One of the challenges has been to figure out how to plug in the special vacuum units that the conservation team is using. Unlike a home, these can’t be plugged in and then drag a cord across the floor. A cord could damage the plants, or even snag an animal mount.
To solve this puzzle, exhibits director Bruce Scherting went up into the attic above the Panorama. Using outlets near the Panorama’s upper lights, he plugged in extension cords and fed them thirty feet to the floor. But that led to another issue: the cords might chip the paint at the top of the exhibit if staff pulled them along the surface. Pieces of hose, cut into two-foot lengths and eased over the cords turned out to be the perfect solution. The hoses hooked on the lip of the exhibit and dangled the cords to the floor, where sandbags held them in place.
Conservation assessment team member Tara Hornung hails from Colorado, so rocky surfaces and mountains are familiar terrain. Today we could see her scaling the surface of the Panorama’s “mountain,” the plaster, wood and wire form on which several mountain goats, bears and birds are displayed.
“It’s not like rock climbing,” she said. Instead of granite, she moved across plaster edges that threatened to crumble if she went too close to the edge. What might look solid to museum visitors peering in is often a loosely supported structure underneath.
But while working on the mountain goats, she had a good view of the Panorama from up high. Visitors waved from the Panorama overlook on the 6th floor. “It looked like I was king of the mountain for a while today.” If the king of the mountain wore a protective suit and held a vacuum cleaner, anyway.
One of the most challenging aspects of working inside the museum’s Panorama exhibit is its fragility. In fact, Ron Harvey has described it as “working inside a painting.” But instead of straddling the brushstrokes of Van Gogh, the assessment team is carefully maneuvering across plaster “rocks,” along narrow foot paths, and between animal mounts.
Nancy Bixler described the work as physically demanding and requiring a three-dimensional consciousness.
“It looks easy from the outside, but it is a huge challenge,” she said. “You can’t lean on anything and you must keep your balance as you move around the animals and plants.”
The team wears Tyvek suits, booties, and respirators over their street clothes to protect against particles in the air that may include arsenic or lead. With every step, they must assess where their feet will fall, and make sure that they don’t step on the dried grasses — one misstep and the grasses turn to dust.
The contorted positions would make anyone sore at the end of the day. Perhaps we should consider yoga sessions in the Panorama to stretch out at the end of the day?
Today we welcomed the first members of the our conservation assessment team to the museum. There have been meetings about safety, protocols and troubleshooting. The team will be led by Ronald Harvey, owner of Tuckerbrook Conservation of Lincolnville, Maine. He and his associates, together with KU museum studies students and volunteers, will survey the state of each of the Panorama’s animal mounts, plants and backgrounds. They will lightly clean the animals, which have endured years of exposure to fluctuating temperature, humidity and light. The onsite assessment is scheduled to be completed Friday, April 4, and will result in a report about the exhibit’s condition by July.
Nancy Bixler concentrated on cleaning the impressive 6-foot moose today. She’s from Maine, so while she has seen these animals in the wild, it’s certainly a unique experience to walk carefully under and around one to clean the mount.
While carefully documenting the condition of the moose in the Panorama, the team discovered something strange in a moose’s ear: a tail. A tail of a moose, stuffed into its ear! Ron Harvey surmised that the moose lost its tail, and an employee decades ago thought it might get lost. So they stuffed it into the ear, and then years passed.
Other not so strange finds have included two dead bats. Once every few years, a bat sometimes crawls into the exhibit from the attic of Dyche Hall. These bats, which have probably always lived in the museum’s attic, are small brown bats about the size of an adult’s hand. At some point years ago, these two became stuck in the exhibit, and no one knew.
Our driver, Leroy, slammed on the brakes. The large Bedford truck behind us carrying our gear and most of our crew ran into a patch of think mud and was now sunk up to its axels and listing to one side. Up to now, our three-truck caravan had snaked its way towards to our first base camp without any problems.
We are here in southern Guyana to conduct a rapid biological inventory of the Southern Rupununi Savannah (Read more). Luckily, after some digging, wedging, jacking, pushing, and winching, we were able to get it unstuck and get to the Kusad Mountains by mid-afternoon. An advance team with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) had arrived several days before to clear a spot for our base camp, which was mostly set up when we arrived.
Not wasting any time, the aquatics team headed out to do our first sampling at 6am just as the sun crested over the Kusad Mountains the next morning. The 10 of us were piled into a 4×4 pickup and headed to take water quality and fish and aquatic insect samples from the Takatu River, which forms the border between southern Guyana and Brazil. Fortunately this 2-hour drive was much less eventful than our arrival from Lethem.
As leader of the aquatic insects team, I oversee the sampling protocols and collection of several groups on which we are focusing: beetles, true bugs, dragonflies, and caddisflies. Over the next two weeks, we’ll sample rivers, streams, and lakes across the southern Rupununi. Combined with the data gathered by the water quality and fish teams, we can generate a holistic picture of the health of the region’s watershed.
Getting our Bedford truck unstuck. Photo by Andrew Short.
The “road” to the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short
The sun rises over the Kusad Mountains as the aquatics team leaves to sampling the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short.The “road” to the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short
Arriving at the foot of the Kusad Mountains. Photo by Andrew Short.
