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Staying Sustainable


Sunset at Macaw Lodge © Matthew O’Donnell

Sustainability is a major focus and key strategy of the University of Manchester and Manchester Museum, and promoting sustainable values to our students and visitors is a vital role of both institutions. What better way to do that than to take our field course students to the wonderful Macaw Lodge in Carrara. This tranquil eco retreat has been our base for the first week of our trip to Costa Rica.

Owned by the knowledgable and passionate Pablo Gordienko since the 1980’s this once open pasture land has been transformed into a vibrant botanical gardens and 100 hectares rainforest reserve, nurtured and preserved for over 35 years. This hard work of Pablo and his dedicated colleagues has paid dividends, with a huge abundance of flora and fauna all around for visitors to experience.


This giant bug hotel is home to several exciting insect species © Matthew O’Donnell

Completely off the grid, powered by the sun and applying sustainability and conservation to all aspects of their business, it really is a refreshing and thought provoking place: “The mission of Macaw Lodge is to inspire environmental conservation through mindful and sustainable practices. Our mission—a philosophy really—is more than just a statement. It’s something we live and breathe, truly believe in and want to share with you. Macaw Lodge exists as an example that it’s possible to live happily, purposefully and in harmony with nature. We hope to inspire you to pursue your passion, discover your potential and improve your little corner of the world.”


Cocoa: Root to Fruit tour © Matthew O’Donnell

A highlight of our stay was a fantastic sustainability and Cocoa: Root to Fruit tour. We were guided through the plantations and gardens that supply the lodge by Pablo and Lisa. This included tasting and interacting with a huge number of plants, including the iconic cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) from which chocolate is made. This plant has a long and fascinating history stretching back before the Mayans, and has formed an important part of Central and South American culture for thousands of years.

Our tours were completed with a first hand experience of the traditional methods of preparing the Cacao or Kakao drink, sampling the end product that would have been consumed in these lands for generations before sugar and milk turned it into the chocolate we now know. After all this excitement we were also treated to an unboxing of a hive of tiny native Meliponini bees, stingless and quite docile, they produce a fascinating honey, long revered within local communities for its health properties, it is great to see that these ancient traditions are being maintained and promoted in a sustainable manner.

Finally, a big thank you from me, the rest of the staff and all of our students to Pablo, Alejandra, Lisa and all the staff at Macaw Lodge, you made our visit so memorable, and really made us all feel at home. Onwards to La Selva…

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Fabulous finds on the Pacific Coast                                                      Costa del Crocs

Toads and Tapirs


Fantastic variety of epiphytes within the cloud forest © Franziska Elsner-Gearing

I’m currently in Costa Rica teaching on the University of Manchester field course, introducing students to the amazing variety of flora and fauna that the rainforests here have to offer. Whilst here I have also taken the opportunity to conduct some field eDNA sampling, contributing to a collaborative project between Manchester Museum, the University of Salford, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica and several other national and international researchers and institutions.


Moss covered trees lining the track to our destination © Franziska Elsner-Gearing

This exciting technique formed the basis of my master’s degree dissertation project, and it is great to be able to build upon that work to begin applying it towards conservation interventions in the field. Working alongside Juan, Franziska, Lilliana and Vivienne we set off from San Jose, up into the moss covered mountains of the Braulio Carrillo national park, over 2,000 meters above sea level.

This is the home of many rare and elusive species, including the critically endangered Holdridge’s toad (Incilius holdridgei), a species that Juan rediscovered (from presumed extinction) in 2008 and has been monitoring ever since.


Hard at work hunting for new ponds © Liliana Piedra Castro

We were aiming to sample as many ponds as possible throughout the area to possibly identify any additional remaining populations that might have so far evaded detection. What is immediately evident once you are in the habitat is that the ponds are actually what I would describe as puddles, formed amongst tangled tree roots, leaf litter and moss that covers the entire forest floor. They are also rare, as most rainfall is absorbed into the soil/moss or runs off into streams, so this represents a significant problem for this rare species, already threatened by the chytrid fungus which thrives within this high altitude habitat.

Thankfully we did manage to find a number of ponds to sample which we aim to include in a wider project coming later this year. The results of which will hopefully help direct conservation interventions for a number of rare species of frogs and toads that call these mountains home.

Excitingly we also encountered many signs of a much larger but equally secretive species, Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii), Central America’s largest species of mammal!

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Talking Tapirs                                                Reaseheath realised


Wellbeing in Wales


Workshop participants proudly display their creations

Last weekend I was invited to host a terrarium building workshop as part of a three day wellbeing event at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. In addition to the science of environmental conservation, I am personally interested and invested in the intrinsic side of nature and it’s effects on the health and wellbeing. Terrarium building is also at the foundation of the living displays (vivaria) you see in our collection, which have been crafted to suit the natural habitats of their occupants.


