We signaled to the pilots it was a go. The helicopter descended into a small mountaintop clearing no bigger than a backyard swimming pool. The four of us strapped on our machetes, grabbed our duffel bags and hopped out of the chopper. One of the pilots gave me a stern look and held up four fingers–we had four hours.
With a turbulent swirl of leaves and branches, they were gone, and we were left standing in the middle of one of the world’s largest unspoiled jungles. On our right, the unbroken Surinamese forest undulated over low mountain ridges as far as we could see. On our left, over a deep valley, lay the same view, but those mountains belonged to Brazil- our position was literally on the frontier between the two countries.
We were on a recon mission for Conservational International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which inserts teams of scientists into some of the world’s most remote and unspoiled places. These teams, typically composed of field and conservation biologists as well as local collaborators, are tasked with providing a snapshot in time of the biological diversity and integrity of these amazing sites.
That particular day last March, we were standing atop a peak in the Grensgebergte, a mountain range so remote and rugged that it had never before been entered by explorers or scientists. Gathering the most basic data on the biodiversity and ecosystem services here allows us to contextualize the importance of these areas as well as detect potential threats.
Sometimes the results are alarming: despite this area’s remoteness, some water samples contained unsafe levels of mercury–possibly the result of air deposition from mining in neighboring regions.
With our short time ticking down, we got to the task at hand: could we establish a basecamp on the summit, and if so, where and how? And just in case we couldn’t make it back, we had to collect as much data on plants and animals surrounding us as we could.
The narrow, kilometer-long mountain ridge had nearly vertical granite walls, with clumps of forest sprouting from both ends. Ornithologist Brian O’Shea and I headed east, while botanist Olaf Banke and Johan, leader of a group of Wayana Amerindians that were assisting our expedition disappeared into the forest on the western flank.
A couple hours later we reconvened: we would establish a camp near the helicopter clearing in a stand of trees. Water was going to be a problem, we would have to plan on lifting it in via helicopter unless in rained.
After grabbing some plant and insect samples and deciphering some birdcalls, the helicopter returned and plucked us off the summit. We returned to a freshly-cut jungle helipad near our RAP team’s basecamp about 30 kilometers away and reported back to the dozen other scientists—with specialties ranging from mammals, ants, fishes, to primates and snakes— who were waiting for word of what we found.
The Amerindians huddled around my laptop to watch the video clips of an area even they had never seen. For the next week, we flew daily helicopter flights to our mountaintop camp where we found species no one had ever seen.
These RAP trips are special in that they bring authorities from so many different taxonomic groups together on one expedition. Field biologists are frequently only in the field with others in our respective disciplines—herpetologists with other herpetologists and botanists with other botanists for example.
On any one RAP, there might be specialists from a dozen different groups. No matter what you find in the forest, someone will be able to tell you about it. Our “science tent” (the tarp under which we sort and process our samples) is a constant hum of activity from 4am when the ornithologists rise to record birdcalls, to 1am when the mammologists close their bat nets.
And therein lies the power of a RAP: the biological snapshot we take is not just of this group of beetles or that group of fish, but captures a broad spectrum data that tells a much richer, holistic story about the diversity and health of the area.
This week, our team’s report on this first ever expedition to this region of Suriname was released by Conservation International. It was more than a year in the making (it takes a lot more time to prepare and identify specimens than it does to collect them!), and our team was able to document more than 1300 species in less than three weeks.
Dozens of those species are new to science—among them a new snake, 11 new fish, 6 frogs, and dozens of bizarre new insects. It’s trip like these that make one realize just how little we really know about the life around us.
Peering out over the jungles from the summit of Kasikasima, an isolated granite mountain in extreme southern Suriname. Photo by Andrew Short.
As we wait for the helicopter to return, we assist botanist Olaf Banke to press some plants specimens he collected during the recon. Photo by Andrew Short.
Ornithologist Brian O’Shea gets a first look at the bird life in the boarder mountains of southeastern Suriname during the recon. Photo by Andrew Short.
Exploring the Grensgebergte mountains, looking for a suitable site for landing site to establish a basecamp. Photo by Andrew Short.
A helicopter arrives as our freshly cut jungle helipad to ferry us into the Grensgebergte, a mountain range that has never been explored. Photo by Brian O’Shea.
