Monday, 31 May 2010


In 1840 Bavarian botanist Carl Von Martius* began a complete census of the known species of plants in Brazil, a list which was finally published in 1906, long after his death. 22,000 species, which was an incredible achievement for the time.

The Jardim Botanico in Rio has just published online the updated version, an astronomical 37,488 plants and 3,633 fungi! Actually these are only the KNOWN species, it is estimated that there might be over 60,000 species on the final list, but no one really knows.

The list breaks down into 3,496 algae and seaweeds, 1,521 mosses, 1,521 ferns, 23 conifers and cycads and 31,255 "everything else". Why so many? Well, Brazil is NOT just the Amazon, or indeed the Mata Atlantica. As well as these incredibly fertile regions there are deserts, mountains, and thousands of miles of coastline. Virtually anything can, and does, grow here.

The online database is well laid out, and not only gives synonyms but also a little map showing distribution, with a bit of luck there might even be pictures in the future, who knows.

*why was a Bavarian botanist in Brazil? That's an interesting story, but for another time

Friday, 21 May 2010

Owls on the beach

Although the post of most intelligent animal is disputed, mythology agrees on the wisest, the owl. The Greek goddess of wisdom, Athene, was helped in her work by an owl, as was her Roman cousin Minerva, and they have been held as the sagest of creatures ever since.

The European image of an owl is a silent shadow, swooping through a dark forest, but not all owls are like that. There is one found throughout South and North America that hunts during the day, prefers open ground, and lives in burrows, the aptly named, Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia, from Athene and the latin for "mining").

Because they are tolerant of man, and hunt in daylight, Burrowing owls are fairly easy to see. They will even nest on beaches or derelict lots nears houses, using holes abandoned by mammals, or if the soil is loose or sandy, making their own. Then one, usually the male, will sit on the nearest tree or fencepost and keep watch.

Burrowing owls have quite a few enemies, and so the deeper the hole, the better. The chicks are raised there, but it's used through the whole year as a roost and shelter. In fact outside the breeding season nearly 40% of the time can be spent underground. When the chicks appear though it's "all hands to the pumps" and one or other parent will be hunting 24 hours a day.

They're pretty omnivorous, eating almost anything that moves including mice, beetles and even scorpions, and unusually for owls they'll also eat seeds and nuts. The preferred method is to sit on a post and ambush anything they see, but if times are hard, or there are chicks to feed, the males can range over several kilometres looking for food.

Burrowing owls are quite visually orientated, and if they do hunt at night they're more active when there is a full moon. They prefer clear open ground where they can see danger, or food, approaching. This preference has one extra advantage in the modern world, deforested land is ideal habitat for them ,and their numbers are actually increasing.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Fire at Butantan

I wrote in an earlier blog about the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, which amongst other things had the largest collection of live and preserved poisonous animals in the world. Snakes, spiders and scorpions kept both for the production of anti-venom, and also for identification of animals found in the wild, and for research.

Unfortunately early on Saturday morning the collection building caught fire, and the entire collection of 80,000 preserved snakes, and about 450,000 spiders and scorpions was destroyed. Incredibly there was no sprinkler system, or even a fire alarm - even more surprising when you consider that the specimens were stored in ethanol!

Still, miraculously, the early hour meant that no one was hurt, and the live snakes required for anti-venom survived. Nonetheless Brazil has lost a unique resource that will be extremely hard to replace.