Approaching Serrania de Perija
After a quick two-day stint around the small village of Tukuko at the foot of the Perija mountains, we returned this afternoon to Maracaibo. With less than 8 hours to go before I have to catch my taxi to the airport at 4am, all that remains is to repack my luggage, thank my collaborators, and try to catch a bit of sleep. As I recharge my mp3 player for the trip home, I realized that I have neglected to mention Venezuelan music. Those of you who have worked with me know that I have a penchant for listening to “Llanera”, which is the music typical in the Llanos (plains). Anyway, here is a good youtube clip showing some folks playing this kind of music. There are three main instruments: A harp (yes, a harp), a cuatro (small guitar), and maracas. Sometimes a bass is added as well, as in this clip. Spend 4 minutes and watch it. You will never see a harp the same way again:
The coffee is good here in the museum, but I think it would take about 8 of these to fill my normal office mug.
Back in Maracaibo, we’ve been resting and wrapping up loose ends now that the main expedition of the trip is over. I’ve spent the last two days cleaning and preparing our samples for transit. In total, we have collected at 50 different localities, making more than 150 separate ecological collections. It’s hard to even estimate how many specimens we have, but it probably ranges well over 100,000. Considering that is entirely from hand-collecting (e.g. not bulk trapping, etc.), that is quite a bolus indeed, and I think we are all excited about the overall success of the collecting. A Colombian graduate student from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota arrived for the week to get some hands-on training in identifying water beetles and will participate in a last 2-day foray of collecting. We’ll all leave tomorrow morning around 6am to do some more work in the Serrania de Perija, the mountains we collected in the very first day I was here.
After our rain day on Tuesday, we finished off the last two days of the main expedition by driving a circuit from Biscucuy to Trujillo, and then winded out of the Andes in the state of Lara and back to Maracaibo yesterday evening. The rain was a bit more widespread than I had hoped, and the condition of many of the rivers was less than exceptional for collecting — recent rain also can throw off our water chemistry readings. Nevertheless, we still made good progress and had a few surprises. In a small stream pool at about 2000 meters, I collected a series of a genus that had previously been thought to be restricted to Guyana, Suriname and northern Brazil; the Andes are quite a different region to find them in. I’m anxious to study these further when I get back to my lab.
After dropping out of the Andes in the north-central region in Lara and Falcon, the landscape is very arid…almost resembling New Mexico or Arizona. While hiking down to collect in a small stony stream, I took what must have looked to my collaborators like a cartoonish fall down the bank into patch of cactus and a hodgepodge of other menacing plants. Fortunately, I was able to sit in the river to sooth my pincushion right leg and arm and work at the same time…yet another benefit of studying aquatic insects.
The north central region of Venezuela is very dry, and includes both arid scrubland and even deserts with sand dunes.
We awoke this morning to heavy rain. Not a passing shower, but a uniform grey sky with flooded streets. Aside from a 20-minute squall while we were in the llanos, this is the first time it has rained on our expedition. By 11 am with no end of the rain it sight, we decided to write the day off and relax. I’m not opposed to working in the rain, but the bigger problem is that all of the streams and rivers have been converted into a slurry of mud, water, and debris. While having my coffee at the local corner store, I sat and watched the ongoing coverage of the inauguration. In fact, at least three of the places we stopped by today (the internet café, the hotel, etc.) all were tuned to inauguration coverage. To be honest, I don’t know if that was because all the channels were carrying it, or they chose to watch it. But in any event, when was the last time you tuned in to the live swearing in of Mexico’s president? So, we watched the whole thing live, dubbed over by a Spanish translator. Watching it also reminded me that it will be cold cold cold when I get back.
Over the last few days, we finished our work in Amazonas and cross the Orinoco back to the Llanos region, staying in San Fernando de Apure. Kelly and Luis split from our group yesterday and headed back to Maracay; Luis has to fly back to New Mexico today, so he can teach tomorrow. The rest of us drove straight west and today we started our winding accent into the main Venezuelan Andes. Tonight we stopped for the day in Biscucuy, which is at about (a relatively low) 500 meters elevation. Over the next couple of days, we will cover some of the higher elevations, up to 3000 meters. The highest peaks near the town of Merida reach just over 5000 meters.