It is difficult to get around jungles without paths, so we are very fortunate to have two experienced trailcutters with us. Mani and Uwawa, both Amerindians from southwestern Suriname, have been busy blazing and marking several kilometers of trails with machetes that they repeatedly file to a razor’s edge throughout the day.
Each night after dinner, we meet as a group and map out where we need to open or extend our nascent trail system and the best way to do it. Without Mani and Uwawa, we would simply not be able get our science done.
Today’s agenda was to finish opening a trail to a river a few kilometers from our camp, Geijskes Creek. The entire morning was rather misty as clouds hovered over the plateau, which provided a rather dramatic backdrop when we finally broke into the Geijskes gorge.
Stained by plant tannins, the water is a dark tea color. The creek is strewn with giant sandstone boulders (many the size of cars) that have eroded from the sides of the gorge. Just a few steps downstream, the creek leaps off the plateau’s rim in a waterfall more than 500 feet high.
As the sun starts to break through the lifting clouds, we get to work sampling the creek for aquatic beetles. We get some exciting things on the wet sandstone walls that are likely to be new species, but they are too small to know for sure. We’ll have to get them back to the lab.
Our trusted trailcutter Mani takes a break to sharpen his machete. Photo by Andrew Short.
Catching a glimpse of Geijskes Falls on our way back to camp from the rim of Tafelberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
he sun penetrates the morning clouds enveloping the summit of Tafelberg to illumiate Geijskes Creek. Photo by Andrew Short
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!
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.
Sofia Muñoz (MA student, mentor Chaboo), is one of 20 students in the U.S. selected to participate (fully funded) in a NSF-funded Thematic Collections Network Short Course on Biological Specimen Informatics, at the Richard Gilder Graduate School, American Museum of Natural History, New York, in May 2013.
Sofia, Marianna Simões, and Mabel Alvarado presented their research at last weekend's annual meeting of the Kansas Entomological Society, Pittsburg, KS. Caroline and Matt Gimmel also presented a poster, "Beetle families of Peru."
Mabel (co-mentored by Michael Engel) and Victor Baruch Arroyo-Peña (mentor Jorge Soberón ) won third place for their poster, "Problems in the usage of historical data: experiences based on modeling data of the genus Alophophion Cushman, 1947 (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Ophioninae)."
Timo Förster, an undergraduate from the University of Greiswald, Germany, is conducting a research internship with me, funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). We developed a project to study the insect communities that develop in small pools of water that plants retain (phytotelmata). Pitcher plants may be the most familiar and best studied phytotelmata communities. These pools may form in flowers, seeds, leaves, and damaged stems. Their communities tend to be dominated by insects, especially beetles. In 2010, KU undergraduates Joe, Riley and Tom studied such communities in two Zingiberales plants at the Los Amigos Biological Station, Peru; our manuscript is going through the review process for publication. Zingiberales are gorgeous plants and make our fieldwork more special.
I conducted fieldwork with Timo in Peru during Oct 2012 and he has stayed in the field collecting data and specimens on these unusual insect-plant interactions. Such a lengthy field stay and enormous specimen collections will require years of study and will yield many manuscripts. I am still immersed in the fieldwork because of Timo’s weekly emails reporting on our traps, which plants are flowering, and what surprises he uncovers. His most recent post does not concern insects, but it is quite thrilling:
“We were walking on trail 8 today (Adrian, Nicole, another researcher, and me). Suddenly Adrian, who was walking in the front, made signs to hide behind a tree. Suddenly a big group (perhaps 20-30 animals) of white-lipped peccaries came across and we were directly in the middle of their group, as we were hiding behind a tree. About 10 seconds later, we saw a huge yellow cat walking silently only about 5 meters behind the peccaries. The Jaguar was stalking them and was walking so close to us that we could almost touch it (less than 2 meters distance). We saw the cat for about 15 seconds, until it saw us and got scared and fled. All of the time, I was absolutely stunned. After that encounter we made a big party on the mountain. That was my first jaguar and it was one of the most impressive things I saw in the wild so far.”
After many months in the field, I can’t imagine a more precious birthday gift for Timo, turning 23 today! We are fortunate to access such high quality habitat at Villa Carmen. I hope my June 2013 field course with KU students will return with equally precious sightings and memories.