in which to pay off the debt for the land. In the 1960-70s, the Malaysian government expanded the project to include other crops so that they had an economic ‘cushion’ for when the price of rubber fell. Soon the land dedicated to rubber became more palm oil plantations. By the end of the 20th century, Felda had given rise to other organisations, such as the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA). These additional organisations had the same primary aim as Felda; to eliminate poverty through the cultivation of crops. Today Felda is the world’s largest palm oil producer, with around 900,000 hectares dedicated to growing the palm.

 

Uses

Palm oil can be extracted either from the flesh of the fruit or from the seed. As mentioned previously, some of the earliest findings of Elaeis guineensis were in Egyptian tombs. The vast quantities of oil found have suggested that they used it for culinary rather than cosmetic purposes. The unrefined oil is still a common cooking ingredient in West Africa today, but elsewhere is always refined before use. Palm oil is high in saturated fats, making it solid at room temperature and able to withstand higher temperatures compared to many other cooking oils. For these reasons, as well as a rise in popularity for naturally saturated fats, palm oil has become a cheap and popular substitute for butter. Due to its ability to withstand high temperatures, palm oil is second only to the soybean in its use as vegetable cooking oil. Oil from Elaeis guineensis is often also included in many other foods, such as ice cream, crisps and chocolate.

Materia Medica jars containing palm oil
Materia Medica jars containing palm oil

Although around 90% of palm oil is used in food, its use is not limited to culinary purposes. It is also added to cosmetics, shampoos and soaps. In recent years, palm oil has become a popular biofuel. Traditional African medicine have used Elaeis guineensis as a laxative, to stimulate the production of urine, as a poison antidote, to cure gonorrhoea and to treat skin infection – to name but a few uses. However, it may not be entirely harmless as some studies have linked palm oil with cardiovascular diseases.

 

Materia Medica jar containing palm oil
Materia Medica jar containing palm oil

 

Social and environmental concerns

Despite its wide range of uses, there are many social and environmental impacts of cultivating the palm. Growing the plant is a source of income for governments – particularly in Malaysia – as well as a major provider of employment. However, there have been many unfavourable social effects of this. Many palm oil plantations have appropriated lands for cultivation without consulting or compensating the local residents. In some cases, the plantations do not even employ the locals but rather import labour or illegal immigrants.

Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis
Elaeis guineensis in palm oil plantation.
Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeis_guineensis

Along with the social concerns that accompany the plantations, there are also substantial environmental impacts. Cultivation of the plants has caused irreversible damage, including deforestation, habitat loss and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Large areas of tropical rainforests have been cleared for plantations and the resulting biodiversity loss could result in the extinction of species of potential medicinal importance. In some areas where enforcement of environmental legislations is lax, plantations have had little regulation to stop tem encroaching into protected areas and releasing pollutants into the environment.

 

Other states have implemented environmentally-friendly practices to try to limit the damage. These have included the use of waste products as sources of ‘renewable’ methane production to generate electricity. However, palm oil plantations are still environmentally damaging as many rainforest are above peat bog that store vast amounts of carbon. The deforestation and bog draining involved in setting up the plantations releases this carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Many environmental groups have pointed out that the environmental impacts of running plantations are far more damaging to the climate than the benefits gained by the biofuel produced.

Surviving salt and waterlogging on the Albufereta, Mallorca

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Albuferita, Mallorca

It’s that time of year again when a lucky group of 1st year undergraduates from the University of Manchester head to the Mediterranean to learn about plant evolution and adaptations. This year in Mallorca we stopped at a slightly wetter part of the Albufereta, a small salt marsh near to the town of Alcudia (north-west of the lager famous wetland and Ramsar site, the Albufera). With more water in evidence, this part looked like a better place for the students to learn about mechanisms plants can use to tolerate salt stress.

Open-air lecture in progress
Open-air lecture in progress

The area is dominated by three plant species Arthocnemum macrostachyum (Glaucus glasswort), Halimione portulacoides (Sea purslane) and Juncus maritmus (Sea rush). Each of these has has specialised mechanisms for living in high salt, waterlogged soils such as succulent stems, the ability to exudes salt onto the leaves or air-filled spaces within the leaves and stems.