We arrived in Puerto Ayacucho yesterday, the capital of the state of Amazonas. We will be staying here for a few days while we scope out streams in the area. This area has been particularly productive on past expeditions as there are a lot of rock slides — rivers that flow over large expanses of exposed granite, and do not have any substrate. These create very unusual habitats that foster very unusual insects. In fact, since these areas are rarely (sometimes never) visited for collections work, most of the things we see are new to science. For me, these are the most exciting parts of the trip. Imagine being the first person to ever see a type of animal for the first time, to observe what it does, how it behaves, where it lives. This happens many times here, and in this area, around 8 out of every 10 species we find will be new.
These are the exciting moments of discovery that give many of us a rush. In terms of water beetles, we will probably collect about 100 to 150 species on this expedition that do not yet have names. This is another reason we are collecting so much other information on the water quality, human disturbance, and other things. We also take hundreds of photos and copious notes. In some cases, the information we collect on some of these species may be the only record of their existence for the next hundred years or more, as these areas are rarely surveyed. Consequently, we try to take in not just vouchers of the insects, but also all the observations we can bear to record. On a totally random note, there is a local hot sauce here called Catara that is served with almost every meal. It is made mostly with yucca and the crushed heads of ants. It tastes OK, but I don't find it to be anything special.
We decided to leave the Llanos station a day early (today) as we were able to get the data we needed in the two days we have been here. We headed south where we reached one of the world’s great rivers, the Orinoco, at about 11 this morning. The Orinoco splits Venezuela almost in two equal northern and southern portions. The southern half is largely a vast, sparsely populated jungle. It is also geologically very distinct, being part of the ancient Guiana Shield and has completely different animal and plant life. And rather than being a flat pancake like the Llanos, southern Venezuela is an irregular collection of enormous ancient mountains and granite outcrops. Doyle’s “The Lost World” where dinosaurs survive on isolated table mountains was based on the formations here. After waiting on the ferry for a few hours, we were on our way on the southern side. We arrived in a small dusty town of Pijiguaos this evening where we will stay for two nights to collect in the area.
The main part of the expedition is now underway. This first leg of the trip takes us south across the Llanos, which are vast, mostly flat, open savannahs which cover a third of Venezuela. The region is dominated by huge cattle ranches. During the wet season (April-November), everything is largely flooded. Now, more than a month into the dry season, it bakes until crispy dry. Grass and brush fires zip around everywhere. Yesterday we arrived at a small station run by one of our collaborating institutions, the Universidad Central de Venezuela. This is a very basic BYOH (bring your own Hammock) place that has easy access to several local rivers and a healthy number of ponds and lagoons. Today we were able to collect insects in most of them.
This morning Jesus and I drove into Caracas to have breakfast with the director of IVIC (National Institute for Scientific Research). Coincidentally (and to our benefit), the director also happens to be an entomologist. We talked about our survey project objectives and what kind of linkages could be established with ongoing and future research being done by folks at IVIC. For example: how can we make the data we are collecting compatible and accessible with existing and future databases and shared resources. Currently, there is no single system in use in Venezuela (or for that matter in the US or anywhere else) for storing or serving basic natural history (=specimen) data, although some efforts are making headway (e.g., the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, or GBIF). The more specimen data we can get together from different sources and museums, the more it can tell us about myriad patterns and processes both in terms of the past (historical biogeography), present (establishing conservation priorities), and future (predictive modeling). This afternoon, we are having an expedition meeting back at the museum in Maracay to make sure we have everything and make some last minute preparations before heading out tomorrow for the main part of the expedition.
The last few days have been full of logistical gymnastics in preparing for the main expedition that will start on 8 January. After celebrating New Years in Maracaibo, Jesus, Mauricio and I spent 10 hours on the second of January driving to Caracas to pick up another collaborator, Kelly Miller, at the airport the next morning. Kelly is curator of arthropods at the University of New Mexico and a specialist in several water beetle groups. From Caracas, we headed to the city of Maracay (about 2 hours west) where the primary entomological museum in Venezuela (MIZA) is located on the agricultural campus of the Universidad Central de Venezuela. We spent the afternoon catching up with our colleagues and working out some trip details. Today, the group (with Kelly, now four in number) spent the day collecting in Henri Pittier National Park, which encompasses the middle swath of Venezuela’s coastal mountains. These mountains are kind of the last northern throws of the Andes. Running east-west and reaching more than 2500 meters in height, they form a huge wall between the Caribbean and this part of Venezuela.
We collected at a few rivers on the northern slopes that had been severely scoured by heavy rains two months ago. Some of them look as if a few bulldozers had plowed down the valleys in which they flow. It will be interesting to compare the insects we find here with what we find in other non-impacted streams in the area as well as track the recolonization and recovery of these streams over the next few years.