The most logistically challenging day of the trip arrived: moving camp to the summit of Tafelberg. The weather cooperated beautifully and we were greeted with a clear, calm morning. Rain or even heavy clouds would have meant the helicopter would have been grounded. The day before, we had flown in a small bush plane to a deserted airstrip near about 20 kilometers from the base of Tafelberg, and we used this as our staging area.
First, we had to weigh all our food and gear and separate it into piles of roughly 400 pounds. Each pile is assembled into a “package” to be slung to the summit by a net hanging from below the helicopter.
Next, we had to locate a suitable landing site on the mountain. Two other members of the team and I got in the helicopter and set out to take a look. There had been an area cleared many years ago by previous expeditions, but it has not been used in quite a while. As we assumed, it had become overgrown. We located a small pocket of open savannah nearby where we could be dropped off safely, then hiked back to the original landing site and cleared it with machetes.
Over the next two hours, the rest of our team and gear were ferried up, and we established our basecamp at a nearby creek.
First landing on the summit of Tafelberg in a small natural savannah, before clearing a slightly larger helipad for the remainder of the team and gear. Photo by Andrew Short.
Assembling our gear into slings for the helicopter to lift to the summit of Tafelberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
Tafelberg Tepui as seem from the savanna near Kappel Airstrip in central Suriname. Photo by Julian Aguirre.
Devin Bloom prepares and tissues a freshly caught fish specimen from the central market in Paramaribo. Photo by Andrew Short.
The first scientific expedition to Tafelberg took place exactly 69 years ago this month. Led by legendary botanist Bassett Maguire, the 1944 expedition took more than four months. Needless to say, the logistics of his expedition were a bit different than ours.
Using a small group of canoes powered only by paddles and long poles, he traveled upriver through numerous rapids and overland detours from Paramaribo up the Coppename River and its tributaries. With the help and permission of the local villages he encountered, he set out overland when the rivers became impassable.
List of supplies taken on the first expedition to Tafelberg in 1944. From the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, volume 46, p. 287.
After 23 days of cutting trails with nothing but a compass for navigation, they reached the foot of Tafelberg. Did I mention they had more than 3 tons of gear that had to be hauled every step of the way? And that does not include additional food and supplies that were parachuted to them in the jungle from military planes both along the way and while on the summit.
Fast forward to 2013, and the travel that took his party weeks will take us less than an hour by helicopter. Correspondingly, we are working hard to ensure that our gear (and ourselves…) will “make weight”, as how much we can transport per helicopter run is extremely limited.
If you are curious about just exactly what such an ambitious 1944 expedition took to the field, here is list from a report on the expedition published by Maguire in 1945:
On a completely separate note, we collected our first specimens today. Taking a break from gearing up here in Paramaribo, Devin browsed the central market here for interesting fish, and picked up some freshly caught individuals to prepare as museum specimens.
A tepui rises from the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela. Photo by Andrew Short.
And we’re off! My postdoc Devin Bloom and I just landed in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname. From here, we’ll make final preparations for our ultimate destination, Tafelberg (“table mountain” in Dutch). Although not the tallest peak in Suriname (that honor goes to the nearby Juliana Top), it is special because it is the only tepui in the country and the eastern most on the continent.
Tepuis are fortress-like sandstone mesas that are found in this region of South America. Formed largely by erosion of the surrounding sediments rather than uplift or volcanism, these ancient sentries tower over the surrounding jungles, with some reaching 3000 meters in elevation. Roraima, perhaps the most famous tepui, inspired the “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle and the landscapes in the movie “Up”. The world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, plunges off Ayuan tepui in Venezeula. Although dinosaurs have yet to be found on their summits, tepuis are host to a spectacular array of endemic plants and animals. Many of these may be ancient relicts, representing real examples of Doyle’s undiscovered world.
Compared to more notable tepuis, Tafelberg is small and lonely. It rises to a relatively modest 1000 meters, and is set hundreds of kilometers east of its nearest geological kin. This has led to questions about whether Tafelberg’s flora and fauna share any link with other tepuis, and if so, to what extent?
Soon, the final members of our group from the New York Botanical Garden will arrive, and on August 12, our team will be dropped off at a remote grassy airstrip near the mountain’s base. From there, we will be lifted to the summit of Tafelberg by helicopter to conduct our survey. Until then, we will be finalizing the logistical and supplying details, as well as attending an international congress on the biodiversity of the Guiana Shield.
The sun rises over the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, as seen from the summit of Voltzberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew Short is a National Geographic Grantee and assistant professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. An entomologist by training and at heart, Short is currently in Suriname, South America searching for aquatic insects to study patterns of freshwater biodiversity that will inform both science and conservation.
Having climbed up through a layer of misting clouds, we reached the summit of Voltzberg just in time to see the day break over the surrounding rainforest. Sitting at the northern edge of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR), Voltzberg is one of many imposing granite domes that pepper this ancient South American landscape. A massive swath of tropical wilderness twice the size of my home state of Delaware, the CSNR is almost entirely unpopulated and only accessible by canoe and bushplane.