Patches of slightly higher ground, however, allowed other plants to grow, including this Grey birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus cytisoides). The weather had been a little cold over the preceding weeks and as this was one of the few plants in flower it was getting a lot of attention from the bees.

 

We see a lot of  this plant on the strand-line and sand dune systems around Alucudia. It is clearly also salt-tolerant, but likes freer-draining soils and cannot cope with waterlogging. In flooded soils, air spaces fill up with water and bacteria rapidly use up available oxygen. Without special adaptations, plants in waterlogged soils can die as their roots are effectively suffocated as the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the roots is limited. Roots can then be invaded by fungi and other pathogens and the above ground parts of the plant suffer as water and nutrient transport from the roots is affected.

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Easter Island Exhibition at Manchester Museum

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Ancient Worlds

Moai Hava and Sam in the World Museum in Liverpool Moai Hava and Sam in the World Museum in Liverpool

Since returning from the Ke EMu conference in Washington on Saturday I’ve been thinking about Manchester Museum’s next temporary exhibition which will be about the stone statues or moai of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. We are in the fortunate position of being able to borrow a statue called moai Hava from the British Museum, and a selection of supporting objects from the BM and other museums. The exhibition will draw upon the results of fieldwork on Easter Island undertaken by Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester’s Department of Archaeology. Our ‘Making Monuments on Rapa Nui: the Stone Statues of Easter Island’  exhibition will open in early April 2015 and run for four months in the Museum’s temporary exhibition gallery.

It is incredibly exciting to work with material from Easter Island, which must rank as some of the highest profile…

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Past and present at Thingvellir

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We have a large collection of lantern slides from the Manchester Geographical Society in the museum stores, including some of Iceland, and they gave us a window onto the lansdscapes of the past. Some of the most striking were images of Thingvellir National Park.

The three-gabled manor house was built in 1930 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Alþing.
The three-gabled manor house was built in 1930 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Alþing.

 

The second two gables were added in 1974 to celebrate 1100 years since Settlement
The second two gables were added in 1974 to celebrate 1100 years since Settlement
View from the top of the Almannagjá fissure
View from the top of the Almannagjá fissure

 

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From the viewing point today

Forests in Iceland

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Crooked downy birch trees
Crooked downy birch trees

Iceland’s native forests are primarily composed of downy birch (Betula pubescens) with some rowan (Sorbus acuparia). The aspen (Populus tremula) is also found in Iceland, but is extremely rare and the shrubby tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia) can sometimes get tall enough to be counted as a tree.

Forestry plantation, Snaefellsnes
Forestry plantation, Snaefellsnes

Beyond these species, the Iceland Forestry Service has experimented with a number of species from overseas, as well as planting more birch, and plantations of trees are now maturing. We have wandered through a few forested ares and we were privileged to meet Throstur Eysteinsson (division chief of the forestry service) who wrote this excellent description of forestry in a treeless land.

Field trip to Iceland, 2014 – Edible mushrooms

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Apparently there wasn’t much of a tradition of eating  mushrooms in Iceland, it is only relatively recently that the arrival of people from Poland have started to harvest the birch forest bounty and to introduce Icelanders to the idea.

Dmitri and his harvest
Dmitri and his harvest

Entomology Manchester

One of the aims of our field work in Iceland was to visit the areas with the native forest of Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). We’ve visited several places with the birch forest, for instance, the site in the southern shore of the Lake Myvatn and the forest along Logurinn fjord in eastern Iceland. In both places the forests were full of edible mushrooms, and I could not help myself and collected some, which then we cooked and eat together. Here are the photos or some of those edible mushrooms we encountered during our trip.

Milky Mushroom (Lactarius resimus), or ‘Груздь’ in Russian, is considered a delicacy in Russia and some other countries of Eastern Europe when pickled in salt. Milky Mushroom (Lactarius resimus), or ‘Груздь’ in Russian, is considered a delicacy in Russia and some other countries of Eastern Europe when pickled in salt.

Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), one of the most popular edible mushrooms; especially tasty when pickled. Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), one of the most popular edible mushrooms; especially tasty when pickled.

Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus). Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus).

The Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum) is typically used in soups and also commonly added as a component of mixed-mushroom dishes. Very delicious when fried with onion in soared-cream, as we did in Iceland. The Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum) is typically used…

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