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.
After a day of rest back in Paramaribo after our Voltzberg adventure, we loaded up the trucks today and headed for Brownsberg Nature Park, which sits atop a 1500 ft. mountain a few hours drive south of the capital (no unusual transportation required...). Upon arriving at the structure where we hung our hammocks, we had a surprise: A KU Jayhawk decal on the wall! If surrounding dates are any indication, it seems to be around 10 years old.
Last night was our final night at the research station at the base of Voltzberg. After breakfast, we packed our hammocks and made a pile of the food and gear the porters were going to carry. The porters arrived, packed, and started back to the boat and we followed about 15 minutes later. The whole hike took us a little under two hours which beat our time on the hike in by about thirty minutes. My sweat-soaked shirt felt like I had just taken it out of the washing machine and I couldn’t wait until we got back to Foengoe Island where a cold shower was calling my name.
Unfortunately, a shower would have to wait a while longer. Upon our arrival, the manager informed us that the water pump had broken, so we would have to get any water we needed from the river. I resigned myself to the fact there was no running water, so I hopped into the river for a much needed bath. It was glorious to scrub off three days’ worth of sweat and I came out feeling much better.
We woke up at 4 o’clock this morning and we’re on the trail shortly before 5 a.m. We were planning to reach the summit of Voltzberg to watch the sunrise. Of course, this meant we had to hike there in the dark and there is really only one way to describe pre-dawn jungle: pitch black. If you get stuck in the jungle at night, without a light source, you better just hunker down and pray for morning because you are in for one terrifying ordeal.
After about a thirty minute hike, we arrived at the base of Voltzberg. For the next twenty-five minutes, we scrambled over slick boulders, dodged a column of army ants (which zigzagged over our path no less than four times), tried our best to avoid prickly and spiny plants (which is difficult because it seems like every tree, bush, fern, and flower is armed and ready for battle), and silently hoped that no snakes would decide to fall on our heads. Once we had cleared the tree line, the real fun began. The next stage of our ascent involved scrambling up several hundred feet of algae-coated, dew-slicked granite (which rates about a 9.413/10 on the International Standardized Slipperiness Scale). However, that wasn’t all. The slope of the mountain was steep to say the least and I swear there were times when we were going almost straight up. The combination of the terrain and the exacerbating conditions made for a climb that was mildly nerve-wracking at times.
However, we did all make it to the top and almost right as the sun was breaking through the clouds. It was a truly magnificent and spectacular thing to witness with the clouds rising over the jungle and the fiery, orange sun rising next to the adjacent inselberg.
A few days ago, I arrived in Suriname for my second expedition of the year. I am working with some of the good folks at the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, including mentoring a student who is finishing her degree on aquatic beetles and water quality. The last few days we have been doing some local collecting via day-trips and I have been prepping for a more intensive expedition to the interior which starts on Thursday and will last for three weeks. We'll be lifting into a mountain range that forms the boarder with Brazil for a RAP survey, led by Conservation International. Should be some great beetles!
Costa Rica has been a blast! From collecting beetles in pristine rainforest to relaxing outside Kiri Lodge on a warm tropical night, Costa Rica has exceeded my expectations for an international expedition. Firstly, all the people we came into contact with were pleasant, generous people who were always eager to help regardless of our lack language skills. I am very impressed by the Costa Rican people (especially Laura our hostess from Kiri Lodge) and their geniality has added immensely to our overall experience
Secondly, the country itself is beautiful with its misty mountains and luscious rainforests. Our week in Tapanti National Park gave us a glimpse of the diverse fauna and flora that makes this country so ideal for research. Lastly, our collaborators from the Universities of Delaware and Costa Rica were all excellent, amiable researchers. The graduate students from Delaware were always ready to help me with identifications and their jovial dispositions made the trip very entertaining. Despite our lack of communication, the students from Costa Rica helped us set-up traps and collect while their advisor, Monika, was perhaps the most helpful and likable person we encountered during our trip. My time in Costa Rica has been the most memorable trip I’ve experienced and I can say with certainty that I will return to this halcyon country.
I know it sounds cliché, but it’s hard to believe how fast the last two weeks have gone by. I have made plenty of memories: from wading across the Rio Orosi, to scrambling around rock seeps in search of Oocylcus, to humming the Jurassic Park theme with Frazier as we bounced along in the back of a pickup as it hurtled through the rainforest. I know I will never forget my time here in Costa Rica. I left the United States, a young, naïve gringo, and soon I will return a slightly older, ruggedly unshaven, moderately less naïve gringo who has had some of the coolest experiences of his life.
Eve of departure
End of an experience
Soon I will return
At first you won’t see many beetles…” a piece of advice given to me regarding collecting in the tropics. I thought that was a lie. I’ve seen the photos of brightly colored scarabs and blacklight sheets full of insects. This advice echoed in my head today as I entered the Costa Rican rainforest for the first time today. Sure enough, beetles did not throw themselves at me! I had to seek them out as I would in any other place. The beetles that I study for my dissertation research are known as riffle beetles, and they live in fast-flowing streams throughout the world. The first stop on the hunt for riffle beetles was a relatively small stream (or Quebrada as they are known in Spanish) draped in mosses and mist, close to the Lodge. I collected with the help of Frazier and the students from UCR. It took a few tries, but before long, we had collected a diverse batch of elmids. It looks like this is going to be a good trip after all!
I had my first in-the-field birthday today. Monica, a curator and professor at the University of Costa Rica whom has joined us this trip into Tapanti National Park, graciously baked us a b-day cake. I’m not big on celebrating birthdays, and I had in fact forgotten about today, so if it weren’t for, I’m assuming Andrew’s insistent pursuit, my birthday would have gone un-noticed/-celebrated.
Crystal couldn’t finish her dinner today, so I had both our dinners. Two fish heads were also consumed and on another note still no sign of an army ant emigration column. Unfortunate, considering I’ve seen more species, and genera, than last year’s trip in March.
Today’s agenda, for those that are keeping track was sifting, sifting, sifting.