While taking in the vastness of the landscape was a welcome break from our fieldwork routine that morning last July, my students and I had work to do: documenting the aquatic insects that live in the streams, waterfalls, and forest pools that surrounded us. Our research here, done in collaboration with the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, has uncovered dozens of new species and we’re only just gotten started. These inventories help us approach a number of bigger questions: How similar is this patch of forest to one 50 miles away? What are the ecological limits of these species, and what would happen if the environment changed? Can these insects help us monitor water quality?
We’re making final preparations for our return to Suriname (and CSNR) next week. This time, our target is more ambitious: Tafelberg — an isolated table mountain in the center of the reserve. Stay tuned for updates as our expedition gets underway!
Greetings from San Carlos del Zulia, Venezuela. I'm a bit over a week into my first expedition of the year — this one to continue our aquatic insect survey efforts in Venezuela. We've spent he last 8 days driving around the country and splashing around in various rivers and lagoons. It is hard for me to believe, but this is my 10th trip to Venezuela since my first in 2006. And, in terms of general volume of material and 'good stuff', this might be the best. We hit the dry season perfectly — when it is well underway and rivers and low and lagoons are reduced, but before things really get dry. A number of great sites on this trip, and it will take months get through these dense samples when I return. One highlight was getting up high in the Andes and collected at some lagoons over 12,000 feet — the highest we've gotten samples to date. More soon.
It has been a long but nearly flawless 15 hours of traveling today, beginning with the 3:30 a.m. shuttle pick-up in Lawrence to clearing customs in Maracaibo, Venezuela, at 8:30 p.m. (quick fact: Venezuela has its own time zone, which is 30 minutes ahead of Eastern Standard Time). My colleagues from the Universidad del Zulia, Mauricio Garcia and Jesus Camacho, greeted me at the airport. We retired to Mauricio’s house to unwind and catch up for a couple of hours.
The immediate issue upon arrival that always splashes me in the face like a bucket of cold water is switching over exclusively to Spanish. Usually it takes me a week to get back up to a functional level. Having only been gone for 5 months, it shouldn’t take very long. On the plane there was some confusion over seat assignments, and I got some very strange looks when I was trying to sort it out. Later I realized that I had confused the words “sentarse” (to sit) and “sentirse” (to feel), and had essentially been saying something like “I think I’m supposed to feel there” and “I can feel where you were feeling.” The next few days of the trip will be devoted to some of the more mundane housekeeping and logistical issues, such as making and confirmation reservations, scouting a few local field sites before the full field crew assembles, and getting all our gear in order and packed in a semi-efficient manner. Of course, celebrating the New Year will be thrown in there as well. The main expedition does not start until next week, after my other US collaborators arrive.
Curious children often observe scientists such as my collaborator, Mauricio Garcia, whenever we're collecting insects
Mauricio, Jesus and I scouted a few new field sites today in the Serrania de Perija- the mountainous border region that forms the western boarder with Colombia. Just a few hours from the relatively affluent oil city that is Maracaibo, the roads gradually narrow into small dirt paths winding around large rural haciendas (ranches) and indigenous communities. Cars give way to burrows and horses as the primary (and functional) means of transport.
The last week has been a bit hairier than normal. Joined by another Colombian water beetle student, we flew down to Puerto Ayacucho in southern Venezuela to scope out some new sites. No need for details at this point but things did not go quite as planned. The fact that an American and a Colombian were traveling together along the boarder with Colombia the day after Venezuela shut down all relations with Colombia because of perceived US military aggression (likely) played a role, if you are curious. But, enjoy the two landscape photos of this area below that make it one of my favorite places in the world. After a very (very) long, 13 hour bus ride, I'm now in Caracas to participate in a Neotropical Biodiversity course put on by IVIC (the national Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation). My 30 minute talk tomorrow will be the first full-length presentation I attempt to give entirely in Spanish...we shall see how that goes. This marks the final phase of the trip...I return to Kansas on 6 August.
From San Cristobal: The last week has been a whirlwind of different habitat types (as normal). We zipped across from Maracaibo to Coro in Falcon state where we stayed for a few days to work the region. This part of Venezuela is mostly dry semi-desert. Lots of cactus. Among the more striking feature is a dune region which is large enough to make you think you were in lost somewhere in the Sahara. Of course, there are oases of sorts that were full of beetles. We crossed the Sierra San Luis and headed south to Barquisimeto and made our first foray into the Andes nearby, climbing up to just over 6000 feet. Heading down the Andes a bit to Biscucuy and Bocono we stopped at a number of rivers and lagoons with mixed success. We dropped out of the Andes yesterday near Guanare, went south to hit the exiting streams, and today eventually climbed back up into them in the state of Tachira. We will collect here tomorrow before heading up the main Andean chain to Merida and Trujillo later in the week. There has been regular rain but usually only part of a day or at night, and it has had minimal impact on our actual collecting...although it has made some rivers either a bit too swift for our taste or pretty gauged out and not much to collect.