The fish team working in the Takatu River. The banks on which we are standing are in Guyana. The opposite bank belongs to Brazil. Photo by Andrew Short.
Our driver, Leroy, slammed on the brakes. The large Bedford truck behind us carrying our gear and most of our crew ran into a patch of think mud and was now sunk up to its axel and listing to one side. Up to now, our three-truck caravan had snaked its way towards to our first base camp without any problems.
Today, an international team arrived in southern Guyana, near the boarder with Brazil, to conduct a rapid biological assessment of the Rupununi Savannah, a sprawling tropical grassland peppered with rock outcroppings and forested mountains. Sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with assistance from Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), our expedition will spend the next couple weeks capturing a snapshot of the immense biodiversity that occurs in this poorly known region
Our group has about 35 people, including scientists, students from the University of Guyana, and support staff (a cook, drivers, representatives from local indigenous peoples). We have 10 scientific teams covering a broad array of biodiversity: large mammals, small mammals, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, birds, plants, aquatic insects, ants, water quality, and indigenous resource use (I’m in charge of the aquatic insects).
After assembling in Georgetown, we flew down to Lethem this morning, Tomorrow, we’ll load up into large Bedford trucks (so we can ford the rivers) and head out into the savannah to our first site at the foot of the Kusad Mountains.
I’ve mentioned waterfalls a few times in previous posts, but what I haven’t explained is one of the reasons we are always in close proximately to them: They are full of amazing beetles! Waterfall habitats (there is even a special term for them: Hygropetric) harbor a diverse and often completely unknown fauna of insects. This is not because these insects are rare per se, but because most entomologists don’t really look there when they are collecting.
So far on this trip, we have collected at least 10 new species of beetles in these waterfall habitats alone! While we don’t have nice photos from the lab of these particular beasts yet, here are some similar species of waterfalls in neighboring Venezuela:
After several weeks here at Tafelberg, it was finally time to head back to Paramaribo. We lucked out with the weather a second time and our helicopter lift back to the airstrip went off without a hitch. From there, we loaded up into two small planes and left Tafelberg and the wilderness of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve behind.
The next full week was spent in Paramaribo sorting and preparing our specimens. The plants have to be pressed and oven dried, the fish have to be sorted, and the insects need fresh alcohol and need to be transferred to new containers. We also gave a presentation on our preliminary findings at the Nature Conservation Division at the Environmental Ministry.
The highlights of those findings, a few of which I’ve already mentioned, include increasing the number of known fish from Tafelberg from 2 to 5, recollecting several extremely rare species of plants including a possibly new species of bromeliad, two possibly new species of frogs, and an exceptional haul of interesting aquatic beetles that includes many new species that we are excited to look at in more detail back in the lab.
A final sunset seen from the summit of Tafelberg before heading down. Photo by Andrew Short.
Loading up the planes at Rudi Kappel Airstrip on our way back to Paramaribo.
Jon Mol and Kenneth Wan (University of Suriname) examine some of the fish collections that were made with Devin Bloom back at the National Zoological Collection in Paramaribo. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew gives a presentation on the team’s preliminary findings at the environmental ministry in Paramaribo. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.
Before I write any further, I want to introduce the excellent group of folks we have had on Tafelberg: We have three two-person teams, one each covering plants (Fabian Michelangeli and Julian Aguirre from the New York Botanical Garden), frogs and other amphibians and reptiles (Paul Obouter and Vanessa Kadosoe from the National Zoological Collection of Suriname), and aquatic insects (myself and Devin Bloom from the University of Kansas who also is also moonlighting collecting fish).
We are fortunate to have an amazing support team of five individuals of trailcutters, assistants, and a cook who allows us to focus all of the precious time we have on this mountain doing science.
We’ve spent several days exploring the area around our second camp at Caiman Creek. The botanists pursued a route into the nearby “Arrowhead Basin”, a large triangular depression in the middle of the tepui. After they establishing a trail, Devin and I followed them the next day, through the forest and down a narrow rocky chute into the basin. The sandstone walls of the basin in this area are precisely vertical and extremely tall.
It is along these walls that we made a few exciting discoveries: Fabian found a few rare plants he had been searching for—one of these species had not been seen since its first collection back in 1944! Literally a moment after he was celebrating his find not 20 feet away, I stumbled across a small brown blob crawling on a wet rock face.
But this was no ordinary brown blob—it was a new genus and species of aquatic beetle! I had collected on a different mountain in Suriname last year, but it is a rare find and I was excited to find it here too.
Not to be outdone, Julian came bounding back down the trail clutching a large, spiny plant- a bromeliad. He did not immediately recognize the species, though it had very distinctive flowers. Was it a new species? Too soon to tell, but maybe. At the very least it is a new record for Suriname. Next time, I’ll cover more of the exciting new insects we’ve turned up…
Looking out from the south rim of Tafelberg. The nearest road in this direction is more than 250 miles away in Brazil. Photo by Andrew Short.
Julian inspects an unusual species of bromeliad, that is at least new to Suriname and may be a new species. Photo by Andrew Short
Moment of discovery: In his left hand, Fabian clutches a species of Melastomataceae, endemic to this mountain, that had only ever been seen once before in 1944. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew and Devin collecting insects along the south wall of Arrowhead Basin. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.