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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And so it begins

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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clean water

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.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Endgame: Caracas for a course on biodiversity

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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dunes and Lagoons

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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Species of the Month: July

beetleThe Gyrinidae are a family of charismatic aquatic Coleoptera commonly known as whirligig beetles, for their gyrating swimming style. Gyrinids are peculiar for having completely divided eyes giving them the appearance of having four eyes: two that peer above the water and two that peer below the water. They swim about on the surface tension of the water kicking with two pairs of paddle-like legs. The species selected for this month is a whirligig beetle in the genus Gyretes. Gyretes can be characterized by a furry pubescence that usually outlines most of the beetle´s body. However, the Gyretes selected here is nearly completely covered in this hairy pubescence. It also happens to be one of the largest known Gyretes. It is found here in Venezuela and I (Grey) am hoping that I will have the opportunity to collect this charismatic gyrinid on this trip.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Perija

We  left for a quick 2-day trip to the small village of Tukuko, an outpost at the foot of the Serrania de Perija (see photo at left)--the mountain range that forms the northwestern boarder with Colombia. It has become almost a tradition to visit this area on the first few days of each trip...in fact, all five trips have now started with a visit to this area. It takes about 4 hours to make the trip from Maracaibo...two hours to Machiques by car or bus (or a carrito in our case...), and then another 1.5 hours in the back of a pickup truck or similar transport over dusty dirt roads. It rained during the second half, and that made things a bit muddy. Upon arrival we spent a few hours searching out various Zingiberales that might have some interesting beetles living in the micropools. I had collected them here last July, and was eager to get more....and we did. The second day also brought rain in the morning and we scratched it for collecting, but the afternoon was great and we were able to get into one of the local rivers to do some work. Got some space in an outgoing pickup truck around 3:30 and headed back to Maracaibo.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Post-Expedition Chills

map

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.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

For your listening pleasure

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:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=780dXFgnA9g&feature=player_embedded