We arrived safely in Maracaibo yesterday. Today is for errands and setting up other logistical details for the trip. Stay tuned for an actual update...
Places we sampled on the expedition
The return trip last Friday went smooth and the first 2009 expedition has come to a close. I was not eager to rejoin the cold, but was very much looking forward to hot showers again. In addition to the factoids in my 27 January post, here is another one: nearly 2500 miles driven over the course of 33 days. Now that we’re back in the lab, the real work begins: sorting and preparing the specimens for study, which will take my several months. We expect to prepare about 20,000 specimens from this trip. In this case, “prepare” means to mount, label, and database each one. When done efficiently, that can be one at an overall rate of 25 per hour. Fortunately, I have some great student help to move the process forward, and we should just be wrapping up this material in time for our next expedition in July. Until then.
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.