Myself and event organizer, Faye Watson

Set in the picturesque Carmarthenshire countryside, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to travel to the botanic gardens and  contribute to such an important and exciting event. Vendors and workshop leaders provided instruction and information advocating health and wellbeing through art and interaction with the natural world over the course of the weekend. My workshop focused on the satisfaction and relaxation promoted by working with plants in a hands-on, stress free environment, with hardy species suitable for every aspiring gardener to professional botanist. I’d like to thank and congratulate the event organizer, and all participating members of staff, on hosting such a successful and well-attended event.


If you’ve often come to marvel at our beautiful living displays and wish you could have something similar at home or office, then I encourage you to try a low maintenance, up-cycled container terrarium for live plants to bring a bit of nature and calm into your everyday space.

National Botanic Gardens of Wales

Final year frogs

IMG_3304Hi! I’m Ben and throughout the final year of my Zoology degree at the University of Manchester I have been volunteering two days a week at the vivarium. This has supported my studies and has allowed me to get hands on with a live collection of amphibians and reptiles. The chance to make a difference in conservation and to work within a great herpetological collection has been second to none. Following on from my second year University field course in Costa Rica, I have had the pleasure of partnering my work here at the Museum with completing my final year project by filming and directing this short video.

I’m super excited to share with you the Vivarium’s brand new Variable Harlequin Toad Project in collaboration with the Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity (PWCC). This video spotlights the threats currently faced by amphibians and these special Atelopus toads and highlights our conservation work both here and in Panama. The film also provides rare and fascinating footage of our new toads, alongside the reasons as to why our work here at Manchester Museum is key to their survival. This has been a great opportunity and pleasure to make and I’m very grateful to everyone involved.

Click here to hear our male Atelopus varius calling:



The Variable Harlequin Toad Project: Benedict Wilson 

If you feel inspired by this video and new project then head to sponsorafrog.com to see how you can get involved too.


Aces at ACRS


Matthew O’Donnell presenting 2019 © Adam Bland

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting my current research at the Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium – 2019 at Manchester Metropolitan University. A great conference which has a focus on early career researchers and future leaders representing exciting research from all around the world. A big thank you to all those involved in organising it!


My talk entitled – eDNA metabarcoding as a conservation tool for monitoring endangered amphibians, explored the work I have been conducting as part of my MSc Wildlife Conservation at the University of Salford, supported by the University of Manchester’s staff learning and development. This project is an exciting collaboration between the Molecular Ecology Group (MEG) at Salford, the live amphibian collections at Manchester Museum, Manchester Metropolitan University, London Zoo (ZSL) and our partners in Costa Rica – including Juan Abarca.

This incredible collaborative project is working towards optimising cutting edge environmental DNA research to use it for identifying populations of several of Costa Rica’s most endangered species. Developing techniques using collections here in Manchester has helped us to do this, so when we go to Costa Rica later this year we will have a better chance of getting some very exciting and valuable results. Stay tuned as I will be updating the blog over the coming months about this exciting research!


Inspiring researchers from around the world © Angel Favazza

Become an i-Naturalist – your City needs you!

Everyone’s observations of nature can contribute to biodiversity science – observations ranging from the rarest frog to the most common weed, can all contribute in more ways than you know!  When describing Sylvia’s Tree Frog last year I was able to reference a public observation in Panama that was most important – of a frog someone had simply uploaded a picture of onto i-Naturalist. It really helped support the scientific identification of the species’ range, and I bet the person who took and uploaded it didn’t know its significance or that i-Naturalist share their scientific data with repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility which helps scientists find and use the data.

Its really cool how everyone can contribute can make such a difference. Here at Manchester Museum all our Natural History curators are big fans of i-Naturalist. Dmitri, our Curator of Entomology, also recently identified a new spider to science from Hong Kong, all thanks to i-Naturalist and particularly the City Nature Challenge.


Tomorrow marks the start of the new City Nature Challenge, where cities around the world will be competing to see who can make the most observations of nature, find the most species, and engage the most people in the 2019 City Nature Challenge. Its a great initiative, invented by citizen science staff at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Lila Higgins) and California Academy of Sciences (Alison Young). The City Nature Challenge is a  bioblitz-style international competition for people to find and document plants and wildlife in cities across the globe.

All you have to do is become an i-naturalist and observe:

Become an i-Naturalist

City Nature Challenge

Evening Event

J185DF-153I would like to give a huge thanks to all who attended our Panama Wildlife Evening and to all the staff and volunteers who supported it.

It was such a wonderful evening and one we all won’t forget here in hurry. It was also such a pleasure to welcome the Ambassador of Panama to the University and to have him open our collaborative Harlequin Frog conservation initiative.